Congratulations to Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for fiction for Redeployment, his debut story collection set against the Iraq War and its aftermath. Beating out a field that included Marilynne Robinson, one of the greatest authors writing in English today, even Klay himself seemed startled, but while the win is a dark-horse surprise, it’s a happy one. With strong echoes of Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, Redeployment is the work of a former marine struggling to put the unspeakable into words, capturing a surreal, visceral, and often absurd experience of the war that has become the Vietnam of our times. (It’s telling that war was the dominant theme among the fiction nominees, which included Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopic Station Eleven, Anthony Doerr’s WWII fable All the Light We Cannot See, and Rabih Alameddine’s Beirut-set An Unnecessary Woman.) Klay’s stories have an immediacy and relevance we’d like to see more of in American fiction. As the consequences of our overseas involvements sickeningly unfold—omnipresent but distant, onscreen but outsourced—books like his bring the violence unignorably home.
Previous nominee Louise Glück won the poetry award for Faithful and Virtuous Night, while Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, her memoir in verse of growing up in the sixties and seventies, won the young people’s literature category in an unanimous vote. In nonfiction, Evan Osnos, a longtime Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, won for Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, beating out two of his colleagues: John Lahr and Roz Chast, mysteriously the lone woman to make the long list of finalists. But ultimately, the night belonged to beloved fantasy author and feminist Ursula K. Le Guin, who received a standing ovation when she accepted an award for distinguished contributions to American letters. “I think hard times are coming,” said Le Guin, “when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being—and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.” Those times are now.
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