Friday, December 10, 2010

Imperfections become serious flaws in Tom Rachman's novel

The life and death of a small newspaper is the focus of Tom Rachman’s first novel The Imperfectionists. A wealthy businessman decides to start an international English-language paper in Rome. As its custodians, he installs a married couple, Betty and Leo. It is evident that he and Betty have history. The reader assumes he has another motive.

Rachman has laid out his book so that half the chapters read like short stories. Each of these chapters contains a new character and is prefaced by a somewhat sensationalist headline. The paper has been around for fifty years by this time, and is foundering. The other chapters focus on the early years when Betty and Leo were at the helm. Ott makes infrequent, mysterious appearances and one is meant to wonder what it’s all about.

Rachman’s writing is quick and engaging. The dialogue runs smoothly and reveals quantities about the speaker. The ostensible link between characters is the newspaper, but with each additional character that connection grows deeper and more complex. Loneliness emanates from these people, as do misplaced ambitions and resignation.

The title foreshadows flaws in the characters personalities. And one by one they exhibit quite a range. They are bitterly restrictive, selfish, rich, pathetic, cruel. Rachman fails to explore the depths of these characteristics, and an attribute that might have been one facet of a personality, becomes its bulk.

Little is done to evoke either the Rome of fifty years previous or its current incarnation. The newspaper’s staff is, almost across the board, removed from the Italian life. Rachman’s decision to elide the complexities of where his characters are, is a further shortcoming of the novel.

The male figures in the novel are constructed with a much steadier hand. The women wither beneath their imperfections. Hardy, the first woman introduced, is filled with neuroses: body image, self-esteem, daddy issues. Her eating disorder is an integral part of who she has become and, as is so often the case in fiction, it is used as a casual detail. Rachman joins a legion of male and female authors who slip in anorexia or bulimia as an aside. The lack of comprehension is evident in the omission of serious examination.

I had tired of the cast by the end and was surprised to find myself entranced by an airplane tryst. The location is wonderfully tantalizing for its impermanence and its suggestion of adventure. Abby Pinnola is the only woman who is pitch perfect. Crotchety and resigned to the 11-hour flight, she is humanized by her recently fired co-worker, Dave. The two of them have experienced the disappointment of Italy. Italians spend their lives as a large family, by blood or bond, and neither was able to find a niche. The delightful scene that emerged from accidental proximity threatened to redeem if not salvage the novel. The eventual dissolution into petty revenge enraged me.

While I was initially enchanted by the light accessibility of Rachman’s prose, the casual, cruel nature of the his characters imperfections wore me out.

Monday, November 1, 2010

No punches pulled for "The Surrendered"

The three protagonists of Chang-Rae Lee’s novel The Surrendered are marked by fatalities and tragedy. The depth of the damage they experience appears infinite, and yet all three continue to stay afloat, if not move forward.

June is a dutiful daughter of eleven when her family is ensnared in the brutality of the Korean War. After weeks of starvation on the road with her family, she is the only one who remains of her parents and four siblings. Their deaths are unceremonious; she can do nothing but continue. June survives, but the war marks her indelibly. As the violence peters out, she encounters an American soldier on the road and, despite the reader’s grim expectations, he does nothing but lead her to a home for the other children who have lost their pasts to the war. But the child who was June has vanished, she has grown cruel and withdrawn with her peers and there is little hope of her adoption.

The American soldier is Hector. He is a man who possesses an almost supernatural ability to cheat destruction. He wins any drinking contest because alcohol has no discernible effect on him and the many physical, brutal fights he engages in reward him with wounds that heal with absurd, and for him, frustrating, rapidity. After the death of his father, Hector leaps at the chance to join the army, finding himself in the inferno of Korea, where he continuously confronts horrors and dead bodies with a frightening ease.

The third protagonist is Sylvie. She is the wife of the Reverend Tanner and together they run orphanage where Hector and June wind up. Sylvie has enough terrors and darkness of her own without the lurking shadows of the war in Korea. The only child of missionaries, her family was caught in Manchuria during the conflict between the Japanese and the Chinese and her very existence cost others their lives.

