Recent Reading Roundup 44
Summer is usually a dead reading time for me, the heat and dust making it difficult to concentrate on anything but the least challenging fare. But this summer--which has anyway featured some interesting developments--has turned out to be very exciting on the reading front as well. I didn't love all of these books--in fact one of them is easily my least favorite read in quite some time--but all of them broadened my horizons and took me places I wasn't expecting. Here's to many more summers (and seasons) like this one.
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I'm having trouble explaining to myself why I picked up The Buried Giant. After all, the only other Ishiguro novel I've read, Never Let Me Go, left me feeling disappointed, frustrated, and genuinely puzzled at the love and admiration that so many other readers (including genre readers) had for it. The only justification I have for giving Ishiguro another look is that it had been ten years since Never Let Me Go put me off, and in that time the ongoing praise for it made me doubt my own recollections. Was it possible that I was being too harsh? Did I miss the point of the novel's tragedy, seeing nastiness in what was intended as a soulful meditation on the human condition? Add to that the conversation that developed around The Buried Giant's genre, and the fact that its premise and setting sounded intriguing, and it seemed like a good opportunity to give Ishiguro a second try. Turns out, I was right the first time. Ishiguro is a nasty piece of work; The Buried Giant, like its predecessor, is a mean-spirited, taunting bit of misery-porn that seems to hold its readers in actual disdain, and pretends to profundity without having anything to say. And what makes it all worse is that I have no one to blame but myself.
The story of The Buried Giant revolves around an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in a small English village some time after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The setting is deliberately hard to fix, not just because the couple have a very limited view of their world, but because folklore and fantasy seem to exist side by side with established history--this is a world where Arthur was a historical king whom some of the novel's older characters remember, and where dragons exist. (On the question of the novel's genre, I fall in with those who class it as a fantasy; though as a fantasy, it isn't a very interesting or original one.) One particular dragon is breathing noxious fumes into the air, affecting the entire region and causing memory loss, passivity, and irrational behavior. Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village to go on a visit to their son, whom they only vaguely remember, become increasingly aware of these effects as they travel, and fall in with a group of people--including an elderly Sir Gawain--who have various plans for the dragon. As they journey, more and more pieces of their forgotten history start falling into place, as does the vicious, bloody conflict between Saxons and Britons, now curiously abated but bubbling beneath the surface.
The Buried Giant is slow and meandering, and Axl and Beatrice's thought- and speech-patterns are halting, almost childlike (it's hard to tell if this is meant to be the effect of the dragon, since in flashbacks to the past they seem just as literal-minded). That's not what put me off the novel, though--for all its blandness, The Buried Giant is an easy read, and in its own way engaging, as we watch its characters go out of their way to be kind and accommodating to one another, and slowly puzzling out their world and history. But the simplicity of that world and that history mean that the reader will work out relatively quickly what the characters take until the novel's last pages to figure out--that the dragon's fumes, even as they suppress memory and intelligence, are also the only thing preventing ethnic strife and bloodshed from breaking out again, and that several of the novel's characters want the dragon killed so that the cycle of vengeance can start again. So The Buried Giant is a long, terribly polite, terribly gentle trudge towards war and ethnic cleansing. As if that were not enough, Axl and Beatrice's relationship, the only thing they have left to cling to in a world going slowly mad, is nibbled away at piece by piece as they regain their memories.
Here's where a partisan of the novel might jump up to say "but that's the point!" But the more I think about it, the more misguided that seems. I don't think Ishiguro has written a book about the inevitability of human conflict and how remembering history can doom us to repeat it. I think he's written a smug, sneering work whose primary purpose it to point and laugh at its readers for hoping that things might turn out better than that. Throughout the novel, Axl and Beatrice are eager to end the dragon's influence because they fear that if they lose their memories of loving each other, they won't be allowed to go to heaven together. But not only does regaining their memory reveal all the cracks and flaws in their relationship, as the novel's final chapter reveals, there's no amount of love they could have for each other that would ever allow them to go to the afterlife together--any expression of anger or hate, even momentary, in a decades-long marriage is enough to disqualify them. In the hands of another writer, this might arouse compassion, the recognition that there is no such thing as a perfect love, or a perfect peace. But underneath The Buried Giant's polite surface, there is a genuinely misanthropic heart, that sees the flaws in its characters as a reason to hate and punish them, not pity them. The point of the novel isn't that war and conflict are inevitable, or that no love is perfect, but rather that it is foolish to hope otherwise, and that people who do--both the characters and the readers--are to be derided. The only good thing that has come from my choice to read this novel is that I no longer have to wonder if I was wrong about Ishiguro ten years ago, and hopefully I won't make the mistake of picking him up again.
