Microviews Vol. 49: This Is Your Brain On Ice

on Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Never fear Bookworms. I haven't disappeared. No great disaster befell me - death by a million paper cuts, spontaneous eye explosion, blog burnout. I just took a month to sit back, relax and read. Lots. Twenty one books in January and counting. As you know, I'm off the crazy "Review Every Book I Read" wagon, so it's back to the good old random Microviews of yore. Enjoy!

Andrew's Brain by E.L. Doctorow
Much has already been made of Andrew's Brain being Doctorow's "old man" book. Like Roth's Everyman and Exit Ghost or Delillo's... well... everything after Underworld, it ponders the great existential threat: mortality. The comparisons are, however, unfair. Sure, there's a degree of late life crisis about this book, but it has very little of the rueful belly button gazing that made the others a bit of a chore to read. That said, Andrew's Brain is a pretty strange affair. It opens with some sort of confessional or therapeutic conversation between Andrew (who speaks of himself in the third person) and a mysterious interlocutor. Is it a friend? A therapist? A cop? We learn straight up that his first marriage has failed, that his subsequent marriage - to a student, no less - has also ended (albeit in a less clear cut manner) and that he dumped the child of that second marriage on his first wife before running away. The full story is drawn out by the other speaker and it is one mostly marked by frustration, tragedy and heartbreak. Fate, for Andrew, is a bitch. Andrew's Brain reaches its emotional crescendo three quarters of the way through when we learn what happened to the second wife. Those few pages reminded me of Doctorow's power to profoundly move a reader. Then something weird happens. Something very, very weird. The novel takes such an unexpected left turn that it comes close to careening out of control. Enter Andrew's old college roommate, now the president of the United States, and his cabal of Yes Men. Doctorow doesn't even try to hide their identities: Chaingang and Rumbum. It borders on puerile. Andrew moves into the inner circle but seems to be more of a cog in some elaborate prank. Doctorow takes political aim and fires but, by that stage, I was so far removed from the novel that I couldn't even tell if he hit. Indeed, I was reminded greatly of Delillo's Falling Man - I was watching a brilliant writer grappling with the way the world has changed but not quite able to get the upper hand. I suppose it was all necessary to get to the final chapter which, I have to say, was perfectly pitched. It will answer a lot of your questions but one will undoubtedly remain: What on Earth was Doctorow doing for those forty-odd pages?
4 out of 5 Sparking Synapses

On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
Having been raised on a steady diet of JG Ballard dystopias I came to Chang-Rae Lee's latest with a great deal of excitement. Straight up, he is not the sort of novelist I'd ever have expected to attempt this kind of story. His lyricism and sensitivity gave me hope that he'd bring something new, something more, to it all. Could this be The Handmaid's Tale for a new generation? It started well enough - Fan escapes from B-Mor (a future Baltimore) in search of her boyfriend Reg, but not before destroying the tanks of fish that provide vital nutrition to the city. It is a brilliantly realised first chapter, one that firmly establishes the parameters of this strange post Apocalyptic America. The descriptions of Fan swimming through the schools of fish are beautiful - vintage Lee. I don't quite know, then, why the book lost me pretty much straight afterwards. Fan's trek through the "open counties", her search for a brother who has been elevated to the high Charter caste, the various grifters and desperadoes she meets... it all just left me cold. It was as if I was reading the treatment for a novel rather than the novel itself. I can see how Lee has given us a glimpse at the Ghost of America Future with its environmental carnage, socio-economic disparity (especially in terms of universal health care - hello Republican bozos) and governmental collapse. In that sense, this is a harrowing read. But as a novel, a narrative to draw me in and make me truly appreciate the dire state of the world he has created, it just didn't float my fish.
2.5 out of 5 Concrete Islands

