Saturday, March 23, 2019


1Q84 (1Q84 #1-3)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a slow reader. Despite a battery of classes on speed reading and comprehension starting in 4th grade, when I was told I was a “gifted” reader, I still consider myself a slow reader. It might be the company I keep – I like to be around really smart people when I can – that makes me feel like a slow reader, in comparison. In any case, I do think I’m a slow reader.

It’s largely for this reason that I tend to avoid big doorstop novels. More often than not, they start out quickly, then slow to a crawl in very short order. And when I’m looking at over 1000 pages of text, the last thing I need is an uninteresting crawl.

I don’t feel that way with Murakami, for the most part, and especially with this novel, 1Q84. Murakami keeps things going here. Yes, there are slow spots, but if you’ve read or written (or both) enough, you’ll notice and appreciate that these spots are intentionally chosen to be slow. There are no real accidents in Murakami’s writing. Not in this novel, at least.

But there were plenty of places where he took chances.

Rather than giving a blow-by-blow of the novel (Aloha has done a magnificent job of reviewing the novel itself), I’d like to go where Murakami gambled and won. So, plug in some new retro synthwave music and read on!

Right from the get-go, Tengo, one of the story’s main protagonists, engages in a conversation with an editor, Komatsu, about writing. It’s interesting, to say the least, to read a writer writing about writing in his writing. And it works. Here, the reader gains some great insight into the act of writing, the strategic moves that one makes to make one’s writing great. Murakami does this in a non-pedantic, purely natural way. This is intentional: it is a setup for later metafictional moments throughout the novel. But it doesn’t feel intentional when the reader is in the midst of reading it. What a tangled web of reader, writer, and character Murakami has created here!

Komatsu later hatches a downright Dickensian scheme in which Tengo hollows out, plagiarizes, and rewrites the enigmatic Fuka-Eri’s novel. Here, Murakami sets the trap, as it were, for his characters and, it seems, for the reader. It’s an outstanding plot hook about a novel within the novel. You can probably see how things could go horribly wrong here for Murakami: If he overstates the scheme, the reader feels manipulated. If he understates it, the hook is ineffective. He pulls it off with panache.

One of the main “characters” are the Little People, which I won’t go into the trouble of explaining (nor do I want to spoil this for you). I thought of Arthur Machen’s The White People when I first read about them and, yes, Murakami is definitely giving a bit of an homage to Machen with them. But they are decidedly more intrusive and belligerent than Machen’s fair folk. Here, Murakami ran the danger of mimesis (or downright plagiarism), but he makes these Little People his own. I shall never read the words “Ho, ho!” again without a shudder. They give this novel a decidedly dark twist, darker than most of the Murakami I’ve read. Or, at least, the darkness is sustained for longer than it is in other works I’ve read by him. There are moments where this reads like an outright horror novel, and I’m not complaining about that a bit!

One thing that horrifies me almost beyond belief is a long info-dump. I have seen many an infodump soil an otherwise beautiful novel. I had to suppose that in a novel of this length, an infodump (or several) is unavoidable. Lo and behold, on page 203 (in the paperback), an infodump rears its ugly block-text, no break, no quote, too many worded head. I admit to flipping ahead and previewing just how much torture I was about to have to endure. Ten pages! That could be a deal-breaker for me.

Soon, though, I found myself entranced. Maybe it was the subject matter of the dump: the relationship and eventual suicide of the closest friend to Aomame (the other main protagonist, with Tengo). Or, perhaps it was the timing, one-fifth-ish of the way through the novel. I can definitely say that the writing was interesting, engaging, and, eventually, enthralling. Murakami pulled off one of the best infodumps I’ve read in the context of a novel. Kudos on this one. Gamble, win. Again.

One of the largest chances Murakami has taken with this novel is that of rushing headlong at the fourth wall. At first, he does so through writing about writing (see above), then he tackles the topic of the exploration of literature using a wonderful metaphor of exploring a deep magical forest, right at the same time that the readers are exploring this mental space themselves. Later, he becomes even more bold, with Komatsu stating “This is the magnificent world of a picaresque novel” when talking with Tengo about their current predicament. Of course, this is true on the level of their world and on the level of the reader, layers upon layers.

The metafictional nature of the novel doesn’t stop there. There is one element so important that I can’t give it away, that reveals to the characters that they might just be dealing with a reality within a reality. I can’t get more specific than that, but suffice it to say that while the characters do realize that, perhaps, they are “baked in” to an outside story, they still have their agency within it and can affect the outcome. They are not at the mercy of the author, or at least they think they are not. Murakami does an amazing sleight-of-hand in making the reader believe that the characters can make choices that affect the outcome of the novel . . . after having written the novel – the ultimate willing suspension of disbelief!

