August 2011 Reading: The Blind Assassin, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Norwegian Wood

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
I recently met up with a university friend who asked what I was reading at the moment.  When I told him I was reading Margaret Atwood (the subject of my final year dissertation) he raised an eyebrow in disbelief.  “Still?”
It’s true: in many ways, I haven’t moved on from my twenty year old self: I still drink too much at parties, live mostly off my overdraft, refuse to dress like an adult (see recent purchase of Pinocchio necklace) and am about to enter once more into full time studenthood.  And yes, I’m still reading Margaret Atwood.  Yet oddly enough, my fascination with her work isn’t based on pure enjoyment – which is probably why I felt able to write a critical dissertation on her, now I come to think of it.  What interests me about Atwood is the sense of the craft of writing, the emphasis on how a novel is put together rather than the story that is being told.  In The Blind Assassin, the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel structure repeatedly draws attention to the story as narrative, as does the fact that we have an unreliable first person narrator.  I find this really interesting, but it also has the effect of distancing us from the characters.  Iris Chase, the elderly narrator of the story, which revolves around her sister Laura’s death, often sounds suspiciously like Atwood herself:
            “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read […] You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand, you must see your left hand erasing it.”
This could have been taken from Atwood’s non-fiction work on writing, Negotiating with the Dead (which I will be reviewing soon).
The playful dabbling with genres such as science fiction provides some welcome light relief, as does Iris’s occasional comic asides, such as her scepticism of a friend’s opinion: “she reads a lot of magazines at the hairdressers.”  The use of newspaper extracts to advance the plot seems a little outdated and forced, though they do offer an insight into the kind of society that the Chase sisters are expected to try and be a part of.
Although this novel isn’t one of my favourites, I still believe that Atwood is one of the most daring and courageous writers around, and her conviction in what she writes is both intimidating and awe-inspiring.  So JJ, ask me what I’m reading in ten years, and there’s a good chance my answer will be the same.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
I’m not generally a fan of Swedish things (ok, by that I mean I just don’t like Ikea), but a spate of reportedly excellent Swedish crime dramas on TV, and the huge success of Larsson’s Millenium trilogy mean that I can no longer ignore the country that brought us The Evil One-Way System Store.  So, with my typical reluctance to embrace anything anyone else likes, I picked up the book originally titled ‘Men Who Hate Women.’
And, in this novel, oh boy do they ever.  I hadn’t expected the book to be so dark.  However, this is far from your average thriller, and the violence is rarely played for mere shock factor.  The main characters, journalist Mikael Blomkvist and more-than-a-little-bit-messed-up security specialist Lisbeth Salander, are two of the most complex and intriguing characters I’ve come across in my recent reading.  Nothing about them is conventional or two-dimensional, the usual pitfalls of ‘characters who solve crimes’.  The plot itself is intriguing enough to sustain interest, though Larsson wisely resists the urge to do a Dan Brown and pack in as many ridiculous cliff hangers as possible.  I did struggle to get into the story, as a large portion of the start of the book is about setting the scene (it might not help that much of that ‘scene’ revolves around the world of Swedish finance, not exactly my specialist subject), but once it took off, I’ll admit, I was hooked.  I will definitely be reading the sequels, and I may even have to rethink my furniture-based prejudices.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987)
Although I’m a recent Murakami convert/fanatic, I was a bit wary of reading Norwegian Wood after hearing a less-than-flattering critique of the recent film version from my friend JJ (who is getting quite a bit of press in this blog entry).  I believe his exact words were: “Two hours of a woman in a wood screaming about how she can’t get wet.”
