Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: June 2009

Review: An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a journey through the past and present of post-war Japan from the point of view of an elderly painter

Masuji Ono, a retired painter living in post-war Japan, is anxious for his younger daughter, Noriko, to be married. She is twenty-six, and one set of negotiations has already fallen through. Setsuko, his elder daughter, is happily married with a son, and the two of them visit Noriko and Ono frequently. Ono was a painter of high regard before the Second World War, but has not worked since the disastrous ending of the war.

We learn about this in flashback and memory, as Ono tries to understand the cause of his daughters’ attitudes toward him through his memory of events. He frequents a local bar and has some friends there, but slowly they all disappear. He remembers his break from his own teacher, who wanted only to paint images of pleasurable areas in the entertainment district–the so-called “Floating World.” Ono prefers to paint images of important things, things that will help Japan on the path to greatness, and in fact that path leads him to some recognition and prominence.

But the war has changed everything. We don’t learn this in plain revelation; instead, we have to come to understand it in the way Ono does. We begin with his preconceptions and we see, perhaps somewhat before he does, that they are no longer valid. Ultimately, he finds, his own world was no more permanent than the “floating world” he derided.

As with most of Ishiguro’s work, the journey is the real pleasure. There are many similarities between “Floating World” and his next novel, “The Remains Of The Day,” both being reminisces of men after wartime whose certainty in their decisions slowly erodes. But where “Remains” has a powerful revelatory ending (one of my favorite things in any book ever), “Floating World” leaves the revelation up to the reader to parse.

It is, as always, a marvel that this narrative holds together as well as it does, given how much it rambles and wanders. Ishiguro never loses track of what’s important, though, and he establishes his characters with swift, sure strokes, building up mystery around them. Does Ono’s prize pupil hate him for his pre-war work, or is there another reason? Ono’s wife and son were killed in the war, but who feels that more acutely, himself or his daughters? What is the reason the marriage negotiations broke down for Noriko, and will the current ones go well?

Some of the lesser questions go unanswered, but not in Ono’s mind. He is a beautifully drawn character struggling to accept the changes in his world and to bear his responsibility for them. While this is not quite up to “Remains of the Day” or “Never Let Me Go,” it is certainly a worthwhile and engaging read.

Online Book!

A college roommate of mine has written a book about the life of his cat. I’ve seen the whole thing, and I really enjoy its spare style, which manages to be humorous and emotional all at once. He’s posting chapters online in an attempt to get it more exposure, so if you like cats, and stories about cats, go take a look and leave him a comment!

Are Workshops Valuable?

There’s an interesting New Yorker article by Louis Menand that addresses a recent book on the topic. I love the writer’s conclusion:

I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

(h/t Lance Mannion)

Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
9/10, a beautiful story about a young Irish emigrant to New York

I saw Colm Tóibín read a passage from Brooklyn a year and a half ago, and promised then that I would buy it when it came out. I fulfilled my promise when I saw it on the shelf recently, and I’m pleased to say that the book lives up to the promise of the reading.

It’s the story of Eilis, an Irish girl who emigrates to America in her late teens or early twenties. She builds a life there on her own, and then a tragedy calls her back to Ireland (it’s very like The Dive From Clausen’s Pier in that way).

Like William Trevor, Tóibín writes in what I can only describe as a very Irish way. He writes lyrically, in a narrative that has direction but not urgency, in which things happen in their own time and the pleasure is in the journey. We meet people and get to know them, and they’re all important in Eilis’s life in one way or another. But I don’t get the sense that each incident is necessary to explain the progression of the story–it’s not critical to show that she spends Christmas Day helping in the parish, or her attitude toward the African-American women who come in to the store. What each little incident does is build up the picture of her life in America, to contrast with her life in Ireland, and it’s in these pictures that the story comes to life.

I do love William Trevor, but Tóibín might be a little ahead of him in my bookshelf now. Although they write with the same lyricism, Tóibín writes with a lighter touch. The scene with Eilis’s first Atlantic crossing, which he read at Stanford, involves their neighbors locking the door to the shared bathroom, and poor Eilis not only forced to pee in a mop bucket, but becoming violently seasick later in the night. Fortunately, her feisty companion comes to the rescue, showing her how to pick the lock on the bathroom door and really lock the neighbors out, with the aid of a heavy steamer trunk.

Brooklyn is a joy to read, and it moves along quickly. Eilis is, surprisingly, not always a sympathetic protagonist. She does occasionally behave cruelly, and is unapologetic about it (rather than thanking her landlady for a nice gesture, she is suspicious of the motive behind it and remains cold, so that she won’t be in the lady’s debt). But if you don’t always agree with her choices, Tóibín gives you enough of a wide window into her thoughts that you always understand them. It is particularly interesting to contrast the people in Ireland, whom he tinges with a sort of inborn hopelessness, with the people Eilis meets in America, who are some of them Irish, some Italian, and some simply American: open to possibilities and bright with energy. It’s no accident that the Italian family she grows close to is planning to buy property on Long Island and set up a homebuilding business, while all her friends in Ireland see no further than continuing the family business, doing what their parents have done and their parents before them. And that, ultimately, is the choice Eilis must make.

Review: The Drawing Of The Dark

The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers
8/10, a somewhat scattered supernatural adventure in medieval Europe

It is a fairly well-established fact that I am a huge Tim Powers fan. I haven’t posted reviews of all his books–I read “Expiration Date,” “Earthquake Weather,” and “Last Call” before starting this blog–but I have reviewed The Anubis Gates, one of my favorite time-travel “Olde Worlde” stories.

So I was looking forward to “The Drawing of the Dark,” another chapter in his Fisher King universe, which is just like ours except for the supernatural/occult world that underlies it, a world ruled by Kings, in the east and the west. In Vienna in the 1600s, the West is weak, and the King of the East, wielding the Turkish army like a sword, intends to strike at its heart.

None of this is known to Irish mercenary Brian Duffy. All he knows is that he’s hungry and friendless in Venice, until a mysterious old man offers him the job of bouncer at a tavern in Vienna. He sees some strange things on the road to Vienna, but arrives there safely, to find that Epiphany, the girl he loved many years ago, is now a widow working in the kitchen. The tavern is a converted monastery, and also a brewery, whose famous Herzwesten Bock beer is due to be released in Easter.

Strange things continue to swirl around Duffy, from a ship of Vikings sailing down the Danau to hideous flying creatures attacking him. When the old man joins Duffy in the tavern, he reveals that the Herzwesten Dark beer, due to be drawn on All Hallow’s Eve, is actually a source of power and renewal for the Western King, and that the Turkish army’s attack has been planned to steal the Dark, or corrupt it if that is not possible.

Duffy himself is excellently drawn as the reluctant hero, though there is more hero in him than he knows. Powers paints a vivid picture of medieval Vienna, with his usual cast of eccentric and delightful characters, and the ins and outs of magic are as well thought-out as usual. But Duffy’s reluctance to get involved and distance from the center of the action makes him a difficult vantage point to narrate the story from. In “Last Call,” Powers has a similar hero, but his own story is more compelling in this case, and he is much more of a central figure. All Duffy wants is for things to quiet down so he can rest.

While the story is still engaging and tense, with several twists and turns, it isn’t quite up to the rest of Powers’ works. For a completist (like me), it’s definitely worth reading, but if you’re looking for an introduction to Powers, try The Anubis Gates, Last Call, or Declare.