I believed I had read all the fiction Paul Bowles ever published in these 18 years since his death. The discovery last week of the short story collection Midnight Mass, with the familiar Black Sparrow paperback binding – earthy tan with green and purple block print – was thus a very emotional experience.
Immediately I was flooded by memories and thoughts of the man I considered my favorite author from the time I discovered him in ’87, the summer I got my first tattoo, until his death at the end of the last century.
Instantly, too, in that powerful way that great literature connects us with the world we are in, I remembered myself experiencing his works: where I was, the effect it had upon me. The empowerment and awe I felt after finishing one of his short stories or novels: blown away.
Paul Bowles was a huge influence on me as a writer and thinker. He was one of the most powerful allies in my struggle with immigration to the United States and in philosophical discourse in Europe. That he wrote from the subconscious as described by his wife, Jane, was the most romantic and amazing concept to me when I was young and I longed to be able to do that – not to understand it, but to do it.
The utter irrationality of the Western project, the neoliberal insanity we have all endured so long, was exposed by Bowles and then swiftly and violently shattered by the reality of life among the desert people of North Africa. In other works, a slow and seemingly disconnected series of events between locals in a village would be described with such lucidity and simplicity that the differences in thinking between east and west were made suddenly crystalline in the end – hits you like a koan.
The collision of culture was total and instead of Coca-Cola and the Golden Arches mowing down the village, the puny, minuscule westerners melted away in the heat of the Saharan sun, driven mad.
Midnight Mass is the last collection of Bowles’ short stories published by Black Sparrow and features at its center the elegant, drifting, rootless novella Here To Learn, a gorgeous story about a girl from North Africa who just keeps moving buoyed by her beauty, her wit and her ability to learn quickly how to negotiate the West.
The collection starts with the titular story, Midnight Mass, one of Bowles’ incredible parties; the Nazarenes careening around in their expatriated stupor of drinking, carousing and complaining, the locals bursting with romance only to become suddenly something else – the change of face.
There are stories about the locals and their fantastic, sometimes circuitous logic and its culmination in a kind of basic justice. There are tales about the utter undoing of our perception of a shared understanding of this world.
At the Krungthep Plaza is an amazing story set as the U.S. President is due to pass through a certain North African village. The machinations behind the scenes and the conflicts between locals, expats and the security teams are expertly related, culminating in a wild effusion of emotions that I can only described as angst against the way things are now.
It’s all just so great. I miss Paul Bowles.
Paul Bowles, 18 years after he died, was the best writer I read this year.
I’d never read a single word of Jennifer Egan’s work until Manhattan Beach, released by Scribner this month, despite that Egan has published four previous novels and won the Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Award for A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), a novel that has been acclaimed in effusive terms for its inventiveness and originality in all quarters of the literary community.
Everything I read about Goon Squad makes it seem like my type of book. Weird, futuristic, made-up languages; character-POV-shifting chapters … I don’t know how I missed it. Trust me it’s on deck.
Though I’m late to the party, I think it might give me a different perspective on Manhattan Beach. I read it as a straightforward, third-person novel set in the mid-20th century.
Nearly all the early reviews of this novel mention how different it is from Jennifer Egan’s previous work and in specific, often quite vociferously, from Goon Squad. For an author who has been exploratory and inventive with form, Manhattan Beach is a contrast, a historical period piece.
But it turns out Egan worked on this novel considerably longer than any others. She told Alexandra Schwartz in a long form interview for the New Yorker last week she had been working on it for the last 15 years, struggling to put together a story “anybody is going to want to read.”
I recommend it.
Manhattan Beach is an extremely well-researched and fast-paced story set predominantly in Brooklyn near the end of World War II that transports the reader to New York City in the mid-1940’s and fills it with presence and character. Egan has crafted an intriguing family story with which to reveal the city and the times, with particular focus on life in and around the Brooklyn Naval Yards.
The protagonists Anna Kerrigan and her father Eddie, and their family, friends, colleagues and enemies carve out their lives cast in the meager circumstances of a wartime economy that we know from history is coming to a close. Manhattan Beach takes us on a richly detailed tour of the corruption and culture of Brooklyn, New York, the Mafia and the Navy in a very particular period in history: the handful of years before the end of the war, between Pearl Harbor and the fateful flight of the Enola Gay.
It’s an American story about a Brooklyn family and how their life is changed in a tumult. The war hangs at a distance and we see the city – and in particular the Navy Yard and its surroundings as most young, able-bodied Americans are being sent abroad to fight.
Anna is a tremendously likable character and her journey at the Navy Yard to become a diver is a fascinating and well-detailed arc that weaves through the mystery and intrigue of her father’s disappearance and the nefarious underworld of the gangster Dexter Styles.
Egan’s style is crisp, well-researched and yet poetic when necessary. Balanced in approach, one doesn’t get a nostalgic feeling for this period, but rather a view of it as if through a veil. The story unfolds, characters slowly discover things and we get to see something we haven’t been able to see.
The sea – riding upon it, staying alive in it, walking in divers gear and trying to see through it – plays a significant role in this work and yet it, like the war in the distance functions more as a powerful medium for the development of the characters.
By contrast, the plumbing of Egan’s characters – their thoughts and emotions buffeted about by war, crime and sea change – is lucid and clear. Egan is excellent at interior monologue and reflection by her characters. She gets at rooted feelings with wide-open eyes. This often results in gorgeous passages.
The story includes a brilliantly imagined voyage on a merchant marine vessel named the Elizabeth Seaman. The nod to Nellie Bly goes unmentioned, a subtlety at which Egan is graceful – letting history fall into place where it belongs.
Egan captures the longing and isolation of Eddie Kerrigan, in his stateroom 47 days at sea, suddenly gripped by the notion that he has forgotten the face of his beloved –
” – could hardly picture her anymore. Faraway things became theoretical, then imaginary, then hard to imagine. They ceased to exist.”
Then, almost immediately, a torrent of thoughts pour through him about the first time they met, about her children and their times together. Finally he concludes,
“It was all still there, everything he’d left behind. Its vanishing had been only a trick.”
The story here, of a child and father separated by fateful decisions who alternate between avoiding and seeking one another out, is woven expertly and filled with surprises that emerge, unfolding until events feel inevitable. That’s good storytelling. The characters have a weight and realness to them because they endure and grow. There are deaths and children and gangsters and action.
But the story takes place in a different America, a different New York and it’s glaring on occasion. Characters deliberate over ethically conservative matters with earnestness but it never escalates. How women are perceived, how abortions and unwanted children are handled; these matters are described but never raise up into full blown issues. Racial hierarchies are described with the vernacular of the day: “micks,” “wops” and “Negroes” but racism never emerges enough to be addressed as an issue. It’s just how things were is the feeling one gets.
Manhattan Beach faithfully portrays some Brooklynites, in particular Irish-American, Italian-American and Naval families during World War II and an era of transition from a more sexist, racist and somewhat naive past just up to the doorstep of a future we live in today.
I review without spoilers, so I’ll conclude by saying Manhattan Beach is a great book. New Yorkers will love it and Egan will be helped during awards season by that. But more, I enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s language – lovely turns of phrase – and her character’s introspections. She has managed to create a compelling tale from immense research.
How many have read all of Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Cixin Liu in the 11 years since The Three-Body Problem was first serialized in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World?
How many have read it only in English?
Wie viele Leute haben Gesamtheit dieser Trilogie nur auf Deutsch gelesen? 有多少人用中文读完整本三部曲 ?
I ask because having just finished the trilogy in English as published by Tor in New York – The Three-Body Problem (2014), The Dark Forest (2015) and Death’s End (2016), translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen – I wonder if many people stuck with it all the way through. I’m eager to converse with those who have. In any language:
For full disclosure, I worked very briefly as a freelancer at TOR in 2001, but I have no relationship with them. I ordered each volume to my local branch of the public library, received hardbacks in an orderly fashion and read the three this May.
These were released in English in 2014, ’15 and ’16 but I binge-read it all as one novel. I get the feeling many people who finished the first book, didn’t read the second because it wasn’t released until a year later.
My reviews of Book One and Book Two were written as introductions – spoilers are at a minimum and I give readers suggestions to assist translation.
If you have not read any of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, I recommend you read those two reviews before continuing here.
Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Cixin Liu
I’m not a scientist. I’m not formally educated in computing or astrophysics or chemistry or astronomy or biology or nano-science or any of the disciplines Cixin Liu uses to sustain his startlingly creative projection of humanity hundreds of years and eventually hundreds of million of years into the future.
The consumption of this work is about the STEM level of people in China, India, Europe, and the United States of America – where STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Math. You have to have proper education in these disciplines to comprehend and indeed to enjoy this work.
I struggled to put together the science, but I was continually amazed by the thought Liu put into his fantastic inventions and conceits.
In Death’s End, humanity uses hibernation and near-light-speed travel to extend human consciousness millions of light-years across space and hundreds of millions of years into the future. This extends the philosophical reach of the first two volumes exponentially.
This trilogy is intellectually complex work that starts with the highest current levels of technology, imagines liberally and then sustains a creative and technical specificity that pushes wide the willing suspension of disbelief. The technical creativity got so immense I stopped doubting the science.
It was exhausting.
During Book One I started taking one Extra-Strength Tylenol™ roughly every 150 pages to deal with headaches. This continued until I finished the trilogy this morning.
It was educational.
I learned more hard science from a work of fiction than I have in decades. I ended up re-learning the basics of astronomy and physics, of chemistry and biology that I had let fall aside. Liu’s scientific and technological detail is great for re-firing dusty synapses concerning cosmology and for grasping a view of our universe with rich scientific ideas and creative philosophies.
It was exhilarating.
Liu’s seemingly inexhaustible imagination kept providing new ways of thinking about us as human beings or about various disciplines. He takes on huge issues of science and then drills down on the tech. He takes on philosophy with a handful of characters and large masses and manages to capture so many human qualities and conundra. He then pushes these as far as he can, exploring an immense range of human responses to conditions I’ve never – and perhaps nobody’s – ever considered.
From the standpoint of strategic and military thinking these books have a freshness that seems composed not from any one culture’s way of thinking about conflict – not Chanakya’s nor Sun-Tzu’s nor that of Von Clausewitz nor Machiavelli – but rather from gathering ways all humans have acted and reacted to this point, pulling it together, and then shoving forward en masse to address how we would struggle among ourselves to deal with his imagined future contexts: extra-terrestrial invasion, mundicide, global annihilation, solar annihilation, the annihilation of the universe itself.
This is a huge reach and there are problems with it.
I noticed often that I’d think of a strategy from human history that could be applied or a way we approach a problem that Liu doesn’t include in the discourse. It made me feel like he hadn’t really covered all the bases before launching into a new direction.
The result is a feeling that Liu is continually guiding us through the narrative by what his characters thought of and how they reacted not necessarily the totality of human possibility.
This bothered me, but then it made a deeper sense. History is composed of how people act and react in a moment and what flows from their decisions. This work does read like human history told from the very distant future.
Creatively that’s astonishing. Cixin Liu is bold and dares to imagine how we’d think and act and then tries honestly to faithfully represent us in his wild future.
It’s important to note I could rationalize the many different approaches that characters took in the works and decisions they made. Liu is exceptional at projecting a wide range of human flaws and brilliance into the way the characters move this thing along.
It lead me to realize how compartmentalized my own thinking of humanity is. My biases about the Chinese were revealed many times as I read Remembrance of Earth’s Past.
I want to be clear and honest about this as a means of discussing translation of the work. I’ve read that the German translation has been considered more faithful to the original. I wonder if that’s about differences between English and German and/or Chinese.
I’m eager to write more and to discuss with anyone who has read the complete trilogy. As usual I’ll update this post here over the next day or two, so look for a final version in a couple of days, but I must stop now.
Remembrance of Earth’s Past, the trilogy, by Cixin Liu
My mind has been expanded significantly by the first two books of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. The scale and scope of the undertaking is truly on par with the greatest science fiction I’ve ever read. Hard science and theoretical ideas run deep, but remain very human and rational.
It’s a syncretic hyper-extension of the way we think and behave pushed into a highly orchestrated future that requires deep conceptualization to imagine.
Comparisons to Asimov are apt.
Cixin Liu boldly describes human culture and philosophy facing impending first contact with an alien race that has advanced technology with a richness of supposition and detail that captures a wide range of human emotion and response. He does this with very few characters and an elaborate, all-encompassing style. The details are exceptionally well thought-out.
The setup incorporates the vast distances in space and a nuanced portrayal of human society dealing with an enemy about whom little is known and who will not arrive to attack for hundreds of years.
I am continually taken aback at the breadth of this work. Liu’s narrative is centuries long. It’s on the scale of James Blish (Cities in Flight) or, as has been noted, Frank Herbert (Dune).
While humans invent cryogenic hibernation and a space armada and other standard responses of sci-fi to deal with this situation, there are unique circumstances.
The sophons, a pan-dimensional use of protons that travel across space, arriving at Earth to unfold and manipulate our reality, was a mind-blowing central concept of The Three-Body Problem. In Book Two, Liu posits Wallfacers and their companion Wallbreakers as a complex reaction to this tactic of the Trisolarans.
Since the Trisolarans can see, read and influence human behavior, the only safe space to shield anything from them is within the human mind. The Wallfacers are created and tasked with never writing anything down, never explaining what they do or why they do it to anyone. They embark on their plans to resist the Trisolarans independent of social and military planners. Wallfacers become the central pre-occupation of The Dark Forest. It is conceptually impressive and flourishes into a great plot.
The Trisolarans do not make any significant appearance until the climactic battle at the end of this volume and are peripheral players throughout. This allows Liu to explore humanity through the behavior – and responses to the behavior – of the Wallfacers in a way that is totally original.
So now Liu has to describe humanity’s initial response – filled with variety: those who give up, those who would fight, those who would defect to the enemy – and to posit the extension of all these reactions 200 years into the future.
It’s galactic in scale and all just a little hard to swallow by the time you get to the division of this book between Earth of the late-20th/early 21st century and human culture of the year 2200. But to Liu’s credit The Dark Forest is more human and relationships are deeper, more sensitive and believable.
Cixin Liu grew significantly as a writer between the two works. He takes on the psychology of humanity faced with the cosmic situation he has created and works through abstract philosophical responses to create a range of believable, if summarized, cultural changes in us.
I liked The Dark Forest better than The Three-Body Problem because Liu goes further to extrapolate his visions of how humanity behaves in the face of the complex circumstance he has created. He includes and fills-out more intimate reactions and attempts to create a broad image of us and how we react – intelligently but oh, so human.
The Wallfacer Project is the primary mechanism for this. That the story advances 200 years in a leap of human culture is the second. Without giving too much away, allow me to say that many of the characters manage to hibernate and emerge hundreds of years later which results in a fascinating conceit:
Liu convincingly describes near-future humans who have survived post-Trisolaran contact. They’ve endured The Great Ravine – an epic depression of global scale that reduced human population by billions – and an era that forced most cities underground. Their tech is smart.
But this future human society is confronted daily by waking up hibernators, characters we know and appreciate from our time, awakened on schedule to proceed with the ultimate plan of Earth’s defense. It creates a truly original relationship between us and our future selves.
In some ways Liu’s future human relationships are a near-perfect emulation of contemporary generational relationships between the Digital Generation and anybody over 40. The clunky 21st-century hibernators call them “kids” though they’re a highly advanced civilization.
The Dark Forest is considerably more about philosophy, politics and social and military strategy than The Three-Body Problem, which was more computing and science. But it’s pretty heady stuff.
All of it is headed toward first contact and when the 2000-spacecraft-strong armada of Earth finally meets the first craft from Trisolaris, the story doesn’t disappoint. So many previous steps have led to this moment in our narrative, they unfold like the petals of a blooming flower as the action explodes. The battle is a brilliant sequence.
We come now to a principle failing of this work. The conclusion of volume two is meant to bring a suspension at last to first contact, but the solution that achieves this was, to me, a disappointment. When it finally happens, I wondered why it hadn’t come sooner to us to approach the problem this way.
I’m obviously trying to critique here without giving anything away, so I’ll conclude with a metaphor from another saga.
I used to love trolling fans of The Lord of the Rings by saying, “Put the ring in a box. Give it to the Eagles. Tell them to drop it in the fires of Mordor. End of story in 20 minutes.” After all, the Eagles easily defeat the winged Fellbeasts of the Nazgul in the great war of Middle Earth, they’d have no problem getting by them to rid the world of the ring.
Sometimes a simple plot hole can take away the power of a saga, so you have to avoid it to go on, and to enjoy the ride.
