And what did I do?
‘What the devil is the matter?’
‘Take a glass of wine?’
‘Not bitten, are you?’
‘Your health, sir?’
‘What are ye for?’
‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’
‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
‘Do you intend parting with the little ones, madam?’
‘Ah, your favourites are among these?’
‘Were you asked to tea?’
‘Were you asked?’
‘Half an hour?’
‘Do you know that you run a risk of being lost in the marshes?’
‘Perhaps I can get a guide among your lads, and he might stay at the Grange till morning—could you spare me one?’
‘Are you going to mak’ the tea?’
‘Is he to have any?’
‘Get it ready, will you?’
‘Where is she—my amiable lady?’
‘Is that it?’
‘How must I do?’
‘Are you not afraid of being carried away bodily, whenever you mention the devil’s name?’
‘Then, if you hear of me being discovered dead in a bog or a pit full of snow, your conscience won’t whisper that it is partly your fault?’
‘Who? … Which would you have?’
‘Are there no boys at the farm?’
‘And who is to look after the horses, eh?’
‘I wonder what you’ll have agait next? Are we going to murder folk on our very door-stones?’
“You the one who threw down Mr. Klees?” the sheriff said.
“He’s just back from the war,” Ma said.
“Thank you for your service,” the sheriff said. “Might I ask you to refrain from throwing people down in the future?”
“He also threw me down,” Harris said.
“My thing is I don’t want to go around arresting veterans,” the sheriff said. “I myself am a veteran. So if you help me, by not throwing anyone else down, I’ll help you. By not arresting you. Deal?”
“He was also going to burn the house down,” Ma said.
“I wouldn’t recommend burning anything down,” the sheriff said.
“He ain’t himself,” Ma said. “I mean, look at him.”
The sheriff had never seen me before, but it was like admitting he had no basis for assessing how I looked would have been a professional embarrassment.
“He does look tired,” the sheriff said.
I took my daughter to the bookstore today—she has the day off school—and let her pick out almost as many books as she wanted. (She had trouble carrying more than six, so that’s where we stopped).
Meandering out, I spied this 1997 paperback printing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (I love how UK trade paperback editions often seem blockier, denser, more squarish than US editions). Anyway, the book isn’t particular rare, even for a first edition, but I hadn’t seen it before (even a pic). I took a quick pic and walked away.
And then walked back of the copy of IJ after purchasing my daughter’s books—only to say to myself in a reasonable voice, No, you already own a copy, no, no, you don’t need another book, especially one you’ve already read, already own. So I walked out of the store with my daughter.
And then went back inside to buy it (or rather use my trade credit—swollen from unasked-for review copies of books I have no interest in—to acquire it).
I have no sentimental attachments to the ubiquitous beclouded-covered copy I bought a few years ago (purchased to replace a copy I did like (one with annotations, one I actually wished I still had) that I had lent to a friend who never read it or returned it (and then moved))—so maybe I’ll give it away or take it to my office or something.
Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters is excellent.
Okay: Too short a review? Well. Look, I read it over the weekend, and got a copy of the audiobook version to listen to this week, and then I’ll write a proper review, but here’s publisher FS&G’s blurb, followed by a few quick impressions:
Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters is a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.
Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years’ absence, he returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country’s civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair has allowed himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He’s probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko’s stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko’s fiancée, a grad student from Colorado named Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko’s clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Nair, Adriko, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.
The Laughing Monsters is not the plot-driven spy novel it pretends to be. The novel’s plot is a shaggy dog story, an excuse for Johnson to riff on how adventure tips into madness, how conflicting identities jam up against loyalties.
Johnson is clearly following Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, sure, but there are also heavy hints of Moby-Dick here, and even Blood Meridian (McCarthy clearly is the descendant of Melville and Conrad, of course). But mostly Denis Johnson is following Denis Johnson in The Laughing Monsters.
