Those who regularly read lit blogs will remember the recent dust up over the National Book Award Finalists for fiction (For my take on it go here). The basic issue seemed, to me at least, to be that “four sparse short-story orientated books by mostly unknown women writers from New York City don’t offer the diversity one expects from a significant literary award panel.” I thought this argument had some merit. On the other hand I didn’t know anything about the authors or the works in question. So I decided I should at least read one of the books to get a feel for what we are talking about.
That book was eventual award winner The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck (David Thayer predicted the victory right here). If you are unfamiliar with the book, it is a historical novel based on the events surrounding the South American “War of the Triple Alliance” in 1864. The story line is rather simple: Francisco “Franco” Solano Lopez is next in line to rule Paraguay, but before assuming control he is taking a tour of Europe. There he meets a beautiful Irish courtesan name Ella Lynch. Using his wealth and charm (heavy on the wealth) he sweeps Ella off her feet and back to Paraguay where he intends to replicate the beauty and power of France. The death and destruction of practically everything and everyone follows.
You think I jest? No, I really am not exaggerating. Once Franco and Ella are established in Paraguay events move quickly. Franco’s father passes away and he assumes power. Shortly thereafter he becomes involved the aforementioned war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Despite its the natural beauty and Franco’s attempt to modernize and civilize, Paraguay is a rough and dangerous place. Characters suffer and die in tragic and often excruciating ways. Once the war starts the human toll rises to untold heights as Franco seems to be driving his entire nation off a cliff.
Enough of the plot, what of the style? The writing is sparse and concise reflecting the structure: a series of vignettes and letters. The tone is one of almost black humor. As the tragic events unfold and Ella seems un-fazed, intent on carrying on as if she were still in the salons of Paris, Tuck archly describes the pain and violence as if to say “this is what life is like.” She captures the tragic sense of life that seems to inhabit places like South America. It is a sort of pointillist portrait of a time and place; history’s details illuminated through fiction.
A look at some of the reviews can help point out the strength and weaknesses of this approach. Some have found that the parts add up to a meaningful whole. Here is Linda Burnett in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Because these colorful peripheral events are so unusual, they never disappoint. Piled one atop another, and moving the point of view swiftly from character to character, these vignettes flesh out a collage-like, prismatic picture. Tuck’s knack for shaving a scene to its essence feeds the book’s speedy pace. And linked, such snapshots build a portrait of a lost place and time.
Others found that the writing never quite rose above description. Joanne Omang in the Washington Post writes:
Tuck’s style in these early pages is as effective and swift as in her earlier and most successful novel, Siam. By page 30, our two unsentimental opportunists are together in South America, and Ella is pregnant. Many images are so vivid you can almost smell them . . . But one keeps waiting for the moment when Ella will become an appealing human being, or when Franco will reveal the charisma he must have had, or when his sisters will emerge from their fat-slob stereotypes to become real people. Instead they stay remote and rather hard-edged, never engaging our emotions. The episodic style achieves many lovely moments but becomes tiresome as it introduces and then discards dozens of people who could be memorable . . . At the end nothing seems to have led to anything else, the myriad challenges and privations of war simply happen without transforming the characters’ understanding, and key events transpire without context — the war seems to have started and ended on its own. We emerge with neither a grasp of the historical period nor any feeling for its shapers, real or fictional.
I think this gets at the heart of the weakness in The News From Paraguay. It is interesting, enjoyable, and well written in parts but it never seems to go deeper; never goes into the why. The characters have practically no interior lives so no matter how well the events of their lives, both mundane and bizarre, are described we never feel like we know them. This gives it an empty feeling.
Mark Sarvas (writing at the Reading Experience) hit on this when he described it as almost a romance novel:
Despite a nice of bit of business with the evolving names of Ella Lynch, we feel at the outset like we’re in something that’s dismaying like a literary treatment of a Harlequin romance. And despite Tuck’s fine, restrained prose style, that sensation never fully departs as Ella progresses from her poverty in Paris, to mistress of the heir apparent, to mother of the children of the president (bastard children though they may be), to her final poverty back in Paris. It’s the familiar arc of many a bodice-ripper, in which the plucky, self-assured, stylish heroine faces the dangers of the wild.
I had the exact same reaction early on. At times it has the feel of fictionalized history as romance paperback. There is a tendency toward the sexual and scatological (example: at one point two native Paraguayan brothers compete to see who can pleasure themselves the quickest, all while secretly thinking of each other’s wives). Toward the end events seem almost absurd if they weren’t historically plausible. But Tuck never connects meaning to people’s actions or lives: why do Franco and Ella act as they do; what is going on in the minds of the myriad of secondary characters?
Dan Green’s summation in his dueling review with Mark is apt one:
If you really want to know what a place like Paraguay might have been like 150 years ago, this novel might be worth your time . . . It seems to me a competent, but finally rather perfunctory novel that neither illuminates the past in any particularly discerning way nor re-imagines history so that its bearing on the present becomes any more urgently apparent.
After all is said and done, I found The News From Paraguay to be an intriguing and unique work in many ways but not one that I would expect to win a National Book Award. There is obviously skill and knowledge involved in using the raw facts of history to weave a more intimate story and capture what life might have been like in a different time and place. But the components never seem to rise to the level of art; of aesthetic and literary meaning deeper than mere description.