Top Five for 2010

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s my top five for 2010, absolute no-brainer classics that everyone knows they should read excluded:

5.  The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.  About the (mostly male) urges to possess, consume, destroy; madnesses and neuroses; memory and Memory (our narrator) and the many ways to tell a story.  It’s much like Pynchon if Pynchon were a prose poet and not an onslaught of words and ideas.   (That’s a good thing.)  I wrote a little about it here.

4.  Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.  If Mitchell had just published a novella entitled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After,” this would still be on this list.  (Maybe even higher.)  That brilliant dystopia is the heart of this sextet of nested stories, both structurally and emotionally: it’s the only piece here that really made me feel, but it’s fascinating how this impact was, in large part, due to the story’s connection to those less affecting tales that preceded (and followed) it.  The whole thing is ingenious and envy-inducing, if you appreciate narrative structure.  See this post.

3.  Possession, by A.S. Byatt.  As I said in this post, it’s the perfect postmodern romance.  Also the second book on this list that examines the Victorians in really productive ways that also make you marvel at how much was lost in the 20th century’s march toward replacing humanity with machinery, bureaucracy, circuitry.

2.  The Manyoshu.  (Apologies for missing macrons on the o and u.)  The great 8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry, which I read in a version translated by a committee of Japanese scholars in the 1930s.  (Some interesting social/political implications there, of course, as a presentation of Japanese culture to the world.)  Profoundly moving, seen as a whole: a window onto a culture committed to the conveying the beauty of the natural world, to creating sense-pictures in words.  I especially love the poems of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, a “saint of poetry” in Japan.  His poems on separation from his wife and her death are Shakespearean in their grief and anger at the phenomenon of death, but indelibly Japanese in idiom and approach.

1.  At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.  I never posted about this, which is stupid on my part, because this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  It’s a kind of masterpiece, and part of what makes it so great is that it starts out by just baffling you, so that everything that comes after is this absurd, delightful surprise.  It’s become what the kids call a “cult classic” among lit-nerd types, mostly due to bad timing: published in 1939, in direct opposition to the prevailing mood in Europe, most of the edition was destroyed in the Blitz.  Joyce loved it; so did Gilbert Sorrentino, who paid homage to and cribbed from it in Mulligan Stew (which I, weirdly, read before At Swim-Two-Birds).  Through the power of “aesthoautogamy,” an author in an undergraduate’s story brings his characters to life, and lives with them, and chaos of all sorts ensues.  It’s linguistically anarchic and wonderful, it’s full of fantastic Dublin dialogue and parodies of academic language, it’s somehow both silly and deep.

Conflict (or the Lack Thereof) Through Structure

July 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Reading next: Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

I finished it a couple of days ago, but my mind’s still not entirely made up about Cloud Atlas.  Part of me thinks it’s an absolute masterpiece, one of the best pieces of literature in recent years.  Another, smaller part keeps trying to tamp down that enthusiasm, pointing to the sometimes pedestrian prose, the wooden or slightly stilted language occasionally on display (especially in “Half-Lives” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” which also happen to be the sections in which it’s easiest to call these faults intentional), the strange irritation I sometimes feel in the company of Mitchell, and the niggling sense that nothing truly groundbreaking is going on here.

All of that seems relatively minor, though, compared to the brilliance on display in much of the book, especially (in my opinion) “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” and “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After.”  These latter two are some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time, and also manage to transform the rest of the book into science fiction of a sort, as well.  I wished, while reading it, that “Sloosha’s Crossin'” was its own book, not the novella nestled at the center of another.  But that’s part of the brilliance: it’s at the center because of its interactions with the other five parts of this “sextet,” this musical work in literary form.  The central story is very close to being its own story, but it is not: not quite.  Nothing is ever only its own story.  No one is ever only their own self.  That’s the point.

It was while reading “Sloosha’s Crossin'” in the middle of the book that I started to wonder about how one would go about teaching this book, and about that hoary old classroom discussion on types of conflict.  You know: man vs. man! man vs. nature!  man vs. self!  man vs. society!  That whole bit.  (Here come some SPOILERS, of maybe META-SPOILERS, so look out.)  The book’s structure is clever, and elegant: a fragment of five stories, each fragment being read (or at least experienced) by a character in the next, with the complete text of a sixth (“Sloosha’s Crossin'”) in the middle, followed by the completion of each fragment in reverse order, the completions being found in each preceding story.

Remember those graphs of a novel’s structure that you had to draw in middle- or high school, showing the rising and falling action, the varying degrees of intensity of narrative tension and incident?  Here there could be six lines on the graph, each rising, then flatlining (with an occasional bump) as another story takes over, then picking back up after a trough of varying length.  (I loved drawing those graphs.  If I had a scanner I’d draw one and slap it in here right now.)  But here’s the thing: because these six stories, however compelling on their own, appear in the context of their own reading — some presented as fictional within the fiction itself (or are they?) — these graphical depictions would be rather dishonest, or at least incomplete.  The real plot, the real conflict, lies in their conjunctions.  Not to get all John Barth on you here, but the main “conflicts” are Story vs. Story and Reader vs. Text, at both the level of the plot itself and at the metafictional level.

