Julie Otsuka’s ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ wins 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction


“The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka (Knopf)
March 26, 2012

Julie Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic” has won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It’s a disappointing choice from a list of finalists that gave strong preference to short fiction.

The judges considered more than 350 books from 2011 but could find only one traditional novel worthy of inclusion: Russell Banks’s grim “Lost Memory of Skin,” about a young sex offender. The other finalists, all collections of stories or novellas, were Don DeLillo’s “The Angel Esmeralda,” Anita Desai’s “The Artist of Disappearance” and Steven Millhauser’s “We Others.”

The PEN/Faulkner Award bills itself as “America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction,” and some years, such as this one, that pedigree is more obvious than others. As writers and teachers of writing, the judges have a professional interest in the craft of storytelling, which attracts them, I suspect, to perfectly cut miniatures as opposed to the rock and flow of a great novel. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the two categories have such different qualities that they shouldn’t compete for the same prize. (For just that reason, the National Book Critics Circle stopped putting biographies and memoirs in one ring.)

Still, it’s regrettable to see so many fine novels from 2011 left standing outside the gates. Where’s Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder,” Mary Doria Russell’s “Doc,” or Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon a River”? How about David Vann’s devastating “Caribou Island”? Or Alex Shakar’s demanding “Luminarium” — long, fully developed stories we can sink into for days?

But this isn’t just a long-form/short-form debate. As they proved in the collections that were named finalists for the award this year, DeLillo, Desai and Millhauser are all remarkably surprising and insightful fiction writers. Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic,” on the other hand, never lets you forget its own artifice.

Following up on her bestselling “When the Emperor Was Divine,” it’s about Japanese picture brides taken to California in the early 20th century. But no real characters emerge, and no story develops in the conventional sense. Instead, each slim chapter focuses on some general aspect of Japanese immigrant life — sex, employment, children — and the experiences are blended, often sentence by sentence: “Home was a bed of straw in John Lyman’s barn alongside his prize horses and cows. Home was a corner of the washhouse at Stockton’s Cannery Ranch. Home was a bunk in a rusty boxcar in Lompoc. Home was an old chicken coop in Willows that the Chinese had lived in before us. Home was a flea-ridden mattress in a corner of a packing shed in Dixon. Home was a bed of hay atop three apple crates beneath an apple tree.”

Sometimes, these chapters are moving and effective, but just as often they turn flat and monotonous: “How to light a stove. How to make a bed. How to answer a door. How to shake a hand. How to operate a faucet, which many of us had never seen in our lives. How to dial a telephone. How to sound cheerful on a telephone even when you were angry or sad. How to fry an egg. How to peel a potato. How to set a table.”

It’s easy, of course, to take potshots at other judges’ choices, but I’d much rather go down the Amazon River with Patchett than tiptoe through this delicate prose poem.

At the ceremony in the Folger Shakespeare Library on May 5, Otsuka will receive $15,000; each finalist will take home $5,000. Tickets to the event, at which you can hear all the authors, cost $125. Call 202-544-7077 or visit ­folger.edu/penfaulkneraward for more details.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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