The final place where Murakami gambles is in his expectation of readers’ expectations, particularly when it involves character motivation and the prospect of deception. There were at least two major characters that I felt were being deceptive. I was convinced that their deceit would turn the plot in a different direction by betraying the main protagonists, Aomame and Tengo. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Both of these minor characters were exactly what they said they were. Against all readerly expectations of an “unexpected” (though frequently expected, in actuality) plot-twist, Murakami plays his cards straight out, face up on the table. And it completely threw me! I was more surprised when I figured out that these characters, both of whom were in a position to provide plenty of surprises and subterfuge, were telling the truth all along and acting true to themselves. Murakami didn’t need a poker face – he had a royal flush in his hand the whole time and made it obvious to everyone, so obvious that the reader couldn’t help but interpose his own thoughts of deception and intrigue on two of the most straightforward people in the novel.

This is not to say that Murakami reveals all. Far from it. There are several mysteries that remain unsolved and plot points unresolved. I am perfectly fine with this. I actually prefer to have vagaries in my fiction (both while reading and writing). I don’t want to know everything. I want the mysteries to linger long after I’ve closed the book, and there are some here that do. Was Kumi Adache Tengo’s reincarnated mother? Maybe, maybe not. And what of the NHK fee collector who harasses people from the hallway throughout the novel – was this or was this not the ghost of Tengo’s comatose father? I don’t know. I like to think so, but there’s nothing explicitly demanding it be so. I appreciate that Murakami has left room here for readers to fill in the blanks or to leave them unfilled, as they see fit. Not only do his characters have (the illusion of?) agency, but he imparts it to the reader, as well. If you’re looking for a novel to tell you every fine detail, to force-feed your conclusions, you are in the wrong place.

Not only is it a work of technical genius, there is a great deal of emotion here, as well. At least there was for me. The timing of my reading was . . . strange and not, I believe, coincidental.

Last year, about this time, my mother had recently died (in February) and my father was, I would later learn, dying. I had to make the sole decision, in both cases, to take my mother, then my father, off of life support. Mom passed quickly: ten minutes after we took her off the trio of vasopressors that were thrashing her heart into (barely - 54/16 blood pressure) functioning, she passed away. Dad lingered for much longer. Two full weeks I spent with him. Every day and many nights I spent by Dad’s bedside as he slowly died. He couldn’t speak much due to a tracheostomy (which he had had since November previous), but he could talk a little. Very little. I spent a great deal of time thanking Dad for the good things he had done for me as a son, for my Mom, and for my family. He had rough spots, as any parent has, some of them very rough, but I know that Dad loved me, and I told him I knew that.

In 1Q84, Tengo spends a great deal of the novel by his comatose father’s bedside. There were similarities between my relationship with my dad and Tengo’s relationship with his father – both older men were rough characters that showed little in the way of emotion. My father was a soldier. I was born and raised in the military. Sometimes Dad could be a very strict disciplinarian, as my conduct could reflect badly on him (and often did – whenever I was arrested as a teenager, which happened a few times, my Dad heard about it from his commanding officers). Dad himself did not show much emotion, though I know he felt, sometimes deeply. The first time I ever saw my Dad cry was when I had to leave home at age eighteen because I was being banished from the Air Force base that we lived on. Yes, literally, legally banished – but that’s a different story. After my teenage years, Dad and I became reconciled and developed a great deal of love and respect for one another. We truly learned to love each other, deeply. Letting him go was one of the hardest experiences of my life. So, that wound was still pretty fresh when, less than a year later, I read 1Q84. Now, the parallels between my experience and the fictional Tengo’s break down on closer examination. But the point here is that Murakami brought up some of the deepest feelings I’ve ever experienced reading a novel. I recall reading on my lunch break at work and having to put the book away to wipe away tears. Thankfully no one else was in the office at that moment. I was a bit of a mess. But it was cathartic, and needed.

After all the heartbreak and terror, 1Q84 is, after all, a love story. A touching love story. As I read, I often thought of a song that I used to listen to when I was in a contemplative mood as a teenager, contemplating about love, the Simple Minds' song “Someone, Somewhere, in Summertime”. I would be shocked if Murakami hadn’t listened to this song while writing this, as it perfectly captures both the mood and, in some ways, the actual plot, of the love story portion of 1Q84. Oh, and did I mention that I was 15 years old in 1984 and deeply in love for a good portion of that year? That might have something to do with my feelings about the love story, as well.