Fortunately, the novel offers something more than this.  The narrator, Toru, is one of Murakami’s sanest characters, and the plot one of his most realistic.  The book tells the story of Toru’s relationship with two women: his first, unrequited love, Naoko (she of the screaming) and the girl he meets at university, the much more likeable (in my opinion) Midori.  Both girls slide up and down a scale of craziness, partly connected with certain traumatic events in their past, and partly, one assumes, because Murakami rightly believes that there’s no such thing as normal.  Murakami writes the female characters extremely well, and draws a pleasing contrast between the fragile Naoko, who withdraws to a private clinic in the mountains to try and recover, and the bold, brash Midori, who brazens out life in the real world even while things seem to fall apart around her.  Naoko’s friend Reiko is another believable and well-drawn character, with her own shocking demons to deal with.  Toru is also a sympathetic character, not without his weaknesses, but self-aware enough to try and do the right thing.
A lot of contemporary fiction focuses on the isolated individual, on self-absorbed characters failing to communicate.  One of the things I like most about Murakami’s writing, especially in Norwegian Wood, is the emphasis he places on empathy, on our efforts to help and understand those that we care about.  The narrator’s relationships with the women in his life and the friendship between Naoko and Reiko offer a more constructive, though never saccharine, view of life.

May 2011 Reading: The Elephant Vanishes, Incendiary, Zeitoun, Speaking with the Angel, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, The Finkler Question

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (1993, trans. 2003)
Yes, more Murakami.  Stories this time – seventeen of them, all deliciously bizarre and rather uncryptically titled.  I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I tell you that ‘On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning’ is about seeing a perfect girl one morning in April, while ‘Sleep’ is about a woman who finds that she can survive perfectly well without, well, sleep, which may invoke jealousy in anyone who’s ever suffered from insomnia.
Wandering into more fantastic realms, ‘The Little Green Monster’ and ‘The Dancing Dwarf’ teeter between parable and parody; the Brothers Grimm have nothing on Murakami’s warped fairytales.  However, he is equally at home on more realistic ground, depicting family relationships and chance encounters with a deep understanding of how we interact – his surreal sense of humour compliments rather than substitutes for his human compassion.
As much as I enjoyed Murakami’s novel, Kafka on the Shore, I think I am even more taken with his short stories: his forays into the surreal seem to work better over the sprint of a shorter work, where they are less distracting from the main narrative arc, and the sheer variety of ideas laid out in these seventeen stories cannot fail to impress.  By making his world strange in the extreme, Murakami highlights the oddness of our own, and encourages us to find the extraordinary in the mundane.
Incendiary by Chris Cleave (2005)
The publicity campaign for Cleave’s novel showed images of London billowing with smoke, beneath huge ‘What If?’ slogans, daring us, as Incendiary does, to imagine the horror of a Twin Towers Mark Two, this time in London.  This would have been controversial enough, but the release date happened to be the 7th July, 2005, when over fifty people were killed by four bombs throughout the city.  Unsurprisingly, this had a profoundly negative effect both on the book’s reception and on the author himself, and it was only months later that Incendiary began to receive anything like a fair analysis, and Cleave himself came out of what he describes as a period of deep depression.
In a less dramatic coincidence, I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up and began reading the day after Obama announced Bin Laden’s death.  The book opens:
Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop.  Well I wouldn’t know about that I mean rock n roll didn’t stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse.
It does make you begin to wonder if there isn’t something a bit eerie about this novel.  Actually, there is: the story of a young mother whose husband and son have been killed in a terrorist attack, Incendiary pushes only slightly at the boundaries of believability, so that a post-attack London of barrage balloons and curfews seems terrifyingly possible.  A scene on an overcrowded bridge, with panicking Londoners falling into the water, even made me a little bit jumpy the last time I was crossing the Thames.  But then, I’m a sensitive soul.
