William T. Vollmann and the Principles of Review

January 15, 2007

I did not appreciate William T. Vollmann’s review of Anthony Swofford’s Exit A in the New York Times Book Review yesterday. It’s not that I believe he was wrong about the strengths of Swofford’s first book, Jarhead, or even that he was wrong about the weaknesses of Swofford’s first novel Exit A. It’s because I found the tone of the review to be excessively harsh for a first novel. In my Manual of Book Reviewing Principles (yes, I just made that up), I think it’s necessary to reserve different level of harshness for authors in various stages of their careers. For a literary great, if a no-holds-barred takedown is necessary, then so be it. The same goes for a mid-career author, perhaps with employing a pinch more carefulness. But a first time novelist (Jarhead was nonfiction) should be handled with kid gloves. Of course there are flaws in the novel, and Vollmann does the reader a service by pointing out how serious they are, but few first novelists come out of the gate at a sprint (If they do, they are often feted for it). More often, it does take a few novels, as Vollmann points out at the end of the article, to achieve a measure of literary competence, much less greatness.

Now I don’t mean that a review of Swofford should be saccharine or cloyingly nice or even avoid saying harsh things. I appreciate a bad review because it tells me not to buy the book (as well as performing the pedagogical task of judging and analyzing types of literary flaws). And since Vollmann obviously didn’t like Exit A, I don’t mean that he should write empty praises. But his review, through and through, is ruthlessly demeaning (other than the compliments he pays to Jarhead). It’s a scarring, eviscerating, decapitation. I think there is some way to express a strong dislike for a novel without a employing such a harsh tone. Ultimately, it’s not the content of his complaints that bothers me as much as the dismissive tone in which it is conveyed.

I do appreciate the match-up: Well-established author reviewing beginning author. What I appreciate less is the obverse: beginning author reviewing established author. But both of these unequal match-ups can have their flaws. For the beginning author who is reviewing an established author, the danger is that the beginner critiques the wrong things, misses the point. For the well-established author reviewing the beginning author, the danger is that the review comes from such a high place (with a retrousse nose) that the review feels dismissive.

Vollmann says he "hate[s] to write reviews like this." I believe him. I believe that he was compelled by the poor execution of the prose and the flat characters to deliver a verdict that characterizes the novel as poor quality. But the way and extent to which he did it made first time novelists everywhere cringe over their computers.

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Wendell Berry’s New Book

December 5, 2006

The irony of writing about Wendell Berry on a computer, especially for a blog, doesn’t escape me. Since Berry refuses to own a computer, and has widely (and trenchantly) written about the negative repercussions of technology, there is almost a note of friction simply by covering him in such a technological medium. Nonetheless, it’s time to talk about him because he just released a new title, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, his sixth novel set in Port Williams.

I’ve read little of Berry’s fiction, but a lot of his essays, and I have to say I enjoyed his essays more. Since I was introduced to him by way of his essays, it was interesting to read his fiction later and see his ideas of the world embodied in concrete stories. As far as his essays, I’ve spent a few years teaching various essays of his, especially Feminism, the Body, and the Machine, and students either see him as visionary or moronic, both reactions that mean he’s imprinted himself on them.

Berry has been claimed, to some degree, by the Christian community as a writer of their own, because of his familiarity with Christian culture and knowledge of the Bible, but I think he stands a bit outside the Christian camp. What I mean is that he utters a rather prophetic message, or at least the best we can get in these days. As a prophet, he doesn’t fit into neat societal grooves. A prophet is always a loner. Despite his religious convictions, or rather because of them, he’s had no problem vilifying the Christian community for their complacence in permitting and even condoning environmental degradation. On that note, the richness and complexity of his view of the world is refreshing, albeit uncomfortably challenging. We all need to be challenged though, as iron sharpens iron. Berry’s done that for me.

If you’re new to Wendell Berry, I would suggest starting with this collection of his essays: The Art of the Commonplace

There aren’t many reviews online that I’ve found of Andy Catlett (readers – any suggestions?) but here’s a link to a brief synopsis.

