A look at the National Book Awards finalists / Fiction

In 2002, literary pugilist Dale Peck began his most infamous review by claiming, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." The book world gasped and snickered in faux alarm, aroused by the eruption of controversy in the dusty arena of critical debate. But now, as chairman of this year's fiction committee for the National Book Award, Mr. Moody has taken his revenge. During a season marked by books from America's most prominent novelists, Moody's committee sent up the strangest, most obscure selection of finalists anyone can remember. It's a move that raises five relatively unknown New York women into the public spotlight even as it risks dropping the NBA into obscurity. Of course, that risk may be worth taking. Publicity and critical attention tend to congeal around the same small collection of books, even as the number of readers continues to shrink. Who knows, a disruption of conventional wisdom like this list of finalists could excite interest in new quarters. The winner will be announced on Nov. 17 in Times Square. Reviews of the nonfiction finalists ran Oct. 19. - Ron Charles

MADELEINE IS SLEEPING, by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Harcourt, $22

In a house in a little French village, Madeleine sighs in her sleep. She is the burden and treasure of her tiptoeing family. "When Madeleine sleeps, mother says, the cows give double their milk." Then, as if to signal that the line between dreams and waking has vanished, a grotesquely fat woman sprouts flimsy wings and takes to the air. Shun-lien Bynum's first novel is audacious in form and content. The fact that each chapter is a prose poem soon feels natural as the novel accelerates into a magical journey. Madeleine's hands are burned as punishment for touching the village idiot (a game the town girls play). Still in bandages, she is swept away by a gypsy circus. Her companions, familiar with loss, recognize one of their own: Marguerite was an opera singer upstaged by a castrato. Charlotte too much resembled her musician husband's instrument. M. Pujol's virtuoso flatulence lost its novelty. The troupe subsists on the whims of a depraved widow until the tension of a love triangle scatters them. As Madeleine struggles with emotional and sexual maturing, she suffers from being acutely sensitive and yet clumsy. She's a heroine, but the world is not good enough for her. Like a dream, this novel fills the mind with tantalizing ambiguity, haunting images, and innocent longings that are slow to fade. By Tim Rauschenberger

FLORIDA, by Christine Schutt, TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press, $22.95

The real world drops away from Alice Fivey by the age of 10. Fatherless, aching for a mother sent South for an extended rest, Alice grows up rattling around the Big House of her ancient, bedridden grandmother. She muses about abandonment, considers her mother's psychic bruises from a string of boyfriends, and learns a few life lessons from Arthur, the family chauffeur. Schutt has wrapped Alice in a protective cloak of perception and detachment mirrored in an almost spectral, shifting story structure. Chronology is trumped by impression, as a grownup Alice details her life among caretakers and, later, her own difficult romance and a reconnection with her mother. The luxury of this debut novel is its rich, descriptive language. It's harnessed with powerful simplicity. As Alice reflects on the eccentricities of her life, she finds grains of hope in memory: "Mother, sunbathing on a bed of foil Arthur had made for her, a sun-box, Arthur's homemade Florida, and Mother on her knees, waving to me - waving to the neighborhood!" "Florida" is a novel of emotional transition forced by remembrance. It is not about joy, but ultimately embraces acceptance, the pain of love, and fleeting happiness. By Deborah Bloom

IDEAS OF HEAVEN, by Joan Silber, Norton, $23.95

In six first-person stories that span five centuries and three continents, Silber's narrators trace a shifting line between love and reason. The tales in "Ideas of Heaven" build on one another cleverly, as characters submerge and reappear, going about the rites and rituals of devotion. A sadistic dance instructor who appears in "My Shape" resurfaces in "The High Road" to tell his own story (and redeem himself, to a degree); a Venetian Renaissance poet tells her tale of longing in "Gaspara Stampa," then reappears in "Ashes of Love" in a book that another character reads, distraught over being deserted by his girlfriend and infant son. This doubling back lends the collection an unusual expansiveness, with layers of places, players, and feelings giving the separate pieces not just cohesion, but a sense of timelessness. There is the hindsight of decades here, but also the wisdom of centuries. And even as these characters lose themselves in love and surrender to its loss, they transcend their own defeats to become legends in one another's lives. Early on in "My Shape," Alice describes how, growing up, she'd visit any house of worship she could get to, mesmerized by the "gestures of submission that went on within these walls." These gestures and the slow, sweet agony at their root suffuse every story in "Ideas of Heaven" with the ardor of piety and love. By Christina McCarroll

THE NEWS FROM PARAGUAY, by Lily Tuck, HarperCollins, $23.95

Ella Lynch, a beautiful young Irishwoman living in France, is wooed by Francisco "Franco" Solano Lopez, the future dictator of Paraguay. Ella, who had been enjoying the company of high society, is captivated by this Napoleonesque suitor, and she abandons the comforts of Europe to follow him into the wilds of South America. The novel unfolds like a scrapbook. Artfully described scenes, revealing letters, and emotional journal entries capture our attention. Tuck succeeds at creating a sense of expectancy: Ella discovering she is pregnant en route to Paraguay, Franco trying to transform AsunciĆ³n into a Paris of the Americas. But this is also where the novel falters. There's little chance for us to invest in these characters before they're whisked away. Most scenes are brief, with little connective tissue to bind them to the broader political history. Years pass between single entries. The author marches Franco madly into war with hardly any exploration of his mind. In the end, Ella escapes to Europe. Ghost-filled memories dominate her last days, and we're left with parts of this kaleidoscopic vision. By Kendra Nordin

OUR KIND, by Kate Walbert, Scribner, $23

In these 10 stories set in the 1950s, a group of women, torchbearers of the country-club set, look back over failed marriages and lost loves. With last-ditch resolve and a measure of ruthlessness, they form an army both marvelous and tattered. For the most part, this novel-in-stories is told through a vague but compelling "we" that has become the characters' core identity. The women plot an "intervention" to save a colleague of their ex-husbands from suicide; they attend a "Come as You Were" party in their wedding gowns; they mark the anniversary of a husband's death. One refrain of "Our Kind" is the question, "Who among us?" In its various permutations, it touches on the pathos and comedy of lives that teeter as pasts dissolve, a daughter dies, and memories rekindle loss. "Who among us has not walked door-to-door to ask for nonperishables?" asks the "we" in "Esther's Walter," remembering maternal rituals. And then, more painfully, "Who among us could claim love?" Walbert pushes these women toward questions that will both torture and console - questions that, had their lives gone as planned, they might never have thought to ask. By Christina McCarroll

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