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.
“Dostoevsky was a sick man. He was spiteful, intolerant, and irritable. Turgenev once described him as the nastiest Christian he had ever met.” – Andrew R. MacAndrew, Translator of Notes from Underground.I’d like to think that, 200 years from now, I’ll be immortalized with a Penguin Classics edition of my life’s work – a 700-page tome spanning my early blogging career to my brilliance in advertising copy to my eventual Great American Whatever. I see it bound in something collectible – my skin, perhaps, or threads of wallpaper from the basement where all of the magic happened.It will have an introduction, of course. The introduction will be written by someone incredibly talented and well-thought-of. I imagine a design by Chris Ware (okay, he’ll be dead, so a design by Chris Ware’s great grandchildren or something. Humor me here.)Some things that might be included in my introduction:Corey Vilhauer started his career in the trenches of the Sioux Falls School District, working as an embattled troll in the substitute teaching pool.Vilhauer worked his way up, gaining employment as a writer through sheer will and ruthless determination (not to mention rugged good looks and undeniable charm.)Until mid-January, 2007, Vilhauer usually skipped the introductions to classic and modern novels, preferring to get right to the story.It’s true. I did. Until this month, I never took time to read introductions and appendixes. I just flipped to the point where the page numbers stopped looking so Roman and started looking more Arabic. I wanted to read the novel, not the author’s life story. Who has time for introductions?And then – Dostoevsky. Fyodor Dostoevsky. More specifically, Notes from Underground (and other stories) – this months Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month.I’m going to assume that most of you have dabbled in Dostoevsky’s mire. You’ve drudged your way through some of the most depressing and thought-provoking personal reflection ever written. Most of you probably even read the introduction. However, some of you probably didn’t. I’m here for you. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there.Notes from Underground, for those who have yet to read it, was written a few years after Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. To death! Why? Because he spoke out. Because he was a dissident in Mother Russia and needed to be stopped.He wasn’t killed. No – of course he wasn’t. He had three more monstrous, billion-page novels to write before he was ready to expire. But he was tortured, mentally, by the powers-that-be. From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword:On December 21, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a city square for public execution. The death sentence was read to them, they were given the cross to kiss, a sword was symbolically broken over their heads, and they were ordered to don special white shirts. They were to be shot three by three. The first three were bound to the execution posts. Dostoevsky was the sixth in line – that is, he was to be executed in the second batch.Suddenly the tsar’s messenger appeared on a foaming horse and announced that the tsar was graciously making them a present of their lives. There was a beating of drums. The retreat was sounded. The men already tied to the posts were untied and sent back to rejoin the others. Some prisoners fainted. Two went permanently insane. The effect on Dostoevsky, too, was shattering. The epileptic fits to which he had been subject since his childhood became incomparably worse.He was nearly killed. Then, the tsar came riding up, saying, “never mind, dude – imprisonment for eight years (four, with the tsar’s blessing, of course) will be fine.” The people around him went crazy. He was a changed man from then on.And, by reading the Introduction, and in finishing with the Afterword, I discovered the aforementioned history. I learned something about Dostoevsky that is far more interesting than anything I could have imagined.Notes from Underground follows the insecure wanderings of a man so depressed – so annoyed with life and dragged down by its horrible tentacles – that he can’t do anything but complain. He tags along with some “friends” to feel included, but ends up berating them for hours. He searches for them later (to duel, of course) and instead ends up berating a whore in much the same way.He hates himself and seeks relief, but whenever that relief shows up, he shuns it. He’s miserable – both in feeling and in action. He’s nothing. He talks symbolically of the mouse hole that he’s lived in for 20 years, and in reading, you figure it’s not just symbolic. It is necessary.Notes from Underground is written by someone who had been driven mad – maybe not certifiably, but at least minimally enough to devise a hateful character as the narrator. Dostoevsky ended up a grizzled, horrible person – hard to be around, yet amazingly talented. Some say he ended up too sentimental. Others say he was too hard. I found him to be brilliant, if not a little misunderstood. I also found him to be just as miserable as his protagonist.In writing a story like Notes from Underground, talent can only take you so far. Dostoevsky didn’t just create a character from scratch, taking pen and placing it on paper and writing from the creative depths of his mind. He was writing from his heart – shaping a character that was actively driving himself mad, just as those who he had been sentenced to death with were driven mad – little by little, through deception and mind control.Notes from Underground is quite a task – it’s short, but it drives one to annoyed rage. “Just be nice, for once!” you might yell. But in yelling that, you’re directing it as Dostoevsky himself. This is all internalized. No wonder he’s so hateful. After all, look at what he went through.And to think I used to skip those “life story” sections.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan.
It’s not news drawing attention to the fact that books released in different markets almost always have different covers. But what do we make of three different editions of an illustrated fiction, two of which have been translated to English from Japanese, with covers and interiors that could not be any more different from one another? Such is the case with the latest Haruki Murakami book, The Strange Library. What’s that? You thought Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was the most recently translated Murakami novel? You are correct, and incorrect. Without getting involved with trying to delineate the differences between a novel, a novella, and a short story, it just doesn’t seem right calling The Strange Library a novel. The U.S. edition is a 96-page paperback with elaborate flaps that open vertically and the 88-page U.K. edition is small hardcover embracing the library conceit with a check-out card holder on the cover — both versions are heavily illustrated and use the same Ted Goossen translation, with American English spelling and punctuation, and the text probably only takes up about half of the pages in both editions. The Japanese edition is also illustrated and was released in 2008 in the compact dust-jacketed paperback format known as bunko-bon.
Murakami’s most enduring talent is his ability to rein in his expansive imagination with sentences strung together with elegant simplicity. As is the case in most, if not all, Murakami, The Strange Library features a male protagonist unexpectedly caught out of sorts, unsure how to extricate himself from the predicament, and reliant on eccentric characters, one of whom is, of course, a beautiful young woman. In many ways, The Strange Library is familiar territory, but even by Murakami’s standards this prose is sparse, and, it turns out, secondary to the storytelling.
The unnamed narrator goes to the library to return books and find more about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. After being directed to a room in the basement, the narrator is confronted by a cranky old librarian who procures three tomes. The appreciative narrator tries to check out the books only to learn that they cannot be removed from the library. Not wanting to worry his mother by being late for dinner the narrator apologizes for any inconvenience he might have caused the crusty librarian, but the old man guilts the narrator into staying after hours, at which point he forces the narrator down a dark staircase and imprisons him, with the assistance of a sheep man. The narrator is ordered to read the three books the librarian pulled for him so that the old man can eat the narrator’s brain. When the narrator asks why, the sheep man explains, “Brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that’s why. They’re nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time.” Without spoiling the ending, that’s The Strange Library.
The story’s pacing is dreamlike with very little consideration of events as they happen and how they are all accepted no matter how absurd. When the narrator is told his brain will be eaten, he isn’t happy about it, but he resigns himself to the idea and gets reading about the Ottoman Empire. As captors go, the sheep man is quite likeable, especially since he fries up a mean doughnut. The enchanting woman is mute, but the narrator is able to communicate with her effortlessly. From a psychoanalytic perspective, it is not a reach to posit that we are reading the narrator’s dream. The old man could easily symbolize an estranged father figure and the repeated appearance of a green-eyed dog represents trauma. Plus, a library, like a brain, is a place full of knowledge we think we want to access and knowledge we have no idea that we want to access, or should access.
Everything that comes to pass in The Strange Library, like in so much of Murakami’s fiction, questions the differences between what is real and what is not, and whether such a distinction even matters. In 1Q84, the intersection of two different temporal realms drives the plot, and in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, certain occurrences take place in “reality, but a reality imbued with all the qualities of a dream.” But in both of these books the characters devote themselves to fleshing out the mysterious intricacies of these unreal realities, whereas in The Strange Library the narrator simply accepts everything that comes his way.
The illustrations, more than the words on the page, are what ignite the reader’s thoughts about what the narrator is up against. In the Japanese edition the kooky Saturday morning cartoon images are quite literal — there is the narrator crying on his bed, a ball and chain shackled around his ankle; and here is the sheep man carrying in a tray of doughnuts. There is nothing dark and foreboding about the images and they come off more like an afterthought and not integral to the text (which I cannot read).
What is immediately clear upon seeing both English-language editions is just how much thought went into the design and illustrated content of these two very different books. Published by Knopf, the U.S. edition is a Chip Kidd production (top), and while Kidd’s prolific portfolio demonstrates how comfortable he is working within any and all design idioms, The Strange Library is an in-your-face zoom-in on the faded comics qualities Kidd so often employs when working on Murakami titles. Suzanne Dean, art director for the book’s U.K. publisher, Harvill Secker, takes a very different approach to The Strange Library (bottom). Open up that edition to any page and the word “vintage” will spring to mind, from the lovely marbled endpapers to the reproduced antique plates of dogs and birds.
Both designs inject a sinister quality into the goofy story, but the illustrations and design interact with the text quite differently. In the U.K. edition, the illustrations and design are about much more than ornamenting the story; the illustrations actually complete sentences and respond much more literally to the words on the page, making the relationship between the two dependent on one another. In the U.S. edition, certain of the illustrations respond directly to the narrative flow, but in a more evocative, atmospheric manner. Some of the images, judging by the colors and pulpy quality, appear to have been scanned from source material that probably qualifies as vintage, but how they are used on the page gives them a more contemporary collage dynamic a la Roy Lichtenstein and FAILE.
It is fascinating that Murakami would permit his words to be so freely interpreted, but perhaps that was his intention all along with this story. As an author who has devoted a great amount of thought to dreams and dreamlike realities, it might have struck him as fitting to let designers manifest the elusive qualities of dreams on the page. (And it is impossible not to think about what these three different editions say about the differences between publishers and readers in Japan, the U.S., and U.K., but that is a topic for another time.)
Both English-language editions are aesthetically pleasing as objects, but the designs eclipse the text like a new moon-doughnut (an actual image that fills two pages in the U.S. edition). One traditional tenet of graphic design is that it shouldn’t be noticed, so as not to interfere with the reading process. Here, it is impossible not to notice the designs, but rather than distract from the reading experience the designs force the reader to actually read, and read into, the design, giving it more thought than the narrator gives to his circumstances. The three different designs employed for this one story provide readers with three very different psyches for the narrator, reinventing the narratives in a way, the same as when you remember a dream after waking up and then think back on it later in the day and it never seems quite the same.