If someone had described Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to me I don’t think I would have read it. I picked it up blindly, mostly because I wanted to read more magical realism (I have pretty much only read Rushdie, Marquez, and Borges). Even so, the first hundred pages should have turned me off – Toru Okada, the protagonist, spends most of it emotionally detached, halfheartedly looking for a missing cat while flirting detachedly from a teenager who lives in the neighborhood, all the while hanging around his apartment all day. The narrative doesn’t exactly careen forward from this point, but events get increasingly weird and increasingly intense, until Okada starts flipping relatively easily between parallel universes. Even the wrap-up felt unsettling and odd, as it was unexpected but also unexpectedly not a denouement as I think of them.
- The wind-up bird is the link between a whole bunch of wild stories. I guess it’s mostly noted for its annoying screech.
- Everyone who Okada meets comes back to play a part in the novel. Everyone.
- His wife (Kumiko) leaves him but we’re never sure why, and she reappears at a couple of points, one of which convinces Okada that he must save her. Despite beating someone to death in her hotel room, he can’t.
- His brother-in-law gets beaten into a coma (a man who hates Okada and who Okada hates back), but he doesn’t really, at least in the plane of existence that we are all on.
- Wells figure prominently, as Okada spends several days in the bottom of one, and Lt. Miyami, who was captured by Soviets in Manchuria during WWII, was left in one to die (he escaped).
- Okada is marked with a blue stain on his cheek that marks him as someone who can relieve people of inner turmoil and anxiety by touching them. Nutmeg (a rich woman who befriends him) has the same mark, and has been performing this task. In trying to get Kumiko back, he somehow becomes unable to do this anymore. What they were doing felt a bit like what sin-eaters in the middle ages did, especially in Ireland.
- Okada and Nutmeg have a conversation about meta-fiction at one point that is fascinating and I think either shows Murakami’s sense of humor or his willingness to stare right at the fourth wall and say “I see you.”
- I know that folks often say that they read to learn about other cultures. I always feel that this is an impossible task – in my mind knowing other cultures intimately is impossible (hell, I don’t think I know my own), and assuming that we pick up a book and are immediately experts in Japan is sort of foolish.
- That said, this book seems determined to be as anti-stereotypical Japanese as possible. Big lumps of it describe Japanese war crimes in Manchuria, for instance. It talks specifically about the military codes of Japanese soldiers and how stupid they were. Okada is dreamy, unemployed, more worried about cats than people, and not all that worried about cats – all characteristics that go against stereotypes of the Japanese as hard-working sarariman who will die at their desks rather than disappoint their company (and thus their country). I enjoyed this defiance, but it also made me realize how completely I had bought into the stereotype.
- Everyone will be happy to know that the cat is okay.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones became one of those books that I read too fast. I wanted to know that Randall was able to go to basketball camp and get out of the poverty trap, that Skeetah kept the puppies to make some desperately-needed money, that Dad was able to break out of his grief-inspired alcoholism, that Esch discovered having sex would make her pregnant and that boys are at best stupid and at worst evil, and that Junior had a chance at some sort of childhood. Most of all, much to my shame, I wanted to keep going to see if China survived. Spoiler alert – Ward ends the novel before we know…
- Esch is a marvelous character. She’s trapped since the death of her mother, and has had to watch the family slink slowly into a kind of sloth fueled by the fact that their dad has become non-functioning since Mom died in childbirth.
- She clearly relates to the Greek plays that they are reading in her school, and she feels close to Medea in all her forms. The interplay between Esch’s reading of Medea and her own life features her trying out Medea in a bunch of different roles and possibilities, trying to make sense of her own pregnancy and relationship with her baby’s father in the light shed by Medea’s own struggle for autonomy.
- Skeetah and China’s relationship also did not play out how I expected it to. I have no experience with people who fight dogs outside of reading of the horror of Michael Vick’s slaughter pit, and to have this relationship so lovingly sketched out, with the care that Skeetah takes for China and her puppies going far beyond the money they’re worth. China and Skeetah are in a mutual protection society, with China simply doing what her hard-wiring tells her to do, and the relationship felt so loving *despite* the fact that she had been bred to fight.
- Despite all the blood, no dogs are killed in these fights, which makes sense since the dogs are worth so much money and are so close to their owners in a physical sense. This is not a portrayal of the bloodthirsty, cold-to-their-animals type of dog fighting that I see in the media – these are people who are simply allowing the dogs to do what they do.
- Finally, the portrayal of the hurricane’s impact is powerful but not dominating. I cared about the characters long before the hurricane hit, and the gradually creeping terror that they felt resonated with me. It also felt like an accurate portrayal of how the power of these storms is hard to imagine, especially with the elders in a community disabled or gone.
- And dammit, I hope China survived…I was hoping that Ward would at least let them keep a puppy…
Ah, Salman Rushdie, bringing back memories of fatwas and Scotland Yard protecting an Indian-born writer from folks trying to get to heaven by killing just one writer…makes me almost nostalgic.
