Friday, December 19, 2014

Gone Girl - Dir. David Fincher (2014)


So I saw this movie over a month ago and I don't remember many specific details.  Of course there is one detail that most people will not forget, but I don't want to dwell on it or make any stupid jokes.  More recently, the film has garnered several Golden Globe nominations: Best Director, Best Actress in a Drama, Best Screenplay, and Best Score.  Because of how long it has been since I saw the movie, and because I think I treated the book review as something of a quasi-film adaptation review, I will address the question of whether it will win.  Please keep in mind that I am far from a comprehensive critic that is employed full-time digesting all of the noteworthy titles of the year.  I know myself, but that is all.

But before that, one special note on Tyler Perry.  Perry played Tanner Bolt.  Notably, Tanner Bolt's wife did not make an appearance in the film, no doubt due to budget/time constraints, but since she was one of the very few African-American characters in the book, it makes sense that Tanner Bolt be depicted by a black man.  And Perry won an African-American Film Critic's Association award for Best Supporting Actor, tying with J.K. Simmons for Whiplash (the obvious favorite for the Oscar).  I haven't seen Whiplash, but Perry deserved this nomination if only because he brought levity to the film.  Sure, there are funny moments in Gone Girl, but one would certainly expect Neil Patrick Harris to bring the comic element home.  He does not do that, and I actually thought his depiction made for a weaker character than in the book, because Desi is an even more pronounced caricature.  But Perry brought the perfect blend of light humor, empathy and confidence to his role, and though I have never seen any of his movies, he may be at his best when not cross-dressing as a grandma.  He was the most pleasant surprise about the adaptation for me.

So then: David Fincher.  He is still most known for The Social Network, Se7en, and Fight Club.  He won the Golden Globe for The Social Network but was only nominated for the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button aside from that.  He still has not won an Oscar for directing, and I think most people will agree, in hindsight, that he was snubbed on both Se7en and Fight Club.  Fight Club may not have deserved to win Best Picture, and he may not have deserved to win Best Director--but he certainly deserved a nomination because that film demanded serious attention to detail, and he brought it.  Maybe it is interesting to compare that film to Gone Girl.  And basically, yeah, Gone Girl is nowhere near as unique and special a work as Fight Club.  Gone Girl is a ready-made blockbuster.  Nobody knew what the fuck Fight Club was when it came out, and I think it's safe to say the movie made the book way more popular afterwards.  It's become a cult phenomenon, and I was shocked to see it only made about $37 million at the box office.  DVD sales and syndication no doubt have made this film the majority of its earnings.  Is Gone Girl better than The Social Network?  Probably not, and I even found that film a bit annoying (i.e. it had an Aaron Sorkin screenplay).  So I do not think Fincher should win for this, nor do I think he has a prayer against the directors of either Birdman or Boyhood (I haven't seen Boyhood yet - insanely - but Richard Linklater also has gone too long without a win), or Wes Anderson for that matter.  Verdict: Lose

As for Rosamund Pike, it is good that she received the nomination as she plays the character well. And she actually has a shot at winning in her category, and getting nominated for the Oscar. Apparently she was in another movie reviewed on this site, but her performance was not cited directly.  Verdict: Win

I think it is safe to say that Gillian Flynn has already "won," but she has very stiff competition for her category and I think it will be a big shocker if neither Birdman, nor Boyhood, nor The Grand Budapest Hotel beats out Gone Girl in this category.  The script is about as good as the book--though I just read that Michelle Obama thought the book was way better and she is probably a better authority than me when it comes to such matters.  Side note: it would be hilarious if there were a sequel to Gone Girl and it was about Michelle Obama, post-White House.  Verdict: Lose

Finally, Trent Reznor always wins when he scores David Fincher films.  The score for this was especially good--better than The Social Network.  However, the score for Interstellar sounds sci-fi, epic and classic (I heard it when my roommate listened to it once) so that could win, and Birdman's nonstop jazz drums complements the film remarkably well.  I would still put my money on Trent, though.  Verdict: Win

Overall, a satisfying film that effectively replaces the book.  I am pretty sure I am the only cynic that will go so far as to suggest that the book is rendered moot by the movie.  People will still read it on their Kindle.  (But no one will strike up a conversation if they see you reading a Kindle, unless they are super nosy and literally read over your shoulder until they can identify the text.)




Sunday, December 14, 2014

Think and Grow Poor: Cultivating a Negative Mental Attitude Promotional Post

More than five and a half years ago, I mentioned that I was considering posting this book.  I declined to do so for "personal reasons":

 Later, this morning I decided against another, my most recent, still in its rough draft form and one I am not sure will ever be seriously revised, my NaNoWriMo project from last year, titled Think and Grow Poor: Cultivating a Negative Mental Attitude, a memoir of my life from July of 2007 through Election Day 2008--I decided against this for personal reasons, and though it is no small achievement, it is probably my weakest overall work, with only a few chapters in particular (maybe 5) that eclipse most of my other work."(http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2009/05/dst-promotional-post.html)

So having said that, five of these chapters are probably worth checking out more than the others:
"Pre-Existing Condition"
"Literary Criticism"
"The Launch" 
"I Want to Shroom at Disneyland" 
"Ashleigh"

This book is not great.  But the structure is what separates it from your "typical road novel."  Obviously, Kerouac is a major influence on this work.  I took a road trip and settled down for 9 months in L.A., then wrote about the experience in a very short period of time.  There are also several "themes" that run through the book and I would like to think that I present a near-expert perspective on each of them.

I did not want to put this up previously because it was "too soon."  But now, time has healed most wounds, and I can give this is its own blog.  I advertised this book on Facebook by asking the question of how many friends I might lose in the process of posting it, but I only dropped from 551 to 550.  While this is a book of creative nonfiction in its purest sense (only 2 name changes), I hope most people consider it "fiction" and do not decide to prejudge me on the basis of the activities described therein.  The majority of this action took place between August 2007 and September 2008, so I hope you realize that people have the capacity to change.  It was also written mostly in November 2008, and there are many, many changes I would make if I were going to sit down with it and publish it as a book.  I am mostly happy with the way it is (though I know it tends to drag on in self-serious, equivocating explanatory paragraphs), and was busy trying to complete NaNoWriMo in 2014 while posting each chapter in reverse chronological order and making "light edits" and trying to come up with something vaguely clever to tease each post on Facebook and Twitter.  It wasn't a big success, but also wasn't a huge failure.  To date it has 881 page views (which I know, sucks, but in comparison to DST, which is sitting at 2040 after 5.5 years, it can be counted as a slight success.  Then again, I never tried to do a similar promotional thing for DST.