Connections abound. The heart is a lonely place, sometimes, but it’s well worth the effort to keep reaching, whether it be for a family member, a romantic interest, or a desired aspect of life. Life is fleeting, and love is fragile, but powerful. Keep reaching and you’ll find the connections you need, if you look long and carefully enough. Keep reaching. Don’t stop!

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Flower Phantoms

Flower PhantomsFlower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the strong recommendation of a few people whose literary opinions I highly value, I took a chance with this unknown-to-me author. With an introduction by the highly-reputable scholar of obscure English works, Mark Valentine, I had at least some assurance that the book was likely not going to be awful.

The work starts out, blandly enough, as a sort of domestic story of class, family, and wooing one might expect from an interwar-era work. But a tiny sliver of decadence, a delicate kind of decadence, shows up about a quarter of the way in as Judy, the protagonist, is being, as is her wont, a touch aloof from her soon-to-be-betrothed Roland. Roland, poetic but not terribly sharp, looks into her eyes and states:

"My god, Judy, the human eye is a very terrifying thing. It's so inhuman. There's no soul in it. It's a machine. A lot of cloudy, spongy, extremely queer stuff with a sinister black hole. It's expressionless, when you look close. Laughter, kindness, everything that makes people human. seems to disappear. What a strange and terrible thing mind must be . . ."

Later, we find just what a strange and terrible thing mind is. At least strange and terrible to those who cannot see inside another's mind to understand its workings. This is especially so when that mind does not seem to function "correctly".

And Judy doesn't "function correctly". I like her chutzpah. She is a surprisingly complex figure for a female character written by a man in the 1920's. I had not expected this. In time, the complexity of Judy's malfunctioning thoughts becomes intriguing. I wondered if Judy's quirks were harmless or if there was something seriously deranged in her thinking. My greatest fear, though, was that Judy might become "domesticated" or portrayed as an indecisive ditz. I hoped neither of those things happen. I liked her too much as-is.

Not long ago, someone very, very close to me suffered a bout of temporary psychosis. It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, to see this person that I know so well in a state of paranoia and mania. It broke my heart to see this. The person I knew was not the person ranting and raving during that spell. It was sad and terrifying to be a part of that suffering and to see it up close, first hand. I catch myself using the word "crazy" far too often, and I now know that this word has special, specific meaning, and that it has nothing to do with fun and frolic. It has become a slur and a word to be avoided. But years of habit are hard to break, and I still catch myself letting it slip. But I correct myself, out of the deepest respect I hold for this friend.

So, as Judy progresses (or falls?) into a state outside of reality, I asked myself what was happening, partially, I think, as an emotional protection to myself, given what I so recently witnessed. Was Judy suffering from insanity (and note that suffering is the precise word to use when describing what the insane are going through)? Pollen-induced hallucinations? Remote memories of a past life or a soul caught between states of existence? Whatever the source, it was beautiful, sad, and languid.

As the novella progresses, one sees Judy slip more and more away from "reality" to the point where the reader questions what is real and what is not. Despite the sensitivity of the subject matter, the "trippiness" of the second part of the story is a nice contrast to the bland domesticity of the first.

In summation, Flower Phantoms shows a most sympathetic view of madness. This is not what I expected from a piece of writing from this period and definitely not what I expected when I began reading. It is touching, but not maudlin, decadent in its subject matter but more practical in its portrayal, and seething with existentialism but not buried in fatalism. Judy is a complex, if sometimes confused, character: she is broken, but not weak. Confident, but fallible. All in all, a human being.

Each reader will pull something different from this novella, depending on one's experiences (and proximity in time and space to said experiences), but it may just shatter your expectations . . . subtly, without undue fanfare or heroics. An extremely interesting, surprising read.

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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Introducing Sartre

Introducing Sartre (Introducing... S.)Introducing Sartre by Philip Thody
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up on a whim at a local second-hand bookstore. My only meaningful experience with Sartre was reading and seeing the play No Exit and the examination of Sartre and his work as presented in the (most excellent and strongly-recommended) book Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. I thought I could stand to learn more about the man and his philosophy. So, I thought I'd pick up Introducing Sartre and see if I could learn a little something.

I did. But very little. And something more of his political beliefs than his core philosophical examinations. I've learned more about Sartre's philosophy from Barrett's book than I did from this. Much more, in fact.

That isn't to say that the book doesn't have merit. On the contrary, the high-level overview of Sartre's work is fairly well done (if a bit disorganized, in spots). For those who know absolutely nothing about Sartre, I can see how this would be a good introduction; an interesting, but not absolutely compelling mix of biography, political, and philosophical explication.

One note that stuck out to me (that has everything to do with the times in which we now live) is the authors' take on Sartre's analysis of anti-Semitism as a weird sort of coping mechanism for weak-minded people who are seeking to absolve themselves of responsibility. This is being born out in the US, UK, and elsewhere right now, and not just with anti-Jewish sentiment. People would rather blame and persecute than do the actual work necessary to truly exercise their inherent freedom. They become trapped inside their own hatred of those they think are impinging on their freedom. Ironic.

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Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales

The Old Knowledge and Other Strange TalesThe Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales by Rosalie Parker

Rosalie Parker who, with her partner, R. B. Russell, run one of my favorite small presses, Tartarus Press, presents here, in a beautiful Swan River Press edition (another of my favorites), eight short stories of strange fiction. it is a slight volume, but beautiful, as one expects from Swan River. The autumnal cover, designed around one of Russell's pieces, create the proper mood - rich and loamy, but with a cold edge - for reading.

First impressions are important. At first, I thought "The Rain" might be a well-written rehash of the 1970 TV drama Robin Redbreast. I was so wrong! There are elements of homage (whether intentional or not) to that (in)famous drama. This is far more horrifying, yet the frisson is brought on by careful omission and ominous indicators, by what is explicitly not said or shown, rather than with the literary equivalent of jump-scare scenes. This is something Rod Serling would nod to and smile. Oh, it's five stars worth of eloquent dread!

Nearly as enigmatic, but not nearly as convincing, "Spirit Solutions" evokes the feelings of siblinghood that anyone with a brother or sister will recognize, all in the context of a night spent by two brothers and two sisters in the haunted house of their recently-deceased father. Four stars.

I was not terribly surprised by what I found "In the Garden," but was I supposed to be shocked? I don't think so, honestly. I wasn't even creeped out . . . much. A little. But I ended the story feeling a little that Parker felt I should be more scared or surprised than I was. However, I know full well that auctorial intent is seldom what the reader thinks it is or was. Still, three rowan-berry stars to this domestic(ated) tale.

As far as straightforward strange stories, "Chactonbury Ring" is, well, just that. A good story, well-told. Perhaps if there were a little more folkloric background or context, I might have enjoyed it more. But, as I said, it's a good story worth three stars.

"The Supply Teacher" is a clever little story with a clever little twist. The beautiful prose and perfectly-timed dialogue are what make it a four star story. I could just as easily see this as a novel excerpt as a short story, though it is impactful even in its current form.

"The Old Knowledge" is unrevealed until the end, and what an end! A story of barrows and witch bottles and the trickster in the dirt, as it were. Folk horror without the horror, really, but a fine specimen of the form, if not the outright oeuvre, of folk horror. This is a grim, yet beautifully capricious story worthy of five bronze or flint stars. This story made me chuckle a wile- pun intended.

"The Cook's Story" is an excellent little ditty with multiple angles of obfuscation. Definitely one of those tales that leaves you guessing, but gives several possibilities as to what really did happen and what really is happening. I'm not big on stories about the chosen subject matter, to be honest, but this is well done and a wicked little read. This story has come back into my mind time and time again, like a dog to its vomit, as they say. Be careful what you eat . . . four stars.

I might like "The Picture" best of all. A piece of Symbolist art comes at a cost, again and again and again. The ending out O'Henrys O'Henry. A deliciously twisted story that takes the notion of The Monkey's Paw two steps forward and one step back, or maybe it's taking a side road through musty antique shops and back alleys, I don't know. I have a hard time putting into words what this story does, but it does it sneaky and sinister and leaves you begging at the end. For what? Can't tell. If you're lucky, you'll find out. Five stars!

In the end, you have to admire Parker for her endings. They often work, and are always clever. Maybe a trite too clever once in a while, but still, you can tell she's honed her storytelling craft. I'll often read, and sometimes state, that a collection is "worth it" for this story or that. This collection is worth it for all the stories. Some more than others. But altogether, this is a nice little meal - not too much, not too little - of strange tales to read by a warm fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa. You'll want just a hint of chill in the air. And if you can't crack open the door to let it in, The Old Knowledge will do it for you.

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