Wednesday, June 24, 2009

#13 of 2009: In Search of a Distant Voice by Yamada Taichi

Nobody does crushing loneliness and uncertainty like the Japanese, and of those novelists one of the very best is Yamada Taichi. It’s a real shame his body of work has gone largely untranslated, and an even bigger shame that only one of his three novels in English has received a wide release.

Like his previous works, In Search of a Distant voice is about the loneliness that inhabits even the busiest city-dweller, the emptiness at the bottom of the soul that exists possibly in greater quantities when the bearer is entrenched firmly in city life. There’s a combination of hopelessness and nonchalance about the whole thing that is decidedly Japanese. This mix of emotions and reactions could quite possibly exist nowhere else on the planet.

Kasama Tsuneo is twenty-nine and about to get married to a woman he met through his boss. It’s an arranged marriage, loveless and sexless and as formal as formality gets. As an immigrations officer, Tsuneo spends most of his time at work and doesn’t have much opportunity to meet women, so having his boss set him up seems a stroke of luck.

In the predawn hours of what would normally be an average morning, Tsuneo participates in a raid on a residence full of illegal Indonesian residents. One man slips out a window and into a neighboring graveyard. Tsuneo corners the man and is about to arrest him when he is suddenly struck by a wave of emotion that culminates in a body-shaking orgasm. Humiliated and terrified, Tsuneo lets the man escape.

In the days that follow Tsuneo is haunted by a feminine voice asking who and where he is. He responds, sometimes audibly, sometimes internally, until the stress of it all threatens a complete nervous breakdown. Finally, in exchange for an arrangement to meet face-to-face, Tsuneo tells the woman about his time in America in his early twenties, and about a man he once knew named Eric.

Anyone who’s read either of Yamada’s previous works, Strangers and I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying For a While, will know what they’re getting into. I won’t spoil the plot any further, but if you’ve read one Yamada ending you will definitely have a heads up on what’s coming. For anyone else, rid yourself of expectations and you may enjoy it. Perhaps even reading Strangers first would be advisable, as it’s his strongest English work to date.

Yamada’s not for everyone, but his books are incredibly quick, accessible reads. A few hours spent with his characters are easily worth the less than two hundred pages that encompass In Search of a Distant Voice.


#12 of 2009: The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

I never thought I’d appreciate so much a novel that reminds me of the hellish year I spent working at Staples. I’d just dropped out of college, I had a somewhat older and incredibly controlling loser boyfriend and most of my ambitions around this time seem to have dropped off like the acquaintances of someone bound for the Witness Relocation Program. It wasn’t the best of times for me.

Having read The Gum Thief, I’m only now starting to suspect that it’s never the best of times for anybody, so long as they’re clothed in that red button-down, slaving away at a Staples somewhere.

Roger is a loser. He’s blown it big time, even before coming to work at Staples. While on his lunch breaks, he writes in a notebook, alternating between his own thoughts and pretending to be Bethany, his younger, Goth-obsessed coworker. What Roger really wants is to write Glove Pond, the novel that’s been circulating inside his mind for years, but he satiates his need to write by pretending to be a girl he sees daily but has never spoken to.

The Gum Thief is an epistolary novel, a narrative written completely in the style of personal or interpersonal communications. It joins the ranks of such books as Dracula, Fangland, The Feverhead and The Color Purple.

What starts out as just Roger’s eccentricity becomes more complex as Bethany finds the notebook and writes her own entries. From there, Roger is given the push he needs to begin putting his novel on paper, and Bethany’s mother Dee Dee, a high school classmate of Roger’s, begins writing letters as well. What started as the releasing of one strange man’s pressure valve takes on a life and gravity of its own as other Staples employees and even Roger’s ex wife begin to communicate, though not always in the notebook. There are letters, FedExes and notes slipped through mail slots galore, not to mention communications in the form of emails and manuscript critiques.

Quirky, interesting and definitely worth a read for anyone who’s ever worked a shitty job.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

#11 of 2009: Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite

I read a lot of Poppy growing up. Back then, it was all extremely visceral horror that was sometimes referred to as “splatterpunk.” Vampires, ghosts, cannibals and serial killers with HIV, it was all rather grotesque and very, very dark.

I loved it. It influenced me quite a bit, and what pieces remain from my early writing portfolio show this rather shamelessly and explicitly. During my teenage years and through my vampire fiction phase, nobody influenced me more than she did, including Anne Rice and all the bizarre, fucked up authors who penned books in the Dell Abyss line. Nobody.

Somewhere along the line, young, cult horror phenom Poppy Z. Brite grew up. And, eventually, so did I. As I grew older, I became a bit of a gourmand, and I also lost some of my interest in horror. Not all of it, mind you. I’d like to think my horizons just broadened a bit, allowing me to include all manner of fiction (even “serious literature,” to my initial chagrin) on my reading lists.

It was with a bit of surprise that I found out a few years ago that Poppy Z. Brite had been writing books about New Orleans chefs. The New Orleans part didn’t shock me, nor did the sexual orientation of her characters, but leaving horror behind? I didn’t really want to believe it at first, and for several years I put off her Liquor novels, reading her older works or books by other authors. I wanted to go back and see if I was affected by the earlier horror novels as much as I was the first time I read them.

One thing I’ve found out over the past year is that nostalgia is an exceptionally powerful emotion, and that most things are stronger when viewed through the smoky looking-glass of time. Nothing I’ve gone back and reread has been as joyous a read for me as the first time I picked it up as a teen. Nothing. Some have come close and still stand up as powerful stories, but as I’ve aged the things that grip my heart and move me have changed a bit. I’ve come to accept this as a hard fact, and despite knowing that the magic won’t be as powerful or may not even be there at all, I’m still going to go back and reread some of the things I loved that influenced me. I’m just not going to have lofty ideas about reconnecting with the books in the way I had before.

Sometimes, though, you just need to move forward. Pick up new books you haven’t read, give new authors a chance. In this case, give an old friend a shot at something new. And I did.

Liquor is a tribute to food that borders on sexual fetishism. I love it. I read most of it in one day, unwilling to put it down before I got to the last page.

Rickey and G-man are lovers, have been best friends since they were in the fourth grade and have been working in the kitchens of New Orleans restaurants since they were fifteen. Bouncing around from employer to employer (not always due to their own planning), they grow tired of working for other people. They want freedom, control over their own culinary creations and a bit of money. Being poor and working sixteen hours a day six days a week for some rich asshole is no fun indeed.

Rickey is struck with an idea while drinking in the park. Dishes made with alcohol. A whole restaurant based on the concept of alcohol in food. In a city like New Orleans, where natives and tourists alike cruise the margarita stands, where people are encouraged to drink all they can, an idea like this could be their golden ticket.

But first, Rickey and G-man have to straighten out their own issues, shake off the people dragging them down and find the capital to make their dream come true, and it won’t be easy.

I will be tracking down the two sequels, Prime and Soul Kitchen, this summer. A previously published prequel of sorts, The Value of X, is a bit pricier and harder to obtain, but I will be tracking that down at some point as well.


Friday, June 12, 2009

#10 of 2009: Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland

The best thing about Douglas Coupland is his ability to bring the mundane facets of pop culture, the brand names and logos and catchy jingles, to the forefront of our consciousnesses. How many people actually think about hair care products, plastic toys, pet food or clothes? I mean, how many think about them in great detail, trying to figure out where these things fit into the great mosaic of North American life?

Not many, I would imagine. That’s part of advertising and pop culture’s success, the ability to worm their way into life and stand stock-still in the background like Scooby and Shaggy in rickety suits of armor. There, but not visible, at least not to the people with so much going on in their lives already.

Tyler is ambitious, the son of an aging hippy, a Regan youth with a bathroom full of incredibly specific hair-care products and a collection of globes in his bedroom. It is the early Nineties, and he and his girlfriend spend their days either at school or hanging out in a diner in their Pacific Northwest town, a semi-rural area known for its chemical-processing plants (contracted out to the government, no less) and half-dead shopping mall.

Lancaster, Tyler’s hometown, is where yuppies lay down to die.

Tyler wants to work for Bechtol. Tyler sells imitations of name brand items in order to save up enough money to buy a car and go backpacking across Europe. It is right after his return from his vacation that our story begins.

Watch Tyler interact with his Mother and siblings, deal with his drunken lout of an ex-stepfather, screw up his personal dealings, reconnect with his ambition, experience loneliness for the first time in his adult life and attempt to salvage his future, all against the backdrop of the hyper-comsumptive pre-Y2K years! It’s like gazing upon a psychedelic ant farm blown up into human-sized proportions.

I’ll be honest. To me, this was not as endearing as Microserfs, nor as slick and funny as JPod. I just didn’t find myself as emotionally involved in the characters’ lives. I didn’t have as clear a mental picture of them. They were interesting, but in the same way the characters from 1990s night-time television were interesting. Watching them flirt and stir up drama and grow older and wiser was entertaining, but after an hour, after the credits for the episode came up, I didn’t spend much time thinking about them. At least, not until the next episode.

