I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
Haruki Murakami, perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature, eccentric juggernaut with a penchant for classical music, cats, and the quotidian lameness of life in the modern world, has returned with yet another occasionally charming, often frustrating novel. Unlike Kafka on the Shore (2002), arguably Murakami’s most accomplished realization of his aesthetic, however, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is considerably flawed, even when judged within the strange and disjointed context of the author’s previous work.
We meet Tsukuru Tazaki when he is in the throes of suicidal depression. He had been an integral member of a group of five creepily close friends, each of whose names contained a color except Tsukuru’s. One day, without warning or explanation, he is banished from this group. None of his former companions so much as answers a phone call for the next 16 years. Alongside this, a separate narrative of Tsukuru’s life in the present as an engineer of train stations follows our bland hero as he gets to know Sara, an efficient, sensible professional who, like most of the women in Murakami’s fiction, possesses a beauty that strains metaphor and breasts worth remarking upon. Sara, like any reasonable person, is amazed that Tsukuru has never once tried to discover why his friends exiled him. She refuses to sleep with him until he does so. “You mean you can’t make love with me?…Because I have some — emotional issues?” Tsukuru asks her over dinner during one of the novel’s many exasperating conversations. She responds, “That’s right…But I think they’re the kind of problems you can overcome, if you really make up your mind to do so. Just like you’d set about repairing a defect in a station.”
That remarkably short-sighted idea — that everything from impotence to “deep-seated emotional issues” (variously described as feeling like “a sudden, stabbing pain,” “swallow[ing] a hard lump of cloud,” and a “silent silver pain”), can be solved like a black and white Rubik’s Cube — is how Murakami initiates the quest structure in his narratives. It is a good trick, too. There is something relentlessly compelling about following a sympathetic character on a journey to find the missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle du jour, whether those pieces are lost relatives, unuttered truths, or, I don’t know, horcruxes. The object itself does not matter so much as its status as an answer, both to the literal questions posed by the plot and to the narrative as a whole, an answer that resolves the suspension that the book comprises and allows it to end.
This structure (problem + answer = resolution) is distinctly at odds with the inordinate violence that Murakami often employs, and Colorless Tsukuru is no exception. We are supposed to believe that the world of the novel is a charming one in which adults say things to each other like, “If you had told me then how you felt, of course I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend,” and, “Thinking freely about things means…letting pure logic soar free, giving a natural life to logic,” but also a graphic place filled with “pubic hair as wet as a rain forest,” “modestly sized breasts,” and the occasional brutal rape. The fundamental problem of desire — its unpredictably, its curious tendency to resist satisfaction — does not disrupt Murakami’s world of kindly old people and ancient magic and beige dialogue about the nature of reality. “Like me, his favorite thing is mulling over abstract ideas,” one character says at Tsukuru, and we get the impression that that may be the author’s inclination as well.
All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style — the supernatural, the uncanny, the grotesque, music (this time, it’s “Le mal du pays,” from Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage), metaphor, sex, philosophy — all are present in Colorless Tsukuru, but for perhaps the first time in his work, they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work. There is nothing intrinsically bad about each of those elements, but at this point anyone who has read an article about the author will expect them. If they were employed in the novel to some effect, they would seem more like load-bearing columns than filigrees. As it stands, however, they largely serve to alienate.
It is hard to sympathize with a character like Tsukuru, who seems to have arisen out of a writing prompt that challenges the writer to create someone with no personality at all. He is the hero, our eyes and ears, but he is mostly hidden from the reader. We never learn too much about what really went on in the group of friends from which he was banished (“They just hung out someplace, and talked for hours.”), so the life-ending misery his expulsion causes seems incongruous. As a result, the redemption he finds on his quest does not ring particularly true either.
This is not to mention the problem of femininity, which is surely the greatest weakness in Colorless Tsukuru. Women are either utterly inscrutable, fabulously beautiful, stunningly efficient, or insane. The female body stuns the narrative and resists analysis. As the novel progresses, Tsukuru’s search for answers, his “pilgrimage,” turns into a hunt for the source and reason for one female character’s hysteria. The most that can be said without revealing too much is that this character falsely claims to have been raped. The best explanation Murakami’s shamanic wizardry can give for this is that it was a product of “hysteric confusion.”
