Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dickens and Drood

{Photos by rocketlass.}

One of the few misjudgments in Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life--which is for the most part very good at suitably pointing out what is bad within Dickens while praising what is good and original--is her assessment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The incomplete nature of Drood almost guarantees it a place as one of the most contested of Dickens novels, and while I won't make grand claims for it, I do think it's unquestionably a remarkable return to form from a man who had been nearly five years away from serious fiction. Tomalin acknowledges its "haunting and melancholy descriptions of Rochester, the city of [Dickens's] childhood," but she gives Dickens's comedy short shrift. It's only "moderately funny," she writes; the only thing she has to say about its most creatively absurd character is that he is a "nicely done bad child who throws stones and pronounces cathedral 'KIN-FREE-DER-EL,' which Dickens may have heard and appreciated on the streets of Rochester."

That's selling the boy, Deputy--and the target of his stones--well short. Take this exchange, which I quoted a couple of years ago, fresh off a visti to Rochester. Mr. Durdles, having been discovered in the act of being stoned, explains the who and why of the constant pelting he receives:
"Own brother, sir," observes Durdles, turning himself about again, and as unexpectedly forgetting his offence as he had recalled or conceived it; "own brother to Peter the Wild Boy! But I gave him an object in life."

"At which he takes aim?" Mr. Jasper suggests.

"That's it, sir," returns Durdles, quite satisfied; "at which he takes aim. I took him in hand and gave him an object. What was he before? A destroyer. What work did he do? Nothing but destruction. What did he earn by it? Short terms in Cloisterham jail. Not a person, not a piece of property, not a winder, not a horse, nor a dog, nor a cat, nor a bird, nor a fowl, nor a pig, but what he stoned, for want of an enlightened object. I put that enlightened object before him, and now he can turn his honest halfpenny by the three penn'orth a week."
Today as I flipped through a book that Tomalin's bibliography turned up for me--after years of fruitless searching based on a one-time sighting of it in college--Philip Collins's Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, I was pleased to discover a contemporary reviewer who agreed with me that Drood, while far from perfect, is nonetheless quite good. An unsigned review for the Spectator of October 1, 1870, argues that it deserves to take its place with Dickens's stronger works:
We sincerely believe that the picture of Durdles, the Cathedral stonemason, and of the young imp who stones him home at night, would have been welcomed twenty-five years ago with as much delight as was at that time the picture of Poll Sweedlepipes, barber and bird-fancier, and his distinguished customer, Bailey Junior.
Drood, the reviewer (thought to be R. H. Hutton), goes on to say,
shows his peculiar power of grasping the local colour and detail of all characteristic physical life, in the exceedingly powerful sketch of the den of the East Indian opium smoker; it shows a different side of the same faculty in the abundant and marvellous detail as to the precincts and interior of the Cathedral; while all his old humour comes out in the picture of Miss Twinkleton's girls'-school, of Billicken the lodging-house keeper, and in the figures to which we have before referred, the Cathedral stone-mason and his attendant imp.
Usually even the best of Dickens's comic characters verge on wearing out their welcome by the end of his doorstoppers; to me, the fact that they don't get that chance is--far more than the unsolved mystery--the strongest reminder of the loss signified by the unfinished Drood.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dickens meets Victor Hugo

