Friday, January 31, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

There are some good things about this novel: there are some wonderful descriptive passages, particularly descriptions of the sea during the period when the protagonist is on a fishing boat.  I thought of Moby Dick.  A section about 15 pages long where a North Korean delegation visits a Texas ranch is laugh-aloud funny.  The book as a whole has a certain imaginative, surreal zaniness.

That's about it.  Basically, it's a trashy piece of work.  Reading it is like reading the script of a B adventure movie.  It follows the life of an orphan in North Korea who, through a series of unlikely events, comes to masquerade as a member of the elite.  Outside of the descriptive passages mentioned, the prose is adequate to mediocre.  The dialogue is stilted.  The real problem has to do with plot and characterization.  Both are totally subservient to building scenes.  It's like one of those operas where the plot and characterization serve only to maneuver the singers onto the stage where they can emote beautifully.  I think of I Puritani, written during the height of the fashion of mad scenes, where the heroine goes mad and sings a gorgeous aria, then, since one mad scene is good two must be better, recovers but suddenly goes mad again when she sees her boyfriend out riding with another woman, and finally regains her sanity  - for the opera has a happy ending.  But here there is no beautiful music.  The Orphan Master's Son has not one, but two endings, both spuriously happy, one highly suitable for a grade B Hollywood adventure movie and the other for a grade B North Korean adventure movie.

Note that there are several scenes of horrendous torture.  Someone who would be uncomfortable with reading vivid torture should skip this book.

Someone trying to defend the plot and characterization might assert that life in a totalitarian regime is often arbitrary, and, as Michael Kundera has explored so movingly, under the pressure of constant police scrutiny, if you make up a story about yourself, or someone else makes it up, that is who you become.  The problem in this book is that the manipulative plot and jerky characterization give no feeling of authenticity.  I am no more convinced I have learned anything reliable about North Korea than I would be convinced I had learned about the settlement of the Great Plains form watching a spaghetti western or about Renaissance Scotland by attending a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Several fine novels address the effect of authoritarian regimes on human fate and character from the inside with great insight and authenticity.  Here are a few that come to mind:  From nearby China, Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other novels. The long-term consequences of oppression are thoughtfully portrayed in Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad and The Rings of Saturn and other novels by W. G. Sebald. Read one of them instead.

I don't keep current on American fiction, so I don't have any idea what the Pulitzer committee had to choose from last year, but, if there was nothing better than this, it was a bad year.

Friday, January 17, 2014

I listened to this novel in the excellent recording by Sean Barrett of the English translation by Philip Gabriel. Kafka on the Shore is a Bildungsroman.  On his 15th birthday our hero, who has renamed himself Kafka after the Czech writer (Kafka means 'crow' in Czech), runs away from home where he has been living in estrangement from his father and in the absence of his mother, who ran away years before.  Is there an instance in Murakami of a father and son who get on?  He is one of those Murakami young men who make a virtue for the reader of not knowing what to do with themselves.  He is also running from Œdipus’ curse delivered as extended by his father: that he would sleep with his mother, sleep with his sister, and kill his father. It is difficult to write about this novel without injecting spoilers, but I think I can say that whether Kafka fulfills or avoids his curse depends on what it means to say something really happens.  

This novel is not speculative fiction like Science Fiction, nor does it create a coherent alternate world like fantasy, but there are unworldly departures from the commonplace.

It includes at least two touching love stories, and a violent murder by a reluctant murderer.

This is a long novel with several fully developed secondary characters.  The most important is a man who as a child was traumatized in a strange event during the second world war, which is recounted in full, and involves something that suggest American bombing of Japan and as well the sexual fantasies of his grade school teacher.  The victim grows up in a sense retarded, but able to talk with cats (Who can name a Murakami novel without a cat?) and his special powers enable him to effect the denouement.  Another important character is a transsexual librarian who is a bit of an authority on everything and a mentor to the hero.  Another is an uneducated truck driver who befriends the cat whisperer, learns to like Beethoven, and is treated for his good works to a hot prostitute who explains Hegel to him.  His physical strength contributes to the denouement.  So you see, there are many threads and arrangements blended carefully into the conclusion.

A secondary personage who has important role in the plot manifests as Colonel Sanders.  He explains that he is neither a god nor a Buddha nor a person.  Really, he is a sort of plot device, but utterly credible in another way, and teaches us something about the issue of character-driven plots and vice versa.

During the course of many trials and temptations, the hero spends some time in a distant forest that suggests purgatory but also suggests the Western Paradise of Pure Land 

The hero has some remarkable erections in unworldly circumstances. Can anyone name a Murakami novel without remarkable erections?

I feel I am failing utterly to give the tone of this novel. It must sound chaotic and self-conscious. It is not. It is orderly and full of surprising but inevitable plot maneuvers. It is serious, entertaining, and moving.

For me the key to apprehending reality in unreality lay in the character and action of lady Rokujo in TheTale of Geji, which the worldly-wise librarian is at pains to explain to the questing hero. Lady Rokujo is one of Genji’s many lovers. The Buddhist psychology that underlines Lady Murasaki’s characterization requires that each person have a ruling aspect, and allows people to have spiritual extensions of themselves, like ghosts.  But these extensions may manifest while the person is alive. Lady Rokujo's ruling aspect is jealousy, and, without the corporeal Lady Rokujo even knowing it, her spiritual extensions slowly kills a competing lover.

It is in a world that includes such kinds of reality that Kafka undergoes trials and temptations and learns to be a person through many adventures both realistic and remarkable.