A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

October 17, 2016


Honestly, do you care what the Illinois State Fair was like in 1993? Do you care about the hidden miraculous trigonometry of tennis? Or do you care to know what it feels like to spend a week on a Caribbean luxury cruise, pampered to death in the company of 1300+ tropically clad, wealthy fellow Americans under the vast lapis lazuli dome of the sky?

Read these essays, and you will care. Even if you’ve never thought these things could be of any interest to you.

Are you irrationally afraid of vacuum toilets? Or of the insanely moving, vomit-inducing ferry-wheels of country fairs? Or of the possibility that irony will perhaps destroy the world?

Read these essays, and you will be.

Wallace does a whole array of things in and with these essays – yes, for instance, he visits the Illinois State Fair, he goes to the shooting of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and he spends a week on a Caribbean luxury cruise ship – and then he goes ahead and writes these pieces about his experiences in an extremely funny, unbelievably smart, reflexive and self-reflexive nerd-gonzo style, while he also ruminates extensively about American society and about the strata and members of said society who are predisposed to go to state fairs, go on luxury cruises, or move to Los Angeles (which is, according to Wallace, a city just as over-colored and surreal as you’d imagine based on the movies, therefore there will be no surprises there for anyone.)

In other essays (two out of the seven), Wallace deals with tennis – and when he talks about tennis, that’s also enlightening and more importantly: mesmerizing. (I’ll write more about this – about the mesmerizing quality of his writing.) Wallace himself used to play tennis in his teenage years, and he was quite a successful young talent. He never became a professional, though – and this half-in, half-out perspective adds a lot of intensity and charm to his words when he deals with this topic. Wallace evidently knows what he talks about when he talks about tennis, yet, compared to the real pros, he’s also just an enthusiastic amateur who’s easily enchanted by true greatness, so – even if I’ve never even held a tennis racket in my life – I have no choice but wonder about the complicated mechanics, trigonometry and other features of this beautiful sport with deep awe. (I don’t even watch tennis, let alone play it. And still – reading Wallace’s essays on the subject convinced me deeply and immediately that probably there’s no sport in the world more beautiful than tennis.)

In the remaining two essays, Wallace digs into topics of (contemporary) culture: Is the author dead or alive (cf. Roland Barthes)? What’s the connection between television, American culture, and irony? I have no words and talent to summarize these essays in a few sentences, but I can briefly testify to their effect. Reading these essays made me feel that I want to read Barthes, preferably right now, and that I want to lie down and cry huge tears of relief because I’ve never been able to explain – not even to myself – why irony makes me want to scream sometimes – but Wallace explains this. Beautifully, elegantly, logically.

And I promised something about mesmerizing. It’s just that: Wallace is mesmerizing. It seems no matter what he talks about, his words are a delight to read. Wallace was a writer so extremely smart and perceptive that theoretically, his work should be intimidating by the sheer force of its erudition. But it is not intimidating – perhaps because beside all his unearthly smartness, there’s a whole lot of stupid fears (of vacuum toilets, for example), illogicality, deep and basic curiosity and a general playfulness in his writing, and all this make his work deeply human and ultimately approachable. And this is something I can never put (and don’t want to put) differently: the writers who blow my mind the most are usually the ones who can make me believe that I am there. Anywhere, anytime. On the vomit-inducing ferry-wheel (even if Wallace himself hadn’t boarded it); in David Lynch’s unique mind, as it comes across Wallace’s unique mind; at the Elegant Teatime event on board of a Caribbean luxury cruise ship. And Wallace makes me believe all this.

On a related note: about two years ago I tried to read Wallace’s Infinite Jest – I failed. I thought at that time that Infinite Jest is wonderful, only – it’s too huge (in every sense), it demands too much from the reader, and I felt that the infinite jest is too much on me, the reader. Now, having read these essays I’m no longer afraid of this last one, and I plan to start Infinite Jest again the first convenient time – perhaps on a week-long luxury cruise while I’m being pampered to death.

And I feel this might be a good course of action in general in approaching Wallace’s work – starting with his essays. His essays are not that extremely demanding as Infinite Jest (to read Infinite Jest, I feel you must be 100% awake and ready and willing to think hard – to read these essays, it’s only highly recommended), and by reading them, you can learn relatively quickly whether you are compatible with Wallace’s prose or not, and receptive for his manias or not.

Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

October 10, 2016


Submergence is a strange, heavy, dense, deep novel.
Sometimes it’s poetic, sometimes it’s deeply unsettling, and sometimes it’s almost unbearable due to its sheer brutality.

The story: the British spy, James More (a descendant of Thomas More), who pretends to be a water engineer, is captured by jihadists in Somalia. (Water will become important again soon, right in the next sentence.) Meanwhile, Danny (who’s female), a bio-mathematician is preparing for an important dive deep into the ocean, which will probably supply her with hordes of data about the most ancient, most primeval, most indestructible life forms of the planet.

(Danny is obsessed with depth, and she often ponders about the fact that both for individual human beings, and for humanity as a whole, it’s much more difficult to travel inside, downwards, where there’s more and more darkness and pressure. Compared to this, discovering the space and emptiness above us – traveling outward, forever farther, higher, faster – is much easier and much less painful.)

While James faces deprivations in captivity and Danny prepares for her dive – both locked up in their eternal loneliness and abandonment, both afraid of the unknown inside and out – they often think about the other, and about their story together: a past Christmas in a small hotel in the French countryside where they first met, and where they had an affair that only lasted for a couple of days, yet engulfed their whole life and being in that short time.

The story of these few days unfold slowly, tucked in between the chapters dealing with the present life of the main characters (mostly of James).

The intention is clear: while he’s being brutalized in captivity, the few days of intimacy, real closeness, and deep human bond he experienced with Danny start to occupy a unique place in his mind, and his memories of the time spent together become something he can hold on to in order to keep his sanity – even if all the depth and intimacy he experienced with Danny was more or less an illusion, because Danny is unable to simplify her work – which is her innermost essence – in a way that others can understand it, and James isn’t even allowed to disclose his real occupation.

And don’t get me wrong – both Danny and James do what they do out of a very real obsession, and they even keep working during their Christmas holidays, so in their case we might say that their jobs occupy a crucial place in their life, and that they devote a significant part of their innermost selves to their occupations. The occupations they can’t or are not allowed to share with the other.

Perhaps it’s due to this ultimate impossibility-to-share that this novel often speaks in a language that distances me from the characters to the extent I don’t like to be distanced.

And I feel distanced even if there’s an abundance of beautiful and cosmic passages here – about how we are such a young and perishable species (and the only species that’s mesmerized by its own consciousness), about how most organisms live hiding in the depth, in small nooks – and parallel to this, there’s a deeply human melancholy here, a desire for life, and a desire for intimacy (because, after all, we probably really are enamored by our own consciousness, and we ache to share our secret depths with someone).

(Of course that’s another question whether we feel that the parallels drawn among the themes of the ocean, humanity, individual humans, depth, and so on are too direct or not – for me they are a bit too direct.)

So there’s a lot of fine, telling, often painfully beautiful or unsettling details here – a simple but touching simile; a memory of the now far-away Christmas (for example, when James thinks he can hide himself from Danny and then it turns out that Danny can read him like an open book – which, in this case, isn’t bad because it means that someone truly pays attention); or a present event (for example, when James masturbates in his cell with the intention to soil the space around him – and he deliberately avoids thinking about Danny during his act of rebellion).

But these tender or brutal passages are often lost in the sea of encyclopedic, political, or schoolteacher-like ruminations. I often feel that Ledgard-the-journalist defeats Ledgard-the-fiction-writer, and I don’t think that’s particularly desirable in a novel. For literary fiction, the style of this novel is too dry. Sure, you can write things like: “James was traumatized by certain experiences during his captivity to such an extent that he lost all his ability to act” – but to me this feels more like journalism, not fiction. And before I get completely lost in my train of thought: this isn’t non-fiction. This book is literary fiction, only not very successful as such.

Not always successful – because when Ledgard decides to dig a little deeper (yes!) into his characters, into their thoughts, and into the way they experience their lives (be it either the invocation of memories, or the deprivations and mortal danger of the present), then I also feel this depth, and I’m touched and unhinged, and I can’t stop thinking about the characters, and they crawl into my dreams. However, when Ledgard goes on to deliver a lecture about the political situation in Somalia or about Islam, then I have a hard time willingly suspending my disbelief and accepting that these are James’ thoughts, even if the lectures are prefaced by saying “James thought that…”

In the end, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, this is an extremely strong and affecting book (perhaps – just perhaps – partly because it’s based on real events), and it more or less works as a novel, too – that’s for sure that I want to find out what happens to the characters (I’m more interested in James’ fate than in Danny’s, though, probably because there’s much more depth to James’ character, and I naturally feel more about him than about Danny). But all the lecturing and explanations do nothing good for me here.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

October 3, 2016


I’ve never read a novel before that was set in the city where I lived, and whose main character is a building I also visited, a building only about 20 minutes’ walk from my place. So this time the expression “being immersed in a novel” gained a whole new – very concrete – meaning for me.

It’s been unique for me to read this novel and to know exactly what the oft-praised, enchanting, majestic view from the famous, light-infused living room of the Villa Tugendhat (here: Landauer) looks like; to know the hotel where two of the novel’s characters sometimes rent a room for brief amorous encounters; and to know, with almost millimeter precision, the place in the city where someone tells the bothersome German officer when he’s not willing to let the family pass through a road block erected due to an important military event in the city center: “We’re not going that way, we’ll turn left right before the railway station, towards the airport.”

It’s all been fantastically vivid for me – partly because I know the concrete reality of the novel, and partly because Simon Mawer can depict this reality. It’s not that I could only imagine the places of this novel (and by the way: places, closed places, and space and light barely contained within walls – these are the most important elements in this novel) because I know them – it’s more that I kept mentally comparing the places and reality described by Mawer with the things I know, and my conclusion was always: yes, this is exactly like this. Concretely, and in its atmosphere too. (I came across only one notable exception: the street leading from the main station towards the center is not sloping down but rising – but it might have been sloping down during World War II.)

Anyway, all this eerie realness made me think while I was reading: Could all this be true? Or is none of it true? Where do we draw the line? Are these characters fictitious? Can they be fictitious if their lives are so strongly tied to the definitely real Villa Tugendhat, and if they themselves so strongly resemble the one-time (real) inhabitants of the villa? I kept worrying about these questions throughout the novel – partly with a theoretical interest, and partly seriously.

Why worry? Consider what this novel is about: it’s about the Villa Tugendhat, about the history of its construction, and about all the things that happened to it (and the people who lived there or used it) ever since the construction was completed in 1930.

The story starts at the end of the 1920s, with Viktor and Liesel Landauer getting married. Together with the best, most modern architect of the era, they dream up their future home – the masterpiece of functionalist architecture, the Villa Tugendhat (Landauer). The villa gets built, the family moves in, and they start to enjoy both their new home and the vibrant cultural life of the city – but their happiness doesn’t last long. World War II is already looming on the horizon, and because Viktor is Jewish, the family decides to pack up and leave their home to its fate.

This is a more or less historical novel then – in the sense that it follows the historical events as they occurred. And these events are often heartbreaking – the characters and the villa itself all go through a lot, and I often feel just as sorry for the villa as for its owners. (Brutality and barbarity unhinge me, and when I read about some men in uniforms talking about how it might just be the best to demolish the villa as it’s only a modern, useless and worthless piece of junk – then I feel like crying.)

What bothers me, though – even if blurring the line between reality and fiction is hugely exciting for my mind –: this novel is too real. More precisely: too intimately real. Even more precisely: it’s supposed to be about fictitious characters, but these fictitious characters cannot easily be told apart from their real-life counterparts.

Mawer claims that he tried to cover up the real setting of the novel a little bit (a tiny little bit), but seriously – calling Brno Město, and calling Špilberk Špilas is not exactly high-quality camouflage. Of course Mawer himself admits to this. However, he also claims that the characters of his novel are all entirely fictitious – and this is something I don’t believe. Mawer’s supposedly fictitious Landauer family resembles the real Tugendhat family too much (as much as I know about the real family), and I understand why some members of the Tugendhat family voiced their discontent about this novel. And really: while I’m reading about the family matters, extramarital affairs and other dirty little secrets of the Landauers, I cannot help but wonder how all this could have been in the life of the Tugendhat family. And I cannot help but mix the real and the fictitious family up – how could I not if the novel is so specific? Case in point, while I was reading this novel and talked about the real Tugendhats with someone, I kept referring to the events of this novel as if they had really happened.

Theoretically, with my literary mind, this is awesome and exciting. If I think about it, though, I wouldn’t like it, either, if someone found my less than unique apartment so intriguing that he wrote a novel about it, and accidentally gave the real apartment a supposedly fictitious tenant who did various things in the apartment – a fictitious tenant who bore an uncanny resemblance to me, and who tended to do the same kinds of things I do. I would definitely be displeased – let my reality be my own. And I wish the same for the Tugendhat family – let their reality be their own. And sometimes I feel that Mawer violates the Tugendhats’ privacy by prying too deep into their reality.

Anyway – if I forget about all this – this is quite a good novel.

Kanley Stubrick by Mike Kleine

September 26, 2016


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


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


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


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.