The Next-Big-Thingism: Téa Obreht’s Tiger’s Wife

Posted on | March 27, 2011 | 4 Comments play olg slots online

Am I turning into a curmudgeon?  I’m 0/2 on the most celebrated debut novels of the new decade. I recently finished Téa Obreht’s debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, and I’m having trouble understanding the fuss.  (It’s possible I was a curmudgeon already: upon hearing me complain about skateboarders on the sidewalk at the age of twelve, my mother declared that I would make a terrible old person.)  For those unfamiliar with Obreht’s rocket-like trajectory to literary stardom, a quick précis: first, The New Yorker included Obreht in its “20 Under 40” series, where she was the youngest, least-known author in the bunch; the novel quickly secured a place on all the spring fiction previews and anticipatory lists; the coveted New York Times triple treatment (a daily review, a NYTBR review, and a feature) leant weight to the hype, and adulatory reviews flowed in from most major newspapers.

The Tiger’s Wife impressed me in its early pages, but the novel quickly began to flag.  Its structure is awkward: Natalia Stefanovic, a young Balkan doctor in the midst of a humanitarian mission, learns that her grandfather has died, causing her to retreat into memory and tell the stories he, in turn, had told her as a child.  A Deathless Man appears at intervals throughout her grandfather’s life to test the limits of his faith in reason.  A tiger, having escaped from the zoo during the bombings of WWII, stalks her grandfather’s village and finds an unlikely ally in the mute child-bride of the local butcher.  These short fables—visibly inspired by Kipling, on whom Obreht relies as a touchstone—seem to interest Obreht much more than the overarching plot that links them together. real gambling systems

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Obreht basically admitted as much: “I didn’t write it linearly at all. Very early on it became clear there were three story lines that needed to be interwoven. I wrote the parts that interested me the most first, then tried to develop the parts that were necessary but I was not as emotionally invested in later.”  Needed (italics mine) is the operative word here, as it’s clear the relationship between the novel’s disparate narratives is not organic and the fractured nature of its genesis shows through.  It’s as if Obreht patched together a quilt with rawhide instead of thread, leaving the seams visible.  A generous reading would interpret this as a kind of structural mirror of the Balkan world the novel portrays, but I’m not buying it.

What I find surprising is that when reviews have bothered to mention these conspicuous shortcomings at all, they’ve largely refused to take them seriously.  Here is Yael Goldstein Love, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle: “The stories [about Natalia’s grandfather] illuminate very little of a man who remains a cipher long past the book’s end.  But it would be ornery to begrudge their presence here.”  The usually idiosyncratic Ron Charles acknowledges in the Washington Post that sometimes “The Tiger’s Wife reaches more for affect than for coherence,” only to retreat back to the received wisdom: “But the reception for this book couldn’t be more encouraging. Well-deserved praise has been accumulating ever since Obreht published a chapter in the New Yorker almost two years ago, and now that we have the whole, its graceful commingling of contemporary realism and village legend seems even more absorbing.”  Why is the novel’s reception relevant to a review?  Why are critics apologizing for being, well, critical?

To promote a novel as the Next Big Thing is of course within the interest of the publisher—no fault there­.  But what’s bewildering is the rapidity with which everybody else fell into line.  Reviews feel like a set of sequential gears in the same publicity machine.  There seemed to be a critical consensus months before the book hit the shelves, all on account of Obreht’s anointment by The New Yorker. (Credit to the exceptions is due: The New York Observer dismissed The Tiger’s Wife, meanly but not groundlessly, as reading like a grade-school chapter book.  Salon’s Laura Miller admitted that she lost patience with Obreht’s windy descriptive passages.)  Obreht is surely talented, and her language, when not derailed by the novel’s ungainly construction, is not only beautiful but original.  She has a way with verbs, of crystallizing familiar movements and gestures with an unexpected word (“birds shuddering free of their nests,” “the bass line of Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’ humming in my lower back”).  But isn’t there some middle ground between a strong debut novel and instant ascendency to the contemporary canon?  The Tiger’s Wife is a promising first novel; it doesn’t need to be more. top ten uk online casino sites


4 Responses to “The Next-Big-Thingism: Téa Obreht’s Tiger’s Wife

  1. Mark Athitakis
    March 28th, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    The answer to the question you ask in the last paragraph may be answered in part by the point you make in the last sentence. “The Tiger’s Wife” is indeed a “promising first novel,” but to say that is something of a critical cliche—though nobody wants to cut a debut novelist off at the knees, nobody wants to come off as wishy-washy either. So with fewer and fewer review pages available in newspapers and a growing anxiety about those pages’ survival, there may be a growing pressure to overstate a novel’s quality to prove it’s importance—or to take it down a few pegs to make a mediocre novel seem more interesting than it is. There’s little room for reviews of just-OK novels these days.

    I don’t mean to say that the critics you mention haven’t come to their conclusions about Obreht’s novel honestly. (I wrote my own middling review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and you’re welcome to tell me how subject I am to such pressures.) But I think review editors are more mindful of their audience and ways to get attention than they sometimes let on, and an author’s compelling backstory can wind up competing with the book’s quality when it comes to framing a review.

  2. Critics: Too Extreme? (VIDEO) | Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes
    March 31st, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

    [...] Atlas wonders if Téa Obreht‘s The Tiger’s Wife is the beneficiary of collective grade inflation among reviewers: [W]hat’s bewildering is the rapidity with which everybody else fell into line. [...]

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  3. Sarah
    March 31st, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

    New visitor (thanks for the tip, Mark!) but I suspect I’ll be a repeat caller. I find it interesting, and possibly related, that most of the rapture has come from those decidedly not in Obreht’s age cohort, while the skepticism has come from those who are approximately her age – yourself, and also Molly Fischer writing for the NYO. And as someone who did admire and think very highly of the book and reviewed it accordingly (though I don’t think it’s a book to flat out love in that wonderfully visceral way that one can with books) my main reason for doing so is that to my mind, Obreht reached back to more old-fashioned fare you just don’t see written anymore. Think Isaac Bashevis Singer and his way with folklore, which eventually garnered him the Nobel. That tradition may not speak to Obreht’s age cohorts as much as it does to – consciously or not – reviewers of the next generation up. And I’m generalizing, since Mark didn’t love the book either (and which we were happy to agree to disagree on some weeks ago.)

    What is ultimately more interesting to me is the seeming embarrassment of rich debut fiction so far this year. Obreht, Hannah Pittard, Karen Russell, Benjamin Hale, Teju Cole I guess (haven’t read the book) Cara Hoffman, and many more to come, of course. Lots of talent asserting themselves, some boldly, others less so, and as space diminish and critics try to carve out what pieces they can, there’s probably some horse racing developing here: which authors can we safely bet on to have long and fruitful careers, and which won’t? Time will tell, of course, but I know I haven’t enjoyed a debut lit crop like this in a long while. real money casino app for android

  4. Edward Champion
    March 31st, 2011 @ 9:23 pm

    Mark gets close to the problem by bringing up the decreasing newspaper pages as one reason for this happening. But you hit the nail on the head with your use of the word “idiosyncratic.” (And I agree: Ron Charles is one of the best reviewers in the country. But like the late John Leonard, he is also guided by a great spirit of kindness and generosity, which explains his tone.)

    By and large, you won’t find idiosyncratic reviewers published in the newspapers anymore. (There are some exceptions. Joshua Cohen comes to mind.) In fact, should you manage to push through the gates, you will be severely upbraided (as I was) if you write a review that is either idiosyncratic in taste or idiosyncratic in style. I wrote a negative review of instant ascendent Joshua Ferris’s AND THEN WE CAME TO THE END in the Philly Inquirer (in second person, no less), and received quite a good deal of flack for that — so much so that people began spreading false stories about me. (Hey, it could be worse. Gore Vidal’s novels were blackballed from being reviewed in the New York Times back in the day. Or so he says.) Perhaps the younger reviewers finding problems with Obreht are those who are understandably suspicious about the failure to embrace a variegated range of opinions and review styles.