Who by Fire — Mary L. Tabor

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 12.19.31 PMWho by Fire

Mary L. Tabor

Outer Banks Publishing Group

276 pages

Who by Fire by Mary L. Tabor is an unusual work of fiction. The language is lyrical, reflective, meandering: its images laced with symbolism. Rather than follow a traditional dramatic arc, Robert – the narrator – drops memories like stones into still pools, and then observes the wave rings as they expand and collide, creating new patterns that lead to new collisions. In engineering physics, such collisions are described as “wave interference” – apt, considering the subject matter of Tabor’s novel.

Robert has recently lost his wife Lena to breast cancer. During her final illness he recognized that Isaac, an anthropologist and a colleague of Lena’s, was also her lover. As Robert attempts to review his life with Lena in the light of this new knowledge, he embarks on a vivid reimagining of her final months, and then of the years that preceded it. Slowly he begins to understand that he lost Lena long before she died.

In looking at Lena’s world from her perspective (for the first time, we suspect), and simultaneously examining the nature of “heroism” – a concept with which he has grown obsessed – Robert also gains a toe-hold on some of his own emotional flaws and their roots. He is not an easy man to like: he has withheld love from Lena at crucial moments in their marriage. He has deliberately and cruelly withheld touch. But he has also, we see, been too hard on himself at times: forces have been at work in Lena that were beyond his knowledge or capacity to change. And now there is nothing he can do but imagine Lena’s actual life, drop bits of what-might-have-happened into the landscape of what he knows, contemplate the repercussions, and try to find some meanings.

That landscape, the pond’s smooth surface, consists of the lives that Lena and Robert – and Isaac and Evan –- have led: they are well educated, well-to-do people in middle age whose days and nights are rich in music, art, gardening, entertaining, absorbing careers, expensive holidays. But for all their culture and education, Lena and Robert have been incapable of meaningful communication, and that has created a pain that has proven too wide to span.

I became aware of the work of Mary L. Tabor on WattPad where, as I was posting my own writing, I was also gradually sifting out the work of others on the site in an attempt to separate the serious writers from those who were dabbling. I was intrigued by a couple of pieces Tabor had posted there. Her work stood out from the rest, and this – her first novel but third published book – well represents the unique perspective and distinctive voice that attracted my attention.

(Note to blog followers: I realize that this book has the same title as one I reviewed last month, by Fred Stenson. This intrigued me, as one of my novels, The Woman Upstairs, has the same title as Claire Messud’s new novel. I am not however attempting to start a trend that will have you looking at my book review blog like a game of Concentration, attempting to find matching pairs. 🙂 )


Sodom and Gomorrah (Vol. IV of In Search of Lost Time) – Marcel Proust

S&GSodom and Gomorrah

Volume IV of In Search of Lost Time

Marcel Proust

Translation: C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin

Revised by D. J. Enright

Random House

747 pages

According to reliable sources who have more time for counting such things than I do, the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust contain about 1.2 million words and (in the version I am reading) around 4,200 pages, and introduce as many as 2,000 characters. I started reading Proust’s mammoth novel about the same time as I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I was then in my forties, a time that for me included contemplating mountains and deciding that if I wanted to ascend them, I’d better get moving. I never did run a full 26.2 miles (although I did complete a half-marathon once), but I’ve just finished Volume IV of Proust’s novel, so on that resolution, I’m still going strong.

In fact, even though I’m reading it at the rate of about one volume per half decade, I am liking ISOLT better all the time. And to my amazement, Proust actually ended the volume I’ve just completed (Sodom and Gomorrah) with what I can only describe as a “Proustian cliff-hanger,” so I am itching to get on to Volume V (The Prisoner). I may actually pick it up in two years or so, rather than waiting five. (Fortunately, each volume includes synopses of each chapter, so that even if it has been four years and 300 pages since I last encountered Mme. Swann, I can easily go back and figure out who she is.)

One of Proust’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to describe the minutiae of his unnamed narrator’s daily life (a thinly veiled version of his own, which took place between 1871 and 1922) in a way that sustains the attention of the reader. However, his confidence that his words will draw us in and hold us frequently verges on the audacious. How many other writers would dare to devote 150 pages to the details of a single dinner party? (Thankfully, very few.)

It’s not as though the daily lives of Proust’s narrator, his family, friends, and acquaintances hold any real dramatic interest: in fact, almost nothing ever happens in ISOLT. In Sodom and Gomorrah, which opens in Paris and concludes later in the same summer at the northern seaside resort of Balbec (modeled after Cabourg), the major characters tend to rise from their beds near noon, have lunch, go visiting or walking or on other afternoon excursions, change and dress for dinner, and then eat, drink, talk, and occasionally fondle one another in the dark.

