Saturday, February 27, 2010

Not quite Ozymandias… but a perfect iPhone read

I Am Ozzy
Ozzy Osbourne
Grand Central Publishing, 2010
Hardcover, 416 pages (includes photos)
(Review based on iPhone Kindle version)

Recently I added the Amazon Kindle app to my iPhone, just to see what it would be like to read a book on a mobile device. Then I was faced with the problem of what book to download first.

I didn’t want it to be a book that might be possessed of such literary quality that I would want it sitting on my bookshelf evoking moods and memories after I had finished reading it, and I didn’t want it to be one of those books that needs to be lying around the house for visitors to see so they can appreciate my au courant-cy (Malcolm Gladwell and Stephen Hawking would fall into this category).

I didn’t want it to be anything too serious and substantial because I wasn’t sure how well heavy prose would go with such a tiny screen, or how easy it would be to flip back five or 100 pages to check on something I’d forgotten (I have a sort-of photographic memory when it comes to where on a certain page I read things, which comes in handy when I am reading books but would probably be a wasted talent with a mobile device). So War and Peace was out (although I really must read that book some day). 

I needed something light and entertaining.

I was walking through Indigo one day when my first e-book suggested itself to me. It was I Am Ozzy, a memoir by Ozzy Osbourne. This selection may come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog who know that I tend to be a literary snob, but it won’t come as a surprise to those who know of my fondness for popular culture. 

As it turned out, I Am Ozzy was a perfect choice: not only perfect for the medium, but perfectly diverting. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Ozzy and Me

I am an aficionado of music from almost all eras and of almost all types, but I was only peripherally aware of Ozzy Osbourne until the day I accidentally tuned in the Canadian feed of The Osbournes from the USA back in 2002 or so. I was uninterested in heavy metal, and had never listened to Black Sabbath, nor did I have much inclination to do so: I’d heard Ozzy chomped the heads off bats, which pretty much put me off him. But like millions of other North Americans, I was soon hooked on MTV’s early-days-reality series. It followed Ozzy, his wife Sharon and two of their three children as they fought, fumbled, cried and laughed their way through their bizarre daily lives.

If The Osbournes had ever been intended to show that famous people live the same kinds of lives as the rest of us do (which I don’t think it could have been), it failed miserably. I will never forget the “f***”-based streams of otherwise largely unintelligible babble that poured out of Ozzy’s mouth (every syllable of which was broadcast in Canada; by contrast, the “fucks” were bleeped out in the U.S.) as he attempted to change channels on the television, discovered an MTV camera in some space he considered private, or stepped into yet another pile of feces deposited throughout the house by one of the army of unhousebroken canines that were such dearly loved members of the Osbourne clan.
Nor will I easily erase from my mind such images as Sharon and Ozzy throwing a ham over the fence at a neighbour whose stereo was too loud, or Ozzy’s efforts (largely unsuccessful, despite the fact that several members of the Beverly Hills Fire Department were on hand to coach him) to start a bonfire on the beach.

Over the next couple of years of watching this insane show, I became a huge fan of Sharon Osbourne’s. She was admittedly rather goofy herself, but there was no doubt who ran the ship that constituted not only Ozzy’s career, but also the family as a whole. She had a mind like a steel trap—but in spite of that, she not only tolerated the insanities of her husband and children but seemed to let them roll off her back like water from a duck. She was there to support and encourage them no matter what they were doing or feeling, even when she was deathly ill herself as a result of her treatments for colon cancer. No den could have had a fiercer guard: I’m sure that even a pit bull would come off badly if it made any indication it might harm a member of Sharon’s family. Paparazzi wouldn’t stand a chance.

But Ozzy remained an enigma to me. He seemed either drunk or stoned nearly all the time, and confused about everything—from what was the matter with his children to how to operate a barbeque. Like most people, no doubt, I assumed that years of alcohol and drug abuse had simply fried his brain.
On the other hand, it occurred to me—as it turns out it did to Ozzy as well—that perhaps he was afflicted by some debilitating disease. But if he had been like this all along, what, I wondered, had ever attracted such an obviously bright, capable and funny woman as Sharon Osbourne to not only care for him and stand beside him, but to love him to bits—as she clearly did—for all these many years?
Well, now I have a better idea about that.

