Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I've read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were "both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else." In his novel, The People's Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz's boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book's action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled - worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He's British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian's Moscow correspondent for many years.
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"You couldn't tell that story in the same words that Americans used to order pizzas, let alone in little pictures." - Jay Cantor, Great NeckI.Last fall, a preview for a movie called The Boy in The Striped Pajamas began running in American theaters. The film's marketing team had no doubt noticed that October offered their picture a bit of an open market: the summer blockbusters had just blasted 2008 Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters from collective memory, and 2009 contenders The Reader and Defiance (and Good and Valkyrie and Adam Resurrected) had yet to be released. What bound The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to these competitors was its historical backdrop: the near-extinction of the European Jews. Harder to assess, from the preview, was the use to which that backdrop was being put.Exterior: CONCENTRATION CAMP. A YOUNG GERMAN stumbles upon a JEWISH BOY, who sits behind a barbed-wire fence. JEWISH BOY is gaunt, shaven-headed.JEWISH BOY: "The soldiers...they took all our clothes away."GERMAN BOY: "My dad's a soldier, but not the sort that takes peoples' clothes away."Cut to: David Thewlis, looking every inch the Nazi officer.Cut to: Montage of the two boys, the child of Nazis and the child of Jews, chatting and playing chess, forging a FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIP from opposite sides of barbed wire.The solemn dialogue and sumptuous cinematography suggested noble cinematic aspirations. And yet it was hard not to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, compressed to two minutes and sandwiched almost parenthetically between teasers for the latest James Bond and the latest Judd Apatow, as merely a variation on an equally generic Hollywood product: the redemption flick. By the time it appeared on the marquee of my local theater, the movie's title had been shortened to BOY IN PJs (to fit between Saw 5 and The Secret Life of Bees), and every time I walked past the marquee, it nagged at me, as the preview did. People died, I thought - real people - and this is the best you could do?I can see now that I was overreacting; film is itself, of necessity, a form of abbreviation. Even Claude Lanzmann's 9-hour documentary, Shoah, left things out. BOY IN PJs was merely the next logical step in the journey that begins whenever we put history onto the screen or onto the page: a metonymic drift in which pajamas stand for prisoner's garb, which stands for the loss of freedom, which stands for the loss of life.Then again, the theater was less than a block from the synagogue. And so, though it seemed a little late in the day to protest the muffling of history under the dead hand of costume drama, I waited in vain for someone at least to ask the theater owners to restore the missing letters to the movie's title. Didn't anyone care about this stuff anymore?II.After the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno declared in 1949, writing poetry became "barbaric." Like many of Adorno's pronouncements, this one was best understood as a provocation to think, rather than as a doctrine demanding fealty. A generation of writers including Primo Levi and Paul Celan found ways to violate the letter of Adorno's law, and seemed more like heroes than barbarians as they did so. Still, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, those who would represent the Holocaust - and those who would consume those representations - at least had to contend with Adorno's spirit. For fifty years, almost instinctively, we extended to the 6 million dead a reverence that was disappearing from the rest of the culture.Among the constituent gestures of this reverence - among its rituals - was an effort to hold the Holocaust separate - separate from language, separate from cliché, separate from the always already compromised field of aesthetics, separate from other mass murders. Or to connect it only to very specific historical narratives: about the sufferings of the Chosen People, about the evils of appeasement. Those who failed in their observances were widely condemned. In 1963, for example, when Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem portrayed its subject not as a transhistorical and theological monster, but as a morally deficient human being, the Anti-Defamation League asked American rabbis to decry the book before their congregations. A group of touring intellectuals-for-hire dubbed Arendt "The Rosa Luxembourg of Nothingness." Three decades later, when Roberto Begnini's Life is Beautiful inaugurated the genre of Holocaust kitsch, the Cahiers du Cinema refused to review it.For committed free-thinkers, the limitations of reverence as a philosophical position appeared obvious. ("Piety," once a virtue, tends to carry exclusively negative connotations among those who don't like to be told what to do.) But, on balance, it created a productive anxiety for the arts. The supreme difficulty of doing justice to so much suffering and so much death before such a tough audience inspired more than one writer's finest work; anxiety is what gave productions as