Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Novel Miniscule Musings

  • It is fair to say that Roberto Bolaño, in all of his other works NF has read — Between Parentheses, The Third Reich, By Night in Chile, The Return and Nazi Literature in the Americas — never threatens to scale the dazzling summits of his two big books: The Savage Detectives and 2666. The others remain undoubtedly minor works and of interest only to the Bolaño completist. While they retain the fast, breathless energy characteristic of Bolaño's prose, the minor works seem to lack a sense of purpose and execution — defects defiantly absent from his two big ones, with both books easily being solid contenders for the best novels written in the last several decades. The mighty Bolaño of course, doesn't need to prove anything to anyone but as a consumer of high fiction, NF was sorely disappointed at the mediocre fare written by the great master though there were times he could glimpse the power of his writing in the eminently Borgesian (and often funny) Nazi Literature in the Americas

  • The choice for the Nobel in literature this year was decidedly odd. NF wonders what's the criterion that's been stumping Philip Roth's candidature though. He's been at the forefront of great writing for the past fifty years, has written dozens of celebrated books; and has arguably been the best American writer over numerous previous decades until he retired in 2014. (Other candidates for the best American writer offer stiff competition though. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy are all eminently worthy.) While NF's only acquainted with two of Roth's late works, it's quite easy for him to sense the disturbing, awe-inspiring, devastating power of American Pastoral; and the eminently compelling, provocative alternate history: The Plot Against America

    One wonders if the Nobel committee's reluctance has something to do with Roth's reputation and his lack of political commitment. After all, he has been rumored to be the main character on whom Woody Allen's fabulous Deconstructing Harry is based. If so, he wouldn't be the first giant to have been overlooked. Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Nabokov and Borges never won either. It's just irritating to see the Nobel committee, year after year, continuously favor obscurity and Eurocentrism over indubitably compelling American writers, particularly Roth. With each year, they run out of further excuses. One wonders if the Dylan prize is just another sign of their increasing irrelevance.

  • Naomi Williams recently wrote a droll, wry post on the annual pre-Nobel speculation on Haruki Murakami's chances and why she can't stop reading him even though she hates his novels. NF is very sympathetic to her view and in fact suffers from the same syndrome. He's read quite a lot of Murakami's fare by now but can often be seen grinding his teeth at gratuitous, fantastical, otherworldly interventions in mundane matters of his melancholy protagonists. She puts it rather well in the following passage: 

  • But for me, reading a Murakami novel is a lot like eating a party-sized bag of potato chips by myself in one sitting. The bag is so enticing, and the potato chips look so good. The first one I crunch down is delicious, and the next one is pretty good too, and the next one and the next one. Before I know it, I’ve eaten the entire bag. But now I just feel gross and full of self-loathing. I didn’t even enjoy the last 30 potato chips, which were greasy and salty and nasty. I ate them because they were there. Because I wanted to recapture the taste sensation that was the first chip. Because I thought for some reason there would be a prize at the bottom of the bag. Even though I’ve eaten through many bags of potato chips, and there’s never a prize at the bottom.... But then another book comes out in translation, and there I am, munching down on those greasy, high-calorie chips as if they’re the best thing ever, then feeling bloated and pissed off afterward.
    Don't get him wrong: NF rather likes Murakami's writing and he's read several of his big, fat books, including the biggest and the fattest 1Q84. However, the parallel-dimensional-mysterious-beings-that-venture-into-our-terrestrial-realm trope increasingly wears him out now. Indeed, Murakami's writing (with its dormant but potent undercurrent of sexuality) is at its best when describing the mundane day-to-day realities of his lonely protagonists; and their unplanned, leisurely afternoons in which they cook omelettes, sip scotch, listen to jazz, read Dostoyevsky, do housework, think about taking solitary excursions into the unknown; and just wait. When Murakami does leap into hidden dimensions, the results can be highly variable — the plots often losing their way into what is quite frankly, pop anime territory.

    That is why when he sticks to the basics, as in his short story Firefly (collected in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman), the writing affects the reader so deeply. That is why all his books that feature supernaturalism only minimally —  to augment rather than to propel the plot — are his best works. It is only when Murakami abandons anime tropes and veers into the Paul Auster territory do we finally glimpse his tremendous skill. His heroes (and often villains too, such as Ushikawa in 1Q84) will hunker down, ruminate and abandon human company; and their mundane, daily, repetitive rhythms will slowly begin to acquire a quiet, understated significance of their own. Hence NF's special partiality for Sputnik Sweetheart, Norwegian Wood and The Windup Bird Chronicle

    So, will all this mean NF won't read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki...? Perhaps time will tell. Meanwhile, do read the whole thing from Naomi Williams at the Literary Hub

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