What I learned from reading I Am Ozzy, among other things, is that he is bright and funny, too. He is charmingly self-deprecating, and knows how to tell a story better than many writers I know. He has an instinctive knack for plot when it comes to recounting the incidents that have plagued him throughout the years, employing a structure that includes beginning, middle and end to effect whether the story is hilarious or sobering. Thanks to Ozzy I found myself laughing out loud on airplanes and subways, and even more remarkably I came to sympathize with him and understand him well enough that I can see why Sharon is so fond of him.

The Memoir

Ozzy makes no pretense to be a literary artist – no long descriptive, evocative or detailed passages for him. He’s a meat-and-potatoes writer. As a dyslexic, although the condition was undiagnosed until he was in his thirties, he is also not widely read. (His best subject in school–ironically, as he points out—was heavy metalwork.) But right from the beginning—which occurs in the British Midlands city of Aston—he does manage to convey very clearly to the reader the situations in which he found himself, and how he felt about them.

Born John Michael Osbourne in 1948, Ozzy had a genuine interest in and talent for music and, like so many others in that region at that time, The Beatles gave him hope that he might escape an otherwise lack-lustre future by singing in a band. He didn’t play guitar, and there were lots of front men around, but his normally undemonstrative, skeptical and impoverished parents came across with an asset that made him a hot commodity among other young musicians: they bought him a PA system.

After a few setbacks, each of which caused him to step back despondently toward the abyss of working-class life in post-war Aston—and even landed him in jail at one point— he finally attracted a lead guitarist (Tony Iommi, who almost quit music before he even got really started when a metal press ripped two fingers off his right hand), a bass guitarist (Terry “Geezer” Butler) and a drummer (Bill Ward). Together, they had enough talent, determination and luck—and rage at the soft middle-class wussiness of the Hippie movement—to basically launch the era of heavy-metal rock.

And so the road between Ozzy and most of the others who grew up in his neighbourhood diverged forever. By the time he was 25, almost everything he desired was his merely for the asking, and beautiful women, booze and drugs seemed to arrive unbidden on his doorstep wherever Black Sabbath played.

It is in relating his escapades early in Black Sabbath’s fame that Ozzy really hits his stride as a story-teller. The several scenes that made me laugh out loud (in spite of myself on the level of political correctness) included the horrifically jerky stop-start car trip he and his wife made to the hospital after her waters broke. Their automobile (of course) featured a standard or manual transmission, and Ozzy at the wheel was half drunk, rattled about the impending birth, and had never before in his life been behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. He did not perform well.

Another bizarrely funny tale involved the day on which Ozzy’s paranoia inadvertently contributed to the worst scenario he could possibly have imagined—surrounded as he was at that moment by large quantities of cocaine and top-quality marijuana: the arrival on the doorstep of the band's rented Bel Air home of the police. (Envision a panicked Ozzy imploring his band-mates to help him snort countless grams of coke off the bathroom floor before the cops come in and find them, and you’ll begin to get the picture.)

It is still beyond me why Ozzy’s first wife put up with his shenanigans, or his friends and acquaintances for that matter, but Ozzy understands that, and his moments of regret are quite obviously sincere. His deep love and respect for Sharon and his children is clear throughout, and he is fair and even compassionate when discussing his fellow musicians and the circumstances that contributed to his firing from Black Sabbath.

Don’t get me wrong: Ozzy has been no saint in his dealings with people in general, particularly women, and it is impossible to empathize with him sometimes no matter how genuine he feels. His relish for the only “real” job he ever liked, which was in a slaughterhouse, almost put me off eating meat forever, and I still can’t forgive him for the bat. However, there is something about his humour and his insight—and his ability to recognize himself as the master of his own misfortunes and the ridiculous situations into which he gets himself—that help to redeem him in the long run.

There can be no doubt that a ghost-writer was involved in the creation of I Am Ozzy, but anyone who has spent more than ten minutes watching The Osbournes will be certain that Ozzy is the author of the memoir. Still, this story is told from his perspective, looking out, and it is a very different Ozzy than the one we see when the cameras are looking in on him.

When I told a friend of mine about my central revelation while reading the book—Ozzy’s own intelligence and level of self-awareness—she reminded me of a scene I had forgotten from The Osbournes. In it, Sharon has arranged to have bubbles fall from the sky at one of Ozzy’s concerts. When he sees them and realizes what they are, he says, “Bubbles? We can’t have bubbles, Sharon! I’m the fucking Prince of Darkness!”