I hate to say it, but when the final philosophical and cosmological play is made in the battle between Earth and Trisolaris – elaborate and complex as it is – I saw it coming.
I really, really want to elaborate with anyone who has read these two.
I embarked on The Three-Body Problem because a colleague considered it a cultural touchstone that occupies the moment between China and the Western world. I traveled in Chinese-speaking countries for many years, and know a little of the Chinese having studied there, but this is the first Chinese novel – sci-fi or otherwise – I’ve ever read, so I was curious how it would be.
The Three-Body Problem is Book One of Remembrance of Earth’s Past, a trilogy being marketed as a global phenomenon: the first major sci-fi novel out of China by “China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.” It received the Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award in 2006 and Three-Body Problem has been immensely popular among hundreds of millions of Chinese and a comparatively small, committed group of sci-fi readers internationally. It was originally published serially.
The English translation by Ken Liu (Tor, 2014) was nominated for a Nebula and Hugo Award for best novel – becoming the first translated novel to be nominated for a major SF award since Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in 1976. Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.
Translations of Books Two and Three were released in 2015 and ’16 and the Three-Body Problem movie is expected later this year.
The novel takes the late-1960’s, early-70’s as a launching point for a fictional narrative that bounces forward 40 years to look back upon it as history. The context for beginning requires some understanding of the temperament of China, then. I took footnotes seriously and in real-time. I kept my cell-phone or computer handy and spent a few minutes googling and reading about historical events and figures as I went along to aid the translation. It helps.
The main characters are mostly scientists – theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, a nanomaterials guy – or military strategists. This is highly intellectual hard science and military thinking. You have to know a thing or two about the state of contemporary knowledge in many disciplines or be willing to learn as you go. I think this would have been more enjoyable in the serial form. I got regular headaches trying to read and follow all this in massive novel form.
Keeping Google handy helps a lot with both the Chinese history and the science. Complex scientific theories and ideas are referenced liberally throughout. It’s apparent Cixin Liu, an engineer by trade, has an expansive and comprehensive understanding of many disciplines. His knowledge of computing, theoretical physics, astronomy and chemistry has bloomed into the books of Remembrance of Earth’s Past. I got headaches, but I learned a lot.
During the Cultural Revolution in China, a young woman, Ye Winjie, sees her father, a prominent scientist, killed before her eyes. Ye Winjie is profoundly affected by this and the brutal ignorance of the state and its ferverous minions. She grows up to be a scientist, herself, and is assigned to a remote radar telescope facility for a top secret project. She discovers scientists have revealed an alien culture in the vicinity of Earth’s next-nearest star, Alpha Centauri. A warning from the alien culture not to reveal Earth’s location for fear of invasion is unequivocal.
Ye Wenjie decides life under humanity is worse than worthless, headed for self-destruction, and, skillfully masking her intentions to gain the access necessary, she uses a massive radar dish and the power of the sun as an amplifier, to send a message across space, unilaterally inviting the aliens to come to Earth and take over. And so begins the saga between Earth and Trisolaris that will last hundreds of years.
Now two groups of people exist on Earth who know about the aliens, those who want to prevent them from coming and those who would aid them. We are are led in the narrative of those who would prevent them by a naive but inquisitive scientist and his gruff but lovable foil, an earthy cop who balances out the eggheads and help them push on.
Ye Winjie is a confined leader of those who would aid the aliens – called Trisolarans because they live on a planet with three suns. Yet she manages to connect with a disgruntled hippie who believes imperialist capitalists are carelessly destroying the world. He in turn inherits billions from his industrialist father, and together they create a small, committed force to help the aliens come to Earth to take over.
Meanwhile, the chapters concerning the Trisolarans are fast and heady. The unique structure of their system – a planet with three suns – results in rapid-fire changes described expertly in socio-philosophical and biological terms. It’s smart, interesting theoretical evolution.
The Three-Body Problem is a huge story with bold strokes, and lots of technical and philosophical ideas emerge from high concepts and hard science. A solid understanding of computing, physics, astrophysics, chemistry and theory is brilliantly at play here as the Trisolarans develop and indeed outdevelop us.
There are fascinating conceits:
the idea of dozens of physicists and scientists going mad because the physical universe itself flickers and communicates with them directly is terrifying, an idea that shakes the core of belief in what is real.
an alien culture less than five light years away has warped their specific consciousness through an elaborate and abstract intervention only they can observe with highly sensitive devices. It’s fantastic and explained through complex multi-dimensional chemistry.
having no machines, the Trisolarans construct a giant computer out of single individuals with flags – a massive human motherboard, with files of soldiers running as BUSes through it. It’s just so Chinese. But brilliant in the details of the construction.
While science makes this novel complex, by the time it all gets unraveled, including the complicated rationale of the humans who choose to collude with the aliens in their effort to take over the Earth, we are left with a basic story and simple characters executing a complex, tumbling plan toward Human and Trisolaran interaction. It’s a contact story that spans hundreds of years.
I was reminded of the devices of other sci-fi novels – the aliens use a video game to communicate with humans like in Ender’s Game, the rapid evolution of the Trisolarans reminded me of a story I read in the 80’s about life that forms on a pulsar.
The science and technology elevate this work more than the philosophy. There are clunky philosophical problems I associate as typically sci-fi that are exposed by the science, but it feels inhuman.
It’s sad and simplistic to accept a sane, highly educated person could give up on humanity unilaterally and gain access to the means to execute their betrayal. Isn’t it? It may sound sexist, but I couldn’t imagine a woman being the one to do it.
Once she commits the greatest universal act of betrayal in human history, Ye Winjie finds a community of supporters from cultures all over the world. Have we given up on ourselves so completely? It’s depressing.
This strikes me as a cultural question. Maybe it’s a collision of my mindset with contemporary Chinese or SF. The Chinese and the Trisolarans are foreigners to me here and Sci-Fi is my means of comprehending each, only abstrusely.
Conveniently, the Trisolarans live only four and a half light years away, so communications require just eight years between planets. Presumably in the next volume … we meet.
I finish what I start so I’ll review The Dark Forest, Volume Two of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past, next.
A glacial is thousands of years of cold temperatures and glacial advancement. The last glacial ended 15,000 years ago, and we’re told the epoch we’re living in now, the Holocene, is an inter-glacial period.
But the unprecedented speed with which the ice has disappeared over the last 100 years gives us pause.
Humans as a species are having an effect on global temperature and the ice. It is undeniable now there’s at least a chance the change is irreversible. So, some ask the academy and society at large to admit the dawn of the Anthropocene, an era in which the glaciers may never return.
The Holocene was so named for the most powerful force of the epoch, the sun. The Anthropocene declares we, humans, anthros, have surpassed the sun in our ability to affect the planet. Some conservatives and capitalists who don’t want to take responsibility for what’s happening as anything different from anything that has happened in the past, say to call it the beginning of the Anthropocene is jumping to conclusions.
The story of three generations of a family are nothing to a glacier.
But historical records exist, and the stories your great-grandma told your grandma, your mom and you about the world are passed down. The oral tradition which has guided the entirety of human advancement for generations passes information down hundreds and thousands of years.
What if you could interview generations living in the Arctic Circle over the last several decades – this critical time – about what they’ve both seen first hand, and the stories they’ve been told for centuries?
There’ve been some humans who have gone northward a little ways and made some progress, but undeniably the greatest authority in the vast glaciated north are the polar bears who have roamed the ice and seas for thousands of years.
The last 100 years has brought them into contact with us humans, which is how it is possible, Yoko Tawada informs us prosaically in Memoirs of a Polar Bear, that we come to know them just a little bit.
It’s a gorgeous expansion of that little bit that makes this a magical novel.
This slim, beautiful biography of three generations of polar bears living not at the North Pole, but among us – in Russia, Germany and Canada between the 1960’s and today – uses an ethereal, intermingling of human and bear to tell it. In Tawada’s work, exceptionally sensitive humans and very particular bears can communicate profoundly and with feeling.
It amazes me how she creates this delicate balance between what we can understand and what we cannot and what the bears can and cannot grasp. The intersection of human and bear is deliberately an imperfect and haunting space, like any introduction between species at an equal level demands. It makes this book completely inhabitable.
Yoko Tawada was born on March 23, 1960, in Tokyo and studied Russian literature at Waseda. She moved to Germany when she was 22 years old in 1982 – seven years before the fall of the wall.
