How do the police operate in Japan? This police procedural from author Hideo Yokoyama reads much differently than one would written by, say, Richard PHow do the police operate in Japan? This police procedural from author Hideo Yokoyama reads much differently than one would written by, say, Richard Price or Elmore Leonard. The usual human failings are on full display—incompetence, careerism, ambition, revenge, etc—but they are played out in a setting alien to the Western reader. That's what made this novel so very interesting to me. For we do not know how the specific cultural idiosyncrasies of Japan will impinge upon the story's development.
Anyone who's suffered the petty humiliations of office politics will feel this book deep in their vitals. Now add to that loathsome banality the following enticements: (1) the setting in a Japanese prefectural police HQ where mistakes covered up 14 years ago in a famous kidnapping of a 7-year-old girl are only now coming to light; (2) an arrogant press corps who wants the head of the HQ's media director on a pike for abstruse reasons of journalistic disclosure; and (3) the media director himself, one Mikami, recently exiled from the investigative side—at heart he's really a detective—whose teenage daughter ran away three months ago leaving his wife distraught—and we have the novel's basic propulsive means.
Mikami has many questions and no one is providing answers so he must work inductively. Slowly, painstakingly, he pieces the scandal together. The plotting is exquisite. The reader moves through the logical progression of his thoughts, reservations, doubts and discoveries. For 566 pages his is the sole point of view. I admire how Mikami queries facial expressions and body language, someone's absence or abrupt appearance, an overheard word or phrase. Each clue is puzzled over it until he has a logical option or two or nine. Then he must run around eliminating false leads. All the while the writing is flat and unadorned. This isn't literary fiction. It's a conventional if captivating thriller depicting police culture in Japan and it's dysfunctional relationship with the press. Nothing gets in the way of the storytelling. In that sense, the tale has a certain purity. One is reminded of Georges Simenon and Leonardo Sciascia at their best.
In the end the book is about storytelling. It's about who controls the narrative, how it's presented to the public through the Fourth Estate, and who can or can't be trusted with the facts. The police tell a deliberately false narrative to protect themselves. Director Mikami is caught between their closed ranks and the overweening arrogance of the media. In Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep Philip Marlowe controls the narrative that will be presented to the newspapers. At several points it becomes necessary to determine precisely what the public narrative will be. Consulted by the police, Marlowe decides what details are to be included, which left out, which modified. Like Mikami he is a man with his own moral code and he works outside the system; true, technically Mikami's part of the HQ administrative team, but this allegiance has little meaning as he plays the lone wolf hunting down the truth. Moreover, Mikami does not have the good fortune of working in media-comatose 1930s San Francisco. This is modern Japan where the technical capacity for storytelling long ago outstripped available content. Thus the shrill, almost rabid manner of the journalists. The journalists here are pissed off, loudmouthed, insulting and self-righteousness in the extreme. That is the procedural level on which the book functions. There is not a lot of cloak and dagger, nor much cutting up of corpses, blood-spatter analysis, long stakeouts, prisoner confessions, deathbed clues or romance. It's mostly about office politics and the relationship between the press and the police surrounding the blown kidnapping case. Moreover, it has a wonderful final twist. Enough for now. Do read it....more
Non-chronological story set for the most part in Ghent, Belgium, and jumping to selected periods between the birth of the narrator's grandfather in thNon-chronological story set for the most part in Ghent, Belgium, and jumping to selected periods between the birth of the narrator's grandfather in the late 1890s up to the recent past. The unnamed narrator loves his grandfather, whose impoverished childhood and time in the trenches of World War 1 have marked his 90 years on earth irrevocably. A painter, he took his grandson, with whom he was close, everywhere.
The novel reminds me in the early going of Thomas Bernhard's phenomenal Gathering Evidence. Bernhard's grandfather was also a big influence on his world view. Like it, War and Turpentine is beautifully written, though the tone is gentler and more broadly observant of the fleeting world, whereas Bernhart's memoir is a collection of grievances against all the fools he's suffered. The two points of view couldn't be more dissimilar, yet both have at their core this adoration of a beloved grandfather.
As a child the narrator's grandfather had the good fortune to watch his own father—the great-grandfather—at work in his profession as a painter of Church murals. Naturally, the colors he used were highly toxic. This was a time before safety regulations in the same Belgium that created a living hell in Congo. Naturally, the painter-father's health suffers. Later, as a very young man, hardly out of his teens, the grandfather works in horrendous industrial conditions himself. In an iron foundry without winches, he pours molten iron from a crucible he holds in his hands. Hideous accidents are commonplace.
