As most of you are no doubt aware, no finalist was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012. While this was not the first time this has happened, it certainly seemed interesting to look into. After reading an account by one of the jury members, Michael Cunningham, from the New Yorker, I wanted to investigate these novels for myself to see why none seemed to warrant the ultimate prize in American literature.
The fiction Pulitzer Prize is “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” And the three nominees for 2012 certainly fit that guideline. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King are all great pieces of American literature; but which of them really deserved to win the prize?
As I noted in my review of Swamplandia!, Karen Russell created a world of magical surrealism and alligators in Florida. Despite her interesting premise and well-rounded cast of characters, Russell fails to fully engage the reader. By the end of the novel she begins to stray, and whatever semblance of careful plotting and pacing she had at the beginning of the novel is completely lost.
Fortunately for Denis Johnson, Train Dreams is a novella that isn’t long enough to really lose the reader. His problem instead lies in getting the reader to care at all. The story follows the life of a day laborer in the American West and tells little vignettes about his adventures (many involving work on the railroad). However, I never managed to connect with Johnson’s protagonist, making my reading of the novella an exercise is overcoming boredom.
Boredom is what David Foster Wallace revels in. The Pale King takes pride in its exploration of boredom and tedium and how overcoming it will make one a better person. His exceptional writing—at times both humorous and heartbreaking—manages to overcome most of the intentionally dull passages; and his examination of storytelling feels relevant in a world full of constantly evolving storytelling techniques. Despite all this, however, The Pale King is an incomplete novel. While editor Michael Pietsch manages to convey all that Wallace wanted in piecing together this novel, even he acknowledges that some aspects of the story are still rough cuts that Wallace would have expanded on. Maybe had Wallace fully completed the novel it would have easily won the award.
Having read the finalists, it is easy to see how no award was given. None feel like a fully complete and competent winner. Thus awarding it to any of them would have felt somewhat undeserved. But what about one of the Pulitzer nominees that was cut from the short list? Brad Harbach’s Art of Fielding manages to accomplish what all the aforementioned novels did not. It tells a well-crafted story, uses a concise and imaginative writing voice to tell a compelling story, and deals with one of the most American pastimes—baseball. This novel was truly the best book from last year that I read. Not even my dislike of baseball stopped me from falling in love with the characters and immersing myself in their world. Its exclusion from the short list feels like a mistake that not only prevented the novel from getting its full recognition but also prevented any novel from winning the prize.