One of the reasons why the narrator’s recounting of events does not benumb us is that, in spite of the number of pages allocated to dinner parties and other social situations, they contain very little detail about what food was served, what the guests were wearing, or other superficialities. Instead Proust uses his narrator’s recollections of these events as springboards for contemplations of such matters as relationships among social strata, the role of “fashion” in appreciation of the arts, transportation, politics, and various manifestations of sexual preference (a primary focus of Sodom and Gomorrah, as the title of the volume suggests).

Europe was changing rapidly at the turn of the 20th century, and by observing and reflecting on these changes and on how deeply they altered the world as it had been for decades and even centuries, Proust creates not only a rich and detailed study of the role in our lives of what he terms “involuntary memory,” but also a fascinating record of early 20th century France.

Social Structure

One area of vast upheaval during the early adulthoods of both Proust and his narrator involved the blurring of lines that had previously separated the nobility from the middle and working classes. Now, it was possible for Morel, the son of a servant, to sit at the dinner table of a woman like Mme. Verdurin — a career hostess with a keen awareness of the lineage and social standing of everyone with whom she associated.

Morel’s musical talent was his entree to Mme. Verdurin’s “little clan,” but the fact that he arrived on the arm of a person of royal lineage, Palamède, Baron de Charlus, didn’t hurt. “Being introduced” still mattered, and awareness of social hierarchy was still very much alive. The focus of much of the attention of Mme. Verdurin’s social group was on who was visiting whom, who was not, and why. (I was amused as I was reading Sodom and Gomorrah to note the similarities between it and another much more current book I have been dipping into for fun, The Social Climber’s Bible: A Book of Manners, Practical Tips, and Spiritual Advice for the Upwardly Mobile, by Dirk Wittenborn and Jazz Johnson.) In these circles, whether invitations happened to be accepted or declined was fraught with implications and meaning that related not only to absolute and relative social status (e.g., the capacity of a certain guest to open new doors for the host), through tastes in art and music and political positions (particularly vis á vis the Dreyfus affair, which was much in the news at the turn of the last century), to previous slights among guests and hosts.

Proust, whose own background could be considered middle class — his father was a pathologist, his mother also very intelligent and well read – is wickedly pointed and very funny in his descriptions of the airs and nastiness of his socially conscious characters. They seem oblivious to their silly obsessions: the little group listens patiently and even raptly as de Charlus describes his lineage in minute detail, but when another guest — Brichot — devotes equal time to the etymology of place names, they mock his endless, tiresome recitations.

Homosexuality

Sodom and Gomorrah focuses on two main characters aside from the narrator – de Charlus and Albertine Simonet – and it is through them that Proust explores his primary theme.

De Charlus is a wealthy, pompous widower of noble lineage who does not realize that the entire little universe that surrounds him is aware that he is “an invert” (as Proust labels it). The narrator becomes aware of the Baron’s inclination early on, when he overhears de Charlus and a gardener, Jupien, getting it on early one afternoon.

De Charlus is circumspect when he is accompanied by one of his young enamoratos or when the subject of homosexuality comes up in conversation, but in general he is so certain that no one would ever suspect him of being a “sodomite” that he feels quite comfortable prancing, mincing and giggling about whenever the spirit takes him. On one occasion he seems blissfully willing to go along with an invitation from Mme. Verdurin that he and Morel, the young violinist who has recently won his heart, should stay at her home – in adjoining rooms that are so well padded that no one anywhere else in the house will hear them rehearsing their musical presentations.

It is believed that Proust himself was homosexual (although — at least so far as I have read at this point — his narrator was not) and he is clearly sympathetic. His many long and detailed reflections include such topics as how “inverts” behave toward those to whom they are attracted vs toward those whom they love (comparing and contrasting their behaviour with that of heterosexuals in similar situations), and analyzing how they behave toward those they think know of their inclinations and those who they believe do not.

In contrast to the sympathy the narrator exhibits for the male homosexuals he knows is his disgust about the lesbian tendencies he perceives in a few of the women of his acquaintance, recoiling in horror at the very thought of women physically loving one another. Part of the reason for this dismay is certainly the narrator’s jealousy of Albertine (“but here the rival was not of the same kind as myself, had different weapons; I could not compete on the same ground, give Albertine the same pleasures, nor indeed conceive of them exactly.” p. 338). Nonetheless, his lack of tolerance for those of “sapphist” tendencies is all the more remarkable because of the aplomb with which he discusses the disposition of males who are physically drawn to one another — which surely must have been an outlier’s attitude in the society in which Proust lived.