The narrator, writing her plea to Osama, is a working class East Ender who becomes involved with a ‘posh’ couple who live nearby, and with her late husband’s boss at Scotland Yard.  Her voice is convincing and original – she is a sharp, witty woman, run ragged by her grief, but still clinging on to life as best she can.  Not every scene rings true – some of the climactic episodes push things too far – but the courage of both narrator and author is impressive.  I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve heard it is disappointing – so skip it and read the book instead.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2009)
Time for a long-overdue work of non-fiction (my first this year, not counting books on writing, about which I’ll be posting soon).  I read the wonderfully titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers’ excellent memoir about bringing up his kid brother) a couple of years ago, and have since heard a lot about the great work Eggers has done to promote writing and storytelling around the world.  This book is not Eggers’ story, but that of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans resident who refused to leave the city when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.  Zeitoun’s experiences came to Eggers’ attention when he was interviewed as part of Eggers’ Voice of Witness project, which uses oral history to highlight human plight around the world.
Indeed, the book does have a flavour both of oral storytelling tradition and, unsurprisingly given Eggers’ journalistic credentials, eyewitness reportage.  What begins as a tale of one man’s determination to protect his home and help his neighbours takes an ugly twist when Zeitoun, who is originally from Syria, is mistakenly arrested by the overzealous law enforcers patrolling the flooded city.  Eggers presents events from the alternate viewpoints of Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, building up the suspense and allowing us to sympathise with this family.  Although at times it may feel that the story is somewhat biased (the Zeitoun family is a little too perfect; Zeitoun’s faith in his adopted country a little too naïve) Eggers’ skill lies in his ability to lay out the facts as presented by the story, which he has diligently checked and rechecked, allowing it to tell itself, and thereby removing any sense of an ‘agenda’.
Anyone who has seen the fantastic TV series Treme will know that the tragedy of Katrina lies not so much in the destructive power of nature but in the authorities’ failure to rise to the challenges posed.  While Treme gives us an insight into the hardships suffered by the New Orleans community by focusing on various fictional individuals, Zeitoun provides a fascinating view of the impact the storm, and the spectacular mismanagement that occurred in its wake, on a real-life individual.
Speaking with the Angel – ed. Nick Hornby (2000)
Technically a re-read, but I hadn’t looked at this collection of short stories for ten years, and thought it deserved another look.  I love anthologies of stories – you’re bound to find something you like, and it is a great way of discovering new writers.  Compiled by Hornby in order to raise money for a charity for autistic children, Speaking with the Angel is a tasty selection, with original stories by big names such as Zadie Smith, Helen Fielding, Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh, doing an honourable favour for their pal Nick.
There is also a story by Zeitoun author Dave Eggers (see above) – it’s a small literary world after all.  And it’s one of the best stories in here, dammit (it’s told from the point of view of a dog, but don’t let that put you off) – the man really is multi-talented.  Apart from Eggers’ ‘After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned’, I also enjoyed Giles Smith’s story about a woman who cooks on Death Row, ‘Last Requests’, and the novelty value of reading a story by Mr Darcy himself, Colin Firth’s ‘The Department of Nothing’.  (It’s not bad at all, actually).  Hornby’s own contribution, ‘NippleJesus’, about a controversial work of art, is the only story that hasn’t aged well – I feel as if we’ve moved beyond that kind of outrage and shockability – I doubt there is anything they could put in the Tate Modern now that would raise much of a fuss, but perhaps I am wrong.
The most unnerving thing about this book is how quickly all the stories came back to me – so either they’re brilliant, or a decade has passed in an eye-blink.  Let’s say they’re brilliant.
For more information about the charity that this book supports, visit
The Dog Who Came in from the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith (2010)
I am a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series; to me his books are the equivalent of Galaxy chocolate – a total indulgence, but guaranteed to make the world seem just a little bit brighter, if only for a short while.  I have read a couple of his other books (the man loves a series – he currently has four on the go) and while the lack of Mma Ramotswe and the sunny African setting might make me downgrade the guilty pleasure factor to that of a Fruit and Nut, I’ve always found them enjoyable.