These three intricately crafted characters are a trio of the ravished. When their paths entwine, the meetings do not remedy the damage of their pasts. Lee lays out his story in swatches and it is with eagerness, but bated breath, that the reader awaits the union of the pieces.

Lee’s descriptions are not vociferously brutal, but the circumstances he describes make your heart pound. The stories are factual and soul splitting. Need is central to these characters’ experiences and the needs of the body are particularly felt. The corporeal desires range from food, to release, to sex. Not one of Lee’s characters is whole and the manners in which they attempt to satiate their need are hardly healing.

Lee treats the mundane details of his story with the same weight as the injustices of war, never putting one above the other in the hierarchy of pain. But the difference is obvious and the author's ability not to stress the point intensifies the poignancy of the discrepancies.

The hand of the author is not invisible in this novel. Sometimes his language ranges obtusely outside the colloquial usage, and at other moments his odd choices are a delicious stamp of authorship. The moments when Lee emerges from the text suggests a certain discomfort with the comforts he so briefly allows his characters. Life is ruthless with them; their suffering does not make them heroes, nor does it make them exempt from further pain.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Despite Navigational Pitfalls, Mitchell Safely Berthes Sixth Novel

The appeal of David Mitchell's work has just begun to sink in this side of the Atlantic. A popular author of the last decade in Britain, Mitchell's interwoven stories and myriad voices are now being mentioned over a glass of Italian wine, between parents at birthday parties, and discussed in Brooklyn brownstones. Mitchell writes with an uncanny appreciation for beauty as well and his stories are rooted in a developed structure of suspense and complexity.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the title of Mitchell's most recent novel. The story's backdrop is Japan at the turn of the 18th century. Jacob de Zoet finds himself on a fool's errand in Nagasaki, the only trading post permitted on Japan's jealously guarded empire. He is the clever and endearing protagonist of Mitchell’s sixth novel, a Dutch clerk on the ship Shenandoah. At the Dutch trading company's behest, the crew of the Shenandoah arrives to cleanse the post of corruption and abuse of power. With a moral compass pointed toward Christ and honorable dismissal of his rising golden star, Jacob finds himself caught within a culture he does not know and a community of rakish sailors, few of whom he can trust.

Jacob’s expectations are continuously disappointed. The reader has a vested interest in the honorable, love sick but savvy clerk. He is kind and alert to the fascinations of a foreign country. The reader’s hopes rise with his and Mitchell’s prose promises the possibility of a happy resolution up until the final word.

Mitchell presents an ably researched account of Japan and its circumstances as the 1700s came to a close. The language and behaviors of the sailors are as colorful as one might imagine. Their lives are rarely more than a string of misfortunes and their immorality and greed are the consequences. Sentiments are aligned early on in favor of the Japanese but Mitchell makes sure there is good and evil in both camps.

A crux of the novel is Jacob’s adoration of a Japanese midwife. The reader’s first glimpse Orito Abigawa shows her attending a complicated birth. Her skill and character are on display and seeing through her eyes makes her personality appealing. But it is difficult to pinpoint why Jacob is entranced by her, as he is not privy to these scenes. The love that he professes both for Orito and his betrothed in Holland are vague and hard to locate. Jacob is human and thus flawed; his gestures toward Orito are belated and his delay is disastrous.

In the second half of The Thousand Autumns, one reads from Orito’s point of view. The sinister Lord Enamoto runs a secluded convent populated by servants of the goddess; they are deformed women rescued from brothels and brought to a better life. What Orito discovers as an inmate of the mountain walls is disturbing and devastating to the men who love her. As plans are put into motion for rescue and escape, Mitchell plays on the disgust and fear felt for Enamoto and the respect for Orito. His approach is pitch-perfect.

