Friday, July 06, 2012

What I Read In January and Put Off Writing About For No Adequate Reason

I've spent much of this year complaining (both quietly to myself and out loud here) that I've been reading books and not writing about them. Sadly, the mere act of complaining about something does nothing at all to change the situation -- though I suspect a lot of political commentators of all stripes secretly disagree -- so the pile of books I want to say something about has kept growing.

And then, when I did write about books, I started from the top of that teetering pile, with the most recent titles, which only, at best, slowed the growth. Finally, it became clear that I needed to do something more drastic. And so this is that more drastic action: this post will cover the books I read in January and didn't write about then, with further installments to follow somewhat soon (I'm going to hope for at least weekly) until the bottom of the pile has come back within sight of the top.

You may well suspect that I won't remember these three books enough to write anything useful about them. You may be right, but here I go anyway:

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

It's true that Murakami's books circle around a small number of common tropes -- classical and jazz music, holes in the ground, cats, faceless and nameless enemies, a deep sense of urban ennui (see Grant Snider's Haruki Murakami Bingo for a better list) -- but he shares that with plenty of other writers. (I could name J.G. Ballard, for one.) There's nothing wrong with having a style, and Murakami certainly has that: his writing keeps its essential Murakami flavor even through translation, first, in his earlier novels, by Alfred Birnbaum, and more recently by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. In fact, the three books of 1Q84 were split by Rubin and Gabriel, though the result is seamless.

1Q84 is Murakami's longest novel to date, but it's not his deepest -- I'd still call Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World his most enigmatic, least fathomable novel and his best, most characteristic books are Kafka on the Shore, A Wild Sheep Chase, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. 1Q84, instead, gives Murakami length -- the opportunity to stretch one of his typical plots out further than usual, to space out his sparse external events and vastly increase the number and importance of his dialogues and monologues about life.

So 1Q84 is a 900-plus page novel with a slim love story at its core -- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl (not necessarily in that order, or in the same world) -- and a sideslip alternate-world premise. It's a novel entirely for people who already like Haruki Murakami novels -- actually, I may go back on what I just said, and declare this to be the ultimate Murakami novel for that reason. If you haven't read any other Murakami novel, don't start here. In fact, if there's any other Murakami novel you haven't read, read that one first. But this one's worth getting to, once you do.

Paul Hornschemeier, Life with Mr. Dangerous

Hornschemeier has one of the hardest-to-spell names in modern comics -- or older comics, or even general literature, come to think of it. Luckily, he's good enough at what he does to make the effort of spelling his name correctly worth it. (I read his book Mother, Come Home a few years back and have been looking for more of his stuff since.)

And I have to admit that I don't recall the details of Life With Mr. Dangerous in great detail. I think this is a more directly fictional, distaff version of Jason Shiga's Empire State -- the story of a young, emotionally closed-off person who is shocked into contemplating a new life when the closest thing to a significant other he/she has takes off for greener pastures on the other side of the country. 

(Flipping through the book, that's reductionist and not more than slightly accurate, but I'll leave it there: this is another one of those figuring-out-your-life stories about twenty-somethings, told with insight and a keen eye, and that's close enough to give you the idea without giving away anything important.)

Hornschemeier is one of the quietly excellent writer-artists in comics today; his books are touching and real and grounded, while still having that flavor of the fantastic that only comics can provide. He's often left off "best of the year" lists, and I don't know why: he's as good as anybody, and much better than most.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Literary novels -- based on subtleties of character and nuances of language -- are the last things one should leave six months to review. And yet here I am, one hundred and fifty-seven days later, trying to figure out what to say about Julian Barnes's Booker Prize-winning short novel The Sense of an Ending.

This is the story of a man almost old: retired, settled, quietly leading a life where nothing is expected to change until that one last irrevocable change. But then the dead past -- literally dead, as in a friend from forty years past who committed suicide then -- come back, and he has to work through what really happened then, and what it means to him now.

Like several of Barnes's previous novels, Sense of an Ending has a love triangle at its core: Tony went out with Veronica briefly back in the '60s, and then she shifted her attentions to his more brilliant friend Adrian, who soon killed himself. The book takes place almost entirely in Tony's head, first during the '60s (seen in retrospect) and then in the modern day, colored by those '60s days of youth and energy. Barnes, as a writer, has often I think been painted as not quite as brilliant as one or another of his cohort -- not as cutting as Ian McEwan, not as slashing as Martin Amis -- but it's always dangerous to read a protagonist as too close to his author. Still, it must be pleasing to prove them (whoever "them" are) wrong at his age, with a precise, measured stiletto like this.

I imagine most of the people who read my blog aren't interested in novels like this, but Sense of an Ending is short, thoroughly excellent, and a tricky, sneaky, twisty story about real people and their lives over the last forty years. If you only hit a literary novel once a decade or so, you could do far worse than to make this one your choice this time out.


Joel said...

Interesting that you found Hardboiled Wonderland impenetrable but recommended Kafka... In my view, the former is perhaps the most straightforward of the author's books save the few that lack fantastical elements. It's a fairly standard mobius strip structure with a sci-fi explanation.

Whereas Kafka on the Shore relies entirely on dream logic and makes almost no sense.

Unknown said...

Just want to say that at least one of your reader read Julian Barnes with great pleasure. And The Sense of an Ending is one of his best. I don't think Martin Amis is more brillant, by the way, just more cruel.

/Jens M. Sørensen

Dave said...

I just skipped the Julian Barnes review because I, too, am interested in reading it. As for 1Q84, I thought it one of the most pointless, poorly written (translated), and unnecessarily-long books I've ever read. I'd only read Wind Up Bird before giving 1Q84 a try, but at least Wind Up Bird felt mysterious and full of hidden import. 1Q84 felt poorly plotted and vague for no good reason.

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