Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"A Pale View of Hills" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is a stellar writer and storyteller. I don't think I've ever found cause to complain about the style or quality of his writing. This book was no exception, and I really enjoyed reading it, but... I may have to reread it to fully understand it. And even if I do reread it, I'm not convinced I'd figure everything out. It's a Choose Your Own Interpretation book. This isn't the first book I've compared to a puzzle, but I think this one was actually more like a box containing jigsaw pieces from half a dozen different puzzles, none of them complete. 

This is a dual-timeline story, narrated by Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in England around the time the book was written (1982). Some of the (more minor) action is in the present, consisting mostly of Etsuko's conversations with her younger daughter who lives with her friends in London, but the emphasis is on the other timeline: one hot summer in Nagasaki, not too long after its destruction in the bombing. The focus of that summer was Sachiko, single mother to ten-year-old Mariko, and the time Etsuko spent with them. There are plot elements hinted at but never clearly explained (who was Mariko's father, and what happened to him? How did Etsuko's marriage to Jiro end?) but those questions pale in comparison to those raised in the last few pages: Just what is the meaning of the parallels between Etsuko and Sachiko, and those between Mariko and Etsuko's older daughter, Keiko? And, perhaps less pressing but still unanswered, what was the story behind the brief spate of child killings?

It's not surprising (considering the author) that the plot holes were intentional. (I don't say this because Ishiguro is known for plot holes, by any means; rather, I'm suggesting that he's much too careful a writer to end up with unintentional results.) As evidence, here's an excerpt from an interview:

"In A Pale View of Hills, I was trying something rather odd with the narrative. The main strategy was to leave a big gap. It's about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who is exiled in Britain in middle age, and there's a certain area of her life that's very painful to her. It has something to do with her coming over to the West and the effect it has on her daughter, who subsequently commits suicide. She talks all around it, but she leaves that as a gap. Instead, she tells another story altogether, going back years and talking about somebody she once knew. So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people's stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection."

You can find a really great discussion of varying interpretations of this book here. Obviously you don't want to follow that link if you don't want spoilers. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Time's Arrow" by Martin Amis

This was a short, fast read based on a clever idea . . . which I hesitate to make clear to you, because I wish I could have read the book with no prior knowledge of the central conceit, or of the main character's background. However, as the first sentence of the blurb on the back of the book gave away both things, I feel OK spilling the beans to you. It's not like I'd be spoiling anything that wouldn't be spoiled for you anywhere else. 

So, big thing #1: the story is written backwards. It starts with the main character's death and works its way back to his birth. But not like in Memento, where each scene runs normally though the movie starts with one of the last scenes and works its way back in time. In Time's Arrow, everything actually goes backwards. Everyone walks backwards, gets younger, extracts shampoo from their hair and then sells it to the store, vomits up plates of food at every meal. If I hadn't already known, I wonder how long it would have taken me to figure out what was going on? I think it would have been really fun to piece it together on my own. Oh well...

Big thing #2: the main character was a Nazi war criminal. This was hinted at throughout the later parts of the main character's life (i.e. in the first half of the book) but I feel like the dawning horror would have been much more effective if I hadn't had this information before I even started to read. I know it would have taken me much longer to figure out the awful source of the gold he was "buying." 

As disappointing as it was to have too much knowledge before reading, let's be realistic: what could possibly be said about this book without mentioning the Two Big Things? I would find it impossible to write a blurb that didn't give either away. 

My brief review: good writing, though the backwards-plot idea really seemed a gimmick more suited to a short story. I found it a pretty unique concept, though the afterword mentions the germ was a paragraph in Slaughterhouse Five (when Billy Pilgrim watched a backwards-run film of planes bombing Dresden), as well as a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer (which I haven't been able to find any information about, so if you know it, please tell me!) I would certainly say Time's Arrow is one of a kind, and likely to remain that way; a similar novel can't be written without inviting accusations of stealing the idea from Amis. 

I think I am neither drawn to nor repulsed by Amis. I mean, with some authors I know for sure whether I want to read more of their work after reading one of their books. With this one, I guess I'm not opposed to more, but I won't rabidly seek it out. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

"A Sport and a Pastime" by James Salter

This is the first book I've read by James Salter, and I hope it's not my last. Salter's prose is very evocative--uniquely descriptive without being kitschy or tricksy, and able to bring a setting to life without allowing the story to get lost in the details.

The narrator, a solitary unnamed American temporarily living in a borrowed house in a small French town, tells the story of a season in the life of Philip Dean: a young, good-looking Yale dropout who briefly meets him through mutual acquaintances at a party. Not long afterwards, Dean shows up on his doorstep for a visit, and somehow ends up staying for months, falling in love with a French girl along the way. Lots of the book tells about the meals and window-shopping the narrator imagines that Dean and Anne-Marie enjoy together. Even more of the book tells about the sexual encounters the narrator imagines between the two young lovers (in scenes that are neither pathetically poetic nor embarrassingly explicit). SO this is basically a made-up story about a made-up story about young love and lust. And while I wouldn't want to, say, read this book aloud to my mother, I did enjoy reading it to myself.