Monday, January 23, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

How good are our memories of long past events? Certainly we recall where we were when we heard the Challenger blew up or the Twin Towers were attacked. We probably recall our first car, first job, first sexual experience. But how good are our memories for the details? The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, how accurate are they? I suspect, based on a limited sample (myself), not very.

And what happens when we discover the stories we tell ourselves are not only not true, but reveal just how thoughtless, insensitive, cruel, and viscous we actually were (and may still be)? That's what happens to Tony Webster, the narrator of Julian Barnes brilliant Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending.

Tony, divorced, in comfortable retirement, tells his own story. He seems reasonable, thoughtful. Looking back to his school days he says, "we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives—and time itself—would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible."

Tony has school chums, becomes involved with a young woman Veronica, spends one weekend at her house with her family, breaks up with her, and lives another forty or so placid, comfortable years. One day he receives a solicitors' letter informing him that Veronica's mother, deceased, has left him 500 pounds and two documents. Tony cannot imagine why she would have done such a thing and wants to look at the documents, one of them the diary of a school chum who killed himself years earlier. In trying to find out why (why the legacy, why the diary, why won't Veronica give it up), Tony learns far more than wanted to know.

This is a short book. I read it in an evening. I found it particularly engaging because I am now writing a novel in which two adult children are trying to understand their dead father and make sense of their memories of him. I found it both moving and wise. As Barnes writes: "We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it who said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent...."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

IQ84 by Haruki Murakami

Spoiler Alert: If you have any plans to read 1Q84, do not read further. Come back when you've read the book.

The thing is so massive that this is going to a collection of random thoughts.

1) The basic story is simple. Two Japanese 10-year-olds, after a silent communication in elementary school, fall in love and twenty years later manage, after many complications meet to consummate the love they've maintained through all the years.

2) The young woman, Aomame, murders abusive husbands in a way that is undetectable after a cursory postmortem. She shows no guilt, remorse, or qualms about the murders. She seems, in that sense, to be perfectly amoral.

3) The young man, Tengo, is an aspiring novelist. He's big and strong and women find him attractive, but he seems to be almost indifferent to them (except for their breasts). He has a married lover, ten years his senior, who visits him periodically for her—and his—sexual release. Midway through the novel, the lover's husband calls Tengo to tell him the lover won't be coming around any more. Tengo takes the news in stride, makes no effort to learn more, and we never discover what happened or how the husband learned of the affair.

4) In the first chapter, Aomame, on her way to murder an abusive husband, walks down an emergency exit from a Tokyo expressway and finds she is in an alternate world, one in which the Japanese police carry weapons, there are two moons, and there's a joint Soviet/US effort to build a base on the moon. In this world, it is no longer 1984 but 1Q84. After some half-hearted efforts to learn more, Aomame accepts the new world and continues her life much as before.

5) A policewoman friend Aomame makes is murdered during rough sex in a Tokyo hotel. The murderer is never found.

6) Tengo has intercourse with a 17-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri. She is not worried about getting pregnant; she has not started menstruation. Aomame, on the other side of Tokyo and who, at this point, has not reconnected with Tengo does become pregnant. Aomame, although she has not seen or heard from Tengo for 20 years and has not had sex with anyone in the period in which she became pregnant, realizes she is carrying his child.

7) Virtually all of the cultural references are western: music (Leos Janacek, Miles Davis), movies ("Thomas Crown Affair,"), books (Aomame holed up after murdering the leader of a religious group, reads "In Search of Lost Time"). All of the action takes place in Japan, in Tokyo and elsewhere.

8) The book left me with too many unanswered questions. I'm willing to accept a world in which a man can have sex with one woman and another—his true love—becomes pregnant. I can accept a world in which Little People come out of a dead goat's mouth and build an Air Chrysalis. But I want to know what happened to the married lover. I want to know what happened to Fuka-Eri, who is a major character but who simply walks off stage and disappears. I want to know more about the religious sect, a key institution in the book, their beliefs and why a best-selling novel is such a threat to them.

9) I think the book needs an editor. Although how do you tell an author who reportedly sells a million copies of the book in the first few weeks it's published in Japan he needs editing? But people continually echo what someone has just said. They muse interminably about unanswered and unanswerable questions. They ask rhetorical questions. They think in long italic sections.

10) Finally, having slogged through all 925 pages, I'd like to have something for the effort. This may well be my failure, my inability to see themes or to read into the text the deeper meanings Murakami has imbedded. Is it a good idea to murder abusive men that the law can't touch? Are there alternative realities we can slip into like a train switched onto another track? Is the emotion you felt as a 10-year-old strong enough to sustain without any contact for 20 years? (I had a lot of trouble with that idea, but I'm probably in a minority.) Can a novelist create an alternate reality in which other people can enter and live?

Maybe that's what Murakami is doing.

Monday, January 9, 2012

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I've finally read Zadie Smith's first novel, White Teeth, an extraordinary book right out of the gate. One of the questions I asked myself repeatedly was: "How does she know so much about this?" According to Wikipedia (sorry, there's virtually no information about her in my edition of the book; I have to use something): "Zadie Smith was born as Sadie Smith in 1975 in the northwest London borough of Brent, a largely working-class area, to a Jamaican mother and a British father. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager. When she was 14, she changed her name to 'Zadie.'

"White Teeth was introduced to the publishing world in 1997, long before it was completed. On the basis of a partial manuscript an auction among different publishers for the rights started, with Hamish Hamilton being successful. Smith completed White Teeth during her final year at Cambridge. Published in 2000, the novel became a bestseller immediately. It was praised internationally and won a number of awards, including the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Time magazine included the novel in its Time 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005."

I suspect some of these judges were knocked out the way I was by the fact that it was written by a 25-year-old (and begun by a 22-year old). How does someone so young know so much? I had a sense that Smith had recorded everything she'd ever heard, ever seen and used it in the book--all 448 pages of it. I had no sense that this is a young person's book (teenage angst or a Bildungsroman); the adults are as well-realized as the young people.

The plot is complex. It follows the experiences of three families from three cultures (British, Jamaican, Banglideshi) over three generations. If you want to check it out and the book's themes, click on the link in the paragraph above.

Smith does something I didn't think you could get away with today—writing dialogue in dialect. "I don' tink dere's any maybes about it, young lady. An' I'm sure I don' know why you come 'pon de bus, when it take three hours to arrive an' leave you waitin' in de col' and den' when you get pon it de windows are open anyway an' you freeze half to death." There's not a lot of dialect, it does fit the situation, and I don't see how Smith could have distinguished her characters as well without it.

The book is rich in character, incident, and story. Indeed, I can imagine someone complaining there are too many characters to keep straight. That would be their problem. I found the cast fascinating and believable. Indeed, in its complexity and richness, I thought of Dickens. A 20th Century Dickens with all of the tensions, beliefs, and color of the 20th Century.