reticent as W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants and as scabrous as Mel Brooks' The Producers their ethical charge. (Not, anxiety compels me to add, that it was any consolation.)That anxiety endures to this day... at least in the pages of our leading periodicals. In The New York Times and The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and Slate, bright and engaged critics such as Jacob Heilbrunn, Ruth Franklin, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Ron Rosenbaum regularly consider whether new novels and memoirs and movies about the Holocaust are worthy of their grave subject. But the current superabundance of aestheticized Holocausts beggars our capacity for judgment, to say nothing of our capacity for outrage. The controversy over Angel At The Fence - a concentration-camp memoir revealed last December to be fraudulent - burned itself out in a week.In fact, in 2009, reality has again outrun the intellectuals, as it tends periodically to do. As the youngest survivors of the Nazi era enter their eighth decade, the apposite question is no longer the ethical one - how should we represent the Holocaust - but the anthropological one - how do we. And it appears that, for better or worse, we have begun to represent the Holocaust the way we do everything else.Jonathan Littell's mammoth new novel The Kindly Ones, is not only a case in point; it is an apotheosis. In a single coup, the book erases the lines that held the Holocaust apart from other literary subjects and bound it to its own standards of representation. And so, more than any other recent cultural event - more than The Reader, more than BOY IN PJs - it affords us a measure of what we gain, and what we lose, when we drag the supreme example of human suffering into contact with the great muddy stream of mass culture.It may seem unfair to front-load a reading of a single novel with so much historical baggage. Upon the book's publication in French, Littell himself reminded Pierre Nora in Le Débat that his main concern was that the book "work... as a literary vehicle." But it is Littell who, by writing a 975-page novel from the point-of-view of a sexually damaged S.S. officer, has invited the burdens he must now carry. His work can achieve its totalizing ambitions only to the extent that it exhausts every facet of its monstrous subject. That Littell manages to embody so completely the difficulties of finding a new literary approach to his subject thus testifies, perversely, to some degree of success. For The Kindly Ones, which seeks to drag readers through the heart of historical darkness, does us at least this kindness: it brings us valuable news about the way we live now.III.Some of the The Kindly Ones' success in France can be attributed to the sheer improbability of its existence. Written from the point-of-view of an S.S. officer, in French, by the retiring, American-born son of the spy novelist Robert Littell - a descendent of European Jews - the book offered the press a multiplicity of hooks and angles. And there was the matter of its sheer size. If Moby-Dick represents the exhaustive aspirations of a certain strain of American fiction, contemporary French writers have tended to labor in the more streamlined shadows of Duras and Camus. French readers received Littell's 2.5-pound book with the ecstasy of liberated prisoners, snapping up something like 750,000 copies and awarding him the 2006 Prix Goncourt.For all of its idiosyncrasies, however, The Kindly Ones is, in its narrative arc, an almost archetypal first novel. It traces four years in the life of a young man named Dr. Maximilian Aue, who in that time journeys from innocence (of a sort) to experience. While still in law school, Aue is pressured to join the S.S. As an officer, he becomes a kind of Zelig figure, managing to get himself entangled in many of the war's most significant events. Flashbacks recording Aue's growing up, and his early ambivalence about his military career, are at first apportioned sparingly. In the main, narrative time marches arm-in-arm with history. Aue is attached to the einsatzkommandos that conduct mass shootings at Babi Yar and elsewhere; gets transferred to the Caucasus at the apex of Hitler's Russian campaign; is injured in the Battle of Stalingrad; travels on leave to Vichy Paris; inspects Auschwitz; dines with Eichmann; takes orders from Himmler; and ultimately fulfills his destiny in a bunker as the Allies take Berlin.Compacted into a single paragraph, this synopsis tests the bounds of credulity. Yet one of the book's remarkable achievements - likely its finest - is the way it re-connects the most thoroughly documented pieces of the Holocaust to an almost incomprehensibly vast historical whole. Over the hundreds of pages covering the Eastern Front, Littell allows the signal events of Aue's biography to mingle with the quotidian: meals, illnesses, boredom, trauma, politics. At this human scale, the horrors Aue participates in loom even larger than they do from the bird's eye of history. Death registers in a way that transcends statistics - not only as the end product of the Final Solution but as a condition of existence. It haunts the footsoldiers on both sides of the Eastern Front, and the officers, and the partisans, and the Jews. Exposed to forced marches and disease and rape and murder in something approaching real-time, we come to feel - as opposed to intellectually acknowledging - the pervasive grimness of total war.Presenting the Holocaust in this context also affords readers a deeper understanding of the ideological mechanisms of genocide. We are allowed to see how appeals to military necessity lay the groundwork, in the