April 2011 Reading: number9dream, The Last King of Scotland, The Harmony Silk Factory

number9dream by David Mitchell (2001)
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was one of those books that I thought was brilliant, until I spoke to a lot of cruel people who pointed out all of its flaws.  They ruined it for me a little bit, damn them.  Determined not to give up on Mitchell so easily, I decided to read one of his earlier novels.  Like Cloud Atlas, the novel flits through genres in an appropriately dreamlike way as we follow the story of a naïve Japanese boy, Eiji Miyake, facing life in the big city.  The plot, concerning his search for his father, is complex, and is interspersed by Miyake’s own fantasies, as well as extracts from a seemingly irrelevant and rather bizarre text that he is reading.  Thus the novel draws attention to the constructed nature of narrative, the dreamlike quality of fiction, and other such ‘postmodern’ concepts that make those who just want a good story squirm.
However, even as I recognised that some people might find this kind of novel frustrating, I was reminded of the three things about Mitchell’s writing that had engaged me before: his sense of humour, his depth of feeling and his incredible linguistic dexterity.  Maybe I am just a sucker for a deft turn of phrase or a startlingly fresh metaphor, but I even warmed to the hugely surreal ‘Goatwriter’ extracts, written by one of the characters, an author, to ‘warm up’ before she starts her real writing – yes, I am pretty sure Mitchell is just crowbarring his own fanciful scribbles into his novel, but they are funny, so I forgive him.  It may not be entirely consistent to have a goat, a hen and a prehistoric man running around in between Miyake’s encounters with Japanese gangsters, but it keeps things interesting.
And if you really weren’t a fan of Cloud Atlas, don’t read this, read Mitchell’s Black Swan Green instead.
The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden (1998)
On starting to read Foden’s novel, I found myself in the unusual and somehow shameful position of having seen the film first (shh!).  This meant that the book’s portrayal of Idi Amin had to live up to Forrest Whittaker’s Oscar-winning performance, and the protagonist doctor had to compete with James McAvoy.  No mean feat.
The book is very different from the film.  Foden’s style, which also characterises his World War Two novel, Turbulence, is scientific and detached, full of meticulous detail but strangely lacking in emotion.  Throughout the novel, Amin is a much more shadowy presence than he is in the film, largely absent from the narrative except at key points.   Amin’s deadly attraction is not so much implied by presenting him as a charismatic force of nature, but stated directly by the narrator, time and time again:
“Without question, there was something fascinating about him; a quality of naked, visceral attraction that commanded the attention, mustering assent, overcoming resistance – fostering the loss of oneself, or so it felt, in the very modulations of his voice.”
The idea that the cool, calm, formal doctor could ‘lose himself’ isn’t entirely plausible.  Nicholas isn’t a likeable character, and his attempts to excuse his actions are sometimes downright distasteful.  This changes the feeling of the book when compared to the film: instead of a happy-go-lucky, naïve protagonist who inadvertently gets in over his head, the novel’s Nicholas seems much more culpable.  When given the chance to explain himself, even in his own thoughts, he claims:
“a kind of mental speechlessness descends on me.”
This kind of emotional detachment on the part of the protagonist is also a feature of Foden’s (admittedly beautifully crafted) prose.  Personally, I would have liked a bit more feeling, a bit more mess.  Which is an odd thing to say about Amin’s Uganda.
The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (2005)
I have been playing it fairly safe with my reading this year – most of what I’ve read has been recommended to me.  So, in the spirit of mixing it up, I bought a book I had never heard of.  (Aside: how will this happen if the whole Kindle thing replaces books completely?  Do people ‘browse’ on Amazon in the way they do in bookshops?  Hmmm, more on that later, perhaps).
I’d like to say that my gamble paid off (not even that much of a gamble considering that The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread First Novel Award), but unfortunately I think I missed something with this novel.  It tells the story of a Chinese man, Johnny Lim, and his family in Malaysia in the 1940s (promising exotic location: check) and is divided into three parts, each narrated by a different character (interesting narrative structure: check).
After struggling for about a week to get into the novel (hence a slightly shorter reading list this month), and limping through the first two sections (narrated by Johnny’s son and wife respectively), I realised that my problem was that I really didn’t care about the characters.  Johnny is presented as a devil by his son, Jasper, and a pitiable wretch by his wife, Snow, (Aw is perhaps making a point about the unknowability of another person’s true character) both of whom are themselves entirely unengaging narrators.
Finally, in the last section, Peter Wormwood, the cantankerous old English ex-pat (a familiar breed) makes his bid as narrator, and at least manages to be quietly amusing, telling his companion, who believes that people are nicer in cold climates,
“I shan’t disabuse you of that notion […] If you are ever unlucky enough to find yourself in an English winter you will quickly learn the truth for yourself.”
However, Wormwood is relating the same events as Snow, and while it is kind of interesting to see them presented from another perspective, it does little to move the narrative towards any kind of conclusion.  I’d be really interested to hear from anyone else who has read this book – parts of it are beautifully written, but it left me cold.

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