In her new country, she received a Masters in contemporary German Literature at Hamburg before completing a Doctorate in German literature at Zurich. She writes in German and Japanese and in 1987, she published Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts—Anata no iru tokoro dake nani mo nai (A Void Only Where You Are), a collection of poems in a German and Japanese bilingual edition
And then the wall fell.
I have not read anything else by Tawada except this novel, which comes to me because New Directions published it and Susan Bernofsky translated it. But her wholeness of composition is staggering.
The three parts of this novel are incredibly different and yet weave together perfectly to tell not only the stories of the bears but of all of us as we have gone through what we have experienced these last 60 years.
The grandmother polar bear who begins the story has no name. She mothers Tosca, who not only has a name, but has the ability to engage and relate across continents. Tosca in turn births Knut, whom she rejects, so he is raised by us. It is an amazing idea.
The history of the Soviet Era is held in the grandmother, then the era of change – the end of the Cold War – in the telling of Tosca, and the sad withering of our culture into a global conglomeration bereft of deep and important memories of our past in Knut, a real-life polar bear, who captured the hearts of Europeans and Russians just ten years ago, in the Aughts, and whose history you should only google, read and learn about after you’ve read this novel.
The connection between us and the bears, that of our Class, mammalia, is here explored with compassion and interspecies love. I was completely enamored with Tawada’s use of what it means to be a mammal as a means of connecting us to another species as opposed to separating us from other mammalia. We don’t have kinship with bears, we have mammalian-ship with them. Genius.
But more than capturing what little exists of the understanding between us and the polar bears, Tawada has captured the predominant feeling of post-neoliberalism: the feeling of no place, of having no memory that will last, of how much history is disappearing into the sands, or melted seas, of time.
This is a visionary expression of a contemporary crisis that few have yet fully grasped: placelessness. The placelessness of those whose place is being taken away and the placelessness of those who have lost the ability to feel place – bears and humans respectively – is metaphoric for much human experience in the last 60 years: immigrants, refugees, citizenship, culture.
The bears as metaphors for a sensible understanding of what has actually been going on, remind me of the metaphors for what actually existed that reside in the works of oppressed Soviet writers. Amidst climate change deniers and global warming warriors, Tawada takes a sensitive approach to make us at least observe faithfully.
I’m a creative person who is the child of scientists. My father was one of the greatest sulfur chemists of the 20th century and my mother was a physics and pharmacology educator and researcher for decades.
Art and music and writing is my genetic code, while my environmental education and upbringing was always one of deep and proper science. The latter influenced me to be rational and theoretical and to question and wonder about our world, my life. The former, to be social and to feel the world, to dance and to get high. So perhaps I’m biased in my reading of Boyle’s particularly incisive view of the scientists who are the main characters of The Terranauts. But let me tell you, it’s great.
It takes a lot of sensitivity and prosaic power to get inside the hearts and minds of people locked up together in an intense project, a collaborative effort of scale, or a prison, and express that faithfully. You really have to go through experiences like that or understand how working together happens in a deep way to attempt something like this. You have to understand people, socially and personally. Boyle does.
In The Terranauts, T. C. Boyle has invented an immense human project, populated it with entirely believable characters and embarked on a plumbing of their emotional and physical landscape with such brilliant detail, I find myself taken aback at the effort and his skill pulling it off.
His description of the technology of the Terranauts’ sealed-glass home in the desert is so vivid in detail down to the workings of the structure itself and including the flora and fauna – in some instances even described with Latin nomenclature in such a way as to feel beautiful – that I had to remind myself this place does not exist.
The pleasure I got from the contemplation of plants, animals and weather ‘inside’ by his characters is distinctly due to Boyle’s sensitivity, rooted in research and built with great prose. His descriptions of the emotional aspects of the scientists’ relationships to their subjects as well as to their co-workers is equally nuanced but even bolder.
The comfort Boyle has developed in delving into human sexuality here reveals an honest portrayal of our superficiality more than our capacity for love. But it isn’t cold.
Science is calculating.
Yet, there is so much of that capacity for love displayed – in the love of a scientific subject, or for the idea of team, or for loyalty as a badge of love. Even the subtleties of friendship and the complicated feelings that tie people together are handled exceptionally here.
This is a faithful portrayal of the emotional landscape of men and women put together for two years separated from us all, and Boyle has created a believable continuum that speaks to everyone about how we act.
T.C. Boyle gets us. His characters over the years are always like people I know or meet along the way. Here he throws four men and four women together separated by only inches from a half dozen of their friends, colleagues and lovers for two years solely for the purpose of expressing intimacy. It’s an incredible conceit seen vividly through.
Employing the style of first-person chapters collected together to do the telling works because of Boyle’s talent for briskness of plot. Though I don’t generally love the format, here it lets Boyle expand inner monologue, the guts of people’s feelings in confession, post-facto, as scientists would … really as anyone would.
Confessing after the fact, telling the truth and letting it out feels so good. It’s a really cool way to unreveal the “True Story of the Terranauts!”
The arrangement of these chapters and points of view is beautiful construction. The first-person chapters are woven in a way of telling the tale that seems complete, unfettered, whole. And it happens progressively.
It doesn’t take long to feel a part of this ecosystem and, once you’re in, you’re equally concerned as the characters as to whether the goats are getting fed or whether there are any tilapia left. You’re equally worried about O2 levels.
The characters are genuine, believable and, confessing their relatable flaws, they’re likable. Those who seem initially like obnoxious foes or nemeses go through transitions and humanize while the flaws of protagonists are openly dissected and brought down to earth.
My emotions changed towards characters and so I felt a part of the immense human enterprise. Like I was on the team, in the dome or at Mission Control, not some dopey tourist staring through the glass on my way to the Grand Canyon. Brilliant.
In retrospect the archetypal quality of the characters is resonant. The details make Boyle’s ecosystem a deeply human environment of our typical longings, lusts, and desires met and unmet. The way we see each other in constrained circumstances relates clearly to how we behave in society and Boyle uses an incredible palette of language to achieve this. I could feel the soil of the Ecosphere between my toes. I wanted to hug Linda, hard.
And, I guess typically for me, I felt kinship with Vodge and Linda and Gretchen.
I thoroughly recommend The Terranauts to anyone with brains and a heart – or for that matter a penis or a vagina.
Way to go, T.C.
A Word on T.C. Boyle’s Utter Coolness
T. Coraghessan Boyle is truly a social writer.
I don’t mean socially-conscious. Or Socialist. Or that he seeks to influence or corral a group of readers in some direct manner.
I mean he’s a social being … and an excellent writer.
His ‘socialness’ is apparent on Twitter where I have enjoyed daily images of his routines – the morning, the egg, the paper, the rat – and of his various voyages. But recently I became one of the many readers/followers to whom he has replied. I was reading his novel Talk Talk, (Viking, 2006), and tweeted some friends about it including his handle and what? what? @tcboyle dipped in to the thread to comment. Turns out he’s totally personable on Twitter and comfortable discussing his work in detail. (More on Boyle’s tweets in my review of Talk Talk).
So last week when I picked up his latest novel, I tweeted to tell him I was starting The Terranauts … and he responded! It was crazy. You can see the exchanges @mtksf. His openness and ease daily with his readers or the public or whatever twitter followers are, strikes me as pretty unusual for a novelist of his stature. I mean, he’s just so cool.
After 15 novels and dozens of short stories and collections, a bibliography of 25+ works, numerous national awards – the guy’s a prolific American man of letters – he still takes time out to hang with his twitter followers. Blows my mind. Though I shouldn’t be surprised. The one time I met him, pre-twitter in 2004, at KPFK in Los Angeles, he was totally present and easy-going, too.
He works at his discipline, teaches it, and is un-self-conscious enough to engage with his readers as a regular person. I can only conclude T.C. Boyle is as great a guy to hang out with as his novels are.
The originality of the structure of Lincoln in the Bardo immediately sets George Saunders’ debut novel apart. It’s composed of stacked lists of quotations attributed to the souls occupying Oak Hills cemetery in the Georgetown section of our nation’s capitol in 1862; to the President at the time, Abraham Lincoln, and to his son, Willie, recently deceased; and to the night watchman and manager of the cemetery, neighbors, historical figures and eyewitnesses to the events of the time.
I plunged into this work thinking these crazy quotes would continue for a few pages and then return to a normal third or first person narrative. Not only did they not, the form became its own sort of thing with hilarity and piety. The quotations interact, finish one another’s sentiments.
