Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Although this novel affected me very deeply, I find it very difficult to express my thoughts about it. Published in 1983, it was obviously inspired by events in South Africa in the tumultuous years of apartheid. Yet it is non-specific as to time and place and written with an allegorical tone, so that it can apply just as well to any violence-torn country anytime, anywhere.

Michael K was born with a hare lip, so that he could not suck from the breast or the bottle and had to be fed from a teaspoon. When it became apparent that he was also "simple," he was institutionalized for the remainder of his youth. Now, as an adult, he is working as a gardener while attempting to care for his ailing mother. As the violence of conflict consumes his mother's neighborhood, she asks Michael to carry her back to the veld where she grew up, and he attempts to do so.

The journey becomes a confusing bad dream for Michael as he travels on foot, pushing his mother in a home-made rickshaw, dealing with curfews and road checks and the bad intentions of some of his fellow displaced persons. When his mother dies along the way, he knows of nothing else to do but to continue his journey and take her ashes to her childhood home. When he reaches the place, he finds a deserted farm where he can perhaps be left alone to grow things so that he can take his sustenance from Mother Earth. But he is not long allowed to follow his own path.

Through the course of this short novel, Michael K is imprisoned, relocated to a displaced persons' camp (supposedly for his own good), and forcibly hospitalized (again for his own good). And all he wants is to be left alone. "He is like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand."

I cannot properly express how sad this novel is, and I cannot help thinking about all the simple people (perhaps not simple in lack of intellect but in way of life) who are caught up in conflicts that they care nothing about. I think about Afghanistan and the mountain people, who perhaps do not even care about jihad and religious extremism and do not even want the help of their American "saviors." I imagine them, and others like them in other places, just wanting to be left alone.

This novel won England's Booker Prize and Coetzee has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I highly recommend it as a book that will make you think long after you have finished it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending seems, in many ways, to be mainly a thoughtful essay about aging and the passing of time and what it does to our memories. Not so much that we forget as that we mis-remember, painting a picture of our lives that others will think well of, even managing to lie to ourselves. The protagonist of the novel says, "How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but--mainly--to ourselves."

The plot of the novel is the supporting evidence for Barnes's musings. A divorced and retired Englishman, who has led a quiet and somewhat complacent life, receives a strange bequest from the estate of the mother of a girl he once courted while at university. Included in the bequest is the diary of a friend of his youth, who had begun a relationship with the former girlfriend after she and the protagonist parted. The friend subsequently committed suicide, according to his parting note for philosophical reasons. The mystery begins. Why did the mother own the diary? According to the lawyer administering the estate, the old girlfriend currently has it and is not ready to give it up. Why not?

The protagonist first writes of the memories of his youth, about his friend and his girlfriend and of their relationships. Then, in the second part of the novel, he begins a renewed contact with the girl (now a 60s-something woman), first to resolve the mystery and gain possession of the diary, but later, perhaps, hoping for a re-connection.

Throughout, the protagonist is shown to be unreliable, as he even repeatedly tells us. We suspect, and sometimes even find out for sure, that he has repainted his past to himself.

The surprise solution to the mystery, when it is revealed to the protagonist, at first seems to answer all the questions. But then....we remember many clues that are not at all explained. Perhaps the solution is not the right one. Perhaps time and the false memories of those involved have obscured what really happened.

This is a book which takes some thinking about afterwards. It will be better understood by older people, I think. It won England's Booker Prize in 2011. I'll bet the judges were all over 50. It's a bit depressing. As an example, here's a quote:

"Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be."

Still, highly recommended.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

I am beginning to be a little wary of novels with catchy title and clever covers. As I mentioned in a previous blog this month, The Sisters Brothers, with its dynamite cover, was more flash than substance. And now there's this one. The title is obviously a play on "rorschach test," and the cover of the hardback has a cut-out in the shape of a shark with text on the page underneath showing through.

Well, the plot does include a shark of sorts, a Ludovician shark, "an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect." Got that? Clear as can be, right?

Eric Sanderson awakes one morning and can't remember who he is or anything about his past. A note he finds leads him to a psychologist, who tells him that he has been suffering from a rare mental condition known as psychotropic fugue, stemming from the death of his girlfriend who died in a scuba diving accident. The psychologist tells him not to open any letters he may receive from his former self, because they will mislead him. He does begin receiving letters and he does resist for some while, although he does save the letters and packages. Finally, of course, he opens them and discovers that he has been the prey of a Ludovician shark, which has eaten his memories and emotions. And goodness, it appears that the shark is still out for him as he gains new memories and emotions.

What's a poor boy to do? He goes on a quest to find answers as to how to evade or kill the shark, and soon finds himself teamed with a young girl, to whom he feels strangely attracted. A touching love story ensues.

The plot from here on gets curiouser and curiouser, with an ending that is seemingly purposefully enigmatic--hence the "rorschach test" reference, as that is something which is interpreted by everyone in a different way. I have my own theory, of course.

This books strongly calls to mind Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, The Matrix movie, and certainly Jaws, the plot of which it follows for 50 or so pages. About 40 pages are consumed with a flip-book of a swimming word-shark.

The Raw Shark Texts is too self-consciously clever, too gimmicky, for my old-fashioned tastes, but I predict it will be (and maybe already is) something of a cult classic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Once in a great while an author comes along who writes such beautiful, elegant prose that it hardly matters if the plot of the book is at all interesting. When the story being told is also insightful and intriguing, the gift being given to the reader is beyond price. Thank you, Joseph O'Neill, for this wonderful novel.

In its relatively few pages (around 250, at a time when so many authors are so long-winded), Netherland includes an examination of love and loss, a vivid look at the New York City not seen by tourists, the exuberant and somewhat tragic story of one man's pursuit of the American dream, and much discussion of the game of cricket.

The plot: Hans van den Broek from Holland is a stock analyst working in London when he learns of the murder of an American man who was once his friend. He remembers the time when he was living in New York City and his wife took their small son and returned to her parents' home in England in the aftermath of 9/11. Lonely and adrift, Hans found some solace in playing cricket, the game of his youth, with immigrant Americans from countries where cricket is loved. He formed an unlikely friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, a charismatic Trinidadian who introduced him to a different New York City from the one he had known.

O'Neill effortlessly and seamlessly moves between scenes from his youth, from his time in America, and his present in England. His Ramkissoon character has unmistakeable echoes of The Great Gatsby, but one has no sense that this is a "rip off," more of a homage perhaps. The ending is impressive.

This one won the Pen/Faulkner Award and several "Best of the Year" nods in 2008. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Catchy title, yes? And you ought to see the book jacket. (I know most people could probably transport it to this blog from some other web site, but I can't. You owe it to yourself to look it up.) This has one of the best covers ever.

The story is about Eli and Charlie Sisters, two brothers who are hired killers in the Old West, at the time of the California Gold Rush. For most of the book they are traveling (by horseback, of course) from Oregon City to Sacramento to kill a prospector who has "probably stolen" something from their employer. Along the way, they meet several unique characters, have life-or-death adventures, and casually kill several people who don't cooperate with them. Once they reach California, events take a surreal tone and the ending is not what any of the characters would have anticipated.

All along the way, Eli (who is the narrator) is thinking about how he would like to get out of the killing business and perhaps become a storekeeper. It's not so much a crisis of conscience as a desire to have some human closeness, which his profession pretty much precludes.

This novel reads like a cross between Charles Portis's True Grit and a Quentin Tarentino film. From Portis we get the narrative voice, which is formal and stilted, with no contractions. From Tarentino we get the intermingling of clever dialogue about random subjects with episodes of ultra-violence, which creates a kind of black graveyard humor. I see this novel as a parody of the serious western and of the film noir genre. It is clever; I'll give you that.

But, ultimately, I am less than impressed. I believe I am in the minority with this opinion, because this book has many positive reviews, and it was short listed for the Booker Prize. Whatever.

The Sisters Brothers is amusing in a dark way, it reads very fast, and it will make an excellent movie. It already reads like a movie script.

A final note: Comparisons have been made between this novel and the books of Cormac McCarthy. Yes, they are both very violent, but McCarthy's violence is real and visceral and disturbing. The violence in this book is presented in such a way that it seems incidental. That's a world of difference.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

Artemio Cruz is a ruthless business man in 1959 Mexico. Extravagantly rich, he has risen to power through corrupt and underhanded dealings, often selling out the interests of his own country to foreign investors. And he is dying.

This novel takes place on the day of his death, as he suddenly collapses and lies in pain. It alternates between his stream-of-consciousness thoughts and several first and third person narrations of pivotal episodes in his life. We learn of his first love, of his service as a soldier of the Mexican Revolution, of his rise to wealth, of his betrayal of the supposed principles of the Revolution, of his sell-out to foreigners, of the death of his son, of his extreme loneliness, and finally of his youth. In the end, the reader is left with some understanding of and sympathy for this complex man.