Jealousy

The narrator of ISOLT through to the end of Volume IV is in poor health and is often irritatingly absorbed with his own fragility. His pouty need to be cosseted and cared for extends from his grandmother, his mother, and his maid to the young women with whom he becomes involved: his possessiveness towards the latter group borders on the pathological. There seems to be as much hatred as there is affection in the way he feels about Albertine, whose time and attention he consumes without consideration for anyone but himself, and who goes out of her way to accommodate him for no reason I can imagine.

On one occasion, his friend Bloch asks the narrator as a favour to get off the train which is waiting in a station to pay his respects to Bloch’s father, who is nearby. Albertine is with him in the train car, and the narrator is desperately afraid that she will begin to flirt with Robert de Saint-Loup, a rival, if he lets her out of his sight. Although he would have plenty of time to pay the visit, he puts his entire relationship with Bloch, a friend since childhood, into a permanent state of decline when he not only refuses to get off the train, but to provide an explanation (p. 682-4). Later, when after a protracted period of reflection he decides that he does not love Albertine and that he will break the relationship off with her immediately, all it takes is a suspicion that she has been drawn to someone else to bring him flying back in a possessive rage, demanding she stay with him day and night forever.

Immersion in An Era

Recently I have felt immersed in late-19th and early-20th century Europe. I started reading Sodom and Gomorrah just a few months after I finished The Hare with Amber Eyes – a nonfiction account of the misfortunes of the Ephrussi family (which appears under a pseudonym in Proust’s novel).  I have also been reading Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, as well as a biography of the British designer and writer William Morris.

Having, along with Stephen Fry, mulled over Richard Wagner’s antisemitism while watching the film Wagner and Me, attempting with mixed success to frame it in the context of the time in which he lived, I was intrigued to read on p. 384 of Sodom and Gomorrah that I was reading about that very time: Mme. Verdurin “trembled at the thought of seeing [certain] provincials, ignorant of the Ring and the Meistersinger, introduced into [the midst of her little group], people who would be unable to pay their part in the concert of general conversation and were capable of ruining one of those famous Wednesdays, masterpieces as incomparably fragile as those Venetian glasses which one false note is enough to shatter.”

And while reports began to surface about the Charlie Hebdo massacres and their aftermaths, revealing the limits of free speech and the extent of antisemitism and anti-Islamism in France, I happened upon the following passage in Sodom and Gomorrah: “For Dreyfusism was triumphant politically but not socially. Labori, Reinach, Piquart, Zola were still, to people in society, more or less traitors, who could only keep them estranged from the little nucleus” (p. 384).

Some things, I’m very sad to see, may never change.

Proust’s Narrator

The unnamed Narrator of Proust’s novel is not only aware of the flaws of those he sees around him, and aware of the ways in which society is changing in the large picture, he is also self aware. While this self-awareness brings on irritation on the part of the reader as well as the narrator as he describes his own flaws,  it also inspires some of the novel’s finest passages. One afternoon he is riding on horseback along the cliffs beside the sea, bemoaning the habits he’s got into at Balbec that are holding him back from so much real and imagined work and pleasure. He says

Suddenly my horse reared; he had heard a strange sound; it was all I could do to hold him and remain in the saddle; then I raised my tear-filled eyes in the direction from which the sound seemed to come and saw, not two hundred feet above my head, against the sun, between two great wings of flashing metal which were bearing him aloft, a creature whose indistinct face appeared to me to resemble that of a man. I was deeply moved as an ancient Greek on seeing for the first time a demigod. I wept — for I had been ready to weep the moment I realized that the sound came from above my head, at the thought that what I was going to see for the first time was an aero plane. Then, just as when in a newspaper that one is coming to a moving passage, the mere sight of the machine was enough to make me burst into tears. Meanwhile the airman seemed to be uncertain of his course; I felt that there lay open before him — before me, had not habit made me a prisoner — all the routes in space, in life itself; he flew on, let himself glide for a few moments over the sea, then quickly making up his mind, seeming to yield to some attraction that was the reverse of gravity, as though returning to his native element, with a slight adjustment of his golden wings he headed straight up into the sky. (p. 582)

Admonished to “write what you know,” most writers have no idea how to make that material of interest to other people. Proust did. As in the 150-page-dinner party, nothing much ever happens, but thanks to the author’s keen eye, his humour, and his intellect, the reader is mesmerized. Reading ISOLT is sort of like getting into a carriage that is drawn slowly around the countryside. We can see the detail – the unfurling of the flowers and the ocean views from the gardens of the villas –  and we get to know the peccadilloes of the people who inhabit the landscape so well that they would become intolerable if we had to live with them any longer than we do. But just in the nick of time, we move on.

