Sunday, January 10, 2016

January Reads Part One

This Census-Taker by China Miéville
The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata
Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Because I felt like writing so much on these four books, but not enough to warrant their own individual posts, I'll publish this as a "Part One" with a "Part Two" being posted late in the month.

I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with Miéville, so I've been reading them slowly, savouring them. His new novella, which I received as an advanced reading copy, was not really to my taste, unfortunately. I don't think the story was bad, per se, but I didn't really enjoy my brief time with This Census-Taker. It's described as a sort of "fable," which is definite red flag for me, and it's compared to George Saunders, another red flag. As much as I think Saunders is a talented writer, his Wallace-lite stuff leaves me cold. Miéville's focus in this novella includes some of Saunders' (and others') estrangement. The reader is unmoored from traditional signposts of setting. We are never sure when or where this story takes place. There are enough clues for the reader to satisfactorily assume a fantasy world, but not enough to make a definitive conclusion. Likewise with the level of technology and thus timeframe. In this fantasy world (I'm assuming), there is enough structure to uphold a law and biopolitical power (in the form of a census), but not enough for this power to be exerted unilaterally. The novella expresses an oscillation between suspicion and respect for biopolitics, which, considering Miéville's already deeply considered ideologies, is no surprise.

I did enjoy Miéville's prose, as per usual. He's not a great stylist, but he tries, more often succeeding than stumbling. His prose calls to mind a writer who has clearly thought through his metaphors and similes. They come organically from the characters or mise-en-scene, rather than from a writerly desire to show off. Similarly, he knows and wields the power of suggestion. One of the key subplots, if you'll pardon the eventual pun, is that the protagonist's father is a key-maker, crafting mysterious keys for shadowy payment. These keys are implied to perform miracles, either publicly or illicitly, such as a farmer using one to change the weather from sunny to rainy. The keys are never explained; they are simply part of the background radiation of this world, and it's extremely effective.

Otherwise, I found the plot struggled to maintain my interest. The problem with a fable is that everything feels determined and childlike, as if there are no real dramatic stakes. This Census-Taker also felt allegorical in that writerly way, in opposition to the praise I just gave Miéville; the narrative appears to be nudging me in the ribs, trying to direct my attention to some not-so-hidden subtext. I resent motions such as this. Again, though, this is personal taste. I can't really comment on the aesthetic or metaphorical success of the allegory. However, I didn't hate the book. I just didn't enjoy my time with it.

Kawabata's The Lake was something I read extremely fast and thought, when I closed the book, that it was fairly light. But as the book as stewed inside my head, as its percolated, I've thought more and more about the richness lurking beneath the surface. Kafka wrote in a letter, "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us" and Kawabata has clearly understood this lesson. Superficially, The Lake follows a middle aged school teacher with an unhealthy appetite for stalking women and a rich man's wife who bumps into the school teacher. Using a kind of lackadaisical stream-of-consciousness, Kawabata moves easily backwards and forwards in time, providing us the clues we need to understand the deep interiority of these characters. This isn't realism in the strictest sense, as the characters are performing symbolic labour; I'm guessing, based on the text and my limited knowledge of post-war Japan, that The Lake is peeking at the anxiety this society has around its status after such devastation. The cast of the novel aren't fully drawn or fully realized characters in the classic sense (like Count Fosco of The Woman in White for example) but rather placid flat surfaces waiting to be cracked and shattered by the penetrating gaze of the audience. I chose this metaphor purposefully to recall the imagery of a frozen body of water, something Kawabata also does quite pointedly. The titular lake in the novel performs a plethora of symbolic labour, but never in an over-determined A. S. Byatt kind of way (not that this is a bad thing, I've just grown a taste for less surgically minded endeavours). 

The Lake is full of beautiful imagery and prose, though I hesitate to praise the words chosen due to translation. I always struggle with translation. I never feel like I'm grasping the whole thing, but rather a shadow of the thing. However, Kawabata is clearly not a stylist, but rather a keen observer of human beings, how we withhold, how we keep secrets, how our bodies betray us, how our minds betray us. While I enjoyed reading the novel as it happened, I believe the more I think on it, the more I'll appreciate it.

I've always meant to read Michael Moorcock, but have found his large oeuvre to be daunting. Where does one start? A friend at work lent me a tattered copy of his Nebula-winning novel Behold the Man. I'm glad I read this, as Moorcock and I appear to have similar thoughts regarding realism and the trappings of genre. Using time travel as his springboard, Moorcock explores theology, psychology, and determinism in interesting, albeit very 1960s, kinds of way. Karl Glogauer is a disaffected man in the 1960s who struggles to keep relationships, jobs, and even beliefs. He wanders through life searching for meaning. He befriends a scientist who is working on a time machine and he jumps at the chance to be the crash test dummy, if you will. The only stipulation Glogauer makes is that he chooses the time and location: Jerusalem, 28 AD. His plan is to witness Christ's crucifixion. 