minds of the S.S. men and in the language that they speak, for the Final Solution. Littell exposes us to a dizzying range of anti-Semitisms, from the apoplectic to the anti-Communist to the somewhat resigned.The Jews themselves, alas, seem mostly like an unindividuated mass, but perhaps this is how they seem to our narrator. Littell allows room for this interpretation early on by giving us several moments that run counter to it, as when Aue personally supervises the execution of an elderly Jew, a theologian, who has turned himself in in the Caucasus:The old man fell like a marionette whose string has been cut all at once. I went up to the grave and leaned over: he was lying at the bottom like a sack, his head turned aside, still smiling a little. . . I was trembling. "Close that up," I curtly ordered Hanning.After several pages of conversation with his victim, Aue has come to see him as a person, rather than as a part of a mass, and has hesitated. And why only hesitated? The gap between "trembling" and "curtly" contains the mystery that the book should be seeking to unravel.IV.What we don't get, in the half of the novel devoted to the Eastern Front, is enough attention to that mystery. Or at least, not as much as we've been led to expect by the book's prologue. There Aue, elderly and living under an assumed identity in postwar France, addressed us directly, defiantly... intimately. Now, on the Front, he has acquired the flat address of the camera.This movement away from interiority complicates Littell's attempt to do for morality what he has managed to do for history: that is, to bring the Holocaust into view not as a singularity, but as part of a larger whole. And this is arguably the more crucial of Littell's projects, as it is the only one for which the novelist's tools surpass the historian's. The essential unanswered question about the Holocaust - presumably one of the reasons for this novel's being - is not how, but why.Littell knows that cordoning evil off from history lets us off the hook. (I am not like you, Stalin thinks, looking at newsreels of Hitler. I have reasons.) And so The Kindly Ones seeks to suggest the incredible complexity and variety of forces that add up to genocide, and how they embed themselves in the daily life of human beings. "I am just like you!" Aue insists at the end of the prologue.Yet, at the moments when this identification matters most, our narrator becomes inaccessible. The first time we see Aue kill with his own hand, he speaks of "an immense, boundless rage, I kept shooting at her and her head exploded like a fruit, then my arm detached itself from me and went off all by itself down the ravine, shooting left and right." And then we get this:A sentence of Chesterton's ran through my head: I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous. Is that what war was, then, a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child who breaks his toys and shouts with laughter, gleefully tossing the dishes out the window?How are we to interpret these trite metaphors? As a form of intellectual dissociation? As the falsification of memory by the latter-day narrator, looking back with the benefit of hindsight? Certainly not as a credible psychological account of a man "just like us" who has just killed for the first time. And what of the lurid cinema of that "exploded fruit?" Is Aue actually a sadist? A schizophrenic? An aesthete? A fraud? These are not mysteries, they are problems. Generally, we would look to style resolve them, but in the passage above, this is hardly possible.Indeed, style itself is a problem - one that grows as The Kindly Ones rumbles on. Acronymic Befehlsprache bleeds from dialogue into narrative. Descriptions of nature and weather, presumably meant to startle us by their incongruity, never rise above the anodyne: cows low, bees buzz, snow blankets the countryside. And the gray laziness of Littell's descriptive mode ripens to a Koontzian purple in the presence of death. "The skull was resting against a stone," Aue tells us at one point,quite clean, its empty sockets swarming with beetles, its gnawed lips baring yellow teeth, washed by the rain: and the skull had opened, revealing the intact flesh of the mouth, a thick, almost wriggling tongue, pink, obscene.Those last two hectoring adjectives turn whatever effect the sentence was to have had into parody. Littell seems eager enough to tell us what Aue feels - "boundless rage," "vague anguish," - or, in the venerable tradition of undergraduate fiction, to register those feelings in the form of intestinal discomfort or loss of consciousness, but he never develops a vocabulary for showing us, in modulations of the point-of-view, how Aue is changing or being changed by his work.The conspicuous opacity of the narrative voice Littell has settled into by the novel's midpoint makes it impossible to understand the frequent lapses into hamhandedness as conscious effects. Perhaps something has been lost in Charlotte Mandell's translation - or perhaps the lapses betoken a commitment to the poetics of Maurice Blanchot - but one comes to wonder whether they are simply bad writing, of a sort we're unaccustomed to seeing in connection with the Holocaust. We might even be willing to overlook it, were we operating in the genre of historical novel. But Littell is after bigger game. (I'm just like you!) And because literature cannot avoid having an aesthetic dimension, Littell's weaknesses of style will have grave consequences for the second half of The Kindly Ones, where he concentrates the book's most obviously aesthetic elements: its plot, its exploration of character, and its self-negating elaboration of its themes.V.The