A Mercy (Vintage International)
by Toni Morrison
Reviewed by Tournament of Books
The Morning News
The annual NCAA-style battle between literary titans is nigh! And, this year, Review-a-Day will feature a recap of the previous week's battles, judges' comments, and, of course, the winners of each match-up -- every Sunday through March.
First a little background on the tournament -- from The Morning News:
Each spring we take 16 celebrated novels from the previous year and seed them into a competitive bracket like the kind used in the NCAA basketball championship. (If you're into that kind of thing, read more here) A group of judges is enlisted, and the tournament plays out over the course of five rounds of matches in March. Each match sees two books battling head-to-head in brutal combat, with a judge explaining how he or she has chosen to move one of them to the next round.
Along the way, we ask our judges to lay bare their publishing affiliations and literary prejudices -- to clear the cigar smoke left behind by the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize committees.
Finally, we declare one work of fiction to be the Champion Book of the Year, and we award/threaten its author with a live, angry rooster, the official Tournament of Books mascot, named after our favorite character in contemporary literature, David Sedaris's brother.
Round 1 of this year's tourney starts Tuesday, March 9. While we anxiously await the results, let's revisit the final battle of 2009:
A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
City of Refuge, by Tom Piazza
From the Judge's Booth (judged by all judges + Amanda Hesser):
I was surprised by the number of parallels between Tom Piazza's City of Refuge and Toni Morrison's A Mercy. The biblical themes -- floods and slavery. The characters' resulting feelings of dislocation. The narrative being carried forward from the perspective of a handful of characters. Were Morrison and Piazza at Yaddo together? Probably not, but the darkness of their narratives feels appropriate right now.
Morrison's book, which is so short it feels more like a novel in haiku, explores the lives of a trader, his wife, and their slaves in the 17th century. In a land not yet shaped by law, each character is deeply dependent on the others for survival, and yet each seems unable to alter his or her doomed trajectory. Not a lot happens in the book; it is a forge for internal revelation, as the characters ceaselessly meditate on a small number of events -- a mother's decision to give up her daughter to the trader, a slave's journey to get medical help for the trader's wife. Morrison's people ultimately emerge as fragile and limited, unable to overcome being abandoned.
In her past works, such as Beloved, I've been mystified by Morrison's prose style, which seems to blow fog in your face, and then demand that you push through it to figure out what's happening. She doesn't make you work quite as hard in A Mercy -- a mercy, indeed.
Piazza tackles an equally massive and thorny topic: Hurricane Katrina. Trying to recreate the drama of an event many of us feel (rightly or wrongly) that we lived through on television and in the newspapers is a big challenge; we already think we know the story, and how it turns out. Piazza overcomes this obstacle by zeroing in on the experiences of two families: Craig and Alice, an upper-middle-class white couple living in a white neighborhood on the west side of New Orleans, and the black Vietnam War vet S.J., his sister, Lucy, and her son, Wesley, who live in the Lower Ninth Ward. Piazza explores the paths they take when they're uprooted by Katrina, and the wrenching process of their decisions of whether to ultimately try to return to the greatly diminished city.
The characters are a mixed lot -- the struggling black family resonates more than the whiny white yuppies, and sometimes they all feel like a little like coat hooks for Piazza to hang his exodus narrative on. But he is convincingly furious about the folly and neglect that led to the flood and the floating dead. By accretion of detail, by lovingly describing the bars and krewes and daily errands of New Orleans's citizens, he creates a portrait of a vital -- or once-vital -- city, and how deracinated its people feel when they're forced to leave. There are larger resonances with many of the great catastrophes and diasporas that constitute modern history.
While neither is a perfect novel, they're both engaging and thought-provoking books. But everyone knows Morrison's work; fewer are familiar with Piazza's. And so for this final round, I'm giving my nod to the promising underdog.
Point: City of Refuge
I began Piazza's novel with a rush, and was swept up in its dual stories -- until 100 pages in. That's when tiny faults began to appear: The characters flattened, reducing to their foibles. Steadily, the novel's plot appeared foregone. Then Piazza dug it out, and I was cheering on each character until I became elated -- and crushed -- through the book's many unexpected conclusions. Morrison's storytelling power brought her to the finals, yet the power of City of Refuge wins my nod for the Rooster.
Point: City of Refuge
No one like Morrison makes me feel as though I've picked up a new Faulkner novel; after a couple of dry years, I'm so glad a new book of hers gave me that feeling again. I enjoyed City of Refuge, but A Mercy is stupendous and I was sorry to see it end.
Point: A Mercy
Some very surprising decisions through out the competition -- 2666 somehow got bounced and another favorite of mine died, too. But this ain't math, folks. And here we are with two fantastic books. If it were up to me, I'd call it a tie and let it be. But since it ain't up to me, between these two finalists, I'm going with Morrison. I love this book, this writer, and Piazza's novel is superb (this cat is a dynamo), but it couldn't in the end wrest me away from A Mercy. In boxing when it's a tie they always give it to the champ and that's what I did. But City of Refuge took Morrison to the brink, and how many books how many writers can make that claim? Bravo, sir.
Point: A Mercy
Frankly, I'm baffled by all the ToB love shown to City of Refuge. Yes, the book gets interesting when Hurricane Katrina hits, but countless documentaries and nonfiction books have given us real stories that were far more compelling. Piazza's bland characters are riddled with clichés and cultural stereotypes, and his "authentic" African-American dialogue veers uncomfortably close to Ebonics. I wish Richard Price had written it instead. Meanwhile, A Mercy is a stirring and haunting novel whose depth belies its brevity.
Point: A Mercy
Click here for more judges' commentaries.
Winner: A Mercy
Tune in next week for battle results and more ToB match-ups.
Round 1 contenders:
Let the Great World Spin
Miles from Nowhere
That Old Cape Magic
An Epic Search for Truth
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
A Gate at the Stairs
The Book of Night Women
The Year of the Flood