I have been working my way backward through winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and have read back to 1980 (Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer). For 202o, I have read the 15 books that pprize.com predicted would be considered for the prize and runner-ups on 4 May 2020. Below is my analysis of this year’s candidates and my own predictions as to who will win and be shortlisted.
The list at pprize.com was as follows:
1. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead 2. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner 3. Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat 4. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi 5. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong 6. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips 7. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg 8. Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine 9. Exhalation by Ted Chiang 10. My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates 11. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates Dominicana by Angie Cruz 13. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett 14. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner The Need by Helen Phillips
The list is predominantly feminine (10/15) and quite diverse (two African-American males, one male of Vietnamese origin, one Haïtian woman, two Latinas, two Jewish writers, two Chinese-American writers). There are three short stories collections (Everything Inside, Sabrina & Corina and Exhalation), two science fiction books (Exhalation and The Need), one magical realism book (The Water Dancer). Two books talk about slavery and racism (Nickel Boys and The Water Dancer). There is one former Pulitzer winner (Colson Whitehead) and one finalist (Joyce Carol Oates). Arguably, The Other Americans by Laila Lalami should be here as well as it was a finalist for the National Book Award, but not having liked The Moor’s Account (runner-up 2015), I didn’t read that one.
The books I enjoyed least on this list are, unfortunately, the first two, the fourth, the ninth, and the last one. The Nickel Boys and Topeka School didn’t work for me as I felt no connection to the protagonists and felt the writing was, frankly, not that great. I haven’t really enjoyed Colson’s work since his debut with Colossus and Ben Lerner, well I haven’t read his other novels, but I felt that Topeka School was overwrought and convoluted. As for Trust Exercise, I felt it had some fundamental contradictions, washed over pedophilia between the male teacher and the “Hispanic” student, and just didn’t like the writing so much and really disliked the conclusion. The stories in Exhalation I felt were not nearly as good as his previous collection, The Story of Your Life from which the movie Arrival was based, and not even close to the quality of the short stories of Ken Liu, for example. Perhaps I just am not a fan, but I found that My Life As A Rat was entirely predictable and again, I felt no sympathy for the narrator. The Water Dancer left me wanting due to the mysticism of the Convection which was too much like the physical train in Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning Underground Railroad which I didn’t like either. As for The Need, it was implausible and the writing was mediocre at best – more of pulp fiction than literature in my opinion.
As for the books I liked, I enjoyed Sabrina & Corina, a collection of beautifully written stories that paint a grim but moving picture of the difficulties of being a Mexican woman in Colorado. Dominicana was reminded me of The Mambo Kings Sing The Songs Of Love, but was better written than that 1990 winner by Oscar Hijuelos. Despite being a rich people’s problem story, Fleishman Is In Trouble was very funny and I felt that the storytelling was well-constructed and the characters fully fleshed out. The exposition format of Feast Your Eyes truly pleased me as original and moving as well. Lastly, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous was a poetic paean to the difficulties of immigration for the Vietnamese fleeing the chaos after the end of the Vietnamese War with great literary and pop culture references.
For my runner-ups, I would choose The Dutch House by Ann Patchett due to its wonderful storytelling and engaging characters – it was so well-written and the plot moved along at a relatively comfortable and fast pace. My other runnerup choice would be the painfully beautiful Everything Inside by Edwige Danticat, eight heart-breaking stories of Haïtian refugees before and after the brutal Duvalier regimes – they truly brought me back to by trip there in 1986 and made me feel so close to the various protagonists.
My favorite for the 2020 Pulitzer is the masterful Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I loved the calendar format, the kidnapping mystery trope, the kaleidoscope of fascinating characters, the beautiful descriptions of this relatively poorly-known land of Kamchatka, and the consistent quality of writing throughout. Of the 15 books I read on the list, this was truly my favorite in terms of writing quality, originality of plot structure, character development and descriptive language. I hope she gets her first Pulitzer although it appears that she is a longshot at best.
So, here is my list:
1. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
2. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
3. Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
4. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
5. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
6. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
7. Dominicana by Angie Cruz
8. Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
9. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
10. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
11. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
12. My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates
13. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
14. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
15. The Need by Helen Phillips
Full reviews on Goodreads as well as the list for you to vote on:<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/146360.Fino_s_Pulitzer_2020_Picks”>My List</a>