Monday, March 31, 2014

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Any serious fan of science fiction will find it impossible to discuss this 1972 novel which examines the nature of reality without referencing the writings of Philip K. Dick, the Grand Master of alternate realities. In particular, his novel Ubik, published in 1969, will come to mind. Le Guin was an admirer of Dick's work and openly acknowledged his influence, and Dick, in turn, praised Le Guin. They apparently appreciated the fact that the plot elements they shared could be manipulated in two entirely different ways.

Le Guin's protagonist, George Orr, dreams "effective" dreams that literally change reality, both the past and the present, and he is the only one who realizes that the change has occurred; that is, he is the only one until he is forced to consult a psychiatrist because of his unlawful drug use. When the psychiatrist realizes he can partially direct George's dreams, he begins to impose his will upon his patient to bring about his own idea of a perfect world.

The only problem is that every manipulation of reality to reach utopia has unforeseen consequences, often tragic and terrifying. For example, the dream suggestion of the psychiatrist to reduce world over-population has the result of a viral pandemic resulting in the death of more than half of the world's inhabitants. The quest to solve one problem results in another problem, until the very nature of reality begins to disintegrate.

Le Guin focuses on philosophical questions in her treatment of alternate realities. Her ultimate massage would seem to be one taken from Chinese philosophy: "To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven."

Dick, in contrast, elicits a less intellectual, a more primitive response. In his alternate reality stories, "paranoia runs deep," as the '60s song goes. In his world, we are not sure who is the dreamer, if there is a dreamer, if there is actually a dream, or if it's all a figment of a diseased mind.

This is a well-executed book which raises many questions for thought; it is much superior to most genre fiction. Still, I prefer Dick's take on the subject of alternate realities, perhaps because, tragically enough, I think he really believed. It's not exactly a comfortable belief, and I wonder how cutting-edge physicists nowadays, who subscribe to string theory (as I understand it) deal psychologically with the possibility of more than one reality.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel about old age is simply and beautifully written, with a truthfulness and understanding seldom to be met in fiction. In a very subtle and understated style, Taylor tells the story of Mrs. Palfrey's stay at a residential hotel catering to old people of limited means, where the residents fill their days with pointless yet comforting routines and strive to appear vigorous and cheerful despite being filled with aches and pains and boredom and loneliness. Despair, not death, is the enemy to be feared.

It is because of the considerable abilities of the author in creating a realistic and poignant picture of ordinary people that I would be cautious in recommending this book to anyone. It is almost unbearably sad. I wish I had not read it; I will be depressed until I can suppress it in my memory, along with all the other things I do not choose to think about.

If I had read this in my younger years (It was published in 1971.), perhaps it would also have made melancholy, but I might also have been prompted to be more attentive and loving to my grandparents. So maybe I would recommend this to young people, almost as a cautionary tale saying, "Remember, you will be old yourself in time."

For older people (say, over 55), I would say, "Pass this one by. It is too true, because it is too well done. There's really nothing good to say about old age; it's not fun for anybody, really."

I said this book made me depressed; maybe I will feel better tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I thought I knew what kind of book to expect from Haruki Murakami, having read and loved his novels The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and 1Q84. I anticipated a fanciful and surrealistic story combined with a healthy dose of references to Western music and popular culture. The Western-culture references are present, but the plot is a straight-forward tale of the coming-of-age of a young Japanese student as he confronts isolation, love, guilt, the longing for human warmth, and death.

This is a much more "Japanese" book than the others of Murakami I have read, particularly in the tone and in the attitudes of the characters. In many ways, it is like a very Japanese version of Catcher in the Rye, with the differences being informed by the two differing ways the two cultures confront common problems. The tone is one of wistfulness and vague melancholy, much similar to that portrayed in many Japanese paintings and haiku poetry.

The title comes from the song by the Beatles, which one of the characters in the novel plays for her friends. Even though the Beatles could be considered the pinnacle of Western music, the lyrics and the sound do seem to reflect a very Japanese sensibility, and the line "This bird had flown" could very well be the theme of the novel.

I found this to be a very lovely and haunting novel. It vaulted Murakami to super-stardom in Japan. But it is not a typical Murakami novel at all.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek -- a carnival performer who performs wild or disgusting acts, such as biting the heads off chickens.

This is the story of the Binewski family. Here's a typical day in their lives: The father, Al, who supervised his wife's ingestion during pregnancies of narcotics, poisons, radioisotopes, etc., to produce their own family of "special" children, is busy managing his traveling carnival/circus/freak show; the mother, Lil, who was formerly a geek in the show, is cooking, sewing, and doing other typical motherly things; the oldest son, Arty, who has flippers instead of arms and legs, is performing in his water tank or exhorting his many followers to free themselves by having body parts amputated to become more like him; the daughters Elly and Iphy, who are Siamese twins joined from the waist down, are performing their four-handed piano act; the daughter Olympia (the narrator), a bald albino hunchback dwarf who is not quite freakish enough to have a show, is serving as Arty's helper and worshiper; the youngest son, Chick, who appears to be a norm but who has paranormal abilities, is assisting Dr. P in the operating room where Arty's followers are having bits of themselves removed.

Not your typical family, it would seem. And yet....

