Sunday, January 22, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 3

In celebration of the fact that I'm finally able to read books again (a week off seems like forever) a look at the final reads of 2005 and the first ones of 2006.
  1. The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin - Akunin's well-received historical mystery, set in 1876 Imperial Russia and starring the young and earnest Erast Fandorin, junior bureaucrat and wannabe detective, languished at the bottom of my to-be-read stack for several months before I got around to reading it. Having finished it, I can honestly say that its treatment was well-deserved. The book's setting, as well as Akunin's arch and slightly needling narrative voice, make for an amusing read for about 50 pages, but when the novelty wears off what's left is a rather tedious spy thriller too absurd even for its semi-fantastical setting, with a protagonist so painfully dim-witted that it boggles the mind that he lives to star in several more installments in the series (three or four of the sequels have been translated into English, but in the original Russian I believe that the Fandorin series reaches into the double digits). As I understand it, Akunin's gimmick is that with each of the Fandorin novels, he tries his hand at a different variant of the detective novel. The Winter Queen is a Bond-ian spy novel, complete with coded messages, exploding safes, and a monologuing villainess. Other novels in the series take on other clichés of the genre--Murder on the Leviathan, for instance, recalls Agatha Christie as Fandorin finds himself investigating a murder on board an intercontinental steamer. The problem with this admittedly clever conceit is that the historical aspect of the novels--Akunin's recreation of the class-conscious, painfully polite, deeply prejudiced society in which Fandorin moves--is thin and jokey, a mere backdrop for Akunin's riff on mystery tropes. I imagine that a devoted mystery fan wouldn't have a problem with the thinness of Akunin's world, but I've never been a big fan of the genre. Without a convincing backdrop, I quickly found myself losing interest in The Winter Queen's absurd plot.

  2. The Magic Toyshop and Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter - I really should have read Jeff VanderMeer's article "The Infernal Desire Machine of Angela Carter" (available in VanderMeer's collection of essays, Why Should I Cut Your Throat), a little more carefully. VanderMeer's essay is largely the reason I gave Carter a second try after being slightly disappointed by The Bloody Chamber, Carter's collection of darkly retold fairy tales, but a closer reading would have revealed that VanderMeer considers both of these early novels to be lesser efforts on Carter's part (actually, he calls Heroes and Villains Carter's worst novel), and I'm afraid that I agree. The writing is still gorgeous and hypnotic, of course, but the novels' plots failed to draw me in, and despite some obvious forays into topics that would continue to engage Carter for the rest of her career, the novels felt underdone and uncertain. In The Magic Toyshop, fifteen year old Melanie is forced to make a rapid transition to adulthood when her parents die in an accident and she and her two siblings are forced to move in with their ogreish uncle Phillip and his cowed family. Phillip, who as the novel's title suggests is a toymaker, is a misogynist who manipulates his family like the puppets in the theatre that he obsessively works on in the basement, and seeks to do the same to the new arrivals in his house--particularly Melanie, whom he fears for her awakening and as-yet untouched femininity. In the post-apocalyptic Heroes and Villains, eighteen year old Marianne is carried away, largely at her own instigation, by a 'Barbarian'--a member of the lawless tribes who exist outside the safe enclosures of the 'Professors', where Marianne was born and raised. Among the Barbarians, Marianne encounters horror and beauty, is overpowered and deified, and constantly finds herself torn between reason and superstition. To my great surprise and disappointment, the aspect that I found most unsatisfactory about both books was Carter's treatment of the female protagonists and of questions of sex, femininity, and women's power. It seems strange that the same woman who wrote Wise Children and Nights at the Circus, whose female protagonists embraced their own sexuality without losing their identity or independence, should have started her career by writing about teenage girls who accept with equanimity that to lose their virginity is to lose a significant part of themselves, that the sexual act itself is something that can overpower them rather than something they can have power over, and that the person to whom they lose their virginity has a claim on them for the rest of their lives--Marianne with the violent, mercurial Barbarian leader Jewel and Melanie with her uncle's brutish, oversexed brother-in-law (it really is difficult at times to avoid the conclusion that The Magic Toyshop is the sort of book that Cold Comfort Farm was written in response to). I think in general I prefer Carter's humorous novels to her serious ones. She has a tendency to take herself and her prominent themes--sexual awakening in young women, reason versus irrationality, respectability and its limitations--far too seriously, and she is at her wisest and most penetrating when she remembers to laugh at herself.

