Microviews Vol. 41: Zen and the Art of Clusterf*&king

on Wednesday, September 25, 2013
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Scenes of horror and wonder play off one another in this greatly uneven story of Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl forced to seek refuge in America. It begins with sass and aplomb. Darling's voice is excitingly fresh; a mix of child like awe and hilarious cynicism. For as long as she remains in Africa, We Need New Names is quite simply astounding. Granted the chapters do seem a bit like set pieces - the eviction of a white family from their home by marauding Nationalist thugs, a church service with a horrifying revelation, her father's death from AIDS, the influx of new refugees - but Bulawayo's deft touch ensures that each one is utterly compelling. Unfortunately, the wheels fall off when Darling reaches Destroyedmichygen (Detroit). The set pieces continue but it is typical stranger-in-a-strange-land fare; there is hardly enough to sustain any momentum. There is one chapter that bucks the trend, however. A rolling thunder of prose perfection, it lays bare the immigrant experience across generations like never before. Seriously, it's a revelation. As for the book as a whole, well... Lesser works than this have won the Booker Prize. But then again, so have much greater.
3.5 Out Of 5 Guavas

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
A gentle serenity pervades Ozecki's latest book which, I guess, should be no surprise given that she is a Zen Buddhist priest in her spare time. You'll be pretty thankful it's there, though, because this story of a young Japanese girl navigating a pretty unforgiving world tends towards the devastating both on the personal and global levels. Once a spoiled Dotcom kid in California, Nao is back in Tokyo, contending with the worst a young girl could ever face: poverty, relentless bullying, a suicidal father and, ultimately, sexual slavery. In an effort to save her, Nao's parents send the girl to spend the summer in a monastery with her 104 year old great grandmother, Jiko. The two hit it off well enough but it is in the diary of Nao's great uncle, a kamikaze pilot after whom her father was named, that Nao finds true salvation. It is unfortunate that the beauty of these relationships has instructional undertones - it is as if Ozecki is using the book to "enlighten" the reader about Zen Buddhism. Sure, it's a pretty palatable world view, and one that a lot more people could do with accepting, but it takes away from the work as a novel. Nao's story is told through entries in a diary that has been found washed up in Canada months after the 2011 tsunami. It is juxtaposed with the story of the woman who finds it, an author called Ruth (very meta!). Cue some philosophising about the creative process and racoons. I actually found Ruth's story fairly benign and it wasn't until the end, when I realised said philosophising was a pretext for some pretty crazy existential acrobatics, that I even saw a purpose in its being there. It all makes for a fascinating thought experiment, but had Ozecki just stuck to telling Nao's story, it would have made for a much more satisfying book.
3.5 Out Of 5 Cats In A Box

Goat Mountain by David Vann
It begins and ends in cataclysm, and what lies between those two moments is so harrowing that your mouth will dry up, your chest will constrict and you will find yourself desperately reaching for your childhood comfort blankie. True to form David Vann brings us to the edge of human experience in this tale of a hunting trip gone horribly wrong. Taken on his first moose hunt by his father, grandfather and family friend, the 11-year-old narrator is hoping to kill a three point buck. It is a family rite of passage. The group arrive at Goat Mountain, a massive Californian Ranch, full of bravado and testosterone. All is set for a great trip until they spot a poacher on their land. The father looks through his rifle scope, gets the others to look too. At last it reaches the hands of the boy. He looks. He fires. All shit breaks loose. Rather than report the killing, they collect the body and continue on the hunt. Sound nuts? That's not the half of it. Debate rages, edges fray, tempers flare. Vann plumbs the depths of masculinity and family bonds in what I can only describe as a slightly more bleak Deliverance narrative. The sparse staccato prose might be off-putting for some, but holy crap, if you can stomach it Goat Mountain will blow you away. Literally.
4.5 Out Of 5 Stuck Pigs

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell
Poor Daniel Woodrell. Had Cormac McCarthy never existed the guy would probably have inhabited the same legendary space in literary culture. That's not to say he hasn't enjoyed considerable success. Winter's Bone struck a chord worldwide but let's face it, it was hardly Blood Meridian or The Road. Based on true events, The Maid's Version is another dark and complex tale told in typical Woodrell fashion. Alma thinks she knows what really happened the night forty two people, including her sister, were killed in an explosion at the local dancehall. There have always been theories - plenty of people wanted the place gone - but Alma knows better. She knows the big secret, the one about her sister and the rich banker, Arthur Glencross. The Maid's Version is the kind of book you can rip through in a single sitting but, engaging as it is at the time (there's a pretty cool Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels aspect to the resolution) it's not one that will stay with you for very long.
3 Out Of 5 Liaisons Dangereuses

La Vida Doble by Arturo Fontaine
Surprise, surprise regular Bookworms. I've found myself another one about The Dirty War. But before you roll your eyes and skip over this review, I promise you that La Vida Doble is unique. I don't think I've seen such a complex psychological study of devotion and betrayal undertaken with such poetic beauty. High praise of this order comes, however, with a disclaimer: La Vida Doble also has one of the most brutal depictions of torture and degradation you're ever likely to encounter. The first thirty pages will crush your soul (and, for the weaker of stomach, have you kneeling in front of the toilet). Fontaine employs a crafty ruse to reel us in: we are introduced to Lorena as an old woman, living out her final days in a Swedish nursing home. We are instantly invited to warm to her. But as she recounts her story of life, rebellion and, in the end, complicity under the Pinochet regime, even the most compassionate of readers will find their moral compass spinning like a ceiling fan. Sucked into the violent struggle for freedom, she partakes in a bungled robbery and is captured by the police. Incredibly, she resists the horrific torture to which she is subjected but when the threats turn to her daughter she finally succumbs. Fontaine renders this crisis of political faith with great insight and vigour, avoiding the obvious temptation to pass some sort of judgement. That, dear readers, is up to us. It is easy to condemn Lorena/Irene but what wouldn't you do to save your child?
4 Out Of 5 Sympathetic Turncoats


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