That about sums it up.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Masochist: Inside Out

Howard Jacobson
The Act of Love
Penguin Canada, 2009
Softcover, 308 pages

Well, here is a peculiar situation. I have just read a book I didn’t much like, one that left me with somewhat ambivalent feelings about the man who wrote it. But that book has also tempted me to read more works by the same author: I’m fairly sure I’ll like his others better.

The Act of Love is the tenth novel and 14th book by British writer and academic Howard Jacobson. My interest was piqued by an interview I read last fall with Jacobson about the book, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard of him before. He is an award-winning author whose 2006 novel Kalooki Nights was long-listed for the Man Booker prize, and he’s a regular contributor of opinion pieces to major British newspapers. According to Wikipedia, his propensity for creating fictional doppelgangers of himself and for writing comic novels involving Jews have earned him comparisons to Philip Roth.

The protagonist of The Act of Love is the singularly unsympathetic owner of an antiquarian bookshop in the Marylebone district of London by the name of Felix Quinn. Felix has come to believe that the search for pain is fundamental to human nature, deriving his evidence primarily (and at some times more convincingly than others) from the literary and visual arts. He also believes that of all human activity, love offers the most opportunity for pain, and he sets out to explore his own masochistic tendencies by turning himself into a cuckold. In the depths of misery, jealousy and humiliation he is certain he will find fulfillment.

"No man has ever loved a woman," he insists, "and not imagined her in the arms of someone else…. No man is ever happy—truly genitally happy, happy at the very heart of himself as a husband—until he has proof positive that another man is f***ing her.” [asterisks mine]

Previously unlucky in love, Felix has managed to win the sophisticated, aloof and beautiful Marisa away from her first husband—partly thanks (he says) to his exceptional ability to carry on an intelligent discussion, and partly because he knows the location of the neighbourhood’s best restaurants. Marisa is so lovely and so self-possessed that one would think that the very fact of being in love with her would in and of itself have been enough to bring Felix to his knees in exquisite agony. However, he discovers that the usual piquancies of married life will not be enough for him when, during their honeymoon in Cuba, Marisa falls ill and is attended by a physician who touches her breasts in Felix’s presence as part of the examination. This sets Felix off on his marital mission (or obsession)—one that eclipses all of his other interests—which is to secure the perfect lover for his wife.

After a few false starts, during which Felix leaves the selection of the lovers to Marisa, he decides that a man named Marius, whom he has previously met at a funeral in Shropshire and who has now come to live in Marylebone, will be the ideal instrument to assist in his own betrayal.

“He was handsome, if you find high and hawkish men handsome. As a non-predatory man myself, I felt intimidated by him. But that’s part of what being handsome means, isn’t it: instilling fear.”

Felix is no voyeur: he has no interest in actually seeing his wife physically engage in the act of love with another man; rather he gains his pleasure (or at least the pain that masochists define as pleasure) first by imagining and later by hearing Marisa relate the intimate details of her passionate afternoons with Marius.

“I ceded preference to Marius. I liked following him. It satisfied my sulphurous desire to be demeaned, the last in a line of obscene pursuit—Marisa laying down her scent, Marius tracking her, and I trailing in the rear of them both, like a wounded dog.”

How charming.

The perambulations Felix must go through to bring this relationship to fruition (according to the rules he has invented for his game, Marius and Marisa must fall for one another of their own accord) would surely be enough to discourage most mortals, even the obsessive ones. But Felix takes as much pleasure from the challenges of accomplishing his mission as he does in its achievement.

As his scheme gradually unfolds, Felix regales us with a list of his literary and artistic predecessors—which includes not only those with clearly masochistic perspectives, such as Georges Bataille, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the artist Pierre Klossowski, but also the less obviously complicit—Vladimir Nabakov, James Joyce, George Eliot and Charles Dickens to name a few. Felix even argues at some length and with a fair degree of success that Shakespeare’s Othello was driven by a lust similar to his own (‘“I had been happy if the general camp had tasted [Desdemona’s] sweet body,’ Othello says”). And yet we feel that the most appropriate fictional counterpart to Felix’s efforts to deploy Marisa and Marius in the fulfillment of his twisted fantasies can be found in Dr. Hannibal Lecter (to whom he also refers)—for his erudition as well as his cruelty. Felix Quinn is so intelligent and sly, and so manipulative, that we suspect that he may even be aware that he is a literary invention himself, and be looking forward to assuming a position of prominence among the great sexual masochists of world fiction.

Felix is a highly unreliable narrator. He keeps readers on our guard, constantly forcing us to step back from the tale to assess whether the information he conveys to us is something he could actually know or not. By the end of the novel we are so uncertain of our footing that if Felix were to tell us that the entire affair he has so carefully engineered between Marisa and Marius had been a fabrication (and indeed, he does hint that this may be the case), we would not doubt him for a moment.

Well, at least not at first. Later, maybe we would. Later still, maybe not again.

As uncertain as we may be about the reliability of the stories Felix tells us, The Act of Love is a novel, not a reality show, and we never feel (as we might with a newer or less talented writer) as though our ambivalence been achieved with anything less than deliberate manipulation on the part of the author. Furthermore, as unpleasant as Felix is, Jacobson has created a highly sympathetic character in Marisa: beyond her beauty, aloofness and betrayal of her husband is an obviously kind and conscientious person, a woman who protects those she loves even from her own pain. It is not easy to create a sympathetic character through the eyes of an unsympathetic one: it takes talent to do that.

The scope of the philosophical deliberations into which Jacobson invites us are also tantalizing. Among the moral issues we consider as we read The Act of Love is whether Marisa’s willing participation in the betrayal makes Felix less of a scoundrel for having engineered it. Further, we wonder whether Felix should still be defined as a masochist if he has facilitated the affair…does he not thereby become a sadist? Finally we ask ourselves whether Marisa’s relating the details of her dalliances in Felix’s ear, because she knows it gives him pleasure, does not transform her betrayal into its own act of love.

The questions and issues Jacobson raises are intriguing on artistic as well as ethical levels. At one point, Felix asks us to consider whether some of the great novelists have not been masochists. He compares himself, for example, with Thomas Hardy who first creates the lovely, trusting, innocent Tess—and then defiles and destroys her.

Ultimately, the formality of Felix’s prose and his endless self-analysis create such a distance between him and the reader that we feel no empathy or even sympathy for him, nor do we experience any satisfaction when he is finally discovered and handed his just desserts. But Jacobson is a writer of no small talent and interest. His narrator is very funny when he’s not being repulsive, and there is a way in which this entire novel can be read as a black comedy -- a twisted mockery of romance.

And so, although in the end I wasn’t all that keen on The Act of Love, I'm glad I read it. Next I think I’ll try Kalooki Nights.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Abandon hope

Richard Yates
Revolutionary Road
Vintage Contemporaries, 2008 (original copyright 1961)
Softcover, 355 pages

The back cover of the 2008 edition of Revolutionary Road features a blurb by Kurt Vonnegut, in which he declares the novel to be “The Great Gatsby of [Vonnegut's] time.”

Unfortunately for readers of Yates’s book, the mid-Fifties did not hold a candle to the Roaring Twenties in terms of the pleasures that accrued to the voyeur. At least in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel the excesses and hare-brained escapades of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, not to mention Jay Gatsby himself, gave us some relief from the necessary consideration of the emptiness of their lives.

In Revolutionary Road, by contrast, the lives of the protagonists amount to an unrelieved stretch of monochromatic dullness from the first page to the last. Their story made me wonder (not for the first time) how partners in any marriage ever manage to raise a family, socialize with other couples, remain faithful to one another, stay employed for long enough to secure their pensions, and grow into states of gracious elderhood without flinging themselves from high places in the face of the absolutely devastating boredom that must distinguish at least 90 percent of their waking hours.

Not that this observation is without merit, of course: life can be deadly dull, predictable and mundane, even (or perhaps especially) for the truly gifted and extraordinary. Just as, even for those who expect nothing, it can have moments of high drama, excitement, satisfaction and even joy. In all lives there is a blend, and that Richard Yates chose to present the horrors of ennui nearly undiluted brings me up against the morality not so much of his characters or his novel, but of him.

In brief (as many of you will know from the movie, which I have not yet seen), Revolutionary Road is the story of a young couple—April and Frank Wheeler—who launch their marriage under the delusion that they are vastly superior intellectually and in every other way to their contemporaries. She is an actress in the making, he is languishing almost ironically in a dead-end job with a company that once employed his father—which must mean, by his own definition, that it is far beneath his dignity. The Wheelers view their newlywed circumstances as temporary: when their gifts are recognized by a grateful world, they will soar free of all things mundane and live rich and interesting lives. Never for them the tedium of “the American dream,” which they superciliously envision as a home in the suburbs and a pair of children.

But then April and Frank conceive a child, and before they know it they are beginning to resemble that couple they have always despised. They even have a boy after the girl: how much more American-dreamlike can it get? The inevitable next step in the erosion of their vision is the purchase of a house in Connecticut in which to raise their children. The name of the street encapsulates the desperate bleakness of their lives, and forms the title of the novel.

