Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Grief of Others" Speaks to Suburbia

When I read a review of Leah Hager Cohen’s novel The Grief of Others, I was curious how it would compare to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. ¬The books possess similar elements, a fraying family, suburbia, secrets. As readers of Booking Around are aware, I did not like Freedom. I felt differently about The Grief of Others.

The Ryries live outside of New York City in a pleasant neighborhood and have two children. John also has an elder daughter from a relationship in college. And the Ryries have just lost their infant son. Ricky chose to carry the baby to term, though she knew he would survive only a few hours after his birth. He had a rare defect where his skull didn’t properly form to protect his brain. Ricky kept this knowledge from her husband John and her secretive decisions has opened a vast chasm between them and shaken the constructs of their family.

The shift has affected both their children, and the parents seem just mildly aware of the impact their marital trouble is having. Paul is being bullied by his peers, and Biscuit has started skipping school for no reason they can discern at the early age of ten. John’s first daughter, and their half-sister, Jessica shows up with a pregnancy of her own, and it is her presence that begins to bring the Ryries’ rupture to light.

What Hager Cohen draws from her characters is the human despair and desire to improve that Franzen failed to imbue in the Berglunds. They infuriated me because they saw their problems but wouldn’t attempt to repair them and answered the situation by destroying the lives of the people around them instead. The Ryries are similarly on fragile ground, and while the behavior that occurs may be hurtful, it is not cruel. The complexity of desires and selfishness of people, even mothers and fathers, is not overlooked by Hager Cohen, but neither is it indulged.

Gordie is another character who comes into the frame of the Ryries lives. He is of college age and has lost his father to cancer. He happens to spot Biscuit as she falls into the river and brings the sodden child home and finds himself welcomed into a home that doesn’t seem to have room for each other. He is suffering from his own grief and confusion about who he is now that he has one less template of personhood to compare to.

Hager Cohen gets deep into the heads of all of her characters, illustrating each with clear and sometimes startling illuminations of their thoughts. Her writing has the qualities of a river, direct in its course but able to respond to changes in light and interferences. The book is about recovering from crisis. Moving beyond what one believes one is capable of in order to be there for the ones left behind. The Ryries struggle to revitalize what they have built without razing their first attempt. The work is hard but the ability to reflect is available to them and recognized.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Love story at the heart of Murakami's 1Q84

The world of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is not to be entered casually. I suppose I wouldn’t encourage anyone to blindly jump into one of his previous books either (except I can’t help recommending the dark brilliance of Norwegian Wood to anyone who asks). Murakami tends toward the dark or bizarre or the sad. 1Q84 brims with all of these and its intensities are sometime wearisome or upsetting. But what 1Q84 made me realize more than anything else is that Murakami’s novels are always love stories. The romances are hardly formulaic, but at the center of shifting worlds and convoluted self-discoveries the ultimate focus is strangely pure. The grand complexities of 1Q84 manage to emphasize this more than most.

Aomame, her name means green peas, is a determined, attractive, and somewhat frightening woman. Her audacity is evident from the first scene, in which she exits a taxi in the middle of a traffic jam on the elevated Metropolitan Expressway of Tokyo. She is in a rush to make her business appointment (she’s an assassin) and she effortlessly climbs down the emergency exit in her stockings and skirt suit. As she departs from the safe confines of the cab the driver offers ger strange advice: “Please remember: things are not what they seem.” Aomame’s descent allows her to keep her appointment, and takes her into a world with two moons, air chrysalises, and the Little People.

Tengo is the same age as Aomame and has the strange occupation of working as a professor of math and of being a writer. His entrance into the year 1Q84 isn’t marked by a dramatic change, but the course of his days do shift when his editor asks him to rewrite a short story submission the magazine has received. Air Chrysalis was written by a 17-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, and the editor believes that with Tengo’s writing and Fuka-Eri’s youth and odd story, they will have a blockbuster success. Tengo agrees to ghostwrite the project, bringing to life with eerie clarity the actions of the Little People.

Murakami’s characters are nothing if not enigmatic and he constructs them with such careful detail that their quirks are easy to recall months later. An eccentric, protective dowager plays a silent hand in the fates of women, and the men who abuse them. A hideous, unlikable man works on behalf of dark groups without any real agenda. Fuka-Eri’s speech is strangely devoid of inflection, while the contortions of Aomame’s face in the throes of anger are so horrifying as to be unrecognizable. Tengo resembles many of Murakami’s previous heroes. He is contemplative, solitary, smart. At times his inaction has a more profound effect than any action and it is common to spend pages with him as he goes about his modest daily movements.

As the title clearly suggests, 1Q84 exhibits the themes of George Orwell’s 1984. The world that Aomame and Tengo find themselves in isn’t so different from the 1984 they know, but the currents of power have shifted and as their stories grow closer together their survival is mutually dependent.

There is much that is mystical and mysterious about Murakami’s novel, but sometimes the most incredible aspect is the love story. A foreordained quality exists in the lovers’ trajectory. The intensity of the link between the two is both sustaining and suspicious, humming too closely to the tune of a fairy tale. I find it wild that such a massive, complex and unique text is built upon such a delicate kernel of truth. Aomame and Tengo are written as incredibly solitary, self-contained people and yet their union is the fulcrum of the fate of 1Q84. The novel is an adventure, a journey through the fantastical imagination of Murakami and his incredible web of detail. There is much to analyze in the text, much to like or dislike. If you are a fan of Murakami, you will savor this book, if you are not, it may not win you over.