Perfect reading, then, for a little weekend break.  This novel is his second set in Corduroy Mansions, a seemingly time-warped building in Pimlico where the neighbours still communicate with each other, even slipping notes under each others’ doors to invite them to ‘soirees’.  The cast of characters is rich and varied, but the main plotline concerns William French, whose dog is recruited by MI6.  So far, so P.G.Wodehouse, and indeed, most of the novel concerns ridiculously named posh people getting into implausible scrapes, and probably calling them ‘scrapes’ as well.  It reads like a series of interlinked short stories, and I can’t help wondering if it might have been a more satisfying read if it wasn’t presented as a novel.  But it is a lot of fun, and there aren’t many books that can get away with characters called ‘Oedipus Snark’ or dogs called ‘Freddie de la Hay’ these days.  Still, I’d recommend the Botswana series first.
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (2010)
After a holiday both literal and literary, time to plunge into another Booker winner.  I haven’t read any of Jacobson’s other work, or his column in The Independent, so I was coming at this quite fresh.  (Although halfway through my Dad told me he didn’t agree with a lot of his opinions, which always makes me think twice.  Father knows best.)
The plot of this novel is actually pretty scanty: three men past their prime meet up from time to time, two of them, Libor and Finkler, are Jewish, one of them, Treslove isn’t but kind of wants to be, then he gets attacked and thinks that perhaps he is.  Of the three main characters, only the older man, Libor Sevcik, is in any way endearing, mostly by virtue of his devotion to his now deceased wife of fifty years.  Finkler and Treslove, old schoolmates, have an intensely uncomfortable friendship, based on strange jealousies and petty rivalries that make for tough reading at times.
However, Jacobson’s refusal to simplify is what makes this novel so impressive.  Much of the time, we follow Treslove’s tortured thoughts as he struggles to carve out an identity that can never belong to him.  His agonising is depicted in minute detail; he constantly questions himself, is wildly insecure and almost wilfully unhappy much of the time – it is a sad picture of a man approaching his fifties, but one which may in fact be more accurate than many would like to admit.  The struggle to be happy is almost as contentious as the struggle for success in our society, and failure to achieve it becomes a reflection on our own weak nature.
In terms of conclusions or resolutions, the book offers no easy answers either.  Contemporary Jewishness in all its forms sprawls across its pages, but we are still left with more questions than answers about what it means to be a Jew in Britain today.  The most startling thing about this novel for me, though, as a newcomer to Jacobson’s work, is how effectively he blends humour and tragedy.  The aching hearts of the protagonists thrum in time with the impeccable comic beats that skip across the page, pithy one-liners nestle alongside real human suffering.  Whether or not the intensity of his style is for you, there is no denying that this is a writer who knows what he is doing.  Hence the Booker, I suppose.

March 2011 Reading: The Road, Birthday Stories, Child of God, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Bright Lights, Big City, Jesus’ Son

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
I’ll admit, I’ve had this book for a while, and have been putting off reading it.  The thing is, I’m pretty squeamish, and I have a hyper-active imagination: watching a horror film can result in a week of no sleep.  And I had been warned that The Road wasn’t exactly full of fluffy kittens and rainbows.  That’s not to say I don’t like my books a bit ‘dark’ – I was just slightly concerned that it might be too gory for me.
Fortunately, the slow-burning terror of The Road relies less on guts and gore and more on the poetic, terrible beauty of McCarthy’s language:
“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
McCarthy’s description of a post-apocalyptic landscape is all black ash and charred trees, relentlessly colourless: it is a world where the ecosystem has been all but destroyed.  It cheapens the novel to refer to it as a ‘global warming warning’; we never find out what has caused this destruction – it isn’t necessary.  The emphasis isn’t on the cause, but on what the chilling reality of nature turned barren means for the humans in the novel.  In this, McCarthy’s vision seems terrifyingly accurate – his indictment of human behaviour is all too convincing.  However, amid all the doom and gloom, of which there is a lot, there is an element of hope.  The central relationship, between the nameless father and son, lifts the story out of despair and adds a seam of redemption to the bleak setting.