entire novel - thus far powerful in its scale, but uneven in its portraiture - is supposed to turn, I think, on the scene, 400-odd pages in where Aue gets shot in the head in Stalingrad. The careful reader will notice that this is the precise point at which Aue's copious, and copiously chronicled, bowel problems - his chronic diarrhea and literal nausea - begin to abate. It also marks an inflection point in his career prospects. Aue's sensibility changes, too. Whatever has attenuated his appetite for violence - and for self-disclosure - has apparently been amputated. And so, after a long fever-dream fantasia on his incestuous love for his twin sister, he goes home to see his hated mother and stepfather. At the end of his visit, they've been hacked to death. With an axe.The title The Kindly Ones is an allusion to Aeschylus' Oresteia, and with this murder, the previously subtle parallels come jostling to the foreground. In the last 450 pages of the novel, set largely in Germany and Poland, Max's flight from his own "Kindly Ones" - a.k.a. his pursuing Furies - will take center-stage. Daniel Mendelsohn, who knows from Aeschylus, has mounted a credible argument that the novel constitutes is a meditation on two very different conceptions of justice: the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian. Yet Littell's approach to evil in this second half of the book - one part phrenology, one part fatalism, one part Freud - explains away the very mystery that drew us into Aue's exploits on the Eastern Front: the mystery of why. Also overlooked by Mendelsohn is the slackness that now pervades every paragraph. Even if the Oresteian parallel were to justify the inclusion of Aue's masochistic homosexual encounters and his sadistic incest fantasies, would it necessitate treating them in such tedious detail? An onanistic orgy at a deserted country house goes on for 40 pages:The mattress was as clean as the sheets. So I set about soiling it myself, squatting with my legs wide apart, the ghostly body of my sister open beneath me, her head turned slightly aside and her hair pulled back to reveal her small, delicate, round ear that I loved so, then I collapsed in slime and abruptly fell asleep, my belly still sticky. I wanted to possess this bed, but it was the bed that possessed me.This isn't transgression; this is an embarrassment.The embarrassment need not extend from author to narrator. After Stalingrad, we are meant, I think, to see Aue's poisoned conscience leaking out and poisoning his world, and some of what Aue presents as fact is surely fantasy. Perhaps, like us, Aue is not capable of living with his crimes short of a complete mental breakdown. But the plot depends upon other, equally clumsily rendered elements (again, elements from The Oresteia). To dismiss the cartoonishness of the prose as simply an index of Aue's grip on reality is to introduce an Escherian instability into the text.Rather, what I think we discover, in the second half of The Kindly Ones, is the inevitable dark side of our new era of Holocaust discourse. Artists young enough to ask interesting questions about, say, the eating habits and family lives of the Nazis, are artists whose aesthetic standards have been formed, not in the charnel-house of history, but in our fluid, polymorphously perverse popular culture. Littell may see himself as a student of Parisian deep-thinkers, but he's learned at least as much from Hollywood. For where else but in the town that originated the terms "shock value" and "money shot" does the gross-out gag register as an end-in-itself? And where but in the movies would Littell's commercial autoeroticism - insert sausage into rectum, insert penis into pie - register as shocking?VI.It seems we cannot erase the line of reverence that held the Holocaust apart from the rest of history without also eroding the line that kept it unpolluted by the rest of our culture, with its increasing shamelessness and ephemerality. Indeed, they were the same line. In 1995, William H. Gass' monumental The Tunnel committed far less outré, and far more disturbing, discursive violations; ultimately, though, the book was still tethered to Adorno-esque notions of "the fascism of the heart," and so it added to the common store of literature, even as its claims to departure from that literature collapsed. Fifteen years later, The Kindly Ones, authentically escaping from literary precedent, loses its bearings in the stylistic fog of horror movies, pornography, and advertisements. By the laughable last pages, Littell's scatology registers mostly as shtick. Which is, you'll notice, an anagram of kitsch.Notice also that we are miles away from talking about the concentration camps - Aue's professional concern in the second half of The Kindly Ones. Under the old dispensation, writing about the Holocaust was seen as brave precisely because one owed it to one's subject to also be good. Under the new one, you can dedicate your novel to "the dead" and still have your readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies. If no one will honor your bravery, it's only because you've managed to annihilate the source of any risk you might have run.Such is our current situation. We've moved from the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy to the Angel at the Fence kerfuffle, from The Drowned and the Saved to BOY IN PJS. We've crossed the great divide between reverence and "meh." This movement is called postmodernism, and in abler hands than Littell's, it may yet prove itself capable of finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable. And yet it's worth remembering that its direct forerunner, Friedrich Nietzsche, called not for the abandonment of all values, but their revaluation. The example of The Kindly Ones suggests that that revaluation becomes more difficult, not less, in the absence of something to rebel against. When nothing is sacred, there can be no sacrilege.We might say, of Littell, après lui, le deluge, but of course the deluge has already begun. Ethically, The Kindly Ones' mash-up of Life and Fate and American Psycho represents no worse an offense than this season's crop of Oscar movies, which give us the Holocaust as The Magnificent Seven, as The Green Mile; as "Hot for Teacher." Harper Collins paid around a million dollars for the translation rights to The Kindly Ones, no doubt anticipating a wave of profitable outrage from prudish American reviewers. Indeed, the novel's jacket copy promises "provocation and controversy." In the end, though, the only meaningful provocation is how little controversy this intermittently powerful, sloppily written, and morally incoherent book is likely to cause: how commonplace it now seems.Is it too late to ask for our anxiety back?
1. When will Haruki Murakami finally get a Nobel Prize? Around this time every year, the question grumbles around Japanese literary circles. And around this time every year, the answer is the same: better luck next time. For my part, I've always observed this ritual with a jaundiced eye. Murakami, for all of his success and considerable stylistic accomplishments, just wasn’t Nobel-worthy (hold your flames until the end, please). His output is impressive and his fiercely devoted readership has made him one of the world's bestselling non-English novelists. But his books, which I had once found fresh and engaging, became increasingly predictable. If he hadn’t reached the limits of his talents, then it seemed that he was at least stuck in a very deep rut. But with 1Q84, Murakami's latest, the bandwagon’s out of the ditch, and I am jumping on board. The book, which was a blockbuster in Japan, is Murakami's finest work: nuanced, brilliant, gripping, philosophical but never tendentious, self-assured, cleverly post-modern yet authentic, and possessed of a haunting surrealism that by this point surely deserves its own adjective: Murakamian? Fans will find much to love. Murakami’s personal obsessions and eccentricities are on full display: cats, oddly-formed ears, European composers and novelists, and little people with strange powers. And yet, the book feels fresh in a way that Murakami hasn’t felt in a long time. It sees the familiar with new eyes. Reading it is like falling in love again for the very first time. Murakami’s work has always depended on subverting its readers’ sense of the familiar. His stories mostly take place in an off-kilter version of reality that seems the stranger precisely because of its similarity to the world we know. 1Q84’s brilliance is founded on more or less the same principle. It is instantly recognizable, yet inexplicably strange. A Murakami novel as it might be written in a Murakami novel. The premise is high-concept, but somehow unpretentious: two people, a novelist Tengo and a part-time assassin/fitness instructor Aomame, find that they have been transported from the “real” world into a fictional one complete with two moons, giant, glowing chrysalises woven from thin air, and a dead goat that serves as a portal to yet another world. Basically, it’s a love story. And a very affecting one at that. As might be expected, both the novel and the world in which it's set, the eponymous 1Q84, are self-consciously literary creations, one written by Murakami and the other by the writer, Tengo, who finds himself trapped in his own book, a high stakes literary fraud based on the work of a mysterious teenage girl. Although there are a few heavy-handed ventures into explicit meta-fictional commentary (a gun, which in contravention of Anton Chekov’s famous maxim, never goes off), the border between fiction and reality, whether Murakami’s or Tengo’s, is never explicitly drawn, and the whole enterprise is carried out with such zest and lightness of touch that it never occurred to me to question the concept. The brisk pacing doesn’t hurt, either. The book is a doorstop of the order of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, but unlike those shambling monsters, it features a gripping, tightly plotted narrative that's readable enough for the beach. Whereas Murakami's previous books often built slowly and ended ambiguously, exploring in the meantime only the most quotidian aspects of his bizarre alternate realities, 1Q84 hits the ground running and never stops. Except for a slow jog of exposition in the middle, the book, which traces the mysteriously intertwined lives of Tengo and Aomame, keeps up its quick pace through over 900 pages, putting on an extra burst of speed as it comes tearing through the finish line. Most incredibly for a book of this length, it manages with only one exception to tie all of its plot threads into an elegant ending better suited to a thriller than the elephantine social novel it resembles. As a novelist, Murakami has proven himself to be a world class marathoner. 2. After the English release of Murakami's last novel, After Dark, critics, myself included, began to wonder if Murakami was capable of writing something that moved beyond the intensely personal (and by definition limited) confines of his best work and into the world at large. His most ambitious previous novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, hinted at the possibility, but never quite achieved it. Although the book expanded the physical and historical limits of Murakami's world, it failed to push beyond the psychological boundaries of his main character, a cerebral, often anonymous cipher that was not quite Murakami himself. It seemed that Murakami--like the protagonist of the classic, almost psychedelic Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World--had become a prisoner of his own mind. And as time went by, that durance became a mini-genre of sorts: noir as therapy, detective stories where the sleuth trolls for clues in his own psyche but never solves the case. The essential mystery of these novels was how do you escape your own head? It seemed the puzzle was one that neither Murakami nor his characters were able to solve. 1Q84 seems to propose a tentative solution to this conundrum: self-awareness. For the first time, Murakami does not just write, but observes himself writing. And he has expressed this new awareness of himself as a novelist in an ingenious irony. Tengo, like Murakami has so often done, literally and unwittingly writes himself into his own novel. And, yet, Tengo is not Murakami. Nor, for that matter, are any of the other characters. The result is that, for the first time, Murakami is, as a novelist, unmoored from himself. The disassociation allows him the freedom to explore multiple perspectives, and his successful expansion into the third person has opened up a world of themes that were unavailable to him during his long period of solitary confinement. Murakami’s liberation--the book alternates chapters between the perspectives of Tengo, Aomame, and, by its third and final section, a hideously ugly private eye named Ushikawa--leads the characters to revelations that would have been unthinkable in any of his previous works. The difference is striking, and it produces some truly sublime descriptions of the human condition, expressed with Murakami’s wonderful simplicity and economy: (Tengo) was already thirty, but yet to have a sense of himself as an adult. It just felt to him like he had spent thirty years in the world. Or this passage, near the end of the book, that I never before would have imagined Murakami capable of: One evening, as the cold wind blew and she kept watch over the playground, Aomame realized she believed in God. It was a sudden discovery, like finding, with the soles of your feet, solid ground beneath the mud. It was a mysterious sensation, an unexpected awareness... 3. In part, 1Q84's achievement comes from Murakami's decision to write about Japan. In previous novels, Murakami seemed reluctant to seriously engage with his own country, most often placing his characters in a world that combined a fantastical fourth dimension of his own private obsessions with a jazzy transnational “West,” built on Russian novels, Beatles music and blue jeans. Much like his characters, most of whom are expats in their own lives, Murakami refused to directly engage with his environment, choosing instead to hide his characters away in caves and wells and cabins in the woods, where the only society they kept was their own. For all its fantastical elements, however, 1Q84 is very much about modern Japanese society. It grapples with the kind of front-page social issues we expect to find in Jonathan Franzen's latest: the historical legacy of World War II, the aging of Japanese society, and, most prominently, the rise of religious cults that led to the infamous sarin-gas attack on Tokyo's subways. The difference is both superficial and profound. With the exception of his career-making novel Norwegian Wood, a work of straight realism, Murakami has generally avoided the material signifiers of Japanese culture. His characters eat pasta and other western food. They sleep in beds, rather than on futons. They move through the kind of culture-neutral spaces, business hotels and luxury apartments, that form the archipelago of the developed world. To a certain extent, this cultural shorthand is what has made Murakami's books so popular internationally. Appreciating them requires no understanding of Japan, only a few weeks spent in any major metropolis. While Murakami’s other novels could have taken place anywhere, 1Q84 could only have happened in Japan. The book starts and ends in a uniquely Japanese locale, one of the elevated expressways that ribbon above Tokyo, and is peppered throughout with Japanese locations, situations, and references, both historical and otherwise, that feel nothing short of integral to the whole. Even the almost reflexive allusions to Western culture--in true Murakami fashion an obscure Czech composer and several European fashion designers are name checked in the book's first several pages--for the first time seem to reflect something essential about Japan itself, a country that connects East and West in much the same way as the elevated expressway connects the story’s realfictional and metafictional worlds. The result is a novel that feels more complete than any of Murakami’s previous work. Where much of his oeuvre feels somehow hollow at its core, like a literary Potemkin village, 1Q84 has real substance. It lacks the sense of rootless detachment that has characterized so many of his books, instead grounding itself and its characters in something real. 4. A few weeks ago, in preparation for 1Q84’s release, the New Yorker published an excerpt from the novel called “Town of Cats.” In the story--one of many stories within stories that fill the book--Tengo reads a piece of short fiction, written by an obscure European author, about a man who travels by train to a town populated by giant talking cats. Fascinated by the town, he decides to spend the night, watching the cats as they go about their daily lives. By the time he’s ready to go home, it’s too late. He waits and waits, but the train never comes. After a few nights, he realizes it never will. Tengo is fascinated by the story and reads it several times. He tells it to his dying father and his friends. Eventually, in the retelling, he realizes that he, too, lives in a town of cats, and if he’s not careful, he’ll die there. Reading 1Q84, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Murakami came to the same conclusion. Will Murakami ever win the Nobel? A member of this year’s prize committee was quoted as saying that the prize has been too heavily weighted towards Europe in recent years. The comment has no doubt given fresh hope to grumblers across the world. Whether they will be vindicated or not, only time will tell. In the meantime, there is one thing that everyone should be happy about. With 1Q84, Haruki Murakami has finally left his town of cats.
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Geoff Dyer is very good at being shallow. Like a dragonfly hovering above the surface of a pond, his criticism skims across a subject rather than diving in. Yet not every critic can incite so many ripples with such a light touch, and not every critic can show such tremendous intelligence while leaving things slighted. Dyer launched himself into critical prominence by refusing to order things neatly: Out of Sheer Rage, for example, proved that failing to finish a project could be as entertaining as the project itself. It’s OK not to finish things, or even to master things, Dyer seems to say, so long as you are moved by them. In his introduction to his newest collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, he says that it was exactly the “the unruly range of my concerns” that he wished to see compiled, “as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer finds himself drawn to material in a hodge-podge way, jumping from one subject to another, and gaining a kind of critical breadth along the way. “I came to relish the way that getting interested in one thing led to my becoming very interested in something else—so interested, in fact, that I often lost interest in whatever it was that, a little while previously, had transfixed me utterly. Out of this relay of awakened and abandoned interests a haphazard kind of narrative hopefully emerges in the pages that follow.” In Dyer’s latest collection, we get to see how Dyer has cultivated that broadly drawn critical life, in pieces published over the last 20 years from publications including Esquire, Granta, The Guardian, and so on. The collection is broken into five parts—Visuals, Verbals, Musicals, Variables, and Personals—and each piece can be read not only as crafted criticism, but also as Dyer’s unexpressed thoughts on the purposes of writing, of creation, and of art. The greatest pleasure one can take away is having Dyer as a fellow audience member—what he occasionally lacks in critical authority, he more than compensates for in critical awareness. It’s freeing to read his perspective, partly because he does not assume himself to be a master artist: like a football star watching ballet, or an actress reading an economist, he can appreciate the work without trying to emulate it. And in each piece he writes, whether examining his susceptibility to a Miroslav Tichý photograph of a woman lounging on a lawn, or first hearing John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”, he keeps his experience as a consumer of culture in the forefront of his verdict. He makes himself a critic for the everyman, who when faced with a cultural experience not only asks “Is it good?” but also “Will I enjoy it?” What Dyer enjoys isn’t so easy to predict. In his “Visuals” works, he can delve into a photograph and find that what engages him is the frippery around its edges, rather than the photograph’s main subject. He writes, “If you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question—even if that answer comes in the form of further questions. Well, whoever, she is, she’s beautiful. Actually, I can’t really tell if that’s true, for the simple reason that I can’t see enough of her face. But she must be beautiful for an equally simple reason: because I’m in love with her.” Dyer doesn’t have to recognize the subject matter to get close to it; on the contrary, the less he knows for certain, the more interesting his impressions of it become. He can relate to what rings true to him: examining a photograph of Robert Capa’s of a soldier and his girl walking home with their bikes in tow, he doesn’t go into a high-falutin’ analysis of war, but instead focuses on the details he can imagine. The landscape. The dust on the tires. What makes the photograph for him makes it for all viewers. “The photograph would be diminished without the bicycle; it would be ruined without her long hair. Her hair says: this is how she was when he left, she has not changed, she has remained true to him.” So much more is going on, according to Dyer, beyond the frame of any given photograph—for all the meanings we bring to viewing, all our lived experience, is just as important as what our eyes capture. Dyer’s reviews are at their best when they are interdisciplinary, and he’s at his strongest when he doesn’t have much critical background to reference. Though his forté is obviously literature, his reviews tend to rely too heavily on contextualizing the material. Sure, he has the authority to write the stuff, but then he doesn’t have to make the great interpretative leaps and connection of dots that he does in his other essays. He can become wonky, academic, and a little distant from the work. He often makes up for it by treating certain writers as compatriots: when he asks, “Was ever a writer so besotted by failure as F. Scott Fitzgerald?” it