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Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

I was thinking of IQ84 after plucking Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World off of a friend’s bookshelf.This is an older Murakami (1985) which has the author’s signature hypnotic writing about bizarre situations that the bewildered but doggedly normal (usually male) ‘hero’ finds himself in. I found the ending slightly surprising, but the decisions of the nameless main character on how to spend his last 24 hours on earth are amusing and thought-provoking. “A person with twenty-four hours left to live ought to have countless things to do. I couldn’t think of a single one.” Ridiculously, even to himself, he ends up in a laundromat waiting to use a clothes-dryer. Murakami writes playfully, and the adventures undergone by our protagonist are amusing as well as suspenseful. This includes thrilling narrow escapes and chases through underground passages and threatening visits from mob underlings as well as many chance encounters along the way – the bureaucratic workers at ticket windows, the “rock taxi” driver, “Mrs. Video Shop” and more – all fully realized, natural vignettes. There is a whole alternate story and universe interspersed with the ‘Hard-boiled Wonderland’ narrative which seems a precursor to the alternate universe in IQ84. In retrospect you wonder if the “End of the World” is a kind of heaven. When he thinks about his life ending and achieving immortality in this other reality, he can’t quite get his head around it. Will he be a different person? Can he be? He has tried to change in the past, but “like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.” The ‘End of the World’ existence includes a kind of ‘mindlessness’ that is described thus: “You are fearful now of losing your mind, as I once feared myself. Let me say, however, that relinquishing your self carries no shame….Lay down your mind and peace will come. A peace deeper than anything you have known.”

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Murakami Redux, Part I

I’ve been reading Haruki Murakami’s novels and short stories for a long time and have often struggled with how to describe his works. His understated writing style, slight, not-always-apparent playfulness, and ultimate compassion for the human condition combine with a fearless creativity (one of his stories features a giant talking frog) to compel the reader’s concern for the central character–often a subdued Japanese everyman/woman, usually living alone in a cheap, high-rise apartment, who gets caught up in events and forces that are beyond his or her control.  The man in the aforementioned story, for example, just comes home to his apartment after a routine day, a briefcase in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other, and there is the frog. Giant. Talking. There is often a mystery at the center of Murakami’s fiction. Often the mystery is left unexplained at the end. The bewildered protagonist struggles to understand what is happening, but never does.  The reader can relate.  A sort of dreamy vagueness pervades some of the works and can leave a reader vaguely dissatisfied, which how I have felt occasionally upon finishing one of his books. Yet, the unsolved mysteries represent a reality that the characters have to deal with whether they understand them or not, which is how life is, really.

The last Murakami I read was IQ84, 6 years ago, and I blogged about my excitement at starting the book here and more about it here.  It’s a blockbuster that weighs in at 900 plus pages, there are plenty of mysteries, lots unsolved at the end (again, like life), but the story is anything but dreamy. The two central characters, Tengo and Aomame, are both caught up in dangerous missions, they both sense that they are in some kind of alternate world (the extra moon in the sky is a clue), and they are both trying to find each other before it is too late. There is an Orwellian subtext, but I have to admit, I didn’t think of it that much. The story itself pulls you in and keeps you engrossed until the end.

It’s a big book, and this is a short review, but I found IQ84 to be amazing.  It was gripping, suspenseful, shocking, bizarre , and, finally, quite moving. After all, life can change quickly, a metaphorical second moon can appear in our skies at any moment and utterly change our version of the universe. And, in Murakami’s world, there are people who accept reality, whatever form it takes, and deal with it, and find that they can protect themselves, their  inner selves and integrity, despite what outside forces seem to prevail. There is something rather beautiful in that.

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I listened to “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, beautifully read by Francois Chau, and found it intense, gripping, bitterly funny, heartbreaking and brutal. The character, who I believe is never named, but often called Captain for his rank in the secret police of South Vietnam, is nuanced, flawed, complex and conflicted; his fatal flaw being the ability to see both sides of a question. As a spy for the Viet Cong, embedded within the ranks of South Vietnamese army and recruited into the military police, he has to interrogate captives from the North with whom he sympathizes and is secretly working; he also has to report to his superiors on the movements of the South Vietnamese with whom he lives and works. This duality is present in his origins as the son of a Vietnamese maid and a French priest who never outwardly acknowledged him. The book begins and ends in southeast Asia, with the hero on the last plane out of Saigon and at the end, preparing to embark on a perilous journey as one of the ‘boat people’ to escape the oppressive regime of the conquerors. The long, middle portion is a fantastic tale like something out of Dostoeyvsky as the Captain continues in his dual role, spying on the South Vietnamese refugees living in California and plotting their return. His convoluted, even horrifying, maneuverings to avoid arousing suspicion in the General and Madame, his wife, while wooing their wayward daughter; the incredible interlude where he advises a movie director and is present at the making of a movie about the Vietnamese war, almost getting killed in the process; and his disastrous return to Vietnam, make for a suspenseful read (or listen). Best of all is the lush prose sprinkled with double entendres and near puns, that make for a fresh, distinctive style, sometimes airy and delightful, at others clinical and disturbing. The last part of the book is less humorous, more brutal (extremely difficult at times) and even a little tedious (as being a prisoner in a concentration camp probably is in reality), and the resolution of the plot threads is slightly less than plausible, but these are quibbles. The plotting is mostly superb, the characters are realistic and the situation is compelling to say the least.

