novel

The Room of White Fire

RWFI finished The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker (2017).  I have not read anything by this author. I expected a private investigator kind of novel, but got something closer in type to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stuff.

I wasn’t expecting great literature. However, I know this book won the Shamus Award and so I was thinking it would be above average.

The first quarter of the novel is very choppy; it also feels like a skeleton of a story, a draft. I didn’t like that at all. I can enjoy spare writing, but not unfinished writing. Eventually, I came to feel, because I had spent so much time with setting and characters, that maybe it was not quite so skeletal anymore.

The concept for the book is an attempt to make a story out of a PTSD-situation resulting from a black site involving torture and interrogation. There is a vague, but superficial, psychological tie-in, as well. This is where most of the novel’s development is located. The author puts most of his effort into the background of this; really working on the notions of patriotism, im/morality of torture, and wartime methods of interrogation.

Amazingly, and this is the main reason that this gets just two stars, the main character, Roland Ford, does not actually do any investigating. I mean, it seems like he does sometimes and it seems like he is thinking about the situation… but he does not actually do a blessed thing. Really. He re-traces his steps, mopes around, and generally just does nothing more than anyone would do. For someone who is ex-USMC, ex-police, and says “I’m good at finding things” – well, I would think he would be more competent than just to sit around and wait for clues to show up. His big investigative move was when he checked the laptop of the person he was looking for to find clues. Pure genius.

The only lead that he has for most of the book literally is one that walked over to him and engaged with him! (Sequoia).

The best thing that the author did was include the “Irregulars” – he keeps their backstory from us, but they are curious and interesting characters that make up for the dull main character.

I may read the next in the series. Readers who need a “throw-away” for a trip or a waiting room may find value here.

2 stars

Pale Fire

Pale FirePale Fire was first published in 1962. This is the fifth novel by Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977) that I have read.  I know that most literary experts (take this term however you will) believe that Pale Fire is a special work that needs to be endlessly dissected and/or venerated. Anyone disagreeing with that will definitely be told that such disagreement proves their idoicy. (Cp. my thoughts and experiences reading Kafka). I share this upfront because I want the reader to be aware that I think Nabokov is a great writer, but that I think his best novels are not the ones usually spoken of in hushed-tones by tweed-wearing, eyeglass shuffling, affected personalities haunting insular literary meetings. Nabokov is undoubtedly and indisputably one of the greatest writers.  Nabokov was a great wordsmith, artist, poet, and writer. He wrote literature with skill, wit, and a unique style. Unrivaled, really.

But sometimes I suspect his awesome skill was wasted on the most uninteresting and tedious plots/stories. As with Despair, I feel this novel has wordplay par excellence and style and the tone is incredibly effective – but all in service to a plot/storyline that, were it not Nabokov, I would not have even bothered whatsoever.

Sure, at the end of this novel, the reader is left to (that is, if they care about reflecting on what they consume) wrestle with the psychology and existence of the main characters. Even, really, suggesting surprising psychological ideas like multiple-personality disorder and calling the story magical-realism, since the line between reality and fantasy is blurry as heck. All over the internet and (before there was a ‘net’) literary criticism texts one will find reference to the unreliable narrator as if this gimmick explains everything. And it very well might! But do we really feel comfortable thinking that the genius Nabokov is gimmicky?

My thoughts on this novel are nearly the same as on Despair:  I did not care at all about any character. Some parts of the text were really tedious and I struggled to not skip over them (e.g. lengthy sections that allowed Kinbote to ramble endlessly – long after the reader gets the gist of it all). I did not mind not knowing which storyline was the real one… I also did not mind the format (poem, notes, commentary, etc.).

But somehow, though sections of the wordsmithing are utterly brilliant and the novel as a whole is mighty – I’m not going to save this one in the proverbial fire, nor am I taking it to the hypothetical island. It is definitely worth reading and knowing about. What an amazing method to share a very robust fictional biography of a character I could not care any less about!

(By the way, Bend Sinister) IS indeed coming to the island and I am toasting my fingers to snatch it from a fire.)