Frank and April manage to sustain their illusions for a little while longer after moving to Connecticut by attaching themselves to Shep and Milly Campbell, fellow residents of their new neighbourhood—who (for the sake of the friendship, one suspects, and not out of any real conviction) are willing to go along with the conceit that they are all meant for better things. The two couples spend their evenings and weekends drinking together and dissing the other residents in their community. But when they put on a little-theatre play which turns out to be so bad that people start leaving at the intermission, reality begins to insinuate itself—first between the Campbells and the Wheelers, and then between Frank and April.

Once they begin to realize that they are no different (read "better") than any other couple, the only recourse that remains to the Wheelers (aside from facing the truth) is for each of them to believe that as individuals they must be superior to the other. That new conviction seals their fate, causing both of them to start making decisions that have nothing to do with preserving their marriage. (Preserving the larger family seems a non-issue: throughout the novel: the Wheeler children are almost irrelevant. They appear onstage from time to time as needed, but Yates makes no effort to engage our sympathy for them. “From a distance, all children’s voices sound the same,” April observes coolly at one point.)

Before they are through (and when they are through they are truly and utterly done) both Frank and April manage to debase themselves and to betray not only their marriage but their friendships and their pasts.

I cannot think of another book I have read whose setting, characters and plot were so completely, almost terrifyingly, depressing—and that includes Under The Volcano and The Road. At Grand Central Station at the end of his commute one morning, Frank looks around himself , contrasting his life (which has suddenly and temporarily been brightened and energized by an utterly unrealistic and foredoomed plan that he and April have hatched to escape it) to those of the others he sees around him:
How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet. There were endless desperate swarms of them hurrying through the station and the streets, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.
Many years ago I read On Moral Fiction by John Gardner, in which he argued that the writer has an ethical responsibility to push away the chaos that distinguishes so much of human life. Revolutionary Road fails to meet one basic requirement I have since developed as part of my own literary theory, which is that major characters who are doomed must at least be given a way out—and given at least an option to accept it or decline it. April and Frank have been given none. Their fate is sealed by the world in which they live, and they are not bright or imaginative enough to save themselves from it.

My reaction to Revolutionary Road may sound to some as unaware and witless as telling Phillip Larkin to “cheer up.” They may see this novel as a contribution to the “slice of life” variety of literature, and be satisfied with that. Not me. Yates's writing (unlike Larkin’s) is not of a calibre to lift the story above the mundane world that it describes, nor does the novel provide the reader with any perspective or at least wry wariness that might serve as a tool for addressing his or her own reality.

Long after I finished reading the desperate tale of Frank and April Wheeler, I continued to ask myself whether the stultifying and horrible dilemma in which this couple found itself (which is, keep in mind, no more or less than the reality of many marriages) even merited the attention of a novel. I do not believe it did.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2009 Mary W. Walters

Friday, January 16, 2009

Laughing all the way to the end

Don DeLillo
White Noise
Penguin Books, 1986
Softcover, 326 pages

Recent comments about White Noise (first published in 1984) have pointed out Don DeLillo’s prescience in relation to the acts of terrorism and environmental disaster—even school shootings--that have riddled American history in the interim. I contend that if you try to list every possible potential cause of death and you have a great imagination, you are certain to sound as though you can predict the future. As they say, even clocks that have stopped ticking are accurate twice every day.

Not that DeLillo should be in any way compared to a stopped clock. If anything, the writing in this novel can best be described as “timeless,” dealing as it does with the ultimate ironic quandary of all thinking humans—i.e., how our awareness of our own mortality can overwhelm our attempts to fully be alive.

A friend of mine bought White Noise for me in 1987 and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I felt no reluctance to read it—I always thought I would. I just didn’t get around to it till now. (I have quite a few books like that: fortunately for my relationship with her, the same friend didn’t give all of them to me.)

When I finally did start to read DeLillo’s eighth novel (he’s published six more since), I regretted that I had left the pleasure so long—but it is hard to stay regretful when you are enjoying yourself so much. DeLillo is a wonderfully funny writer and several times I had to stop reading White Noise on the bus because I was afraid my bursts of laughter might irritate (or alarm) my fellow travelers. But he is also insightful and compassionate, and his deep love for the characters he has created—quirky though they all are—is one of the great strengths of this novel.

