The Round House - Louise Erdrich

ErdrichThe Round House

Louise Erdrich

Harper Perennial

Paperback, 321 pages, 2013

As happens with many coming-of-age novels, as we read The Round House we are lulled by the maturity of the language into thinking that the book is about the adult characters. And yet as the story unfolds we are inevitably drawn into the realization that the novel is, and must be, about the young narrator, about the effects on him or her of the milieu and the events that are being revealed to us, and about how those circumstances have forever altered his or her view of the world.

In this case, the narrator is Joe, a bright and perceptive 13-year-old boy whose mother Geraldine has been brutally attacked as the novel opens — an event that causes Joe’s hitherto safe and comprehensible world to collapse, pulling apart its seemingly secure framework one piece at a time. We see the struggles of Joe’s father –sense his dignity, pain, intelligence and bewilderment — and of Joe himself, and of other members of their closely knit community, as they try to help Geraldine rebuild her life in the aftermath of this horrific event. We recognize the silent agony of Geraldine herself: she will not name the perpetrator of the crime, or share the details; for a long time, it seems that she has decided not to mend, but simply to die.

But the novel isn’t about Geraldine; it is about the effect of his mother’s pain on Joe, and his growing awareness of the inability of the adults to help her ease it.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel, is about justice and injustice, focusing specifically on the hopelessly tangled set of laws that emerged when the Europeans began to decide what property in North America was going to belong to whom – and, in fact, to decide what the word “property” itself would mean in that context. In so doing, they erased the rights and livelihoods of thousands of Native Americans, of which Louise Erdrich is one. In this novel, she has brought to life a community of diverse and intriguing characters who help her build a powerful message and increase our awareness of the history, plight and deep spirituality of her people.

Joe and his friends are wonderful incarnations of the restless balance between angst and silliness, maturity and childishness, that coexist in the minds and bodies of young teenagers everywhere. Joe’s grandpa, Mooshum, is an Ojibwe elder with chutzpah, knowledge, and the links to the past that Joe needs to understand before he can begin to fully realize the extent of the legal no-mans-land in which he and his people have come to live, and the losses they have suffered to get there. Joe’s father, a lawyer and tribal judge, who interprets the laws for Joe (and us), is a proud man who still believes that, given time, the white man’s statutes can be whittled away, eroded and rebuilt until justice for his people at last emerges. Joe does not have that kind of patience: he wants revenge, and he wants it now.

As did several others in the Goodreads group that suggested this book to me (The Literary Award Winners Fiction Book Club: thank you!), I found several essential plot points in The Round House disappointingly convenient, given the scope, depth, and achievements of the novel as a whole.  But Erdrich’s language is so strong, so lovely and precise (“Linda Wishkob was magnetically ugly”) and her characters so compelling that we are drawn forward despite the infelicities of the plot. We want to keep reading and reading, to stay inside this compelling world.

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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.

Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

 

Freedom

Jonathan Franzen

HarperCollins Publisher Ltd.

Hardcover, 562 pages

*

Freedom: The rope with which Franzen’s people hang—or save—themselves

One of the many strengths of the great 20th century novelist John Updike was his ability to create gripping, funny, dramatic, heartbreaking, thought-provoking fiction out of domestic relationships involving ordinary people. In this, Jonathan Franzen is a worthy successor and his newest novel, Freedom, has in the minds of many reviewers already accorded him lofty status among the younger fiction writers of the new century.

Freedom concerns the lives of the members of one small family—Walter and Patty Berglund of Minneapolis-St. Paul and their two children Jessica and Joey—and that of the musician Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend since university. After arousing our curiosity with a reference to Walter’s fall from grace twenty years later, the novel opens in the mid-1980s, when Patty and Walter—part of the cutting edge of the revitalization of a central St. Paul neighbourhood—are doing their best to raise their two children perfectly. Their parenting efforts are conducted under the disparaging scrutiny of their neighbours, who feel that Patty in particular is far too earnest and focused on her children—especially her son.

Franzen opens with one of the book’s many funny-because-they’re-so-true lists, in this case concerning the kinds of details that young parents of the Berglunds’ demographic were obsessed with in the Eighties:

[… W]hat about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead?

But despite how we can relate to the Berglunds’ efforts to “get it right” as parents and community members, we soon share not only the neighbours’ disdain for Patty, but also their subsequent schadenfreude when her precious and precocious teenaged son moves in next door with the only family on the block that even Patty looks down on.

As he proved in The Corrections, one of Franzen’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to remind us not to judge anyone exclusively on the basis of their behaviour. In the second section of the book, we become privy to a memoir that Patty has written in an attempt to heal a depression that began with Joey’s flight from home. We begin to appreciate how she first came to live in the Twin Cities with Walter, with no connection to her family on Long Island or even her friends from university. We learn how her dysfunctional passage through adolescence and young adulthood drove her to the good intentions that have now begun to derail her life and those of her children and her husband. We find ourselves unexpectedly in her corner – and, in my case at least, also admiring the facility with which Franzen can write from a female, first-person point of view.

As the Berglund story continues to unfold, we are also offered the opportunity to see the family’s little world from various other points of view as Walter, Joey and Richard Katz take their turns as protagonists. Katz, like many artists, can love only in the abstract; he may be a song-writer but his real-life relationships with human beings, not to mention with such words as “loyalty” and “honesty,” are precarious at best. The close connection between the vastly different Richard and Walter is important to both of them, but it is complicated by an attraction between Richard and Patty that can only lead to trouble. How this attraction destroys the Berglund family unit becomes the plot’s driving force, leading straight through to the novel’s unexpected and successful conclusion.

Franzen’s choice of the word “freedom” as the title of the novel provides an intriguing thread as the plot unfolds, for it is during their moments of  freedom – sometimes offered to them by those closest to them, sometimes taken, sometimes merely the result of their having too much time on their hands – that each of the characters in turn makes decisions or takes steps that alter their lives permanently. Occasionally the choices they make are ones that enrich their lives, but more often the consequences are negative and far-reaching. Thematically, Franzen also seems intrigued by relationships between people who are in love with people who are not in love with them, and what happens when the objects of their affection stop fighting and succumb.

As Updike did before him, Jonathan Franzen is capturing an era, detailing its public upheavals and personal concerns in ways to which readers can easily relate—at least those of us who have been (white) middle-class adults since the century began. Freedom is a long book, much of it focused on personal minutae, and it is a testament to Franzen’s talent that its pace rarely lags. Inasmuch as fiction writers can contribute as much as their non-fiction colleagues to the chronicle of the times in which they live (which obviously is true), Franzen is a worthy contributor to ours.

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