Hertman's writing runs along a pleasant median between summary and passages of extraordinarily vivid detail. He uses photos of things he mentions in the text in a fashion reminiscent of W.G. Sebald. (See The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, Austerlitz, etc.) But somehow the practice seems less essential here. Perhaps it is just a matter of tone. I have to think more about the matter.
Then we arrive in August 1914. The Germans have invaded Belgium. Urbain, the beloved grandfather, along with his fellow soldiers, are fantastically outgunned. The pounding of the gargantuan German howitzer Big Bertha feels like an earthquake underfoot. Everywhere they go, they march, and their destinations are invariably littered with the dead and the dying for there are no medical corpsmen. Logistical supply, too, is almost nonexistent. Urbain and his soldiers— he's in charge of a squad by this time—are starving. They're dropping like flies. Some men are so thirsty that they drink from a canal which has dead bodies in it: they end up with dysentery. Within a week the Brussels army is reduced to half its former size.
The novel until now has been deliciously rich, spilling over with vivid imagery, descriptions of architecture, town markets, neighborhoods, strange people, mother's cooking, poverty, the harsh labor of primitive industry, the work of the great-grandfather's mural painting. Then in Part 2 we are in the middle of a rather commonplace war story. The fact that it's action packed and harrowing in my view does not make up for the cliches of the genre which begin to appear. All the novelty of this part lies in its setting—Brussels—which closely follows the course of the actual war there. But the bright freshness of Part 1 is conspicuous in its absence. The narrator is now entirely Urbain, who we've only heard speak previously through letters or other writings. The grandson has stepped aside. The artifice of the fiction, to my mind, becomes more apparent. The playful non-chronological approach is abandoned for linear storytelling. This is Hertman's little structural risk. Most readers will no doubt follow him enthusiastically.
Late in Part 2 and spilling over into Part 3 is the tale of Urbain, just back from the war, and his newfound love for a neighborhood beauty. This relationship compasses the final tragedy of his life, which truly is a vale of tears most stoically borne. Quite moving and warmly recommend....more
Marcel Proust is a writer I completely miss the point of. I have no interest in society, especially this dead French one. I can't seem to interest mysMarcel Proust is a writer I completely miss the point of. I have no interest in society, especially this dead French one. I can't seem to interest myself in these children's parties or these petite bourgeois parents scheming to meet this or that VIP government minister. My God, the tedium! Yet Tolstoy and Bellow and Ozick and scores of others have all written about particular dead cultures which I've enjoyed reading about immensely. I can't put my finger on it with Proust. His inability to involve me remains a mystery. Well, I shall stop trying to read him and cut my losses for good....more
I'm trying to find something wrong with this book, but so far nothing. Every event or action naturally folds into the next one. The continuity is supeI'm trying to find something wrong with this book, but so far nothing. Every event or action naturally folds into the next one. The continuity is superb. Neither does anything seem superfluous: no gesture or detail. Impeccable structure and flawless tone. I find myself slowing down to take in the richness as I would when reading a poem. That's the tension Ferrante incites in us: between wanting to gallop through the stunning tale, to just gobble it up like cake, and slowing down to take in the beauty of its construction, jewels of surpassing quality passing before the eye.
It's the early 1960s in Naples and Lina Carracci (née Cerullo) is newly and miserably married and living in a virtual purdah with her husband, Stefano, whom she has quickly learned to hate because he is a tool of the Solaras, who are Cammora. Mr. and Mrs. Carracci live quite well in a new apartment with modern decor and lots of money because of their connection to these local criminals.
Lina, we will recall from volume one of the tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend, was unable to go on with her education at age ten or so and was made to work in her father's shoe shop. Her chance of higher education gone, she then had to resort to other means of self advancement, namely marriage. In the early going here we see that is not going so well. She feels, not without justification, that Stefano tricked her into marriage. So she refuses him the great gift and he beats her regularly, in effect raping his wife.
Lina's highly intelligent and both friends are girls of only sixteen. In her friend Lenù, our narrator, Lina sees her own lost dream of education still alive. Yet Lenù's having her man problems too. Her lover, Antonio, a car mechanic, suspects her of interest in another fellow, Nino, who is intellectually Lenù's match in a way Antonio can never be. Lenù stays with the blue collar Antonio, though, because she doesn't feel worthy of Nino, having come from a background much like Antonio's. Lenù disparages her intellect and achievements, lusting over the distant Nino. She is trying to make that leap but can't see how she might do it.
