Saturday, July 25, 2015

Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum

Casaubon, Belbo and Diotellevi become bore with reading occultist manuscripts, and decided to connect various documents to create the Plan, a Knights Templar conspiracy to take over the world. According to the Plan, the Templars have found the Telluric Current’s source, the center of earth’s energy, and they partitioned a map of its location into six pieces. When placed under Foucault’s Pendulum in Paris’s Conservatory at a specific time, the intersection of the pendulum’s arc and a light beam would reveal the location.

When Belbo disappears and then calls Casaubon for help, the latter realizes the Diabolicals believed in the Plan and kidnapped his friend to find the map. As he searches for his friend, he learns about Belbo was obsessed with a magical moment during his childhood and wanted to relive it helping to create the Plan.

Foucault's Pendulum in Paris

In Foucault’s Pendulum, “the thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” the three friends remake history by manipulating texts and Eco satirizes the search for knowledge through historical documents. In his manipulating and interpreting historical texts, we can see Jorge Luis Borges’s influence, particularly his short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." In this novel, Eco sows the seeds for his later novel The Prague Cemetery, where Simonini forges “historical documents,” particularly the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. To read Foucault’s Pendulum is to journey into the occultist society and to understand the how unreliable historical texts may be.

Foucault’s Pendulum is an Indiana Jones adventure without the snake pits, rolling stones, or Nazi treasure hunters, but with plenty of secret societies and conspiracies. I recommend this novel for the intellectual thrill and for the reflection on how we understand the past through historical documents.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We

We came before Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, and Yevgeny Zamyatin proved himself a master of the dystopian novel so popular today. The novel tells of the protagonist D-503 coming-of-age, becoming more and more aware of his desires, imagination and individuality, until the Operation returns him to the collective.

In We, the One-State removes its citizens’ individuality by assigning alphanumerical designations to them and so it dehumanizes them more than the governments of 1984 and Brave New World their citizens. The mathematical-speak throughout the narrative adds to the sense of alienation. For example, the spaceship is called the Integral. “Integrating the grand equation of the universe: yes. Taming a wild zigzag along a tangent, toward the asymptote, into a straight line: yes.” This is poetic science.

D-503 dreads the square root of –1 because the imaginary number doesn’t relate to any quantity in real life and it symbolizes the imagination, as opposed to facts and analyses that one can grasp and control.

Throughout the journal, D-503 mentions Frederick W Taylor and his Scientific Taylorism in which he applies mathematics to production (ex. linear programming to achieve operation efficiency) and Behaviorism to management (X style of management). The One-State guarantees its citizens’ “happiness” by removing their desires and imaginations but turning them into means of production and cogs in the bureaucratic machine, no longer humans but robots that follow the Table of Hours and repeat the tasks day after day.

Yevgeny Zamyatin reveals to us a possible future where efficiency and precision trump creativity and emotions, a future that haunts us to this day.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore

To read Kafka on the Shore is to weave through the malleable boundary between reality and fantasy, to meet philosophical prostitute, talking cats, and characters like Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders, to dream of the dialectics of Hegal and the continuous time of Bergson converging with the Oedipal complex, to journey into Haruki Murakami’s imagination.

I want to know whether Kafka killed his father, whether the librarian was his mother, and whether he was dreaming when he met his mother. I want to know whether Nakata was just fantasizing that he could talk to cats. But as in Murakami’s other two novels, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, reality and dream synthesize into a world that transcends truth or illusion. And Murakami takes us along his wonderland and shows what we too could imagine if we free our minds from the biases, the limits, and the cannots we have accepted as truth.

Reality almost seems sterile when we immerse ourselves in Murakami’s surrealism. And I invite you to dream along with Murakami on a shore far into the sea of imagination where a song’s lyrics echo back into reality.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review of Michael Tanner's Schopenhauer

Michael Tanner in Schopenhauer introduces the philosopher’s idea for readers who may want to read The World as Will and Representation.