One of the book’s brilliances, though, is the integration (maybe even subordination) of these postmodern conflicts into the content of the book, and the fact that it’s possible to experience the book not as a battlefield of conflicts at all, but more like the piece of symphonic music it explicitly patterns itself after.  You can read the stories as working together like instruments in an ensemble, to tell a larger story of a tension and landscape (rather than conflict) something like “Humanity Struggles” or “Souls Reemerge,” rather than as conflicting across levels of text and comprehension.  (The symphonic aspect of the work is really beautifully done, not only in the structure, but also at the level of metaphor and motif.)  A passage that clarified this for me appears on p. 169, in the comedic “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” in which the titular vanity-press publisher vents on his life in books:

Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led.  Why have you given your life to books, TC?  Dull, dull, dull!  The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction!  Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t, will is pitted against will.  “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.”

The passage is, I think, the funniest in the book (that last-sentence punchline kills me, especially if you imagine a British comedian like Ricky Gervais or John Cleese delivering it).  Anyone who deals with pedestrian fiction in bulk (as vanity-press publishers surely do, and as librarians do, as well) has thought something similar.  Mitchell includes it (and the entire “Ghastly Ordeal” tale) not only as comic relief, but for its reflection on the whole business of making narrative, making story, and the desire to transcend those archetypal plot types in some way.

What Mitchell does better than many of the arch-postmodernists have done is use this desire to actually convey a story about not only its own telling, but important matters in the worlds of the plot and the “real world” the plot mimics.  He manages to conclude his book with a two-page message, for God’s sake — a moral, even! — without seeming dishonest, pedantic, maudlin, or hokey.  That’s a real accomplishment: a step forward, thanks be, to the past.

The Murakami Book and What to Call It

August 19, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts.

A cat is one of the three main characters in this book. The main characters have trouble knowing themselves, much less connecting to someone else. We’re acquainted with something called the Un-Space Exploration Committee. To confirm all suspicions, the epigram to Part Three is a Murakami quote. Yes: we are dealing with a Murakami Book here.

There’s no satisfying name for this genre yet, and perhaps there never should be, since part of the whole point of the genre is that it is willing to use any number of genres to tell complex stories that can get at cultural mores, philosophical underpinnings, the individual and the relationship, and both pleasurable and terrifying aspects of dream-logic. The desire for a name does seem to be increasing: there are those calling this kind of thing “New Fabulist Fiction.” The hoary old nomenclature, I guess, is “metaphysical detective story.” But that’s both too narrow and too broad, since anything could be a metaphysical detective story.

I tend to think of Haruki Murakami as the godfather or founder of this non-school of like minds, although I’ve no idea if that’s accurate or not. Mostly I just read him first, and he’s better than most of the others I’ve read, and seems to be a giant influence. He does seem to be sui generis, though: I can’t really trace some of the most Murakamian characteristics of Murakami to any other author. (I mean, Chandler’s all over Hard-Boiled Wonderland, sure, but who the hell else would pair that idiosyncratic world with the End of the World?) But I may just not be well read enough. Kelly Link’s a prototypical New Fabulist, if that’s what we’re calling them (which I don’t think we should, because who were the Fabulists?) (And while I’m on the subject of Link, Magic for Beginners probably should’ve been on that embarrassingly personal list last post. Jeepers, what a book.)

The last book in Murakami-thrall that I read was David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream. It was something of a disappointment. Hall’s book is far, far better, and takes its Murakami influence in an interesting new direction. It’s great to see a talented author mining the Murakami-weirdness-vein, a mile deep but fairly narrow (by which I mean, when you see something that’s Murakami-weird, you know it, and it goes to the bone, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Mr Nobody in this book? Murakami-weird.) He’s doing his own things with it, too, which is awesome: using the effect, and something of the style, but not slavishly imitating. So much of Number 9 Dream seemed that way to me: more of a pastiche than a creative use of source material.

Anyway, you could say New Fabulism is just another name for Fancy Genre Writing. You could say it is just another name for non-realism. (Murakami, especially, would be sure to disagree with that, I think: a lot of his writing is realism, and he’s translated some of the biggies, like Carver and Fitzgerald, although Fitzgerald’s a lot weirder than everyone seems to think. Remember the billboard in Great Gatsby?) I think the key to this kind of writing might be its insistence on the “real world,” or some recognizable version thereof, as a place where weird shit happens. It is a kind of alternate realism, maybe. Dream realism. Deep realism. (I’d love to see DFW tackle a novel like this, although a lot of the stories in Oblivion could be construed this way, actually.) It seems to be about layers of meaning, in a way that builds upon high-postmodernism but actually moves past it, for once. And about the ways in which fantasy worlds are a part of the real world: we’ve made them such, and many occupy them much more fully than the “real” world.

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