This is all a little silly when you consider that Nino is actually from her own neighborhood. She's known him since she was a child. But his father moved out of the neighborhood many years ago and became a college professor. And now Lenù feels Nino's somehow out of her league.
There was no escape. No, neither Lina nor I would ever become like the [sophisticated] girl who had waited for Nino after school. We both lacked something intangible but fundamental, which was obvious in her even if you simply saw her from a distance, and which one possessed or did not, because to have that thing it was not enough to learn Latin or Greek or philosophy, nor was the money from groceries or shoes of any use. (p. 84)
Groceries and shoes refer to the businesses of Stefano Carracci and Lina's father, respectively....more
Well, here we are again in the land of obsessive compulsive disorder, suicidal rage and death panic. It's like Bernhard has one channel and one channeWell, here we are again in the land of obsessive compulsive disorder, suicidal rage and death panic. It's like Bernhard has one channel and one channel only: sturm und drang, but without the post-Enlightenment restraint. How did Richard Hugo put it: "hatred of the various grays / the mountain sends...." Bernhard's satirical narrators are against everything: especially mountains, in this case the Alps, nature, people, society, art, any and all institutions, the church, the state, you name it. No culture, usually Austrian, can have a single redemptive aspect in its favor. One might think: 'Oh, the mountain air is great! I love to hike. Might take in a movie later.' For Bernhard's characters, there can be no such trivial daily existence. If we do hear about it, it's acidly deprecated. Death is inevitable; birth was never asked for. One is simply hurled into the "existence machine" by one's parents, probably drunk at the time. How dare they subject one to life and death! They should be put up against a wall and shot! If there's humor in Bernhard, it's of the gallows variety. Whistling in the graveyard. Bernhard's novels are voice novels, not surprising for a playwright, his other literary stronghold. They are almost entirely interior monologues with little or no description. Almost always one ranting narrator, pent up, unloads as if from a stage. This can be entertaining, but the cumulative effect is gloom. You can't get intimate with Bernhard as you would, say, Proust. That's how consuming the negativity is. Like a horrific spectacle from which one cannot avert one's eyes. Bernhard may be a complete original, I'm not sure, but take heed. His art is dark, blackened by madness, numbing like opium....more
A portrait of the artist as a young bear. He's a jazz musician, an alto saxophonist of genius, with a rich inner life. The writing is without pretensiA portrait of the artist as a young bear. He's a jazz musician, an alto saxophonist of genius, with a rich inner life. The writing is without pretension and so far wholly chronological. Author Zabor has an astonishing ability not only to make jazz come alive on the page, but to catch his hero's most transient angst in mellifluous sentences. The Bear's inner voice, his self-loathing, runs deep and profound.
He becomes somewhat unhinged. He is falling, disintegrating when slammed in prison, for what are the authorities to do with an intelligent bear alto saxophonist? Right, hide him away. Behind bars his love of jazz feels gone, expunged. It's a stirring yet sad interval. I understand many readers find the book funny. So far, I do not, which is not to say that the humor isn't well handled here, but that on this first reading it's the Bear's musings that I find so deeply affecting. It is that frequency to which I am tuned.
Belay that, I just got my first laugh on page 122. The Bear has just asked the old Austrian doctor to help him break out of jail. The doctor demurs. Here's the exchange:
"There is one eppel you did not eat," said [Dr.] Friedman, casting an eye down upon a fold of brown army blanket. If you don't mind, it vould freshen my breaths."
"By all means," said the Bear, passing him the apple. "By all means cover up the inconvenient smell of internal rot, failed will, suspect sentiment."
This is one irritable if articulate bear. Later, sprung with élan by musicians and friends dressed as EMTs, he hides out at admirer Iris' apartment in Peter Cooper Village where the atmosphere is charged with interspecies lust. His old pal, Jones, who won the Bear as a cub years ago in a card game, has arranged a top-flight recording contract. An earlier LP—the novel was published in 1997—has sold out overnight. The Bear's going big-time. He's given the chance to record with Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden. He composes several pieces and writes out the music for a quartet.