Jack Gladney, the novel's protagonist, is a professor who has cleverly created a scholarly niche for himself by establishing the first Hitler-studies program at a U.S. university. Jack is also the custodial parent of three offspring from his previous four marriages (which included two to the same woman). He and his fifth wife, Babette, are raising these three and two of hers, and all of the children, like Jack and Babette themselves, are masterful fictional creations. I grew particularly fond of Heinrich, Jack’s 14-year-old son, who in typical fashion for his age defeats every opinion his father ventures with his deadly adolescent capacity for fact-retention.

The long-suffering Babette (“tall and fairly ample. There is a heft and girth to her”) stoically trudges through her days, mothering the children, looking after Jack, trying to tame her figure by running up and down stadium steps every morning, and teaching old people how to keep their balance. (Which occasions one of my many many favourite one-liners in this novel: “We seem to believe we can ward off death by following the rules of good grooming.”)

Babette is being watched very closely by her daughter, Denise, who believes her mother is popping mood-altering pills. The girl nags Jack into investigating what Babette might be taking, which leads him first to attempts to get some of the drug for himself, and then to examine her relationship with her "pusher"— adding another whole dimension to this intriguing plot.

First and foremost, this book is about death and all the subtle ways it can sneak up on us: Jack and Babette are both obsessed with mortality in general, and specifically with which of them will die first. But the novel is also about the white noise of the title. The tv and radio are always on, always providing a backdrop to the routine of the Gladney family—from the drama of breaking news to the inanity of commercials. Those same media focus the family’s alarmed attention during the central event of the novel—which is the accumulation of a black cloud of deadly chemicals over Iron City following a train accident. In that pre-Internet era, the citizens of Iron City are evacuated to makeshift accommodations just outside of town with little real sense of what is happening to them, how serious the risk may be, or how far the the danger extends.

During the crisis, Jack is exposed briefly to the vapours from the poisonous cloud: the potential effects on his health seem to be largely unknown but are much theorized, and everyone in authority seems to agree that at some point in his life, Jack is going to die. His new mortality may differ very little in actual substance from his mortality before the toxic exposure, but his fears of death are mightily compounded--and that makes a big difference.

There are so many quotable quotes in this book that there was no point in copying them all down. I’m sure it is more pleasurable anyway to simply re-read the novel every couple of years and let those brilliant thoughts, observations, and witty lines rise up toward you and surprise you once again.

However, I did find one entire passage near the end of the book so delightful—and so typical of the wry knowledge and humour that distinguishes White Noise, that I reproduce it here in part. It is spoken by a nun who, Jack Gladney discovers, does not believe in God. In response to Jack’s amazement that members of religious orders may not be believers, she says,
Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.
It is no wonder White Noise was recently named one of the top works of fiction of the past 25 years in a poll by the New York Times. It is powerful, brilliant and courageous—not to mention funny as hell.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sinking Deep Into A Murakami World

Hakuri Murakami
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin
Vintage International/Random Books, 1997
Softcover, 607 pages

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle starts out as a mystery story. Its protagonist, Toru Okada, 30, has just left his job in favour of lounging around the house, performing a few domestic duties and thinking about what he should do with his life. He is roused to action only reluctantly by the disappearance of his cat (which is named after his detested brother-in-law Noboru Wataya), but his investigative initiatives take on more purpose and direction when his wife Kumiko also disappears.

As Kumiko’s absence extends from days to weeks to months, Toru attempts so sift the facts surrounding her departure out of a series of surreal encounters with people who may or may not have information that he needs—including an anonymous siren who attempts to seduce him on the phone; a clairvoyant named Malta Kano who wears a red vinyl hat (and her sister Creta, who was once “defiled” by Wataya); a bright but emotionally detached 16-year-old neighbour, May Kasahara, who is responsible for a recent motorcycle accident that killed her boyfriend and slightly injured her; a henchman of Wataya’s; a man with no face; and a lieutenant named Mamiya who comes to Toru’s house bearing a gift for him from Mr. Honda--an old friend of Kumiko’s family who has just died.

Gradually Toru learns that Kumiko, to whom he has been married for six years but from whom he has been growing more and more estranged for reasons he does not understand, is alive, that she has left him by choice, and that she refuses to return. He resolves to get her back, a decision that requires him to dig deeply—gradually excavating a good deal of her family history—to find out why she left. Toru’s oblique, Zen-like journey to restore his marriage ultimately forces him to learn to recognize himself and Kumiko in a variety of guises, to take on no less a challenge than the wresting of good from evil, and to attempt to learn on an individual basis a few of those lessons of history that seem to elude civilizations as a whole.