Saunders’ approach from his short stories in Pastoralia, where letters and notes and faxes between characters move plot and create conflicts, is here in fuller effect. This “debut novel” thus actually resides somewhere between the novella and the norm of long-form fiction. Almost as if Saunders still isn’t ready to write one of those “novel” things.
It was initially off-putting because pretty quickly quotes from real historical sources reside in equanimity with a tumbling invention of the thoughts of the dead.
The first time several quotations are used to describe the same person and there are wide disparities implying unreliable reportage, forcing the reader to flip back-and-forth to separate quotes from actual historical texts from made-up ones, it’s a hilarious reminder that we’re in a novel, and it doesn’t matter.
Fiction and Non-fiction swim together.
In the mid-90’s, in San Francisco, it was the fashion among serious young (read: unpublished) writers like me to read the postmodern fiction of structuralists like Harry Matthews, the only American member of the Oulipo, with great love. The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle bears consideration in advance of talking about Saunders as constructionist.
There is a confidence and ease I love about George Saunders. He really is in command of his craft. With this form, within a matter of a few chapters, you are in his world. If a person were to come over to you and look over your shoulder while you’re reading this novel, it would look to them like insane gibberish.
Saunders’ effort is totally original but like Matthews and the Oulipo before him, uses structure to train you into his narrative – isolating you from being able to “tell” this book.
It was immediately apparent an audio book of this work is basically impossible without dozens of actors and a unique method for attribution, audibly. It’s another thing, a book.
I wonder how the e-versions look/read?
Once aboard, the form establishes a rhythm and momentum that sends this richly imagined exploration of death, life and loss, forward with vigor.
The historical facts surrounding the 16th President and the death of his son at the White House and the Civil War that raged with the nation’s history in the balance are the nest in which Saunders crafts a re-imagining of purgatory. He does so to examine our sense of purpose and meaning – in life and after death.
But rather than a staid, dusty exploration of our historical understanding of the deaths of the time, Saunders populates his work with real people – everyday people who lived and died normal and un-extraordinary lives, filled with sins and loves and hates and pettiness. It is part of his charm in the short form that his characters are easily believable and admirable for their flawed, utterly human qualities. They are our guides to the mind of our beloved Lincoln, and nation.
Saunders’ exceptional understanding of people and compassion for their desires, dreams and regrets is again on display as this diverse collection of souls from many walks of life reveal themselves and the stories of their lives.
The population of the cemetery includes slaves but the book fails to really plunge into the national sin. I read a review that felt the opposite, that the recrimination and oppression of the slaves in the cemetery by the whites was clearcut and evocative, giving voice to the horror, but it was disappointing to me.
As I reflect on the role the slaves do play, it is once again as from a position of rectitude, to be able to look back at slavery and racism to contain it in the national narrative.
There are some serious and violent points of intersection between the black and white population of the cemetery and one particularly poignant one never ends, an eternal struggle. But I can’t help but feel this could have been developed. Slaves and masters in the same cemetery, with only the masters in marked graves, seems a rare territory and an opportunity to explore racism more deeply.
The conceit does fruit into a tangential reference into Lincoln’s conclusions on the matter, conclusions that led to years of bloody war over ending slavery. This book isn’t about that though, nor about the civil war.
It seems to be about how we, all of us, think of ourselves and our lives more than Lincoln or anyone else in 1862 does. It seems to be about how we think of our lives in advance of, and even after, death – whether it’s the death of someone we know or ourselves. In that, Lincoln in the Bardo succeeds with sensitivity and compassion.
Saunders understands un-requite, failure, desperation and the longing we all feel. He also knows how to craft this understanding into an incredibly direct narrative. It’s amazing.
Apparently he has said about his process that the narrative tells him how long it is to be, what it is to be. In this case it became something wondrous.
I am left with so much after this novel. I find I cannot describe it very well. It’s like a magician’s deception. What you find within is worth much more than the conceit.
It is clear though, the magician knows his audience inside and out.
I have always been a romantic, despite the cruel human stupidity deteriorating this world.
I have seen and read and loved a lot and come to know the pain of it and of cynicism. I have come to appreciate Dorothy Parker and Bob Dylan. I have fought to resist the patina of the produced and to stare long in pursuit of a realistic understanding. Yet, I have always believed and fight still to believe in beauty, nature, goodness, harmony and love. I am not yet completely jaded. Hence I remain a romantic.
Even now, despite my age, I look upon a woman I find attractive from a distance and, knowing nothing about her, still think, “what if we are perfect for each other, in some way.” 50 years of living on this earth has dampened my spirits and broken my heart, but not ultimately my belief in the possibility of love.
But when people ask me what I want to write about, I’ve given the same response for decades: my interest is literary fiction about real relationships and people. I like the ability of a great writer to honestly capture what goes on between people in states of profound intimacy as effectively as the interior dialogue within them.
And the truth is, little of the best of this writing is romantic. The best is at turns cynical, petty, harsh and loving in ways that seem impossible to describe … until someone does.
I would give Kawabata as my first and greatest example. Then perhaps Kundera. You could add Hanif Kureishi to that list and now yet another K – Ismail Kadare.
Aksidenti, by Ismail Kadare was written in Tirana, Albania in 2008 and translated into English as The Accident in 2010. It is a haunting exploration of love, lust and desire wrapped into the puzzling investigation of a car crash.
From this seemingly simple conceit, Kadare weaves the pieced-together tale of two lovers, composed of the evidence and actualities that surrounded them. Untrustworthy depositions mingle with contradictory ones and the use of language amazes and delights as the story tumbles along, revealing unrequitedness, jealousy and the power game of love.
The first time I ever heard of Kadare was on a flight returning from Maine to New York City in August of 1999. I had taken a sailing trip up the coast of Maine for nine days with two close friends and I used the opportunity to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace the first time.
On the flight home, I had my tray table down and my journal out as I was making notes on the text. I pulled out the Tolstoy to copy some quotes from it and the man seated next to me noticed it. “Ah, Tolstoy!” he said, and as I turned to him he covered one of his eyes with one palm, stared at me through the other, and exclaimed, “Kutozov!”
It was an instantaneous connection over the scene in War and Peace in which the one-eyed general Kutozov is approached by a foot soldier who has come to ask for orders only to hear from the wizened general that it doesn’t matter what they do, that the orders, like the battle itself, are irrelevant.
The man seated next to me had a bushy mustache, thick black hair, and a slight Eastern European accent. He could have been Russian, but was more likely Czech or Hungarian or perhaps from one of the former Yugoslav Republics, which were then in the throes of separation and even dissolution.
The man put his hand down, looked at me and then asked, seriously, “Have you read Kadare?” When I shook my head no, he continued, “You must. He is the greatest living writer.” Which is how I began my exploration of this Albanian who has since won the inaugural International Man Booker Prize and is perennially a candidate for the Literature Nobel.
The Accident is first and foremost a puzzle of an investigation, but the story is about retroactively composing the last weeks of the lovers, Mr. Besfort Y. and Rovena, tossed from a taxi that “veered off the airport autobahn at kilometre marker 17.”
Kadare effortlessly moves between third and first person accounts in chapters that take off in different directions, leaving the reader to catch up. But once you do, he delivers a deep understanding of human emotions expressed directly. He is clever and precise in his method of setting you up to grasp what he is trying to say about us and the way we love or treat one another.
I had to flip back several times to remember things and put things together, but rather than being a nuisance or distracting, it became charming – as though I, too, were involved in this elaborate investigation and as if I might be the one who ultimately sees the truth.
Kadare doesn’t insult the reader. It is so great. He ‘hup-hups’ the reader to stay abreast, hiding important facts of the case in everyday accounts only to have them remembered later and tossed and turned all about. The puzzling elements are crisp and Borgesian, while the emotional landscape of this relationship and its satellites of love are raw, detailed and exceptionally written.
There is so much feeling in the human relationships, described nakedly and with stark eloquence, that I found myself thinking once again how much is lost to me by being in the United States. The relationships in our books are so narrow and empty of emotional range.
More and more it is because we are becoming flat and superficial. Americans on dates talk about tv shows, movies, stuff and money. We are fast becoming the kingdom of porn stars and prudes working in concert to confuse a society increasingly incapable of understanding true love or what meaning is.
Ismail Kadare’s love story or lust story or death story or whatever this is, is much more full than even real everyday loves in the United States, an incredible book.
I am glad Bob Dylan won the 2017 Nobel, but I must say, I am increasingly with the crowd favoring Kadare to win it soon.
My history with Salman Rushdie is unknown to him I’m sure, but beyond reading as much of his work as I can over the years, it also includes at least one performance piece in San Francisco in the 1990’s and at least one letter I actually sent him through his agent when I was working in New York and dated a woman who worked for his publisher in the early aughts. Pretty sure he never got it though.
After the fatwa was placed on his head, the performance piece was that -as a young writer living in SF and helping give birth to the non-profit resource Media Alliance – I had a button which read “I am Salman Rushdie” and wore it out and about while he was in hiding as an act of solidarity.
The button was particularly more effective on me than my peers – mostly white and black Americans – because I’m Indian and so perhaps could have appeared to be him to someone ignorant of his age.
And stupid enough to think he’d be wearing a button declaring himself who he was in public.
It reminds me of John Lennon in that way, another Brit liberated and enthused by the teeming creative humanity of New York.
I think creative immigrants falling in love with the US can be compared and contrasted with others for whom it is the same, but never to me – for mine has been a continual, slow falling out of love with the place.
I wouldn’t speak for Rushdie with regard to his beliefs of course, but his facile use of language to allow characters to wrestle over the aspects of God or the legitimacy of the same exhibits an intellectual courage I, as an atheist, admire profoundly. And upon finishing this book it struck me:
If an atheist writes a fairy tale and it comes out seeming very much like the fantastic stories of all our religions, what does that mean?
I am reminded of Anatole France in this regard. By the end of Penguin Island is it really something else? I mean, is that us as humans staying in touch with our it? Two Years Eight Months Twenty-Eight Days has that quality in the form of its frame story – as if told from the distant future. (these guys also immediately brought to my mind the tall blue aliens of the far distant future in Spielberg’s, A.I., – my imagination is so dense with shit).
This book has all Rushdie’s expertise of craft – voluminous, tumbling wondrous language and ideas of fantasy worlds and people and non-people. It’s a tumult of musical and thunderous sentences, some of which run on for pages.
His mastery of the third person remains impressive because aspects seem omniscient – even Godly – while others are so human or somewhere in between, yet he never allows the authority of any hierarchy to intercede in the power of the narrative. The story demands to be itself despite all religions or deities or men or women who may exist within it. Even the ‘We’ in the frame story admonish themselves for editorializing.
But it is more pop now. And at times the veil between author and subject slips.
I am sure, after having lived there myself and knowing something of its temperament, being an international celebrity in New York comes with demands for new language. Rushdie’s now includes a clear love for the city and its cultural community. It is the basis for his exuberance.
In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days, Rushdie imports his beloved Thousand Nights and a Night to Manhattan and Queens and the Staten Island Ferry and proceeds to weave and reweave it into contemporary New York City and beyond.
Using simple abbreviations for countries abroad drawn in loose terms now – a secondhand where”A,P and I,” are Afghanistan, Pakistan and India or in which ancient sites of the Bible or Koran are described tangentially through the mechanism of the stories within stories that make up this telling, there’s still a clear association for Rushdie now with neoliberal, Obama-and DeBlasio-leaning New York as much as with Harry P., Das Racist and metropolitan culture.
And because his works are contemporary in skein if not in the whole of the yarn, fantastic stories and language emerge which create – perhaps utopically – a secular and liberated future beyond religion that is ultimately modeled after the best interpretation of New York City’s teeming admixture of humanities.
But something is missing – not teeth, there’s plenty of teeth in just one of his terrifying djinni to suffice – and the spin on Goya’s Saturn was epic. But I mean … there is a comfortableness in Rushdie here that makes this work, ultimately, light. A fairy tale. And reading it as such, I loved it. But felt it doesn’t turn the corner on cultural critique. It resides where you expect it might, entertaining and at times thrilling anyone who appreciates flights of fancy.
I followed the success of this book with interest, remembering that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man won the National Book Award for fiction in 1950 and The Color Purple by Alice Walker did in 1983, both works I respected, but that since, African-American writers have been absent as victors. It is impossible not to think of the farce of the Oscars and other cultural awards when 34 years go between the appearance of anyone black on a list such as this.
Here is a historical fiction on the implementation of pre-Civil War slavery at the peak of the slavers repression of the slaves – the era when a few men of conscience were freeing slaves and encouraging states to outlaw the practice. Running away was working.
It is thus set at the time when repression was at its most savage; when slaving whites were afraid of uprisings and cracked back with an orgy of violence to send the message of their superiority.
Whitehead has a crisp tone and a direct manner, writing in the third yet exhibiting effortless shift of vantage, moving between the runaway slaves Cora and Caesar and the tumbling, ever-pressing posse of those who would catch and sell or kill them – led by the relentless Mr. Ridgeway – as well as a cast of characters that surround and support or seek to destroy the railroad.
In Whitehead’s telling the railroad is real and mechanical and underground, belching and speeding through darkness shielded from the stars and thus to who-knows-where with intense purpose or driven by the hand of a wild-eyed refugee pumping a pushcart through the narrowing and darkening hole to the point of exhaustion to escape her pursuers.
The book is brutal because the era is brutal and the telling is matter-of-fact about events that are a stain upon our national character – eugenics experiments alongside the horrifying comfort of those who laughed and skipped and played as they lynched, raped, burnt to a crisp and whipped to death. It is all here laid bare, written without sentimentality. I understand the book took Whitehead a decade and a half to write and the work is apparent as the narrative careens forward, northward, zigs toward unknown locales, zags to known others.
In some ways Whitehead’s craft in this book reminds me of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. I am not sure how I mean that except to say writing on matters that are so difficult to describe for their savagery requires a deft hand, an honest heart and a razor-sharp mind.
This is fine work – a worthy National Book Award winner – and I agree with those who believe all Americans should read it.
A deaf woman’s perspective written by a hearing man, this post is about discovering a T.C. Boyle novel from 2005 I hadn’t read called Talk, Talk, one of the most amazing feats of fiction I’ve read in some time.
I’m a big fan of Boyle but can’t keep up with his production, which is fast and furious. (I still haven’t read his current novel, The Terranauts).
In Talk, Talk, Boyle uses both language of the hearing and of those without to describe with startling precision the perspective of his main characters, a deaf woman and her hearing boyfriend. It is a complex landscape of communication that includes layers of perspective – people watching them sign to each other or the subtle differences in their own use or avoidance of sign or spoken language.
Boyle’s precision in describing the complicated dialogues taking place between the characters amazed me. He seamlessly enters the realm of the non-spoken we all share, e-mails and texts, where there is no distinction between the hearing and those who cannot. In fact, he empowers his characters with a beautiful countering of language for language.
The novel is essentially a road novel in which the driving force is an act of identity theft in which the perpetrator is a serially irresponsible and hateful user of others and the victim the aforementioned main characters.
From the police station encounter at the opening to the final showdown between the thief and his victim, the narrative isn’t that complex. It travels a good distance – from coast to coast – but it isn’t about the road. Somehow the landscape of the mindsets of the characters becomes more interesting than the plot. Their way of rationalizing and communicating is fascinating and sends this tale tumbling and careening down the road.
Subtle modes of communicating are revealed by Boyle’s process of how we talk to one another in extreme circumstances. When the final showdown between the thief and the woman finally occurs, after so much suspenseful haranguing and violent confrontation it ends with a pretty simple gesture – a shove.
I found out T.C. Boyle is on Twitter @tcboyle and is really active and generous about chatting about his work. He wrote to me when I complimented him about the novel, that the novel was about language itself.
Boyle writes so much of such high quality, it seems almost effortless and I asked him how he manages to be so productive and yet active on Twitter and giving talks and being social, something I find very difficult and he replied pointedly that writing is the thing he does, every day. He is active at the process.
It was a great reminder from a guy who when asked what suggestions he had for a young writer just starting out once replied, ‘come from a wealthy family.’
In San Francisco, in the Mission District, between 1993 and ’95, I read Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood. He was then only recently translated into English and popular in San Francisco.
Those early novels were unpredictable, well crafted and defied genre. Murakami’s talking cats, imploding houses, slight shifts in perception of reality – and his cool characters’ natural acceptance of deep, scalar trips through levels of that reality – became a genre of their own.
