Here’s how thing stand. Train Dreams was originally published in 2003.The Pale Kingis not the actual novel the author would have published had he lived to finish it. Neither one of those should win for those reasons.
Which leaves Swamplandia which I think I’m about to return to the library unfinished. This should be a book I would love–quirky characters, a girl with ghosts for boyfriends, a really engaging main character, and the story seems like it might eventually be interesting. But each sentence is just too laboriously perfect. Things aren’t just “red,” they’re “ruby.” You know what I mean? You can’t ever not notice how much work the writer has put into every single word. It takes so long to read each sentence that the experience is like looking at someone else’s vacation photos, feeling like you’re not going to be allowed to move to the next one until you’ve really appreciated how beautiful this photo is. And each sentence is beautiful, don’t get me wrong.
But for me, all the beautiful hand-crafted sentences are keeping me out of the story instead of letting me sink into it. And I can’t quite figure out why or how the strength of the writing of the sentences is undermining the strength of the telling of the story, but it is.
I think you could make a good argument for this book being so well-crafted that, of course, it should have won when the other two nominees clearly shouldn’t have. But, if I had been the person making the final call, I’m not sure this is a book I could have said “Yep, best book in the country this year,” about because it seems like it doesn’t work. Even if I would feel very confident in saying that it’s an amazing achievement in writing.
So, I would have been fine with it if it won, but I completely get why it didn’t.