That is, of course, not to say that Colorless Tsukuru is without merit. Several paragraphs are downright beautiful, filled with prose that is both delicate and strong. Murakami is certainly at his best when he composes the novel’s metafictional sections. The story a character tells to Tsukuru about his father’s time at a spa in the mountains is effective and memorable. These strengths are finally not enough to save the novel from the jarring elements that dominate its pages, however. Like the melody that begins “Le mal du pays,” Colorless Tsukuru is aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.
Pete Dexter’s new book Train comes out October 7th. Here is my review:In the grand tradition of Los Angeles noir, Pete Dexter’s new novel Train, is framed in black and white by the minds eye. Yet Dexter has applied his considerable skill to softening the edges; it is delicately written noir.Train is the nickname of Lionel Walk, a black caddy at a posh Brentwood country club, whose world seems populated only by malevolent forces: the crass racism of the country club members, the criminal element among his fellow caddies, and the undisguised malice of his mother’s lover. In the same city, and yet, of course, in another world entirely, a woman named Norah is brutally attacked and her husband is murdered while they are on their yacht, anchored off the coast. Norah manages to escape into the arms of Miller Packard, whom Train will later dub “Mile Away Man,” which sets the book careening towards its inevitable conclusion. Packard is brilliantly written as both heroic rescuer and herald of malevolent chaos.The mystery inherent in this book is not of the whodunit variety – we know from the start who commits the murder on the yacht – rather it is to see which of the forces that seem to inhabit Packard will win out in the end. In fact, one of the strengths of the book is Dexter’s ability to embody his characters with such ethereal qualities. Packard seems as though he has been touched by some unmentioned force that torments him. Train, meanwhile, has been similarly touched, and though this force is of pure benevolence, one cannot be sure if it will be strong enough to lift him from his circumstances. Train turns out to be, of all things, a golf prodigy, which would be a lucrative gift for almost anyone except someone in Train’s circumstances. Instead, his unaccountable proficiency serves only to further enmesh his life with that of Packard and Norah and a blind former boxer named Plural.Train is bleak but captivating. The book unfolds in front of you, and you find yourself not wanting to look away.
Readers of this blog know that Kapuscinski is among my favorite writers. He was born in Poland in the 1930s and lived through World War II. He would go on to write for Poland’s national news service (their version of the AP) as a foreign correspondent. He covered the “little wars,” the insurgencies, revolutions, and coups that are barely reported in the western media. His point of view is fascinating: a man living behind the Iron Curtain serves his country by reporting on terrifying conflicts in the most inhospitable parts of the world. When you read Kapuscinski’s work you may at first feel like something is missing, and then you realize that what’s missing is a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it. Kapuscinski, like no other writer I’ve read, is able to delve into the psyche of his subjects and produce remarkable insights about their nature and the nature of their oppression. Which isn’t to say that his writing is dry. More often than not, the episodes he relates are quite harrowing. Shah of Shahs is no exception. Quite unexpectedly, I found this book about the Shah and his overthrow by Ayatollah Khomenei to be very relevant to today’s conflicts, specifically, the difficulties inherent in replacing a brutal and oppressive regime without falling prey to extremism. His discussion of the horrors of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, is astonishing, and his insight into the vulnerability of the Iranians as they attempted to move on from decades of oppression is fascinating. In assessing the difficulties of undoing the damage of a regime like the Shah’s, the parallels to today’s struggles in Iraq are hard to ignore, and, as such, the book was especially interesting to read at this moment in history. I have one book by Kapuscinski left to read, and after that, I can only hope that some benevolent publisher decides to put out more of his work.Those interested in politics and media may want to read a new book by John Powers called Sore Winners. When I lived in Los Angeles, Powers’ column “On” in the LA Weekly was a must-read for me. Powers strikes a great balance between intelligence and humor, and he has the classic ability of Angelinos, living far from the nation’s capitol, to deliver an unfettered, outsider’s perspective.