  3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - I have to agree with Matt Cheney's argument, that to tear Never Let Me Go down for being lousy and badly-plotted science fiction (which it is) is unfair to Ishiguro's intention, which was to write an allegory of our own hopeless existence. Kathy and her friends grow up in the knowledge that they are clones bred for spare organs, and they calmly accept that fate. Their attempts at escape are as ineffectual and half-hearted as our attempts to find meaning in our brief and pointless existence--they ignore their coming deaths, explain them away, attempt to bargain them down, try to prove that true love should give their life some greater flavor, and finally simply rage at the heavens. None of which changes the fact that Never Let Me Go is boring, badly written, and thoroughly disappointing. I didn't care about Kathy, her friends, or their petty and insignificant problems. Kathy's voice was flat and failed to convey the reality of her existence. Her descriptions of the idyllic Hailsham--the boarding school where she and her friends grew up--were tedious and never managed to impress on me the love that Kathy clearly had for the place. Some, or all, of these flaws were clearly intentional on Ishiguro's part--he's trying to convey dreary, mundane human existence, after all--but their result was that I couldn't muster a shred of emotion for these flat characters and their contrived situation (and, allegory or not, the gigantic holes in Ishiguro's plot certainly didn't help to keep me engaged). Kathy and her friends are supposed to be us, a mirror of human existence, but even in my dullest and greyest, I doubt I'd be able to see myself in these sheepish, passionless individuals.

  4. Number9Dream by David Mitchell - At last, a book I can report positively on. When I read Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten, I worried that the similarities between its structure and that of the sublime Cloud Atlas indicated that Mitchell has only one trick in his bag--a series of narratives, taking place in different times and geographical locations but linked through coincidence and fate. Happily, in Number9Dream Mitchell mixes things up a bit while still maintaining an unmistakable voice and style all his own. Dream's protagonist is 20 years old Eiji Miyake, native of a tiny island off the coast of Japan, who arrives in Tokyo to find his father, whom he has never met. Like the protagonists of Minister Faust's The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, who act like heroes because they understand that they've become embroiled in a heroic quest, Eiji seeks to attach a narrative to his life, as do all the people he meets in his journey towards his elusive father. The story Eiji tells himself changes shape and genre--comic book fantasies of daring rescues, elaborate schemes of vengeance, hard-boiled tales of crime and underworld wars--as he grows accustomed to the city and circles closer to the truth, but Eiji himself is never a Mitty-ish dreamer. He understands the difference between fact and fiction, and his coming of age over the course of the novel is expressed not by rejecting these fantasies but by remaking them in his own voice. Eiji learns to tell his own story, to find his own meaning in life rather than the one that others--relatives, employers, antagonists, lovers, and even his own parents--tell him he should have, and to be his own man. On top of being a top-notch coming of age novel, Number9Dream is a fantastic adventure, a fun romp, and a typically Mitchell-ian philosophical exercise. If it weren't for the mean-as-hell cliffhanger ending, I'd say that it and Cloud Atlas are roughly equivalent in terms of quality. As it is, it's still highly recommended.

3 comments:

Meeralee said...

Abigail, you might have had a different experience if you'd listened to the audio version of Never Let Me Go, which is read with eerie matter-of-factness by Rosalyn Landor. Her clear, low voice has an intensely still and careful quality well-suited to Ishiguro's tendency to hide the edges of darkness behind a veneer of strict formality, and her measured tone creates a delicious sense of suspense; you find yourself constantly nervous that she is about to reveal something truly horrible, and that you won't have time to prepare yourself because her voice will simply continue as before, precisely articulate and clear.

Or you might still have found it boring. :-)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Clearly I can't say for certain, but I'm fairly certain that the audio version wouldn't have changed my mind about the book. One of the things that most annoyed me about Never Let Me Go was the sense of menace that Ishiguro kept hammering down my throat. In the foreground it's 'here's another stultifyingly boring story about the time I lost my pencil case in school' and in the background it's all Menace! Menace! Isn't this sinister! Possibly because I was spoiled for the 'twist' (but then again, so is everyone else on the planet by this point) and possibly because I'm a genre reader and probably would have guessed the twist fairly early in the book even if I hadn't been spoiled, I found this attempt to create atmosphere unsubtle and annoying.

Meeralee said...

I didn't ever feel that "the twist" was supposed to be a source of mystery for me as a reader -- I thought it crystal clear from very early on. I did feel the menace as something hidden but palpable in the experience of the narrator.

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