The importance of memory is one of the major themes of the entire seven-volume work, and the novel itself serves as a chronicle of much that might otherwise have been forgotten. It is a pleasure to be reading it as the events that make up my own life unfold and gradually retreat into the past. Proust reminds us to pay attention.

Who by Fire – Fred Stenson

Who By Fire CoverWho by Fire

Fred Stenson

359 pages, Doubleday

 

A Human Face for a Complex Issue

A surprising number of the world’s most destructive conflicts can be related in one way or another to differences of opinion over how to manage the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Heated disputes over the ownership, use and fate of fossil fuels rage across scientific, political, economic, historical and cultural boundaries — damaging individual and community relationships as surely as tailing ponds contaminate nearby flora and fauna. Fred Stenson has brought the destructive power of these debates and arguments to a human level in his latest novel, Who by Fire (named, like Leonard Cohen’s song, from the Hebrew prayer/poem “Unetaneh Tokef”).

Bill Ryder is just a boy when a sour-gas plant opens downwind of his parents’ southern Alberta farm. Poisonous gases released during a series of plant malfunctions make the family sick — particularly Billy himself — and threaten the health of the farm animals, and therefore the Ryders’ livelihood. Intensifying the devastation, Billy’s father’s decision to stay on his land and fight the gas company gradually pulls the family apart, and drives a wedge between the Ryders and other families in the community – almost all of whom who have  benefitted economically from the presence of the gas plant.

It is an ironic side effect of the family’s deterioration that as an adult, Bill ends up working as manager of an oilsands upgrader in northern Alberta. Now close to retirement, his choice of a career in the petroleum industry seems to have betrayed everything his father stood for — or failed to stand for. Bill’s life has been marked by a self-torment that has manifested itself in a gambling addiction and an apparently endless cycle of bad decisions. And then, at last, a crisis at the upgrader forces him not only to confront his past, but also to face himself.

Stenson is the highly regarded author of the acclaimed historical novels The Trade and Lightning, as well as of five other works of fiction and seven of nonfiction. In this new novel, he brings his enviable writing talents — which include the ability to create memorable, flawed and sympathetic characters, and an uncanny facility for evoking in a few words not only the landscape of the province of Alberta (no matter what the season or terrain) but also his deep affection for it — to bear on issues that face us all. We are the Ryders, growing sicker by the day from our over-reliance on gas and oil, but we are also the community that shuns the Ryders: our economic well being, too, depends on the continuing exploitation of our fossil fuels.

Like the unknown Jewish poet who long ago presented so many possible scenarios in response to the question of “Who will live and who will die?” —

Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst? ….

– we realize that any outcomes to this conflict over oil and gas will not be straightforward, or painlessly accomplished. And in the meantime our hostility and indecision are not only ravaging the Earth, they are also eroding our humanity.

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

Skin Lane

SkinLane

Neil Bartlett

Serpent’s Tail

Paperback, 344 pages, 2007

A Psychological Drama Unfolds into a Mystery

I have no idea where I got the idea that I should read Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett. A few months ago, I was flipping through a book I had purchased about ten years ago that I hadn’t liked very much, thinking of taking it in for recycling, and I found a scrap of paper stuck between its pages that I had obviously used as a bookmark. It contained, in my handwriting, the words

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

 

That was all.

I tried to throw this piece of paper into the garbage, but it wouldn’t go there—at least not right away. I could not get the idea out of my head that if I didn’t read that book, I might miss out on the most fantastic novel I had ever had the opportunity to read. So after fiddling with the corner of the little note off and on for a week or so, I ordered Skin Lane from AbeBooks. Then I threw the scrap of paper out.

The book arrived.

I devoured it.

*

Skin Lane is a short masterpiece, a compelling psychological drama with all of the page-turning attributes of a good mystery. Neil Bartlett, its author, is a prolific playwright as well as a novelist, and his focus in this story is a 46-year-old man whom we know mostly as Mr. F. He is one of the last generation of skilled cutters who worked for the 300 furriers who plied their wares on Skin Lane and neighbouring streets in the City of London in the first half of the 20th century. As the novel opens, Mr. F. has lived the same unfulfilling, solitary, virginal life for three decades, going by train to work each day at the same time, home again each night, wandering the city or visiting art galleries on the weekends–his routine unbroken, his mind numb even to its tedium.