McCarthy’s sparse punctuation, doing away with speechmarks and apostrophes: “dont”,“cant”, and his truncated, often verbless, sentences allow his words to resonate in an elemental way.  There is a startling authority to the narrative which really makes you believe that this could actually happen.  It’s a book that cannot fail to make you think.  As the father says to his son in the novel:
“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever.”
The Road is definitely one of those things.
Birthday Stories – Selected and Introduced by Haruki Murakami (2004)
One of the things I liked most about this collection of short stories is the brief insight into Murakami’s personality offered by his introduction.  As a recent convert (see February’s reviews), I’m delighted that the man behind the novels seems just as bizarre and baffling as his characters.  He has compiled an anthology of stories about birthdays, basically because he read a couple of stories on the theme, and thought, hey, there must be more.  And there are.  So here they are.  Each author is carefully introduced by Murakami in his own, inimitable style: “his work is not for everybody”, “[his stories] can seem somewhat contrived”, “I myself was fortunate enough to meet her […] and found her to be slim and elegant”.
The stories themselves are well-chosen and varied, and include writers that I have been meaning to check out for a while, such as David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson (see below for a review of Johnson’s Jesus’ Son).  The ‘birthday’ theme doesn’t overwhelm the anthology, as the stories are of a high enough quality to avoid mawkish sentiment on the subject.  It also includes a short version of Raymond Carver’s story ‘A Small, Good Thing’ called ‘The Bath’: Carver’s editor notoriously pruned his work, much to the writer’s displeasure – hence Carver’s later publication of ‘restored’ versions of his stories.  Murakami being Murakami, he has chosen the first version because it “has its own special flavour […] as if it has had its head lopped off for no reason.”  At a later moment, when I’m feeling extra-geeky, I’ll compare the two properly.  Among the other writers included are William Trevor, Andrea Lee, Paul Theroux, and of course, Murakami himself (rude not to).
All in all, this is a solid collection of stories, and would make a good, if slightly gimmicky, present for literary types on their special day.  Which was probably exactly what canny Murakami was thinking.Child of God by Cormac McCarthy (1973)

Even though The Road wasn’t exactly a ‘feet up with a mug of tea’ read, I was left in awe of McCarthy’s prose style and narrative mastery.  I also highly rated No Country for Old Men (I’ve only seen the film – has anyone read the book?) so I thought I’d check out an earlier work of his.
Child of God is both more violent and more humorous than The Road, although the humour is wrapped up in some deeply disturbing events.  The story of Lester Ballard, a social outcast in a country community in East Tennessee, the book flicks between a third person narration which sticks close to Lester as the plot unfolds and an unnamed first person commentator with a strong Southern accent, who offers us nuggets of information about Ballard’s history:
“I don’t know.  They say he never was right after his daddy killed hisself.” 
Describing Ballard as not ‘right’ is something of an understatement.  As the novel progresses and Ballard retreats further from normal society, his acts of violence and depravity become more and more shocking.  It’s not entirely surprising to learn that the book caused some outrage when it was first published, but it is a testament to McCarthy’s skill as prose stylist that the descriptions of Ballard’s acts, though disturbing in the extreme, never feel gratuitous.  The occasional glimpses of humanity in Lester, such as when he chases, laughing, after a flock of birds, pose the same dilemma as the title of the novel: can this man, for whom the phrase ‘a danger to society’ might have been invented, really be considered a ‘child of God?’.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
This is actually a re-read – I enjoyed both this and his previous novel, Everything Is Illuminated, when they first came out, but it was time for a revisit.  Foer is one of those writers I almost love, but have to keep going back to in order to figure out just what is missing for me.  In Foer’s case, it’s hard to identify, as he uses such a dazzling array of narrative tricks and modernist flourishes that it’s easy to get a little blind-sighted.  This novel is full of ‘special effects’, from photos to coloured scribblings to blank pages, all of which teeter dangerously on the ‘pretentious’ precipice.