The narrative by Olympia is two-fold, telling of a present during which she tries to protect her normal (except for a small tail) daughter who was reared in an orphanage and hence does not know her, and telling of the past with her siblings. Both parts are often distasteful, grotesque, and violent. Reading this book is somewhat equivalent to attending a freak show (I would imagine) or watching certain reality television productions -- you are a bit disgusted and have a certain amount of guilt that you are watching, but you can't look away.

And yet the family dynamics portrayed are not unfamiliar to many families. And the book brings many questions to mind, such as what is "normal" and what is not, and why the "normal" long so desperately to be unique and distinctive instead of one of the crowd while at the same time being disturbed by those who are truly born different.

I think this book is one that most people could not put down, but whether or not they would like it after is perhaps another matter.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Being Dead by Jim Crace

I certainly did not expect the title of this book to be so literal in describing the contents, but, sure enough, that's just what it's about: being dead. The book begins with the random murder of a married couple of middle-aged scientists among coastal sand dunes and ends with this sentence: "These are the everending days of being dead."

In between, the author performs some clever gymnastics with time, moving in a forward direction to trace the couple's last day from awakening until the murder, traveling in a backward direction over 30 years to the time when the couple first met and made love in the dunes, and moving forward again through the daughter's search for her missing parents. However, Crace spends the most time with the dead couple, picturing in graphic and extensive detail the actions of nature and decay on the dead bodies.

Crace is a master literary stylist, if you appreciate that style. I'm talking about the self-consciously poetic style of MFA creative writing schools, which lauds such descriptions as "...the wine-deep, sad, narcotic sea." It's no surprise to find that he has taught at both the Iowa Writers Workshop and at the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers.

The front cover of my copy of the novel features a quote from a review in the Los Angeles Times which asserts that it is "an exquisitely gentle and unsentimental tale on the evolution of love." I surely missed that part. I read a bit about lust, a bit about resentment, but mostly I was banged over the head with the heavy message that dead is dead, with nothing after. I can appreciate the fact that many have this view, but I hardly see it as the entire premise of a novel. I certainly cannot understand how anyone could have viewed the book in any other light, especially since the introductory epigram quotes a poem which begins:

"Don't count on Heaven, or on Hell.
You're dead. That's it. Adieu. Farewell.
Eternity awaits? Oh, sure!
It's Putrefaction and Manure
And unrelenting Rot, Rot, Rot,"

By the way, the supposed author of the poem, Sherwin Stephens, is not actually a real person; thus the poem is Crace's.

I suppose many would appreciate this novel (after all, it won the National Critics Circle Award for 1999 and was a New York Times Editor's Choice of the Year), but I would not recommend it to the people I know.

And to all I would offer this advice: DO NOT READ CHAPTER 6 WHILE EATING BREAKFAST.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Somehow I had always thought that Terry Pratchett wrote straight-ahead alternative world science fiction, in the vein of Larry Niven and suchlike. Thus, I was surprised when I read somewhere on the Internet that he is considered a comic novelist and that his Discworld series is more akin to Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker series. Sure enough, I find him to be very funny, indeed.

For the few who are as clueless as I was, Discworld is an alternate reality very much like our own, except for the existence of magic and magical creatures like werewolves and vampires and banshees and golems and suchlike. The technology is a bit different, but the people and their motivations are pretty much the same.

Our hero in this installment is a petty conman who is reprieved from hanging only to be sent to work in the post office (a fate worse than death?), where he soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict with the white-collar conman who heads the clacks communication monopoly (think a more primitive e-mail). Hijinks ensue.

Pratchett uses all the gadgets in the comedy toolbox: we have satire of corporate greed and other current issues; we have ridiculous situations and misadventures; we have wacky characters with funny names (the love interest is named Adora Belle Dearheart); we have puns and plays-on-words (the title, for instance); we have, most of all, a constant stream of little jokes, mostly one-liners, which are variously chuckle-worthy, smile-worthy, or groan-worthy. My favorite one-liner characterizes democracy as a "vote-yourself-rich system." Isn't that the truth. Being vertically challenged myself, I also liked the part about the dwarfs and the "Campaign for Equal Heights," with the prohibitions against using terms like "small talk" and "feeling small."

The plot is actually very interesting and suspenseful, in contrast to many comic novels, as the reader wonders how in the world the hero is going to defeat his powerful opponent.

Pratchett has written over 30 Discworld novels and is one of the most popular writers in Britain. I will certainly keep him in mind for the next time I feel in need of some good laughs.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse said of his style of writing that he was "making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether." I consider that a very accurate description.

His featured players in this book of short stories are Wooster, an over-bred and under-brained English minor aristocrat, who is nevertheless charming, well-mannered, loyal, and an all-around nice bloke; and Jeeves, his very correct and ever-resourceful "gentleman's gentleman," who shrewdly extricates his Master from all sorts of predicaments, romantic and otherwise. With its similar time period of post-World War I, this is like a comic version of Downton Abbey.

And it is very funny, indeed, in a clever and dryly British way, filled with wacky escapades and misunderstandings and wonderful characters. Wodehouse wrote over 90 books during his long life and is widely acclaimed as a comic genius. Most consider the books in the Jeeves and Wooster series to be his best.

Reading Wodehouse is a pleasurable way to spend a cold, winter afternoon. He doesn't require his reader to tax the brain or think about solemn important matters. He just provides chuckles and a pleasant way to while away a few hours.