It is the mid-sixties and it is London: and we can see that all around him the world is changing. His generation and those who have gone before may be mired in tradition and obligation and doing what is right and proper, but young people are ignoring all the rules, breaking them at every turn. It appears Mr. F. has been left behind, has missed his chance at… what? That is the question he must ultimately answer – although for a long time it seems he doesn’t even know there is a question, and that he doesn’t really care.  But we soon learn that he is watching, from the corner of his eye, from beneath his lowered lids: he sees the life that pulses just beyond his grasp in the taut bodies of the young.

Mr. F. starts having a recurring dream that appears to have its roots in his childhood reading of Beauty and The Beast. The dream, a nightmare really (except that there is something deeply compelling about it too – as there are in so many good nightmares) begins to wake him up to his own sexuality, but in a dark way: intertwining it with the bloody work he does.

Anyone who has dreamed about a specific person and known that he or she must have seen that other person in real life, but can’t remember where or when, as I have done, will recognize the central mystery in this novel: Who is the young man who figures in Mr. F’s nightmares, dead, beautiful, hanging upside down, apparently murdered in Mr. F.’s own bathroom? And what do the dreams portend?

Skin Lane is a gripping read, building in intensity, and while we are compulsively reading forward in spite of our dread of the outcome, we are also absorbing the smells and fascinating facts about a world even now just newly dead – where in a whole “Hidden World” of London, through winter’s cold and summer’s heat, men on the top floors of a narrow building cut the skins of animals to pieces, and sewed them into expensive new skins that men would later use to decorate their most prize possessions: their wives and mistresses.

Bartlett’s clever conversational tone and his apparently infinite capacity for detail draws us in to his confidence. It convinces us that this writer has the inside track on this world, and on the enigmatic man he has created—just one example of the millions of people in the world who lead outwardly unremarkable lives but who (we know) must be capable of anything.

*

I am grateful to my self for leaving myself a note all those years ago, and to my present self for trusting that I knew what I was talking about back then. I am also grateful to whomever it was that recommended the book and made me write its title down on a piece of paper—I’ll never remember who it was. As Bartlett himself might say in the voice of Skin Lane’s narrator: maybe it was you.

1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

1Q84

Haruki Murakami

Translation: Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel

Alfred K. Knopf

Hardcover, 925 pages

Moons and Recollections: A Novel to be Savoured

*

“The wind rushed between the branches of the zelkova tree, making a piercing howl, like the coldhearted breath leaking out between the teeth of a person who has lost all hope.” (p. 750, 1Q84)

*

Out of the (metaphorical) corner of my eye as I was reading 1Q84, I was noticing that Haruki Murakami’s new novel was not getting universally positive reviews. I didn’t read the reviews, and I won’t until I finish writing this, but as I moved from page 300 to 400 to 500 I wondered if maybe it was the sheer length that was turning other reviewers off a bit – perhaps along with Murakami’s tendency to describe apparently plot-irrelevant incidents in a cool and detached but very detailed manner, such as how exactly a character prepares his meals from the washing of the vegetables to the stir-frying of the shrimp. I’ve noticed since I first encountered Murakami’s writing in  Norwegian Wood that he has a thing for describing food preparation, and in 1Q84 there are also drawn-out descriptions of traffic jams, apartment buildings, rooms in extended-care facilities, train rides, and interior monologues … especially interior monologues: “Should I do this?” “I wonder what would happen if I did that?” “Maybe that other character is thinking such and such.” That kind of thing.

In this 21st-century world of ours, where most experiences that we tune into have been created with our increasingly short attention spans in mind, it can be difficult to read a novel that is 925 pages long, in which most of the activity is about as dramatic as one’s own daily life (an illusion, but it seems that way). We are being trained by digital media to consume events quickly quickly quickly, so we can get on to the next. Murakami does not let us do that. He starts off slowly, and he continues slowly. We want to say, “Hurry up! Hurry up!” But Murakami does not, and gradually, gradually we slow down too.

We are drawn in to the mysterious world he has created, where there are two moons, and a beautiful young best-selling author who seems to come from another world – not our world, not even Murakami’s fictional world, but another one. Gradually the two main characters, whom we thought we might not even like that much for the first two hundred pages or so (although we could not stop watching them anyway, to see what would happen to them next) begin to draw us in, to appeal to us. We feel increasingly affectionate towards them and want them to overcome their (serious and even potentially fatal) problems. We want them to be happy.