Dealing with the tricky subject of 9/11, Foer makes a seemingly wise move in having a child as the main narrator.  Oskar’s father was killed in the attacks, and the novel charts his attempts to come to terms with his father’s death through embarking on a kind of ‘treasure hunt’ to track down the lock which matches a key left by his dad.  Oskar is nine years old.  Supposedly.  And here is one of the problems: Oskar is an often hilarious, sometimes endearing, mostly very odd character, but he is in no way convincing as a nine year old.  Sometimes Foer just about gets away with it, such as this reported conversation with a cab driver to whom he owes $76.50:
“I said, “Mr Mahaltra, are you an optimist or a pessimist?” He said, “What?”  I said, “Because unfortunately I only have seven dollars and sixty-eight cents.”
but all too often, his precociousness just sounds like the author intruding with another witty gem he just can’t resist.
Another issue, which I also found with Everything Is Illuminated, is that the narrative that runs parallel to the main story just doesn’t interest me as much.  The complex relationship between Oskar’s grandparents, with all its melodrama and historical tragedy, failed to engage me.
For all of these perceived flaws (which are only a matter of personal opinion) I do admire Foer’s virtuoso use of language, his humour, and his daring.  I would love to see him write a simple, pared-down narrative, but it would probably bore the pants of him.  He has a new novel coming out this year – if anyone has read it, let me know.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1984)

I mentioned Bright Lights, Big City when reviewing Then We Came to the End (February Reading) as both novels use unusual points of view.  In the case of McInerney’s narrative, the entire story is in the second person: ‘you’. The novel begins:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.  But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar to you, although the details are fuzzy.”
From here on, the reader is plunged into the self-destructive world of the protagonist, all the while addressed as ‘you’.  This is a risky move, but one that has resulted in his novel becoming the seminal example of such a narrative.  (Which means, really, that no one else should try it, because it’s been done.)  It does indeed work well – once the strangeness has worn off, it has the effect not of trying to implicate the reader or suggest that ‘you’ yourself are actually the protagonist, but rather of providing a communal bond with the protagonist, a bit like when ‘you’ is used to mean ‘one’ in general, such as when I review a book and write “as the novel progresses, you find yourself beginning to really care about the characters”.
McInerney is careful not to allow this neat little trick to detract from other aspects of the novel.  The supporting cast of characters are colourful and well drawn, especially at the magazine where the protagonist works in the Department of Factual Verification.  In fact, some of these sections reminded me of Then We Came to the End, depicting office life with the same kind of humorous despair.
The novel also presents the various vices of the protagonist without glamourising or demonising.  ‘You’ take drugs, drink too much, indulge in the excesses of the era, but Bright Lights, Big City never becomes a cautionary tale about addiction.  It is about a self-indulgent man who has had some hard times and needs to grow up, to figure out how to live:
“Your head is pounding with voices of confession and revelation.  You followed the rails of white powder across the mirror in pursuit of a point of convergence where everything was cross-referenced according to a master code.”
Bright Lights, Big City paints a convincing portrait of a young man “all messed up and nowhere to go” in eighties Manhattan; it’s a short, snappy, snazzy book that still feels fresh.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992)
There’s a kind of pleasing symmetry to reading this as my last ‘March’ book – in some ways, Johnson’s work combines the bleak, blank violence of McCarthy’s work and the drug-hazy derailment of McInerney’s novel.  In addition, Johnson’ story ‘Dundun’ was one of the Birthday Stories chosen by Murakami (see above) and contains one of the best sections of dialogue I’ve read recently:
“McInnes isn’t feeling too good today.  I just shot him.”
“You mean killed him?”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Is he really dead?”
“No.  He’s sitting down.”
“But he’s alive.”
“Oh, sure he’s alive.”
