Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a total Murakami fangirl, so I was thrilled to finally get the chance to read this. This book is more straightforward than his dreamy, magical novels (Wind-up Bird Chronicle; Wild Sheep Chase.) In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Murakami only alludes to the parallel words that he foregrounds in 1Q84, but these allusions add a lot of texture and depth to the main story. Tsukuru is a typical Murakami male protagonist–a bit of a passive wanderer who just happens to find himself in a life that is, on the one hand, extremely normal, but on the other hand, a bit of a mystery.  Tsukuru, along with his five colorful friends, and his love interest, Sara, are all compelling, and I was happy, as usual, to go along for the ride and watch things unfold.

My only reservation about this novel is that some of the interactions between Tsukuru and the others feel a bit stilted at times. For example, the phrase “she narrowed her eyes at him” was used again and again, but it did not convey the proper emotion of the scene–it was less that she was upset or angry, and more that she was thinking hard or being playful. It seemed a lazy usage. I wondered if these were some choices made by the translator that just didn’t work for me.

That being said, this novel is well worth reading. Murakami lovers and those new to his works will find a lot to appreciate.

Review: Enon by Paul Harding

EnonEnon by Paul Harding

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

According to Paul Harding, he wrote Enon by listening quietly and waiting for Charlie to tell his story, one sentence at a time. This is apparent from reading the novel. The story unfolds organically, and there is nothing plotted or contrived about it. Nothing reads like filler or transition. It’s all movement. This creates a strong sense of intimacy between the reader and the narrator–you never feel Charlie knows anything you don’t know, or that he’s holding back.

Harding’s exploration of addiction is resonant and multi-dimensional. On the one hand, he is very matter-of-fact about Charlie’s addictive, destructive behavior, almost in the style of Denis Johnson. Yet, Harding weaves in existential introspection, memories of his daughter and his own childhood, along with otherworldly meta-narratives. There are so many layers to Charlie’s experience and to my experience reading this novel.

This book did not make me cry; it was more of a punch in the gut. The pain is psychic and visceral. It brings to mind a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (although I hear Jeff Buckley singing it in my head):

“Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

Review: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been maybe ten years since my first trip through The Crying of Lot 49 and I think this time around, I got a lot more out of it. My first time I thought it was just a silly book with a typical quest structure and lots and lots of allusions and silly names. Although I can see how some readers might be turned off by the absurd names, I found them hilarious–Genghis Cohen and Koteks are probably my favorite. Oedipa Maas is pretty funny too. I love The Courier’s Tragedy play-within-the-play nod to Hamlet, full of blood and incest, as well as the Beatles references. A guy who couldn’t drive his car because he couldn’t see through his hair? Too funny.

This time around, though, I detected more notes of sadness and existential angst– echoes of the entropy reference in John Nefastis’s perpetual motion machine. The desire to stop entropy seemed loaded with more desperation than when I initially read it: Oedipa looks in the mirror a couple of times and either can’t find her reflection or sees a distortion of what she thinks she should see–she is losing herself. “Someday she might replace whatever of her had gone away by some prosthetic device, a dress of a certain color, a phrase in a letter, another lover.” Also, some of her thoughts and reflections about Pierce verge on poignancy: “She remembered his head, floating in the shower, saying, you could fall in love with me.” And Tristero/Trystero carried a lot of echoes for me this time around as well: Tristram Shandy–probably one of the silliest books every written–and Tristan and Isolde–the super-depressing Wagner opera based on one sad-ass love story that’s been handed down forever….Triste (sad in Spanish) and tryst (a secret romantic rendezvous); not to say Pynchon intended any of this–it’s just where my brain went.

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Craft Essay: An Insider’s Outsider View of Place In Gravesend by William Boyle

gravesendWhen I started reading William Boyle’s novel Gravesend, I knew I was in for a lesson on writing place. The authentic dialog, along with Boyle’s sparse exposition created a vivid setting. Rather than explain the place, Boyle brings it to life. The reader sees Gravesend, Brooklyn through the characters’ experiences, hears it spoken in their voices, and watches it play out in the actions that they take. Boyle’s depiction of the setting through the character Alessandra is particularly strong. Because Alessandra returns to Gravesend at the start of the novel after being away for several years, the author is able to use her insider/outsider perspective to create a rich, multi-dimensional picture of Gravesend.