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A waste of time. It’s too bad because there are some decent plot elements, and the viewpoint of an upper-crust black man, a law professor (as is the author) and son of a judge, with homes in DC and Martha’s Vineyard, is a welcome one. There are some dramatic moments, what with the horrific murder of the Pastor; the unjust arrest of our Professor by local police after he is attacked by thugs (reminiscent of the incident involving Henry Louis Gates); the intriguing car chase on the Vineyard; and the denouement during the hurricane. Unfortunately, any drama built into the story is muffled by the plodding narrative style. Time and again, the author tells us what this person is like, tells us what the men in his family are like, tell us what his marriage is like (over and over again) – he never shows us through dialogue or actions. The consequences of this type of writing are cardboard characters with no life in them. He tries to tie Kimmer’s affair to his own obsession with the mystery his father left behind, but, by my reading, there are problems with the marriage from the beginning of the book. I don’t believe in Kimmer, nor in Mariah, the sister obsessed with the idea that the Judge was Mariah, nor in Addison. The best characters are the law school faculty members, but even there, the relationships seem forced, as well as inconsistent, and motives do not appear to flow logically from character. I also wish the chess analogy had been more elegantly done – it seems like a fine idea tortured to fit the story. Perhaps a decent editor could have helped streamline the novel and improve the author’s style. Once there were great editors who helped writers achieve their vision – no more, it seems.

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I’m not really writing about Fitzgerald, but, in fact, he and Zelda make an appearance in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I just finished, and they seem more interesting than the subject of the novel which is, of course, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and by extension, Hemingway himself. I disagree with the author’s choice to use the first-person narrative to tell Hadley’s story, it comes across as unoriginal and banal, as if she took the known facts and connected them like a dot-to-dot drawing. I started to think, yes, Hemingway was a cad, but Hadley just isn’t that interesting; in fact, without her relationship with him, why would we care about her? By contrast, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, told in the third person, is both more nuanced and satisfying. McLain can write and there are some poignant moments as the marriage unravels (Pauline was quite a character!), but, on the whole, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. It felt to me as if the writer hit upon this great idea for a novel and then just went through the motions, not truly caring about her subject. Even Paris comes across as dull and uninviting. Enter the Fitzgeralds, with their brittle, bright spirits, adding some much-needed drama and intensity. The gatherings at Cap d’Antibe are well rendered, bringing to mind Tender is the Night. A recent New Yorker article by Giles Harvey (Cry Me A River, 032513 issue) details several recent tell-all memoirs by young published writers who went off the rails after early success. Harvey makes the point that this approach has actually led to renewed interest in and opportunities for these authors and adds that Fitzgerald tried the same tactic in 1936 when he wrote a personal essay, “The Crack-Up,” about his flagging career prospects. (Of course, Fitzgerald managed to confess his sorry state in a philosophical way, with an “urbane, self-inspecting tone,” a far cry from the contemporary examples). Within a year, he was invited to Hollywood to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, his hand at screenwriting. Sad to think of Scott and Zelda so diminished, but the seeds of tragedy were there at Cap d’Antibes, as McLain is able to show in her novel. Perhaps she just chose the wrong subject for her talents?

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This novel by Julie Orringer is gripping in an old-fashioned, George Eliot kind of way – a lot of characters that you begin to care about rather quickly begin rather quickly to get into difficult situations, namely World War II. The main character is a Jewish-Hungarian architect student studying in Paris who meets the love of his life, a woman 10 years his senior living in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The reader knows what is on the horizon, but the hero and his friends and family do not, of course. This agonizing suspense – don’t stay in Paris! Don’t go back to Hungary! – keeps the pages turning as the noose of anti-semitism tightens around the protagonists, with their hopes, dreams and expectations gradually diminishing until merely surviving is all that is left – and, of course, all do not. The author has a wonderful sense of place as I felt myself on the streets of Paris throughout the first half of the book and envisioning Budapest as it was in the second half; she also stays within the moment, within a very individual context, even as forces of hate and history are unfolding all around. This is a book that has stayed with me for weeks as I turn over the forces of circumstance, personality and luck that go into one person’s journey through life.

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I read The Art of Fielding, which all the book groups seem to be reading these days. I nearly gave up in the initial chapters where Henry, by a series of fortuitous, and not entirely believable, events and circumstances is brought to Westish College to invigorate their baseball team with his skill as a shortstop. I was about to give up until the statue of Melville was mentioned, and the reason why the baseball team is named “The Harpooners” was revealed. Apparently, Melville visited the Great Lakes at one point in his post-writerly life (after the failure of Moby Dick, he spent some 30 years as a Customs inspector). I found myself invigorated by this literary link and gradually got interested in the characters.

The Melville connection was tenuous and not fully explored, which was too bad. I had expected more, but in the end I got interested in Henry, the syndrome that undermined him as a player, and his gradual healing and emergence from despair. A lot of the other plotlines felt contrived, especially the one between Pella and her father, and the decision to dig up his body: weird, tacked on and unearned sensationalism! It was news to this reader that Affenlight loved the sea that much. And there was really no parallel to Emerson digging up his wife’s body. It just didn’t fit. That said, the writing was good, and on the whole the book was enjoyable. I did like it more than I thought I would.

Given that “The Lee Shore” was mentioned as Affenlight’s favorite chapter of MD, I wanted to follow up on that reference, and in doing so, found The Big Read – Moby Dick read aloud in its entirety by 130 plus different narrators. I went straight to Chapter 23 and had a listen. It’s another of those extended metaphors, this “six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.” If we had had some earlier premonition of Guert’s love of the sea, this would have worked, ie, “the land seems scorching to his feet,” or was it there and I missed it? In any case, the chapter was a good choice. I liked the analogy between the efforts of a boat to ride out a gale at sea, rather than be driven onto the rocks and that of the mind to maintain its freedom:

all deep earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore!

I also liked that Affenlight’s last meal was Chowder – that being one of the great chapters of MD!

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