Posts Tagged ‘japanese’

I have been getting right into the library over the past couple of months. We might be moving house in a while so I’ve been trying not to accumulate more books for the moment. Honestly, I think my boyfriend might break up with me if I buy any more before we move. Plus, have you been to the library lately? As my friend Maddie would say, you can get like THIRTY BOOKS FOR FREE. I am a pro at using the library. I get some good stuff there. It is a truly amazing institution.

So I’ll just briefly chat about the titles I have to return soon.

The Diving Pool / Yoko Ogawa

If you’re anything like me, you feel a little heartsick when looking at the spines of your Murakami and Yoshimoto books, remembering how much you loved contemporary Japanese literature and then read so much that you kind of had a brain hernia in response and now get hives whenever looking at book covers that feature brushstroke fonts on white backgrounds. It’s evident to me that I have avoided reading new Japanese writing for this not very good reason, which is totally dumb because The Diving Pool is really good. It comprises three stories that all exhibit Ogawa’s deceptively understated prose, which often gently depicts strange, repellent but morally opaque acts. In ‘The Diving Pool’, the only biological daughter of serial orphan-adopting parents hurries to the pool the same day each week to watch her foster brother, Jun, diving. This hidden obsession is a rare bright spot in her life: she thinks that her blood relationship with her parents ‘disfigures’ her family, and her relationship with its members is by turns callous and derisory.

‘Pregnancy Diary’ tracks the changing moods and diet of a pregnant woman through the eyes of her sister, who makes grapefruit jam to assuage her cravings. But this seeming act of sisterly affection takes on a grotesque malevolence through repetition. A disturbingly slanted take on familial care and the venerated ideal of a gravid woman.

The final story, ‘Dormitory’, sees a young woman revisit the dormitory where she lived while at university. Food is an integral part of each of Ogawa’s stories. This woman takes small cakes and other gifts to the dormitory’s caretaker as a way of showing respect and care, but also as an excuse to be there – or perhaps to excuse her being there, as her visits become more numerous. But food also rots and harbours malignancies; it decays, as do bodies and buildings. This book is more powerful for not pathologising the harms it describes; for its quiet, polite voices that utter terror.

A Single Man / Christopher Isherwood

I have to confess that the 1960s are not my strongest decade. I don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge about the historical context or adjacent literature to make the most of anything I read from that time. But I still enjoyed reading A Single Man, set over the course of one day in the life of George Falconer, an British expat teaching literature in Los Angeles. In some ways it’s a regular day; George wakes up, talks to his friend Charley, thinks about his neighbours, drives over the bridge and to work. But it’s also a day defined by a loss that George has recently suffered – that of his partner, Jim. Moving not only as an intimate portrait of a man psychologically reconstructing himself in response to his surroundings, but also in its frank treatment of aging and sexuality, this novella deals in gear-changes, masks and behaviours. Enjoyable, too, are the academic-novel scenes, in which colleagues bicker and gossip about each others’ wives. And much is changing in LA: a diversifying body of students represent a newish type of America, while Charley reminisces – in a plummy RP that leaps off the page into the ear – about the old country.

Gone Girl / Gillian Flynn

AAAARRRRGGGHHHHHHHHH. Okay, so I shot myself in the foot with this one. For some reason I’d got it into my head that this was a super literary thriller. I’d read about it all over the place and everyone was raving about it, so I thought I was reading a very different book than what I was. When it finally dawned on me that Gone Girl is essentially a grown-up Christopher Pike-ish type thing, I was already sore from having my ear chewed off by two of the most irritating narrators I have encountered in a long time. So please don’t take this as an unbiased opinion.

You probably already know enough about Gone Girl‘s plot or premise, so I don’t need to go into that too much. Perfect wife Amy Dunne goes missing on her and husband Nick’s fifth wedding anniversary, yada. They alternate chapters as narrators. There’s a big twist. Yes, it’s an extremely tight thriller, quite astonishing. I marvel at the structure of this book, and my imagination is not capable of coming up with this kind of story (though there are some stretch-the-imagination bits). I’m actually afraid of Gillian Flynn now. Don’t cross that lady. But I think the horrors here are almost purely structural – or even theoretical – rather than emotional. I felt absolutely nothing when I reached the huge twist (okay, that’s a lie – my attention had been flagging, and it whipped back into place once I reached the twist). And I think many readers would be able to guess what the twist is (though not the specifics, which are mindboggling) – there are enough clues. But Amy Dunne’s voice is so cloying (I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I understand that there’s of course a good reason for this) and Nick’s so lackadaisical that I really couldn’t have cared less what happened to either of them. Plus, he’s the kind of narrator (an ex-writer!!!) who feels the need to tell you all this stuff he knows about grammar and story structure. Cue zombie-style rolling of my eyeballs. Nothing makes me more annoyed. ARGHGH, etc.

When I got to what Peter Craven called a ‘sick-making’ ending in The Age, I was pretty unmoved. I felt more upset in Grade 4 when my frenemy stole my story about a fruit bowl, copied it and handed it in as her own. Okay, that’s a pretty dog act, but still. In conclusion: I admired this thriller. It is surprising and fairly well paced. I read it expecting it to be something else, so that’s just my bad. But I was disappointed and pretty annoyed. Kind of reminded me of Double Indemnity (amazing movie, okay, just wait) in that the suspense kept me going, but the emotional side of the character development was lacking, which made for little emotional punch. (Though Double Indemnity has much better dialogue. Uhhh, I regret bringing this up.) And that’s a genre thing, and that’s okay. Just letting you know how my experience was.

The Lover’s Dictionary / David Levithan

Oh my god, it’s like someone gave me a shot of vodka. I feel so much more calm thinking of this book. This is seriously like a pear and Sauternes sorbet after a main course of rotted monkey brains in terms how comfortable I feel. Ahhhhhh. Okay, here is a book that has heart as well as a creative structure. I’ll just be quick now. The Lover’s Dictionary takes the form of a dictionary: words like ‘caveat’ and ‘flux’ are presented, not with definitions, but memories and wonderings that make up a love story. It’s non-linear, so each ‘definition’ is like a piece of a puzzle that the reader puts together over the course of the book. This concept might be too cutesy for some, but Levithan’s pared-back prose ensures the end result isn’t too saccharine. A nice idea, well executed.

Sooooo, another book about old men having sex with young girls. Another solipsistic paedophile. How awkward. Beauty and Sadness opens with Oki Toshio, a writer now in his fifties, taking a trip to listen to the Kyoto bells. This trip is a wishful stab at the past; the bells are a metaphor for Ueno Otoko, a painter fifteen years younger than Oki. Oki muses on his memories of the relationship between then fifteen-year-old Otoko and thirty-year-old Oki, which ended in a miscarriage and an attempted suicide on the young girl’s part.

Beauty and Sadness — that name is pretty incredible; now you don’t need to read any other books, ever — is a slimmer tome than Lolita, and though it has the same learned elder opportunist, the same precocious, pleading, sexualised child, Kawabata’s Oki is less self-reflexive than Humbert squared. Or rather, Kawabata’s characters are less able to be expressive; they are more restrained. Although their emotions insist on alarming closeness to the surface, each finds a way to sublimate the sharp and the tender: Oki diverts all his energies into successful novels (the Japanese public was enthralled and offended by the publication of his A Girl of Sixteen…WTF, guys!); Oki’s wife, Fumiko, submerges herself in the task of typing up Oki’s manuscripts (What. The. F.); Otoko, now a famous artist, has taken her teenaged protegée, Keiko, as a lover (WTF!!!!!!!!.); and Keiko has taken it upon herself to revenge her mentor’s long-suffered trauma.

There is something in this disconnect between the characters’ fine artistic sensibilities — sensibilities which can pick out the outlines of plovers on kimono fabric, describe a painting’s diversion from traditional styles, appreciate delicate details in natural settings — and their dereliction of emotional awareness. Oki, with his inability to tame his taste for young girls, is an almost comical, singularly self-regarding vehicle for Kawabata’s exploration of memory. In one instance, he considers the food Otoko has gifted him, discerning in ‘some small, perfectly formed rice balls’ the depths of ‘a woman’s emotions’.

Just as the characters sublimate their disturbances into other channels, so do they elect to focus to a heightened extent on nature’s accoutrements; extended meditations on the beauty of stone outcrops and sparkling waters calm the minds of reader and characters alike, and the chapters all take their names from the external settings of the various incidents: ‘The Lake’, ‘The Lotus in the Flames’.

Though Beauty and Sadness climbs to a dramatic finish whose events reverberate for all involved, it is hard for the attention not to catch time and again on the difference between Kawabata’s depiction of Oki and the female characters. Oki’s pathetic inability to draw himself away from the lures of young flesh is illustrated in detail, but it is not decried in situ as the actions of the female characters are. Keiko’s obsession with revenge is ‘violent’, ‘conceited’; meanwhile, Otoko, at the time of her miscarriage, ‘being young, suffered no ill effects’. I thought that was a bit rough. Oki’s character, being impervious to the criticism of himself and others, is a poor candidate for moral redemption or learning, even when those lessons are learned at the expense of those closest to him. As such, the impressions of beauty and sadness derived from this book are only fractured and fleeting, the confusion of echoes in a hall of mirrors.

In the style of Autofiction, a review of sorts:

22nd year, Winter
Wow! I’m so annoyed I could die. First, the cover of this book is so exactly like the cover of that old guy Murakami’s books. It’s really so stupid. I don’t know why anyone should fall for such a dumb stunt. Wait, I did. Uu? Anyway, it’s just unbelievable. It’s not the same as Murakami really. It’s not as dreamy as his stuff. My friend Kana would probably do him. She doesn’t care who she spreads her legs for. The main character is so annoying! Have you ever met someone so hysterical as this Rin person? In fact, I think I’m going to coin a new genre of fiction based on this kind of narrative: the simple hysterical present.
At the start of this book is Rin is on a plane with her cute husband Shin. A flight attendant spills some champagne on Shin’s knee, and she wipes it off. Rin gets really angry and jealous. But she’s so in love with Shin! She wishes the plane would fall out of the sky so they could die together. Shin goes off somewhere and Rin starts imagining that he is cheating on her with the flight attendant. How did someone get so crazy?
18th Summer
Okay, so now we’re going back in time. That’s cool, I can understand that. She’s with some loser called Shah who lies to her. But I guess the lies he tells her are not so bad. She gets angry about a lot of things. What a stinker! Why is she so angry all the time? She loves dancing and going to parties but at these parties there’s a lot of sex. She doesn’t seem to question it though, so whatever. In fact she knows she’s cute and that guys want her but that’s the limit of her self-awareness really. Rin’s so micro! I don’t think this book is interested in issues other than personal issues.
16th Summer
Whoa, now she’s with a real asshole who makes Rin support herself by going to pachinko parlours. She’s not allowed to get a real job. I guess you can really see why she’s so screwed up all the time. It’s a bit of an obvious trick but you can still feel sympathetic towards her. Some really bad stuff happens to Rin. It’s sad.
15th Winter
Whoa, another asshole. So I guess Rin has a really bad life. And though she’s annoying you really feel sorry for her. Even if you want her to go away because she’s so crazy. This going-back-in-time structure is pretty good! Even though all the parts that show why she has no self-control are so obvious and the language is a bit stupid sometimes, there are also some parts where you really feel sorry for Rin. Sometimes she is really fun! She seems more together when she is younger.
Okay, I’m going to dance to Non-Stop Techno Adventure now.