- Broken River by J. Robert Lennon - Lennon is turning out to be one of those authors who never write the same kind of book twice. I've seen him do family dramedy (The Funnies), and metaphysical slipstream (Familiar), and now he returns with Broken River, a thriller with more than a dash of the existential. The house in the woods outside Broken River, NY was once the site of a horrible double murder. Twelve years later, it is purchased by a wealthy, bohemian family--sculptor Karl, novelist Eleanor, precocious tween Irina--who move to the country in a last-ditch effort to recover from Karl's serial infidelity. All the ingredients for a fairly standard thriller plot seem to have been laid out, including a mysterious young woman who may or may not be the daughter of the murder victims, a local man whose knowledge about the murders has been eating away at him for years, and a sinister stranger who arrives in town not long after Eleanor and Irina begin investigating the history of their new home. And yet Broken River repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag. It often feels more interested in Karl and Eleanor's crumbling marriage, and particularly the way that it has been both sustained, and ultimately destroyed, by his monumental self-absorption. Long stretches of the novel are told from the point of view of an "observer", an entity who came into being shortly before the murders, and who spends the years afterwards watching the house and then following the people who move into it, slowly developing its theories about why humans behave as strangely and inconsistently as they do. Most importantly, though Lennon takes a while to reveal what actually happened on the night of the murders (to the readers, anyway; most of the characters never work out all of the details), he makes it clear from the outset that there is no grand mystery here. That what happened at the house all those years ago was nothing but the confluence of mundane greed, cruelty, and foolishness, with no greater meaning or purpose.
The result is that Broken River often feels more interesting for its parts than its whole. The chapters in which we follow Karl in his relentless quests to gratify his most immediate desires--for weed, for his mistress, for artistic recognition, for some fleeting sense that he is not failing as a husband and a father (he is)--are a sort of horrifying comedy, a constant seesaw between disgust at Karl's steadfast refusal to be an adult, and amusement at the sheer audacity of it. Eleanor's slow realization that she needs to disentangle herself from his narcissism, and Irina's childish conviction that she knows everything she needs to know about being an adult, are similarly well-sketched. But at its core, Broken River is a novel about the folly of imposing a narrative on life, whether it's the murder mystery, or the murderers' belief that their victims' daughter is coming back for revenge, or even Karl's fantasies about masculinity. Which inevitably means that the book refuses its own impulses towards a coherent plot. When the story erupts into violence, it's not because the forces that exploded in the house twelve years ago were so malevolent and all-knowing that they've been lying in wait all these years, but because the limited people making limited observations of the family's actions jump to irrational, unsubstantiated conclusions. That's not as frustrating as it sounds--a lot of the pleasure of the book comes from our ability to piece together what the rest of the characters don't realize, and to marvel over their foolishness. But it means that Broken River ends less with a crescendo and more with an unraveling, and the feeling that as enjoyable as the components of the ride were, we weren't actually headed towards a destination.
- Human Acts by Han Kang - I didn't know quite what to make of Kang's The Vegetarian, winner of last year's Man Booker International prize and generally beloved of literary folks, when I read it earlier this year. It was obviously successful at what it was trying to do--chart the way that mental illness and a misogynistic culture combine to drive the main character to self-destruction, to the complete incomprehension of those closest to her--but for the life of me I couldn't figure out the point of the exercise, or even admire Kang's skill at pulling it off. Human Acts, Kang's third novel to be translated into English, has finally made me realize what everyone has been seeing in her. It is a riveting, shattering work, at once personal, philosophical, and political, dealing with the after-effects of state violence in a way that no novel I've read has come close to.
Kang's subject is the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which students and factory workers in a Korean city staged a takeover in protest of the country's military leadership. The uprising lasted ten days, and was finally brutally suppressed, with hundreds of citizens left dead or missing. To Koreans, this is a defining moment in the history of their nation, but I had never heard of it before reading this book. It was therefore fascinating to see how Kang dealt with the details of history. None of the characters in the book infodump, and it's left to us to piece together the events of the uprising and its aftermath from their asides and observations. To a foreign reader in particular, this has a strangely wrongfooting effect. The first chapter, which takes place in the middle of the uprising, with the city holding its breath in anticipation of the military's return and the massacre that will be sure to follow, felt, to me, almost like a chapter out of an SFnal dystopia. It seemed impossible that, in the real world, ordinary people could have found themselves, from one day to another, living in a war zone. And yet the further one gets in Human Acts, the more that sense of alienation and unreality comes to feel like the point. As the years pass, the uprising is folded into Korea's history, and into the lives of the people who survived it, a rupture in the expected order of things that is also horrifyingly mundane.
