Coin Locker Babies by Ryū Murakami

Ryū Murakami’s novel Coin Locker Babies was published in 1980, a fact that surprised me when I learned it just a few moments ago. It is certainly not timestamped -I would have believed that this book had been published at any time between 1970 and the present. It is also rather surreal (not unlike the works of a certain other Murakami in that regard) but I would have assumed that it pulled quite a bit of its inspiration from the counterculture fiction of the mid-80s and the 90s, from William Gibson, from the splatterpunk movement, and so forth. Maybe Ryū Murakami was synthesizing the same kinds of inspiration in a similar way, or maybe the underground Japanese fiction of this era was a partial influence on the way certain subsets of Western counterculture writing started to go. Having not yet even begun to gestate at the time all this was taking place, and not being especially familiar with the direction of influence, I leave my wondering at that.

Coin Locker Babies is very dark and very strange. It employs both traditional realism and the extreme and surreal in such a way as to leave the reader disoriented and unsure -it’s an unreliable narrative, with no unreliable narrator to fixate on on to contextualize away the uncertainty. This is a powerful narrative technique, although it can sometimes leave the reader feeling a bit at a remove from the narration. The story is also nihilistic to such a degree that the characters, who are well-rounded and interesting, are also set off at a distance. We care what happens to them, but more out of curiosity than anything else. There is no investment and there is no sense of urgency.

While most of what I’ve said above might be construed as negative, the combined effects synthesize well. This book’s component parts fit well together, and the end result is both engrossing and inclined to provoke a deeper examination -a hard marriage to achieve. I blew through the last 180 pages of small, tight typeface in a single sitting, unable to put the thing down, and that doesn’t happen to me often.

Recommendation: Read it, but maybe take a pass if you are squeamish or have a compulsive need to find the people in your books to be “likable” or “relatable”.


Dostoyevsky, The Gambler, and all the Big Important Russian Novels

I still have not read any of the Russian behemoths, but my experiences with the novellas of Tolstoy and now Dostoyevsky are making that a rather untenable position. The Gambler is as good a short novel as any, a masterclass in the writing of scenes and in the propulsion of plot. While certain stylistic anachronisms -the heavy use of cliffhanger chapter endings and exclamation marks, for example- read a bit badly, the book itself is a pleasure. The narrator isn’t fully “unreliable” in the modern sense of the trope, but his narrative is incomplete, seeming to lack certain unflattering details.

The Gambler also deserves high raise for its depiction of the act of gambling itself. Dostoyevsky was a compulsive player, and we even owe the existence of this book itself to one of his gambling debts, so his way of describing the play, the emotions and motivations behind it -it all rings very true. But to compliment his scenes of gaming as mere descriptive fidelity would be to far miss their value -the reader is powerfully drawn in by both the narrative and the way in which that narrative is accounted. Suspense is never used cheaply, and there is a compelling sense of urgency and immediacy in the reading which mirrors the frenetic need for play being depicted. And the strict absence of any superficial moralizing makes the moral and philosophical considerations here stand more proudly upright.

Whenever I find myself in the position of reviewing some part of the literary canon, I feel limited in what I might say. These reading logs are short and superficial by design -I can’t say anything in this medium that has not already been said many times about Dostoyevsky’s ability with prose. And, having read little else of his, I can’t make this a comparative review. The Gambler was a wonderful introduction, and I eagerly anticipate reading more.

Recommendation: Read it!

2015 Final Count: 130


It was a very good year for reading.

In total, I read 130 novel-length volumes this year, including some heavies like “Infinite Jest” and an 800-page biography of Alan Turing. On account of the rather time-consuming nature of some of my reads, I count shorter works -like “Of Mice and Men”- as “novel length volumes”. I think it all shakes out rather fairly.

Here are the stats:

Books by White American/English males: 51

Books by women: 12

Books in translation: 13

Books in translation make up 3% of the total number of books sold in America, so I’m not mortified by my 10%, but damn, the number of books by women I read this year is abysmal. I really need to read more female authors. Damn…

Hesse’s “Siddharta”

This one wasn’t for me. Hesse’s popularity as a countercultural icon in America seemed to have led to this book becoming the subject of Zeitgeist-fixation, but in spite of very moderate expectations, I was completely underwhelmed. The narrative of the searcher is fine, but nothing of any particular interest, and the titular character’s linear progression toward The Meaning of Life left no room for any interesting subtlety. Hesse’s prose was equally unremarkable.

I can see how this kind of book might be a powerful experience for an intelligent and emotionally sensitive young teen. More power to them. It’d be a hell of a lot better than reading Divergent or John Green books. At them same time, unless some rather compelling reasons make themselves known, I’ll wander past Hesse’s other offerings.

by Hermann Hesse

Women’s World Cup (of Literature)

via Three Percent

Three Percent is a pretty solid podcast that focuses on the world of literature in translation (only 3% of books purchased in the US are works in translation). They are currently having a bit of fun with the Women’s World cup, as seen above and below.

We would all do well to read a bit more widely, and the numbers show that most of us aren’t reading women in translation. There are a lot of reasons for that, but things like this are a good way of subverting some of the institutional weight behind our patterns of book-buying.

Milan Kundera’s “Identity”: Sure, Maybe Not As Good As “Unbearable Lightness”, But Much Shorter!

Kundera’s seminal novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was my favorite book out of last year’s readings and is easily in my top 10 books of all time. “Identity” is a great read -and I highly recommend it- but it’s not the same caliber as his magnum opus.

Kundera’s writing is a blatant rejection of the irritating “show, don’t tell” mantra often pelting writers in workshops and MFA programs -his prose is so magnificently constructed that at no point does the reader ever forget they are reading a Novel in the strictest sense (and, yes, he is going to break the fourth wall at some point). There are always questions being asked in his writing -often questions too sprawling and interdependent to be asked in any other way than his latticework novelization.

“Identity” is a short treatment of an intriguing set of questions. What is the nature of our perception of the identities of those people whom we love? Is their identity -in relation to us- defined by our perception? Is it ontological or external, subject to change, capable of disappearing under the blinking of our eyes? Kundera’s wonderful novella-treatment of these ideas is rewarding and magnetic, even if it falls short of his very best.

Recommendation: Read it. Or read “Unbearable Lightness” first. Give yourself time to chew on the questions raised -in either case.

by Milan Kundera

Reading Log: Herta Müller’s ‘Nadirs’ and the Value of Juxtaposition in Bleakness

This is a very well-written book. In a series of short stories that bookend a much longer novella, the author presents her oppressive life as a young girl in a German-speaking Polish town.  Müller evokes an undeniable sense of place ( and it’s not a nice place). The bleakness throughout -but especially in the title piece, Nadirs- gets overwhelming very quickly. I’m all for some powerful darkness, (witness my readings over the last year or so) but Müller’s work hear dips dangerously into the territory of misery-porn.

This kind of self-aggrandizing wallowing would be utterly damning if the prose itself weren’t redeeming -which it is. It’s not a book to read straight through, in spite of it’s short length. The misery, although powerfully denoted, is weakened to a great extent by its lack of juxtaposition. Everything is dying animals and rolls of sallow skin over fat. Without anything interesting to set them off, major sections of this book are set in a lifeless gray-scale, painfully flat.

Not that Müller never breaks out of the monochromatic- there are passages in here that are absolutely hilarious (I don’t really buy the idea that German humor is underdeveloped -if anything, it’s more understated). There are glimmers of light, but the reader does well to remember the title of the work. Niederungen can be translated most literally as “lowlands”, but the use of plural form of the superlative “nadir” communicates a much more deliberate intensity. Translation is not something that someone of my limited linguistic skills can even really comprehend, but -near as I can figure- that’s a damn good title.

Recommendation: While I won’t recommend it unreservedly, it’s still a very good read. It’s failings might keep it from transcendence, but the arrangement of words on the page is still an excellent arrangement of words on the page. Push through the titular story.

by Herta Muller