feels like a question he’d rhetorically pose at a roast of his good friend Francis. He can take some pleasure not in each work, but in the canon of literature and where he hopes it’s headed (he longs for a boom in literature on boxing, throwing little jabs at how every boxing story stands in Hemingway’s footsteps.) His writing is, throughout, touched with a modesty and humility that serves him well. “Whatever else might be said about my talents as a reader, my ability to quit is undisputed,” he says, in the course of reviewing Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. “I can give up on any book—and I never for a moment considered abandoning this one, even when it seemed to be going nowhere.” By confessing his own foibles, Dyer paves the way for a compliment that means something—praise in the face of inborn resistance. It is a little too easy to skim over his book reviews, and his likes and dislikes start to insinuate themselves in a slightly irrelevant manner. But he is consistently asking the right questions, of why someone is coming to a particular text, and what their expectations might be. He demands things of himself even in the midst of assessing someone else. With Susan Sontag, he asks “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?” That question will send him into Sontag’s gifts as a storyteller, but it will also haunt each word he writes. Can a fiction writer be critiqued by anyone but an equal? In his book reviews, Dyer can afford to act like his subjects’ peer, but in his “Musicals” essays, he turns right back into a fanboy, and the reader can’t help but lap it up. His essay on “My Favorite Things” is epic, gushing, and rhapsodic in ways that only true music fans can be. He falls in love with the vocalist Ramamani and becomes a pseudo-roadie for Def Leppard on tour (nothing less than pure hilarity.) And his essay entitled “Editions of Contemporary Me” should be handed out in freshman year orientation packets, bearing the giant disclaimer “Caution: Your tastes in four years will be dramatically different than they are now.” This essay is Dyer at his best because, ultimately, he’s a critic interested in how taste evolves, making many, many concessions for how one comes to love and hate a piece of art. How you discover things—as he examines in the “Variables”—is as important as what you come to think of them. Dyer sees a homeless man’s daily plight and the story of Vincent and Theo van Gogh as two parts of the same story of the blues—“The message of the blues is simple . . . It cannot heal but it can hold us, can lay a hand around a brother’s shoulder and say: You will find a home, if not in her arms, then here, in these blues.” These variables, too, are where Dyer’s personal opinions seep in—in hoping to escape London, “with its sky of sagging cloud, where all the beautiful women already have boyfriends,” Dyer flees to Algeria in search of Camus’ rhapsodies on poverty and sunlight, and the rain seems to follow him. “Even in Algiers, on this autumn morning, I open the shutters with trepidation and find an allotment sky, a sky catarrhed with cloud. A shadowless day of loitering rain.” These aren’t quite pieces of cultural criticism, but more like meditations on a life in the midst of culture, and of all the expectations art can saddle us with. Nora Ephron once wrote, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, but shouldn't it be the other way around?” This might be Dyer’s problem, too—when everything you see brings you back to art, it’s hard not to see art everywhere you go. And it’s hard to read his account of flying in a fighter jet without wondering if he was playing Top Gun in his head all the while. Nevertheless, the drama is real, and it emerges in Dyer’s impressionistic essays on the crisp white bathrobes in fancy hotels, or in the stark ghost bicycles peppering busy New York intersections. In his “Personals,” we get tiny glimpses at the developing life of the writer, the little influences along the way—the comics and what they do to adolescent boys; the limitations and freedoms of an only child; and so on. And perhaps Dyer’s true passions were discovered in childhood after all: “I loved arranging my things—whatever they were—and putting them into some kind of order.” Looking back on a photograph of himself on a London roof in the mid-1980s, he says, “it was an idyllic time and—such is the nature of idylls—it is now a vanished time... Destiny, I think, is not what lies in store for you; it’s what is already stored up inside you—and it’s patient as death.” He unpacks his library, his sense of adventure, and eventually, a great and serendipitously discovered love, and we get the sense of a person evolving through exposure to the great wide world. Is there any truly fair way to review a critic? It seems like trying to see a telescope more clearly by gazing at it through a telescope…or perhaps it’s like the observation made by a prepubescent Sally Draper on this season’s Mad Men, talking about the Land O’Lakes butter box: “That Indian girl, sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her on it, holding a box. Have you ever noticed that?” You can scrutinize each choice until the criticisms are just blobs of words and empty space. But buried somewhere within each well-schooled critic is a hungry cultural neophyte, ready to consume and report on whatever material they can get. Dyer is not so untouchable yet; he can still be moved to enjoy, or disdain, something without prejudgment. And ultimately that’s part of his charm: he can be like his reader, as blank as a slate, and demand that each piece of art freshly persuade him, charm him, move him to give it praise.