What occupies most of the characters in Human Acts is the death of one specific Gwangju victim, fifteen-year-old Dong-ho. We meet him in the book's first chapter, helping to tend to bodies that have been brought to a local gym, looking for the friend he was separated from in the protest that sparked the uprising. Though it takes a while to learn exactly how Dong-ho died, that isn't the story's focus--it is, after all, fairly easy to guess, and the actual identity of the murderer doesn't matter with so many guilty parties to go around. What is important, to Dong-ho's friends, his family, and the other rebels who managed to escape with their lives, is the violation that his death represents, and the greater violation that it comes to stand for. Following these characters over the years and decades after the uprising, Kang finds them struggling with trauma, PTSD, survivor's guilt, and most of all with the knowledge that people are capable of doing such things to one another. The violence that the state is capable of is ever-present in this book, from the uprising itself, to the torture of prisoners that followed it, to routine mistreatment at the hands of the police. For all the novel's characters, the illusion that they are living in a civil society, that they can trust their government and fellow citizens not to hurt them, has been irrevocably shattered. The question they keep coming back to, as they try to rebuild their lives, is: how do you participate in a society that has abused you? How do you go on with your life in the knowledge that all of the things you've witnessed, the cruelty and the suffering, are a fundamental part of being human? Throughout the novel, Kang's focus is on the corporeal--on dead bodies and how we care for them (or not); on abused bodies and how they heal (or not)--and through this most mundane of topics, she repeatedly drives home the point that what she is describing is ordinary, even, in some ways, normal. It is that normalcy that gives Human Acts its horrifying force, and makes it one of the most powerful novels I've read.
- The Girl With the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash - I first heard about this novel, which caused quite a stir when it was originally published in Hindi in 2001, from Aishwarya Subramanian. According to the introduction by translator Jason Grunebaum, one of the things that made it controversial in India was its discussion of caste and the effects that it still has on modern Indians, and to a foreigner that's one of the aspects of Indian society that feels most opaque--the subtle cues of language, name, and geographical origin that clearly identify caste to an Indian are invisible to most of us, and certainly to me. One might think that this would make The Girl With the Golden Parasol incomprehensible to a foreign leader, but instead my reaction to Prakash's portrait was to think that he'd managed to capture currents and trends that are universal, present in any country and society, even as he depicts the unique ways in which they express themselves in his home.
Both a campus novel and a romantic comedy, The Girl With the Golden Parasol follows Rahul, a young student at a prestigious university, who falls in love with Anjali, a girl from the highest, Brahmin caste. In order to be close to his crush, Rahul transfers into the Hindi department, which is simultaneously looked down on by the wider university community, as a hidebound discipline with little utility in the new, capitalistic Indian society, and ruled internally by a cabal that sees their mission as more cultural than academic, building a bulwark against the erosion of Brahmin superiority and control. Being exposed to the internal politics and prejudices of the department gives Rahul (and Prakash--when the novel gets into its speech-making mode, it can get a little difficult to distinguish between the two) an opportunity to exposit on the currents affecting Indian society. On the one hand, the influence of the West, which encourages capitalism, consumerism, and inequality. And on the other hand, the form of Indian nationalism espoused by the Brahmins, which seeks to erase the cultural impact of less-privileged ethnic groups (Rahul is, for example, startled to discover that his syllabus in Hindi literature is composed almost entirely of Brahmin authors) and erect a philosophical model that treats Indian-ness and Brahmin superiority as interchangeable. Despite the local details--and without downplaying Prakash's skill at conveying them, even to a foreigner like myself--these forces feel so familiar, especially right now with nationalistic movements all over the world identifying themselves with idea of cultural supremacy and the rule of the elite, that it seems impossible to believe that this novel was written almost two decades ago, in a very different world. (One amusing and presumably unintentional touch is that the peak of the novel's action happens in the middle of September 2001, and yet 9/11 is never mentioned.)