When Alessandra comes home from LA for the first time, she immediately notices, “The whole house smelled like dirty sponges” (ch. 2). Boyle often expresses her mixture of love and hate for her Brooklyn neighborhood with sensory experiences. Later in the chapter, Alessandra enjoys a meal with her father and Boyle illustrates her nostalgia for the food.

Pasta with gravy he’d defrosted that afternoon and braciole from her Aunt Cecilia. She’d forgotten how good it was to eat like this. In L. A. it had been all hummus and avocados and smoothies, quick and healthy stuff on the run, and she didn’t miss it. This gravy tasted silky and sweet with a garlicky bite and the parmesan from Pastosa was unlike anything she could get out west. (ch. 2)

This vivid, nostalgic depiction of the food could never have been achieved through the eyes of a character who hadn’t left Gravesend. The braciole and gravy would be business as usual. Good, but not transformative. The author uses Alessandra’s perspective to layer an interesting blend of nostalgia and boredom, love and hate with the concrete details about life in Gravesend.

Boyle expands the reader’s view of Gravesend to the nearby bars as Alessandra grows restless and reflects on her options for going out. “There weren’t many bars in the neighborhood, not that she could remember. A dive called The Wrong Number with graffiti on the sign. And Ralphie’s, a clammy sports bar full of fat cops and smooth Italian boys stinking of cologne. Those were the options back when” (ch. 2).  We only think to quantify or judge things in our neighborhood when entertaining visitors. In Alessandra’s case, she is the visitor and the host, which is why she evaluates the bars in this self-conscious way. Boyle often uses opportunities like these to allow the reader to discover Gravesend while Alessandra re-discovers it. Boyle uses Alessandra’s perspective to give the reader a vivid description of the neighborhood bars that is critical, yet intimate.

In addition to being an intriguing and realistic character, Alessandra is a vehicle for illustrating place. Her intimacy with the sights, sounds, and smells of Gravesend along with the distance she has from them creates a deep, multi-dimensional portrait of a place. Her ambivalence is embodied in all that she sees around her, and her objectivity allows her to communicate with the reader in a way that some of the other characters who have never left Gravesend wouldn’t be able to. Boyle uses this character’s perspective, along with gorgeous writing to bring Gravesend, Brooklyn to life for the reader.

Craft Essay: A Minimal High–Denis Johnson Under the Influence

imagesAnyone who has taken a creative writing workshop in college has experienced the dreaded acid trip story. Despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible to write a good drug story, one ambitious student always takes on the challenge. The result is always the same: overwritten, cerebral experiences, one right after the next. Everything was swirling around me. I saw color and I reached out and tried to grab it. Each time I moved my hand over it, the color changed. I opened my mouth and realized I was tasting the music, tasting each note. Why this type of writing is unsuccessful is obvious: it’s overly expository, it’s not grounded in concrete images that the reader can connect with, and probably worst of all these crimes, no one cares about the person tasting music. Thus, another acid trip story crashes and burns. But how does one write successfully about the experience of being on drugs?

In Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson uses a different strategy than our Creative Writing 101 student. Rather than focusing on cerebral descriptions and out-of-body sensations, the author draws on insights from many of the narrator’s experiences to create a composite of dissonance. To be fair, writing about an acid trip or two is very different from writing about being addicted to drugs.  Nonetheless, our Creative Writing 101 student would benefit from reading this work, and would likely be able to write a much better acid-trip story afterward.  Johnson uses a combination of minimal exposition, contrasting images, philosophical ponderings, and descriptions of humiliating experiences to create the contradictory world of drug-addiction.

In the first short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Johnson introduces us to the narrator who we only get to know as “Fuckhead.” The reader is immediately drawn into Fuckhead’s drug-induced state. “The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name.” Along with the images that ground the reader in a physical experience rather than a cerebral one, Johnson uses contrasting word combinations such as “zoomed pitifully” to illustrate Fuckhead’s dissonance–some parts of the body feel good, others bad, others numb. One moment, there is euphoria, the next there is despair. Johnson depicts this with contrasting word pairings and contrasting sensations rather than the physically disconnected, cerebral language of our creative writing 101 student.

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