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

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Sermon Does Not Good Fiction Make

Paul Theroux
The Elephanta Suite
McClelland & Stewart (Emblem), 2007
Softcover, 274 pages

The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas connected by a theme, a few recurring minor characters, and the hotel rooms of the title. All three stories concern the experiences of Americans encountering India for the first time. Their motives and situations vary, but they share a fundamental, and ultimately dangerous, lack of knowledge about the country they are visiting.

In the first novella Beth and Audie Blunden, a wealthy middle-aged couple, have come to India to stay at an Ayurvedic spa. Protected from the political and economic realities of India by the luxury of their accommodation and the efforts of their hosts, both are drawn by the mystique—the very notion of “being in India”—to commit infidelities. They soon discover the error of assuming that nobody matters but them, and that they are safe as long as they keep their indiscretions from one another.

The second novella concerns a Boston lawyer and businessman, Dwight Huntsinger, whose company develops outsourcing opportunities for American businesses. His first one-week trip to Mumbai is an utter horror. (“He had dreaded it, and it had exceeded even his fearful expectations—dirtier, smellier, more chaotic and unforgiving than anywhere he’d ever been.”) But on his next trip, he is lured into paying for sex with a young girl, and gradually he finds his own dark nature seeking its level, drawing him back and back again to relish the power he believes his money gives him over a small group of impoverished residents of the backstreets of Mumbai.

The third story tells the tale of a young woman, Alice, who has come to India from Providence with a university acquaintance. Their plan is to tour the country and then spend time on an ashram but Stella falls in love with a young filmmaker in Mumbai and decides to stay there. Determined that she has the strength to face anything alone, including India, Alice sets off by herself on an adventure that will find her putting her own talents and a hefty dose of misdirected feminism to use in ways that will ultimately bring her down. Like the characters in the previous two stories, she falls in love with India but fails utterly to understand it.

Over and over again in a dozen different ways throughout this book, Theroux reminds us that the longing of Indians for the perceived wealth and ease of the American way of life does not mean that they want to be Americans, or that they even like Americans. He points out the fallibility of westerners who come to India believing they are invisible and free and can therefore do whatever they want, and/or (to add to the confusion) that when they get into trouble, Indian society will deploy the same ethical and legal principles as the ones they might find at home. He demonstrates the ways in which Indians resist western ignorance: through subterfuge, lying, disappearing, ignoring, pretending—all behaviours that reveal their basic lack of interest in and respect for visitors to their country. Their concern is for themselves.

Theroux also wants us to know that only a very small part of India is reflected in the romantic, colourful, mysterious depictions of that country that we receive from other writers—including many of India’s own expatriates—to realize that up close it is for the most part a desperately poor nation where each day millions wage unsuccessful battles to find enough to eat. His message is effectively conveyed: as an avid reader of books about India who has longed for years to go there, I am now convinced to travel there with utmost caution, and to keep in mind that there are many, many boundaries that foreigners cross only at their peril.

Unfortunately, in The Elephanta Suite the message does nothing for the medium. All three novellas seem to have been set up to convey the author’s central lesson, and as a result their plots feel awkward and contrived. The second novella is the most successful–Dwight’s gradual recognition of his own emptiness and ignorance, and his ultimate awareness that the only way to redeem himself is to disappear, also redeem the ending. In the other two cases, the outcomes simply seem manipulated, unsatisfying—even a little old-fashioned.

Theroux is a gifted writer. As in his previous novels, his writing here is evocative and effective—rich in the endlessly fascinating details that seem to distinguish all books about India. He also successfully probes the minds of diverse American characters, although he makes no real effort to delve into the perspectives of the dozens of Indians he writes about; of these, indeed, only two can even be considered genuinely kind.