Mitchell’s authorial expertise lies in his ability to convincingly create a multitude of viewpoints. In his previous books, Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, the novels are based on the structure of changing voices, intersecting storylines and time frames. The Thousand Autumns changes point of view with less purpose. Instead of figuring as a flourish of the novel, the story depends on it. A voice must be given to characters from all for the plot to function. The changing voice loses its regularity and the lost focus detracts from the honorable, exotic nature of Jacob’s revelations and the tragedy of Orito’s fate.

Although there are disappointments, each life Mitchell illustrates contains surprise and deft moves of plot and language. His fiction deserves more discussion at the dinner table.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Beauty of Trevor's voice hampered by bulk of novel

The topic of William Trevor’s novel Love and Summer is made clear by the title. The beauty and fertility of Irish summer is strewn in abundance across the pages but the rousing passions of love remain largely absent. Trevor is a superb author with an incredible command of language and a delicate but rigorous understanding of inner lives. Part of Trevor’s genius lies in his ability to communicate emotions and complicated truths while leaving much unsaid. But in Love and Summer what isn’t articulated is too strongly vague and its saps the life from the novel.

Ellie is the orphaned heroine of the book. She was raised by nuns, and they continue to figure as a warm presence in her life. A position as housekeeper for the widower Dillahan is found for Ellie once she has passed through adolescence. After a few years Ellie assumes the status of wife on Dillahan’s farm. Her husband is a good, if not particularly emotive, man. Ellie has learned her duties well and does them contentedly if not with joy. They are childless but this is her only disappointment. One imagines that the Dillahans have the capacity to carry on indefinitely. But Ellie’s calm is interrupted by the appearance of a stranger in Rathmoye.

The appearance of Florian Kilderry is an entirely random event. There is little reason to pass through Rathmoye. Florian is from a town nearby, his parents have recently died and he has nothing keeping him in Ireland. He and Ellie become acquainted by chance and though he thinks about her afterward, even dreaming of her, his effect on her is much more severe. She falls for him immediately. Routine series of trysts in the open countryside of Ireland unfold but there is never a moment of animation seen between them. Trevor’s discretion is often mesmerizing but the entire absence of romantic detail makes the affair come across as prudish, practically imagined, as opposed to precious and private.

Glimpses are given into the lives of other of the town members. Moments of pity and humor are strongly felt and Rathmoye has the odd, colorful personalities to be expected from a small town. A forgetful madman plays a significant, as do the Connultys, an important family in the town whose final generation is unmarried. Ultimately the cast of characters seems caught in a stupor induced by the haze of summer. Miss Connulty, who herself experienced mistaken love, is the only one who behaves without languor. But her plaintive warnings sound peevish and jealous against the template of those who drift along.

The entrance given into the lives of the characters only reveal the ways in which everyone is making do. The comfort of routine soothes the broken heart and silent admirers are resigned to the precious hour in which they can view their beloved. There is a vague suggestion that history has the tendency to repeat itself, but the characters are so private and reserved that any inclination of exchange or connection remains concealed.

Trevor is one of my favorite author’s, but it is his short stories that are the emblems of his success. He contains loneliness and hope in the spaces of his sentences and the simple gathering of paragraphs. The frame of a novel is too bulky for the bewitching minimalism of the moments he creates. Love and Summer is not without its descriptive brilliance and its deeply affecting moments of solitude but these are lost in the abundance of faintly sketched characters and I found myself yearning for the brevity of After Rain.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sweetness of love story overshadowed by sour plot