Today, a story I learned from Claire Tomalin's new biography of Charles Dickens. In 1846, the thirty-four-year-old Dickens, having just written the chapter of Dombey and Son that ended poor Paul Dombey's life, wandered Paris with his best friend, John Forster, and called on Victor Hugo. Tomalin's account, which draws on Forster's biography of Dickens, shows Dickens to have been simultaneously impressed and amused:
Hugo made a profound impression on both of them with his eloquence, and Forster observed that he addressed "very charming flattery, in the best taste" to Dickens. Dickens thought he "looked like the Genius he was," while his wife looked as if she might poison his breakfast any morning; and the daughter who appeared "with hardly any drapery above the waist . . . I should suspect of carrying a sharp poignard in her stays, but for her not appearing to wear any."
The casual references to murder sent me to my shelves to see what I could learn about the life of Hugo, whose work I've barely read. And the journals of the Goncourt brothers didn't disappoint. Here, from August 5, 1873, is a reflection that follows a visit to the Hugo household:
Left to myself, I started thinking about that family, about that father, that genius, that monster--about that first daughter who had been drowned, and that second daughter who had been carried off by an American and brought back to France raving mad--about those two sons, one dead and the other dying--about Mme Hugo, committing adultery with her son-in-law--about Vacquerie, marrying one daughter, sleeping with the mother, and practically raping his sister-in-law--and finally about that Juliette, that Pompadour of the poet's, still pursuing, with her kisses, at his late date, the dying son. A Tragic Family, such is the title the dying man gave a novel he once wrote--and such is the title of the Hugo family.
Wow. A helpful note from editor Robert Baldick puts a little more detail behind this litany of disaster:
Leopoldine and Charles Vacquerie had been drowned at Villeguier on 4 September 1843, six months after their marriage. Hugo's surviving daughter, Adele [the one who caught Dickens's eye] had followed an English officer called Pinson to America in 1863; brought back by Francois-Victor Hugo [Hugo's son, who was dying at the time of the Goncourts' visit], she had been committed to a lunatic asylum where she died in 1915. The author of Une Famille tragique was not Francois-Victor, but his elder brother Charles, who had died in 1871. Francois-Victor himself was to die soon afterwards, on 26 December 1873. No evidence has come to light to substantiate the accusation levelled by Goncourt at Mme Victor Hugo.
The tone of the Goncourts' reflection--and especially its opening sentences--brought to mind Anthony Powell and A Dance to the Music of Time. So when the editor's note cleared Madame Hugo alone of all charges, I found myself thinking of a passage from the Book of Revelation that Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins, recalls as he reflects on some ancient debauchery:
Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
A suitable reward, perhaps, for resisting the urge to match her husband affair for affair--to say nothing of the more serious urge, detected by Dickens, to slip a soupcon of poison into his morning crepe.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Charles Baxter's strange, beautiful, moving novel The Feast of Love (2000) is full of passages worth quoting: unusual and striking images, perceptive thoughts. I've used some of them recently over at the Annex, and to take us into Thanksgiving--and what will probably be a subsequent week of at best spotty blogging--I thought I'd share a couple of lines that give a sense of the novel's abundance of heart. They are written in the voice of an old professor of philosophy, a specialist in Kierkegaard, and they come late in the book, when he's wrestling with grief over his estrangement from his son:
Every night I take up my watch by the front window. I have my lamp and my book. I listen to Schubert on the phonograph. Next to my family, Schubert is the love of my life; if he were to return to earth, he could come to my house and take any of the objects here he wanted.
I spend a lot of time thinking about--and feeling thankful for--what I owe to my cultural heroes, writers and musicians and artists, but I've never thought of it quite that way. But I like it, the idea of opening the door to an admired revenant and saying, "Here, what's mine is yours. Take, and be welcome." Our household gods could be shared.

After the surprise appearance at his door not of Schubert, but of one of the book's other characters, the professor goes on to think to himself,
I think of a poem I had to memorize in college: "Love makes those young whom age doth chill,/And whom he finds young, keeps young still." Something like that.

The unexpected is always upon us. Of all the gifts arrayed before me, this one thought, at this moment of my life, is the most precious.
On my way home tonight, with Baxter and gratitude and generosity on the brain, I happened to turn to a piece Baxter wroter for A William Maxwell Portrait, a collection of memories of a writer for whose work I feel immense gratitude. Baxter's account of Maxwell is perceptive and gentle and convincing; its best moment is this scene, which is so vivid and inviting it makes me ache with that longing that accompanies good history writing--oh, to have been there.
As the afternoon went on, the light began to fail, and by evening the apartment was almost completely in darkness. We were still talking, even though we could hardly see each other. Maxwell did not seem to want to turn on any of the lights. He said he loved the darkening and the departure of the light from the room because it made the objects in it more lively, and when his wife came home, flipping on the switch as she came in, I saw his face again, rapt with attention. He told his wife that it was as if he and I had gone for a walk in the woods.
Elsewhere, Baxter draws from Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow a line that seems suitable to send us to the Thanksgiving table, that "generosity might be the greatest pleasure there is."

Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Enjoy your families.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dreaming in words

In an essay about friendship with William Maxwell in A William Maxwell Portrait, poet Michael Collier writes of Maxwell's intense involvement with words, especially late in life:
Toward the end of his life, reading and writing came together in a kind of painful synesthesia. In the spring of 2000, one of his letters admitted, "I can't find anything to read that isn't overstimulating. I am about half way through War and Peace and if I read that after dinner I go on living it in my dreams. Awful things that I know are going to happen, scenes I have made up in my sleep and sometimes just writing."
This is something I struggle with as well: any reading I do in the time leading up to going to bed is guaranteed to stay with me through the night. My dreams become suffused with the language of the author I'd been reading; I spend hours in some nebulous state between reading, writing, and living the words of the novel, wrestling (often stressfully) with its problems and thinking in its language. The most recent book to take me over like that was Murakami's 1Q84, which did not make for restful dreams--the oneiroi made sure that Murakami's flat language was even more freighted with dread than it is in daylight hours.

I had always assumed this was common among serious readers, but Collier's account makes Maxwell's case sound unusual. Am I wrong? Is this something you experience? And is it, like with me, bad enough that it makes you avoid in bed much of the time?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Naked Singularity

For nearly a year now, I've carefully avoided mentioning on this blog one of the best novels I read last year--one of the best novels I've read in a good while--Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity. I read it over Christmas last year, and for nearly a week this 700-page debut novel had me completely captivated, laughing and worrying and being surprised and amazed. Ordinarily, I would have been quoting from it here--like I quoted from it relentlessly to rocketlass as I read--and praising it to the rooftops. But I didn't.

I had my reasons. Or, really, reason: A Naked Singularity was self-published, and I wanted to convince my employer, the University of Chicago Press, to publish it. In May, we will, and I couldn't be more excited.

The whole thing started with a review by Scott Bryan Wilson in the Quarterly Conversation (for which I serve as poetry editor). As editor Scott Esposito pointed out in a note accompanying the review, "This book review tends closer to an endorsement than we would usually publish." It was a rave. Scott called A Naked Singularity, ""One of the best and most original novels of the decade," and he went on from there:
If you like The Wire, if you like rewarding, difficult fiction, if you like literary, high-quality artistic and hilarious yet moving novels that are difficult to put down, I can’t recommend A Naked Singularity enough.
I knew Scott's taste well enough to trust his opinion . . . but still--a 700-page self-published debut novel? That's a commitment I wasn't quite ready to make. So I set a Google alert for the book, to see whether other people might share Scott's enthusiasm. And they did. Lian Hearn, author of the Tales of the Otori series, wrote a long post on her Facebook page titled "A Naked Singularity: Why I Love This Book." Dan Visel at With Hidden Noise wrote, "This is a book that deserves to be read more widely; in a better world, people would be reading this rather than Freedom." Others followed, with similar praise.

So I got a copy, and they were right: it's a wonderful novel. It's linguistically inventive and simmering with anger at social and legal injustice, all told in the unforgettable voice of the protagonist, Casi, a wunderkind public defender in Manhattan who's never lost a case. It's as funny and smart as anything I've read since Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, and it ranges widely in its concerns, scenes, and style: it offers courtroom drama, media satire, a ridiculously long scat joke, snappy dialogue, immigrant stories, boxing commentary, and even a heist worthy of Richard Stark. It's indebted to Melville and Dante, kin to David Foster Wallace and William Gaddis, and still not quite like anything else I've ever read.

And now I'm going to get a chance to introduce it to the book world at large. You can read more about A Naked Singularity, including the copy I wrote to describe it, at the Press's website. You should be able to pre-order it at your local bookstore or from Amazon.