A Meal In Winter by Hubert Mingarelli
In one of my all time favourite novels, Schopenhauer's Telescope, two men are locked in tense conversation as one digs his own grave at gunpoint. That is pretty much the entire book. There's an air of Nazi and partisan about them, though it is never clear what war they're fighting or which one is which. One will die, the other will walk away. It is incredibly difficult to know who you should actually feel for - did the good guy win? The author remains silent. Hubert Mingarelli's masterpiece in miniature, A Meal In Winter, has a very similar feel. Three Nazis stationed at some remote outpost are sent to hunt down Jews hiding in the forest. For them it is a reprieve - their willingness to brave the winter chill means that they will be excused from partaking in the daily executions. It doesn't take long for them to find a Jew but before they can bring him back the weather sets in and they are forced to take refuge in an abandoned hut. Cold and hungry, they search the building for a few food scraps and set about making soup, all the while discussing what should become of the Jew. The sudden appearance of a Polish farmer complicates matters - his presence is disruptive but he has alcohol which will warm them and add flavour to the broth. He is allowed to stay. After an interminable wait, the soup comes to the boil and the five men sit down to eat together; enemies breaking bread. Not a single word is exchanged but the dynamic has completely changed. The Jew is now human. Do they release him so that they will have one redemptive memory when the war is over? Or do they take him back to certain death at the outpost? Failure to return a Jew means being put back on firing squad duty. Returning him robs them of redemption but excuses them from ever pulling another trigger. For the three soldiers it is an agonising choice. A Meal In Winter is one of the most harrowing, morally complex works I have ever encountered. Read it. It will strengthen your soul.
5 out of 5 Empty Ladles

Property by Rutu Modan
A few years back, a friend of mine was studying at the Yiddish Institute in New York where she befriended a non-Jewish girl from Poland in her dorm. For as long as they stuck by the great Fawlty Towers mantra "Don't mention the war!", all went well. Then, in what I can only assume was an attempt to curry further favour, the Polish girl happened to mention that Poland is one of Israel's most strident supporters. My friend was puzzled. The conversation went something like this:
"Because if anything happened to Israel the Jews might come and take our homes."
"Well, they're not exactly your homes."
"Of course they are. The Jews abandoned them during the war."
"And where do you think they went? On holiday?"
Thus ended the friendship. Rutu Modan's wonderful graphic novel, The Property, is an exploration of the strange relationship between Jews and Poland, especially the paranoias that itch beneath the surface. Mica accompanies her grandmother Regina from Israel to Poland in what at first seems like a search for the apartment in which her family lived before the war. From the opening panels, Modan is in top form, skewering the hilarity of Israeli airports, affectionately stabbing at the... um... Israeli national attitude. It's funny but tender; Modan clearly comes from a place of love. Things take an unexpected turn when they reach their destination - Regina finds the apartment but there is much more to the trip than she has let on. Meanwhile Mica chums up with a non-Jewish Polish guy (in an Operation Ivy jacket no less) who starts as tour guide but soon becomes much more. And of course, there's the oddball, annoying Israeli following them all - it's not hard to tell that he has ulterior motives, though it takes a while to realise what precisely they are. The Property is a joy to read, beautifully rendered in shifting graphic styles, utterly compelling and, when the penny drops, absolutely heartwarming (if kind of tragic).
4.5 out of 5 Kosher Kielbasas

Leaving the Sea: Stories by Ben Marcus
Ben Marcus has a strange way of popping up randomly in my life. When my band was touring America, a young lady I befriended was raving about this debut short story collection by her lecturer at university (or professor at college, I've never understood the American academic nomenclature). It was called The Age of Wire and String and, she assured me, was at the absolute cutting edge of contemporary literature. Plus she thought her professor was cute. Fast forward a few years and I rate that same author's novel, The Flame Alphabet, as the tenth best book of the 2012 with a tongue in cheek rant against him for not fully realising what I thought was the book's incredible potential. A couple of days later, while I was enjoying a lovely holiday on the Aussie coast, a familiar name popped up in my Inbox. Ben Marcus. To put it mildly, he wasn't happy. Clearly the Australian idiom had gotten lost in translation. I agonised over it for a few hours before editing the review to lessen the perceived sting. I'm still not sure if, in an ideological sense, I did the right thing but I hadn't intended to insult him and felt that ought to be made clear. Bottom line is I think he's a bloody excellent writer. Even if he can't take a joke. Anyway, this is all a round about way of saying that, before I go any further, I will declare that I liked Leaving The Sea. I liked it a lot. It is an uncomfortable collection of stories, to be sure, but I mean that in a good way. Presented in six suites, each stranger than the one that came before, it cements Marcus's place as the modern master of the experimentally surreal. Leaving The Sea starts off with what I can only describe as a narrative honey trap - the writing is gorgeous, the stories quite straight forward. "I Can Say Many Nice Things" stands out, as a washed up writer stoops to taking a creative writing course on a cruise ship. Hell, Marcus seems to be saying, is other wannabe writers. It's funny and sad and, I'm guessing, cathartic. The first suite closes with the rather depressing "Rollywood" (which reminded me of the Ben Folds song Fred Jones Pt. 2), a perfect buffer for the profound shift in comfort that follows with the dual punch of brief interviews that make up the second suite. The shifts turn to tremors and then full on quakes as Marcus throws conventional storytelling to the wind in favour of dazzling experiments in style, substance and atmosphere. That's not to say there aren't many moments that will appeal to the narrative traditionalists amongst you. "Watching Mysteries With My Mother", where a man obsesses over his mother's imminent death, is deeply moving. The desperation of the dying narrator trying out last-chance, probably shonky, treatments in "The Dark Arts" is palpable. Even some of the experimental stuff is quite accessible - the prose is always beautiful, the readily familiar often identifiable within the fabulous. Like any short story collection there are lulls - after all, not every experiment can work - but as another step on Marcus's consistently interesting path, Leaving The Sea is well worth your attention.
4 out of 5 Apocalypse Drills

Celsius 451: Fireproof Reading

on Friday, January 17, 2014
Greetings from all nine rings of hell. Yes, after mocking us with a moderately warm December peppered with thunderstorms and the odd cold snap, Melbourne has decided to give us a chance to surf the solar flares. For four days now we have sweltered in this inferno. Forty plus degrees every day. Overnight lows of thirty. Well played, Satan. Well played. The city has all but shut down. Australian Open tennis players are melting on contact with the court. Swimmers are being boiled alive on our beaches. A power pole just exploded in the street (I heard it on a news flash). And, sadly, bush fires are raging out of control on the city's outskirts.

I, of course, am having none of it. Apart from one sojourn outside (to court where, I should add, the only suit that should be required in this heat is a birthday suit) I've locked myself away in a small, air-conditioned room with Louie, a jug of iced water and a big pile of books. Two and a half weeks into the year and I'm onto book thirteen. It's been a great start. After being floored by the brilliance of Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun, I've managed a run of not-quite-as-good but still wonderful reads. Graphic fiction has featured prominently with Property by Rutu Mordan, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Essex County by Jeff Lamire and Wilson by Daniel Clowes. They've proved a fantastic escape from the heat - complex stories and ideas presented in a lively way that does not numb your eyes with repetitive black print. I also thoroughly enjoyed the action-lit (not my usual thing) of Almost Dead by Assaf Gavron and God's Dog by Diego Marani as well as the brain thumping complexity of Josef Winkler's House-That-Jack-Built-In-Hell, When The Time Comes.

Come to think of it, I can't remember another year that started this well. Nor can I remember a year so heavily front loaded with hits. I've just begun Chang Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea which, thus far, is a totally unexpected, highly compelling, JG Ballard-esque joy to read. I'm anxiously anticipating the arrival of the new E.L. Doctorow, Andrew's Brain as well as Leaving The Sea, Ben Marcus's latest collection of short stories. I loved Homer and Langley and was a big fan of The Flame Alphabet, even if Marcus didn't quite see the humour in my rave (apparently my Australian way didn't translate well to the American idiom). I expect big things from their follow ups.

With novels expected from other heavy hitters in the first half of 2014, this is shaping up to be another amazing read for book lovers. Now, if only I can think of a special B4BW reading project (preferably less onerous than "Review Every Book I Read) I'll be all set to keep this silly little blog enjoyable for you. I'd happily take suggestions!

Sublime Sounds: Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

on Sunday, January 5, 2014
Here's a strange thought. Is it possible that I read the best book of 2014 on the very first day of the year?

It took all my self control not to crack it open the moment the package arrived on my doorstep. There were still four days left in 2013. To read this book, like every fibre in my body was telling me to do, would have upset the space/time continuum. A 2014 book read and reviewed in 2013? If it turned out to be as good as I expected, I would be forced to let it fight The Infatuations to the literary death for top position. Would that even have been fair given that a book from the future must have all the disintegration laser Martian technologies you'd expect if, like me, you spent your childhood locked in your room with comic books and computer games and trashy sci-fi novels? Most importantly, could I possibly deny myself the great joy of yammering on about it for the next eleven and three quarter months?

Well, never fear. I resisted. There will be much yammering.

