Lord of Misrule

Although I was rooting for Great House to win the National Book Award, I must admit it was pretty cool to finish this book late yesterday evening and then turn on my computer and see that as I was reading the last few chapters, author Jaimy Gordon was being given the big prize. Having read all the fiction finalists, this may have been my second choice.

The book is set at Indian Mound Downs, a small horseracing track in West Virginia. The characters—among them aging groom Medicine Ed, “gyp” and horse owner Deucey Gifford, and disgraced money man Two-Tie—are just getting by, eking out a living on the seedy side of the sport of kings. But then Maggie Koderer turns up requesting stalls for the horses her boyfriend Tommy Hansel intends to bring down to race at Indian Mounds. Unlike the others, Maggie, who recently left her job as a food writer for a local newspaper, hasn’t been worn down from years of track life. She’s still enjoying the early stages of her seduction this world. What she doesn’t yet know is that, like her relationship with Tommy, a love affair with racing brings with it violence and pain.

Gordon is a wonderful descriptive writer with a real talent for taking on different voices. Most of the book is in third person (with a few sections in second person), and when the book shifts it focus from one character to another, Gordon also adjusts the narrative voice to suit the character. The narrative voice for the sections about Medicine Ed had perhaps the most distinctive voice, as displayed here:

How long would Medicine Ed last? He had been on the racetrack since he was eight years old. After sixty-four years of this racetrack life he, too, was sore and tired, and like the boll weevil in the song, he was looking for a home. He knew he would always have work, long as he could work. But where was it wrote that he had to rub horses till the day he died?

Ed’s cadence and dialect are clear throughout the book without (usually) being overdone. I could clearly hear Ed’s voice in my head clearly whenever he was on the page.

I definitely got the sense the Gordon paid careful attention to every single word of the page. And for the most part, I thought the prose was well-done. Still, I was sometimes too conscious of the talent behind the words, rather than being caught up in the words themselves or the story the words are telling. For me, there’s a fine line between lovely and labored when it comes to prose, and sometimes I was too aware of the labor. Gordon has also adopted the odd (but inexplicably popular) affectation of not using quotation marks for dialogue. That’s not the kind of thing I’ll necessarily hold against a book, but there were several moments when I was brought up short because I didn’t realize I was reading dialogue until I’d read a few paragraphs of it! (Nicole Krauss also didn’t use quotation marks in Great House, but I don’t remember having this problem there. I think there was just less dialogue in Great House. Lord of Misrule is at times dialogue-heavy.)

The story was a similarly mixed success for me. Each section of the book involves a different race and a focuses on a specific horse. Although all the sections are building to the final race, involving the mystery horse Lord of Misrule, the structure does give the book an episodic feel. It took a while for me to get into the story, just because there are a lot of characters and because the racing world is not one I’m immediately comfortable in. Gordon does a nice job helping readers get acclimated—it’s just not an instantaneous process. Once I got into the book, I was generally okay. I was especially riveted by the second race, involving Little Spinoza, a horse who seems to panic at the slightest provocation but whose owners are convinced has a winning race in him. But there were some sections where my interest flagged, and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

I think part of the problem was that the only character I cared about was Maggie; she’s the only one who didn’t feel like a sketch to me. And my caring about Maggie did run all that deep—it was more like idle curiosity about what would happen to her, which isn’t exactly enough to make me excited to pick up the book. I did think that Gordon used Maggie’s story to draw out some ideas about how we choose what kind of lives we will lead and how we learn to find peace with our limitations (or not). These ideas also show up to some extent in the other characters’ paths, but I just wasn’t drawn in.

It’s also quite possible that I have set myself up for “highbrow literary fiction fatigue” by reading all the National Book Award finalists at once. As I was reading this, I kept looking up wistfully at the next Morland dynasty book waiting to be read or wishing I were instead reading the copy of King Hereafter that I’ve been reading over lunch at the office. I think I just need a straightforward story right now.

So it seems that Lord of Misrule is one of many books that I can see as being technically accomplished but that I can’t really bring myself to love. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who will love it, and it’s a wonderful thing to see the National Book Award bringing little-known books like this into the spotlight. I’m not sorry I read it, but it’s not one I see myself coming back to.

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19 Responses to Lord of Misrule

  1. litlove says:

    Do you think this is a trend in judging lately? To like rather overly-literary prose? Only Tinkers by Paul Harding was a book I couldn’t read because the writing seemed so self-conscious and intrusive (and didn’t always work for me), and that won the Pulitzer this year.

    • Teresa says:

      In my limited experience, it is a tendency of the National Book Award (more so I think than the Booker, but that could be down to which books I’ve read on which prize list).

  2. Steph says:

    I feel like this was the dark-horse in the NBA race, especially given its late printing. I’ll admit that when it was announced as the winner, I wondered “what book is that?!?” Honestly, given the premise of this one, I’m just not all that interested in reading this one, and I think I would have liked to have seen the award to go to Krauss instead.