Prakash isn't shy about using Rahul as a mouthpiece, and a lot of the novel is made up of his speeches--to his friends, to his teachers, to Anjali. But what should make the novel a bit of a slog ends up being delightful, not just because Rahul's perspective was new to me, but because of the way his imagery swoops from the mundane to the fantastical, from being rooted in the novel's narrative to a high-flying view of India as a whole, from completely naturalistic to combining elements of mythology, religion, and history to illustrate Rahul's take on India's core flaws and failings. (If I have any problem with Rahul and his worldview, it is that, like so many campus leftists before and after him, he tends to view women as a means to an end, rather than actors and thinkers in their own right, and this also expresses itself in some of his politics.) Even more impressive is the fact that, in such a short volume, Prakash manages to combine Rahul's philosophical and political musings with a fairly crackerjack plot, involving not only the blooming love story between Rahul and Anjali, but a student rebellion against the corrupt campus leadership, which is cahoots with local criminals. The result is a novel that feels vibrant both for its politics and its story, and extremely funny and touching besides. Near the end, Prakash demonstrates an obvious awareness of his genre by asking whether he can justify ending his story like any Bollywood romance between a rich girl and a poor boy, and it's a testament to the strength of his worldbuilding that he manages to find an ending that is satisfying on both the political and storytelling level.
- Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi - Saadawi's 2013 novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and I'm getting it slightly before English readers (who will be able to enjoy it in 2018) because the Hebrew translation was a little bit faster. Set in 2005, at the height of the chaos following the American invasion and the fall of the Ba'athist regime, its events are punctuated by a constant litany of gang wars, reprisals for long-held grudges, financial collapses, and suicide bombings. In the midst of all this upheaval, an old junk dealer, shellshocked by the death of his friend in a bombing and by the sight of the dismembered bodies left after it, begins a macabre project of constructing a single corpse from orphaned bits of victims. For reasons the book never elaborates, but which are clearly linked to the psychic charge of trauma and pain that lingers over the city, the patchwork creature comes to life. He begins taking vengeance on the people who caused his body parts' original death--criminal gangs, militias, terrorist groups. But as his quest for vengeance proceeds--and as tales of the mysterious, inhuman avenger spread through the city--the creature's body begins to fail, and he finds himself having to take the lives of innocents in order to extend his life.
It's a fairly obvious metaphor, and Saadawi is almost certainly not the first to employ it (Victor LaValle is currently telling a very similar story in his comic Destroyer, to name but one example). What makes Frankenstein in Baghdad original is its portrait of Baghdad itself, and the way the creature's story intersects with those of so many ordinary people whose lives have been rocked, not just by the current crisis, but by a legacy of dictatorship and ethnic strife. Saadawi sets his story in a single neighborhood, whose residents have long-simmering currents of friendship and resentment shaped by Iraq's tumultuous history--one of the novel's protagonists, an old woman, holds a grudge against the former party member who hounded her son into enlisting in the army in the 80s, leading to the boy's death in the war against Iran. Religion and ethnicity are also discussed--on a personal note, I was intrigued by the frequent references to Baghdad's departed Jewish community, whose echoes continue to linger in the houses and artifacts they left behind. Perhaps most importantly, there is the tension between traditional ways of life, the order imposed by the fallen regime, and the new, more strongly capitalist society emerging after the invasion, which cause tremendous upheavals in the fortunes of many of the novel's characters. (In light of all this, it's interesting to note how little Saadawi has to say about the American occupation force. It exists as a grey eminence, a threat that backs the power of some of the novel's more connected characters. But hardly any American characters appear, and the Iraqi characters are more concerned with the neighbors and enemies they can see in front of them.)
If there's a weakness to Frankenstein in Baghdad, it is that it can't bring this tapestry of characters and stories to a definite conclusion. Rather, the novel ends with one final act of destruction, after which many of the characters end up surrendering their grip on a city they no longer recognize, and moving on from it, leaving it to the creature's stewardship. This, however, may very well be Saadawi's point; that in such chaos, with the ghosts of so many past victims emerging to claim their vengeance, Baghdad becomes unfit for the life of the community, and must be abandoned to those--human and inhuman--who are dedicated solely to violence.
- Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen - A visit to Finland felt like the perfect opportunity to read this biography of Jansson, and my reading was certainly enhanced by taking place within short distance of so many of the book's most important settings: the Ateneum, where Jansson studied art and displayed many of her works; the chief branch of the furniture and design store Artek, whose fine art competitions she entered; the famed department store Stockmann's, where one of many Moomin promotions was held. But even divorced from these concrete reminders of Jansson's life, Work and Love paints a vivid portrait of its subject. A lot of the details of Jansson's life were already known to me--I knew that she was the daughter of artists, that she had been a left-wing political cartoonist in the 30s and 40s, that she had a decades-long relationship with another female artist, Tuuliki Pietilä, with whom she lived part of the year on a remote island, and that she had written novels and stories for adults as well as the Moomin books. Karjalainen expands on these bare facts, charting the development of Jansson's career along the many paths she took over the course of her life, as a painter, graphic artist, cartoonist, and author. She discusses the dominant influences in Jansson's life, including her parents, friends, and early lovers. And she identifies echoes of Jansson's life in her writing, from her fraught relationship with her father, to her open-secret sexuality, to the specific inspirations for various Moomin characters. Her text is interspersed with many photographs and reproductions of Jansson's art, making the book a work of art as well as a fascinating biography.
But the chief pleasure of Work and Love is the portrait it paints of Jansson, as a person who was first and foremost hardworking, curious about the world, and eager for new experiences. You get a glimpse of Jansson's personality in many of her books, including Fair Play, The Summer Book, and The True Deceiver. But Karjalainen offers a more rounded portrait, discussing Jansson's limitations (her political naivete, her resistance to modernist movements in the art world) as well as her strengths. And, though the book touches on this fact only lightly (and mostly in discussing the more limited prospects of Jansson's mother Signe, whose career ended up taking a backseat to that of her husband), Work and Love is a profoundly feminist work. Its depiction of Jansson as an artist rejects so many of the terms we're used to using when discussing male artists, whose careers often seem dedicated as much to curating their public image, and to taking up as much space as possible, as to their work. Jansson was hardly shy and retiring, but she valued her privacy and didn't like to make herself, rather than her work, the focus of attention. Her life was dedicated to working hard, supporting her friends, and making a comfortable existence for herself and the people she cared about. This describes so many women I know--women who hold up the world with their care and attention, but who are also passionate, exacting, and extremely proud of their accomplishments--that it's not at all a surprise to learn that Jansson was one of them. It's a model for life--not just of the artist--that I'd like to see lauded, certainly over that of the genius creator who must be coddled and protected from the mundane details of existence.
- My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris - Ferris's monumental, breathtaking graphic novel presents itself as the sketchbook/diary of ten-year-old Karen Reyes, who lives with her mother and older brother Deeze in a basement apartment in Chicago, 1968. When the family's upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, dies under mysterious circumstances, Karen is moved to investigate, discovering tapes Anka made in which she narrates her life in pre-WWII Berlin, and her experiences in a concentration camp after the war breaks out. This impulse towards investigation also branches out into Karen's own family and her other neighbors, as she becomes aware of the weight of history and secrets that so many of the adults in her life carry.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters is probably weakest in its plot--it's easy to guess, for example, what dark secret Deeze is hiding about his past, and the book's use of the Holocaust in Anka's reminiscences verges on the sensationalistic, as when we learn that Anka, a former child prostitute, conceived a plan to rescue children from the gas chambers by recruiting them for her own brothel, and that her death may have been linked to this. But Ferris's art elevates the material into something completely its own, moving effortlessly between past and present, fantasy and reality. Karen's inspiration comes in equal parts from the schlock horror films and magazines she enjoys with her family, and the paintings she studies at her visits with Deeze to the Art Institute of Chicago. Long segments of the book involve Karen recreating, analyzing, and in some cases entering the paintings that capture her mood or resonate with her impressions of the people she meets, but often in combination with elements from monster movies--including Karen herself, who is almost always drawn as a creature halfway into transforming from a human to a werewolf. Alongside these fantastical elements, there is also a moving and carefully observed portrait of Karen's seedy neighborhood, populated by marginalized people, some of whom are still clinging to respectability, while others have been forced to let go of it, or have gleefully surrendered it. Ferris's ability to combine this stark social realism with a sensibility that is part high-art, part cartoon--and do it all in the medium of cross-hatched pen-strokes and shaded pencil sketches--adds up to a stunning artistic achievement, all while maintaining the conceit that the book is a child's sketchpad.
None of this, however, would work if it weren't for Karen herself, who is bold but naive, good-hearted but so determined to learn the truth about the various mysteries in her life that she ends up trampling over the feelings of people who are often already damaged and broken. Matter-of-factly reporting on the hardships of her life--a sick mother, a troubled brother, a school where she is considered a "freak" and subjected to abuse by both the students and teachers, a growing awareness of being gay and of the social costs that will entail as she gets older--Karen's defense mechanism is the belief that she is on the verge of escaping this reality to become a full-fledged monster. The recognition that she, as well as all of the people around her, are just humans (albeit ones who will always be marked as different and, in some ways, monstrous) is the painful cost of growing up, a process that, alongside the book's various mysteries, is only half-complete at the end of this volume. As I've said, those mysteries are probably the least engaging aspect of Ferris's project, but between her winning characters, and her luminous, versatile artwork, there's a great deal here to marvel at, and a great deal to look forward to in the story's conclusion.