His characters and prose paralleled in literature the malaise, disaffection, vapidity and bored waiting game of the end of the 20th century and then transcended it with fantastic departures from the world. The ride was like manga without the images or a purely textual Miyazaki Hayao animation epic just for single, young adults.
I first read A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s third novel, written in 1982, in San Francisco when I was 25. It remains my favorite. I remember feeling incredibly small in the face of the universe as his characters were pushed around.
I have a reverent fascination with Japan and a profound respect for her people. In my lifetime Japan was the most Americanized among all Asian countries, so growing up in the US, I was allowed slightly greater exposure to her writers.
Among Japanese novelists, I’d read Kawabata since I was a teenager, and in university covered Mishima and Akutagawa. I hadn’t yet read the post-war existentialists, when I picked up Murakami. Banana Yamamoto’s Kitchen was the hot new wave hitting California from the land of the rising sun.
Murakami was immediately different: pop synthesis of West and East through a contemporary urban Japanese socio-cultural lens.
Haruki Murakami began writing novels at the age of 29, in 1978, and has told Bomb Magazine, “Before that, I didn’t write anything. I was just one of those ordinary people. I was running a jazz club, and I didn’t create anything at all.”
Wiki states he had a sudden epiphany during a baseball game:
In 1978, Murakami was in Jingu Stadium watching a game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp when Dave Hilton, an American, came to bat.
… in the instant that Hilton hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized that he could write a novel. He went home and began writing that night. Murakami worked on Hear the Wind Sing for several months in very brief stretches after working days at the bar. He completed the novel and sent it to the only literary contest that would accept a work of that length, winning first prize.
Now I’m 45 and Murakami’s 65, so we both remember 1984, the year in which his newest novel, 1Q84, is partially set. We have also both lived through an era that has seen the realization of some of the socio-cultural horrors described in George Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984, which 1Q84 uses as a sort of launching point.
My loudest use of Orwell’s work was on the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks, in 2002, as a performance element of the art installation US=THEM, in Los Angeles, I read Orwell’s 1984 aloud in its entirety in a book store gallery, beginning at 5:35am (the time the first plane struck WTC2) and ending just as the sun set on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado. I printed slap tags that read 2002=1984 and stuck them everyplace.
I was excited to hear Murakami was using Orwell as a point of reference, and assumed the work would have socio-political overtones. I hoped 1Q84 would be more openly political and less personally intimate than the love stories he’d been writing. I consider Orwell to have been ahead of his time, so I was biased by the title’s obvious reference.
The particularly Asian coolness and practicality of Murakami’s characters in every day life is inspiring. But from the first, I felt his work was limited by the use of first-person narrative, usually with a narrator who seemed very much like himself: a middle-aged Japanese man living in Tokyo and underwhelmed by normal existence.
Murakami’s male narrators, all roughly his age, made the work light-weight. His contemporaries in late-20th century fiction writing in and translated into English: Garcia-Marquez, Eco, Kundera, Bowles, Ondaatje, Atwood, Boyle, Kureishi, DeLillo, Roth, Rushdie, Oates, Bolaño didn’t succumb to this basic approach.
As a writer, I’d come to the conclusion that my fiction suffered from my inability to write effectively in third person. I was biased by instructors and Modernism away from the trend toward first-person narratives written for the Me Generation. Murakami had no such bias, and neither, it turns out, did the publishing industry.
Murakami was young when he began and was thrust into the international limelight very quickly because of the accessibility of his work and his remarkable imagination. He was rewarded for making it easy to read. He was rewarded immense audiences for his references to Western pop, to “classical music” and to the boozy freedom of post-modern urbanity.
Haruki Murakami’s narrators’ exceptional breaks from the normative were what thrilled – these crazy trips into the unreal experienced coolly by his characters.
As a straight, booze-drinking, single, urbanite in my twenties (pre-metrosexuals) Murakami’s meals, drinks and one-night stands were a blast, in some cases a relief from the moralizing of political correctness.
I have sometimes felt targeted by novelists. Some just succeed in getting it. I wouldn’t discover Pepe Carvalho until a decade later, but Spanish readers will appreciate the comparison to Montalban. We used to joke about a drinking game in which you take a drink every time a Murakami character does. It gets harder to finish the book.
I only begrudgingly got into Murakami’s use of Western cultural tropes as described within an East Asian urban society, which Murakami was “first-to” in terms of crossover, and which he uses abundantly like a signature.
As an Indian living in the U.S. and Asia, who studied Ronald Takaki then, this was unappealing, I hated what post-post-modernism was becoming. But by the late ’90’s crosshatching Asia and the West had flooded the field. Murakami and Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino and Miyazaki Hayao made it cool. Sensible. At last, Asians outside London and New York were exhibiting what Hanif Kureishi knew, was called insouciant for writing.
It was inevitable at the dawn of the Internet and the globalizing 21st century. Haruki Murakami, the runner, from the longest US-occupied part of Asia, Japan; the novice writing in Japanese, first-person about being single, urban and sexually liberated was the first high-reaching Asian to just go ahead and run with it. Straight into the 21st Century.
I’m generalizing, but proposing Murakami was the best-seller who embodied the literary trend toward first-person narrative form and made it cool for Asian writing to love the West. Rushdie’s Ground Beneath Her Feet, must’ve been influenced in some small part by what Murakami was carving out.
Initially turned off by the brazen professing involved in it, I began to embrace Murakami’s careful choices of European orchestral music and western movies, TV shows and pop songs appropriated to both metaphorize, translate and drive narrative on multiple tiers. But creatively it always struck me as an easy way to force structure.
I was least impressed by Norwegian Wood. It struck me as a soap opera written for a specific audience of romantics. So after finishing it, I passed on a few of Murakami’s books and embarked on other, pretty heavy, post-war Japanese novels: Dazai Osamu, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human; Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes; and Saiichi Maruya’s contemporary classic, A Mature Woman.
I returned to Murakami in 2005 with the publication of Kafka on the Shore, which was my summer read while living on a Japanese shore, in Kamakura.
Again impressed by the proficiency with language, I liked the poetics and the magical, even spiritual, feel, but I remained disappointed by what struck me as basically a first-person, relationship story. Murakami was still pushing western tropes through to the title page and writing less political, getting more pop.
That’s my experience with Murakami’s work. I am not qualified to review 1Q84 as anything other than a reader of novels for 30 years. I do not pretend to understand him as a man, nor have I read much about him or his method, barring what’s been published in the New Yorker here and there.
In some small part this will also be a discussion of the state of the publishing industry in 2012 which has carefully produced ‘Murakami, the technically proficient, edgy yet non-threatening Asian romantic fantasist’ into an internationally best-selling novelist.
Though I’ve lived in Japan, I cannot read Japanese and so have experienced all the Japanese novelists only in translation to English.
1Q84 – translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel – was published by Knopf as a massive, 944-page, case-bound Borzoi, with a vellum slip cover designed by Chip Kidd that lightly masks close-ups of two Japanese faces, a female on the front and a male on the back, on October 25th of last year (2011) and sold for $30.
I found one in great condition for $18 earlier this summer at one of the used book stores I help stay in existence. I finished it last week.
The paperback and e-versions have been available for some time now and I began to wonder whether this form of publication is ever really being read, cover-to-cover. The thing is a doorstop, a bookcase brace, a coffee table weight, but reading it’s awkward, heavy and very hard to conceal.
Lugging this anvil around the past few weeks, I was stopped and asked about it many times in the street. One guy stopped pedaling his bike, going up a hill to stop me and ask, “Is that the new Murakami?’ Is it good?” Waiters, bartenders and waitresses at all my local coffeeshops, bars and restaurants asked and showed anticipatory excitement about this big, pretty thing.
I was sure the novel was being read … but figured the vast majority of that reading was happening in multiple parts as separate books in paperback, or in a digital format. I’ve never wanted an e-reader more than in these past few weeks lugging around 1Q84, with its slippery vellum cover.
Which brings us to the design by Chip Kidd and to why it was sitting pretty, marked down 30% at the used bookstore within eight months of publication.
“But Knopf, which published the title late last month, has not only turned the book into a bestseller, it’s also managed to reverse another trend: it has made the book more popular in print than in digital.
“According to numbers released by the publisher, the novel, which was at #2 on the Times bestseller list on November 13, has sold 75,000 copies in hardcover, and 25,000 in digital. Those impressive print sales are thanks, in large part, to an extravagant package that Knopf put together that has made the book the kind of object–beautiful and collectible–that readers want. And, more than likely, non-readers also want.”