The Elephanta Suite serves as an easily digested (if unpleasant and disturbing) warning to those who would attempt to get a close-up view of India. However, Theroux’s apparent need to steer his characters in directions that will deliver this message undermines the quality of the fiction.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mostly Bewitched, But Also A Bit Bewildered

Salman Rushdie
The Enchantress of Florence
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2008
Hardcover, 356 pages

I am an enthusiastic fan

I am an enthusiastic fan of Salman Rushdie’s writing. I have read most of his novels and many of his essays. In my estimation, he is one of the top five fiction writers in the English-speaking world, and the publication of his latest novel is an event I greet with credit card extended: there will be no waiting for the paperback for me.

Consequently, when I say that The Enchantress of Florence is not Rushdie’s greatest book, my assessment is based on a whole different measuring system than I would apply to almost any other writer. I have no doubt that this man’s grocery lists are of superior literary quality to much of the writing being published today, and my remarks are offered in that context.

The six pages of bibliography at the end of this novel, which is Rushdie’s tenth, indicate the amount of research that went into The Enchantress of Florence. The resources that have been consulted span subjects from the obscure to the panoramic—Italian witchcraft, the Medici, the Renaissance, the history of India, the Ottoman Empire, the reign of the Mughals and the life of Amerigo Vespucci being just a few examples.

This reference list may also suggest the source of the novel’s most significant flaw: there is just too much unanchored detail in this book. Those of us who are not steeped in the history in which Rushdie has immersed himself (which, at least in the Western world, must include most of us) frequently find ourselves politically and even geographically adrift. The construction of entire paragraphs out of details that are basically irrelevant to the plot do little to draw the reader in:

“[Akbar] also sprang by direct descent from the loins of the man whose name was Iron. In the language of his forefathers the word for iron was timur. Timur-e-Lang, the limping iron man. Timur, who destroyed Damascus and Baghdad, who left Delhi in ruins, haunted by fifty thousand ghosts. Akbar would have preferred not to have had Timur for a forebear. He had stopped speaking Timur’s language, Chaghatai, named after one of the sons of Genghis Khan…” (etc, etc)

I do not expect to be a passive participant when I am reading, and I often have atlases and other references at hand so that I can better understand the context of a novel, but in this case I would have been grateful for some help from the author: the weaving in of a few explanations regarding the physical extent of the Mughal empire (at its peak in the mid-1500s, which includes the time frame of this novel, it encompassed 1.5 million square miles of the Indian subcontinent), historical connections among the Turks, Persians and Mongols, the history of contact between European royalty and the Mughals, and a few other bits of background would have been a help. And where in the world was Sikri, the city that Akbar built, which is where most of the “present” time frame of the novel takes place? (I know the answer now. I recommend that you find it out before you start to read.) A map or two would have also been most welcome.

The need to wade through paragraphs

The need to wade through paragraphs of historical detail which offer all of the excitement of the “begats” in Genesis may be a chore that is reluctantly assumed, but it is also one that is forgiven each time we come across an example of Rushdie’s flair for the evocative, of which there are hundreds in this book. Take his description of emperor Akbar’s longing for genuine intimacy. Akbar is the central character of this novel—a man so powerful, Rushdie tells us, that despite the fact that his name means ‘great,’ it was considered no redundancy to call him “Akbar the Great.”

After a battle in which Akbar kills an opponent with whom he might under other circumstances have enjoyed a stimulating conversation, he reflects on the isolation his eminence has conferred upon him. He considers the joy he would feel were he able speak of himself in the first person singular rather than the formal “we,” or to be addressed informally by others. “Might that little word, that tu turn out to be the most arousing word in the language?” he wonders. “‘I,’ he practiced under his breath. Here ‘I’ am. ‘I’ love you. Come to ‘me’.”

In those few sentences, the reader gains an appreciation not only for Akbar’s almost mythic stature and the loneliness to which it has condemned him, but also the extent of his longing to be loved by someone who is his equal. Akbar has gathered around him the most brilliant and talented men as his advisors, and the most beautiful and interesting women as his wives, but he remains a man without intellectual or visionary equal. Even Jodha, the woman he loves most in the world, the “scholar of his need,” is unable to appreciate, much less satisfy, his longing for fundamental intimacy—which is ironic since the emperor has invented her.

Jodha embodies Akbar’s concept of perfection—“She was immortal, because she had been created from love.” She haunts the corridors of his palace, freed by her provenance from the confines of the women’s quarters but also utterly alone, ignored by the rest of the court when Akbar is away at war, envied and hated because of her pre-eminence in his affections when he is at home.

Into this situation

Into this situation comes a man from the west who calls himself the Mogor dell’Amore, the mughal of love, who claims to be the emperor’s uncle. To support his claim, he begins to relate the story of the Enchantress of Florence, aka Lady Black Eyes (aka Qara Köz, aka Angelica)—a woman with superhuman powers who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, and was beloved by a succession of powerful rulers and worshipped by entire populations.

Qara Köz was a magician and a temptress and clearly her powers have extended beyond the grave for, as the story of Mogor progresses, everyone in Sikri falls under the spell of the Enchantress. Even Akbar’s love for Jodha is fatally compromised. Furthermore, in the Mogor, the emperor believes he may have found a man who, unlike his sons, will be able to provide him with a trustworthy and appropriate successor. (“His sons would grow up into glittering heroes with excellent moustaches and they would turn against him, he could already see it in their eyes. Among their kind…it was customary for children to plot against their crowned sires, to attempt to dethrone them, to imprison them in their own fortresses or on islands in lakes or to execute them with their own swords.”) This kind of thinking about the Mogor does not contribute to peace in Akbar’s kingdom, of course, and it ultimately leads to power struggles, wars and the devastation of Akbar’s wondrous city.

It is a hallmark of Rushdie’s narrative style that magic realism meets myth meets history in a way that allows the reader to catch glimpses of the possible through the gauze of the fantastic. In one scene, the kingdom’s pre-eminent vocalist is badly burned when he sings the song of fire—the Deepak raag—so beautifully that he causes the lamps to burst into flames. “In the ecstasy of the performance he hadn’t noticed his own body beginning to show scorch marks as it heated up under the fierce blaze of his genius.” The magical is always deliciously inseparable from the real, and both metaphorical and concrete interpretations come together seamlessly. In the case of Jodha, not only are we uncertain whether the other members of the emperor’s court actually see her or whether it is merely Akbar’s power which causes them the desperate need to do so, we also understand that it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

This is a book about

This is a book about the nature of love, but it also reflects deeply on the importance of narrative. The redemptive, transformative and even life-saving power of storytelling is a subject that has intrigued Rushdie in the past, and he returns to the theme again and again throughout this book. When the Mogor is imprisoned in a dungeon, we are told that “he felt his story slipping away from him, becoming inconsequential, ceasing to be. He had no story. There was no story. He was not a man.” The sign of his return to life and health is the return of his voice. The ability to tell story is essential, Rushdie suggests, to being human and alive.

Not only does Rushdie explore the power of story, he also shows by example how powerful a strong narrative can be. Although the novel’s multiplicity of facts are (I am sure) historically correct, those same details also so successfully support the metaphorical and magical aspects of the narrative in such a way that they all come together with a satisfying chunk at the end—like the grooves and tongues in a solidly constructed cabin.

Rushdie’s strengths as a story-teller and a writer are everywhere in The Enchantress. He is open-minded, wise and visionary. He is hugely intelligent, of course: trite is not his currency. He deals in larger issues (“Maybe there was no true religion,” Akbar considers. And later, he says, “Only when we accept the truths of death can we begin to learn the truths of being alive.”)

In The Enchantress of Florence, as always, Rushdie is the consummate feminist. His female characters are strong, resilient, inventive—even inspiring to the female reader, which is always a nice bonus in a book by a male writer. Whether they live in 16th-century Florence or 21st-century New York, Rushdie’s women always take a firm hand in deciding their own fates.

As Sir Rushdie himself has stated recently to the press, he’s also funny: “When [Akbar’s aunt] Gulbadan started climbing the family tree like an agitated parrot there was no telling how many branches she would need to settle on briefly before she decided to rest.”

His writing appeals through its liberal perspectives, its powerfully strong characters, and the way he makes words dance. But perhaps what I like best about Rushdie’s writing is its energy. It is always clear that he is excited about his story, and that he exults in the challenge of getting it down for us to read. In his role as author, he is as enchanting as is Lady Black Eyes.

By the way

By the way, each chapter in The Enchantress of Florence takes as its title the chapter’s first few words. I like that idea. It draws the reader in.

In fact, I like a lot about this book. (More, now that I’ve reread sections in order to write this essay than I did before I started!) But if you are afraid of reading Rushdie, as many people are—perhaps concerned he will be too difficult—don’t start here. Read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, or Shalimar the Clown. They are better introductions to the innumerable pleasures of reading Rushdie.

The Enchantress of Florence is a book for those already held in Rushdie’s sway. These are the readers who are prepared to pick away the inessential threads until they find the tapestry. The tapestry itself is marvelous, and more than worth the effort.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Creating The Centre That Holds

Joseph O’Neill
Pantheon, 2008
Hardcover, 256 pages

I loved Netherland. Joseph O’Neill is a master of the craft of fiction at its most magical—not in the way of John Banville or Doug Self, for example, by calling attention to his own talents at prestidigitation, but by making them invisible. The insights of Hans van den Broek, O’Neill’s narrator in this novel, into the lives of family and friends, as well as those for whom he must imagine lives—his co-workers and his fellow denizens of the Chelsea Hotel, for example—are brilliant enough to cast light on the experiences of all of us, as are the webs he weaves to show how all lives in all times may be connected to one another in unexpected ways.

In essence, Netherland is a story about a man whose wife leaves him in the physical and emotional upheavals that follow the events of September 11, 2001 in New York City. Van den Broek was born in Holland, where he grew up in a relatively bucolic setting, doted upon by his mother, becoming, among other things, an avid and—we gather—fairly skilled player of the complex, drawn-out game of cricket. His wife Rachel is a native of London, where as an adult van den Broek has established a solid career in equities analysis. They have moved together to NYC on the only kind of lark that could meet the requirements of a financial analyst–both of them are capable of earning excellent livings, they can afford to live where they want to live (TriBeCa), and NYC is not so foreign to them that they are unable to easily adapt. But then dawns the morning of 9/11 and by day’s end everything that is not dead or destroyed is fractured—including the relationship between Hans and Rachel. Their apartment is near Ground Zero, and they move into a suite in the Chelsea Hotel during the ensuing clean-up; it is from those quarters that their fractures become palpable, and Rachel decides—for political as well as emotional reasons—that she must leave New York.

Rachel takes their son back to her parents’ home in London; Hans stays in New York, hoping his family will return and everything will go back the way it was, and in the meantime flying back and forth for unsatisfactory visits to London every other weekend. He lives out the times between his trips in a state of rage at Rachel and his circumstances, and a kind of fog (a “neverland,” if you will) in which the importance of the family, career and future he has so painstakingly constructed collapse into meaninglessness. By happenstance rather than design, he becomes part of a pickup team of primarily West Indian cricket aficionados, who bring their own rules and expectations for the game –most of which are substandard according to van den Broek’s “old world” expectations for space and greenery. Based on their mutual love for cricket, and despite their vastly different childhood associations with it, van den Broek develops an odd friendship with a Trinidadian umpire named Chuck Ramkissoon, a doomed blend of small-criminal-mindedness, charm, and overwhelmingly naïve optimism regarding his potential to attain fame and fortune on American soil.

I have read several reviews of Netherland that described it as reflecting a post-9-11 world view among North Americans and Britons that is characterized by despair if not utter hopelessness. These reviewers interpret the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage, and its subsequent resumption on vastly different terms (less passionate, more resigned)—not to mention his ‘descent’ into disillusionment with the American Dream as personified by Ramkissoon—as reflecting a resignation and diminishment of expectation on the part of thinking society as a whole.

I disagree. While it is true that this novel portrays a new way of looking at reality than has traditionally been the case in my experience, either in the real world or in literary fiction, to me the perspective fashioned by its author is full of hope, and grounded in reality rather than strung by fragile threads on airy dreams. The confrontation during which van den Broek speaks the “truth” about Ramkissoon, calling him on his fabrications, dishonesties and fantasies, his ultimate return to the U.K. (which coincides with his relinquishing of the personal promises of self-realization that were offered by New York City)–even his obvious patience in waiting for his partner to resume her relationship with him—suggest that over the course of the novel, Hans van den Broek has attained a maturity that is strong enough on which to build a future.

Much of Netherland is about the game of cricket, and it is a credit to the genius of O’Neill’s writing that a reader can approach the book knowing nothing about the game, hear the narrator sigh mid-explanation about how tired he is of trying to explain it to everyone and give up the attempt, and finish reading the novel still not know anything much about cricket, but have enjoyed the whole book anyway. In that way, it reminded me a little of Field of Dreams vis á vis baseball. I can see a film that will satisfy popular interest coming out of Netherland as well, but this is a far more important book in terms of where we are as a society right now than Field of Dreams ever tried to be. In Netherland, for the first time post 9/11 I have read a book about the disaster that exploded in New York and shook every corner of the world, and seen not only what we've lost, but also what we've gained.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Kleinzahler Writes Fine Poems

August Kleinzahler
Sleeping It Off In Rapid City: Poems New and Selected
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008
Hardcover, 234 pages

I discovered August Kleinzahler when I became intrigued by an article based on an interview with him in the New York Times a couple of years ago, and then read a poem on-line that made me draw in my breath because he'd described an experience so precisely that I recognized everything about it. I immediately ordered Green Sees Things In Waves, a book that pleased me no end, and now I have ordered and received Sleeping It Off in Rapid City: Poems New and Selected—a beautiful book physically, and one which is also a volume of truly excellent poems. Sleeping It Off is a compendium of selections from Kleinzahler's earlier books, most of which I have not yet read, along with some new poems. A few of my favourites so far (I am just finishing the first section of five) are "Shoot The Freak" and "A Valentine: Regarding the Impracticability of Our Love." In addition to his magical way with words and images, I love the way Kleinzahler keeps the quotidian with him when he writes: it is everywhere in his poems, not crushing his work, but rather informing it. He brings popular culture and day-to-day events unexpectedly together with the larger issues that plague us and intrigue us, revealing all of it in a new way.

Take the genius of "I went to see McCarthy," in which the narrator lifts off by plane from a sere mid-west America to revisit "old arguments" in Ireland. He leaves behind "a parched bare land of yellow ochre" and enters Ireland ("swaddled in cloud, all grey and green"). The poem reveals McCarthy's town and his country in the way one might buff a brass image—going over the same area until its shape is gradually made bare and deeply shining. Through echoed images and repeated phrases, still trailing bits of the flat and dry Midwest behind us, we gradually enter the green land, its past and its way of telling stories –gradually enter until we are totally immersed in green. In green and green – learning as we go about the heroic battles that are required to come up with a good pat of Skibbereen butter, and that if something sounds good when you say it once, you might as well say it twice.

So I will: Kleinzahler writes fine poems.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters

Friday, May 2, 2008

Robust, With A Fruity Aftertaste

Jeanette Winterson
Sexing the Cherry
Vintage (Bloomsbury) 1990
144 pages, softcover

I am not going to delve into the public controversies that have characterized much of the life of Jeanette Winterson since the launch of her highly successful first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. What I’ve read about her years in the wastelands of literary popularity (most of the 1990s, apparently) make me fairly sure I agree with the perspectives that got her into trouble, and I surmise that her attitudes toward her writing (roundly criticized as sounding ‘vain’) reflect my own toward my writing—and any true artist’s toward her work. (If one doesn’t utterly commit to working as hard as one can—no matter what one is creating—if one doesn’t therefore take huge pride in what one has accomplished, and if one does not believe one is able to make a difference to the world through all that effort, what is the point?) I guess it’s just not career-enhancing to actually say that in England, any more than it is in Canada.

I am not going to compare Sexing The Cherry to the works by Winterson that preceded or followed it, as I haven’t read them yet. I am also not about to undertake an analysis of inter-textuality in Sexing The Cherry, because I missed most of the references: well, except of course for the references to the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses which is right there in the book, and a few bits and pieces from other sources toward which the author kindly points us.

Instead, twenty years after its publication, and about fifteen years after a friend recommended it to me, and about six years after I bought it on AbeBooks and about five months after reading it, I’m just going to tell you what I think about this novel.

I like Sexing The Cherry a lot. It’s lyrical, magical and mystical. It spans centuries and continents, and sails over oceans to fabulous far-flung places— even sails right out of the temporal and physical and into fairyland sometimes. It rummages through, shakes out and displays the wonders and capacities of a life of the imagination. It tells the truth. It contains the kinds of memorable passages you want to copy into your journal or email to your friends because they speak so directly to your life or theirs. It’s a splendid interweaving of traditional narrative with experimental techniques, including a segue near the end that jams off into the future like a tipped mast, unexpectedly and yet satisfactorily, not to mention the mid-book side-trip into the tales of the aforementioned princesses.

Most of Sexing The Cherry takes place in London in the mid-1600s. It was a busy time for the sort of British history that would need to be recorded, what with a civil war, the usurpation of the throne by Oliver Cromwell, the beheading of King Charles I, the Fire of London, and the Great Plague which ended just prior to the restoration of the monarchy. But this novel is really about love, and specifically the love between a boy and his adoptive mother. Dog-Woman finds the child she names Jordan on the riverbank, takes him in and raises him (with the occasional assistance of the self-described witch next door). Dog-Woman is an unlovable creature—smelly, massive (so large that she has been compared to a mountain range) and hideous, with broken teeth and deeply pocked skin—who has, until she finds the child, kept herself safe from hurt by staying away from love. But she falls in love with Jordan, head-first and damn the torpedoes, as only a mother can.

The neighbour hag warns Dog-Woman that the boy will break her heart—and he does, but only as every child must do his mother, by growing up and leaving home. He continues to love Dog-Woman for his entire life, no matter where he is, and knows that the love is reciprocated—which is the difference between maternal-filial love and the romantic kind that dooms Jordan to years of longing when he falls for the most independent and interesting of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

There’s quite a bit of fruit in this novel. The plot’s precipitating event is the introduction of the banana to England by Thomas Johnson in about 1633: as soon as Jordan, then aged three, sets eyes on this exotic treat, he is ensnared by curiosity for the marvels of the world beyond London—which in those days meant he was destined to leave family behind for years at a time. When he was ten, he met John Tradescant—gardener to the king and raiser of cherries—who would ultimately lead Jordan off to sea and the discovery of worlds that included, among other wonders, the pineapple.

On the basis of the pleasures of reading Sexing The Cherry, plus the reviews and essays I’ve read about Winterson, I am tempted now to read Oranges, and Written On The Body (a later early work that also won the author much acclaim), then to skip over what came out during the 1990s and resume her opus with the.powerbook. Assertive and lyrical both at once: she is my kind of writer.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

With Self at the Wheel, Readers In For An Adventure

Will Self
The Book Of Dave
Bloomsbury, 2006
477 pages plus glossary, hardcover

In my experience, a book by Will Self is not one that can be read quickly. Last fall I bought How The Dead Live (Grove Press, 2000) in a second-hand shop and spent almost a month getting through it. I had to read a few other books along the way just to give myself a break. (Lest you assume I am an abysmally slow reader, I should point out that I do my “leisure” reading mainly late at night, for an hour or so before I sleep, and while on public transit back and forth from work.) As I neared its conclusion, I frequently found myself checking the number on the last page, subtracting the number on the current page, and saying to myself, “50 more to go,” “45 to go” (and ultimately “five to go,” “four,” “three,” “two”), until finally it was done.