I just gave myself a 3 on the psychopath test, which is welcome news for me and anyone I might happen upon in dark alleyways, because I’d have to get at least a 25 before you would worry. The Hare PCL-R checklist, or psychopath test, as it is commonly known, is a list of 20 personality or behavioral traits typical of psychopaths. They include grandiose sense of self worth, lack of remorse or guilt, early behavioral problems, and criminal versatility. For each trait, the subject is scored 0, 1, or 2. With 40 being the highest score, the psychopath range starts in the mid-20s, but really, I don’t want you feeding my cat if you get more than 10 (although, to be frank, I just gave my cat a 22).
The psychopath test was developed by psychologist and author Robert Hare. Besides the test, one of his signature achievements is popularizing the notion that psychopaths are all around us. They are not all famous serial killers. Many are investment bankers, politicians, religious leaders, and – in an instantaneous diagnosis related in the book – a concierge. Hare turned Jon Ronson into something of a psychopath spotter – a hobby that Ronson took up with a convert’s gusto – after Ronson started wondering how much of the society we live in is a result of insanity. The result is Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test.
Psychiatry is a notoriously imperfect science – with disorders coming and going from the DSM, children being over-medicated for basic spunkiness, a history which counted electric shock and LSD among its miracle cures – and Ronson surveys all this with the caution and exasperation it always evokes. But the study of psychopathy is a world apart because many of its experts claim its irrefutability, even untreatability. Robert Hare believes it all comes down to the amygdala – a part of the brain that has something to do with empathy – which in psychopaths is non-functioning. And that’s that, he says. With a bum amygdala you were born a psychopath, and you’ll always be a psychopath.
Psychopaths, he also says, what with their cunning and lack of guilt, tend to be very successful. Maybe one out of every 100 people is a psychopath, but the higher you go up the ladder of power, the more common they are. “This — [Hare] was saying — was the straightforward solution to the greatest mystery of all: Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty? The answer: psychopaths.”
Could this really be true? Are psychopaths all around us, managing our 401(k)s and the Church of Scientology? Quite, says Hare. So Ronson, armed with a pocket copy of the psychopath test, starts knocking on the doors of those who might pass it.
Jon Ronson talking to psychopaths accounts for the book’s best moments. Ronson is a smart, meticulous, and admittedly anxiety-ridden man who comes across as pliable and eager to agree with whomever he’s talking to, which seems to be why the criminally insane feel comfortable being candid with him. They probably have the impression that they’re completely winning him over (psychopaths always do). When he goes to visit infamous CEO Al Dunlap, he finds that Dunlap’s front lawn is full of statues of predatory animals, which prompts this charmingly bumbling dialogue:
“It’s as if both Midas and also the Queen of Narnia were here,” I said, “and the Queen of Narnia flew above a particularly fierce zoo and turned everything there to stone and then transported everything here.”
“What?” said Al.
“Nothing,” I said.
“No,” he said, “what did you just say?” He shot me a steely, blue-eyed stare, which I found quite debilitating.
“It was just a jumble of words,” I said. “I was trying to make a funny comment but it all became confused in my mouth.”
He also goes to visit a man named Tony, who is in Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital. Tony was arrested when he was 17 for beating up a homeless man, and faked insanity so he wouldn’t have to go to jail. Ten years later, he is still committed, trying to convince everyone of his sanity.
As Ronson spends time with these men – the CEO, the inmate, and later a former Haitian death squad leader who lives in Queens, their psychopathic traits jump out at him. Yet he’s not quite comfortable with the inflexibility of Robert Hare’s conclusions about psychopaths. While the men clearly operate under emotional parameters that give no quarter to compassion or generosity (weakness and weakness, they would say), not all of them have proven dangerous to society.
“There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal,” Ronson writes. It’s quite telling that Ronson set out to delve into the world of insanity, and ended up believing that we may pay it too much heed. Psychiatry is meant to help us understand ourselves. But at its worst, it can lead us to understand ourselves only as our aberrant traits. Psychopathy is like high stakes psychiatry. The more items you check off on the psychopath test, the less anything else about you starts to matter.