The only minor flaw in this harmonious aligning of the literary planets is that the edition I bought off Amazon is by a German publisher.  Luckily, the stories themselves are in English (heavily glossed – I can now tell you the German for “subterranean”, “to squish”, “yank someone off” and  “f*ck with someone’s high” if you’re interested – although the doubtless insightful mini-essay at the back of the book remains beyond my capabilities).
The stories in Jesus’ Son are all told by the same narrator, though they aren’t entirely sequential, and read just as well individually.  Like McCarthy, Johnson’s prose is lean and precise, and occasionally quite beautiful, despite the grim underbelly of life that he depicts.  The world of drugs and addiction here has nothing of the veneer of respectability it maintains in McInerney’s novel.  There’s a film, made in 2000, which I’d like to watch, although I can imagine I’d have to cover my eyes at a couple of points.  As I said at the start, I’m pretty squeamish, and there’s a guy with a knife in his eye in one story.

February 2011 Reading: Kafka on the Shore, American Pastoral, Then We Came to the End

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2003)

Kafka on the Shore is the first work by Murakami that I have read, and I have to say, I am captivated by his uniqueness, his otherness, and his absurd sense of humour.  It’s quite rare, and very exciting, to find a book that is so unlike anything I’ve read before. 
The characters who inhabit Murakami’s novel are wonderful combinations of the bizarre and the poignant.  There is Oshima, a strange, wise figure, who is neither male nor female, or perhaps both, and whose intellectual capacity extends to a deep understanding of Greek philosophy, classical music, and much in between.  His opposite is the cat-man Nakata, who refers to himself in the third person: “Nakata isn’t very bright.”  Nakata’s simple, sometimes baffled language is hugely endearing: his brother is a “depart mint chief”, his father studied “theery of fine ants.”  (It would be interesting to find out how the translator chose this way of rendering Nakata’s simple speech, how the language joke works in Japanese.)  And of course, there is Kafka, the fifteen year old runaway whose real name we never learn. 
I won’t even attempt to explain the plot – suffice to say, it gets pretty trippy, especially when characters such as ‘Johnny Walker’ and ‘Colonel Sanders’ get involved.  I have a strong suspicion that Murakami isn’t for everyone, but I will definitely be reading more of his work.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

American Pastoral is one of those books that, while I can appreciate the skill of the author, I would be hard pressed to say I ‘enjoyed’.  The relentless misery of the tragedy that befalls Swede Levov (“it rhymes with ‘the love’”), the cold dissection of a good man’s life into ragged shards of flesh and bone, it all felt a bit like being beaten over the head with a big stick.  I also found it hard to understand why he uses Zuckerman and the ‘novel within a novel’ structure; is it all in Nathan’s head?  Has he filled in all the details based on nothing but his imagination?  This may be making some profound point about the nature of all fiction, but for me it makes the Swede less real, even while I was flinching at his suffering.  I know I really ought to read more by Roth, so if anyone has any suggestions of something marginally more cheerful, please let me know.
Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris (2007)
This book was recommended by my tutor on the writing course I took last year at City University; it was mentioned during a class on point of view, along with Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, which is next on my ‘to read’ list.  The latter is written in the second person, ‘you’, whereas Then We Came To The End is mostly written in the first person plural, from the collective point of view of the workers of an advertising company.  99% of the time, it works, creating a sense of the uniformity of the office workers’ experience.  However, if you over think it, the insights the reader is given into individual characters’ thoughts and their ability to recall dialogue word-for-word as they relate their stories to each other stretch credulity.  
On the other hand, the small absurdities of Ferris’s office microcosm ring hilariously and painfully true, reminding me a little of the great film, Office Space, and, of course, The Office.  The structure is deceptively complex, reminiscent of water-cooler chat in the way it darts between past and (narrative) ‘present’, letting out trickles of information and backstory so that we build up a picture slowly, mosaically, of the cast of quirky characters that make up the office ‘family’, with all the dysfunction that word implies.  I’m not really one for laughing out loud at books, but Then We Came to the End made me smile a lot.