- I read this novel in my quest to read as much magical realism as I can, but I hadn’t guessed that Rushdie uses magical realism to create an allegory of the struggles India has gone through since obtaining independence from the British. In that sense he follows Marquez beautifully.
- Saleem Sinai, his muslim protagonist gifted with an extreme sense of smell, experiences all the joys and horrors of elections, independence, post-colonialism, and the split of Pakistan and India. Indira Gandhi is a particularly loathsome figure in her use of power, and the viciousness of the various wars and ethnic cleansings are also powerfully evoked.
- Rushdie uses women as ciphers in ways that occasionally make me queasy. His narrator is telling the story to Padma, his latest partner, and her impatience feels sort of uncomfortably shrewish. The sacrifice of the witch who gives birth to Sinai’s son also felt sort of yeah, once again the woman dies for the man’s sins-type story. My guess is that I’m selling Rushdie very short here.
- The widespread ethnic diversity of India becomes a part of the story-telling context in MC, and while I struggled to keep up (so many ancestors of mercenaries and emperors) the overall effect made me hope that India can continue to maintain its identity, while fearing for its very ability to do so.
- The move from the naivete of a radio contest for the child born closest to midnight to civil war and totalitarianism and ethnic cleansing struck me upon reading as sort of beautiful in a pen-and-ink sketch type of way. In this rendition India feels both like a hopeful vision of a future multicultural world and a descent into the worst that we can do to each other.
I re-read The Master and Margarita as a way to better understand the possibilities of KRZ, and wow…it brings back memories…
I first read it at the insistence of a guy I met working as a coder for EDS in Dayton. He had brought his family out of the Soviet Union, through a lot of risk and danger that I can barely comprehend, and he and I became friends, so much so that I learned how to drink pepper vodka (straight from the bottle, peel that foil cap off and enjoy!). He didn’t necessarily give me the keys to reading it, as there are so many layers that such a key would be as long as the book, but he gave me a firm sense of how important something like literature (and literary resistance) could be in a culture where the biggest lies were simply told as if they were truth.
This drawing is not of the cover, but it’s so gangster…
I’m sure there are no resemblances to the current moment.
And that brings me to the thoughts section of this post: Continue Reading
Thoughts on Paul Beatty’s latest, The Sellout:
- Beatty’s book feels a bit like George Saunders’s work – funny in a biting, oh-shit-that’s-so-fucked-up-but-so-true kind of way. The landscape he creates – a sort of agrarian, pastoral inner suburb that is almost entirely African-American – hints at the larger dysfunction surrounding it without revealing much.
- Yes, this is about race, and I’m still puzzling out several pieces. It also reminds me a bit of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the way it ends, with the narrator returning home after a landmark court case. It concerns itself with how minorities function in an absurdly racist society, and this narrator tries to turn contemporary cultural mores on their head by having a slave (not really, but the guy calls himself that and won’t let the narrator alone) and forcing a school to be segregated.
- There’s some complicated psychological stuff going on here – by forcing the school to keep out whites, whites want to go (resulting partially in the narrator ending up in the Supreme Court as a defendant). Hominy Jenkins, the guy who wants to go back to slavery, does so because he feels that he has a place and a role.
- Both, I think, show Beatty taking standard right-wing talking points and putting them in a petri dish…neither does what those folks think it would.
- I’m guessing RBG asks the question that this novel plays with – “what do we mean by ‘black’?” This isn’t what does it mean to be black, or how does being black affect one’s identity – Beatty’s question is more fundamental (and the narrator approves) – we pay lip service to the idea that race is a construction, but how does that improve the lives of people? Our narrator, who grew up as a social experiment in race, is a farmer who produces delicious fruit, is a surfer who loves surfing enough to consider making his farm a huge wave pool, challenges all kinds of status quos by turning buses back into vehicles of segregation, by convincing a middle school principal to segregate her school, and by having the aforementioned slave.
- Finally, the onslaught of pop culture references I think speak to the impossibility of knowing the origin of anything, especially since the strings that Beatty places them in can be wildly various.
- I have a feeling that this book is one I will return to…
I probably will not have time to finish Quadrilateral Cowboy, which makes me a bit sad, so I decided to post on it before my memories of the game fade. It was released in 2016 by Blendo Games, and feels like a beautiful blend of an alternate cyberpunk universe, the one that Gibson might have written post Pattern Recognition.
My thoughts on it follow:
- The game is 2D, sort of, and these screen shots show, and I have not played a game where my avatar looks so unusual. Blendo Games, which is really just Brendan Chung, has developed some off-the-wall shtuff, but this one has an aesthetic that is about as close to what I imagine the dataverse looked like to those of us who survived cyberpunk in the 1980s as is possible. The game goes out of his way to show the player-character when at least I was least suspecting it, through blocky shadows and sudden reflections in mirrors.
- The game’s landscape also felt very dataversian in its complete lack of other people, except for those in your hacker hangout. I robbed houses, stole courier packets from trains, and entered ventilation ducts, and all the time I saw no one. When I died, I was killed by a stationary sentry gun set in the ceiling, or by running out of air on one mission in space.