The plot is straightforward enough: Tengo and Aomame, both rendered social outcasts as children by the peculiarities of their parents, met and connected on a very deep psychic level in elementary school but were separated soon after. They never forgot one another. Now, at the age of thirty, the two of them end up – for very different reasons that may or may not be connected by an omniscient or non-omniscient overseer – in a parallel universe in which they (still both in their own ways social misfits) seem to have been given one final opportunity to reconnect.

The parallel universe is the one where the young writer comes from. Her real name is Eriko Fukada, but she is known as Fuka-Eri. She is just 17 and she has written what appears to be a fantastic tale called Air Chrysalis, which has been submitted to a well-regarded literary competition. There, Komatsu, the respected editor who supervises the competition, recognizes Air Chrysalis for its compelling and utterly unique voice and narrative, but knows it needs rewriting.

“The overall plot is a fantasy,” he says, accurately describing the writing of the author who invented him as well as Fuka-Eri’s, “but the detail is incredibly real.”

Komatusu asks Tengo, one of the readers for the competition – he is now a math teacher and an aspiring novelist – to improve the writing of the novel so that it will win and, making a decision the ethics of which will bedevil him for months to come, Tengo agrees. He meets with Fuka-Eri who also agrees to the scheme, but almost lackadaisically, as though she doesn’t really care.

Aomame has a different set of ethical questions to wrestle with. She is a highly tuned, self-trained, physically fit killer-for-hire. Not only does she commit her murders without leaving a single trace that the victims died of anything but natural causes, she only kills people who have been vetted and judged to be deserving of their fates by “The Dowager” – a wealthy, careful woman with a judicial agenda that is based on her own daughter’s abuse and death. Aomame’s victims have committed heinous crimes who, without Aomame’s intervention, would never have been brought to justice. But Aomame’s latest assignment in the bizarre two-moon world causes her even more difficult questions than the ones Tengo needs to face.

As the novel gradually unfolds, the question arises as to how much of Air Chrysalis is true, and how much of it is fiction. For a long time, the chapters alternate between Tengo and Aomame, and we recognize that there is a connection between the two, and that their experiences in the world they’ve unintentionally entered are bringing them closer together. But how? Where did the young author come from, and why is she so emotionless and uncommunicative, almost robotic? Was it some traumatic incident in her childhood? Did she even have a childhood? And who is the mysterious but obviously very powerful, even super-human, latest target of Aomame’s deadly talents? Could he have come from the world Fuka-Eri has “invented”?

At the centre of the novel (as if within a chrysalis) there comes the novel within the novel, Air Chrysalis itself, and when we come upon it, it is like a mysterious hard evil Norse myth in the midst of all that detailed, almost dispassionate prose: bright and black and shining and primitive—and scary as hell. The eyes of a dead goat glitter in the moonlight and small creatures march in a line out of its mouth to begin their dark work. Adding to the ominous impact of the story is our growing suspicion that every word of it is true – including the parts that Tengo added. That changes everything. Echoes begin to bounce off the apparent realities in the two-mooned world in which Tengo and Aomame have found themselves, threatening to prevent their ever reconnecting.

Murakami’s writing is only simple on the surface. His sentences and paragraphs twist and turn with apparent ease and before you know it, deliver judgment as accurately and chillingly as a weapon filed to a sharp point by Aomame. Like this:

“Unease and expectation and fear scattered to the farthest corners of the spacious classroom, and hid themselves in the room’s many objects like cowardly little animals.”

Or this:

“The clouds continued to scud off toward the south. No matter how many were blown away, others appeared to take their place. There was an inexhaustible source of clouds in some land far to the north. Decisive people, minds fixed on the task, clothed in thick, grey uniforms, working silently from morning to night to make clouds, like bees make honey, spiders make webs, and war makes widows.”

Reading him is a process and experience. You immerse yourself. You give him the freedom to tell you details you don’t think you really want to know – details so apparently irrelevant you wonder why he didn’t edit them out  – but gradually you realize he is not being self-indulgent. He is building an entire world, and it has you in its grip.

The worlds he creates are as familiar as they are strange. When I read Murakami, I am usually aware of cultural differences between Japan and Canada, but this time I also noticed many similarities: how our health-care systems operate, the climate, the procedures required for doing things like renting an apartment or transferring funds from a deceased parent to the hands of the surviving child. An apartment in which Ushikawa, one of the novel’s least appealing characters, hides out for a while, as he too attempts to puzzle through the stories of Tengo, Aomame and Fuka-Eri, could quite easily be found anywhere near where I live right now:

The dark corridor inside had that special odor you find in older apartment buildings. It is a peculiar mix of smells – of unrepaired leaks, old sheets washed in cheap detergent, stale tempura oil, a dried-up poinsettia, cat urine from the weed-filled front yard. Live there long enough and you would probably  get used to the smell. But no matter how used to it you got, the fact remained that this was not a heartwarming odor.