Not Coupland’s best work, but being Coupland still better than 90% of the books you’ll find in Barnes. A great way to spend a few days sprawled out on the couch, for sure, and the cover art is a minimalist feast for the eyes.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Max Barry's Machine Man

I am a huge Max Barry fan. Completely unapologetic, too. The man’s got a wit so sharp it could slice diamonds, a knack for creating unique characters without crossing over to the side of ridiculous caricatures and nobody, seriously nobody, does love triangles and nerd romances quite like him.

I think it’s official now, after fifty-some installments, that we can now add “drives the experimental novel like he stole it” to a list of Barry’s accomplishments.

Barry’s no stranger to more typical means of literary promotion. He has a blog. He has a Twitter. Hell, he even links to NationStates, the international simulation game based off his novel Jennifer Government, on his website. Standard stuff, really, especially for an author in the twenty-first century with global appeal and readership.

What he’s gone and done now, though, is a bit different. Machine Man is a take on the Japanese cell phone novel, a work of (usually) short fiction published online in small bursts, generally written on and designed for the displays of handheld devices. They are immensely popular in the Land of the Rising Sun, and some have made the lucrative transition from digital copy to print edition.

Max Barry has done something similar, though not through cellular technology. He’s writing a page a day and publishing each one on his website. He writes the pages one at a time and they appear on the site and in subscribers’ email boxes in the early morning (at least where I am, in US Eastern). While the feed was still in its free beta stage you could also get your pages via Twitter, but after #43 (which is an amazing section of the novel, by the way) you have to be a paid subscriber in order to view the daily updates.

Machine Man is about one Dr. Charlie Neumann, research scientist for a shadowy company called Better Future. Charlie has an accident. Charlie loses a limb. Charlie becomes a prosthesis addict. That’s all I’m going to say, but rest assured the plot is standard Barry goodness. Don’t believe me? Scribe, Barry’s domestic publisher, bought print rights while the project was still in infancy.

Six ninety-five may seem like a steep price to pay for electronic media, especially of the non-music variety, but there’s no email I receive that’s as welcome as my morning Machine Man fix.

Monday, June 1, 2009

#9 of 2009: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I read for a variety of reasons. I read to enlighten myself, to pass the time, to be entertained, to fill up with ideas I would never ordinarily expose myself to with only my imagination at the helm. I read because each book has a fundamental idea behind it, an idea I can uncover page by page, an idea that reveals itself to me in a style particular to the author who penned it.

Sometimes I come away from a book feeling like I have not fully absorbed the concept behind it, or even worse, that the book had nothing but an empty core behind its story. Most of the time these are books that are written in a style that I really do not like, or they are books that I just downright hated but forced myself to finish. Tea From an Empty Cup is one such example.

Slaughterhouse-Five is very much a book that feels incomplete to me, though strangely enough it still worked. I didn’t hate it - to the contrary, I found it extremely enjoyable and rather delightful with its early postmodern eccentricity. It just felt extremely open-ended, as if someone came along and cracked a reasonably straightforward narrative open out in the weightlessness of space and let its contents lazily float away in all directions, drifting into nothingness.

I felt like I’d managed to retrieve some of those fragments, though without any idea of how they once fit together. It was as if they were randomly stacked into a sheaf of paper, bound and mailed to me in the guise of a complete novel.

I knew it wasn’t a complete story, and the author knew it too. But, since the rest of the words and pages were lost in a vast dark nothingness, we decided to pretend it’s all that was ever written, and we each pretended that we were none the wiser, though the other party may have had their suspicions.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Slaughterhouse-Five lacks what we might normally expect from a novel-length work of fiction, which is another nice way of saying that climax and denouement are completely absent. It is ultimately perfectly fine, though, because this is a novel that operates and succeeds on several levels. The only one it does not succeed on is the level of the standard format novel, which would require much more action and closure than Vonnegut ever delivers. It works as a piece of science fiction, and as an example of metafiction (oh, how it shines) and even as a piece of magical realist literature.

Either it doesn’t work as a plain novel, or I’ve failed my duty as a reader, which has been and always will be to comprehend a work on all intended levels. I’ve done that before, and I’m sure I’ll do it again, but with Slaughterhouse-Five I’m not sure if I did or not. The book is quick and written in a very simple but dated language. It’s impossible not to know immediately what time period in which it was written, which instantaneously endeared it to me. Unlike reading Gibson or Wallace, I didn’t need to make any mad grabs for my dictionary. Everything was right there on the page in quirky, lovable, easy to digest chunks.

But, aside from “War is ugly and pointless,” were there any other concrete ideas to be taken away? I don’t know. It could be possible that the only thing left after that were the stories of different ordinary people, their mostly mundane lives and slightly tragic deaths, and the moments they played out that could have easily gone on forever.


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