Dream Hunting

January 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.

Reading next: The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.

Pavic (there should really be an accent on that final c, but I can’t seem to find it among the symbols) died in December, spurring me to finally get around to reading this, his first book.  I loved Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel inspired by crossword puzzles, able to be read “Across” or “Down.” He’s like the Serbian love-child of Borges and Kafka.

I’m afraid I haven’t loved Dictionary of the Khazars as much, though it certainly has interesting elements (maybe a few too many, actually).  As was the case with Landscape, reading it is both an education and an entertainment: I knew nothing about the existence of a people known as the Khazars before I started reading this, and thought them an invention of the author, when they really are a historical fact, dominant in Eastern Europe from the 7th to 10th centuries (just as I never knew of the existence of the monasteries of Mount Athos before reading Landscape).  Of course, Pavic is using both groups — and many other things we never get taught in school in the U.S. — as devices for his literary concerns, furiously embellishing and inventing.  But it gets you peeking into encyclopedias, poking around the Internet, and you find, not only that you don’t know much about much, but  that you don’t know as much as you think you do about what’s made up and what’s not.

The dream hunters are an invention, but what an invention!  In their entry in the Dictionary, they are introduced like so: “A sect of Khazar priests whose protectress was Princess Ateh.  They could read other people’s dreams, live and make themselves at home in them, and through the dreams hunt the game that was their prey — a human, an object, or an animal.”  This thread of the “plot” woven through the novel’s entries — especially the interconnected tales of Avram Brankovich, Yusuf Masudi, and Samuel Cohen — is what I’ve enjoyed most about the book.  The core of the dream hunters’ essential mission is explained to Masudi by an old mystic:

“The goal of dream hunters is to understand that every awakening is just one step in the many releases from dreaming.  He who understands that his day is merely another person’s night, that his two eyes are another person’s one, will search for the real day, which enables true awakening from one’s own reality, just as one awakens from a dream, and this leads to a condition where man is even more wakeful than when conscious.  Then he will finally see that he has one eye as opposed to those with two, and is blind compared with those who are awake….”

This is not only some real pre-Matrix metaphysically deep shit, it also seems to be a core tenet of the (limited amount of) Eastern European literature I’ve read, as practiced by Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and their ilk.  The importance of being “even more wakeful than when conscious” — of paying attention to dreams as something which can awaken us to a truer reality than our mundane lives — and of realizing that there are layers of meaning, connection, and “reality” among the many forms of life and consciousness: I do not know why, but these seem to be central to the concerns of the Eastern European fabulists.

Pavic puts his own spin on these ideas, by expanding them into the idea that the true, impossible goal is the reconstruction from “all human dreams” of Adam Ruhani (also called Adam Cadmon in the Jewish portion of the dictionary — both real concepts in Islam and Judaism, respectively, though extensively embellished here).  Adam Ruhani “thought the way we dream,” before his fall.  The dream hunters try to put Ruhani back together, finding and tracking key elements shared in people’s dreams.  Awesome idea.

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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