As I watched the countdown on TV, my fingers anxiously skittered across the cover of Jesse Ball's highly anticipated new novel, Silence Once Begun. The follow up to my favourite book of 2011, The Curfew, it is his first novel to be published in hardcover, the first to be published by Pantheon (part of the Knopf publishing family) and, most likely, the first to get the kind of widespread exposure he has long deserved. Put simply, there is a lot riding on this book. The moment the first firework exploded, I began reading.

Allegedly based (albeit very loosely) on true events, Silence Once Begun is the story of Oda Sotatsu, an unassuming man who confesses to a series of disappearances in 1970s Japan. The crimes themselves are intriguing, but what makes Oda's story so unique is his complete silence from the time he is arrested until his execution. Other than a few very minor exchanges with the various other players, he simply does not speak. Even more disturbing, it is quite clear that he did not commit the crimes - only a written confession, handed in prior to his arrest, links him to the disappearances. There is no other evidence.

Ball (or a fictional simulacrum thereof) unfurls Oda's story through a series of interviews with all the others involved in the case: his parents, his brother, his sister, the court reporter, a prison guard and, finally, the two most significant and troubling characters, a mysterious woman called Jito Joo and the very shady mastermind of it all, Sato Kakuzo. Each share their own impression of Oda and his involvement in the crime. Some are crushed by the weight of shame, some vigorously defend him, some accept his guilt but warm to him and the dignity he displays throughout the process. Despite their differences, there is one thing that links them all: a strong belief that nobody else's version can be trusted. Silence Once Begun is not a tale told by an unreliable narrator, it is one told by a whole slew of them.

Ball adds some editorial commentary between the interviews, but for the most part it is just their voices building up to a deafening wall of white noise. The effect is quite spectacular. When it reaches a crescendo, Ball pulls back and gives the stage to the soft, romantic voice of Jito Joo. Now in her late 50s she offers a version steeped in nostalgic poetry, a tragic love story. That is if she is to be believed. The moment Joo signs off, Sato Kakuzo steps in to declare her totally untrustworthy and complicit in the plot. His is the last version, and by far the most disturbing. It is not a chronology but a manifesto; Sato's great plan to shake the complacent Japanese society to its core by subverting its most sacred cultural mores. Think Machiavelli meets the Leopold and Loeb. The very identity of the country will be his victim. Oda is merely the patsy. When Sato does the great unveil, you can't help but be furious at the way the machinery of a developed society can be made to run on its own steam in the completely wrong direction. As Sato says, "The judges are doing what I am telling them to do, simply because I understand better than they do this one thing: the absurd lengths to which human beings go to prove themselves reasonable".

Ball dedicates the book to two of my favourite Japanese authors, Kobo Abe and Shusaku Endo. It's not hard to see their influence. Silence Once Begun is daring in both form and substance. It says a lot about the selective way in which we construct truths, how we don't actually need the central event or player for us to settle on an accepted or acceptable narrative. Japanese society is the perfect prism for Ball's argument, but it would be wrong not to see ourselves in some of the refracted rays.

With Silence Once Begun Jesse Ball has shattered the wall of sound in spectacular fashion. It is a towering achievement and, to my mind, the benchmark for all fiction this year.

5 Out of 5 Lynched Larynxes

2014: Reading Once Begun

on Friday, January 3, 2014
The new year has kicked off with a bang! Three days in, four books read, including the quite extraordinary newie by Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun. I'll be writing a full review in the coming days once I've had a bit more time to digest it but, suffice to say it did not disappoint even with the weight of my ridiculously high hopes resting on its shoulders.

I also took the downtime to revise and update my Best Books of All Time list. The Top Ten has shifted around and now consists of:

1. The TrialFranz Kafka (1925)
2. The Brothers AshkenaziI.J. Singer (1936)
3. I Am The CheeseRobert Cormier (1977)
4. The TenantRoland Topor (1964)
5. The Book of DanielE.L. Doctorow (1971)
6. TriesteDasa Drndic (2012)
7. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and ClayMichael Chabon (2000)
8. A Dry White SeasonAndre Brink (1979)
9. Waiting For The BarabariansJ.M. Coetzee (1980)
10. The AssaultHarry Mulisch (1982)

If you want the full list, free feel to get in touch at baitforbookworms@gmail.com and I'll be happy to send it to you. I don't want to clog up an entire page here with a seemingly endless litany of titles. Anyway, hope you're getting some good reading in over the break. Jesse Ball and I will be back very soon.