Sunday, April 29, 2018

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami, 2014.

I resisted this book from the start.  Partly because of Murakami’s fame, I must confess.  And also a long time ago I read a short of his in The New Yorker which, although set in Japan and with a Japanese protagonist, was such a “New Yorker” story - clever, hip, ironic, unabashed in direct, almost coarse, male phallic references and imagery.  I came to the conclusion that Murakami isn't a Japanese writer at all, he is a Western writer, or at least an international writer heavily brainwashed with Western hegemony. In other words, he inhabits the high-brow international airport travel lounges of the peripatetic global jet set, as perhaps Pico Iyer might put it.  There was nothing of Japanese roots that I could find in his story, nothing that gave me any insight into the uniqueness and depth of Japanese culture, just the universal post-modern malaises of affluent humanity. In other words, he struck me as being a Salman Rushdie, not an R. K. Narayan.

But I was about to take another trip to Japan, and so bought this at San Francisco airport.  It took a while to get into it. But gradually the story worked its way into me, until I was identifying with the protagonist, even the specifics of his loss and his pilgrimage, and the strange emotional and mental quirks that made up his lonely existence.  The final scenes, where he visits an old friend from his teenage years, are beautiful and elegeic without sentimentality, and his emergence from his self-imprisonment seems plausible, real and even inevitable.

So yes, there is little of Japan here, at least that I could discern as a foreigner and with an untrained eye.  The anonymity and alienation of Tsukuru’s life could indeed be of anyone in countless cities worldwide. The book is technically flawless; I read it in translation, obviously, but even so it seemed exquisitely well wrought.  However technical skill was what I expected and it alone would not have sufficed. But the mastery of the complex, subtle emotions, the intimate knowledge of the dark, subterranean passages that run through all of us, was powerful and ultimately what made the story so compelling.  

I get a sense from the jacket that this book differs from his usual fare -- but now I will have to read more to find out.

3.5*

April 2018

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Commonwealth

Commonwealth
Ann Patchett, 2016

I finished this book in hopes that there was going to be some payoff at the end for the long slog it was.  But I am still mystified at the heaps of praise it has received – “exquisite” (NYT), “a transporting experience” (LA Times), and on and on.  What is there that has captivated this A-list of critics, other than the inevitability of praise for someone who has won all the accolades this writer has?  Book reviewers seem to have the same herd mentality that we associate with Wall Street and silicon valley and fashion week.

Because what it is, is simply a long saga exploring different states of siblinghood.  Two couples that divorce, remarry, remarry again, as seen through the eyes of their children from their first marriages, over the course of their lives.  Threading it, to provide some suspense, is the death of one of the teenage sons under circumstances that are hinted to be transgressive and shocking but in the end are finally revealed to be comparatively pedestrian, if still sad and unfortunate.  Where are the “keen insights”, the “minimalism” that the esteemed critics see?  I am bemused.

The main sibling characters mostly failed to arouse my sympathy – and worse, the two girls whose pov is taken (Jeannette and Franny) are almost indistinguishable in their voices.  As is often the case in novels like these, it’s the men who are the worst, either selfish (Bert, the philandering father), blind (Fix, the cuckolded father), addicted (Albie, the confused son), hopelessly angry (Cal, who drugs Albie), or manipulative bastards (Leo, the famous older writer who Franny falls for). 

The women can be catty or overwhelmed, but not fundamentally flawed or malicious.  And in that sense, I suspect that is why the novel itself is weak.  It subconsciously guides us to take the side of the women, and in doing so loses the power that comes to a narrative from villains and flawed heroes – since these are actually located in the other gender. 

The characters that did intrigue me were in fact some of the side roles: Bonnie, the easily drunk, good-looking sister overshadowed by her movie-star beautiful sister Beverly; the priest who dances with her at the christening party in the opening chapter; Jeannette’s Guinean husband and baby; Franny’s Indian husband and kids.  Unfortunately, these are merely cardboard characters, quickly sketched and equally quickly discarded.  In fact the characterizations of Jeannette’s and Franny’s husband skate close to being convenient, multi-culti tokens designed to make the narrative feel contemporary and the wives seem liberally open-minded and “interesting”.

The actual storyboarding is technically skillful.  A complex set of family relationships is sketched with interleaving and nested flashbacks and flash-forwards.  It doesn’t always work – until the end I had difficulty keeping straight which kids belonged to which parent, and the last chapter, somewhat irrelevantly, brings in still more siblings out of the blue – but generally it is quite accomplished.  The suspense of the teenage son’s death is dosed out with great finesse,  Perhaps that is what the reviewers were responding to.  But, for all the technique, and all the finesse, there seems to be nothing substantial at the core.  Inadvertently, that may be the real message, the emptiness at the center of fragmented, confusing, modern American lives.

2*
Nov 2017

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Japanese Lover

The Japanese Lover
Isabelle Allende, 2015.


I was looking for confident, grown-up, sophisticated writing, and as usual Allende provides that.  However, it is just not sufficient.

The novel's premise and indeed, storyline, is fascinating.  Alma, a young Jewish girl, is dispatched to safety from wartime Poland by her parents, into the arms of a distant but loving uncle and his family, the wealthy Belascos of San Francisco.  The girl knows, with precocious and insightful intuition, that she will never see her parents again.  In her new life she works hard to attach herself to her cousin, trying to recreate the adoring and close relationship she had with her brother in Poland.  Her cousin's best friend is Ichimei, the son of the household's Japanese gardener, who becomes the eponymous Japanese lover.

The novel traces Alma's maturing into a young woman, her eventual marriage, and her decades long affair with Ichimei.  There is a parallel thread of the young companion she hires, Irina, herself a displaced and damaged refugee, and her involvement with the Belascos.  Along the way there is a description of the shameful Japanese internment as experienced by Ichimei's family.

In this way the novel is similar to Allende's other books, that cover generations and national histories.  But somehow the story is curiously flat.  There are pages of descriptions of Alma's clandestine passion for Ichimei, but no passion itself.  The story is told from the vantage point of the end of Alma's life, when she seems aloof, condescending, and dried up; unattractive central characters are hard to take in a novel of this sort.  Irina -- bright, energetic, sympathetic -- could have been the grease for the skids, but her story is allowed to peter out.

In the end I found I had lost interest in Alma, and the other characters were not fully developed enough for me to be hooked.  There was also a strange anachronistic quality to the writing which further created distance.  Somehow it felt like the story belonged to the 1940s, or even to the mid 1800s, and from time to time I would be jarred by references to very current dates and events, up to and including this decade.  (Interestingly, the cover art reinforces this sense.)

Most disappointing, though, was the description of the relationship between Alma and Ichimei.  Here is rich material, that can be mined for all the nuances of the potentially explosive differences of class, race, religion and national origin -- exactly the kind of material that D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forester and Henry James mined to such great effect, in a prose and style that seems to be from the same epoch as Allende's.  But all of this is skimmed over, touched on lightly or in passing, as if it were a bad romance novel -- but without the bodice heaving.

2*
Mar 2016