Canada vs. New Zealand [Women's World Cup of Literature: Second Round]
This match was judged by Lizzy Siddal. You can keep up with her literary adventures at Lizzy’s Literary Life or on Twitter at @LizzySiddal.
The first second round match pits survival in a post-apocalyptic future against adventure during the 1860’s West Coast Gold Rush; Canada’s living legend against the brightest star in New Zealand’s literary firmament. This promises to be an epic fixture, not simply because Catton’s UK hardback is a whopping 832 pages long.
There’s no sense of the youngster being fazed by the reputation of her illustrious opponent. After all, New Zealand has lifted the trophies (Booker Prize, Canadian Governor’s General Award for English Language Fiction) that Canada failed to secure. This is a squad large enough to populate an astrological cosmogram and all the planets besides. It positions itself into an unorthodox golden spiral and opens with a leisurely 360 page section told by an omniscient narrator. This is an elegant homage to the 19th century greats with enough blackmail, theft, fraud, drugs, sex and murder to satisfy a modern audience. Though when the omniscient one twice refuses to let differentiating voices be heard, it’s like watching a promising team settle for possession in midfield. So confusing are the unvarying tone and the never-ending circling round of key moments that the need for a narrative recap—admittedly, a welcome respite to this reader who by then felt as though Anna Wetherell’s opium-induced haze was her own—is not only a weakness. It’s an own goal.
Atwood fields a more traditional formation; a narrative alternating between present and past. Her back passes serve only to drive the story forward and solve the mysteries established in the first 12 pages. Within a page count only 18 pages more than the first section of The Luminaries, Atwood’s precision creates two worlds (pre- and post-apocalypse), complete histories and psychologies for her main characters, a plethora of animal splicings (snats, rakunks, pigoons), and a genetically engineered species of homo not so sapiens. The story entertains and alarms in equal measure. The crime at its centre and the warning apropos rogue scientists have depths and purpose that The Luminaries cannot match.
Halftime score: Canada 2, New Zealand 0
Catton’s structural strategy, however, pays dividends during the second half. As the spiral takes shape, each section halves in length, and the text becomes less verbose. There’s more dialogue. The forward momentum gathers pace even as the timeline travels backwards to the start. As a set piece, this is neat and definitely on target.
But then another slip-up when Catton kills off the only character I actually felt for. Fortunately the appearance of Emery Staines prevents a second own goal. This injection of fresh energy is sorely needed as many of the subsidiary characters just aren’t that interesting.
Atwood, on the other hand, delivers an object lesson in intensity. Crake can teach Carver a lesson or two in villainy. Oryx can teach Anna a trick or two in the oldest profession. The dynamics of the pre-apocalypse Oryx-Crake-Jimmy triangle are, to mix my metaphors, screwed. Yet these relationships are destined to become the stuff of myth and the making of Snowman (a.k.a. Jimmy, the sole human survivor). Emotionally blackmailed into accepting a responsibility he does not desire, he nevertheless gives it his all. He may limp off the field sorely wounded, but he is, without doubt, the man of the match.
Final score: Canada 3, New Zealand 1
Canada, behind the strength of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, moves on to at least the quarterfinals. (As soon as the draw for the next round takes place, I’ll post an update.)
Tomorrow’s match features Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky going up against Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo. Another big match!