- Even the houses of the folks whose stuff I took were clean, corporately-sterile, with no sign of habitation aside from furniture that looked as if it could still be in its plastic wrap.
- Even though the player can die, there is no other violence. I was excited to get a gun, even if I couldn’t pick it up and shoot it like a hand cannon, only to find out that it shot bean bags that could be used to trip levers. Damn – no body count here.
- Chung has said in interviews (consult the wikipedia page for direct sources) that he wanted to make a game that helped people understand what it takes to be a hacker without having to code. I picked up on that, and I found that I had to think about the puzzles in very different ways than other games required me to think. I don’t usually enjoy puzzle solving games, but this one had me hooked because the puzzles were ingenious but somehow useful.
- Perhaps they felt useful because we as hackers got paid. By who was never made clear.
- I did feel a bit off put by the linearity of the narrative. The game is absolutely not a sandbox – there’s no place to go, a function I am guessing of both the lack of programmers to add more space and an adherence to the dataverse, full of heavily protected data in the cyberpunk ecosystem.
- This linearity reminded me a bit of the game I’m trying to finish now, What Remains of Edith Finch, which is just as linear from a narrative standpoint but restricted in different ways.
- At some point I will need to think about what these sorts of borderless boundaries mean for game worlds…
- As a fan of the Sprawl trilogy, I enjoyed how this game invoked the Gibsonian conception of cyberspace. It felt intensively machine-drawn, with clean shadows and no dirt whatsoever (even in the air ducts the player crawls around in).
- Again, it felt all very intentionally machine-drawn, a beautiful contrast to the nastiness of the outside world in Gibson’s Sprawl. It almost felt as if the machines that drew it were trying to either make humans feel comfortable or ignoring them completely.
- The only messy spaces were ones players share with their fellow hackers, all of whom look vaguely Japanese and none of whom really interacted with the player-character.
- And the player-character is definitely in the machine – you simply appear and disappear as if you hooked a ride in a Star Trek transporter.
- Unfortunately, there were no malevolent AIs. Even the corporations we rob didn’t seem evil, just sort of negligent for leaving all these holes in their security. I’m not sure what styles of security the game is designed to present for circumvention – it’s clearly set in 1980, as a banner tells us early on, but there are space stations that we have to hack as well.
- The aesthetic also felt vaguely as if I was an analog remnant of an increasingly digital world, but that might be other work of mine bleeding into this one.
My latest attempt to understand Philip Roth’s work is reading American Pastoral. It is set in a changing Newark, and features Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov as its protagonist, struggling keeping his factory open and his American dream alive through the 1960s.
- There is a novel-within-a-novel here, as we are unsure if the Swede actually exists or is merely the figment of Nathan Zuckerman’s imagination (Zuckerman is Roth’s narrator and feels a lot like Roth). We find out that the Swede is a person based on other people’s memories of him as Zuckerman talks to folks at his 45th high school reunion, but the recreation that we get does not include parts of the Swede’s life (a second marriage with sons).
- I was shocked to see how many bombings the Weathermen had done over the years. I don’t remember them as a reign of terror, which confuses me in the age of amber alerts, when we are supposed to be afraid all the time. Maybe my parents just kept us out of the fear, and of course I couldn’t read all the Twitter posts debating the bombers so I couldn’t, perhaps, get worked up about it.
- The novel feels Proustian in its intense immersion into characters’ heads, ranging from Swede to his first wife Dawn. Zuckerman as narrator invokes Proust, so I’m guessing the model is deliberate.
- The Swede is as caucasian as a Jew can get – nordic looks, blonde hair, factory owner, star athlete, married to an Irish-Catholic beauty queen, the works. Roth uses that juxtaposition neatly to talk about some of the contradictions at the heart of American Judaism – political progressivism with belief in capitalism, marginalized ethnicity vs. desire to be a part of the US mainstream, a need to be patriots (Levov is Marine vet) vs. an understanding of some of the basic contradictions of American society (and the resulting desire to tear that society apart).
- Roth’s American Pastoral is distinctly east coast and suburban. The Swede moves with his family to the farm country of New Jersey, and they go so far as to become almost gentlemen farmers, with the Swede driving in to his factory everyday in Newark (at least until he has to close up shop).
- The horror seems to come from the fact that the product of the perfect Jewish family can become an American-bred terrorist who bombs post offices as part of the Weathermen. That’s the question I can’t figure out – it feels as if Roth is looking to identify the sources of Merry’s radicalisation, and if so then he seems to identify them as equally part being a Jew in America and the United States’s bloody history of conquest. I’m not sure that blame is what Roth is trying to apportion – I’m reminded of an admonition that I heard lots of times in grad school and that I take to heart, that the best novels feature really smart people wrestling with nearly intractable problems – but some sort of trying to understand is definitely happening here.
- I’m tempted to see this novel as indictment of parents who try to understand their kids, but that might be too easy on my part…
- I struggle though with thinking of this novel as a study of why folks become radicals .Merry’s stuttering, her inability to live up to the glamour of her parents, her exposure to radical politics in NYC, these all felt too easy to me as a sort of psychological understanding of why people become radicalized.