The subject of Jamie Ford’s novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an unjust piece of history well worth exploring. Narrated from the perspective of a young Chinese boy, Henry Lee, Ford writes about the Japanese internment camps that sprung up in America during World War II.
Henry is the only child of first generation Chinese parents. He is 12 when the novel begins and his father has decreed that he only speak English in the house. Using this as a tactic to improve Henry’s English makes sense. But his parents speak only Cantonese, English words are unintelligible to them and so Henry is locked out of his own family so that he can perfect “his American.” His father’s edict is fueled by the climate of fear that is palpable for Asian immigrants of any kind at the time but it makes his son’s home as uncomfortable as the world outside.
Henry’s parents are depicted as classic immigrants, afraid of the new country and yet determined to earn its rights for their children. Ford’s attempts to deepen the complexity of the Lees only serve to highlight the ways in which he has fallen upon the crutch of stereotype.
The novel depends on the strength of Henry’s relationship with Keiko, a Japanese-American who attends the same white school as he. They fortify each other against the racism of their environment, exploring Seattle side by side. Henry is forced to sport a button reading “I am Chinese” to deter some of the hatred directed his way, while Keiko does not speak a word of Japanese but is ostracized nonetheless. The source of the comfort they find in one another is obvious and with Keiko as a figure to defend Henry is able to act brave. The climate is uncomfortable for everyone and it is clear that things are going to get worse before they get better.
Ford also crafts what is meant to be a pivotal friendship between Henry and a black street side saxophone player, Sheldon. As a result Henry and then Keiko have a winning love for jazz. The search for a particular record fuels a substantial portion of the novel. But like the rest of the characters in Ford’s novel, Sheldon is a surface and his existence too convenient in a series of similarly facile events.
Ford’s narrative alternates between Henry’s blooming friendship with Keiko and the period more than 40 years later when he is recovering from his wife, Edith’s death. Keiko’s absence is painted with mystery, but the importance of her disappearance was hard to swallow despite all the author’s efforts. Part of this failure was due to do with the ages of Ford’s protagonists. The duo is on the cusp of 13. I am not immune to the possibility of true love at the age of 13 or 14, and certainly the atmosphere of war affects the maturity level of its children, but for all Henry’s dramatic gravity he never seems capable of the weighty emotions Ford bestows on him. Keiko and Henry cling to each other because they are both different in a sea of white and beyond that there is little recognition and appreciation of the other’s subtleties.
Ford’s recognition of the maltreatment of fellow Americans in World War II is finally eclipsed by the conveniences of the plot. His turns of phrase and conversation exchanges are so cliché they are amusing until one realizes they are meant in earnest. As much as I hoped to be won over by jazz and love at no point did I find myself rooting for the reunion of Keiko and Henry because I found it impossible to care.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bloom Cross-examines Love in Recent Collection

The stories in Amy Bloom’s collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out depict the accidents, evasions, and conclusions provoked by the wily deity of the title. Bloom captures the innumerable gradients of romance and base physicality in her engrossing illustrations of attraction. Her twelve stories contain moments of triumphal love as well as love that is mistaken, worn, and familial. Whether you recognize something from your past or see something you want for your future, Bloom ensures your interest with her sharp eye and rare prose.
Bloom begins most of her stories with precise declarative sentences. The reader is dropped into the lives of her characters with a thud; by that first sentence one is already captured by the voice. Although these are largely women’s stories, Bloom never reduces the opposite sex to a caricature. The pain, expectation, failure and fulfillment of men and women vibrate on equal planes in Bloom’s voice; the decibel may change but the depth remains constant.
In two of the four sections of her collection, Bloom traces the trajectory of two different couples. Both storylines have an element of the forbidden but Bloom does not write to scandalize. She isn’t interested in naughtiness, she is merely aware of the odd unions that can be produced circumstances both strained and comfortable. Her characters’ predicaments are deeply felt and the choices they make are not made lightly.
In the first quartet, one half of two couples combine to form a new pair. These fresh lovers are not young themselves and the affair that unfolds is laden with the experience of age, the weight of what this indiscretion means, and the sharp delight of desire. In Bloom’s second quartet, a young widow and her stepson arrive at a dreadful impasse while in the throes of their grief for the man they loved. The results of this encounter are not exactly tragic but staggering nonetheless. Neither coupling leads to predicted or similar conclusions. The author’s awareness of the unpredictability of conscience and emotions is reflected in the expansion of her stories. Mortality is a pervasive presence in Bloom’s works but deaths are not used as a ploy or a crutch.
The characters in this collection are entirely fallible and while each story in these two quartets triumphs in its own right, it is through following each trajectory to its conclusion that confirms Bloom’s expertise. Part of me didn’t want to see the fallout of those first indiscretions, but the instinct to move beyond the finite bounds of a single story and to push the reader into the life past the first lapse of judgment is a crucial decision on Bloom’s behalf that strengthens the effect of the stories.
Bloom’s characters are unabashedly sensual and she writes about sex with candor. At times her descriptions are explicit, but no matter the graphics of her prose the result is never squalid. She does not reduce corporeal pleasures to roses and flickering candlelight, but the intimate details she brings into focus are delivered in a straightforward tone, devoid of frills, rendering them curious, not sordid.
Ultimately the stories that had no further elaboration did not stick with me the way the others did. But Bloom’s sense of plot and character are remarkable and her descriptions and similes often had me grinning or grimacing in recognition no matter where they were situated.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Atwood's novel of speculation demands a contemplation of the present

Margaret Atwood is an entrepreneur of weird worlds. Her futuristic The Handmaid’s Tale was near revolutionary with its depiction of a society bent on controlling reproduction, i.e. women. Familiar? Atwood’s skill lies in her ability to tweak recognizable reality into something bizarre but frighteningly believable. She has her finger on the pulse of both the humorous and grotesque aspects of humanity. In The Year of the Flood, her most recent novel and an expansion of Oryx and Crake, the combination is almost unthinkably strange. The Year of the Flood unsettles the reader because the future Atwood conceives is based on her clever warping of the banality of today.
Although a number of characters from Oryx and Crake appear in The Year of the Flood, the second novel stands on its own, and stands out in memory. The abstract was too present in Oryx and Crake and while mystery has its benefits, Atwood’s glaring and grotesquely gaudy vision of the future in her latest novel forces the reader to pause and reconsider.
Atwood’s story brings the reader to the years before the flood, alternating with the stories of Ren and Toby in the years that follow the aerobic virus that kills everyone else. Before the Waterless Flood, the world is a disastrous complex of plastic surgery clinics, chain restaurants serving mystery meat called Secretburgers, and a prison system where the inmates fight for their lives, using the principles of Paintball as a template. Atwood delights in puns and many of the monikers of the institutions are amusing, such as Anoo Yoo Spas and the security force CorpSeCorps working for the Corporations who are now in control.
Amongst the jumbles of Pleeb gangs roaming the crumbling streets of unnamed cities, there are groups of idealists trying to make sense of the world. Toby and Ren, into whose heads Atwood grants access, are a part of God’s Gardeners for different reasons and spans of time. This fictitious religion is an impressive creation on Atwood’s part. The Gardener’s beliefs are built on the teachings of the Bible that emphasize the necessity of kindness to all living creatures. They are extreme vegetarians and pacifists, living on rooftops and cultivating gardens away from the stench and degradation of the world below. Every third chapter Atwood includes a brief sermon-like oration given by Adam One, who is the leader of the Gardeners, on each day of a feast for saints who include Rachel Carson and Terry Fox. Priests and churches have vanished but a sense of God and hope remains. Adam One’s interpretations of the Bible are so sincere they are laughable, a much needed release from the tension, and somehow encouraging.
Quality of life has reached an unfortunate low for humanity but it is women who get the short end of the stick. As always Atwood’s women are well crafted and possess an impressive resilience. Ren narrates with a fairly light voice, even as she is trapped inside a healing chamber in the sex club she works in as the world outside dies. She doesn’t possess Toby’s dry wit or careful calculations but her expectant nature is a relief amongst the detailed descriptions of the depths humanity has reached.
Apocalypse, as a premise, does not interest me though its popularity is evident in the size of the science fiction of the bookstore (Atwood is adamant that her imaginings of the future not be relegated to that category, she prefers “speculative fiction”). But there are authors who know how to make the effects more than a paranoid hypothetical. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example of this success and so is The Year of the Flood.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Logic and Inexplicable wrestle in "Stranger"

Feudal grandeur and its loss prove to be painful for more than the immediate family in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. The dissolution of the house and the family that inhabits it marks a transition from the lost romance of an older era and the challenges of adjusting to what is new.
The courteous and somewhat stiff narrator, Dr. Faraday, takes the reader through the final chapter of the British estate Hundreds Hall. It is an emblem of the past in his small pastoral town and one that does not always have positive connotations. His mother worked there as a maid in its glory days and Faraday is drawn to the place for a number of reasons: nostalgia, awe, envy.
Since the years following the Second World War, the estate has slowly been broken down into pieces and plots. The patriarch is dead. His son Roderick Ayres is a nervous young man, badly damaged by the war. His older sister Caroline is the heroine, too plain and spirited to make a match that might salvage the property. Her mother, Mrs. Ayres, is a fragment of dilapidated glamour from the past. The three of them are in charge of the beautiful but deteriorating house. They have neither the money nor the strength to resurrect it.
By chance, Dr. Faraday appears at Hundreds to offer his services to the family’s only maid. He is not sure he likes the family exactly, but his visits become a regular part of his routine and slowly the doctor integrates himself into theirs. Underlying the development of these relationships, Waters brings to light the inherited and outdated class divisions. Dr. Faraday’s growing friendship with the Ayres suggests a breaking down of boundaries. There are moments when the differences of background become obvious and cause discomfort, marking the awkward and often reluctant abandonment of the implicit and imbalanced divisions of the past.
The propriety of the family and the failing beauty of the house are well constructed. Waters sets a good pace and the reader gamely follows where Dr. Faraday leads. It isn’t until a third of the way into the book that another element surfaces to complicate the fairly straightforward plot. Hundreds is already tearing at the seams and this is initially what is supposed to have rushed Roderick’s collapse. But by Roderick’s own estimation something else is at work in the grand old house. He does not point to existence of a bona fide ghost, but speaks of a haunting presence that urges malevolence. Dr. Faraday is a man of science and doubtful of such conjectures. He has a hard time swallowing the odd stories of the Hundreds’ inhabitants, and in time all of them mention or believe something extraordinary is at work. As the events grow more frequent and damaging, rational explanations seem to have less and less bearing on what unfolds.
The novel never quite sinks into the classification of a spook story. Waters maintains an excellent tension between straightforward, scientific logic and other less believable possibilities. She plays on whatever superstitions the reader might possess and writes convincingly of bumps in the night. Dr. Faraday continues to evaluate the existence of a malevolent force as preposterous, but as the novel draws to a close, his conclusions seem increasingly stubborn and narrow.
The reader isn’t rewarded with answers. Waters’ narrator might want to push one in a certain direction, but after a novel inside Dr. Faraday’s discerning if narrow head, one can’t help but ponder the other possibilities. Change works as a double-edged sword and the reader witnesses the measured need for a balance in the hands of The Little Stranger.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fantasy quelled by reality; plot by cast

A.S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book contains a compelling confusion of fairy tales, families, sexual awakenings, and pottery. Victorian England is dying out and the 1900s are on the cusp; Byatt attempts to take it all in stride. She has a huge cast of characters to perform acts of rebellion, desire and distress. There is someone for every reader: author, anarchist, adulterer, child-at-heart. And if no one meets your fancy Olive Wellwood will inspire you to invent your own.
The novel starts with small mysteries, art, and a reigning matriarch who deals in fantasy. A boy, Phillip, is found hiding in the basement of a museum and his eye for design is the piece of magic that carries him from the industrial dirt of London into the pastoral beauty of the countryside where contentment and simplicity seem to reign.
Olive Wellwood is the matriarch who transports him. She is an author of fairy tales and the mother of a sprawling brood. The Wellwoods’ home is the perfect backdrop for the childish merriment she encourages. The adults take part in the magic as well. They host a Midsummer’s party annually, indulging their own fantasies, enlisting foreign puppeteers and participating in lengthy discussions about the problems of poverty and corruption in England. Olive writes for children while her husband Humphrey faces the problems of the world with words of his own.
In addition to the Humphrey Wellwoods, Byatt follows the children of his brother Basil, the Cains and the offspring of the eccentric and genius potter, Benedict Fludd. The latter is a mysterious and frightening force. Phillip becomes his apprentice and the relationship between art and its executor is fascinating. Fludd must be handled with kid gloves; his rages and the distress of his family are permissible because of his brilliance. Byatt successfully introduces the reader to pottery and examines the refuge provided by creativity and the delicate balance between genius and mania.
Entering further into the worlds of these families, the atmosphere of gaiety splits at the seams. Humphrey is repeatedly unfaithful and her children are largely cared for by her spinster sister, Violet. Sexual exploration inserts itself to the continually more tangled web of lives. This force has a tricky combination of fantasy and reality. The consequences are all too tangible and the repercussions are born by the women. Interspersed with the history of these families are segments of Olive’s fairy tales as well as summaries of the changing temperature in Europe as the years race forward; it is easy to see why the fantasy is preferable.
As they grow, the children begin to push against the magical inventions that encapsulate their lives. One finds refuge in Marxism, another pursues medicine. Those who cannot look beyond, remain in an unsettling limbo. Reality bursts in with the arrival of the First World War and has damaging effects on those who are unequipped with the tools to face the harshness of the world. Fantasy withers in the face of reality. The lucky ones can use it as a tool, but fantasy cannot be sustained. Byatt reveals that if one has nothing else, one is lost.
The strength of Byatt’s novel seems to fade as the vibrancy of her characters is dulled by experience. Byatt’s characters are distinct but the cast is too large. One or two minor characters wind up playing crucial roles and their importance feels misplaced without a clear understanding of them when others are known quite well. There are too many shrouds when there should be moments of clarity. When Byatt’s control of her complex cast slips, the book falls to pieces.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Nocturnes" fails to live up to implications of title

The word or category “nocturnes” evokes a particular sobriety. It transmits a dreamy but serious and often mournful atmosphere. The tones struck in a nocturne are haunting if not eerie. Even when the sound stops the mood lingers. One puts on an album of nocturnes for a meditative, gray afternoon or in the wake of desire. None of the stories in Kazui Ishiguro’s Nocturnes strike these chords and the title of the collection is unfitting. The narrators fly through their tales at an andante pace, rather than with the mix of caution and tumult that should be found in such meditative pieces of music
Although there is a jumble of narrators in Ishiguro's short stories, the variety of tone is indistinct. Each protagonist is male, each a musician or an aficionado, no one at the top of his field. Two play in St. Mark’s square in Venice, another in the rolling English hills, and a third is met in a Beverly Hills hotel where he is recovering from plastic surgery. All these characters share a plaintive tone. This exasperating quality is brought to the attention of a few of the protagonists, giving them another reason for self-righteous indignation. This evidence of Ishiguro’s understanding of his characters' whining does not alleviate the reader’s annoyance with their grating disenchantment.
I sailed through these stories of depression, friendship, and ending love. This rapidity alone contradicts the principle of a nocturne, a piece of music that is created to be savored, not hurriedly consumed. My brief and hasty encounters with the Ishiguro's characters never convinced me to care about them. They are too thoughtless and too self-pitying; shells of rejection and disappointment. Their passion for music is the emotion that should sustain them, but it no longer triumphs because they have lost their ear for their passion.
Additionally, many of the author’s premises felt preposterous. In the title story, a middle-aged saxophone player is all too easily talked into the need for plastic surgery in order to advance his career. In another a grown, if somewhat misdirected, man impersonates a dog in order to create a faux scene of destruction in a friend’s apartment to throw the owners off a moment of his own indiscretion. I didn’t buy these events and felt almost bitter to be asked to swallow the conceits upon which the stories were founded.
It is impossible to know if these are tales of deserving geniuses, or the gripes of decent musicians in a cutthroat business because everyone of Ishiguro’s narrators speaks in the first person. This narrow vision creates a slanted opinion and prevents the reader from hearing the music objectively. Whenever a secondary character bestows a compliment on the protagonist’s talent, it is always a remark complicated by another motive and does nothing to help the reader understand the plight of who is playing.
The secondary characters are often the real focus of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. Their stories were often more interesting or glaringly tragic than the protagonists but they, also, fail to engage one’s sympathies. Ishiguro's tales orchestrate passing connections with people, and through these new acquaintances shades of past relationships are revealed. Music is usually the longest relationship a character is involved in. Had the stories been developed more thoroughly in this vein they would have both caught my attention and bewitched me. Music has the same ability as glue, it is able to attach unlikely persons to one another in odd or momentarily comforting ways. This is a premise I can accept and respect; it is a wonderful and true notion. But my interest was stunted by the deprecating whine of the protagonists and the inconclusive worth of everyone else.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Consequences of Complacency in "Brooklyn"

Colm Toíbín’s novel Brooklyn is as straightforward as its title. Eilis is a young, capable woman in Ireland in the 1950s. Despite her qualifications, she, like many others, is unable to find work. Her mother, her sister Rose, and a priest, who has moved to Brooklyn himself, plan for her to cross to American and begin a life there. She goes, obediently. Eilis is not ambitious, but she is willing. Her complacence is understandable, she is a “good girl.” But as the novel progresses her deferential attitude morphs from beneficial to damaging.
Eilis lodges at the house of an Irish woman with a gaggle of other Irish girls in Brooklyn. Despite America being a different world, Toíbín doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the changes in locale. He manages the new terrain firmly but without exaggerated emphasis. Toíbín’s character is adaptable; Eilis manages America as she does most things, without protest. But there are subtle moments of conflict. Toíbín stages a well-calculated encounter with race and there is a moment of uncomfortable boundaries crossed in Eilis’s relationship with a co-worker. She must face small moments of class discrepancy in the society that is more elastic than Ireland’s but still divided.
Eilis doesn’t spend her time making friends, She works hard at the department store where she has a position even though the work is below her qualifications. When homesickness catches up with her, night classes in bookkeeping are arranged to keep her busy. Her force of will allows this to be enough to help her mend and her willing intelligence aids her success. By and large her American life is dull.
Eventually, a young man appears on the canvas of the novel. Tony chooses her unequivocally and Eilis is carried along compliantly, but without much enthusiasm. Tony is a very good man. He is not Irish but Italian and Eilis has trouble explaining to her sister that in America his low status as a plumber is not a reflection of who he is as a man. Toíbín manages to depict Tony as a good, solid and dependable person without making him boring. He is simply loveable. But one wonders if Eilis is the one to love him. Moments pass in which she seems the happy object of his affection only to be followed by an almost violent desire to keep her distance.
In the last third of the novel, Eilis is called back to Ireland. Like most of the major decisions in her life, this one is made for her, shaped by extenuating circumstances. Her return is meant to be temporary but as Eilis faces the familiarity of her past Brooklyn, its heights and depths, begin to fade. With the reality of her new life paling in comparison her old one, Eilis is finally forced to confront her uncertainties.
Eilis is likeable and the reader is invested in her choices. It remains difficult for anyone to decide the “right” path for the heroine. America has transformed her into a person who stands out in a place where she had comfortably been part of the background. Her emergence from the shadows makes Eilis more certain of her worth but less confident of the choices she made in the past.
Toíbín artfully and shrewdly builds the simple novel to a point of irrevocable change and choice. He constructs a branching of opportunity and shows how easily one sort of life can be forever altered. Eilis’s initial, endearing complacency has unforeseen repercussions that suggests the necessity of always employing one’s own judgment rather than following someone else’s lead, however benign.