The war stories Mr. Honda and Lieutenant Mamiya tell Toru Okada are central to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Toru thinks of them at first as though they were “fairy tales,” but in fact these sections of the book have a realism to them that sets them apart in tone and quality from the frame of the story--the surreal present-time search by Toru for Kumiko. The stories Mr. Honda and Lt. Mamiya relate are vivid, difficult to read, and unforgettable.

During the war, Mr. Honda was a noncommissioned officer with the Kwantung Army. He lost most of his hearing in a battle against the Russians at Nomonhan, on the border between Outer Mongolia and Manchuria. Later in his life, he became a fortune-teller—his talents for prognostication having been apparent even during the war. During several visits to Mr. Honda’s home early in his marriage, visits that occurred at the insistence of Kumiko’s father, Toru not only became steeped in details about a Nomonhan—a battle the Japanese had fought with great bravery and ferocity but had ultimately lost—he also received a personal warning from Mr. Honda to be “careful about water.”

When Mr. Honda dies, he leaves a request that Lt. Mamiya, with whom Honda had worked on a secret mission during the war and subsequently stayed in touch, deliver a wrapped box to Toru Okada. This turns out to have been a pretext (the box is empty) which facilitates Mamiya’s continuing the war story that Mr. Honda has begun. The story reveals truths about Kumiko’s family to Toru that he could not otherwise have learned, and thereby indirectly helps him solve the mystery of Kumiko's disappearance.

One of the most dramatic incidents Mamiya describes involves his being left for dead at the bottom of a dry well by a Russian soldier during the mission in Manchuria. His description of what it was like to spend 24 hours in that well, and to assume that he would die there, haunts Toru (and the reader) for the remainder of the book.
Now and then, I heard the sound of the wind. As it moved across the surface of the earth, the wind made an uncanny sound at the mouth of the well, a sound like the moan of a woman in tears in a far-off world.
But after a cold, desolate night, suddenly “the light of the sun shot down from the opening of the well like some kind of revelation. […] The well was filled with brilliant light. A flood of light. […] The darkness and cold were swept away in a moment, and warm gentle sunlight enveloped my naked body.”

Toru is, in fact, so overcome by the imagery—in all its spiritual and redemptive, if fleeting, glory—that he climbs down into a dry well at an abandoned house at the end of his own street as part of his search for the truths about himself and Kumiko that he is unable to discover on the surface of the planet.

Haruki Murakami is a brilliant writer. His imagination is apparently both boundless and utterly grounded, giving his fiction layer after layer of meaning and reverberation. His deployment of precise detail creates a realistic atmosphere out of the most bizarre and unlikely circumstances – not only when he is depicting scenes of war in excruciating detail, but also in conveying the bizarre and almost unbelievable minutae of a mundane if ludicrous life: such as the day Toru goes to work with May Kasahara, who is employed by a toupee company, and spends the entire afternoon helping her count the number of men entering and leaving a subway station (A) who are really bald, (B) whose hair is very thin, or (C) who have lost a little hair.
When the Mistukoshi clock across the street signalled four o’clock we ended our survey and went back to the Dairy Queen for a cup of coffee. It had not been strenuous work but I found my neck and shoulders strangely stiff.
With this kind of carefully rendered detail we are able to imagine each scene clearly, so how can we possibly doubt the basic premise of the oddball situations in which Toru becomes involved? On every page of this long and fascinating novel, Murakami uses detail to build a credibility that ultimately sustain a whole world of increasingly improbable circumstances. On both superficial and metaphysical planes, these circumstances lead, gradually--and perhaps surprisingly--to an entirely satisfying conclusion.


In his lassitude at the outset of the novel, Toru begins to notice a bird that makes a wind-up sound in a tree near his house, and connects that bird in his mind to a stone bird near the dry well in the abandoned house at the end of his street. Soon after that he is implicated in the bird imagery himself when May Kasahuri begins to call him “Mr. Wind-Up Bird.” In stellar post-modernist fashion there is a novel within this novel that is also called The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but Murakami avoids the cool ironic distance that characterizes so much post-modernist literature; we are connected emotionally to Toru through his despair over his lost love. He cares about Kumiko, and we care about him.