Those who hunt through literature for themes, leitmotifs and symbolism will have a field day with this novel. Decades of field days, in fact. One of my favourite recurring images is the extended metaphor of passages, closed and open: stairways, comas, the town of cats, the mouth of the dead goat, vaginas, the chrysalis. If I were to write a review that did any actual justice to this novel, I would need to write at length about this and many other issues that the novel is obsessed with:

  • religion (a major theme in this novel — cults, witnesses, gods, acolytes: there’s even an immaculate conception)
  • recollections – individual and collective memories – their validity, their power
  • music — Janáček’s Sinfonietta is a recurring piece, but Murakami loves music and the characters are also treated to a wide range of other, mainly Western music, particularly jazz
  • justice – Is Aomame’s vigilante justice right or wrong? Are Tengo’s contributions to Fuka-Eri’s novel justifiable, given the result?
  • truth and apparent truth – “Learning the truth would just hurt you. And once  you do learn the truth, you end up having to take on a certain responsibility for it,” Ushikawa tells Tengo

The novel is set in the year 1984 – deliberately, it is clear, for the echoes of Orwell’s novel by that title. However, it is also a handy year in which to have set this story, because easy solutions to the mysteries that each of the characters is attempting to resolve – right down to the most basic, which is Tengo’s and Aomame’s search for one another – cannot be addressed with DNA testing, cell phone calls, police surveillance or internet connections. Even photos must be taken on film and printed.

There are so many memories from this novel that will last as long as my own memory lasts (I hope. I don’t have time to read it again. Although I’d like to. Right now, in fact. Maybe I will) – the comatose father, the train rides, the house in the mountains where Fuka-Eri lives with her foster father, the television fee collector, the town of cats. I feel as though I’ve been there, but have become disoriented on the journey – I don’t understand exactly where I’ve been, and I know that it was fantasy, but the detail made it real.  That is Murakami’s power.

“If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation,” Tengo’s father tells him. Not everything in 1Q84 can be explained, and it doesn’t need to be.

Part mystery, part fantasy, part romance, part allegory, part everything and anything, IQ84 is in sum a literary tour de force that will have readers and critics talking for a long, long time.

Last Man In Tower – Aravind Adiga

Last Man in Tower

Aravind Adiga

Knopf

Kindle Edition (400 pages in hardcover)

Putting A Price on “Home”

When I was looking for a novel to read on the long plane ride to India for my first visit there last month, a friend recommended Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga’s second novel. It was a fine suggestion: I am a long-time fan of Indian writing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to go to India, and I had enjoyed The White Tiger ― Adiga’s first novel, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. As it turned out, I didn’t start reading Last Man in Tower until after I arrived in Delhi and set out on my overland trip to Mumbai, where the novel is set. In fact, most of the plot is set in the slums that border Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, so I felt I could look right down on “the tower” as I flew out of India’s largest city en route to Goa at the end of my Mumbai visit.

Last Man in Tower is the story of the residents of a 50-year-old apartment building, Tower A of the Vishram Co-operative Housing Society — a six-story building that has for many years been an island of respectability amid the slums that surround the domestic terminal of Mumbai’s airport. Now that the land around the airport is becoming more desirable, businessman Dharman Shah wants to purchase Towers A and B of Vishram Society, tear them down, and build a shiny new structure in the image of those he’s seen in Shanghai ­­– a city he admires so much that he is going to name his new complex after it.

In addition to his desire to make money and expand his empire, Shah wants to challenge the supremacy of another Mumbai construction magnate, J.J. Chacko of the Ultimex Group, who has just offered a ridiculously high amount (81 lakh [8.1 million] rupees) for a single slum property -apparently just to attract attention. Shah is so intent on the role the Vishram project can play in this pissing contest with Chacko that he is willing to risk his life for it, ignoring the advice of his physician who tells him that his lungs are so bad that if he doesn’t leave Mumbai, the pollution is going to kill him.

Vishram Society Tower A is occupied by about fifteen middle-class families, most of them parents with children still at home, working in such fields as hardware, finance, real-estate and social work. They come from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds: their ability to live in relative harmony despite their differences is a quality I learned even during my short visit to be one of the many admirable characteristics of the Indian people.

The most respected resident in Tower A is the retired teacher Yogesh A. Murthi, “Masterji,” 61, whose apartment is filled with memories of his recently deceased wife and his beloved daughter, who died in a train accident several years before. His son – impatient, ungrateful – and daughter-in-law, Sonal (a “hyena” to him, Murthi says) live closer to downtown, with his grandson, whom he loves, and Sonal’s father, who suffers from dementia and for whom Sonal must care. Masterji takes a few of the edges off his empty days by teaching “top-up” science to the children of Tower A and eating his meals with the Pintos, but now that he is retired and alone, it is a struggle every day to avoid caving in to the siren calls of gravity and indolence.

Tower A is affordable, and it is home, but the residents long ago resigned themselves to the fact that it is less than a perfect place to live: the elevator rarely works, there is running water only for two hours in the morning and ninety minutes in the evening, the building needs many repairs that are never going to get done, the guard drinks, the secretary is lazy, and day and night low-flying planes shake Vishram to its core.

Shah and his henchman, Shanmugham, believe that it is going to be a simple matter to buy out the owners of the Vishram Society – in fact, Shanmugham is distressed at the price that Mr. Shah is offering: he is certain that the residents would take much less. The residents of Tower B﹣most of whom have lived there for less time than the denizens of Tower A ﹣ quickly agree to Shah’s offer, celebrate their good fortune together, and then head off to their new, more affluent lives. The fact that Mr. Shah pays the Tower B owners the second, “move-out-on-time” installment of the agreed-upon sale price early is not missed by the owners of Tower A. But all of the residents of the tower must agree before the deal can go through, and a few of those in Tower A have issues to deal with before they can come to a final decision.

The novel concerns the process of bargaining that will ultimately see Mr. Shah win or lose his prize and the glory he believes will accompany it. Several Tower A residents move quickly to support the sale of the building, most notably Mrs. Puri, who without this windfall faces a lifetime of cleaning up after and caring for her 18-year-old son who has Down Syndrome and is frequently incontinent.  Others take longer to persuade.

Masterji heads the resistance movement − at first primarily in defence of the Pintos: Mrs. Pinto, the oldest woman in the building, is nearly blind and fears she will not be able to find her way around a new apartment. But as time goes on, his wish not to lose his last contact with his wife and daughter, his indignation at reprehensible tactics of those who are trying to secure unanimity – including his son and Sonal, who urge him to sell—his sense of self respect and his respect for history and ethics, all begin to influence his decision. Gradually the community begins to disintegrate as neighbours turn on neighbours, form factions, and work against one another behind the scenes. One by one they turn on the man they have always held in the highest respect.

Last Man in Tower has power and many strengths. As he did in The White Tiger, Adiga has created believable characters with human problems that are exacerbated by their circumstances. He has a keen ability to portray India’s complex cultural relationships so that those of us who do not live there can relate totally to the issues at hand. The story is funny and moving by turns, and it is grounded in its setting, which gives it an external validity that is both pleasing and interesting to non-Indian readers.

In addition to being a storyteller, Adiga is a fine writer. Some of his insights made me stop and reread them several times simply to enjoy them over and over again. Here’s an example of his keen eye:

A cow had been tied up by the side of the fried-snacks store, a healthy animal with a black comet mark on its forehead. It had just been milked and a bare-chested man in a dhoti was taking away a mildewed bucket, inside which fresh milk looked like radioactive liquid. Squatting by the cow a woman in a saffron sari was squeezing gruel into balls. Next to her two children were being bathed by another woman. Half a village crammed into a crack in the pavement.

I was not particularly keen about the ending of Last Man in Tower. It seemed to me as though the author had been unable to wrap things up and had just gone on and on until the characters came to some kind realization about what had happened﹣almost stumbling on awareness rather than drawing any direct line to it from their experiences. But I have been thinking about endings a lot lately, of films I’ve seen and novels I have read. I’ve been thinking about how life doesn’t come to any neat conclusions either. Maybe if a book or movie is interesting and fulfilling, the ending doesn’t need to be as tidy as I’d like. Like my trip through India, the experience of Last Man in Tower will ultimately have more effect on my view of the world than will the fact that I made it to the end.

The Act of Love – Howard Jacobson

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

The Masochist: Inside Out

 

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.

Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates

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

Abandon Hope

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.

White Noise – Don DeLillo

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

Laughing all the way to the end

 

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.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

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

Sinking Deep into A Murakami World

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.)

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