Problem is the Bear still feels estranged from his talent. The jailhouse has taken its toll. Unfortunately, for those around him—luckily for the reader—the ursine instrumentalist is of a most choleric temperament. You might say he's bearish. Nothing can be easily done. Everything's an imposition. This induces misery in Jones and everyone else except for the blissful musicians, who inhabit a realm of their own. During the recording session he's so out of touch with his mojo that he can only perform by way of a conscious imitation of himself. Eventually things swing again.
Here the writing becomes striking. The prose becomes so descriptive about music that in the mind's ear one can almost hear it. It's unlike anything I've ever read before. And then there's the sex. Interspecies sex between woman and bear that is anything but bestial. It's such a peculiar interlude, so new, that I found myself not at all bored as I so often am by human fictional schtuppings. Especially well told is the sense of lover Iris's fragility. It's ambiguous, but if I'm reading it right, there seems to be something of a history of taboo-breaking with her. In that sense then she's the perfect—if rather neurotic—match for the Bear. But it doesn't bode well for the future, does it? When she arrives at the Bear's bed she is described as wearing a "winding sheet." Uh-oh!
The jazz, much of the stuff the novel revels in, was already classic when the book was published in 1997. (Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk etc.) The jazz argot comes across as dated, too, so Zabor's careful not to overdo it. The book may read better once the period in which it has been set is beyond living memory. Who knows, it may become a Don Quixote of its time. I certainly think the Bear has that kind of iconic potential. The novel really sings. For example, there are so many, the sequence in which Jones meets Mr. Big in the midtown offices of Megaton Records is astonishing. The details are pitch perfect.
But here comes the cognitive dissonance. The Bear is fully imbued with the thoughts and impulses of a human, yet he is a bear. This duality smacks the reader upside the head a bit when he or she comes to passages like this one on p. 257. The downstairs tenant, a photographer—the Bear's living upstate with Iris now, closer to nature—shows up "in the early evening with two teenage girls who looked like they might fancy being models."
The Bear found it morally offensive and knew that it could lead to trouble – outraged parents, charges of statutory rape, police. He wasn't about to barge in there, but he made a mental note to have a serious talk with the man the next time he found him alone.
Now, it would be impossible for the Bear, given what we know of his socialization, to think those thoughts. Fact, it is said, is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be plausible. Well, here author Zabor breaks that rule, just tosses it out. It is impossible for the reader in this case to lend plausibility to the scenario. Just like that the writer has mucked with the fabric of the novel's believability. Yet we read on, why? Somehow it happens. Very confounding. . ....more
An extraordinarily satisfying literary thriller. There's a skillful layering on of suspense with every page. Themes include the surveillance state, teAn extraordinarily satisfying literary thriller. There's a skillful layering on of suspense with every page. Themes include the surveillance state, terrorism, divorce, careerism and how the human mind is stressed under such pressures toward the pathological. I admire how deftly Flanery sets the story amid our current geopolitical farrago.
There's no question that this novel could not have come into being in its present form without the models provided by John le Carré and Graham Greene. Yet Flanery's tone is so assured that he "makes it new"—as Ezra Pound once exhorted his circle to do—and isn't that a big part of what art is all about?
Jeremy O'Keefe is a liberal, a former expat academic, returning to his beloved New York after ten years at Oxford only to find himself emotionally unmoored, out of touch with old friends and the city ineffably changed. A divorce had earlier led to his exile, but now he's back and his self-esteem is at an all-time low. An historian of 20th century Germany history at NYU—where he also teaches film—Jeremy experiences a failure of memory; one particular incident with limited ramifications. Later, when he happens to mention the matter to his daughter and wealthy son-in-law both, out of what appears to be an abundance of caution, ask him to see a neurologist.
Then a strange young man appears, staring Jeremy out of countenance from the street, whenever he looks from a window. Moving on as soon as he sees him, as if Jeremy's appearance serves to confirm some previously agreed upon sign. Is Jeremy losing his mind? It's a good question. Oh, he's paranoid alright, recalling old slights and arguments as he narrates his recent past. He doesn't trust strangers. He has some of the symptoms of clinical paranoia.
As things get stranger, the tone at times becomes a shrill, almost Edgar Allan Poe-like rant, such as we remember from the second half of The Tell-Tale Heart. This during Jeremy's more panicked states, as when some unknown person sends him a 5,000+ page hardcopy detailing his lifelong internet browsing history, including emails, everything. It's not long before he suspects this unknown person may be himself. A possibility he considers a number of times. He then goes on to profile for the reader his many presumptive enemies. I'll leave it there.