Like Kant, Schopenhauer believes that through our senses we can only experience the representation of the world, in Kant’s words, the phenomenal world. But he departs from Kant in his concept of will and willing. For him, willing is the root of all suffering. We seek to satisfy our needs, but once they are met, we become disillusioned and seek to satisfy greater needs and the process never stops. The most common example is that we eat to satisfy our hunger, but having eaten we would feel hungry again. For Schopenhauer this never ending striving and the swing between hope and disillusionment create suffering. His ideas has influenced thinkers like Thomas Mann whose novel The Magic Mountain reflects that search and striving and the resulting suffering and disillusionment.
The World as Will and Representation

For Schopenhauer, the Will, as the summation of individual wills, is a unified cosmic principle under all representations, a mindless urging toward no definite end. And such an idea had influenced thinkers like Hartshorne and Whitehead.

Arthur Schopenhauer

But Schopenhauer not only influenced thinkers, but even more so, artists and perhaps musicians. The ideas of ceaseless striving and the cycle of hope and despair appears to lend expressions to the various arts.

However, as Michaal Tanner points out, Schopenhauer’s thought process is not as rigorous as philosophers like Kant and at times, the philosopher makes claims without leading the reader through the logical links.

 I recommend this book for readers interested in surveying Schopenhauer’s ideas before diving into The World as Will and Representation.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Shakespeare's Hamlet

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, though the prince struggles to answer the ghost’s call to avenge his father, once he has decided to kill Claudius, he doesn't hesitate to eliminate those against him.

The Legend of Amleth

Claudius sends a letter to the King of England through Rosencrantz and Gildenstern to eliminate the Hamlet. When Hamlet discovers the letter, he forges another one, calling on the King of England to kill instead the messengers, his boyhood colleagues. He could just have them jailed, but eliminating them would probably delay the news from reaching Cauldius, giving Hamlet enough time to crush his enemy. And he used the hands of the English king to eliminate his enemy’s lackeys. The Hamlet who forged the letter has evolved from the one questioning whether the ghost was lying to him and he changed from a bystander in royal politics to a key player. The Hamlet at the beginning of the play has disappeared and a more decisive and perhaps ruthless one takes his place. We can only speculate on what he would have done if he has survived. He may have ruled Denmark ruthlessly.

The Grave Digger

But he dies because he lacks a politician’s experience and doesn't anticipate Laertes plotting with Claudius. He should have understood Laertes’s feeling because he was also trying to avenge his father. But perhaps he believed Laertes was too upright to poison him. Yes, he, unlike Claudius who sets up a second offense with the poison wine, lacks a politician’s experience and instinct. And we wonder how Hamlet would have maneuvered Denmark against Fortinbras, and for that matter, England.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment Book Review

An idea possesses Raskolnikov. He believes there are supermen, Newton’s and Napoleon’s, who transcend ordinary men and women, who can act without moral constraint to judge evil and levy punishment, and to determine whether he belongs to this superior race, he kills the greedy and usurious pawn-broker. But unlike Napoleon in Austerlitz he doesn't execute his plan coldly and tactically. Rather, he nauseatingly dreams his way into a double murder, the pawnbroker’s sister having returned because he tarried. And, the sight of blood terrifies him to the extend his hands could not stop trembling. He discovers that he isn't upright or courageous, that he could not transcend the law, and that he is just a louse, a member of the inferior class. 

Crime and Punishment showcases Raskolnikov’s contradictory actions and emotions and reveals a split psyche fighting for wholeness. He despises others but dreams about saving the world. After reading his mother’s letter about his sister’s misfortune, he sheds tears but also sneers. He gives the little he has to help the Marmeladovs but then regrets helping them. He kills the pawnbroker to prove an idea but takes her money and valuables. He avoids the head detective Porfiry’s questions in the first interview but in the second falls upon the man. The psychological tensions grasp the reader and move the story forward.

Raskolnikov’s punishment begins not in Siberia after the verdict, but immediately after killing the pawnbroker, his irritability, nervousness, suspicion, delusion, and mania tormenting an already fragile psyche, not allowing him to eat, drink, sleep, work or socialize, and pressing him to hide in his coffin-like apartment trying to curl up under his blanket, feverish and delusional and escape from reality. His conscience torments and implicates him even before the law does so. Only through Sonya’s help and guidance could he find strength to confess his crime.

This novel’s conclusion reveals that Dostoyevsky rejected any social system that tries to replace the jagged path of life with linear reason and save people from their predicament. Although his moral heavy-handedness in Raskolnikov’s repentance and redemption seemed to scar the artistry of the mental battle, Crime and Punishment is psychological novel at its best.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Prayers for the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston

Prayers for the friends and families of the victims in the South Carolina shooting and for the church where the shooting took place.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Soren Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death

For Kierkegaard, “the self is not the relation (which relates to itself) but the relation’s relating to itself.” From the start, he shifts from a Cartesian or essentialist view of the self to an existentialist one. Whereas for Descartes “self” is a common noun, for Kierkegaard, it is a gerund. And the embedded verb, to relate, points to the dynamics of the self. In this case, relating to itself.

The first despair is that “which is ignorant of being in despair, or the despairing ignorance of having a self and an eternal self.” Similar to the “unexamined life” of Socrates, this is the unexamined self. And for Kierkegaard, this is the most common despair, though the individuals involved aren’t aware of it. In the Christian worldview, “a human being is a synthesis of the infinite and finite,” and therefore the tension between these poles becomes the source of next two types of despair: “wanting in despair to be oneself” and “not wanting in despair to be oneself.”

For Kierkegaard, despair is the sickness unto death, one different from an ordinary sickness that leads to physical death. Within the Christian framework, physical death may be a path toward eternal life and a dying person may hope for the life after. But despair, as the sickness unto death, is when one hopes for death as a resolution, but the person cannot die. Hence, the despair. Such despair presupposes life after death. For the atheistic existentialist, such as Sartre or Camus, death is the ultimate end and creates the despair by nullifying hope and achievement and life.

Faith, the interacting with the “power which established it,” is for Kierkegaard the only way the self can overcome despair.

Kierkegaard contributes to Christianity by reformulating faith as the dynamics between the believer and the “power that established it,” in overcoming the ignorance of a self, and in reintegrating the self with this power so as to resolve the tension between the two. Not longer is faith accepting a set of doctrines and carrying out the rites and rituals of the Church.

And he contributes to our understanding of human beings by modeling the self as the relating to itself and others, rather than as static stuffs: bodies, minds, souls and spirits, etc. So the focus shifts from being to becoming.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

James Ellroy's L. A. Confidential

No redemption in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential

More corrupted cops, conniving DAs, ruthless gangsters, psychopathic killers. Less truth and even less justice in the City of the Angels. Welcome to the world of James Ellroy. More setups, more cover-ups, more fall guys, more hush-hushes. Likeable characters? Not in this novel. Heroes and good guys? Sure, plenty in the news (besides here at Hush-Hush). Just don’t look in the closet or underneath the carpet. Redemption? Only if you’ve been living under a rock. This is La La Land, Hollywood Land, Dream-a-Dreamland.
The main event: Night Owl Shooting, 1824 Cherokee, 6 dead in food locker, gore, mutilations, blood two-feet deep. Spotted: purple ‘48-’50 Merc Coupe outside the shop. Make: three black young men discharging shotguns into the air in Griffith Park. Fall guys for a cover-up.

L.A. City Hall

Lieutenant Detective Ed Exley--ambitious, straight shooter, son of real estate magnate and former police detective--intends to solve the case, his meal ticket up the ladder to captain, then inspector. Eclipse his dead brother: competing with the dead, a sure loss, to seek his father’s approval, the great man who solved the famous Atherson case (hush-hush on the cover up). Never mind Ed faked his heroism during W.W.II to get a medal. Very hush-hush.

Officer Wendell (Bud) White--speaks with his fists, speaks with fists again before speaking with his mouth, watched his father beat his mother to death while chained to a bed, then watched her rot--intends to solve a string of prostitute killings: his obsession, his search for redemption. If only his brain could react before his fists do. Not in this novel, not in Ellroy’s world.

Sergeant Jack Vincennes aka Trashcan Jack--celebrity cop, self-interested, killed an innocent couple while on dope, but hush-hush--investigates the making and distribution of pornography. Sets up the D.A. for a scandal during a campaign so his friend wins the election, in exchange for favors. Feeds dirt to Hush-Hush for sin-sational news (thanks, Jack).


Likeable they aren’t, but colorful and struggling for their souls. And losing. In the end, they go to hell, literally or figuratively. You may want them redeemed, but remember, this is the world of James Ellroy.
All the slurs against blacks, Mexicans and gays, all the blood and gore for realism, they could be too much. Sure, James Ellroy was building a canvass: pornography, prostitution, heroine trafficking, police extortion, political corruption--a dark portrait of the City of Angels in the 50’s. But the excesses can be a turnoff.