There were about 10 people that seemed to regularly visit the site each day to see each new post.  I appreciate their attention and hope they found it worthwhile.  I hope you will consider checking it out, and letting me know what you think.  Because I've been very lazy lately, but really want to get back into writing the way I did in 2006 through 2009...and maybe even 2013.  I find myself strangely lacking motivation to try, but I know that eventually, I must.

http://thinkandgrowpoor.blogspot.com/

-Christopher J. Knorps
12/14/14 in Chicago, Illinois

Monday, December 8, 2014

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (2012)


My roommate picked up Gone Girl at the local thrift shop for me.  The night before, I had bought The Corrections from there for $3.  It was a nice gesture, and I was mildly interested in reading Gone Girl before, if only because it would be educational to learn what it takes to build a blockbuster novel and film combo.  Whatever Gillian Flynn did, she did it right, and she deserves her success.  Because she wrote a book that wasn't aimed at children, nor a trilogy, and managed to create a nasty 1-2 punch of an enormously popular novel and a critically-acclaimed screen adaptation.  (Stayed tuned for a review of the film.)  I enjoyed this book very much, for the most part.  Ultimately, I felt that Flynn was constrained by the confines of the plot, and while she makes a very powerful statement, eventually gets bogged down in melodrama more suited to soap operas than literary fiction.  This is the problem with being a "genre writer," even though I feel like Flynn's next novel (presuming it does not take 20 years) will place her in a different category from most mystery or thriller writers.  She is "literary thriller."  It's when Gone Girl turns into more of a genre exercise than a sociopolitical statement that I started to get bored.

The opening of the novel reminded me of the recently-reviewed The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., at least in the way the early 30's single Brooklyn writers scene is depicted.  There are only a couple scenes of this at the beginning of Gone Girl, but I remember being struck by them in a way, because I didn't know what to expect.

My sister told me, over dinner at Ron of Japan, that she and her husband Stefan had gone to see it.  Stefan remarked, "I wanted to throw my soda at the screen."   My sister was similarly exasperated.  I said I was surprised--I thought it was good to so far.  She asked, "Did you get to Book Two yet?"  I said no.  She said, "Yeah, wait til you get there."

So I went in skeptical, and when I got to Book Two, I wasn't that disappointed.  I can honestly say though that no one spoiled the book or movie for me, and I don't intend to do so here.  I can genuinely say that I didn't know what was going to happen next at more than three crucial parts of the story.  Maybe I am just an idiot who was reading it very casually, or didn't care that much because it was already gradually turning into something that felt like a genre exercise, but it didn't feel predictable.

Gillian Flynn is one of the most famous writers now living in Chicago, so I kind of have to give a positive review.  This book takes place almost entirely in the town of North Carthage, with the remainder in New York City--primarily Brooklyn Heights.  Flynn recently appeared on a WTTW show called "My Chicago," where she rode around in a car and told one of the hosts about all of the noteworthy locations she had frequented in Chicago.  They picked up her husband, an attorney, and they ended the show at Logan Hardware, an arcade bar, (or maybe Emporium--whichever one has the combination record store).  I do hope to run into her randomly in the Loop one day and be like, can we hang?

Gone Girl has been characterized as misogynistic in the press--but it is in these unfiltered moments of truth (or stereotype) that the novel flourishes.  It is appropriate to include an example from an earlier section to illustrate:

 "Nick and I, we sometimes laugh, laugh out loud, at the horrible things women make their husbands do to prove their love.  The pointless tasks, the myriad sacrifices, the endless small surrenders.  We call these men the dancing monkeys.
Nick will come home, sweaty and salty and beer-loose from a day at the ballpark, and I'll curl up in his lap, ask him about the game, ask him if his friend Jack had a good time, and he'll say, 'Oh, he came down with a case of the dancing monkeys--poor Jennifer was having a "real stressful week" and really needed him at home.'
Or his buddy at work, who can't go out for drinks because his girlfriend really needs him to stop by some bistro where she is having dinner with a friend from out of town.  So they can finally meet.  And so she can show how obedient her dancing monkey is: He comes when I call, and look how well groomed!
Wear this, don't wear that.  Do this chore now and do this chore when you get a chance and by that I mean now.  And definitely, definitely, give up the things you love for me, so I will have proof that you love me best.  It's the female pissing contest--as we swan around our book clubs and our cocktail hours, there are few things women love more than being able to detail the sacrifices our men make for us.  A call-and-response, the response being: 'Ohhh, that's so sweet.'" (55)

Built into this is the implicit feeling that, if the husband refuses, it will count as a major breach in the relationship and will always come back to haunt them.  Flynn writes about mundane matters like this with the flair of a fine fiction writer, and I have to say that almost all of the novel that doesn't deal with the whole page-turning-thriller plot is very good, and the novel is only not "great" because the thriller plot dominates the mundane fiction part of the book.

I'm not sure if I should spoil what happens--I think  it's generally an unfair thing to do because the first reason people read reviews of books or movies is to find out if it's worth their time or not.  I could discuss a bit more if I spoiled it, but that's no fair.  Perhaps the comments section will be used for "spoilers"--if anyone cares enough to point anything out.

There are 3 parts to this book.  The first is definitely the best and the reason to read the book.  Maybe stop there and then watch the movie.  Because the movie does the ending better.  The movie was playing at the Logan Theater one week ago, and since it's been out for a while, I feel its departure is imminent.  But I just checked and there it still is, a week later.  Anyways, I was at about page 400, and I kept saying I was going to finish the book before the movie, but then all of the sudden it was 2:40 and I needed to walk over.  I ended up needing to skim the last 15 pages.  I think it is probably the worst part of the book.  The corresponding part of the movie is not as bad.

In short, ironically, I felt that the last 15 pages were scribbled down hurriedly and aren't as elegantly-plotted as the rest of the book.  In truth, I could say that about the whole last 100 pages.  But the 15 are noteworthy due to my problem of not finishing before seeing the movie.  The story is resolved in an unsatisfactory way, and almost feels like it wants to open itself up to a sequel,  But that would be terrible.  After seeing the movie or reading the book, I don't think you will want to see the characters again in any new story.

