Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This is a novel of contrasting two's: two stories, two cultures, two diaries, two belief systems, two views of time, two participants in the act of storytelling--the writer and the reader. And it turns out that the contrast may also be a sameness.

One story told is that of Nao, a Japanese girl who has grown up in the United States before returning to Japan, where she encounters the contrasting cultures of modern Japanese youth and of traditional Japanese Buddhist belief. Her diary is found in a waterproof packet (along with a watch, another diary, and some letters), washed up on the shore of a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. The finder is Ruth, an American of Japanese heritage, whose story as a stalled writer is also told.

This is an absorbing mystery novel, with characters who seem real, but it is also a meditation on the nature of time and identity and many other ponderous matters. The magical realism which enters late in the story can be viewed either as affirming Buddhist beliefs or theories of quantum physics, but quite possibly both are the same.

I am making this novel sound much more complicated than it really reads. It is one that can be enjoyed on more than one level, and that makes it hard to describe. It is a book that most all would enjoy reading.

Ozeki was a finalist for England's Man Booker Prize for this novel, and she has also been shortlisted for America's National Book Critic's Circle Award (winner announced in February). Since she holds dual American-Canadian citizenship, she is also eligible for the Pulitzer, for which she is a strong contender. I hope she wins.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The love interest of the protagonist in this 2013 novel is an artist, whose artistic creations are described in this way: "...large aluminum boxes, open on top, empty inside, so bright and gleaming their angles melted together....objects that shone like liquid silver." That description summarizes the impact of this novel, in my mind.

The writing is bright and gleaming and shines, with numerous striking descriptions and similes (although sometimes self consciously clever and strained) and a whole series of fascinating little set pieces. It is structured like a classic bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, yet, contrary to expectations, the young protagonist does not seem to mature or change despite all her unusual experiences. Throughout, she reacts rather than acts, letting others determine for her. She seems anonymous (her real name is never given) and empty inside, making the whole novel seem pointless and empty, although polished and well written (for the most part).

The plot goes something like this: the young lady protagonist heads to New York City in the '70s, following her graduation from college in Nevada, where she falls in with the progressive art crowd who are all hip and cool and smart talking. She takes a lover, who happens to be the disengaged son of an Italian industrialist who manufactures motorcycles; she races one of the cycles manufactured by her lover's family on the salt flats of Utah; she rather accidentally becomes the holder of the world land speed record in a race car; she journeys with her lover to Italy, where she meets his snotty family; she becomes accidentally involved in the radical movement in Italy; she returns to New York, where she seems to have learned nothing at all about herself or the world.

Author Kushner cleverly provides several motifs and symbols throughout, but in the end we are left with characters who show no change and elicit no sympathy and a narrative with interesting parts which lead nowhere. It's just....empty.

This novel was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and is considered a contender for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Most reviews have been positive. So I am out of line with the crowd on this one. Take that into consideration.

You know, now that I think about it, maybe the pointlessness was the point. Is that possible?

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The raid on Harpers Ferry by abolitionist John Brown is widely credited as being the catalyst for the beginning of the Civil War. Even in his own time, he was viewed differently by various groups--as a murderer, as a religious crusader for the right and holy, as a madman, as a savior of the slaves. According to the narrator of this novel, he was all of the above, and more.

The narrator is a boy slave, age 9 when the story begins, who is mistaken to be a girl when he is "liberated" by Brown during the strife in Kansas between pro-slavers and free staters. He quickly realizes that the mistake is to his advantage and continues the masquerade, becoming Henrietta instead of Henry. He comes to be something of a good luck charm for the old man, so that he is present at all the important events in Brown's crusade, through the hanging which ends the old man's life.

The issue of slavery is serious business, to be sure, but McBride makes his novel humorous, much in the tradition of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. It is written entirely in the vernacular of the boy, as Twain wrote in Huckleberry. (Sometimes McBride falters a bit here, as some of the expressions seem to be more modern than the time period.)

Through Henry/Henrietta's eyes, John Brown comes alive as an admirable, though flawed, crusader for the right. Another historical character, Frederick Douglas, does not fare so well, being portrayed as a self-involved and lust-filled pretender as a champion of justice.

While McBride's method of narration is similar to Twain's in many respects, he does not rise to an equal status. (Who does?) But this novel does reveal a believable picture of the times, while providing implications about being true to yourself and rising above self interest in dealing with moral dilemmas.

This is a very readable and enjoyable novel, which won the 2013 National Book Award. It is a strong contender for the Pulitzer Prize for 2013 books.

For another novelistic look at John Brown, I recommend Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Edgar Huntly by Charles Brockden Brown

Most literature scholars name Charles Brockden Brown as America's first professional novelist. In this 1799 novel, he brings the Gothic to the new country, following the tradition established by England's Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto) and Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho). He intentionally separates himself from the elements of England's Gothic (crumbling castles, underground tunnels leading to crypts, spirits of dead ancestors, etc.), substituting instead America's wild and unexplored landscapes, dark caverns, and INDIANS! Always inventive as to plot devices, Brown hinges the plot of this one on sleepwalking.

Edgar Huntly, in a l-o-n-g letter to his sweetheart, recounts his experiences which begin when he starts investigating the unsolved murder of his best friend, his sweetheart's brother. Spying a man digging at the scene of the crime (who appears to be sleepwalking), Edgar begins an odyssey which reaches obsession to learn the truth, passing through perils galore along the way. Edgar summarizes some of his adventures by saying, "I had emerged from abhorred darkness in the heart of the earth, only to endure the extremities of famine and encounter the fangs of a wild beast. From these I was delivered only to be thrown in the midst of savages, to wage an endless and hopeless war with adepts in killing, with appetites that longed to feast upon my bowels and to quaff my heart's blood. From these likewise was I rescued, but merely to perish in the gulfs of the river, to welter on unvisited shores, or to be washed far away from curiosity or pity." All these incidents, and more, are recounted in overwhelming detail.

What makes this novel at all interesting and more than just one sensational event after another is the psychological picture it gives us of the narrator. In telling his story he reveals more about himself than he intends. This aspect is more modern and makes Brown a bit ahead of his time.

The language of the novel is less than readable, with Brown never using a one-syllable word when a three-syllable synonym is available. It is formal, stilted, and borders on the pretentious.

I recommend this mainly for its historic value in the development of American fiction. Brown's Wieland, with its plot hinging on ventriloquism, will offer more enjoyment to the modern reader.