As I've explained before, I try not to let my work and nonwork lives intersect on this blog any more than absolutely necessary. I won't ever write here about a book that I wouldn't have written about had I come to it through other means. This is a case where the two worlds overlap completely--and where, in the midst of the constant litany of bad news about the death of publishing, the loss of community, the end of reading, and whatever other gleefully masochistic bad cultural news is currently clogging your Google Reader, this is a story where it all actually worked. A writer wrote a singular book that stayed true to his vision, and, because it was good enough to draw the attention of some seriously dedicated readers, it's now getting another shot.

So trust me on this one. Order up a copy and clear your reading decks in late April/early May. Until then, if you want a taste of De La Pava's intense, energetic prose, check out this piece he wrote for Triple Canopy on Virginia Woolf and two brutal boxing matches.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Christa Faust's noir world

Christa Faust's new novel from Hard Case Crime, Choke Hold, opens with some questions:
Do the things you've done in the past add up to the person you are now? Or are you endlessly reinvented by the choices you make for the future? I used to think I knew the answer to those questions, Now, I'm not so sure.
Boiling noir down to a simple definition is a mug's game: it's got too many facets and allows too much room for creative reinterpretation for such an exercise to be anything more substantial than a barstool time-passer. But by nearly any definition, those questions would be near the heart of noir, which has always been concerned with how we bury, reconcile, lie about, and live through our pasts; throw in a dose of postwar pop existentialism that gives you the idea of reinvention--and the shakiness of edifices (truth, honor) that long seemed solid--and you've got the building blocks of noir.

Faust gets it, in other words, and Choke Hold lives up to its opening. That opening is actually looking back, to the events of her first novel, Money Shot (2008), which introduced reluctant heroine (and former porn star) Angel Dare, who spent that novel trying to escape from Croatian sex traffickers who mistakenly thought she'd stolen their money. Money Shot falls into the subset of noir novels that show a protagonist thrust into mortal danger and surprising himself with his own ruthlessness. That "himself" was intentional: part of what's fun (and important) about Faust's book is that it's another weight placed in the ever-so-slowly balancing scales of noir, a genre whose greatest weakness has long been its masculine focus and attendant misogyny. Dare's no classical feminist, but she's a strong female character who insists on being in complete control of her destiny even before things go south--and in fact, once they do, she wrestles with frustration over (and tries to escape from) her temporary dependence on a male bodyguard. Eventually, she does, and she turns out to be the toughest person in the book.

Choke Hold picks up a few years after the events of Money Shot, and it's immediately impressive if for no other reason than that, in a way that's reminiscent of Richard Aleas's novels, Faust makes her character live with the consequences of the decisions she made in the first book. Dare survived her killers, but she lost the life she knew. Anything less would have been a cop-out, and untrue to the overall feel of these novels, one in which there's no false sense of security: when bullets start flying, people die, including bystanders, supporting characters, and good guys.

Dare has lost her livelihood, and we leave the world of porn behind for a new subculture: mixed martial arts. Crime novels are a great vehicle for pulling back the curtain on areas of contemporary life that outsiders rarely see, and this pair of books offers detailed, and fairly gruesome, portraits of both those worlds and the tolls they take on young bodies. As Dare gets inadvertently drawn into trying to save a young MMA fighter's life (to say nothing of her own), we meet sleazy gun nuts, south-of-the-border fight promoters, and punch-drunk white knights, in out-of-the-way locales whose sordidness is palpable. My favorite moment along those lines is when a forger--whom two earlier violent sleazeballs have described to Angel as too dangerous for her to deal with directly--turns out to be a quiet, melancholy gay painter of hyper-realistic cowboy portraits.

Faust shows us a world where money and psychological need distort and destroy people; where a fear of commitment is reasonable because the people and things you love will be taken away from you; where there will never be a shortage of men willing to point a gun, slam shut a van door, or drive a prisoner away without giving a thought to where she'll end up. Through two books, that world has brutalized Angel Dare, and she's fought it to a draw. It's not a world you want to live in, but I look forward to the next time Faust guides us through it.

