As I’ve described in earlier posts, I’ve been participating in an “Alternative Tournament of Books” on Goodreads — “Alternative” meaning something like “celebration of” and “we can’t wait for the real TOB to start, so let’s do one right now!” Today I got to be the judge. It was fun to write up a decision like the real TOB judges do, and I got to read two fabulous books to do it. Below is the text of my decision. (You can find all the other decisions here.)
Oreo vs. Man Tiger
Following the Tournament of Books the last few years – and being a reader, a reviewer, a person who likes to talk about books, a person who teaches English – has taught me the many ways that our tastes are subjective; I’ve seen that the opinions that strike us as so very fair, so carefully-reasoned, so obvious, are actually idiosyncratic and personal. So I’ll be upfront with my biases. I like many kinds of novels, but I love novels that attempt to do something new with the form. Plot can be awesome, good characters are essential, well-crafted sentences are great, but the novel that really knocks my socks off is the one that makes me think, “I don’t think I’ve read anything like this before.”
Now, Oreo vs. Man Tiger. I’m already in trouble making this decision because both of these books twist the novel form into new shapes. First, let’s look at Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger. This is the more traditional of the two books: it has no mathematical formulas or charts and graphs; it offers the kinds of details about scene and event that we are used to; the writing is straightforward and accessible. But, and this is a big “but,” the main character, Margio, has a tiger living inside him, and we are offered no explanation for this. We are told that this tiger was passed down to Margio from his grandfather, but otherwise, it’s an impossible situation we are asked to accept – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say Kurniawan simply assumes we will accept it.
This, in my case, was a good assumption. Kurniawan describes the presence of this tiger in such clear, convincing detail that I didn’t balk at the absurdity. Of course, the title prepares us for the presence of a tiger, but I would have guessed that “Man Tiger” was meant as a metaphor, not as something “real.” But it’s actually a tiger living inside a human, and one that – prepare for some gruesomeness – makes Margio kill a man by biting through his neck. This scene is captured in such gory detail, I was both sickened and compelled to read on. This is the most grittily realistic of magical realism:
The idea came to him all of a sudden, as a burst of light in his brain. He spoke of hosting something inside his body, something other than guts and entrails. It poured out and steered him, encouraging him to kill. That thing was so strong, he told the police, he didn’t need a weapon of any kind. He held Anwar Sadat tight. The man was startled and struggled, but the pressure holding his arms was intense. He sank his teeth into the left side of Anwar Sadat’s neck, like a man roughly kissing the skin below his lover’s ear, complete with grunts and passionate warmth.
That “Man Tiger” Margio becomes (through a simile) Sadat’s lover is horrifying and brilliant.
Kurniawan’s combination of realism and absurdity was enough to capture my heart and mind, but I found the novel’s structure intriguing as well. It tells basically the whole story in the first chapter, minus some key details. It’s a story of bad fathers, disillusioned wives, and disobedient children, of pregnancy and murder and circuses and swords. The first chapter is a marvel of both scene-setting and action. And then the rest of the novel is back story, filling in the details of why Anwar Sadat died and why Margio killed him. I wasn’t expecting this. In a more traditionally-written narrative, the story might have ended with the murder, or moved on from the murder to explore its consequences. Instead, the bulk of the novel is filling in the gaps in the first chapter, and the marvel is that this gap-filling is so compelling.
But then there is Oreo, originally published in 1974 and reissued in 2015. Oreo has charts, lists, mathematical formulas, a several-page menu, and a quiz to test one’s knowledge of Jesus’ qualities as a manual laborer. It has this unbelievable opening sentence:
When Frieda Schwartz heard from her Shmuel that he was (a) marrying a black girl, the blood soughed and staggered in all her conduits as she pictured the chiaroscuro of the white-satin chuppa and the shvartze’s skin; when he told her that he was (b) dropping out of school and would therefore never become a certified public accountant – Riboyne Shel O’lem! – she let out a great geschrei and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.
And so you can see that the racism on display is equal-opportunity, here is Oreo’s second sentence:
When James Clark heard from the sweet lips of Helen (Honeychile) Clark that she was going to wed a Jew-boy and would soon be Helen (Honeychile) Schwartz, he managed to croak one anti-Semitic “Goldberg!” before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika, discounting, of course, head, hands, and feet.
Included in the novel but not here is the three-lined half swastika that illustrates the shape James Clark’s body has taken.
The concerns of Oreo are (clearly!) not with realistic characters or setting; in fact, Ross tells us upfront that “there is no weather per se in this book.” She does not want to describe people “taking off and putting on overcoats.” Instead her concerns are with social satire, humor, and voice. It’s a viciously witty novel about race, and despite its age, it fits well with other 2015 books that brilliantly use humor, sharp or gentle, to discuss America’s racial pathologies (see especially Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Mat Johnson’s Loving Day). Ross’s contribution to this flourishing sub-genre is a playful one, and one that works hard to turn novelistic conventions upside down.
The book is not without plot, though. In fact, without stretching the point too far, one might say that in some ways it’s a conventional story about warring families, unsuccessful marriages, and unhappy children. Crucially, it is also a retelling of the classical story of Theseus, who goes on a quest to find his father and must overcome obstacles and prove his abilities along the way. Oreo is a wonderful modern-day Theseus, young and inexperienced, but confident and ready to both follow in the footsteps of the white, male journeyers who precede her and, when the time comes, to forge her own path. The classical underpinnings of Oreo provide a structure that helps contain the novel’s zaniness and that clarifies what must have been one of Ross’s goals: to write her way into the canon and turn it upside down at the same time.
Man Tiger and Oreo are both good novels that deserve a wide readership. They are ambitious and daring. They both have moments that will make your jaw drop (if for very different reasons!). But Oreo is the book that captured my imagination and that made me excited about all the strange and wonderful things fiction can do, so it’s my winner for this round.