Dear Tournament of Books, Dear Jonathan Miles

(Two years into Glimmers from the World of Story, I thought it was time for something a little different. For those readers who just want the weekly quote, scroll down to the bottom.)

It’s the middle of March. That means the annual Tournament of Books, a literary response to March Madness, is going full throttle, and I find myself composing imaginary emails to the tournament directors likes these:
“Dear Tournament of Books,
What? How could you fail to put Lila on the short list??? Is it because the slot for ‘protagonist named Lila’ was taken by Ferrante’s novel? A latent prejudice against winners of the Pulitzer Prize? The Idaho quota was filled by Anthony Doerr? Help me out here. I remain baffled.”

“Dear TOB,
Dept. of Speculation falls to a work of sci-fi? I read Offill’s little masterpiece *twice* in a month, it was so good. Just because the victorious novel is called Annihilation doesn’t mean it should do that to its most worthy competitor.”

“Dear Kevin and John,
Those who Stay and Those who Go matched against Everything I Never told You?? Who seeds your brackets? Could you please give them sowing lessons? Why not put each of these stellar novels against lesser choices in the first round? Or do you secretly enjoy gladiator fights? I expect Tayari Jones is not sleeping well these nights.”

“Dear TOB editors and contributing writers,
Bending the rules to allow for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See? The rationale sounds perfectly rational. It goes something like this: ‘We used to have a rule that forbid editors’ or contributing writers’ books to be considered. But then a contributing writer wrote a book so brilliant we decided it was time to break the rule.’ Hmmm, sounds great unless you’re a contributing writer whose novel wasn’t quite good enough to break the rules. Though you were right to include Doerr’s novel.”

The emails never get beyond my brain. Eventually the growlies subside and I turn to a work of fiction for consolation. In a pique, I decide to conduct a temporary boycott of TOB and choose a novel that is currently not suffering the capricious indignities of a cultural athletic beauty contest. (Temporary because I really do appreciate what these guys are doing.)

Dear American Airlines is the winner, a book that has been on my bookshelf for quite some time. Yes, I have an actual printed copy covered in real dust which is yet another reminder of why ebooks, for all of their virtues, have real limitations. I mean how do you know the number of years a book has been patiently waiting to be read if you can’t see the dust on it? However, since I’m not the kind of person who goes looking for dust, it’s no surprise that the book’s physical condition didn’t influence my choice. Nor did its location in one of the towering ‘books I want to read, really I do, that’s why I bought them” stacks that are located in just about every room in my house. Nor even because it failed to make the Tournament playoffs in 2008 when I would have slipped it into On Chesil Beach‘s spot. (“Dear TOB, Is On Chesil Beach really Ian McEwan at the top of his game?”) No, I chose Dear American Airlines because it was available on a digital library website. But I digress.

So does Jonathan Miles, the author of my winning choice. A failed poet is stuck at O’Hare on the way to his daughter’s wedding. Indignant at this capricious travel delay (air traffic control and the TOB having something in common), he begins to compose a letter to American Airlines; a very, very long letter so witty and effervescent, it is published and goes on to become a New York Times Notable Book.

Confession: I’m not reading this novel. I’m listening to the audio version, and that may be the ideal way to absorb Miles’ vivacious prose. On the page, he tends towards paragraph-long sentences. Perhaps that’s why a few years ago I put the book down. (I use the vague word ‘few’ because I’m not going to carbon date the dust on it.) My bookmark, fashioned from the sticker I peeled off the back of the book which left a smudge of dirty adhesive on the cover, remains stuck– literally–on page 28. (Though there could be other reasons why the bookmark didn’t progress: tempus fugit, I got distracted by another book, or I had to go see the elephants in Thailand. Take your pick.)

However, listening to the narrator, Mark Bramhall, read these sentences in a perfect-pitch New Orleans accent is like rocking on a front porch while sipping rum punch in between inhaling little breaths of sultry afternoon air. As it happens, I am not in the deep south as I listen. Nor am I in Boston where the snow could use the novel’s literary heat. Or parked in Los Angeles smaffic [what better way to describe smog in traffic?), or tooling a straight flat line through Kansas.

Instead I’m picking my way through sidewalk construction on a North African street, an obvious foreigner in this foreign country where I live. Today I stand out not only because of my clothes and skin color and visible hair, but also because of the grin that takes over my usual dull expression every time Miles hits another funny note. Like this one:

“Of late I’ve been suffering weird pains in my lower back and these airport chairs with their gen-u-ine Corinthian Naugahyde upholstery are only aggravating the pain. Throughout my life I vowed I would never be the sort of geezer reduced to conversing about nothing save his health maladies. This was until the day I developed maladies of my own to converse about. Truly, they’re endlessly fascinating and impossible to keep to oneself! How can you talk about anything else when your physical being is disintegrating, when you can feel everything below your neck going steadily kaput? You certainly wouldn’t think of discussing, say, Lacanian theory on a jumbo jet spiraling earthward. Unless of course you were Lacan, but even then Jacques, call the kiddos.”

Dear Jonathan Miles,
Thank you.

∼∼∼∼∼

Digressing links:
Tournament of Books
a literary response to March Madness
Lila
the other Lila
Dept. of Speculation
I expect Tayari Jones is not sleeping well these nights
Bending the rules to allow for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See?
Dear American Airlines
the Tournament playoffs in 2008
Jonathan Miles, the author of my winning choice
the audio version
listening to the narrator, Mark Bramhall

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