I do want to comment on some nice parts the book has that the movie does not.  One is the time that Nick goes to a bar to get away from his situation with all of the press parked at his house and ends up doing a video interview with a young female journalist that is posted to her blog:

"Good morning!  I sat in bed with my laptop by my side, enjoying the online reviews of my impromptu interview.  My left eyeball was throbbing a bit, a light hangover from the cheap Scotch, but the rest of me was feeling pretty satisfied.  Last night I cast the first line to lure my wife back in.  I'm sorry, I will make it up to you, I will do whatever you want from now on, I will let the world know how special you are.
Because I was fucked unless Amy decided to show herself.  Tanner's detective (a wiry, clean-cut guy, not the boozy noir gumshoe I'd hope for) had come up with nothing so far--my wife had disappeared herself perfectly.  I had to convince Amy to come back to me, flush her out with compliments and capitulation.
If the reviews were any indication, I made the right call, because the reviews were good.  They were very good:
The Iceman Melteth!
I KNEW he was a good guy.
In vino veritas!
Maybe he didn't kill her after all.
Maybe he didn't kill her after all.
Maybe he didn't kill her after all.
And they'd stopped calling me Lance." (309)

Some characters are also excised from the book, the most memorable of which is Hilary Handy.  Tanner Bolt's wife is also cut, along with Stucks Buckley, and maybe one or two more.  And it occurs to me that Amy mentions Stucks Buckley in a diary entry and remarks that he has a stupid name.  So, perhaps, Flynn is being self-aware that, a lot of her character have dumb names and sound like the obvious plot devices they are.  Hilary Handy is certainly a handy person to have on your side.  Tanner Bolt just sounds like a superhero that comes in to save the day (though he is depicted as far from that).  Noelle Hawthorne and Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott all sound like realistic names, though.  Rhonda Boney just sounds goofy.

But Hilary Handy.  Maybe she was cut because her story struck me as a little more unrealistic than the rest of the book (and maybe people will think I am crazy for thinking this book is realistic--but I do think a good bit of the plot is very plausible and would be shocked if it didn't spawn a couple copycat crimes).  This part in particular:

"'Instead, she starts getting me to do things.  I don't realize it at the time, but she starts setting me up.  She asks if she can color my hair the same blond as hers, because mine's mousy, and it'll look so nice a brighter shade.  And she starts complaining about her parents.  I mean she's always complained about her parents, but now she really gets going on them--how they only love her as an idea and not really for who she is--so she says she wants to mess with her parents.  She has me start prank-calling her house, telling her parents I'm the new Amazing Amy.  We'd take the train into New York some weekends, and she'd tell me to stand outside their house--one time she had me run up to her mom and tell her I was going to get rid of Amy and be her new Amy or some crap like that.'
And you did it?'
'It was just dumb stuff girls do.  Back before cell phones and cyber-bullying.  A way to kill time.  We did prank stuff like that all the time, just dumb stuff.  Try to one-up each other on how daring and freaky we could be.'" (291)

It's a bit implausible.  It just wouldn't be cool to do that kind of stuff.

I've said about all I can about Gone Girl at this point.  It's a very clever book, and I recommend it.  Unfortunately, the movie is pretty good, so it sort of takes away an impetus to read the book.  And by the time I watched the movie, I was sick of the story.  It's best to experience one or the other--then maybe take a break for a long time, and experience the other one.  I would not recommend doing it back-to-back, or concurrently.

There's more I could say, but I will save that for the film review I will post in a few days...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Portable Henry Rollins - Henry Rollins (1997)


My first exposure to Henry Rollins came in March of 2001, when I went to New Orleans with a couple friends and we saw that he was playing at the House of Blues there.  We considered going, but none of us were really fans.  About a year later, I was watching a rerun of SNL with a few friends in my NYU dorm room.  Rollins was the musical guest, and he gyrated in place like a maniac with his shirt off.  We all laughed at the performance.  He seemed like a show-off.

A year or two after that, I read Our Band Could Be Your Life for the first time, and a couple years after that, I started listening to Black Flag.  I guess it took me so long because I never really identified with the "message" of their music until I finished college and realized how much life sucks as an adult.  This may sound weird because they seem more like a band that appeals to teenagers - but I believe one can only fully appreciate Black Flag if they have experienced personal rejection so many times that they have abandoned hope for a better result.  Of course you can be a depressed teenager and listen to Black Flag, but eventually you may grow into a happy and successful person.  Only after going through a prolonged period of psychological pain may a person fully understand the gravity of their music.  Perhaps this makes the prospect of appreciating Black Flag an unpleasant idea.  Certainly, their recent iterations are a joke, and while I'm sure Greg Ginn still has his number of demons to exorcise, the band has never been the same without Henry.  He's not the type of person to be in it for the money (and he kind of reminds me of Morrissey in this regard) but if he ever did reunite with them and played small clubs (such as Reggie's Rock Club, where Black Flag recently played a show for children), no one would complain.  Keith Morris has shown that age should not be a factor in the type of music you play, but I have to believe that Rollins has stopped recording and performing music because he no longer enjoys it.  Or because he has seen and done everything.

There are a lot of problems with The Portable Henry Rollins, and the primary one may be the author's personality.  This book is a collection of excerpts from many others books that Rollins has published through his own literary press 2/13/61, and they often read like diary entries.  I am not sure of the exact length of the longest excerpt, but it is probably the first of the three "previously unreleased" short stories that conclude the book--and that is about three pages long.  The book is a compilation of fits and starts, and while a few of them get at the kind of truth found in the best literary fiction or poetry, it is much more often "miss" than "hit."  It is very repetitive and Rollins mostly comes off as a jerk who hates everyone (except Joe Cole and Ian Mackaye), including himself.  I hate a lot of people and have written my fair share of depressing prose, but I always try to end on something very vaguely life-affirming.  I highly doubt that reading this book will give you a more positive outlook on anything other than the idea of suicide.

It is ironic, then, that Rollins has most recently been in the news for his op-eds in the L.A. Weekly criticizing Robin Williams for ending his own life.  In the first essay blithely titled "Fuck Suicide," Rollins wrote that Williams had performed for troops overseas at some of the same events as himself, and that he considered him a talented and good man.  But he had just proved himself to be the biggest coward in the world because he had abandoned his family and failed to become a master over himself.  Many readers took issue and wrote angry letters to Rollins, and his second essay effectively recanted the first, admitting that he could not defend the views he expressed.

Personally, I agree with his statement that once you have children, you waive your right to take your own life, and that your utmost goal should be not to traumatize them.  After that statement, I can understand where he is coming from, excoriating the weak individuals that would rather die than deal with their problems--but it is a very fine distinction, and miles away from the tenor of the writings collected in this book.  Rollins writes about suicide a lot in these pages (and he does reference Robin Williams once in the late 1980's, oddly connecting him to the fashion choices of a yuppie college town coffee house crowd), and it almost always sounds preferable to the depressing chaos of existence.