Friday, November 11, 2011


General mid-November, good-god-how-is-it-mid-November-already busy-ness has stolen away my blogging time this week. But I will take a moment and share an eye-popping bit of information gleaned from my first foray into Michael Dirda's lovely little book On Conan Doyle just now:
Sedentary and precise in his routines--"Mycroft [Holmes] has his rails and he runs on them"--this supposed minor bureaucrat actually functions as "the central exchange, the clearing-house" for all government intelligence. "In that great brain of his everything is pigeon-holed, and can be handed out in an instant." In essence, Mycroft is a human computer like Spock. With his sharp analytic intelligence, impressive bulk, and insistence on a regular schedule, he also closely resembles Rex Stout's gruff consulting detective Nero Wolfe. Years later, I would learn that some Sherlockian scholars believe that Wolfe's mother was Irene Adler and his father either Sherlock or Mycroft.
How did I not know this? That nugget of info about Wolfe's rumored parentage is more than enough to convince me to let Dirda's go slip about Spock. (He's a half-human computer, sir, as Bones would gladly tell you.)

And let's be clear: it's Mycroft, surely. For all that Irene Adler sets Holmes a-dither, could he really . . . ? No way.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

I know where to hide those ludes!, or, Place-based boredom

In Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit (1983), there's a scene where the protagonist, a chess prodigy who at the time is eight years old and living in an orphanage, is trying to break into a locked office to steal some tranquilizers (liberally used to quiet the orphans). She gets into the office, then realizes that, rather than simply stuffing her pockets, she could conceivably take the whole jar:
She knew, too, where she could hide it, on the shelf of a disused janitors' closet in the girls' room. There was an old galvanized bucket up there that was never used; the jar would fit into it. There was also a short ladder in the closet, and she could use it safely because a person could lock the door on the girls' room from the inside. Then, if there was a search for the missing pills, even if they found them, they couldn't be traced to her.
When I read that passage earlier this week, it unexpectedly called up vivid memories of large, mostly forgotten swathes of childhood. Not that I was a tranq-stealing rebel--it won't surprise you to learn that I was the farthest thing from it. No, it's the girl's instant recall of the perfect hiding space that did it, that evocation of hitherto useless knowledge that can only be the product of hours of place-based boredom. If we're lucky enough to end up in even moderately interesting jobs, as adults we don't have to endure boredom all that often, and certainly not the reliable, week-after-week boredom in a small number of repetitive locations that seems inescapable in childhood. Think back to school, and to how fully you knew every corner and quirk of the classrooms you daydreamed in. Or church, and the way that, bored by all this talk of souls and eternity*, you memorized the floor plan, entrances and exits, closets and storage rooms, classrooms and kitchens of the whole church rather than listen. The mind is rarely truly at rest, especially when we're young and have less self to rest it on, so week after week and hour after hour, we focused on the details of the places that bored us. So I knew as I read that, where in my own grade school I would have hidden a bottle of tranquilizers had I needed to. The school's still there, the hiding place still vivid in my mind. I could even suggest a backup spot or two, if needed. All of which reminded me of my favorite side effect of reading a large number of Richard Stark's Parker novels in quick succession: you start to see the world differently, and to pay attention to the odd non-spaces that we pass through every day without noticing. As I wrote a couple of years back, after reading Parker,
don't be surprised if you find yourself looking at your city just a bit differently come Monday. As you head out on your usual route to work or the store, for the first time you'll find your eye drawn to service entrances and side doors, Brinks trucks and window bars, inattentive security guards and indolent clerks . . . And what about that hard-looking man in the pea coat who seems to be casting his gaze ever so casually at the very same thing?
I don't lament never having occasion to be bored in my adult life, but I do like sometimes being called to attend to those spaces in urban life that, by their anonymity, practically beg us not to give them a second glance. There are a lot of unmarked doors in the city, and we owe it to ourselves and our city to once in a while imagine what's behind them. {Oh, and I should say that The Queen's Gambit is a really impressive novel, one that makes chess seem as gripping as a duel to the death and shows a remarkable understanding of how head-to-head sports works on the levels of mind, body, and will. In addition, Tevis's ability to convey the feeling of having a gift is astonishing: from the very first time his protagonist sees a chess board, we believe, wholly, that she grasps it intuitively like he says she does. His sentences are straightforward, declarative, undramatic--I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Donald Westlake was a fan, as there are real similarities in the prose--and their effect is powerful. A book about sports, to be successful, needs to convince us that the sport in question is, for the length of the book, the most important thing in the world; The Queen's Gambit leaves no doubt. My thanks to Ed Park for the recommendation.}

