The nominees for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction are in — five men, five women, three masters, two first-timers, an Iraq veteran, a folk rocker, a book about the apocalypse, a book about Beirut and a book (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr) that prevented the William T Vollmann from sleeping, or so he claimed in the New York Times.
It’s a list in search of newness, somewhat self-consciously; who’s out is as notable as who’s in for one of America’s highest awards.
Denis Johnson, a writer of good books about bad people, won the prize in 2007 for Tree of Smoke. His new book, The Laughing Monsters, is released next month. But Johnson’s not on the list this year. Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis, the masters of miniaturism, are also out. Joshua Ferris (To Rise Again at a Decent Hour) is too, and so is Dave Eggers (The Circle). Jenny Offill, who wrote a much-loved elliptical book (Dept of Speculation), is out; Marlon James, who wrote a long-awaited epic one (A Brief History of Seven Killings), is too. And Ben Lerner – the author of a metafictional book, 10:04, about the paradoxes of the success experienced by a man, much like Lerner, whose first book was a surprise hit – is out as well.
On this list even the big names are niche taste. Marilynne Robinson, nominated for Lila, the conclusion of her “Gilead” trilogy, is the literary world’s leading Christian. Her new novel tells the story of a repentant prostitute who finds God in an Iowa church and a husband in the reverend who runs it. Robinson is the Terrence Malick of the book world – beautiful, metaphysical, beyond humor.
Your face “just floats there right in front of you”, the heroine thinks. “It might as well be your soul.”
Richard Powers, who won the prize in 2006, has been nominated for Orfeo, the story of a septuagenarian composer who splices musical scores into genetic code and attracts the paranoia of the FBI. Powers has been accused of being too smart for his own good.
And Jane Smiley has been nominated Some Luck, a domestic epic set in Iowa. It is the first book of a trilogy about the passage of time. Trilogies set in Iowa seem to have moved the judges.
So have dark books. Emily St John Mandel has been nominated for Station Eleven, a widely praised book about a performance of King Lear that causes a man to die, which in turn brings on the end of the world.
John Darnielle, better-known as the lead singer of the Mountain Goats, has been nominated for a book about a man with a face made monstrous by the scars from a bullet wound.
Rabi Alameddine has been nominated for An Unnecessary Woman. It’s the story of an ageing woman isolated in a Beirut apartment who translates great books into Arabic but doesn’t publish them – another meditation on change and decay.
Phil Klay’s war stories have the aura of a favorite. Set in Iraq and the Middle East, they have been prasied for the black comedy they retrieve from dark times. The other short-story collections look less likely to reach the short list. Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck Other Stories tracks the vicissitudes of upper-middle-class life – vacations, redecorations, romances. Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans returns to Soviet Russia, a book about fractured lives in a broken state. For the prize, Antopol is a sturdier bet. This year uplift is out.
Expect Klay, Robinson and Doerr to make the short list; expect Robinson to win it.
- The National Book Award shortlist will be announced October 15