This book is Controversial.  Rollins flirts with misogyny, then unabashedly adopts it.  2014 readers will find this aspect of the book troubling and unacceptable.  Perhaps the balance will be struck by his overt hatred of police officers.  But I don't think so.  Rollins wasn't writing this material to impress anyone, and the vast majority of readers will probably make it through the first 50 pages before putting it down.  Most of this was written when he was maybe somewhere between the ages of 17 and 25, and it shows: this is really personal, unedited stuff.  I am reminded of the Kurt Cobain coffee table book of diary entries that I never read.  Except this doesn't carry the mystique of the "voice from beyond the grave."  Rollins may have disavowed a lot of this writing, but I don't know for sure.  At the end of the day, it is completely honest, and it shows that the world inside his mind is a dark, dark place.  For this act of bravery--boldly admitting that he is a completely twisted motherfucker--he deserves praise.  But as a book that really adds nothing new to his oeuvre, and appears to serve as a mere "sampler" to casual fans considering a deeper dive, it comes off like a money grab--a greatest hits collection that lacks the immediacy and punch of an original release.

Probably the most valuable portion is the excerpt from Get in the Van, which is a book of diary entries Rollins wrote while on tour with Black Flag in the early-to-mid 1980's.  I have wanted to read Get in the Van in the past, and have unsuccessfully searched for it in various public library systems.  My current office roommate gave me his copy to borrow, along with a number of spoken word albums by Rollins.  Get in the Van, the album, was one of them.  I do think this is the most succinct and entertaining portion of the collection, and I think the entire book would make a good read.  I have mixed feelings about the album, mainly the way Rollins reads so fast that you really can't be distracted while listening, and also the way it is only broken up into two long tracks (disc 1 and disc 2).  It's all about your preferred mode of consumption, as I don't believe the album encompasses the entirety of the text, but as a part of the collection, the parts from Get in the Van are probably the most essential.  I would also like to add that my office roommate is a police officer.  He would not be the type of "pig" that Rollins loves to hate, but then again Rollins seems to want to make the blanket statement that he hates all pigs.  It's a pretty immature viewpoint, though obviously at least partially a result of the many Black Flag shows that were shut down by the police, and I would be curious to know if Rollins took a less drastically hateful view once he got into his 30's:

"After the show I'm sitting in a place eating and a woman sits down and tells me that she likes what I do but the only thing she didn't like was what I said about pigs.  She's a pig herself, and she says that she's an individual.  I tell the pig cunt that when she puts a uniform on she loses all individuality.  I told her that I party down when I hear that a pig has gotten wasted.  I hope she goes out and gets shot in the knees by some low-rent motherfucker who laughs in her face.  She really thought that she was a human being.  I don't know how they brainwash these shitheads into being so self-righteous about being a bag of shit that should be taken out and shot in the face.  Fuck these people.  You never know when they are pigs in disguise.  Fuck you, you stupid pig bitch.  I hope you get Magic Johnson disease and die in some ward.  I wonder how long I have left with this shit."  (167)

Perhaps the vitriol was at its peak, as Rollins had just witnessed the murder of his best friend and roommate Joe Cole.  This entry comes from Now Watch Him Die and is dated June 30 in Columbia, MO.  One presumes it was June 30, 1992.  Maybe this female cop had a certain attitude that really rubbed him the wrong way, but from the way it's written, Rollins appears to be the more inhuman party.  And he would never deny that he is inhuman, which is a frustrating part of the book.  He doesn't make apologies or rationalize his thought process, and it can be a bit alienating for the reader.

The death of Joe Cole looms large throughout these pages, and I wish that Rollins had written a more formal essay about their friendship and maybe how he went on Unsolved Mysteries to try to find the shooter.  But his writings on the subject are more impressionistic:

"The detectives went through my house for hours
I was at the pig station
I didn't know until later
They went through the food in the kitchen
I got back to the house and all kinds of shit was turned over
My best friend's blood was all over the front walk
They're looking for something to bust us for
The pieces of shit even went through the attic
They were curious as to why I had so many tapes
He talks to me and makes me think he's my friend
I look at him and know he thinks I'm scum
If I give these pieces of shit the time of day then they win
You know
There's so many pieces of shit in the world
It's amazing anyone gets by
The pigs asked if me and Joe were faggots
They were so relieved when they found out we weren't
Fuck you pig
Like I have to prove myself to you
I can't think of a more fucked-up situation
I have to talk to these shitheads all the time now
They still ask other people about me
Like I might have been up to something
I'm some kind of suspect?
Nah, but you sure are some kind of pig." (148-149)

Ultimately, it may appear that I really didn't like this book.  And truthfully, on the whole, I'll take Lexicon Devil or The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club over it.  But as mentioned, occasionally Rollins will bust out with a few sentences of truth, and the power of such moments cannot be denied:

"Reality has become a fear trip.  Something to choke on.  One in every three women in America will be raped.  This is science friction.  I see it from all sides.  I see the direction of the infection.  The facts are stacked and packed into your head.  You need the two-hour vacation twelve times a day.  Spark the joint and park the car.  Look up at the stars.  Think about it, you're in the hot seat.  You're in a huge shark tank.  If you want to beat them, you have to join them somehow.  The bad guys kill the bad guys.  The bad guys kill the good guys.  If you want to survive the bad guys, you have to have some bad in you--a lot, actually.  You have to know what they know." (230)

And there is also the occasional bit of indie celebrity gossip that will titillate scenesters:

"November 1. Chicago, IL:...Steve Albini is at the show tonight hanging out with the opening band I guess.  I never met the guy before but once read an article he wrote that put me down.  I am considering breaking his face up for him, but when I move in on him I see that he's just a skinny punk.  It wouldn't have been a good kill, so I let it slide.  He'll never know how close he came to getting his face fucked up in front of his friends." (177)

I doubt Henry will ever read this, see me, or recognize me, but on the off chance that it happens, I hope he wants to have a constructive conversation about writing (and not want to introduce his fist to my face).  I like some of his work very much, but this collection is so random that it left me feeling cold.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn (1992)


Ishmael was another book purchased at the Printer's Row Lit Fest this year, along with How to be Alone--but it was not purchased by me.  My friend (who previously reviewed Anna Karenina) picked it up, recalling that it was the best book that had been assigned for reading in middle school.  I told him that if I had to read Ishmael, he would need to read Our Band Could Be Your Life.  I kept up my end up the bargain; he did not.

My feelings on Ishmael are not that conflicted.  I found it difficult to slog through the end.  It is not a hard read, but I found it repetitive and "padded."  It seemed to me that Quinn knew what he wanted to say--and the real value of the book is that he certainly does have something to say--but that he did not need a 263 page novel to say it.  To me, this books seems like it could be "The Grand Inquisitor," which was a 20 page excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov that was assigned to me in a college course, and sold in the bookstore for about $1.99.  "The Grand Inquisitor" is definitely worth a read--and if Ishmael was condensed down into a 20 page excerpt it might be as well.  But I did not become actively engaged in this novel until the last 50 pages or so, and while those 50 pages may be a reasonably compelling portion of the text, I was more exasperated than enthralled by the majority of it.