One might call I Am No One a "voice novel," the term Martin Amis applied to his own Money, though the book under review is neither satire nor comedy. The tone is, in fact, rather grave and virtually humorless. Simply in terms of modulation portions of it reminded me of Philip Roth's masterwork, American Pastoral. Jeremy struggles to understand what he's going through—the invasion of his privacy fairly unhinges him—and writing this document is his way of figuring it out. So there's a bit of a Last Testament feel to it as well. Strange I thought of Money, which it now occurs to me is also subtitled A Suicide Note....more
An almost seamless narrative with a large and voluble cast. Author Ferrante opens Vol. 1 of her tetralogy with a classic framing device (presumably noAn almost seamless narrative with a large and voluble cast. Author Ferrante opens Vol. 1 of her tetralogy with a classic framing device (presumably not closed until the end of Vol. 4). It's the present day and Lila's son calls Elena, who's living in Turin, to say his mother is missing from her Naples home. This sets Elena to writing about the hardscrabble yet eventful upbringing she and Lila shared in post-World War II Naples.
The families are blue collar, desperately poor, for whom education is viewed as a luxury. Lila, the smarter of the two, the "brilliant friend" of the title, has a dream of writing novels with Elena one day. But there is no money for textbooks in the Cerrulo family, so Lila is taken out of school to help in the family cobblery and at home. Extremely shrewd and calculating, once education is excluded for Lila, she must resort to woman's traditional means of securing her future: marriage.
Elena, meanwhile, partly due to coaching from Lila, makes it all the way to high school where she excels in languages and writing. But the fire for learning that Lila kindled in her begins to wane without her friend's eager presence. It's no longer much fun. Moreover, Lila's approval is the constant standard Elena aspires to, even as she meets and exceeds it.
Lila and Elena's families do not live enlightened lives. Their skin is extraordinarily thin. There is an almost mystical belief in honor accompanied by its cruel machismo. They possess almost no ability to mitigate their quarrrels through language. There is much acting out, things said that would be better left unsaid. There is the threat of enormous violence which may erupt at any time.
When as teens they travel to an exclusive section of Naples, because Lila wants to see it, the young men in the party, enraged by the splendor, insult a chic local couple and start a mêlée. Remarkably, though they are clearly in the wrong, the reader understands their anger and hopes they make it through unscathed. At the last moment, the hated Solaras arrive in their shiny new Fiat in a neat example of the neighborhood circling the wagons and joining forces against the outsider rich.
Everyone hates the Solaras, who are successful bar and pastry shop owners as well as Camorra and live well. Rino, Lila's brother, especially hates them. When Rino is frustrated in a get rich quick shoemaking scheme with Lila, he becomes first a braggart, telling of his coming good fortune, and then a brute. He beats Lila since she will have nothing to more to do with him. Ultimately the Solaras seduce him with their money and "prestige." Pathetic.
Don Achille Carraci has made a career out of loan sharking and intimidation, especially of the poor. The carpenter Peluso, who gambles away his earnings every week in the Solara bar, conceives a murderous hatred for the gangster, eventually stabbing him to death. Peluso is jailed but the neighborhood breathes a sigh relief now that the menacing Don is gone. But the Don's work is in a sense finished. For the Carracci sons have taken over the convict-carpenter's shop and turned it into a grocery, which seems to continually expand and prosper.
Lila grows to become the most beautiful of the two friends. Marcello, a despised Solara, shows up at her parent's flat with food and a television and wine and other goodies. He dines over there every night for weeks on end, providing much of the fine food himself. Expensive items the family could never afford. All this as a means of allying the parents with his suit, but Lila hates his guts because he's Camorra, a mafioso. Her ultimate rejection of Marcello reduces him to sobs. Later, like a child, he retaliates with ridiculous calumny, besmirching her reputation.
Lila is headstrong. Her beauty captivates men and makes women jealous—including, sometimes, Elena, our narrator. Lila has turned from ugly duckling to magnificent swan. When she dumps Marcello and Stefano Achille, the Don's son, whisks her off in a car full of money, we begin to wonder if she's sold out. The end of Vol. 1 is a humdinger. I don't want to give it away. Suffice it to say, that Stefano and Lila marry at a hugely expensive wedding and Marcello, whom Lila does not want there, attends anyway.