Kanley Stubrick by Mike Kleine

September 26, 2016

kanley

I read The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish, Mike Kleine’s new play a few weeks ago, so it was interesting to read his new novella shortly after, and compare the two.

Now, having read three of his four works (and the fourth – chronologically the second – is coming up soon), it’s getting more and more obvious to me that Kleine is a world-building author.

Like I said in earlier posts, Kleine’s works are set in the here and now, but beyond that, his world is unique – it’s immediately recognizable, and it’s getting richer and richer in his characteristic symbols, stylistic elements, and references.

Of course, Kleine’s universe is not the universe of a fantasy series, where the characters of one book make appearances in another book, or where the unexplained details of one book’s story become clear in the next book – not the least because his characters don’t tend to hold on to their personality or character-ness even within a single book, and because his books don’t tend to have real stories.

What I mean is that certain events and tropes keep appearing again and again. For instance, both in Pilot Fish and in Kanley Stubrick, there’s a sentence that goes something like this: “Godzilla happens”. Neither of the two books explains what this means, but this is a sufficiently weird sentence for me to immediately notice that it’s there in both books. And because my guess is that Godzilla happens relatively rarely, the fact that it happens in at least two of Kleine’s books makes it highly likely that they are set in the same world. In a world where Godzilla tends to happen – as a matter of fact event, without explanations.

Another frequent trope is traveling/searching, which is both real traveling (or let’s say, place-switching, a manic kind) and searching for (life) meaning. Kleine always deals with questions like this – the questions of identity, the difficulties or impossibility of knowledge and expression, and the quest for and the impossibility of meaning.

And in Kanley Stubrick there’s another main topic, quite a surprising one: love – which can be the symbol for connecting, for being understood by someone.

And this time I can even say something about the story: there’s a couple here, perhaps in April, perhaps in June, living all accustomed to each other and their unhappiness. One day the woman loses her shoes, and even after enlisting the help of friends, the shoes are not found. The man is bored – therefore he goes on a trip, it doesn’t matter where. By the time he gets home, the woman is gone – only an enigmatic message remains after her, a message that directs the man to an unknown city and promises that he’ll find the woman there.

He goes on a quest to find the woman, but he’s not that enthusiastic – it feels like he only follows the message because he has nothing better to do. He almost gives up right in the first city, but then he keeps following the woman’s trail up and down in California (again, the setting is probably not an accident – with my European mind, I can hardly imagine a place more surreal than California). Then at one point, when he’s only a couple of miles away from his destination (or the next stop of his quest) he gives up for good. Later on, he travels elsewhere, joins a cult (just for the sake of experiencing a feeling of community), leaves the cult, is captured, is released from capture, and so on. None of these events mean much – either to him, or in themselves. I don’t mean this as criticism, though.

This is deliberate here, and I don’t know how it happens – as there’s no “real” characterization, there are no motivations, there’s nothing specific here that could awaken emotions in me, but still, it happens: after a while I start to feel deeply for this man and this woman – for the man who searches in vain, and for the woman who wants to be found.

It’s interesting by the way that the personal pronouns referring to the man are always written with initial caps. Partly because of this, partly because of his wandering in the desert of the world, and partly because of something else I can’t pinpoint, I feel there’s something god-like, Christ-like in this man. Ironically, sure, but still heart-breakingly – he seems like a man whom the woman considers a savior, but the man himself is just as much in need of finding a savior as the woman, he also wants to be saved by her, and of course neither of them can save the other. Which is sad.

It’s not all just sadness here, though. As in Kleine’s other works, there’s a whole lot of smart, funny, and ironic details and small episodes in the book that could be analyzed separately for hours. And again, it’s clear that Kleine has a talent for mini-episodes and he can make them very telling.

Just an example: the man is once watching the movie called Nosferatu, and he is simultaneously reading Roger Ebert’s review of the film. This is a great, revealing detail – without professional help, these characters are unable to determine what they should feel or think – not just about something specific – but about anything at all.

The characters are unable to find their way in life without referential points or anchors in movies, music, or TV – but it often turns out that they even have trouble understanding their own points of references – like in this case with the Nosferatu movie, or in a similar case, when the couple watch the movie called Kanley Stubrick, and the man asks the woman about her opinion of American culture.

“i don’t get it,”
she says.

“What do you mean –
what is there to get?”

And this feels less of a criticism of American culture to me than a commentary on the inability to understand.

Connected to this is something else that’s characteristic of Kleine’s writing – the hyper-realistic and hyper-precise depiction of the most banal details of everyday life. For instance, as they are watching TV, the characters notice that a caption is written in Constantia font, or that the sound they hear is the sound of a very specific type of motorbike – but they don’t notice that the person next to them is unhappy, and they even fail to take note of their own unhappiness – they can only express it vaguely, with saying things like “I think I’m bored, but I’m not sure.”

Or like here:

“He feels alone again, like it’s the
first time all over again. He doesn’t
quite know how to feel.”

(Which is all the more interesting because it means that the man has no idea how to feel in the given situation, and also means that he doesn’t know how to feel in general.)

As apparent from the passages I quoted, Kleine this time wrote in a kind of poetry-form (I don’t know what makes poetry poetry, so let’s just stick to the definition for now that a poem is that thing that doesn’t go all the way to the edges of the page), and this form fits this story well, and it also fits Kleine’s minimalistic-enigmatic style that leaves a lot to the imagination but is extremely sensitive to detail.

And this is the first time I don’t have doubts about the possible expiration date of Kleine’s work. I have no idea whether this book will be read 20 years from now, but I’m pretty sure it will be readable even then, because it’s sufficiently universal to remain understandable and enjoyable.


The Children Act by Ian McEwan

September 19, 2016

children

Ian McEwan again writes about his favorite themes: about the darkness inside us; about inexplicable desires and aversions; about the difficulty and fragility of intimacy; and about all kinds of moral dilemmas stemming from the clash between a rational and a less-than-rational/emotional/religious world view.

The most emphatic (and I’d say: over-emphasized and not very fair – but more on this later) theme this time is the one about moral/religious dilemmas. The main character, Fiona, is a well-respected high court judge, specializing in family law, and incidentally, she’s also the champion of rational thinking, constant planning, and emotion-suppression.

As it turns out from the (not really) randomly mentioned past cases she’d ruled on, Fiona’s met with parents of all kinds of religious beliefs who jeopardized the well-being and healthy development of their children due to their religion: we learn about a Muslim father who got his child out from the sinful and secular England without his ex-wife’s agreement so that he could raise the child in a proper Muslim manner; then we learn about a Jewish family where again it’s the father who takes religion more seriously, and he plans to raise his children according to the orthodox Jewish tradition, while the mother would prefer a more secular upbringing; and then we also learn about a hardcore Christian family where the parents don’t want to allow a life-saving operation on their children, claiming that whatever happens to their children, it’s the intention of God.

Based on the rulings Fiona made in these cases, it’s perhaps easy to guess what her judgment will be in the case this novel is about (so let’s say that McEwan slightly spoils himself). Because the main case here is also something similar: there’s a very ill boy coming from a Jehova’s Witnesses family, who’s a few months short of his eighteenth birthday, and who wants to reject a life-saving procedure due to his religious beliefs – while the hospital wants to fight to save his life.

Even if we might guess what Fiona’s decision will be, there’s enough tension here, as the case ends up on Fiona’s desk at a moment when she’s emotionally unstable and even a little bit sentimental – which is understandable, given the fact that her husband’s just announced that he’d like to leave now, at age 60, and take the last possible chance to experience a passionate, wild, unsettling relationship – because with Fiona, queen of cool, things aren’t exactly working anymore. Due to her emotionally vulnerable state, it’s not the case here that Fiona rules about the fate of A.H., minor, in her impersonal, remote manner. Fiona happens to be vulnerable, approachable, easy to influence, so the main character of the case becomes much more to her than just two initials – A. H. becomes a real human being – Adam Henry, an intelligent, beautiful, innocent, humorous, life-loving, poetic-romantic boy, who at the brink of his eighteenth birthday decides to accept a painful death.

I read a great, sarcastic-poetic question in a review somewhere. Would Adam become such a mythical hero if he hadn’t been such a perfect, out-of-this-world Adam – writing poems, playing the violin, and so on, but had been an average teenage boy instead, with pimples on his face, with teenage angst and cynicism galore, playing World of Warcraft all day? I guess – he most probably wouldn’t. The reason Adam can become such an attractive hero for Fiona is that she meets him at just the right moment in her otherwise pretty unemotional, reserved life, at a moment when she’s in a perfect emotional state to connect with a romantic, warm-hearted, poetic figure like Adam, who’s living his emotions and beliefs so intensely that he’s willing to die for them.

So I feel – and it’s an interesting contradiction to me – that even though the judgment in Adam’s case is exactly the judgment we could expect from the rational, careful and coolly intelligent Fiona, still, this judgment is not based on rational thinking. It’s based on emotions – which is a whole different matter.

And this is the most heart-breaking element in this novel: how the basically rational Fiona decides something based on emotions, but then she’s unwilling or unable to accept that emotional decisions can entail emotional consequences. This is brutal and unsettling – not counting with the possibility that showing emotions towards someone might just possibly awaken emotions in the other, too, and after a moment of sentimentality just retreating to the fortress of rationality, from where there’s a great and safe view of the world, where it’s possible to continue with the usual same smart-assery of the previous 30 years, and where it’s even possible to treat a marriage crisis along the ways of a game, basically saying that: “you performed an act of reconciliation today; so now it’s my turn; and so on; and slowly, slowly we’ll rebuild something and we’ll be just fine in the 10 or 20 years remaining for us on this earth.” (As you might guess, I’m not an extremely rational person/reader, and Fiona will most certainly not feature on my list of favorite literary characters or fictitious soulmates – even though I do understand what she does, because she does exactly what being herself compels her to do.)

And as regards the overt and rather imbalanced moralizing manifest in this novel I already mentioned: it’s partly my personal preference that I’m less interested in moral questions than in McEwan’s perceptions about how extremely awkward and vulnerable we, humans are in our most emotional, deepest relations (McEwan’s insight into what it’s like to be a human always and forever fills me with awe). But partly it’s not only my personal preference: the moral dilemma presented here is only a token dilemma – McEwan only takes one side seriously and it’s quite obvious that he’s extremely pissed off by any kind of (religious or other) fervor and passion. (Of course it’s quite possible that it’s not McEwan himself who’s pissed off by this but Fiona – I’m not intending to mix them up – McEwan is the writer, though, so if he really wants to deal with moral dilemmas, he might just take the trouble and present both sides with equally serious and detailed treatment.)

And it’s weird – and again: heart-breaking – for me here: how rational thinking wins. It sweeps over everything, it levels all differences, and – after a huge emotional upheaval and a couple of dangerously-real acts – it goes on to revert everything back to normal. And the romantic, the emotional, the taken, the ones who are not willing to repress their souls at all times – they can only come to a bad end.


Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

September 12, 2016

haunted1

Chuck Palahniuk’s book is an intriguing, modern, and successful take on an ancient story-telling technique. In the frame of the narrative, we meet a number of screwed-up would-be artists who all hide shameful faults or sins in their past, and who all answer a tempting newspaper ad that offers a three-month retreat with all expenses paid, all necessities provided. The wannabe writers are all eager to jump on the opportunity as they imagine that far from the madding crowd they will finally be able to write their masterpieces, and then return to their regular life all renewed.

Instead of an idyllic writers’ community, however, they find themselves in a gloomy, abandoned, old theater building where – true – they have everything they need to stay alive, but the simple fact that the circumstances are not exactly as they imagined is enough for them to feel cheated. And just as in their real life they always found an excuse for not writing, here, too, shut off from the world, they always manage to blame their circumstances and avoid writing altogether.

Despite the fact that the characters don’t write the supposed masterpieces that have been blooming in their minds for long, they still become artists, creative people – doubly so. First, they come up with the idea that they make a novel – or rather: a large-scale, bloody, bound-for-success drama – out of their own lives, and jointly they create the fiction that they were forced into the role of the victim and sentenced to three months of suffering by the unknown evil who put in the newspaper ad they replied to. And second, while they get deeply immersed into their roles as victims, they tell stories to pass the time. These stories take up the bulk of the book.

A couple of literary parallels are immediately obvious here – some of them are mentioned in the book, too. The structure of Haunted – that is, the way the true or fictitious stories told by the characters are wedged in between the present-day, real events – resembles the structure of The Canterbury Tales and Decameron. Moreover, the characters of Haunted often mention the holiday taken by Byron and his company by Lake Geneva, where they all agreed to write a horror story – and they all seem to identify with Byron and company. And as regards a couple of plot elements and the way sin/crime and punishment are connected, the novel resembles Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: in Haunted, just like in Christie’s novel, the characters all decide for themselves that they leave their real life behind and trust their fate to complete strangers.

Despite all these parallels and similarities, Haunted is still original and not at all boring – because Palahniuk uses the possibilities inherent in his chosen narrative structure very well and he asks lots of intriguing questions. Reading this book, you might wonder – among other things – about the questions of what makes reality reality, and what makes fiction fiction, and how the environment shapes the way people perceive themselves. (Like I said, Haunted is set in an abandoned theater, and it seems that the setting forces the characters to imagine themselves as if they were the cast for a play, and makes them live their lives according to an unwritten script during the three months of their confinement.) And the fact that the characters – while living through their carefully constructed tragic present – share their true stories with one another can make you wonder how you construct reality from stories, and how you construct another person’s personality from the stories he chooses to tell. (And of course, we mustn’t forget that the real stories told by the characters can just as easily be fictitious stories, or the pumped-up or toned-down versions of the real stories – if that fits the purpose better.)

Haunted isn’t only interesting because of these questions, though. The stories told by the characters are also good and well-told. They are also very dark and frightening, they are full of tension, and they are deeply unsettling and depressing. Also – their effect doesn’t wither with re-reading. I read this book twice so far, and the second reading was just as enjoyable as the first one. In fact, I found some stories somewhat ridiculous the first time around (for example, „Civil Twilight”), but they filled me with dread and anxiety upon re-reading.

Besides all this, Haunted features Palahniuk’s trademark critical attitude and his smart and merciless remarks about consumer society. I vastly prefer Haunted to some of his other work, though, because here all the cutting observations are sprinkled moderately throughout the stories, and not hammered into my face by a single, perhaps too directly critical narrator.

This is a good, very consciously created and very enjoyable book. It’s a book that doesn’t need the kind of cheap advertising I often read about it (for example, about the number of people who fainted during Palahniuk’s public reading of one of the stories, „Guts”) because it can create its effect on its own. And I’m also pretty sure it’s not only memorable because of the extremely graphic and brutal stories it contains – it goes deeper than mere brutality.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

September 5, 2016

deepnorth

I’m usually interested in novels that won the Booker Prize, but not always, and based on its description, I wasn’t too interested in this novel. Then I saw a physical copy of it in a book shop, and I was mesmerized by its cover. Isn’t this a beautiful cover? I think it is, so I bought the book and read it.

And I have mixed feelings. The oft-quoted phrase from reviews that this is a devastatingly beautiful novel is mostly true. And besides beauty, it contains a lot of brutality, humanity and inhumanity, lots of coincidences, and a fair amount of pondering about sin, guilt, fate, historical and personal traumas, and whether there are real choices in life, and if so – whether there are good choices.

Partly – this is a very strong novel. The author’s personal stake in the events he describes is heart-breakingly obvious (Richard Flanagan’s father was a prisoner of war during World War II, and he worked on the Burma Railway), and it’s also painfully obvious that Flanagan deeply understands how war traumas shape the lives of both the people who undergo those traumas, and the lives of the next generations. And all this is grave and unsettling, and I think that – just like out of everything else – it is possible to create literature out of it. One thing I’m not sure about, though, is whether it’s necessary to shove all the trauma and brutality into my face so extremely hard. More on this later, but now a little bit about the story.

The main character is Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor getting ready to serve his country in World War II. While he’s getting prepared for war, he hastily engages a woman – with whom marriage would be more than advantageous socially – and parallel to this, he embarks on a mad, desperate, burning affair with a married woman – an affair that’s condemned to death from its first moment, an affair that will shape Dorrigo’s life forever after because – in hindsight – it turns out to be the one single real thing in his life – that short period when things actually meant something.

I don’t intend to spoil anything here – the novel isn’t entirely linear, and it contains a lot of flashbacks and foreshadowings, so we learn it quite early on that society, conventions, and war can seriously hinder even the world’s most beautiful romance. (I don’t have the necessary sensitivity to write about this in more beautiful words – Flanagan does a much better job here than I do.)

The hopeless but life-changing affair is then pushed into the background besides the main theme of the novel. Dorrigo becomes a POW in the war, and together with thousands of other Australian and other POWs, he’s moved to the hell of the jungle where POWs are forced to work on the Burma Railway. Dorrigo is – let’s say – fortunate: he served as a doctor in the war, and he serves as a doctor even as a POW. He’s an observer, and his job mainly consists of trying to alleviate all the suffering, sickness, and brutality that is the daily lot of all the POWs building the railroad.

The majority of the novel is about this: the description of the experiences of the POWs, the ever-increasing horror with the end nowhere in sight – that horror which slowly grinds up everyone both mentally and physically. And then there’s a key scene in the novel, which strongly reminds me of a similar scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: that scene where – after countless foreshadowings – it turns out that one of the characters, who was shot on the thigh and complains about freezing to death, in fact sustains another wound, too – and even though the shot in his thigh might not be fatal, that other wound will surely be. Something similar happens here – something unbelievably brutal, something unavoidable, something irreparable, something against which you cannot fight – something that cannot be stopped once it has started. It is extremely harrowing. And it is – perhaps – a turning point. Or rather: it’s a point from where it’s not possible to make things any more intense.

And yes, the war suddenly comes to an end, and everyone returns to his life: some go back home as heroes, some as soldiers of a defeated empire, and some face prosecution as war criminals. The only certainty is that the war left a mark on everyone – and Flanagan looks at these marks, too. I like the basic idea here, and I’m certainly affected by the way Flanagan examines the minds of different Korean, Japanese, and Australian survivors, and the way he analyzes (tries to analyze) what different persons (the so-called good and the so-called bad) felt during the war, what motivated them, what kept them alive, and how they could act exactly the way they acted. The conclusion here, if I’m not mistaken, is that everyone’s a victim in a war – but I’m not sure if this isn’t a bit of relativism here. And yes, I admit that the text affects me, but it still comes across as a bit over-explained, and I’m not that fond of having big lessons pushed into my face in such a fashion.

And now back to the too-thick laying of brutality I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The part of the novel set in the POW camp is brutal, shocking and painful beyond belief. And page after page, things get worse. Each day there’s more hunger, more beatings, more sickness, more work, more inhuman daily quotas. And after a while I start to wonder: Can this be made even worse? Is it necessary to make it even worse? Because sure, it’s all right that things happened this way in reality (it’s obviously not all right – but you know what I mean), but things in literature shouldn’t be the way they are just because they happened that way in reality. They should be the way they are because they couldn’t be any other way. And even while reading this novel, I often felt that it would have been better to leave some things unsaid.

And the more time passes, the more I feel this. This could have been a better novel that way.


The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish by Mike Kleine

August 29, 2016

pilotBased on the two books I’ve read out of the three he’s published so far, I have the feeling that Mike Kleine is an extremely contemporary writer. By this I mean that his work seems to be anchored very firmly to the present moment and the present atmosphere, so reading his books gives me a sense of inclusion and insider knowledge because I also live in the present moment and I know something of its atmosphere, too. But I can’t be sure how his works will come across 20 years from now – I have no way of knowing whether they will persist or expire.

Comparing this play to Mastodon Farm, Kleine’s first book, I think this has a higher chance to survive and avoid expiration because it’s not anchored as deeply to the present reality and to the pop-cultural products and the entertainment industry of the present as Mastodon Farm is. Instead, The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish is set in an undefinable place and time, somewhere around the (both temporal and spacial) end of the world. (So after all – it could just as easily be set here and now.)

There’s no point going into the details about the plot because the play doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have characters, either – at least not the kind of characters whose physique and identity remains roughly the same. It’s certainly no accident that the cast overview is missing from the beginning – here neither the appearance, nor the personality of the characters is stable. (Clearly, appearance and personality are never stable – but Kleine takes this changeability to whole new levels.)

What’s here instead of plot and constant characters is three persons switching their form, gender, name, occupation and personality throughout the play while sitting in a house where the floor is painted a deep ocean blue, and where hundreds of painted fish (including the titular seventeen pilot fish) swim without movement through the big big blue. The three characters spend most of their time discussing whether one of the male characters is the husband of the one female character or not, and they also try to find out the source of the noises that come from the wall. Meanwhile, the world outside is collapsing. In a very matter of course fashion.

So yes, this play is rather absurd. And it resists easy interpretation. During the last couple of weeks I read it three times, and it was only after the third time (which was incidentally the first time I read it with sufficiently fresh brain) that I realized that Kleine’s words are where they are because they need to be there. It was only after the third time I realized that Kleine is not just being absurd for absurdity’s sake (which would also be fine with me) but he has a point (several points) to make (and having a point in absurdity is even more to my taste than being absurd just for the fun of it).

A couple of themes this play examines: how hard it is to find meaning – in things, the world, and other humans; how everything is ever-changing and open to thousands of different interpretations; and most prominently: how weird, magical, reality-creating and reality-changing things words are – and how all the meaning we convey with them is based on strange, silent agreements, agreements that can be broken anytime – easily, unilaterally. And how all this – all this is scary and intimidating.

Just one example. The female character of the play once tells one of the male characters: „You can call me Heather.” A little later the man calls her Heather, to which she replies: „My name’s not Heather.” Sure, it’s absurd, but if we stop for a moment and take the meaning of words seriously, and not just interpret them on autopilot mode as we usually do, then it makes perfect sense. Offering someone to call you something doesn’t at all mean that that’s your real name. And anyway – does it even matter what’s someone’s real name? And what makes real real?

The themes are definitely interesting here, but I can’t avoid the question: why is this a play, and not a novella, or something else? I have a strong suspicion that it would be virtually impossible to stage this play. Granted, I can imagine a sort of divided stage, where one part is the house, and the other part is everything else out there (but both must be visible at the same time, as the events often happen simultaneously inside the house and outside in the world), and I can also imagine projecting photos and videos to show what’s going on outside – but none of these would be precise. I often feel that the words here are not translatable to another medium, they couldn’t be shown or acted out because their effect lies in the fact that I consume them as written words.

Seeing onstage that the ocean blue floor of the room is teeming with painted fish wouldn’t have the same effect as reading about the ocean blue floor of the room, and then reading a list running several pages about the exact types and number of fish covering the floor. Reading the list of dozens of fish species (while I secretly wonder: do all these really exist, or are some of them just fictitious fish?) on the one hand gives the play lots of verisimilitude (because only reality can be so messy, so random, so disorderly as Mike Kleine’s fish), on the other hand it creates a distance between me and reality – because reading lists of several dozens of items makes my brain switch off after a while, and I just keep reading hypnotized, and no – I’m not going online to check whether each and every type of fish here is real or not.

So why is this a play then? I presume it’s because it’s a good genre for Kleine to play with the things he likes to play with, to use lots of music and visual elements in his work, and to be as minimalistic as possible. After all, in a play there’s no pressing need to provide detailed, explanatory descriptions of events and characters (not that there’s too much of those in Mastodon Farm, either). Here it’s only language, only random and pointless and contradictory and all-too-real utterances – with no background, no explanation. Yes, it feels real. Often frightfully so.


Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles

August 22, 2016

grabon

This is such a heart-shattering and beautiful book. Which surprised me a bit – after all, this is supposed to be just another average coming-of-age novel.

In fact, it’s more restrained, more average than a lot of other coming-of-age novels I know: the main character’s, Vim’s family is just averagely screwed up (his parents only divorced and looked for new partners once, and Vim’s stepfather, for instance, isn’t a brutal child-abuser, but a totally normal and likeable man); Vim doesn’t suffer from any – diagnosed o undiagnosed – mental or physical condition (sure, his behavior is often morbid and obsessive-compulsive, he has some inclination towards self-harm, he’s very melancholic and alienated and clueless, and he’s full of teenage angst – but to all this I say [not cynically, but with well-remembered heartache]: so it goes); and his agonizing first attempts at sex and relationships, and his fears of growing up are all well-understandable and don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary.

The initial setup isn’t anything new, either: Vim’s just graduated from high school, he’s going to college in the fall, and in between graduation and college, there’s that weird no man’s land between being a teenager and being an adult – that scary, unsettling period when nothing is certain, where childhood has already ended but you have no idea yet how you’re supposed to play being an adult from now on, and whether it’s worth it, anyway.

The story (which is very fragmented and far from linear – I’ll get into this a bit later) is driven by two emotional forces. One is the hatred and bitterness Vim feels towards his father. His father quit playing family when Vim was still a baby, but he has a tendency to show up from time to time and explain why he was a bad father, and how he plans to be a better father from now on. Vim is less than impressed by his father’s bullshit, and he spends a sizeable chunk of his time pondering why and how he hates his father, and why he feels uncomfortable in his father’s company.

The main story-line is driven by Vim’s almost-hopeless attraction towards the girlfriend of one of his friends – towards Helene, who is way more screwed up than Vim. Vim’s feeling towards Helene is a mixture of teenage crush and lust, the „we don’t know each other but I’m sure you’d understand me” illusion, and the „I want to save you” syndrome, and this curious emotion deeply unsettles the boy’s heart and mind – which weren’t too peaceful to begin with.

All this, though, wouldn’t necessarily be special – a significant percentage of teenage novels deals with themes like these. What makes this novel special is Vim’s voice and narration.

As regards, for example, the fragmented quality of the novel I already referred to: the novel is only about 200 pages yet it has more than one hundred chapters. There are a couple of longish chapters, in which Vim really describes a particular event (a party, a night by the lake, a band rehearsal), but even these descriptive, story-telling chapters are chaotic and incomplete (probably because the events Vim narrates usually involve the consumption of alcohol, therefore Vim’s recollections are somewhat hazy). And there are dozens of micro-chapters (consisting of a single sentence, a couple of sentences, or a single paragraph), which are not directly attached to the main story-line, however, it’s from these chapters we learn the most about how Vim feels and thinks about life and the people around him.

Because on the surface (in his usual human relationships) Vim tends to act like a cynical and nonchalant teenager, and he also tends to react to events with an extremely tiresome, smart-ass kind of humor. As soon as he remains alone with his thoughts, though (which happens often, even during parties, band rehearsals, and so on), Vim transforms into a freely associating, emotional and deeply sensitive poet-brute, driven by rage and passion. The result of this transformation is a beautiful and tangled mess of self-expression which almost brings me to tears. Not because it’s so tragic or painful, but because it’s so precise: being a teenager can be exactly like this.

The atmosphere and poetics of the novel remind me of the music of the Smashing Pumpkins – say, like their song 1979, which – like this novel – always makes me feel that being a teenager is exactly like that. Even if my teenage years had been nothing like that.

And even though the Smashing Pumpkins is not mentioned in the novel (it could have been – the story is set in 1992), a lot of other songs and bands are, Vim himself also plays in a rock band, and the rhythm of the novel is very musical. And I can easily imagine Vim’s poetic and associative flows of words as the lyrics of a more melancholy rock band.

And I repeat: his voice – it disarms me.


London Fields by Martin Amis

August 15, 2016

londonfields

Martin Amis feels like the Michel Houellebecq for one-time literary majors like me who don’t necessarily like to take everything seriously. Amis writes about the same topics as Houellebecq (the world is coming to an end; the era of emotions and „normal” human relationships is past; the only possible connection between two humans is sex; nothing makes sense any more; and so on) in the same postmodern way, and if I were inclined to take him seriously, he would make me want to cut my wrist like Houellebecq does. As opposed to Houellebecq, however, Amis does have a sense of humor, and he gives me the chance to not take him seriously. And this is a chance I gladly take – partly because I don’t think that life is terribly bad, and partly because – if life were really such terribly bad, I would only be able to stand it with lots of humor.

But now on to the novel. London Fields is the story of a carefully planned murder (or suicide), and symbolically the story of the whole world’s suicide. As regards the particular personal suicide and the characters in the novel: the protagonist is Nicola Six, a mind-blowingly seductive, manipulative sex goddess, and mistress of all kinds of erotic games – a woman who’s always been able to give men anything they wanted, except for love, a woman who’s always been able to get everything she wanted from men – except for love. It’s not at all certain that love would have changed anything in her life (Nicola Six is not exactly a sentimental woman), so her lovelessness in life is not the only reason why she decides to commit suicide – but it’s part of the picture.

Nicola, however, doesn’t want to go through the suicide-business alone – she needs someone who does her the favor of killing her. At the beginning of the story, she finds two possible candidates for this role. One of them is Keith Talent, a violent, not particularly winsome con man whose life consists of sex, booze, and darts, and who generally acts like a man perfectly capable of and willing to kill a woman, should the circumstances arise. The other candidate is Guy Clinch, a soft, gentle, exceedingly naive aristocrat, who doesn’t at all look capable of killing anyone – but Nicola Six is just the person to induce murderous rage in the most peaceful man on earth. And then there’s a third man here (and a fourth, hidden in the background) – these latter two are ironic alter-egos for Martin Amis: one of them is the person who knows the most about Nicola’s plans and is writing a supposedly true-life novel about Nicola’s way to self-obliteration, and the other one is also a writer, and he’s the person Nicola has been the most attached to all her life (or not).

Is this already sufficiently tangled, annoyingly over-complicated, and postmodern? I guess so. But I also guess that this is Martin Amis’ method. I haven’t read all his novels, far from it, but from what I’ve read, it seems that he likes to build his stories around a single joke. This is what happens in Money, this is what happens here, and this is what probably happens in some of his other works I either haven’t read or don’t remember anymore. Another typical Amis feature is that he likes to exaggerate (a lot), thereby making everything hardly-real, hardly-credible. Case in point: his characters’ name, and their habits and behavior: Guy Clinch with his out-of-this-world naivety; Keith Talent with his unsustainable habits of drinking, smoking, and womanizing; and Nicola Six with her one-of-a-kind sexual prowess.

And I’m glad Amis writes like this – this way I can pretend while reading that none of it is true. Sure, if I try to glance behind the exaggerations, the irony, and the unreliable narration, then I see how hideous and horrible all this is – but I don’t necessarily want to see all of this. And I appreciate it that Amis lets me decide when and how much I take him seriously. And I like it, too, that it’s also my decision how much I take this novel to be the suicide story of not just Nicola Six but of the whole world. Right now – not too much. Amis can be awesome when he deals with someone’s personal apocalypse but he hardly ever manages to make me believe in his large-scale apocalypses. In fact, I feel as if he himself hasn’t yet figured out – hmm – why exactly he thinks the world is ending, and what’s this world-scale apocalypse anyway. Which is just as well for me.


Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

August 8, 2016

angelas

A couple of paragraphs of this memoir were enough to convince me that this was going to be a good read. And indeed.

The first two paragraphs run as follows:

“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

These paragraphs already demonstrate the talent of McCourt: his writing is beautiful and unsentimental, melodic, and captivating – it’s a pleasure to read. Even if the theme of the book is far from pleasant.

Frank McCourt was born in 1930 in New York, the first child of Irish parents. His parents lacked even the most basic ideas about what’s necessary to raise a family, yet, they went ahead and had four more children in quick succession, and after a couple of years they moved back to Ireland and eventually settled in Limerick, the home town of the mother, Angela. This is where Frank spent his childhood, in the deepest poverty – often hungry, going about with holes in his shoes, covering himself with coats instead of blankets, and in general, living a truly harsh life full of depravity.

The 1930s and 40s were probably not easy times in Ireland anyway, but the McCourt family sinks even deeper into squalor and poverty than even the most destitute of their neighbors. The McCourts have the worst of everything: more than one child dies in the family in a short period, and after each death, Angela sinks into an almost-catathonic state, which results in her neglecting her remaining children; the father, Malachy is a happy-go-lucky alcoholic, who doesn’t feel any particular remorse when he regularly spends all his unemployment benefit on supporting his drinking habit, and when he accidentally lands a job, he can stand the life of responsibility for a maximum of three weeks; when the family moves, they always end up in the most uninhabitable house on the street; moreover, their relatives are not exactly friendly towards them, not the least because Malachy is from Northern Ireland, and „has the look of a Protestant”, and it’s an almost unforgivable offense that Angela, who comes from a good Catholic family, consented to marry such a man.

Speaking about Catholicism: it wasn’t only the helplessness and irresponsibility of the parents that made it tough for a child to grow up in Ireland in that period – the church had a big part in this, too. McCourt illustrates this with descriptions about the religious education of children, which mainly consisted of teachers and priests filling children’s minds with concepts such as sin, redemption, and so on – concepts they were way too young to grasp, but at least they quickly learned that whatever they do is wrong, consequently they deserve all the punishment and all the misery they have to live through.

Should you have any doubt, I’ll try now to disperse them: this is an extremely maddening book. There’s such an abundance of foolish, weak, unstable, irresponsible, careless, unreliable adults in this book (that is, in Frank’s life), and these adults tend to behave in such pitiful and disgusting ways that I can only wonder how Frank managed to grow up into a functioning adult (and of course I also wonder that he ever lived long enough to grow up into an adult, having for parents people who were incapable of providing for even the most basic needs of a child, and who tended to cure a sick child with outlandish home remedies for weeks before ever considering that the child might need a doctor.)

As regards, however, the way the book is written, there’s nothing maddening here. On the contrary, the writing is rich and fascinating. I already mentioned the free and enticing flow of McCourt’s language, and I must also mention his remarkable humor and sense of irony. McCourt doesn’t write as cruelly and cynically about his childhood, as, say, Dimitri Verhulst does in his memoir, The Misfortunates – McCourt is more gentle and forgiving. Of course there’s some bitterness from time to time, and it’s all the more cutting and strong because it’s so rare. For example, when Frank’s father decides to go to England to look for work, Angela – despite all her previous bad experiences and her awareness of her husband’s legendary irresponsibility and unreliability – hopes that this time everything will turn out just fine. In the book this looks something like this:

“[Angela to Frank:] Don’t cry, don’t cry. Now that your father is gone to England surely our troubles will be over.
Surely.”

This single „surely” (clearly the laconic, ironic comment of the adult McCourt), written on a separate line, says more about how wrong the naive Angela was in her hopes than several pages of detailed litany could say.

So all my awe and respect go out to McCourt for the way he managed to write so pragmatically, so ironically, so enjoyably about all those things that couldn’t have been the least bit enjoyable to live through.