Like some other great works of literature I can think of—Under the Volcano, Faust and Possession, for example—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is like a deep, mysterious, often-frightening dream. It cries out for some sort of Jungian interpretation, and leaves the reader changed, unable to leave it behind. Like those other books as well, because of the power of this novel’s enchantment, the connections it makes with the darker parts of the reader’s own psyche, and the meaning it casts on the world outside its pages, there is something enticing and even exciting about the inability to shake it off. Like a strangely seductive nightmare that is founded on moments of real terror, the temptation is to pick it up once more--right now—to re-enter the dream again.

* * * * *

(Note: I have just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s newest book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir. If you are a novelist or a runner—or, better yet, both—you will love it.)

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters

Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Inconvenient Death

Javier Marías
Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
The Harvill Press, 1998
Softcover, 311 pages

First published in Spanish by Editorial Anagrama in 1995, Javier Marías’ ninth novel (third to be published in English translation) is attracting word-of-mouth attention a decade after its release in English. Last winter, I received recommendations to read it from two friends who do not know one another, both of whose tastes in literature I respect.

Now I pass the recommendation on to you.

While Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me is not a simple read, it is a compelling one. Written for the most part without paragraph breaks for dialogue, the book comprises more than 300 pages of fairly dense text, to all of which the reader needs to pay close attention or find herself marooned mid-page wondering where she is. Not only does Marías create a stream of consciousness for his narrator, his narrator also invents them for other characters in the book—and then refers back to those invented imaginings, leaving the inattentive reader to need suddenly to start flipping back through pages and pages of text to find where the perspective has changed.

Fortunately, attentive reading of Marías’ writing brings innumerable rewards.

One of the reasons this novel is so compelling is its set-up. Here is the opening sentence:
No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember.
With this thought, the narrator, Victor Francés, embarks on a serious (well, perhaps at times only semi-serious) reflection on the host of ways in which one may die at an ignoble and perhaps even embarrassing moment in one’s life, and how the news of such a death may be greeted by the people who knew the now-deceased, depending on how they felt about that person.

We learn, very gradually, detail by detail, how Francés (just now it seems from the way the story is recounted, just a bit earlier this evening) was about to make love to a beautiful young woman, Marta Téllez —how they patiently passed the time until her small son finally went to sleep, how they made their way to the bedroom and into the bed, how they began to undress one another, and then how she began to feel unwell. Soon afterward, she died.

This has turned into a very difficult situation for Francés. He knew the woman very little; her husband is away in England: What is he to do? Whom should he notify? He’d prefer to simply flee, but if he leaves the apartment without telling someone, what will happen to the child?

The convoluted set of circumstances that are precipitated by the death of Marta Téllez turn Tomorrow in the Battle into an intriguing mystery novel that is also a poetic and philosophical exploration of (among numerous other issues) the perplexing forms that life, death, memory and love can take— not to mention the ins and outs of Spanish government bureaucracy.

Tomorrow in the Battle is a book that focuses our attention on connections. Francés is obsessed, for example, with the relationship that he imagines exists between people who have slept with the same people – with his connection, therefore, to Marta’s husband, and with his relationship to the men who have been with his own wife since their marriage came apart.

It is a book about the reliability of memory: at one point Francés—now not having slept for several days—encounters a prostitute who resembles his ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in months, and he begins to wonder if perhaps it is his wife. He offers her money, she takes it, he engineers a quiet moment in his vehicle so that she may earn the money he has given her—still not certain if it is Celia or not.

And it is a book, of course, about vengeance and accountability and—less predictably—the vicissitudes of fate.

Tomorrow in the Battle is an engrossing read, not only because of our curiosity to find out what happens next, but because of the compelling nature of Marías’ use of detail—the slow way he reveals each thought, each scene. Immersed in the narrator’s increasingly edgy stream of consciousness we lose, as he obviously has, the ability to tell the difference between the significant and the insignificant detail:
His [Déan’s, Marta’s husband’s] face grew even more sombre, his energetic chin turned away as if in flight, his beer-coloured eyes glinting wildly as they had when he had left the restaurant and Téllez [Marta’s father] wouldn’t let him pay the bill, but we were not lit now by the greenish light of a storm, only by electric light and, outside, fog which, in the city, looks yellowish or whitish or reddish, it depends.

Marías has been acclaimed by reviewers around the world, and he has been tagged for a future Nobel Prize in the pages of Guardian Books. His novels have won nine international awards, been translated into 34 languages, and sold at least five million copies.

I think he should be even better known. So read this book. If you like it, pass the word along.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters