Friday, March 04, 2011

Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett

You've got to admire a book whose cover is decorated with gold seals and entitled Winner of the National Book Award. I realize that authors don't create their own cover art, but whoever designed this cover encapsulated Jincy Willett's debut novel in two dimensions. In Rhode Island, chaste librarian Dorcas (known all her life as "Dork") plans to ride out a storm in her library, tackling the "New Books" shipment. This shipment is particularly troublesome, as it includes the true crime/biography written about her promiscuous, larger-than-life twin sister, Abigail. We learn that Abigail is awaiting trial, and as Dorcas pours herself one bourbon after another, she reads the book, unfolding the events that led to Abigail's current state. The overwrought prose of the fictional author combined with Abigail's obfuscations and lies is sharply contrasted with Dorcas's thoughts and reflections as she reads. Throughout, references to potentially dangerous New England weather and the "pure unadulterated Yankee bullshit" that runs rampant in Rhode Island give a strong sense of place.

Dorcas lives in her head; Abigail lives out loud. Dorcas reflects, "A well-wrought piece of fiction...helps us make sense out of the chaos of our lives. Why be deliberately obscure when real life is so fractured and opaque?" The plot of this story would be unbelievable, the protagonist (and pretty much all the characters) would be unsympathetic, in another format. But Willett's choice to tell the story through Dorcas's reaction to Abigail's story opens the door to Willett's wicked wit and sharp satire of writing itself (with a healthy swipe at metaphors, and at "true crime").

I won't spoil the slow dribbles of information that culminate in the revelation of the nature of the crime. If you pick this one up, you're in for great satire, biting wit, and almost unbearably complex characters. And you'll both anticipate and dread the revelations that lead up to the train wreck approaching in slow motion.

My review of The Writing Class

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