Pale Fire can be read on all sorts of experimental and meta— levels. Nabokov was an academic, so he knew exactly how the literary world would approach his novel. I also think he enjoyed mocking such institutions when he could, if only because he could. Some of that is part of, I think, the value of his wit on display in the “commentary” to Line 949:  and all the time.  This lengthy section is really a culminatory segment to what has been a slowly developing and meandering monlogue by an unreliable narrator. And it is one of the best shows of comic relief I have seen in literature. I could not help but roar [see all epitaphs to Shade, John] with laughter as I read this part. If I had more time alloted me in life, I would scour the endless literary criticism available, because I am certain somewhere, some bright mind has decided to interpret the “symbolism” of Gradus’ distress.

The narrator of the work is installed as an academic at university – so he is surrounded by academics, scholars, and students. Not unlike Nabokov’s career. The narrator introduces us to John Shade with high praise:

Here he is, I would say to myself, that is his head, containing a brain of a different brand than that of the synthetic jellies perserved in the skulls around him. – pg. 27 (Forward)

Tell me honestly that you do not think Nabokov would poke fun at academia.  At the same time, I really appreciated the cantankerous discussion found in Line 172:  books and people:

“That’s where the broom should begin to sweep.  A child should have thirty specialists to teach him thirty subjects, and not one harassed schoolmarm to show him a picture of a rice field and tell him this is China because she knows nothing about China, or anything else, and cannot tell the difference between logitude and latitude.” Kinbote: “Yes. I agree.” – pg. 156 (Commentary)

Those of us old enough to do so – honestly look back on your education and wonder how many times you were subjected to, or knew of this situation, in which inadequate education was given to students that then resulted in students cheated of knowledge unbeknowst to themselves? Nabokov at the heart of it all was an educated man and valued education.

Part of being educated and faculty and an academic means dinner parties with tedious people. And I laughed quite a bit at the little rant by Kinbote in Line 579: the other

Every time I had but one additional guest to entertain Mrs. Shade (Who, if you please — thinning my voice to a feminine pitch — was allergic to artichokes, avocado pears, African acorns — in fact to everything beginning with an “a”).  I find nothing more conducive to the blunting of one’s appetite than to have none by elderly persons sitting around one at table, fouling their napkins with the disintegration of their make-up, and surrpetitiously trying, behind noncommittal smiles, to dislodge the red-hot torture point of a raspbery seed from between false gum and dead gum. – pg. 230 (Commentary)

The whole novel is not wit and frivolity. Indeed, one of the main threads in this novel is the concern and study of religion/afterlife/morality.

The more lucid and overwhelming one’s belief in Providence, the greater the temptation to get it over with, this business of life, but the greater too one’s fear of the terribe sin implicit in self-destruction. – pg. 219 (Commentary)

Indeed, this paradoxical sentiment is a sobering moment for the reader. Especially after realizing that the entire 999-line poem “by John Shade” is a musing on life and death. This includes the massively famous section depicting a “near death experience” in Canto three of the poem, which has been utilized so magnificently in Blade Runner. Cells. Interlinked. Dreadfully distinct. (If you know, you know…..)

In any case, the reader who opens the cover of this book needs to know this is a rewarding experience, but he should modulate his expectations. It helps to be familiar with Pope and Johnson and Shakespeare – but its not necessary at all. It is a study of literary tomfoolery, satire, gimmicks, wordplay, and also sorrow, loss, and exile. Just getting through the Foreward and the Poem will sift out any reader who is unprepared ability-wise for this novel. Readers should not shy from this one, but I think they should also not believe the hype that this is inarguably Nabokov’s greatest work.

I hardly know if I should read PKD or Albert Camus next…..

3 stars

The Wind From Nowhere

The Wind from NowhereThe Wind From Nowhere by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) was first published as a novel in 1962. However, it was published originally in two parts as “Storm-Wind” in 1961 in New Worlds Science Fiction issue #110 edited by John Carnell.  This is the second novel by Ballard that I have read; I read High-Rise in 2016.

I read the 1966 Berkley Medallion edition with Richard Powers cover art.