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Haruki Murakami: Hear the Wind Sing

November 24, 2006

One of my Loyal Readers, knowing of my penchant for all things Murakami, was able to procure an English copy of Hear the Wind Sing from a drugstore in Tokyo. The novella is perfectly pocket-sized, at four by six inches, and extremely slim, with 127 pages – a format I would like to see more in the States as a way to encourage portable reading. Hear the Wind Sing, along with Pinball 1973, are two early Murakami novels that aren’t available in English, so I consider myself lucky to have a copy of one of them (and if anyone wants to send me Pinball 1973, I will reciprocate with all the publicity love I can muster).

When given the novella, I was looking forward to seeing what Murakami themes were present at a nascent stage of his writing career. Since so many of his other novels have shared themes (classical music, cats, coincidence that is actually fate), I wondered if many of these were already formed when he was just beginning to publish, or whether he had progressively developed them as he’d grown as a writer.

One aspect of Murakami that has certainly not changed over the years – although he certainly has refined it – is his tendency to use animals in his stories. The animal that appears most frequently is a cat – in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a search for a missing cat launches the protagonist on a neighborhood odyssey, while in Kafka on the Shore, a character is cat-telepathic. That’s not to say that other animals don’t drop into the story, just that a single animal often plays a pivotal role in the narrative and it’s often a cat. Even his book titles reflect the preoccupation with animals, with mentions of birds, sheep, and elephants.

When Murakami wrote Hear the Wind Sing, it seemed he had latched onto the notion that animals were key for his fiction, because he gave us a virtual menagerie, but hadn’t quite decided that for narrative reasons it might be better to give a single animal a key and recurrent role. So this story moves through someone writing about elephants, a car crashing near a monkey cage, lyrics about giraffes, a story of a man-eating leopard, a psychologist’s parable about a rabbit and a billy goat, a cow painted on a car hood, a character named The Rat, and the biologist protagonist who dissects cats. Those are just the main references, and all in 127 very small pages.

There are also a number of similarities with Murakami’s later work that don’t need excessive explanation: The protagonist is identical to most of Murakami’s later protagonists – male, rather isolated, laconic, operating on cruise control, and jobless. The girl that becomes the protagonist’s girlfriend has a twin – a familiar motif to the doppelganger-happy Murakami. There is even a couple-page bit on Martian wells on that transport you through time, which will be familiar to readers of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

One of the things absent from Hear the Wind Sing, though not the most remarkable thing, is plot. If you’re wondering why I didn’t give the plot up far sooner – such as in the third paragraph – it was because there wasn’t much of a summary to give. The book is about eighteen days in a boy’s life before he returns to college, and although events occur, they don’t seem very significant (although they are interesting). Each passage in the book is broken by trios of asterisks or a numbered heading, and each passage seems like an anecdote that follows the last chronologically but not in terms of escalating conflict. There are mysteries that are never solved, such as a high school girlfriend that he borrowed an Elvis record from and never returned, and relationships that don’t do anything. His relationships with The Rat, his friend, and the love affair with the nine-fingered girl, are not so much resolved as they are abruptly broken off as he resumes his schooling.

The lack of plot felt odd because Murakami novels and short stories usually have a fairly strong plot, even if in some of his longer books like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle he will venture off to a side-story for a while. Kafka on the Shore is plotted precisely and tightly. Even Dance, Dance, Dance and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World give the protagonist a single problem, a quest to solve that problem, and a solution at the end. Which tells me that at an early stage of his career Murakami had an excellent grasp on characterization, prose, and relationships, but his talents for structuring a storyline came later.

The most striking absence in the story is the magical realism for which Murakami is so well known. He remains, without much genre-blurring, in the concrete real of bars and bedrooms, cars and restaurants, and doesn’t step outside to mess with character’s shadow selves or discover parallel universes. In fact, the only hint of something outside "realism" is when the protagonist feels his "body overflowing with some strange energy" after sleeping on the beach with the Rat. Yet this energy is never brought up again. The lack of magical realism, interlaced with a number of familiar themes, makes the novella seem simultaneously Murakami-esque and Un-Murakami.

It is worth a read, especially you’re a die-hard Murakami fan, but your only chance to land it might be inter-library loans in the US (and that’s a long shot). As far as details to help you on your quest, it was translated by Alfred Birnbaum and published by the Kodansha English Library (originally designed to teach the Japanese how to read in English – which is why the last forty pages have an English/Japanese translation key). It was originally published 1979, but translated in 1987. Good Luck finding it, although Murakami doesn’t believe in luck, only fate – so here’s hoping you’re destined.

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