Month: May 2013

Let’s Discuss — Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the elderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth’s green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body’s obliteration in the Lap of the Lord (221)

There are two central narratives in this piece of metafiction.  One narrative belongs to John Shade, a poet who leads a relatively uninteresting life. The most striking element of his narrative (which is confined to four lengthy cantos of poetry) is his lifelong preoccupation with death.

The other is Charles Kinbote.  Kinbote is Shade’s neighbor and self-proclaimed editor of Shade’s work. His narrative starts with the foreword, continues with the commentary and ends with the index. The reader will quickly learn Kinbote is not exactly what he seems.

Shade’s work, while at times morbid, is actually very interesting. As the “editor” of Shade’s work, I expected Kinbote’s commentary to be an explication; a means to delve deeper into Shade’s intent. But instead of discourse, readers are given huge chunks of Kinbote’s life and philosophies. You will read about the escape of a self-exiled King Charles of an imaginary country named Zembla, and wonder how peculiar it is for the commentary to not be exclusively about Shade and his work. Especially, since I think Shade’s upbringing and encounters with death have more gravity than Kinbote’s stories.

This is one of those books that could be read more than once and with each reading, something different will stick out to the reader. I have to say, I didn’t read Pale Fire in order. I read the poem first, then the foreword, and then the commentary/index. I needed to read Shade’s work without Kinbote’s influence because it’s obvious Kinbote’s intentions aren’t to put Shade in the spotlight. He reaches beyond the space of the foreword—and so I think there’s criticism about literary criticism here.

There is something to be said when a poet has reduced his life to 999 lines of poetry and his “editor” takes it upon himself to insert his own self-serving memories into the mix.

Let’s Discuss — The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I was down there with him. I was part of the night. I was the land itself—everything, everywhere—the fireflies and paddies, the midnight rustlings, the cool phosphorescent shimmer of evil—I was atrocity—I was jungle fire, jungle drums—I was the blind stare in the eyes of all those poor, dead, dumbfuck ex-pals of mine—all the pale young corpses, Lee Strunk and Kiowa and Curt Lemon—I was the beast on their lips—I was Nam—the horror, the war (199)

Many people do not like war.

Let’s forget political motivations for a second and briefly talk about realities.

The consequences: a loss of life and youth…of hope. Imagine the psychological game the mind must play on itself—the reasons for action are somewhat abstract, the enemy is blurry and the endgame is hard to realize. Yet all this is irrelevant, because as a soldier you must do as you’re told. You must serve your country. Go to war.

This is the case for all soldiers.

This is the case for many young people.

This was the case for many Vietnam veterans.

And this is the story O’Brien tells.

Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries […] They carried the land itself–Vietnam, the place, the soil–a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky […] By daylight they they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march […] one step, and the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage […] Their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were biological (14)

O’Brien tells a series of seamlessly connected short stories about Vietnam. And what he does so well is remind the reader of how easily it could have been me or you, or anyone in that war. He wants you to understand that—the abstract, the fear, the surreal—all those feelings. The individuals imprinted in your memory— compatriots and enemies—are your brothers, cousins, classmates, neighbors, and strangers.

At the same time, O’Brien knows the reader will never know war unless they have been there. We are outsiders. But O’Brien’s storytelling opens a window to a great view of human complexity in already complex circumstances. O’Brien’s writing is artfully crafted. Fantastic. Amazing.

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you […] There is the illusion of aliveness. In Vietnam, for instance, Ted Lavender had a habit of popping four or five tranquilizers every morning. It was his way of coping, just dealing with realities, and the drugs helped to ease him through the days. I remember how peaceful his eyes were […] “How’s the war today?” somebody would ask, and Ted Lavender would give a little smile to the sky and say “Mellow–a nice smooth war day.” And then in April he was shot in the head outside of the village of Than Khe (218)

I want to share entire passages with you. I want to convince everyone to read this book. More importantly, I need you to know I loved this book for its truths: Before war, you have life. During war, that life is not your own, or it is slipping away. After war, should you survive, that life is never completely your own again, or it is gone.


Let’s Discuss — 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Blood shed in this world is real blood. This is no imitation world, no imaginary world, no metaphysical world. I guarantee you that. But this is not the 1984 you know

Like a parallel world?

The man’s shoulder trembled with laughter. You’ve been reading too much science fiction. No, this is no parallel world. You don’t have 1984 over there and 1Q84 branching off over here and the two worlds running along parallel tracks. The year 1Q84 no longer exists anywhere. For you and for me, the only time that exists anymore is this year of 1Q84 (462)

The excerpt above is the clearest description of the world of 1Q84 from within the pages.

It’s weird.

I sped through the first 500 pages, and then put it down for a few days to reflect. During this break I realized I have no idea what this book is about. And even now after having finished it, I still don’t know. Is it a story about true love? Or star-crossed lovers? Cults?

I think what propelled me through the first half of the book was Murakami’s writing style. It’s new to me. But after 600 pages or so, I began to pick out annoying details that were ruining an already weak storyline. For example, a lot of the descriptions are redundant and some things seem out of place (frequent mention of breasts, their size and shape) or negatively awkward (sex scenes and phone conversations) or just unnecessary…like when Aomame uses a pregnancy test.

Read this:

The test itself was simple. Just urinate into a clean container and then dip the indicator stick into it. Or, alternately, urinate directly onto the stick. Then wait a few minutes. If the color changes to blue you’re pregnant, if it doesn’t change color, you’re not. In one version, if two vertical lines appear in the little window, you’re pregnant. One line, and you’re not. The details might vary but the principle was the same (709)

I mean, we all know how those work…so why include that?

Things like this happen a lot. It may serve a purpose, of which I’m not aware.

I guess that leads me to the characters, which are interesting in the beginning, as you learn their backstory, grievances and circumstance. The two central characters are Aomame and Tengo, moon-crossed lovers navigating Tokyo in the time of 1Q84. Tengo and Aomame have very similar backgrounds. They have little social interaction and their daily lives are routine and boring. They both let a lot happen to them and participate the minimum one can participate.

Aomame and Tengo reconnect in the year 1984/1Q84, after not having seen each other after twenty years…and there’s not much more than that. They shared a moment in adolescence (a squeezing of hands together at school) Fast forward, and Aomame assassinates a leader of a cult, who also happens to be exploited in a book Tengo has rewritten. That’s the point of reconnection.

Yes, there are other side characters. Yes, there are other “elements” involved–but they’re confusing and quite frankly, too boring to mention. However, with all that said, I’m not completely turned off to Murakami’s writing. In the end, I can only sum it up as a peculiar piece of alternate-magical-realistic surrealism…and I still can’t be sure that’s right.