Ishmael is not your typical book.  It reminded me of Plato's Socratic dialogues.  However, unlike those, it is not always easy to tell who is speaking.  Moreover, Socrates always advances along with his student along a minutely logical plane.  Sometimes, this dialogue just leaps across logical barriers, and says "things are so because of this, and that's just the way it is." I don't necessarily disagree with the wisdom of this book--just the way it arrives there.  And if it's not already clear to you, Ishmael does not have much of a plot.  The point of the book is to lecture the reader.  The plot is secondary, but I must admit that the when the "plot" of the book took over near the end, I was most interested.  Regardless of this form, Ishmael is a very popular book.  I have seen people reading it on the El, and its cover was oddly familiar to me before I saw my friend pick it up.  I was worried it was going to be like The Celestine Prophecy--thankfully, it was better.  I would say the two books are similarly popular as "new age" mainstream philosophical dispatches on how to live a better life.  Many people read them, and recommend them to their friends.  Ishmael is better and does not concern itself with the "energy" we project onto others.  It presents a different way of looking at the world.  When I asked my friend what it was about, he replied that it was about how humans are just insignificant little playthings for God, or something.  That was not the best description so here is mine:

It is about a middle-aged man who answers an ad from a person seeking a student.  The ad is very brusque and new age-y: "TEACHER seeks pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person."  (4) He shows up to an office and a gorilla is sitting there.  Then, the gorilla communicates with him telepathically and engages him in prolonged dialogues on a different interpretation of human history.

It sounds absurd, and Quinn mostly knows this, and it does make for a few good comic moments.  I do not really have a problem with the plot; my problem, as stated above, is that the book treads over the same territory repeatedly, and does not seem to advance.  Eventually, Ishmael (who is the gorilla) retells the story of Genesis, and this seems like the turning point in the book.  Up until this point there is much conversation about the agricultural revolution and how human beings changed from being hunter-gatherers to stockpiling up their food supply, and the resulting issue of overpopulation.  This is pretty much the main topic of Ishmael and as noted, I agree with its message: we all waste too much, and there is no reason that millions of people across the planet struggle to get enough to eat--it is all a result of corrupt human institutions.  The point where I disagree is when it conveniently dismisses any attempts that "advanced" human beings have made to restore nature to its rightful place.  The book was published in 1992, and its message is no less important today, but I do believe that people are generally more environmentally-conscious than in the past.  Having said that, plenty of people still don't believe in global warming.  Also, a side note: this book would probably be longer if written ten or fifteen years later and devote a fair portion of text to how the internet has, contrary to its lofty ambitions, effectively shrunk the worldview of its users:

"Mother Culture teaches you that this is as it should be.  Except for a few thousand savages scattered here and there, all the peoples of the earth are now enacting this story.  This is the story man was born to enact, and to depart from it is to resign from the human race itself, is to venture into oblivion.  Your place is here, participating in this story, putting your shoulder to the wheel, and as a reward, being fed.  There is no "something else." To step out of this story is to fall off the edge of the world.  There's no way out of it except through death." (37)

Basically the world is divided up into Takers and Leavers.  Takers are essentially colonists, and Leavers are essentially tribal people.  Ishmael would probably have been a better book if it had been a more scholarly, anthropological work of non-fiction.  However, its message would not come through nearly as clearly.  I do think the best parts of the text are the brief snippets that discuss certain obscure moments of ancient human history.  There was one great passage that mentioned a certain tribe of natives in Arizona, and their name was only familiar because the stadium where the Chicago Cubs used to play their spring training games in Mesa, AZ (until this year) was named for them:

"And if they got tired of being agriculturalists, if they found they didn't like where it was leading them in their particular adaptation, they were able to give it up.  They didn't say to themselves, 'Well, we've got to keep going at this even if it kills us, because this is the right way to live.'  For example, there was once a people who constructed a vast network of irrigation canals in order to farm the deserts of what is now southeastern Arizona.  They maintained these canals for three thousand years and built a fairly advanced civilization, but in the end they were free to say, 'This is a toilsome and unsatisfying way to live, so to hell with it.'  They simply walked away from the whole thing and put it so totally out of mind that we don't even know what they called themselves.  The only name we have for them is the one the Pima Indians gave them: Hohokam--those who vanished." (168)

Ultimately, Ishmael arrives at its greatest and most powerful claim--that industrialization has prevented human beings from evolving into anything more than homo sapiens--and I have a hard time accepting it, for the evolutionary process takes much longer than humans have been making and recording "history."  It is an interesting thought, but like most of the book, while wisdom is being liberally offered, deeper and greater details about the factual claims are left out in the favor of "readability" or "entertainment."  When I did not find it all that entertaining (the ending being the exception), then it is a problem for me to recommend it.

But this book is still very popular and has apparently achieved "near classic" status--I haven't read any reviews, but I would presume it is more popular with readers than critics.  So I won't try to talk anyone out of reading this book.  I just hope they will know what to expect.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2014 Report Card



By all accounts, the Cubs are now "rebuilt."  People expect them to compete in the wild card race next year.  Their best players will have advanced to the major league level, and they will have shed the majority of their old contracts, allowing them to sign an all-star or two as free agents.

This is the myth, at least.  On paper, the Cubs players were terrible.  If it feels like the franchise has "turned the corner" as an article today in the Tribune suggests, it is because they went 73-89, which is their best record since 2010.  Finishing 16 games under .500 looks much better than 40 games under .500.  And there were flashes of excitement from some of the new players, as well as resurgences for "proven" former prospects.  But I have a hard time believing the Cubs will compete for a playoff spot next year.  They might be able to approach .500, but they will need to be a bit better than that to make the playoffs, and I just don't think that kind of rapid turnaround is going to happen over the off season.

The organization is spending a ridiculous amount of money to refurbish Wrigley Field, which has just now begun.  Of course I am happy they are showing that they plan to be there for a good while longer, but it's like they've just been sacrificing their payroll to pay for the park.  Also, while this isn't exactly different for any other MLB team, it's not really affordable to spend 3 hours at a ballpark, unless you can resist all the beer and snacks that are constantly being shoved in your face.  Moreover, no team in the National League has more expensive tickets

So obviously I am still cynical about this team, but I still watch games when they are on WGN, and I still follow them relatively closely.  I just wanted to make the point that I think the media and the franchise are overselling the team right now--right as tickets for the 2015 Cubs convention go on sale.

Individually, the players on this team were a complete joke--with a few exceptions:

Anthony Rizzo: A

Last year I gave Rizzo a C-, and felt bad about it.  But he deserved that, and he deserves an A this year.  Even batting a relatively pedestrian .283, he deserves an A (he would have gotten an A+ if he were over .300, considering the NL Batting Champ hit .319).  Notably he was #2 in the league in home runs with 32 and had a very high OPS (which means on base + slugging percentage, which I didn't know until a couple days ago--and I still can't really tell you how to arrive at slugging percentage).  He made the All-Star team, and quietly proved that he could bounce back from a slump and show the fruits of the Cubs efforts at investing in young talent.  So many other times prospects will just fizzle out at the major league level (which is the main reason I have bemoaned the rebuilding effort over the past several years), but Rizzo made good--he's getting paid pretty well for himself now too, but he contributed that value to the team.