Monday, November 07, 2011

Murakami and Marcel

The world of Haruki Murakami's novels is always crowded with items from Western culture--references to jazz albums, books, and movies abound. But I think 1Q84 wins the prize for my favorite reference, partly because the two gentle jokes that accompany it made me smile. It comes in a telephone exchange between Tamaru, a skilled bodyguard, and Aomame, a woman who is hiding out in a safe house under his protection:
"I think I have everything I need."

"How about books and videos and the like?"

"I can't think of anything I particularly want."

"How about Proust's In Search of Lost Time?" Tamaru asked. "If you've never read it this would be a good opportunity to read the whole thing."

"Have you read it?"

"No, I've never been in jail, or had to hide out for a long time. Someone once said unless you have those kinds of opportunities, you can't read the whole of Proust."

"Do you know anybody who has read the whole thing?"

"I've known some people who have spent a long period in jail, but none were the type to be interested in Proust."

"I'd like to give it a try," Aomame said. "If you can get ahold of those books, bring them the next time you bring supplies."

"Actually, I already got them for you," Tamaru said.
Jokes aside, there is thematic resonance in the selection of Proust, as Murakami's novel deals quite a bit with the mutability of time and the desire to recover lost moments. Aomame goes on to read In Search of Lost Time, diligently and attentively, and she does appreciate it, though she has trouble--reasonably--understanding the lost world of French salon culture that Proust describes. She tells Tamaru,
It's like reading a detailed report from a small planet light-years away from this world I'm living in. I can picture all the scenes described and understand them. It's described very vividly, minutely even. But I can't connect the scenes in that book with where I am now.
"It's not boring," she tells Tamaru,
It's so detailed and beautifully written, and I feel like I can grasp the structure of that lonely little planet. But I can't seem to go forward.
Instead, she finds herself constantly having to go back and re-read sections to understand them. But perhaps, she thinks, in the limbo in which she finds herself, waiting into the future for a visitation from her past, that mode of reading is right for her,
rather than the kind of reading where you forge ahead to find out what happens. I don't know how to put it exactly, but there is a sense of time wavering irregularly when you try to forge ahead. If what is in front is behind and what is behind is in front, it doesn't really matter, does it? Either way is fine.
Finally, she lights on a regular preoccupation of Murakami, and of this novel, the distance that necessarily separates us from others:
"It feels like I'm experiencing someone else's dream. Like we're simultaneously sharing feelings. But I can't really grasp what it means to be simultaneous. Our feelings seem extremely close, but in reality there's a gap between them."

"I wonder if Proust was aiming for that sort of sensation."

Aomame had no idea.

"Still, on the other hand," Tamaru said, "time in this real world goes ever onward. It never stands still, and never reverses course."

"Of course. In the real world time goes forward."
Except, of course, as Proust knew, when it doesn't, or when its relentless forward motion is made a mockery of by the palpable loss that is the past and that we carry with us, at times almost unbeknownst to ourselves, and that occasionally springs to such undeniable life that it takes over our present, or even our future.

A final note: don't let Tamaru--who is a wonderfully drawn character, a highlight of the book--fool you. You need not wait until you're jailed or on the run to read the whole of Proust. It's always there for you, funny and moving and insightful and unforgettable. Ask your favorite bodyguard for a set today.

Friday, November 04, 2011

"A pool of mysterious question marks"

I'm deep in to Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 now, and the desire to return to it--which last night took me on a twenty-minute roundtrip walk from my bus stop to my office, where I'd left it, and back--is going to keep me from blogging substantially tonight.

