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The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is one of the United States’ oldest and most prestigious literary prizes. With a cash award clocking in at $10,000, it may not have the biggest monetary prize, but the amount of respect it commands makes any winner enviable, especially when considering that out of the nine US Nobel Laureates in Literature eligible for the Pulitzer, only two did not win the prize before they took the Nobel, and one of those—William Faulkner—went on to win an unprecedented two Pulitzers afterward. Only Nobel Laureate and poet Joseph Brodsky did not receive the honor.
With the revealing of the prize winner and finalists set on April 16, many readers are gearing up for the announcement. One website, using various algorithms, was able to predict last year’s winner, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and is at it again, compiling a list of 15 likely candidates for the award. In the coming days leading up to April 16, Toonari Post will review seven of these works and judge their likelihood of the award.
First up are two shorter works, both novellas, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. While novellas often do not win the award, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea proves it is not impossible, and both have a shot at the title.
The Buddha in the Attic, Otsuka’s second work, was the recipient of this year’s PEN/Faulkner award, and is a marvelous book that examines the lives of Japanese women brought to America in the 20s and 30s for marriage. Interestingly, Otsuka does not focus on one individual and her experiences, but rather looks at events from the perspective of a group of them. The book is narrated in the plural first person—“On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall.”
The book is poetic and simple, and though there is no character to relate to, it is still easy to connect with the characters. The only problem is the repetitive nature of the work: Otsuka felt it necessary when explaining how one individual woman dealt with a problem to go on to say how the rest of them dealt with it.
For example, when describing their children, the entire chapter consists of ‘We did this. We did that:’ “We laid them down gently, in ditches and furrows and wicker baskets beneath trees. We left them lying naked, atop blankets, on woven straw mats at the edge of the fields.”
The result is a work that at times reads like a list, simply saying what one person did, then another, then another, stretching on occasionally for pages. The beautiful prose at times makes reading these lists easier, but the problem still remains. While the book is definitely worth a read, it may not be worth a Pulitzer.
The next novella, Train Dreams, was originally published in 2002 in the Paris Review, but in 2011 was for the first time put out in book form, making it eligible for the Pulitzer. This western tells the tale of Robert Grainier, a logger out in the American West, as he aimlessly goes through life. The story is not told in a linear fashion and the chapters often jump from Granier as a middle-aged man to a young boy to an old man. It is a neat idea and works really well.
Yet, despite the book’s excitement, it is not particularly memorable. It is a good story, and bits and pieces may stay with you, but within a few days the rest will be forgotten. The book is more than good enough to make you want to read other works by Denis Johnson, but that is all it is: a gateway.
The prose is good, and descriptions of the land are simple but effective: “They hiked over to Grossling’s meadow and waded into it through daisies up to their knees.” Johnson may strike gold and win a Pulitzer—he is a brilliant enough writer—but this is not the work that wins him it.
Stay tuned for more speculation about the Pulitzer Prize in the coming days.