Starlin Castro: A

Any even bigger comeback, as last year he was given a D+.  And truthfully he did not have as much of a standout season as Rizzo, but his .292 average put him at the top of the team, and not far from the top of the league.  That is good for 47 points higher than last year.  He made 15 errors, which is the most on the team, but what can you do as a shortstop.  But I don't even think he plays shortstop anymore.  Nor is he the type of player I expected him to be.  He was even more pathetic in stolen bases this year than last (4), and he is not a fast lead-off hitter.  He actually was batting third or fourth, I think.  And sure--put Rizzo after him, but put Castro at #2.  I guess he may be moved to second base?  I don't really know the fielding situation.  I just know they have another shortstop and 2nd baseman.

Jake Arietta: A

I gave Arietta a B+ last year, which was better than Samardzija.  However, this year Samardzija would get an A, and Arietta probably deserves an A-, but he gets an A because he showed strong leadership at the end of the season.  His numbers were good, but probably just borderline All-Star due to the Cubs shitty offense.  Regardless, it was very hard for a pitcher to be over.500 either this year or last, so Arietta's 10-5 record is almost a miracle.  He had an excellent ERA of 2.53--up there with the best in the league--and easily established himself as the ace of the staff.  He wasn't exactly Clayton Kershaw (who obviously would get an A+), and he didn't put up 200 IP.  But he became an almost dominant starter near the end of the season, and his stats are impressive despite a string of a few weak performances around the middle of it.  If he can pitch consistently at this level, he will easily make the All-Star team next year.  Any team would be pleased to have him in their rotation, and the Cubs have been fortunate to see him flourish.

And then of course there was everyone else.

Javier Baez: C-

Everyone was very excited about Javier Baez at spring training last year, and that resumed when he made his debut.  He started out with a bang, but soon established himself as another free-swinging strikeout king.  He finished with an anemic .169 average and 95 strikeouts in 213 at bats.  That is really terrible.  That would be like an everyday player striking out 225 times.  I give him a C- because D+ sounds too harsh when he didn't play the whole season and did show genuine flashes of greatness. But I think it's really premature to say he is one of the cornerstones of the franchise before he has proven himself.

Jorge Soler: A-

He came out of the gates with one of the best hitting streaks ever by a rookie and proceeded to quiet down a bit, but finished with much more impressive numbers than Baez, with whom I will always associate him.  He only played in 24 games, but he matched Starlin Castro at .292 and put in an impressive 20 RBI's in 26 hits.  I also think it's premature to say he is going to be a huge star for the Cubs, but he does seem like he could be the real deal.

Chris Coghlan: B

I don't know who Chris Coghlan is, so he gets a B.  Apparently he had a decent year and played in more games than everyone else except Castro, Rizzo and Valbuena.  Batting .286 seems like a victory, but I don't remember him.  Perhaps he deserves a B+.  There is nothing else I can really say.

Luis Valbuena: C+

He played in more games than anyone else, but he didn't have very impressive numbers otherwise. He's listed as a third baseman, but I'm pretty sure he is a utility player, and that Mike Olt became their de facto third baseman this year.  I suppose he can be applauded for finishing second in home runs on the team, with 16.  He seems to have become more of a "power hitter" this year, and having a pinch hitter like that is nice to have in your back pocket.  But not necessarily when they hit .249.  He seems to have stayed a consistent non-demotee to AAA this year, and certainly established his most active season in the majors.  And I'd rather have him playing than Olt.

Mike Olt: D

He became known as their starting third baseman this season, and a disappointment.  He was one of the most buzzed about players during spring training (along with Baez), with the media planting expectations that he would rise quickly.  Maybe his promotion was premature.  In 89 games and 223 at bats, he managed just 26 hits, putting his average at .160.  He hit 12 home runs, and while he did not strike out quite as frequently as Baez, he managed to get the same number of hits in 37 less games.  Maybe he came in for more late games as a defensive replacement.  I don't know, but Baez only had 12 fewer at bats--so his average sucked pretty hard too, and maybe he deserves a D+, because Olt pretty much hit for better power, despite Baez's flashiness.

Arismendy Alcantara: C

There's not much you can say about Alcantara either, except that he is another "star of the future" and hit 10 home runs and stole the most bases on the team with an impressive 8 (Emilio Bonifacio would have won with 14 but he is now on the Braves--and to be fair he should not be mocked for that as he only played in 70 games).  He did well at AAA and I can see why he was brought up, but, like Olt and Baez, he really hasn't convinced me that he is an all-star caliber player.  More and more it seems like when I read about the Cubs plans to storm the league and all the prospects that have now "developed" and are ready to play at the MLB level, it just seems like they've cobbled together a mediocre team and overselling the potential explosiveness of their players.

Welington Castillo: B

I gave Welington Castillo an A- last year and I just realized I spelled his name wrong, with to Ls  That may have seemed high for a .274 hitter, but I gave him that primarily on his defense behind the plate.  And he was probably even better defensively this year, but I had to drop him to a B because anybody who is hitting .237 probably doesn't deserve a B unless they are a pitcher.  He had 14 less hits and 13 less runs in the same number of at bats as last year (380).  He also had 5 more home runs and six more RBIs, so you can also say he made more of his hits count this year.  He was a reliable presence behind the plate, and I am totally fine with him as the starting catcher--though apparently there is another prospect in AAA who is supposed to be an amazing catcher.  I just like Welington and I will always root for him.  I expect him to retain his position next year, and maybe to share time with their prospect.  I don't think there is any need to bring in a new catcher.

Junior Lake: C

Lake played in a lot more games than last year, and he was not nearly as impressive as last year.  I gave him a B+ and I thought he deserved it, hitting .284.  Now he's hitting .211.  That's a big step back.  I would definitely not feel comfortable with my starting left fielder hitting that.  I would still give him another chance to turn it around as he did show promise previously.

Travis Wood: B-

While his win-loss record was only slightly worse than last year at 8-13 (last year at 9-12), his ERA was almost two points higher.  He was still something of a workhorse, though he hit 200 IP on the nose last year and only went about 173 this year.  Notably, he had a pretty good year at the plate.  I don't blame him for his win-loss record on this team, but he gave up many more runs and hits this year.  He also walked 76 (66 last year).  I think he should still be part of the rotation, but maybe in the fourth or fifth slot.