This novel is both good and bad, but unfortunately, overall it cannot be rated highly. Ballard disliked, disowned, and denigrated this novel as nothing more than a quickly written piece to make some cash to support his new family. It is Ballard’s first novel and it is probably true (I haven’t read enough Ballard to assess properly) that he improved. I do not imagine most authors want their first published novel to be some choppy entertainment written speedily for whatever money they could sell it for.

Yet Ballard does deserve five stars for the awesomeness of a steadily increasing, totally destructive, all-planet windstorm. He even has this windstorm destroy whole cities and countries and does not shy away from the mega-destruction. When reading about the wind, reading the descriptions and about its effects, it is really terrifying and awesome.

Some of the best parts of this windstorm are that it is unexplained. In the beginning, some characters just assume its localized. Some think it is just a particularly awful storm. And then as infrastructure starts breaking down and the wind speeds increase, its too late to get answers to the why and how, instead the characters (humanity, generally) is busy trying to survive. The lack of knowledge makes the windstorm even more terrifying. We follow the events as the wind is around 55 mph and, toward the end of the novel, somewhere around 500 mph. Unbelievable, but yet so enthralling as a science fiction disaster novel.

However, as a novel, leaving so much unexplained also feels unsatisfying and unfinished. The worst part of the this whole novel is that it seems like Ballard did not know who the main character was or what their story was going to be. Throughout, he just flips around between characters who all seem to be thrown in the plot randomly. Instead of following a character’s path, it gets extremely discordant and random. Following the characters is easily the most miserable part of the novel.

Also, the characters randomly go and attempt to do some stupid, useless thing all together in their heavy armored vehicles. This usually does not work and everyone ends up scattered in other temporary bunkers. In other words: the storyline does not progress, everything is mangled again, and the characters are flip-flopped.

When the novel begins, Donald Maitland is leaving his wife. She is a rich playgirl type who has a new boy on her arm every week. She likes parties and the lifestyle. The husband has quit his job to head for a university in Montreal. Oddly, Maitland becomes the action-hero star of the novel (if there is one), though in the early going he hardly seems capable of what he is written into. He seems like a jilted husband who is wrapped up in his own drama. He is, at best, a bookish academic, it seems.

One of the oddest characters is the character Steve Lanyon. Commander Lanyon is a submarine commander in the US Navy. Perhaps the oddest segment of the novel is how he is sent to Italy to run the countryside on a bizarre mission to acquire the corpse of an American dignitary. Naturally, this fails and just turns into an action scene adventure. But how very odd to have a submarine commander anywhere but water.

And then there is RH. The initials of a millionaire character with the surname Hardoon. Hardoon is eccentric (he has henchmen and a pyramid) and bizarre and on the level of the very “best” Bond villains. He gets written into the plot sideways and has connections with characters, so that he seems somewhat like a secret hand moving in the shadows. When we get the displeasure of meeting him, he is ego-centric and ridiculous and any of the build up regarding what he is about dissipates into nothing. The worst part is that there is no real reason for this character and all his associations to have been written into this novel at all.

Anyway, the characters are awful. However, the actual disaster is exciting and terrifying. So, while this is not a good novel, it is also unique and awesome in its own manner. I cannot really recommend it to readers who love a good, completed story. But for fans of Ballard and/or disaster fiction, this one is worthwhile. Probably those who enjoyed Level 7 by Roshwald or October the First is Too Late by Hoyle would get something out of this one. I wish Ballard had not been so angry with it – it really deserved to be re-written and republished. For fans of disaster and over-the-top scenarios.

2 stars

Snow Country

Snow CountrySnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in its finalized form in 1948. I read the Vintage International edition translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. This is the first Kawabata novel that I have read, though I own several. Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, which made mention of Snow Country and two other of his works. His Nobel Lecture was entitled Japan, The Beautiful and Myself and I do want to take a look at that. There is an annual prize in Japan awarded to the year’s most accomplished work of short fiction. The Kawabata Yasunari Prize for literature was established in 1973 by the Kawabata Yasunari Memorial Association to honor Japan’s first Nobel Prize–winning novelist. The winner receives a certificate, a commemorative gift, and a cash award of one million yen.

So much has been said/written about this novel that I doubt I can add much value to the overall volume of commentary. I did not love the novel, but please, do not assume I am a lazy or stupid reader. I really wanted the novel, with it’s poetic and spare writing, to grab my heart by it’s beating valves and drag me around the mountains of snow country.

Disappointingly, that did not occur. Broadly, because I deeply disliked both main characters. The writing is quite good and scenic; it envelopes the reader. But the sloth and decadence of Shimamura and the annoying voice of Komako killed the wonderment of the writing. I don’t forgive them for that.

However, I cannot say that I disliked this novel.

Kawabata’s Nobel Prize was awarded “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.”  This sort of statement sometimes makes me grumpy. The thing is the definite description there in the phrase; the “the” that causes issue.  At once we are to recognize The Other and embrace diversity – therefore keeping the independence of The Other, but yet we are also expected to support and enjoy the fullness of the universal human experience.  So, what is this “Japanese mind”?  Even if we assume that in 1968 they did not choose their words so nicely, is there a “Japanese mind”? A mind so in tune and vital that it is quite simply separate and distinct from all other human minds? Or is “Japanese mind” merely a euphemism for “experience produced within Japanese culture”?

This little messy babbling of mine is important because I think this specific novel by this specific author is affected by these questions/answers. Snow Country is allegedly his most famous and well-enjoyed novels – by Japanese readers and non-Japanese readers alike. Is it because the non-Japanese readers love the insight gained through glimpses into the “exotic” Japanese world via this prose? Or is it because there is something universal in the writing that appeals and is readily accessible by all readers?

I felt that the writing was very good for most of the novel. I mean, there are places where I was less impressed. But throughout, the actual writing – and it has been likened to haiku and poetry many times – was very good. Its a spare prose with a pseudo-poetic feel. Again, some of the greatness may be reduced because of translation.

Above all of that, I could synthesize with the feelings in the story. It is hard to choose the correct words here, so let me keep trying. I do not mean simply that I sympathized/empathized with the characters, but rather that I feel that I have also experienced those feelings. Feelings, though, is also the incorrect word. I mean, something deeper – something like the relationship to the milieu. Or, more like the ennui of the whole scenario. Or, perhaps better, the Russian term тоска́/toska. Observe what happened here – I was unable to find the English word and had to dip into different languages.

Is this a love story? No, I do not think so. Allegedly, Komako falls foolishly in love with Shimamura. I must have missed that part. Please do not tell me it is “between the lines” or that the reader has to supply this. I missed that part because it was not there and it could not happen. Shimamura is thoroughly unlikeable and I doubt the young geisha could see anything of value in him. His heavy ennui drips down every page of the novel and he is truly a shameful character. Not because of his morality, per se, but because he is so wretchedly slothlike. Much has been commented about Shimamura’s dilettanism, yet I don’t think this is his defining characteristic. I see him as sluggish and oozing his upper-class ennui.

When Shimamura goes for a massage, the woman says: (pg. 59)

“. . . you must not have to work. Feel how nice and soft you are.”

“No stiff muscles on me.” Shimamura replies.

I find Shimamura repugnant. His conversation is also lazy and slothful. He repeats phrases and seems constantly hazy on the conversation. Komako is just as frustrating. Her conversation is immature and ridiculous. Much of this is because most of the time she is drunk (she is a geisha and must attend “parties”) or because she is acting as her age dictates. Still, I find her to be annoying, at best.

This novel, for me, was about distance. The remote hot-spring inn is far from Shimamura’s home in Tokyo. The mountains and snow make the setting isolated and Kawabata writes them so that you feel the silence of heavy, hard-packing snow. Snow deadens sound like nothing else; I have experienced this at length. There is distance, too, between Shimamura and his family. There is distance between Komako and Yukio. There is distance between Komako’s hopes and dreams and her reality. Of course there is the distance between Shimamura and Komako. Finally, as if this were not enough distance, there is the distance between the characters and their selves. The Self. Themselves. This seems repetitive when it is written out, but in Kawabata’s novel it is omnipresent and sturdy, not nearly as redundant as my listing it makes it feel.

For example, often Shimamura is depicted looking out at the mountains and trees. He vaguely ponders the autumn leaves or the skiers. He has lazy daydreams about the grasses and snows. In fact, several times he wanders listlessly, but yet cannot seem to really ever become “one with nature.” There is always the distance as he stands in the inn, by the screens looking out at the scenery. Basically, this is a metaphor for all of Shimamura’s distances.

Overall, if you can stand a novel filled with ennui and distance, this is a perfect representation of that. I mentioned above that this is not a bad novel, I did not dislike it. But I was not convinced all of the time. What I was drawn in by was that heavy-headed fuzziness that sloth and bad schedules and long winters come with. And that is not a feeling I have ever relished.

3 stars

The Three-Cornered World

Three Cornered CoverNatusme Soseki’s (1867 – 1916) The Three-Cornered World was published in 1906.  The title in Japanese is Kusamakura, but I read the 1965 translation into English. It is the first that I have read by this author.

This is one of those novels that I suspect readers who write reviews have mixed feelings about.  It is an excellent novel – but it is also a rather short novel. The novel is so wonderful and thoughtful that it could easily evoke a review that is thrice as long as the novel itself.

Some readers have likened it to a haiku writing. As if the novel’s simplicity is deceptive because it contains such a wealth of insight. I do not think that is the best comparison, but I agree that this is just one of those few novels that it is just better to read for yourself and not bother with reading interpretations.

This is a rare novel. Not every reader will enjoy this novel. Many readers seem to me to be totally enthralled with action, hurrying, and loudness. And part and parcel of such action/loudness is usually severe depravity.  This novel is unrushed. It is aesthetic and honest. The honesty and the lack of loudness is what separate this novel from so many other ones. Usually, when someone calls a text “honest,” I think it is assumed that it is grossly confessional and obscenely open. The Three Cornered World is very honest, but do not expect some ribald, grotesque exposé.

For example, the author bluntly shares that he knows nothing of Zen. That’s not a literal truth, but it tells us that this is not some manifesto to artificially praise “true Japanese culture/religion.”  Of course, this must be contrasted with several points in which the author sharply expresses his negative feelings towards modern civilization and urban life.  The novel was published in 1906, but its setting is contemporaneous with the Russo-Japanese War.  Further, the development of Industry in Japan (particularly with railroads and coal) clearly affected the author’s vision of urban versus rural. So there is a current running through this novel that keeps the reader aware that the rush toward modern (and Western) industry is not entirely happy for the author.

The narrative of this novel is by an artist. He tells us he is a painter, but he writes much poetry and does a few sketches. His artist’s eye is keen and he sees colors and people and the world on an expert-level. However, he is unable to actively use his color-box.

The artist has taken a trip in late winter/early spring to develop his own art. He is doing this by detaching himself from society, from the caustic urban centers. And on this trip to a hot springs in the rural landscape, he must remain detached from all things – as if looking at scenes and people as if they were in a picture or even on stage.

Settings and scenes matter in this book, because the narrator is an artist and he is painting the narration. However, if you do not wish to deconstruct the setting and the language and everything else – the novel is still excellent. This is very nice because its one thing to say: “this novel is good, but you have to be intelligent and deconstruct and analyze every item in it” and its quite another to say: “this novel is so good; it is wonderful if you analyze it and it is wonderful if you lazily just let it carry you along to enjoy its rhythm.” 

The setting/scenes, though narrated by an artist, are not atmospheric or esoteric. The artist who is narrating is exceedingly down-to-earth and empirical.  I feel this is somewhat opposite of the stereotypical Western conception of an artist.

I find a lot of contemporary/modern Japanese writing to be morbid or gruesome. They are too raw and unpalatable for me, usually. Now, I know this particular novel is a bit older than “contemporary,” but I found it refreshing and delightful that it was not written how I have found many Japanese novels. I think the author is often referred to as Japan’s first modern novelist – to heck with that, I want to call him Japan’s last novelist, too.

The novel is sometimes sad and sometimes joyous. And it sometimes contains the slightest eeriness. But it also ends with a bittersweet perfect imperfection that the best Japanese artists have mastered. There are very stark comments from the narrator about Tokyo. But there are also humorous and amusing moments that display a very, very honest wit. Overall, that is the word I want to use to describe this novel:  honest.

4 stars