    • Teresa says:

      I definitely liked Krauss better, but I can’t complain much about this one winning because I do think the writing was mostly very good and it’s kind of nice to see a little-known author get some accolades. This would probably have been my second choice, but I’d waver between this and I Hotel, which was stronger in its strongest moments but weaker in its weakest moments (if that makes sense).

  3. Eva says:

    Ugh: I don’t understand the trend of leaving off quotation marks at all. It drives me mad. This doesn’t sound like my type of book at all, even without the quotation marks…..in fact, it sounds like the kind of book that makes me wary of picking up contemporary US ‘literary fiction’ (in the MFA-style sense of the word, lol).

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t understand that trend either! But if I don’t notice it (as I didn’t with Krauss), it doesn’t bother me.

      And yeah, this does carry a whiff of that MFA-style lit fic, but there were some parts that were riveting. I just wish it had been that riveting the whole way through. I’m pretty sure, though, that it’s not your kind of book. (There are some scenes between Maggie and Tommy that I suspect would make your blood boil.)

  4. Emily says:

    Hmm, well, the subject matter of Great House certainly appeals to me more than this one, and I hear what you’re saying about overdosing on a given type of book. I’ve had really bad luck with National Book Award winners, so maybe their failure to give Krauss the award is actually a positive sign for me + Great House! :-)

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve read very few NBA winners, partly because I didn’t like the first couple that I read. I do think though that my problems with this were almost as much about my itch for a more straightforward story-driven book than about this book.

  5. Iris says:

    I was a little disappointed that Great House did not win, but that was solely based on the fact that I want to read Great House so badly!

    The premise of this story certainly doesn’t appeal to me like GReat House does. And.. I don’t know. The overall feeling of your post is that you felt a little disappointed by this book. So I am not eager to put it on my wishlist.

    • Teresa says:

      The premise did have some appeal to me, and I can’t quite work out if my disappointment is a disappointment with the book or a disappointment with myself for not liking a book that I could see was really well-done and that I might have loved were I in a different mood.

      But, if the premise doesn’t appeal, I wouldn’t hurry to read this.

  6. J.G. says:

    C.S. brought me a copy and I am so looking forward to reading it! I will miss those quotation marks, though. Hope I can follow the different voices without them.

    • Teresa says:

      I really enjoyed reading C.S.’s thoughts on this book’s victory, especially since I wondered how accurate all the racing talk was. I do hope you enjoy it!

  7. Jen - Devourer of Books says:

    Even if this wouldn’t have been your choice to win, good for you for finishing (or pretty darn close) all of the short-listed books by the time the winner was announced!

    • Teresa says:

      I was pleased to have managed it, and I got to read some books I might not have bothered with otherwise. That said, this may be my last shortlist attempt. The shortlist fatigue worked against this book in a big way, I think!

  8. Biblibio says:

    Ah yes. There’s a reason I’m not a very big fan of the National Book Award. It always feels like they’re picking books that seem super “Literary” and “Important” and “Meaningful” but are… um… lacking. Like you mention the lack of depth to most of the characters. Or the fact that you felt like plot was missing. And that ridiculous “no quotes” thing. It works sometimes, but too often it’s just… painful.

    I think the point I best like in this review is that of the “beautiful prose” (as you call it). While I don’t doubt that “Lord of Misrule” is beautifully written, I feel that’s not enough to carry a book. Wonderful review, full of food for thought regarding literature.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t always mind when a book is light on plot, but when I picked this up, I think I was starting to crave more story and less art. In a different mood, there might have been enough plot. But based on my extremely limited experience it does seem like the National Book Award goes for books that have more art than life to them. More so than the Booker, which in my experience, tends to favor books with more of a balance of prose, plot, characters, ideas, etc. I’m not sure, though, if I’ve just read the wrong NBA winners (and the right Booker winners) or if that’s how it generally is.

  9. Phaedosia says:

    I’m about halfway through it and finding it such a chore to read. You’re right, Gordon does a great job of switching the cadence and dialect around. I can tell right away which character I’m following. Like you, though, I’m having trouble caring about any of them.

    Jaimy Gordon will be speaking at OTIS in Los Angeles in September (which is why I picked up the book in the first place). I think I still want to go hear her speak. I hope I can make it through the “backstretch” of this book. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)

  10. Hello y’all.
    I have generally found that “important”, well written, literary books are boring for me. I just want to get out of where i am and love it when an author can take me there. So, I think I will not find sympathy here. One of my all time favorities is Tony Hillerman. He just told the story and made you feel like you were in the Four Corners. But, not knowing she had won anything i ordered Lord of Misrule and right away i was at the track. I could hear it smell it feel it. The flow of her words makes me happy. I just pick up the book and within seconds i feel better than i did before. Writing a book of my own and struggling with how to use dialog to give my characters a voice i found her technique like a river and the quotations would have been like rocks in the way of the flow. And now i am wondering if I can do some thing similar because all that She said, I said, he replied stuff seems so stiff and…well, like work.
    But back to “important” work i find too much of the writer and not enough of the writing. – or something to that effect.

  11. Pingback: Orange Reading: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon | Iris on Books

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