Edwin Jackson: D-

I don't think he deserved a C last year--maybe a C- (but see that his ERA was lower than Wood's is this year--4.98 versus 5.03)--but this year he definitely deserves barely above an F.  He is not the pitcher the Cubs were expecting.  But what are you going to do when you sign this dude to a 5 year contract?  They expected him to stick with this team through all of the growing pains, but what would you do?  If you knew that even if you pitched really well, all that would matter is whether you make the All-Star team, because it wouldn't make a difference in helping the team make the playoffs.  He was infamously moved into the bullpen at the end of the season, rather than getting his last start.  He knows his situation, and maybe he can turn it around--if he could turn back into the pitcher he was 5 years ago on the Tigers, I think the Cubs would be ecstatic.  But he will need to do a lot of work this off-season to figure out where he has gone wrong, and what he can do to resurrect his career.  He just turned 30 and is signed through the next two years.  So here is hoping he doesn't just collect his paycheck and suck again next year, forcing the Cubs to release him and eat his contract.  It would be a pleasant surprise if he could pitch like an All-Star next year, but I am not sure he will get the opportunity to make that showing.

Kyle Hendricks: A

He belongs at the top of this list, because he was fucking amazing.  Of course he is not going to win Rookie of the Year, but he deserves to be in contention.  If he can maintain this level of excellence, he deserves to be #2 in the rotation right behind Arietta.  Certainly, he was one of the happiest surprises of the season.  I was going to give him an A-, but his numbers were every bit as good as Arietta's--maybe even slightly better.  Of course he only played half as much time this season, so next year will be his proving ground.  But he has definitely shown that he can be a top of the rotation type of guy.

Hector Rondon: B+

Apparently he became the closer over Fujikawa and Pedro Strop.  I presumed the Cubs just had a terrible closer, but his ERA is pretty good at 2.42.  He blew 4 saves so he is not perfect, but he converted 29 out of 33 opportunities.  I just thought they sucked in the bullpen, but they are actually not that bad.

Pedro Strop: B+

Same story as above.  I thought he just kind of sucked because he apparently did not get the closing position, his ERA was even better than Rondon's at 2.21 in about the same number of games and innings.  I guess he is their setup man?  I have no complaints about those numbers.

Neil Ramirez: A-

I didn't even know this guy was on the team, but damn 1.44 ERA.  So it looks like they have a quality string of guys for the 7th, 8th and 9th innings.

Justin Grimm: B+

He led the team in appearances, and though his ERA was a bit lower than these other few guys above him, maintained a pretty good number at 3.78.

I could go write about Wesley Wright, Tsuyoshi Wada, Carlos Villanueva, Brian Schlitter, and maybe a few other pitchers, as well as several other position players, but I feel like I've hit the wall with these grades,

Rick Renteria: B-

I was thinking he deserved a C+ as manager, but then I thought that he could be oddly clever in the way he has dealt with the media.  It is really hard to hate him because he comes off as being this super nice guy who doesn't want to say anything negative--though he has been honest when necessary regarding players not putting in decent performances.  Previously I lamented that they ended up going with him over someone like Bob Brenly (only because Ryne Sandberg--by far my first choice, despite how bad the Phillies sucked this year, too--was no longer an option).  Maybe Brenly is done managing though, and I have warmed up to Renteria.  Quietly he led this team to what at least appeared to be a much better position than last year, despite still finishing dead last.  He did the best that he could with this team, but he will need to do much better to get an extension on his contract after next year.

In sum, my feelings should be obvious.  The hype is still hype.  Unless the Cubs make a few big moves over the off season, I fully expect next year to be more of the same: a slight improvement over the previous year.  Maybe they will not finish in last place next year, but with the team in its present state, they still need at least one more star pitcher (there have been many rumors that Cole Hamels might be that person, and I would bank on him) and need to establish better offensive consistency.  I do believe the team is in much better shape, and as noted, there are many players that have already proven they deserve to stay on this team for many years to come,  Despite this, my skepticism remains, and I will not believe they are for real unless they are hovering near the top of the division come next June or July.






Friday, September 19, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami (2014)

          
          My husband Dickson belongs to a book club, and last week we hosted his group’s bi-monthly meeting, when six or eight or sometimes ten literary men gather to drink beer, discuss books and eat whatever snacks the host has kindly provided. For this meeting they had read, at my suggestion, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, because the club is mostly made up of runners and Rabbit Angstrom’s story has a decidedly athletic feel. Even though I didn’t attend the meeting (it’s a boys’ club, so I stayed upstairs), when I came down after they were done, the conversation had turned to the newest Murakami – a far cry from Rabbit and his troubled relationship with Janice – and the excitement many club members had about reading his new work.
            I had already finished Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage three days after I bought the book, and the members of Dickson’s club asked me what I thought. Was it as much of a slog as 1Q84? Was it as otherworldly as A Wild Sheep Chase or Kafka on the Shore? Or was it quieter, like Norwegian Wood, or Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. So much of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is like much of Murakami’s other writing, thick with descriptions of simple meals and lonely men and strange, often very strange, sex – yet other parts of it also felt fresh and new. In sum, it was a decent new book from a man who has perfected his own subtle style. Colorless won’t make anyone turn away from Murakami, even if they’ve never read him before, and it’s engaging enough for his diehard fans. I don’t consider the three days I read it misspent.
As we sat in my living room discussing Murakami, we realized that, between us, we had read almost all of his work, and there were things we could all recite as commonalities between his books. In an interview from 2011, Murakami told a Spanish audience that he was a lonely child, and the three things that filled his quiet hours were “cats, books and music.” You can see the vapor trails of each of these things in the work Murakami has since produced, as each is filled with those reoccurring themes playing distinct roles in his characters’ lives.
In this sense, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is no different. There are mentions of cats and their tiny, silent feet, and music, particularly the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s piano solo “Le mal du pays.” Books, whether the characters are active readers or not, also merit mention time and time again, whether in descriptions of people’s bookshelves or as ways to pass the time. And, as usual, there are descriptions of the other things that constantly fill Murakami’s world: of simple meals stirfried with whatever is in the fridge, of physical deformities (six fingers on each hand, like in Wind Up Bird), and of physical activity, this time spent in the pool. There are the now-customary discussions of sexual proclivities that border on the phantasmagoric, but are always told in Murakami’s simple, matter-of-fact voice. And, like Tengo in 1Q84, Tsukuru’s sexual dreams merge frighteningly into reality, blurring the lines (and the effects) between what happens in bed, awake or asleep.
It is, like much of his work, the story of a single man, one searching for something he doesn’t understand, and who may find love or may screw it up. (My bet is usually that he’ll screw it up.) But Tsukuru Tazaki is more lonely than most, and that’s what makes Colorless a remarkable book.
Tsukuru Tazaki lives alone in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but you’d hardly know it from Murakami’s descriptions of the place. Except for the train stations where Tsukuru spends most of his time (he’s an engineer working to make stations more streamlined and accessible), Tsukuru rarely participates in social life and other people rarely infiltrate his world.
Tsukuru seems to prefer it that way. Save for a friend named Haida and a slowly-blossoming romance with a woman named Sara (who may or may not also be dating an older, mustachioed gentleman), Tsukuru lives, sleeps, eats and exercises alone. And, alone, his life is no big party either. He spent the bulk of his time in college contemplating death, not eating, barely drinking, attending classes to pass the time. Now, at age 36, he’s thin and stark. He eats like a bird and never finishes an entire beer. He knows what he is but can’t seem to change it: the man is boring even to himself.
What could have caused such a sad, desolate life? Herein lies this book’s charm: no one becomes a Tsukuru Tazaki unless something truly traumatic has happened, and Tsukuru’s trauma is dramatic indeed. After his first year of college in Tokyo, Tsukuru is abandoned by his high school friends, all four of whom remained in Tsukuru’s hometown Nagoya after graduation. This group, which had originally numbered five, was once so close they saw themselves as fingers on a single hand. So it came as an abrupt shock when they summarily dismissed Tsukuru with a single phone call, telling him that they never wanted to see or hear from him again, with no explanation as to how or why. And Tsukuru being Tsukuru, he didn’t feel the need to ask.
The title’s reference to Tsukuru being “colorless” comes from the nicknames of these four friends. The two men in the group were nicknamed Red and Blue (or Aka and Ao in Japanese), while the two women were nicknamed White and Black (Shiro and Kuro), with all of the colors culled from their family names. Tsukuru, whose name is a homophone for the Japanese word meaning “to build or make,” has no color; he is colorless, though his engineering degree makes a kind of onomastic sense.
The “pilgrimage” of the title is also apt, since Tsukuru goes on one of these as well. It’s Sara who pushes Tsukuru to contact his old friends (would a guy like Tsukuru ever do that on his own?) when she realizes that there’s something stuck in him that cannot be undone until Tsukuru has learned why he was dismissed. So on this pilgrimage he goes, first back to Nagoya, and then on, surprisingly, to Finland. He contacts each of his old friends in turn to learn why and how, years ago, they could so quickly and completely abandon one of their own.
I won’t reveal the outcomes of Tsukuru’s pilgrimage since that would defeat the purpose of reading Murakami’s book, but I will suggest that, as Murakami ages, we see him treading on familiar ground while, at the same time, invoking something relatively new. Reading Colorless will feel familiar, like reading Wind Up Bird or 1Q84 or Kafka or Norwegian Wood. But parts of it will also feel thrillingly unique, fresh in the increasing span of his decades-long oeuvre. For example, Murakami has never written so movingly about friendship, especially since so many of his protagonists are often alone, and, despite her possible ongoing affair with another man, Sara is one of Murakami’s most competent and least-batshit-crazy female characters yet. It would be lovely to see more of this real emotion explored, especially for the women who are still a minority in Murakami’s world.
But Colorless may also be a sign of the times, or at least a sign of Murakami’s ever-increasing age (he turned 65 earlier this year). In Running, Murakami described the “wells” in his mind, and how a new one must be tapped for each book to emerge. He feared, in his 2008 memoir, that his reserves would eventually run dry, and that at some desperate point the drilling would cease and his career as a writer would dry up as well. The good news is that this clearly hasn’t happened yet. The bad news, however, is that many of the same wells are being used, often at the expense of his writing anything completely exciting or new.
Like Kurt Vonnegut (blessings upon his name), Murakami is getting repetitive with age. (Did A Man Without a Country contain anything we hadn’t read before?) The direct lines between Murakami’s life and fiction are clearer now than they used to be, and themes forming between books (cats, books, music, sex, stir fry, physical deformities, dreams-with-real-consequences, men stuck in wells) are getting easier to track. Aomame, the assassin-protagonist of 1Q84, is clearly based off of Murakami’s own physical therapist, whom he described at length in Running. (A tiny woman who stretches stiff gym-going men? Who uses surprising levels of force to bend and pull stubborn muscles into submission? Who toils and works until both the masseuse and the massaged are drenched in sweat from exertion? Wait a second, we’ve seen this before!) We can see Running’s real gym masseuse in Tokyo transform into Aomame in 1Q84 in the same way we can see a woman with six fingers pop up in Wind-Up Bird and again in Colorless, or in the same way Tengo’s orgasm with Fuka-Eri in 1Q84 results in Aomame getting pregnant while Tsukuru’s dream of sex with Shiro may have resulted in something strangely tragic happening to her in real life (it’s a spoiler alert if I say what this is). In Murakami’s world, the same weird story often gets told, but each time it’s revealed in a markedly different way.
Like the bulk of his characters, Murakami feels most comfortable when treading regular ground, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like reading it every time. Ultimately, what I liked the most about Colorless was how it showed Murakami evolving as a person. Colorless was clearly written by a middle-aged man who has his own struggles with aging and death, and who understands that the past, no matter how painful, can never be completely changed. His characters are getting deeper too: Tsukuru is a thoughtful guy, whose pilgrimage (even if it wasn’t initially his idea) is done with a sense of purpose and commitment. He’s less swept along by the winds of fate, as so many of Murakami’s characters have been before, than he is actively trying to understand his own past, and his confrontations with his former friends are deliberate and calm.
Perhaps this is suggestive of Murakami’s own more purposeful track in life, or at least of the maturity that comes with advancing age. Would a younger Murakami have written a character like Tsukuru, who willingly confronts those who unceremoniously dismissed him years before? Would anyone under the age of 65 be comfortable doing such a thing? For me, at less than half of Murakami’s age, the idea of confronting those who hurt me in the past is terrifying, but perhaps I’m still too young to be judicious about such things. I’d rather lick my wounds than have the cojones to understand why people were once dicks, and this could be the difference between a novel from a 31-year-old versus an aging baby boomer like Murakami. Despite the book returning to his ever-present themes, a younger Murakami could never have written Tsukuru. He could only appear from a more mature, evolved voice.
Ultimately, despite treading this familiar ground, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will hardly disappoint any Murakami devotee. You can’t separate a writer from his or her themes, and why would you want to? After all, there are probably a dozen literature Ph.D.s whose degrees wouldn’t exist if Murakami didn’t write the way he does. And the world Murakami has created is a good one, a place that millions of readers regularly like to call home. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the things we see can expect to see, Murakami has created a pleasant, often exciting and certainly always perplexing place, where readers can walk on cat-like feet, alone in moments of quiet contemplation, while cooking a simple meal out of whatever they can find in the fridge.
-Emily Dufton