Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Tournament of Books 3rd Opening Round



Today's opening round battle is between Alice Munro's 'Dear Life', a collection of short stories mostly dealing with decisions made and the consequences years later and the innovative book-in-a-box by Chris Ware, 'Building Stories', which is a graphic novel inside a box in 14 books and pamphlets. They can be read them in any order and they all tell the story of the inhabitants of a Chicago apartment block.

Judging this round is Charles Yu, author of three books, including the novel 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe'. His most recent book is 'Sorry Please Thank You'. 


Charles really liked both the books in this round and struggled to decide between the two.

For him, 'Dear Life' contained some beautiful lines, his favourite being 
“I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.”  Here Charles talks about how he feels about Alice’s stories and how she chooses to end them - ‘There are few moments of epiphany here. Instead what Munro gives us, over and over again, are endings like guillotines, endings that slam down on the back of your neck with the speed and force of a sharp, heavy blade. Reading her endings is like having your breath chopped in half—you can’t ever get the full exhalation. You turn the page and you go, oh hell no, because even as your mind is still reading your eye is registering the fact that there is too little text remaining for there to be any kind of release or satisfaction—the story is going to end one paragraph before you want it to, and it literally takes your breath away.
This actually puts me off reading the short stories for this reason, I hate not having a wonderfully tied up with a bow ending whether it’s sad or happy, just complete is good for me.

Building Stories contains many mediums so Chris therefore has more ways to put his story across and make the art of reading so much more enjoyable. To quote Charles again - ‘not many individual moments stand out as particularly memorable. This is not surprising: These are fairly mundane lives. This is, I think, part of the poignancy. For the most part, these are non-events, non-moments: the middle of the day, the inexplicable melancholy of watching your child play, happy to be with you, but otherwise alone. Ware’s people are trapped in their boxes, inside their apartments, inside their panels, nothing much dramatic happening for years on end. You don’t even really know where to start: This is sequential art on a small scale that has no sequence on a larger scale. What happens is cumulative. As you read piece after piece, fumble through the box, trying to figure out what to choose next, trying to formulate your own story, your own narrative for these characters, something happens. It creeps on you, then it climbs up your back, and then it tickles your neck, and then makes your scalp tingle and it finally dawns on you. You’re trying to build stories. You’re the builder. The characters, they’re the builders. And these moments, this loose collection of items, disparate in size, with no obvious connections, these bits are the raw materials.
For me personally, this is what appeals. The idea of building the story myself and the voyeurism of watching these ordinary lives play out, thereby making my own ordinary life, that little bit more interesting.

In the end what swung the vote for Building Stories in Charles Yu’s mind was, well, I’ll quote him again as he puts it so succinctly – ‘That’s what it comes down to, for me. As good a book as Dear Life is, it’s definitely a book. Building Stories is something else altogether. It’s a book, but it’s more than a book. It’s almost unfair. I mean, this is the Tournament of Books, right? Not the Tournament of Fifteen Books and One Self-Contained Multimedia Sequential Art Narrative Architecture and Environmental Space. It’s like inviting the best 16 basketball players on Earth to have a one-on-one tournament and then telling one of them that, in addition to a basketball, he can also use a baseball bat. OK, that analogy maybe isn’t perfect, but you get my point. Ware wins, but he’s playing with extra equipment.

And I have to agree.

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