This is also the sad chronicle of a turbulent Mexico which experienced multiple changes of leadership, and under all of them the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor.

I found this to be a very difficult book to read. The writing is very dense, and I often had to read the stream-of-consciousness portions more than once to make sense of them. Nevertheless, it was hypnotically fascinating and extremely poetic. The construction of the novel was inventive and amazing. I am sure it reads even better in the original Spanish. I did have to do some background research about the various stages of the Mexican Revolution to understand the book. Thank heavens for the internet.

Recommended for the reader willing to go the extra mile for a book.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Even though I love Dickens, I had never before read this one, probably because it so thick that it is intimidating and because the title sounds really depressing. It took a little while to get through, but the effort was worth it. I thought this one of the best of the Dickens novels.

As is typical, Dickens is up on his soap box about injustices in the England of his day. In this instance, he is railing against the inefficiency and corruption in the Court of Chancery, which dealt with matters pertaining to wills and estates. The novel centers around the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a case which has been considered, and reconsidered, and considered yet again for untold years. Obsession with the case has already destroyed one of the Jarndyce family, and begins to exert its tragic toll on the mind of a younger member of the family.

Dickens also includes caustic criticisms of lawyers who are like vampires, sucking their clients dry; of do-gooders who spend time and effort in various great causes, while ignoring their families; of parents who are so self-centered that their families suffer; of a government which takes better care of its prison inmates than of the honest poor.

Of course all this social criticism is slipped into a melodramatic and touching story of a young orphan girl with a mystery-shadowed origin, who is befriended by a kind and sensible guardian. Along with her story, we get a murder mystery with a very clever detective. Naturally, coincidences abound (this is Dickens, after all), as the many threads of the plot come together.

In this jaded era, perhaps it is considered as a criticism when a book causes a reader to cry. Yes, Dickens is melodramatic, and, yes, he can make me cry time after time. I love that.

I also love the Dickens names: Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Krook, Harold Skimpole, Allan Woodcourt, Esther Sommerson. So many times the names are clever reflections of the personalities of the characters. I also love the way Dickens can portray characters so that I can see them in my mind. They are all slightly exaggerated, but so often remind me of someone I know.

I will have to say that I find many of Dickens's female characters to be almost insufferably self-sacrificing and self-deprecating. That includes the heroine of this novel, Esther Sommerson. Perhaps Dickens considered these to be very desirable female traits. I sincerely doubt if he ever found a woman this perfect. If he did, I'll bet she was probably boring to him eventually.

If you like an old-fashioned good story, if you appreciate clever satire, if you have the time to read 800 pages, you will like this book.

Monday, October 1, 2012

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

An attractive young woman climbs down an emergency exit stair from a freeway, and finds that the world seems to have changed just a bit from what she remembers. For instance, the night sky has two moons. She is an expert assassin, who eliminates men who have abused women.

A enigmatic 17-year-old girl writes a rather amateurish, yet highly original, first-person novella about Little People who emerge from the mouth of a dead goat and create an Air Chrysalis, which finally opens to reveal an exact copy of the narrator. The girl says that the story is true. In her account, the earth has two moons.

A young man who is an aspiring novelist is persuaded by an ambitious editor to rewrite the girl's story and let it be published under the girl's name. It becomes a best seller. One day he notices that the sky has two moons.

A private detective is hired by a religious cult to investigate matters pertaining to the above characters. He finds a connection that has escaped the cult's notice.

This is a page-turner of a cat-and-mouse thriller, a highly romantic (although somewhat implausible) love story, a reconciliation story between parent and child, an examination of religious belief, and a fantasy/alternate world adventure. That's a lot to accomplish in one novel.

By allowing himself 926 pages, Murakami manages to pack all of this in, plus a good bit of filler, to my way of thinking. He includes descriptions of clothing worn (even though the garments are, at best, nondescript), of the preparation of many simple Japanese meals (These characters prepared very healthful foods.), and even of the day-to-day grooming details (They were very clean people.). I can only suppose that these mundane matters were included to provide contrast with the many surreal matters.

This novel was impossible to put down and very easy to read, so that I finished it as quickly as I have most books half its length. I found it more readable than the other Murakami novels I have read, but it was also less thought-provoking than those.

A most enjoyable read. Recommended.