The design is horrible.
The lettering of the title is put on two lines so that the 1Q is above the 84, rather than written like a year: 1Q84. The result is that everyone who knows nothing about the book thinks its title is I.Q. 84 – which is hilarious and sad.
The vellum cover and the bold, sans-serif font make it worse. It’s so done-already. The design completely fails to help make Murakami’s connection between 1984 and 1Q84. (oddly, so does Murakami within, so perhaps it’s a case of too-good design)
The faces on the cover aren’t the author but face-models, and the vellum Kidd asked for that’s received so much praise, serves to mask their Japanese-ness, while retaining the sexy – fashion! haute couture!
The endsheets and chapter title pages continue the idiocy of separating the numbers of the title out, making it more disassociated than ever from Orwell. These pages are all black and white photographic backdrops of twilight and of the moon, which plays a significant role in the book, but though highly-stylized, they’re cheaply produced and the graphic elements aren’t even like the descriptions by the author within, which are specific about the appearance of the moon. Design sensibility invades literature again.
ugh. It’s whorish and stupid and has received nothing but praise and exaltation for Knopf and Chip Kidd for 8 months.
“the kind of object–beautiful and collectible–that readers want. And, more than likely, non-readers also want.”
In the late-’90’s when I was working as a low-wage proofreader, fact-checker, jacket-designer and researcher in the New York publishing industry while trying to get published myself, at nights and on the weekends I also worked to help found a non-profit artists book organization in Brooklyn.
It was bizarre: by day, I’d be using new digital tools to make mass-produced work flashier, more-designed, more image-oriented, less text-heavy, while at night and on the weekends I helped produce fine art books with traditional materials in limited edition.
The turn of the millennium in New York City brought the consolidation of publishing and birthed the end of the book as we know it. What happened with 1Q84 last year was that it was sold as a sculptural object to great success. They made it into something you could market at Xmas whether anyone read it or not.
But appreciating the work within is made more difficult by the immense distraction of these new marketing methods, which crowd the work with the gushing sycophancy of non-readers buying sculpture.
END PART ONE
PART TWO: 1Q84, Murakami Tries Third Person
1Q84 is Murakami’s first novel in third person. It succeeds in reaching for high ground, but weaknesses are revealed by the more difficult form. Some of these may be solely a result of translation issues, but whatever made it happen, at points it’s unbearable.
1Q84 is overwritten. It could easily be two-thirds the length. There may be perhaps no single person or department to blame for this.
It could be issues of translation. Having two different translators may have contributed to the repetition of ideas as each attempted to infuse their read. Throughout the work slipshod word choices are not just used but repeated awkwardly.
I hated the choice of the word “jacket” rather than “sleeve” for record covers. It isn’t wrong but it just sounds clunky in repetition – and the term is repeated within a paragraph without replacement when “sleeve” or “cover” would work so much better. The translation seemed rushed and simple. I presume this added pages.
It could have been a bad editor at Knopf, unwilling or unable to realize that when you publish three books in the same series from another language into one book sometimes there will be an absurd number of repetitions of basic points because when the work was originally published, these points were repeated to bring in new readers at each stage of publication.
I haven’t read any other reviews of this book, but I gather from the PW clip that this was the NYT’s problem.
It could be the fault of Knopf, itself, which seems to have rushed to shove the book out the door fast for Xmas season of last year, using cheap, flashy design to create a book to be sold as a sculptural object. They didn’t care what was in it as much as what was on it, what it looked and felt like. It could easily have been rushed for sales and cheated of the requisite time and effort required for editing and translation.
These possibilities notwithstanding, the responsibility for quality of the work lies with the author and Murakami’s attempt at third person results in common problems for anyone embarking on the daunting task of writing a proper novel: you must get inside the characters to let them live, but you mustn’t show you are inside the characters for them to live.
One sophomoric method used to achieve this for several decades is italics to represent the thoughts and inner monologues of a character. If it absolutely has to be done, then this is the accepted practice. Oh, I’m getting pedantic!I hope they’ll understand what I mean, that you should be able to write your characters into what you’re trying to convey and not have to rely on italicized font to tell the reader something important, oh, maybe I’m just nitpicking. M.T., you’re such an oppressive rationalist.
But just like the flashback has become nauseatingly common to drive narrative in movies since Pulp Fiction, usage of italicized thoughts has become standard in novels in third-person in this, the era of the first-person narrrative. It’s a failure on the writer’s part, or at least a CYA move. If you have to do it as a writer, you make it count.
Not so in IQ84.
Murakami’s discomfort with form leads to an unending parade of italicized thoughts. No character goes mentally uninvaded. Like the first-person narrative before, Murakami is shaking off rules again in this attempt at third-person narrative. This could be considered bold, I suppose, but not by me.
What was bold was the whole new dimension added when Murakami decided to have these characters thinking in italics about quotes. These sections are actually italicized and bolded. I don’t mean once or twice at climactic moments, but throughout the entire novel; nearly every character.
Murakami has characters read a number of different texts aloud to each other. This is in and of itself bizarre because references to existing texts, like Chekov could have been made “off-the-page” rather than being read aloud between two characters.
The point of using the Chekov could have been made in action, or through literary tactics, leaving the text itself as a support floating in literary space. In some cases these non-fiction texts are literally the full repetition of historical data as bedtime stories, simply so they can be referred to in future chapters – clunky. It’s also demeaning to readers.
In the case of notes read aloud between and within the minds of characters, Murakami doesn’t even let the note exist as the exchange. The note is quoted by a character within his or her own thoughts! Murakami and the translators use bold text within the italicized thoughts to display the character working out the meaning in their own thoughts. It’s either genius beyond me or annoying filler because you can’t convey what you mean.
The repetitions continue, almost as though when ‘occupying’ one character or another, Murakami has forgotten that another character has made a point … and so he repeats that point. At first, I thought this was because the book, like works of Murakami’s in the past, was going to get fantastically multi-layered and these would echo. But that never happens. It’s just repetitive.
1Q84 is also a little predictable, despite it’s imaginative elements. I saw the intersection of the lead characters Tengo and Aomame coming long before it was clear they were intertwined. I wondered if Tengo was authoring Aomame into existence, so I could see clearly through to Murakami himself.
I lay all of this at the feet of the shift to the third-person narrative. It’s hard to do. That is why I think Murakami is at mid-career despite having written so many novels and achieving such success. Murakami strikes me as a hard-working perfectionist who will likely tackle third-person narrative form again rather than shy away from it after a first-rate attempt. I look forward to his progress, and as usual, will be among the millions reading his flights of fancy.
I enjoy Murakami’s precise, technical prose, like describing a meal or a piece of music. I admire what Murakami does well: creating translucent, shimmering waves of realities that both define and filter how his characters perceive of reality.
I enjoy his detailed descriptions of events of the past – like war and post-war conditions, laden with contemporary attitudes about those events. Certain simplicities like descriptions of the natural world, Murakami just nails – his cicadas take me to Japan in summer:
Haruki Murakami continues to display a brilliant imagination and wild ideas. He weaves his plot streams together beautifully. Though some of the unpredictability has gone as a result of our familiarity with his tactics, Murakami has invaded our consciousness with his genre.
Unfortunately 1Q84 as it stands is too long, in parts very repetitious, somewhat clunky, and as a result, boring. I give it a 3 out of 5.
In Conclusion: The NY Publishing Industry’s Horrible Now
As I write these words from my home in California, the Nobel Committee prepares to announce its highly political and socially-influenced choices and the New York publishing industry is preparing to launch any number of new 1Q84s to push forward their bottom lines in this year’s Xmas season – some new sculptural objects whose contents are mostly recycled scraps and cardboard, rather than goose down and gold. Orwellian indeed.
For people living in California and Asia and with concerns about the works from these places, these two events in Scandinavia and on the East Coast of the US have little bearing. They have proven themselves wholly out of touch. While here and in Japan we fight to author a new world.
We must bring ourselves up out of what post-post-modernism and its failed capitalist globalism has wrought.
Read, read, read. Think, think, think. Enough with the gushing sycophancy – the world is headed down a dark road by our ignorance and selfishness.
As readers, we must demand better product; better editors, translators and deciders of what gets put into our hands.
Seek out authors from independent publishers, read blogs, comment.