The Laughing Monsters is also very-much about writing itself: Nair is a writer, and much of the novel takes the form of emails he sends (or writes without sending), notes he scratches on lined paper in dull pencil, and half-mad confessions. Ultimately, the voice that narrates the novel is Nair’s internal composer. The driving force of the story though is Michael Adriko, the charismatic trickster who seems to be creating the plot as he goes along.
More to come, but again, short version: Great stuff.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.
I should probably start with a confession: I’m not a big Haruki Murakami fan.
I’ve probably abandoned The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle more than any other book (save maybe Proust). I lost interest somewhere in the first 100 pages of Kafka on the Shore, despite finding the premise intriguing. I’ve enjoyed a few of Murakami’s short stories over the years—or maybe found them technically impressive—but none more than the first one I read back in 2001 or 2002 in an issue of Harper’s (I was living in Tokyo at the time, and the main character took the same train I did everyday, the Marunouchi Line).
I want—or rather at one point I really tried—to like Murakami’s fiction, but I just don’t. It leaves me cold.
Which is odd, I think, because the themes and tones—dark ambiguity, strange disappearances, unresolved mysteries, etc.—these are the themes I enjoy most in fiction.
When the kind folks at Audible offered me a review opportunity, I thought I’d take another shot at Murakami. His new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is short enough, I reasoned, for me to, y’know, not abandon it. So I listened to Random House Audio’s production (10 hours, unabridged), reading sections against a copy of the book I checked out from the library. (English translation is by frequent Muarkami translator Philip Gabriel).
There were some fine, creepy moments, but on the whole, I was left cold. The novel is technically impressive (did I already use that term?—What I mean is that Murakami is masterful at activating the sensuous strokes that make the words real for the reader—the book is stuffed with the tiny details that are, y’know, mimetic, and these mimetic details bring vitality to Murakami’s frequent metaphysical digressions—when Tsukuru feels a pain in his back, for instance, this physical sensation is not merely a placeholder for a psychological or spiritual hurt, but the very locus of metaphysical disjunction that Murakami wants to explore in the novel—but hang on, I seem to be riffing unfocused in a parenthetical aside, before I have even addressed that basic question review readers want satisfied up front: What is the book about?).
What is the book about?
Before I get to that, I have to address the performance in the audiobook by Bruce Locke, who reads the dialogue (and Tsukuru’s inner-monologues) with a mild Japanese accent. This accent clashes with the affectless intonation that Locke uses to read the exposition. It makes no logical sense at all why Japanese characters would speak to each other in this way. The audience is smart enough to realize that they are reading a book in translation—why make the characters speak to each other in stereotypical accents? The choice is unfortunate, problematic and distracting.
What is the book about?
Reader, in the acme of laziness—a laziness I will attribute to my lack of enthusiasm to the novel—here is a synopsis of Colorless Tsukuru that I jacked from Wikipedia:
In this Bildungsroman of the realist kind (hints of the author’s magical realism are left to dreams and tales), the third-person narrative follows the past and present of Tsukuru Tazaki, a man who wants to understand why his life was derailed sixteen years ago.
In the early 1990s in his home town of Nagoya, the young Tsukuru was a fan of train stations. In high school, the two boys and two girls that were his four best friends all had a color as part of their surnames, leaving him the “colorless” one of their “orderly, harmonious community”. But one day in 1995, during his second year in college, his friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. That never-explained, Kafkaesque ostracism left him feeling suicidal then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in color and identity”; and when his only college friend vanished the next semester, he felt “fated to always be alone”.
Now in 2011′s Tokyo, the 36-year-old engineer Tazaki works for a railroad company and builds stations. His new girlfriend Sara spurs him “to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up” and seek his former friends to mend the relationships and find out why they rejected him, because she won’t commit to him unless he can move past that issue. And so he will visit them one by one, first back in Nagoya, then in rural Finland, on a quest for truth and a pilgrimage for happiness.
That’s actually a pretty nice little summary—hey, there’s even some analytic commentary! Kafkaesque indeed!