Of course, since this is a time travel narrative, I already guessed that Glogauer would end up becoming Jesus.... My guess turned out to be correct (if I can spoil a 45 year old novella). That I was able to sort out the book's ending did not lessen my experience with the book. Nor did I shout "a-HA!" when the finale of the book confirmed my suspicions. I used to be a big fan of trying to stay one step ahead of the narrative; I used to love trying to guess the ending. One of the reasons why I've drifted away from such reading practices is that I've found myself more and more interested in aesthetics and politics, semantic fields operating below and on the surface. I still love plot, obviously, or else I wouldn't read so much fiction, but other possibilities have slowly opened up to me, increasing my pleasure in a good book. Trying to outsmart the book does a disservice to the reader; allow yourself the amusement and gratification of being carried along. 

I mentioned that Behold the Man is very 1960s. I meant that it was a) New Wave-ish in execution and b) unhealthily concerned with Jung. The self-consciousness about myths and memetics is fun, but very temporally mired. It's hard to read these New Wave novels independent of their conditions of production. Consider that a lot of Samuel R. Delany's early stuff has a laser-like focus on the process of mythmaking (really my most intimate familiarity with New Wave sci-fi). I mention this not as criticism of Moorcock—it's impossible for him to purposefully construct timelessness, especially in a novel interested in time travel; instead, I mention it to contextualize my own reading experience. 

In the same vein, I found the last forty pages a bit of a deflation of the novel. For the first 110 pages or so, we're given as much interiority as possible, letting the reader assemble the picture of the protagonist's psychology. Once Glogauer has had his encounter with "Satan" in the desert, the reader is almost completely shut out from his thoughts, his motivations. We're left with this blank wall that goes through the motions. Which is at odds with the protagonist we have spent so much time with already, a character willing to chance death for the sake of history. To be clear, I understand Moorcock's motivation in this strategy (Glogauer has resigned himself to fulfilling history while simultaneously generating the biggest audience for his "suicide," something he's been searching for all his life), but I didn't enjoy my experience with it. However, this wasn't enough to sour my time with Moorcock. I've asked my friend to lend me some other Moorcock texts, his picks. 

As my partner and I have re-watching the Harry Potter films, I kept thinking that perhaps now is the right time to read these books. For context, I read the first one in my first year English class (way back in 2003, I think) and it didn't really impress me much. But then again, I was a tryhard teen who thought he was smarter than he was (I still am?). For Christmas one year (2007, 2008?), I gave my mother one of those deluxe hardcover sets. Here's a picture of it:
So, while sitting in our new empty apartment (I'm moving again), I gave the first book a try.

It's extremely difficult to read these books independent of the films, especially when the films are so fresh in my memory. However, as I struggled to picture what Rowling was narrating (versus what I saw in the film), I still had a fun time with the first book. First of all, it's very clear that Rowling had a long game planned even from the beginning. For example, Sirius Black is mentioned on the third or so page. The deeper world that the films hint at is even deeper and more satisfying in the book. Everything seems a bit more campy, but this isn't a negative. I found Rowling's fake Dickens voice to be charming and, if I might say, hypnotic. I'm beginning to understand, on a deeper level, the appeal of this universe beyond its blatant wish fulfilment tropes.

Being able to read it knowing the endgame in mind makes for a different and interesting read. The breadcrumbs that Rowling lays in the first book are more noticeable, but her subtlety with laying them means they're never distracting. Likewise, her skill in reiteration is to be admired. For example, she laboriously introduces something, to convey a sense of awe upon Harry and the reader, but when that something repeats, she doesn't belabour the point. Some of the more fun details have been left out of the films, such as the Hogwarts School song (which has lyrics, but every student sings them to their favourite tune) and Dumbledore is much goofier and paradoxically Machiavellian. He reminds me a lot of the Seventh Doctor, to be honest.

However, I'm still struck by the amateurish plotting. The artificial structure of the school year and the mystery ending conveniently at the same time bothered me, along with some of the more haphazard plot machinations. Rowling hasn't yet mastered a linear causal chain of events (therefore instead of and then). For example, it's beyond irritating that the kids' punishment for being in a restricted area is to be sent to another restricted area, where of course, another major clue is dispensed slipshod and slapdash. I'm totally aware that the plotting quickly tightens with even the third book (the best film), so it's an easy pill to swallow, especially when Rowling's narrator is so charming. I might also mention that Harry himself is much more sassy and fun in this first novel than in the film.

No comments: