Reading challenge VERDICT: Pulitzer Prize nominees

After an intensive but fruitful week with three Pulitzer Prize worthy books, below summarizes my verdict. (Click here for my previous post about this reading challenge)

A quick recap of the three nominated finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction: “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace, “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson and “Swamplandia!” by Karen RussellI will first confess I had underestimated myself because “The Pale King” turned out to be a 500-page, massive read, which overwhelmed when combined with the two other novels.

Nonetheless, I did try my best to complete them so here goes!

TRAIN DREAMSFor a more polished and sophisticated read, “Train Dreams” would be my top pick and ideal Pulitzer Prize winner.

Written like a prose beautifully set amongst the vastness and wilderness of northwestern America in the early twentieth century, it was just relaxing and comfortable to read through it.

The story is about Robert Grainier, who lost his wife and daughter to a forest fire after returning home from building railroads in Washington, and how he spent the rest of his life in solitude.

“He liked the grand size of things in the woods, the feeling of being lost and far away, and the sense he had that with so many trees as wardens, no danger could find him.”

Through Grainier’s story, it also depicts the sweat, tears and sacrifices made by men during America’s early years, where the nation’s progress came at the expense of the vitality of its people.

“Train Dreams” is in all a short, poignant read with a dreamy, lyrical feel, perfect over a cup of coffee during a dull afternoon.

THE PALE KINGSecond on my list would be “The Pale King,” a book that chronicles mainly about American tax-collection body Internal Revenue Service (IRS), but also dullness and boredom in our mundane life.

My initial impression of the book was more frustration than impressed.

The plot is neither linearly nor logically linked but rather a mish-mash of the author’s ideas, resulting in disjointed chapters that varied greatly in content and length.

For instance, chapter 3 is a discussion between two people about masturbating, followed by a four-paragraph news article about a dead IRS worker and after which a perfect boy with saint-like behavior that nobody believed in the sincerity of his acts.

To make matters worse, his writings are at times neither unclear nor straightforward. Below is a snapshot of chapter 14, characterized by a string of numbers, Qs and 17 pages of words. It was through some guesswork that I fathom the numbers to represent the social security IDs of IRS employees and the Qs represent interview questions that were never explicitly articulated.

Such a writing style caused me to spending the first 120 pages drowning clueless and contemplating if there is any way I could even finish half the book.

As I ploughed through, the writings began to grow on me in a rather strange manner fitted for an oddball book.

The story snippets began to dig deeper into the meaning of routine, work and life presented in such an innocuous and subtle way that will leave you with a bitter aftertaste.

“The Pale King” is for anyone looking for a bold, creative and unique read. Though it will take longer than usual to finish up but in the end it promises to be surprisingly rewarding.

SWAMPLANDIA!Lastly, “Swamplandia!” started off on a promising note about an improbable family of alligator wrestlers who live on their swampy island cum touristic attraction of Swamplandia!.

The plot took off after the matriarch and central star of the theme park Hilola Bigfoot passed away, in turn marking the decline of the theme park.

Seen through the eyes and quirky humor of Ava Bigfoot, readers witness the Bigfoot’s family ties crumbling away under their shrinking family fortunes.

Yet such intriguing tension fell apart after Ava’s eldest brother, Kiwi, left Swamplandia! and defected to a rival theme park on the mainland.

Narration suddenly splits into two and alternates between chapters, one by Ava from a first person point of view, the other by Kiwi from a third person point of view. Moreover, I was bored and unimpressed with Kiwi’s uninteresting venture into ‘normal’ mainland life that seemed to have deviated from the whole Swamplandia! setting.

Such fractures in the main storyline inevitably change the pace and buildup of the story – a tale of the Bigfoot family has somewhat developed to become the adventures of Ava and Kiwi.

I do apologize for this lengthy review because this is a 3-in-1 post! Do hope that it would be useful in helping you make your choices!


4 thoughts on “Reading challenge VERDICT: Pulitzer Prize nominees

  1. A great review, I am going to read Train Dreams now that I have read about it. It should be noted though that the disjointed nature of The Pale King is most likely due to the fact that David Foster Wallace died before it was completed and the editor managed to put the book together for posthumous release.

    1. Thanks for pointing out that The Pale King was never really completed by the author, who very unfortunately passed away before it was done, and that definitely gave me the impression that I’m reading a draft, rather than the finished copy of the book. The visions of the editor, who pieced the chapters posthumously, and the author appeared to be rather different and is rather clearly reflected in the theme and pacing of the book.

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