Friday, 17 September 2010

Junot Diaz: Drown

I expected the entries in this blog to be unconnected, stand-alone mini-essays on different books, but themes seem to be emerging. I argued that The Pesthouse deals with ideas of promised lands and immigration via a post-apocalypse survival story. Junot Diaz's 1996 short story collection Drown deals with the same ideas in a much more realistic way. In fact, the stories all give the impression of being, if not autobiographical, then the kind of thing that could be autobiographical by no great stretch of the imagination; the kind of story that happens all the time in the real world.

On the face of it, these stories fall in line with writers like Amy Tan in that they are very specifically about ethnic identity. Every narrator or protagonist in the book is either a young man living in the Dominican Republic or a young man who has emigrated from there to the USA. The final story in particular, "Negocios", is a sprawling immigrant narrative in which the narrator tells the story of his father, who abandoned him to seek his fortune in the US. It's a tale of poverty and disillusionment whose "hero" finds himself enslaved by a sub-minimum wage job, "angry at the stupidity that had brought him to this freezing hell of a country" (Diaz 179). The portrayal of America as a "freezing hell" where immigrants get cheated and starve recalls Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but unlike Sinclair's politically charged novel (often dismissed as thinly veiled socialist propaganda) Drown never appears to have an agenda. Despite the poetic and subjective prose, you close the book with the sensation of having seen a series of well-timed photographs or a high-definition video, rather than having listened to the author talk for several hours. Before reading it I knew next to nothing about the Dominican Republic or its population in the US, and after reading it I still know next to nothing, but I feel as though I do. Not as if I've lived it, but like it's a real place, and they are real people, not abstract concepts.

So it's very much a piece of "immigrant literature". But it is somehow the universal themes of youth, family, and sex that take precedence. These protagonist are united by much more than their ethnicity. In fact, while I'm in the mood for comparing writers with other writers, Drown reminded me much more of Chuck Palahniuk than Amy Tan. In "Edison, New Jersey" a pool table delivery guy makes cutting observations on his company's rich customers: "Doctors, diplomats ... ladies in slacks and silk tops who sport thin watches you could trade in for a car" (122). The understated cynicism here reveals the US's class divide problems without screaming about them, and the mischief the narrator gets up to (such as stealing cookies and disposable razors when the customers are out) anticipates Fight Club by a couple of years.

There is more to this book than I have managed to discuss, and I fully recommend it to anyone who likes short stories, regardless of whether you have the slightest interest in the Dominican Republic.

Diaz, Junot: Drown, 1996, New York, Riverhead Books

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Hayao Miyazaki: Nausiaa of the Valley of Wind

It's been a while. Actually I first read Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth, but since I'm not used to writing about non-fiction and can't really think of anything much to say about it except "I like, I like", I will skip it.

So, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, both the comic and the Studio Ghibli film version adapted by the author. It took me until about the halfway point of the book to really get into it. I was wondering for ages what on earth I was going to write about it. But two things really struck me: the setting and the central character. The setting, a future civilisation that has grown up after a great war (yep, more post-apocalyptica) and is threatened by a growing, insect-infested, poisonous forest, is distinctive enough that it could have spawned its own genre (or sub-genre or sub-sub-genre). The film version both strips down the complex setting and expands on it; various factions and intricacies are omitted to make it all more film-shaped, but it doesn't feel wrong, the way infidelity in adaptations sometimes does. It's just a slightly different version of the same fascinating world.

But it's Nausicaa herself who really interested me. Japanese fiction is full of spirited, idealistic heroins, but Miyazaki's eccentric princess has a sort of anarchic energy that adds a new and interesting facet. Not only does she care deeply about her people and want to protect them, but she chooses to do this by throwing herself at a bunch of heavily armed and armoured soldiers and attacking them with her bare hands. She will fly her glider head-on at an air vessel whose pilot is aiming a machine gun at her, stretching out her arms to make herself into an easy target and entrusting her life to the gunner's (potentially non-existent) compassion. She's an idealist who is not the slightest bit intimidated by the harsh reality of soldiers, guns and politics. Rather, she seems to thrive on it. It's this defiant idealism that makes her such a good leader. Similarly, her eccentricity - her habit of talking to insects, for instance - should make her an outsider among her people, but they trust her too much to be put off by eccentricity.

It's often hard to see a fantasy story as relevant to, y'know, life. That's no bad thing, fantasy is primarily about escapism. But some writers, like Miyazaki, can create a setting or a character that really is relevant. Nausicaa is a sort of role model for idealism and defiance, a model of the odd child who grows up - or rather, doesn't quite grow up - to become a great leader. Maybe it's the naive child in me thinking she really is a role model for our times. And maybe I'll get some car stickers printed: "WWND? What would Nausicaa do?"

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Jim Crace: The Pesthouse

I didn't get on with this book as well as I would have liked, thanks to what I thought was an overrated writing style. But I've said this blog is not about book reviews, and The Pesthouse is a good story in an interesting setting, and it certainly got me thinking.

It's the story of a man and a woman travelling to the east coast of an America that has sprung up in the aftermath of some kind of apocalypse. Americans, in the world Crace imagines, are subsistence farmers, emigrants hoping to cross the Atlantic, or raiders and ne'er-do-wells. The remnants of the USA, its cities and high technology, are almost nowhere to be found; no one in the novel expresses the slightest interest in learning about life before whatever cataclysm put America back in the middle ages, and indeed the cataclysm itself is not mentioned, let alone explained.

Instead, Crace presents us with this world and lets us make what we will of it. That might be simply an entertaining story, that follows a fairly conventional "journey" or "quest" structure, or it might be an interpretation, ultimately an optimistic one, of America itself. One striking aspect is the almost universal desire of the Americans in the novel to leave, to emigrate and seek a kind of promised land, presumably in Europe or Africa. America is, for the main part of the novel, a place of dying dreams, a cursed land; it's not the hellish wasteland of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in terms of the landscape itself, but the characters' journey is essentially a showcase of dangers and hardships. This is, arguably, the exact opposite of the mindset that has made America what it is today. For four hundred years or more, America has been the human race's "promised land"; The Pesthouse is a subtle, unassuming response to this thinking.

The shack in the woods that the novel is named for seems to be what the book is really about, despite its only appearing twice. It is a place where the characters feel safe, and where they rest and recover before continuing on their journey. And it is the only place in the novel that is unequivocally good. All the towns, the highways towards the coast, the sea itself, are tainted with the threat of danger or the ill will and greed of other people. This is by no means a dogmatic book or a moral tale, but I was left with a strong impression of the idea that happiness and resolution are in a humble place of safety and rest, not some better world across the sea.

In its own way, The Pesthouse is a comment on America, and on the long-standing dream of a land of opportunity, on how this dream may turn out to be just that and nothing more.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

So, the last book I read was (in keeping with the theme of the introduction post), Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Now I'm already a fan of Pullman, and very recently wrote an essay about the relation of His Dark Materials to the works of William Blake, so I'm bringing a bit of baggage to this post. For instance, I began reading the book with 99% certainty that I would really, really, really like it. And I did.

It's a very clever, simply- but well-told alternative version of the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The premise is that there were actually two of him, one called Jesus and one called Christ, and that all our assumptions about the religion of Christianity are wrong. In fact, this book seems to fit in with Blake's view of Christianity too. It explores the idea that there are two sides to the religion: one side is about peace and love and morality, the other is about controlling people and imposing a hierarchical structure on the world. The two main characters embody these opposite sides. Christ's eventual choice of profession - as a maker of nets - might be a telling reference to Blake's Urizen, the grumpy, white-bearded old tyrant who wanders the earth spreading a "net of religion" behind him.

As I said, it's told in a very simple style, almost like a children's story. It's a style Pullman excels at, where the overall narrative takes precedence over individual scenes, yet there are still some memorable scenes and some powerful pieces of prose. One chapter, in particular, should be given to drama school students to recite; if you've read the book, you probably know the one I'm thinking of.

Some Christians won't like it; they're probably already making a fuss right now, but boys will be boys. The great big gold "This is a story" printed on the back cover reminds me of the BBFC's 18-certificate symbol blown up to three times its normal size on the packaging of violent computer games. The BBFC do their very best, but there is of course, always some airhead parent who will buy it for their kid anyway and get angry on TV or in the newspaper when the kid shoots them with a BB gun. Ignoring these people is one of the trials of modern life, I suppose. The important thing is, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a piece of fiction, but it's also a metaphor for an idea: the idea that human impulses and ambitions - to embellish facts until they become myths, to nurture myths until they become legendary, to start trends build structures and impose laws on people you've never met - can interfere with history and shape the future. It's an idea that, once you've had it, is impossible to ignore, and it's also pretty scary.

It's this idea, as much as Pullman's prose (which shifts from childishly simple storytelling to devastating outbursts of emotion), that gives the novel its power.

The first post


Welcome to All Wound Up. This blog will hopefully become a record of the books I read over the coming weeks, months and possibly years, and of my thoughts on these books.

I love books, and I'm coming to the end of an undergrad degree in English Literature, and have (out of necessity) developed a taste for thinking quite a lot about the books I read. I didn't want to get out of the habit, and decided I might as well share my thoughts with other people, and invite other people to share theirs. So it will hopefully be a great big unrestrained literary thought-sharing extravaganza. Well maybe not, but if you want to comment with your own ideas, I'd love to read them.

These posts will not exactly be reviews of the books I read, just thoughts on them, guided by what I have learned during my degree. I will try and avoid terrible spoilers, but if you like to know nothing at all about a book before you read it, only read posts about books you have read or don't intend to.

Thank you for showing an interest in my blog, "and now it's all wound up, we can begin."