What’s missing from the summary—besides the seemingly-endless metaphorically-overdetermined scenes of Tsukuru swimming that Murakami insists on inserting—what’s missing from the summary is what I take to be a key scene, a story-within-a-story that Tsukuru’s college friend tells him about a pianist who travels around with a bag (which may or may not contain human fingers). The pianist explains to his audience-of-one (Tsukuru’s college friend’s father, if that matters) that he has chosen to die in the place of another person. This metaphysical conceit haunts the rest of the novel, but remains unresolved. (The theme of death and the specter of severed fingers returns again in the novel’s most compelling passage, an extended grotesque vignette featuring fingers floating in formaldehyde).
Much of Colorless Tsukuru remains unresolved. I’d be fine with that if it worked, but I don’t think it does here. (I’m reminded of a joke I read on Twitter years ago: That we know it’s literary fiction if at the end the character is waiting for something). The prose, while brilliant at times in its mimesis, is often clunky and almost always repetitive. This is a repetitive novel. This novel repeats its scenes repetitively. There’s a lot of repetition here.
But you just don’t get Murakami, man, you may reply, dear reader, and that may be true. (Although I do have a penchant for ambiguous, morbid, sinister fiction in translation). I try to assess a novel on what the writer is trying to do, and Murakami—here and elsewhere—feels like a writer supremely adept at creating what Jonathan Lethem called the “furniture” of the novel, the mimetic space in which the characters can come to life. And yet the life force of the characters—their spirit, if I may—seems tepid, clichéd—boring. In the end, I just don’t care. I guess I just don’t get Murakami, man.
What constitutes a nation’s literature? How do literatures of different countries interact with one another? In this groundbreaking study, Alexander Beecroft develops a new way of thinking about world literature. Drawing on a series of examples and case studies, the book ranges from ancient epic to the contemporary fiction of Roberto Bolaño and Amitav Ghosh.
Moving across literary ecologies of varying sizes, from small societies to the planet as a whole, the environments in which literary texts are produced and circulated, An Ecology of World Literature places in dialogue scholarly perspectives on ancient and modern, western and non-western texts, navigating literary study into new and uncharted territory.
Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew
Tried to write about it for a few hours—did write something, mostly complaining about how hard it is to write, etc. etc. etc. Deleted it. Slim Bernhard—not the best starting place for anyone interested in Tommy B, but not a particularly bad one either. (Correction, which also features a Wittgenstein (in disguise) is probably the best I’ve read by Bernhard so far).
Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners
These books are essential.
Anyone who wants to write fiction must read Mystery and Manners, a collection of O’Connor’s lectures and essays on her craft. The Habit of Being, which collects her letters, is fascinating–of particular interest are her letters to A., a younger woman who liked O’Connor’s stories and wrote to her until the end of her life.
I sort of graze on these books.
Emmanuelle Guattari’s memoir I, Little Asylum
Did you know that Felix Guattari had a pet monkey? Boubou was her name. She died in a tree. Full review forthcoming.
Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets
Don’t know if I’ll ever work up the courage to write about this one, but what I’ve read so far—the first four essays in the collection—is really compelling. Badiou tackles Plato’s rejection of the poets from his ideal state—Badiou reckons that “no truth can ever deliver the meaning of meaning, or the sense of sense”:
Plato banned the poem because he suspected that poetic thought could not be the thought of thought. We once again welcome the poem in our midst, because it keeps us from supposing that the singularity of a thought can be replaced by the thought of this thought.
By which I take this to mean: The spirit of the spirit.
Dmitry Samarov’s Where To? A Hack Memoir
Been enjoying the vignettes here—Samarov has a direct and descriptive but wry style. His stories spill over into rants, comic asides, lovely ugly grotesque anecdotes, and tales of warmth and friendship. Love the illustrations too. Great stuff.
William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories
I like Vollmann, but this one is hard to get into. Wonderful dark moments, great little fragments of stories, but 150 pages in and I feel like I’m reading the scraps left out of some other, better, tighter novel.