One thing I thought was worth noting, however, is a section that feels like a brief apology--in both senses of that word--from Murakami for the fact that his novels are often difficult to interpret or pin down to any definite meaning. One of the main characters, Tengo, is reading reviews of the novel Air Chrysalis, which has been published as the work of a seventeen-year-old girl but in actuality was expanded and rewritten by Tengo, and he quotes from one:
"As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious questions marks. This may well be the author's intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of 'authorial laziness.' While this may be fine for a debut work, if the author intends to have a long career as a writer, in the near future she may well need to explain her deliberately cryptic posture."

Tengo cocked his head in puzzlement. If an author succeeded in writing a story "put together in an exceptionally interesting way" that "carries the reader along to the very end," who could possibly call such a writer "lazy"?

But Tengo, in all honesty, had nothing clear to say to this. Maybe his thoughts on the matter were mistaken and the critic was right. He had immersed himself so deeply in the rewriting of Air Chrysalis that he was practically incapable of any kind of objectivity. He now saw the air chrysalis and the Little People as things that existed inside himself. Not even he could honestly say he knew what they meant. Nor was this so very important to him. The most meaningful thing was whether or not one could accept their existence as a fact, and Tengo was able to do this quite readily. . . . Still, Tengo's reading of the story was his and his alone. He could not help feeling a certain sympathy for the trusting men and women who were "left in a pool of mysterious question marks" after reading Air Chrysalis. He pictured a bunch of dismayed-looking people clutching at colorful flotation rings as they drifted aimlessly in a large pool full of question marks. In the sky above them shone an utterly unrealistic sun. Tengo felt a certain sense of responsibilty for having foisted such as state of affairs on the public.
But Tengo--and perhaps Murakami?--is only willing to extend his sympathy and sense of responsibilty so far. The world, Tengo thinks to himself, is a complicated and confusing place, with few answers. Should a novel aspire to be anything less than that, or more than a riveting story?
As a story, Air Chrysalis was fascinating to many people. It had fascinated Tengo and Komatsu and Professor Ebisuno and an amazing number of readers. What more did it have to do?
On a Friday night when I've got 350 pages to go, I'm not going to complain.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The harvest is in

{Photos by rocketlass.}

It's hard to top a month that brings a Cardinals world championship, the first new book by Helen DeWitt in more than a decade, Claire Tomalin's Dickens bio, 900 pages of new Stephen King, and 900+ pages of what seems to be regarded as Haruki Murakami's masterpiece, 1Q84. The harvest is in, folks.

I'll have more to say about Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods later. For now, I'm immersed in the Murakami. (On the train tonight, a woman saw me reading and said, "You're so far already!", just as I'd been thinking, "Oh, I wish I'd been able to find more time to read this the past few days!") Not surprisingly, it's full of his typical points of interest--ears, young girls, sex, detailed bachelor cooking, music, doubles--all described in his usual deliberately flat, affectless prose, sentences which, like those of Bolano, manage simultaneously to be plainspoken and pregnant with unarticulated deeper meaning (and often dread).

Three hundred and fifty pages in, I've got no real sense of where the story is going, or even what Murakami's planning to draw out of his usual themes of memory, trauma, and the way that an ordinary life can suddenly--and sometimes catastrophically--be catapulted into a new, strange realm. What's fun (and new? or am I forgetting an earlier book?) is how deliberately he foregrounds his use of that sort of slippage between realities. In the opening pages, a woman in a taxi is stuck in traffic on one of Tokyo's elevated expressways. She's going to be late for a meeting, so the driver suggests a shortcut down a hidden service stairway. Be careful, he tells her,
"And also," the driver said, facing the mirror, "please remember: things are not what they seem."

Things are not what they seem, Aomame repeated mentally. "What do you mean by that?" she asked with knitted brows.

The driver chose his words carefully: "It's just that you're about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day--especially women."

"I suppose you're right."

"Right. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I've had that experience myself. But don't let appearances fool you. There's always only one reality."
That warning--familiar, if in different, nearly reversed form, from the warnings that pepper fairy tales and folk tales just before the hero chooses a fateful turn in the road--reads almost like a dare: yes, Murakami seems to be saying, I'm going to be doing this again, splitting the world and asking you to choose. Come along.