One day when I was muttering aloud about the number of remaining pages, my son asked me why I was bothering to finish it if the experience was so painful. I had to think about that for a while. It wasn’t only because I’m obsessive about finishing books I start, especially ones that are difficult or challenging – I don’t always. It wasn’t only that I wanted to find out what happened at the end, although I did. It was also that – despite finding the novel ultimately flawed for reasons that included the heavy responsibility it placed on the reader to keep going and keep going – I had found a writer who set himself huge challenges (not least in that case assuming the voice of a narrator who is both female and dead), and I wanted to find out how he was going to pull it off.

In my estimation he pulled it off enormously well. I would much rather read a book that is occasionally boring and draws waaay too much attention to the cleverness of its author and the size of his vocabulary than I would skim through one where the writer has attempted nothing extraordinary and has successfully attained exactly that. Furthermore, How The Dead Live and its complex, intriguing heroine—trailing her deceased offspring through a London where the dead share the streets with the living—has haunted me since I finished it. Very few books have had the kind of residual impact on me of How The Dead Live.


The Book of Dave proceeded no faster from a reader’s viewpoint than had How The Dead Live – but this time there was no reluctance on my part to read the entire work. In fact, about three quarters of the way through, I was tempted to go back to the beginning and start the whole novel again—despite the fact that I had already invested several weeks in it. By that point, I had finally figured out what was going on in the two time frames of the novel—the first being the approximate present, where Dave the London cabbie is doing his best to survive (in any sense of that word) despite the several betrayals by his duplicitous, greedy and manipulative ex-wife, who takes from him (in more ways than one) the only person he’s ever loved—his son. Dave pours his rage and bewilderment into the writing of a book about how the world ought to be run, of which he prints one copy on metal plates and buries it in the ground. Hundreds of years later, after a flood has destroyed most of England, this book of Dave’s is unearthed and becomes the “bible” for the restructuring of society. It is in this post-apocalyptic England that the alternative segments of the book are set.

It is the sections of the book that are set in the future that slow the reader down—and this time it is because Self has taken his deep knowledge, facility and obvious love and respect for the English language and applied it to the invention of a dialect that is entirely new and yet entirely familiar—and also utterly logical based on the conceit upon which it is constructed. Part of the reader’s slow journey through the future landscape is a puzzling out and gradual realization of how these future denizens have evolved a religion, a culture, a lifestyle and a language on the basis of one cabbie’s “knowledge” of London circa 2000 (“knowledge” being the term the taxi drivers use for their vast store of information about the streets of London and how to navigate them), his views both scathing and appreciative about the workings of his world, and his day-to-day descriptions of the people, things and places that form the immediate fabric of his life.

As we read the “future” sections and peruse the maps included as liners in the book, we gradually gain not only a sense of the geography of this new England (the land called “Ing”), but are able to superimpose it on the England of today and see how the setting of Self’s invented future has evolved. Hampstead Heath has become the Island of Ham. “Emtwenny5” is the name of the wall around the city of New London, the islands known as “Cot” were formerly the Cotswalds. Several times I found myself down on hands and knees comparing the map in the book with the one in my world atlas, trying to figure out how in Self’s mind the name of a community or body of water had evolved. I was never disappointed.

The geography is only the beginning, though. The citizens of Ing have built their entire society, including their religion, around the terminology of the culture, affections and resentments of a London cabbie from the early 21st century. A map is known as an “AtoZ,” the moon is a “headlight,” the day is divided into thirds called “tarrifs,” rain is “screenwash.” “Chellish,” an adjective that includes "bad," "evil," "wanton" and several other terms of disparagement, is derived from the name of Dave’s ex-wife, Michelle. “Dave,” of course, is god—and “Davinanity” is the “established religion of Ing” (hah!)

Not only is the conceit brilliantly executed, the result is a biting commentary on religion, today’s divorce and custody arrangements, non-custodial-fathers’ affirmative-action groups, even our hurried lifestyles that could certainly lead before long to all hot meals being referred to “curries,” all soups as “cupasoups,” and all breakfasts as “starbucks.” Much of the new language of course revolves around vehicles – and taxis in particular. A “soul” is called a “fare,” and a “cab” is the number of fares required to make up one fifth of a congregation. Even the wondrous creature that has evolved to give comfort as well as many of the necessities of life to humans on Ham is called a “moto.” Its offspring are “mopeds.”

(When I was nearly through the book I realized there was a glossary at the end. Although knowing this early on would undoubtedly have sped the reading process, it would probably also have diminished some of the pleasures I experienced as I tried to puzzle out not only what Self meant, but how he’d developed a specific word to apply to a given context. I also read Riddley Walker without a glossary, and recommend that as the only way to approach Russell Hoban’s brilliant novel. The pleasures provided by both books as you try to puzzle out the language are as much derived from astonished admiration at the machinations of the authors’ brains as they are from resolving the meanings of the words themselves. Meaningful invented language is not new, of course—I still take steps to avoid the frumious bandersnatch—but it would no doubt be a horrible experience to experience it in less assured hands than those of Hoban and Self. I have been spoiled beyond redemption now, I am sure.)

To the genuine relief of the reader, a few of the citizens of Ing speak Arpee, rather than Mokni (as the as the new dialect is called). Arpee is much easier to understand than Mokni, as it is almost identical to the English of today (Arpee being a term—for the information of people who, like myself, do not reside in the UK—that has derived in the new Ing Land from a term of long-standing use in England. “Received Pronunciation,” or “RP,” was once considered the most sophisticated dialect in England, and was for a long time the standard for announcers on the BBC.)


In addition to solving puzzles, the reason we want to keep reading The Book Of Dave (far more than we did, for example, How the Dead Live) is a genuine affection for Self’s characters and their plights. The “Dave” sections are wonderfully written, clear and evocative. We sympathize utterly with Dave in his sorrow, his thwarted love for his family and his city, his increasingly futile and frustrated attempts to put a life together for himself, and the gradual erosion of his sanity and his willpower. We hope only for peace for him. Like the inspirations for so many of the world’s other religions, he is a simple and a good man, who loves his family and his friends and values honesty and hard work.

And the new world, hard as it is to assimilate, is a beauty too. Physically, Ham is a wonderful small piece of near heaven in the archipelago that is all that remains of what used to be some of the higher elevations of “old” London. New London itself, the core of the old city that still contains the Marble Arch, Canary Wharf, the Milenium Wheel (now just called “The Wheel,” and used as an instrument of torture) has been stripped of most of what the technology of the 20th and 21st centuries accomplished, and is now being rebuilt on the basis of the clues New Londoners have able to gather about what they imagine must have been their past. New London is a primitive and brutal place, where the rich and the clergy abuse and exploit the less educated and the poor. We see the pageant, colour and violence of the city through the eyes of Carl who with his friend and mentor Antonë have journeyed into London from Ham to find proof of Carl’s father’s innocence of the heresy with which he has been charged.

Perhaps Self’s greatest achievement is the "moto." This is a creature that I found it almost too painful to read about – the ultimate pet. It not only speaks (albeit at a young-child level) and is therefore able to murmur comfort to its caregivers, who derive physical warmth by pressing along its back and holding onto its wattles, it is aware that its greatest gift is the sacrifice of its own life for the meat and oil (“moto oil”) humans need in order to survive. I fell so utterly in love with the motos that I nearly had to put the book down each time I realized that another one of these lovely large creatures was about to face the drawn-out sacrifice of its own life. I honestly don’t know how Self wrote those scenes.

Of course Self does not make it any easier for the reader by presenting both present and the future narratives out of chronological order; we need to keep in mind that what happens later in time may actually precede an earlier section of the book. However, with the assistance of the table of contents, the maps and the glossary, any reasonably intelligent reader who swears off drugs, alcohol or any other memory-impairing substance during the reading of this book, and resolves to pay close attention to every word and paragraph in it, should have no trouble putting all of the pieces together at the end. But a warning: at that point, finally armed with the “knowledge” that you need to steer through this labyrinthine novel, you may just want to start all over again.

Fifty or five hundred years from now, barring flood or other cataclysm, I can see classes of university students pouring through The Book Of Dave for clues to the mindsets of those of us who lived at the start of the 21st century. Such close reading of this novel will be both ironic and appropriate.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters