March 29, 2008

Book 11: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories
Rynosuke Akutagawa

This is a sadly unknown collection of stories, wonderfully eclectic and incredibly insightful. Though inextricably married to their time and place (interwar Japan), Akutagawa’s stories provide vivid, beautiful settings and explore deep human truths that exist far beyond Japan. The sheer variety present in this collection is a testament to his talent, sadly abridged by his suicide. Though the stories vary in quality, each is intriguing and raises interesting questions about the human condition and about the ways in which we justify the darker sides of human nature, themes that Akutagawa unapologetically explores. It is no surprise that an author whose work includes the story "Hell Screen" is concerned with depravity and a strange fascination with death. The organization of this particular volume, which is split into four distinct thematic sections, highlights Akutagawa’s shifting perspective and the shadows that haunted him as he contemplated his own approaching end.

The first section of the book is easily its weakest. Stories such as "The Nose" and "Dragon: The Old Potter’s Tale" are merely revamped fairy tales and have a certain didactic air. The latter is almost an exercise in stereotype and is quickly forgotten, though "The Spider Thread" easily belongs to this category of glorified morality plays without becoming overbearing or stereotypical. The other stories in this section, "Rashomon," "In a Bamboo Grove," and "Hell Screen," defy this classification and are interesting despite what they may owe to contemporary Japanese folk culture. The first is subtle and easily sets the tone for the remainder of the collection, dark but startlingly accurate, a vision of humanity that, despite its gruesome subject matter, refuses to be separated far from a happier life. "In a Bamboo Grove" is an exercise in perspective that reads as a factual account of various testimonies; its views on subjectivity must be derived by the reader. The story, if we call it such, is fully engaging and explores fundamental truths without being for a second didactic: it demands response, but only implicitly. "Hell Screen" is the other standout in this opening movement, and it foreshadows some of the pitch black content awaiting in further pages. A remarkable character study, the story becomes a meditation on art while retaining a distance that allows the reader to examine its contents at will.

Other stories in this collection are equally disturbing despite their variation, and almost every one is a knockout. "Horse Legs" retains Akutagawa’s fondness for the fable while adding an interesting twist, a fantasy for sure but with a degree of realism in its narrator that makes it compelling despite its clear disregard for reality. Akutagawa utilizes interesting and engaged first-person narration throughout to create a unique blend of fantasy and reality that, despite definite fantastic elements, seems utterly realistic. His gift for entering the minds of his narrators and portraying the world as they see it so vividly renders their Japan that no story seems out of place. Even the overbearing narrative missteps in some of the early fables and later autobiographical compositions are forgivable when factored into the validity of the stories’ contexts.

What is most striking about this collection is that, despite its complete other-ness from modern America and its easy substitution of imagination for reality, Akutagawa’s stories feel so powerfully real and resonate so clearly today. This particular collection of his work is continually engaging and traces an interesting arc by presenting its stories in roughly chronological order, with thematic separation. The notes provided help with extra contextual points that aid a modern reader’s understanding, but are not so overbearing as to promote a specific reading of a particular story. The collection is remarkably round and consistent despite a few early missteps, and its latter self-consciousness is easily forgivable in the context of the author’s depression and downward spiral. Akutagawa unapologetically reveals the dark recesses of the human soul in new and surprising ways throughout his stories, and his talent and insight certainly warrant a revival of his writings in the English-speaking world.

Grade: A

March 21, 2008

Book 10: Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides

Though I’d read this book before, there were a lot of surprises upon re-reading it (especially so soon), and a second reading of Eugenides confirms his talent as one of the most brilliant American writers working today. Where other authors may struggle to knit together disparate narratives, Eugenides shines and creates an interwoven subtext. There are many techniques deployed in this book that, theoretically, should sink it. Instead, each potential pitfall adds to the sense of epic as the book transcends time and is, in many ways, a fine example of The Great American Novel.

Take Cal, the narrator, for example. Cal is intersex, meaning that he possesses both male and female genetalia. Instead of saving this surprise for the corresponding moment in Cal’s own history, Eugenides explains the novel’s secret right off the bat. No plot point is spoiled, however, and the narrative sails along easily, always sure where its headed but with surprises throughout. It is a mystery to me how Middlesex is filled with such intrigue page in and page out: Cal very pointedly narrates from the present, but it continually remains interesting how he got there. Cal’s self-consciousness also illuminates rather than degrades the text. His pointed observations about his own past (including commenting on the likelihood of his birth as his parents delay their lovemaking) are hilarious and inject the text with verve necessary to such a sprawling work. Cal keeps the novel’s scope under control while continually expanding it to include approximately 80 years of direct narration (with gaps, of course).

Additionally, Eugenides uses Cal’s differences appropriately. While the book obviously deals with gender problems and the ultimate debate about the relative influence of genetic and societal determinism, Cal’s unique perspective is used to subtly undermine other themes that permeate the text. The racical history of Detroit and the Stephanides family’s own struggles to become white are interesting parallels to Cal’s shifting between and embodiment of both genders. The comparison is never forced but provides interesting intellectual fodder. That is the fundamental power of Middlesex: it at once hits its readers over the head while challenging them to probe more deeply, promising results without becoming pretentious. Cal is likable and surprisingly easy to relate to (full disclosure: I was once a teenage girl and I’m somewhat familiar with the Detroit area since college).

The story itself is gripping and embodies the American experience without trying too hard, which is shocking considering the almost extraneous insertion of the great immigration story of Cal’s grandparents. The book’s chronology begins not in Detroit but in modern-day Turkey, a faraway world at once achingly familiar and strikingly foreign to Cal, but it sets up its characters so fully and so convincingly that, for a while, it doesn’t matter that their history may have been tangential to Cal’s in a more conventional novel. The sense of urgency with which Cal traces his family history is imparted also onto the reader, who happily recreates the bustling Detroit of the automobile’s heyday and postwar suburbia. Eugenides moves between settings and characters with alarming ease and includes enough rich detail to make each stage of Cal’s genetic history inevitable within the novel’s framework and thematically relevant to Cal’s own struggle for identity.

Eugenides employs stock characters (the worrying foreign grandmother, the cantankerous ex-Navy man) and injects them with life and, of course, history so that they transcend their stereotypes and become those real people upon whom stock characters are based. There are no flat characters and no real stretches of the imagination- even Jimmy Zizmo’s remarkable transition seems appropriate to his consistently slick modes of operation. Likewise, the book is at once preachy and endearing, its platitudes fitting in within their context and gaining power from their placement.

It’s impossible to hate this book for its ambitions, which are great and somewhat pompous. Quite simply, Middlesex succeeds. It imparts its lessons by giving them while explaining them clearly in context. This is due in no small part to Cal’s outstanding narration: his ability to reflect on his own experiences makes the novel come alive and, by book’s end, it seems highly likely that there is a Calliope Stephanides inhabiting the world somewhere at this very moment. Cal is real and his story gains traction because he presents it so self-consciously and is so involved at every step of the way. The story is engrossing precisely because it is framed. From Lefty and Desdemona’s dubious choices in the mountains of Turkey to Cal’s budding romance with Julie Kukuchi, Middlesex holds back nothing and takes absolutely no prisoners. This is a real history of Detroit and a gritty look at the ways in which we define life. Oh, yeah. It’s narrated by an intersex character, certainly not an afterthought but a fact that informs the novel without overwhelming it. Eugenides is simply superb.

Grade: A

March 8, 2008

Book 9: The Best American Short Stories 2006

The Best American Short Stories 2006
Edited by Ann Patchett

Like any collection of various authors and works, this anthology has its highs and lows. What's most surprising is the fact that so many of the so-called "best stories of 2006" are, in fact, rather bland. Though each story has its merits, the collection suffers from a lack of evenness across the board. Some stories leap off of the page and others fade to black as middle-aged soul searching. The collection could have benefited from some thoughtful organization, as well. Though Ann Patchett's notion of the fairness of organizing by last name (in reverse) is well-utilized in larger or more theoretical collections, here it only makes the stories a muddled mass. She has already gone through thousands of stories to select the best; she may as well assign an order to them, perhaps betraying a bit of her own reaction. The collection jumps radically from story to story; occasionally, two like-minded stories will show up next to each other, detracting from their novelty as their similarities overwhelm the reader. Instead of evoking fairness, this lack of meta-consideration bogs the collection down and makes Patchett seem lazy and her choices more arbitrary than they must have been.

The stories themselves, however, are often brilliant and almost always entertaining. "The Ambush" by Donna Tartt and "So Much for Artemis" are the best representatives of the nostalgia set, each revealing something about childhood that is often difficult to articulate and adding verve to an era before my own time. Thomas McGuane's "Cowboy" is a brilliant exercise in voice and point of view, enticing and rewarding once the reader gets the hang of the language. Likewise, Alice Munro's "The View from Castle Rock" transports readers across space and time to an unconventional (yet sufficiently representative) immigrant experience with ease, surprisingly relevant and consistent within its setting. A late great in the collection is "The Casual Car Pool" by Katherine Bell, a story that may suffer from breadth of scope but which nonetheless is fascinating in its look at modern interaction between strangers.

Patchett, though wimping out at the end, has done a good job choosing a broad set of excellent stories to represent 2006 in this storied series. Though the stories can be unnecessarily ambitious (Ann Beattie and Harry Mathews try far too hard in "Mr. Nobody At All"), each one has something to offer the discerning reader. Time will not be wasted in browsing this collection, though it does encourage sporadic jumping around instead of one collective reading experience.

Grade: A-