What keeps the readers turning the pages? The plot, the plot, the plot. Multiple cases converge, involving the cast of criminals--cops, gangsters, production cast, psychopaths. Main plot and subplots interweave to form a tapestry of crime and sin and corruption and conspiracy. One of the most satisfying plots in a mystery/crime novel, complex enough to keep the reader from dosing.

James Ellroy (Photo: Mark Coggins)

Just too bad about not having a shootout between Ed Exley and Bud White. The quick and the dead. Would’ve been the pivotal scene.

Still, all the details that’s fit to print, in a fast-paced writing style, minimalism to the Nth order. Yes, style, style, style, either you love it or you hate it. Or you love it but hate it. But it fits well with the plot and theme.
And lad, even after Trashcan Jack kicks the bucket and Bud White becomes a cripple, your beloved Captain Dudley Smith is alive and well though he couldn’t become inspector. Containment. Contained. Wink, wink.

Remember, dear reader: you heard it here first, off-the-record, on the Q.T., and very Hush Hush.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution

Thomas Kuhn, through the concept of paradigm shift, has demythologized science as an accumulation of knowledge through smooth progress. That, for Kuhn, is just normal science, the incremental progress within the limits, biases and assumptions of a paradigm. For him, a paradigm is a set of accepted practices within the scientific community, the scientific traditions the scientists have grown up with. For him, “The success of a paradigm… is at the start largely a promise of success discoverable in selected and still incomplete examples. And “Normal science consists in the actualization of that promise.”

Though Thomas Kuhn focused on the Copernican Revolution, for me the Quantum Revolution is a more poignant example of paradigm shift. And the latter, like the former, starts with inexplicable phenomena. When the traditional electromagnetic theory of Maxwell’s Equations couldn't explain black body radiation, Boltzmann and then Plank developed a set of equations with quantized energy levels to explain the phenomena. Later, Niels Bohr formulated the quantized levels of atoms to explain their discrete emissions.

Johannes Kepler                  Isaac Newton

As Kuhn says, “When, in the development of a natural science, an individual or group first produces a synthesis able to attract most of the next generation’s practitioners, the older schools gradually disappear.” In this case, Bohr persuaded his colleagues about the new view and pushed quantum mechanics into the forefront, securing it as the dominant theory in modern physics. But there were oppositions. Even Einstein, who proposed the quantization of light, could not accept the probabilistic nature of matter-energy as described by the Uncertainty Principle. For him, “God does not play dice.”

Max Planck                                 Niels Bohr                  

Albert Einstein

The shift from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics is a shift from a deterministic view of the universe to a probabilistic one, a change of beliefs and values. For Einstein and others, accepting quantum mechanics seemed like returning to the pre-scientific age, where a person, even a scientist, couldn’t quantify and analyze and predict natural events. When the way of doing science changes, so do the tools. Whereas calculus was the mathematical tool of Newtonian mechanics, statistics and transforms, Fourier or others, and the related group theories are those of quantum mechanics. And we know, even outside of science, that using different tools creates different results.

Erwin Schrodinger                Werner Heisenberg              Richard Feynman

For Kuhn, “Paradigms may be prior to, more binding, and more complete than any set of rules for research that could be unequivocally abstracted from them.” So the preferences toward a deterministic worldview and the corresponding tools predisposed scientists to solve those problems with a well-defined solution. Motion under gravitational and electromagnetic forces in the macroscopic world. On the other hand, the preference toward a probabilistic worldview and the corresponding tools predispose scientists to focus on the uncertain boundaries between matter and energy, space and time, position and momentum, and energy and time. And so, “one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions.” Following the Quantum Revolution, scientists developed quantum electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD) through normal science. But when string and other theories begin to emerge, scientists must again reevaluate their models and even more importantly their practices and worldviews.

                                                                 Thomas Kuhn

Through The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we begin to see scientific progress’s jagged path and appreciate the subjective parts of doing science. And instead of worshiping science, we take on the scientific mindset of observing phenomena and analyzing data and revealing biases and modifying models.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men

Choice and destiny at the crossroad?

When Moss comes upon a drug deal gone bad and takes the $2.4 million, he sets in motion a chain of events that neither he nor Sheriff Bell could stop. And the psychopathic killer Chigurh, who follows a universal code of conduct and tries to control every event, believes he is taking the only possible course: to eliminate Moss and retrieve the money. He gives Moss the choice to surrender and die or to fight and risk his wife’s life also. After Moss died, Chigurh arrives to kill his wife Carla Jean. When she persuades him not to kill her, he says he gave his word to Moss that he would kill her. He believes that killing her is the only “justice,” the only destiny for him and for Carla Jean. Except he allows her to pick heads or tails on a coin toss. She picks the wrong side and he kills her. The irony is that a drunk driver runs a red light and smashes the car into Chigurh’s truck and severely injures him. A random event. Neither he nor the driver planned it. Chigurh is one of the most eerie and enigmatic characters in fiction. He retrieves the money and returns it to the drug dealer, taking only a percentage as a fee. Because he believes he is “making things right.”

And Bell, a local sheriff used to helping old women get their cats off the trees, can only watch the events unfold, watch the shootouts in the motels and watch Chigurh kill Moss and then Carla Jean. He realizes the drug deals are beyond him and Chigurh is certainly beyond him and the land that he lives in is changing and he no longer understands it. He feels he is getting old and he quits and retires and spends his time with his wife.

McCarthy’s writing style empowers the novel and pushes No Country for Old Men beyond just a crime drama, a cop and robber story. The bare dialogues sustain the tension and push the plot forward. The barren sentences reflect the harsh Texas-Mexico border and the rugged and relentless characters and the bloody and grim scenes. To create an austere beauty that saddens yet mesmerizes the reader.

The world of No Country for Old Men, like the worlds of McCarthy’s other novels, is harsh and cruel and its inhabitants must struggle to survive, and when they fail they perish. No redemption through courage and heroism. Moss struggled and lost and he lost his life and his wife’s life. Bell retreated and he didn’t lose but didn’t win either. Choice and destiny?

No Country for Old Men is an essential American novel by an essential American writer. And despite the blood and gory, I recommend it as a reflection on our changing times.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere

Deputy Danny Upshaw investigates a brutal sex crime and hunts the gay middle-aged killer, not knowing that from the beginning he’s been led to implicate the wrong man. So he could lead the investigation, he agrees to infiltrate a labor union, search out communists and uncover their “un-American activities.” But all he cares about is to find out why a killer was mutilating other gay men.

Zoot Suits

Lieutenant Mal Considine, on the other hand, agrees to work with power-hungry prosecutors, corrupted cops and gangster union bosses and hunt communists only to get promoted and win custody of his adopted son. To work with mob boss Mickey Cohen, Considine enlists “Buzz” Meeks, a less than ethical cop, who only wants the money to retire with his mistress in a place far, far away. Together these men would dig out as much dirt from the communists as possible and help Cohen’s Teamsters replace the rival union in the studios.

LA City Hall

Corrupted cops, manipulative prosecutors, greedy union bosses, bloodthirsty cutthroats, delusional psychopaths, they populate The Big Nowhere, James Ellroy’s novel of greed, power and lust. Besides these colorful characters, the intrigue plot of manipulation and one-upmanship also powers the novel and leads the reader on a journey through the “dark night of the soul.” When we realize the witness was giving Upshaw clues to lead him down the wrong path… When we realize the horrible crimes committed… When we realize Meeks would never get away with stealing Cohen’s mistress… When we realize they’re all going to hell… Ellroy’s noir is not only a delicious crime novel, but also a poignant social commentary. Writing in the language of 1950, Ellroy portrays men and women racing toward hell and a society on the verge of exploding. We can only wonder how much filth a writer is able to expose. Powerful, gritty, and unforgettable. Prepare your stomach for it.

James Ellroy (Photo: Mark Coggins)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Mystery Romance: The Shadow of the Wind

On a summer day in 1945, Daniel Sempere’s father took him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He chose a book called The Shadow of the Wind, which turned out to be the last copy. One night, when a faceless strange asked to buy that copy and he refused, he found out that it was the last copy of the book. And someone had been burning all the books by the same author, Julian Carax. As Daniel probed into the life of the author, he began to uncover secrets that should be kept in the dust of time. He discovered a conspiracy to bury the events of the past. He discovered the love affair between Carax and the beautiful Penelope. And he began to step deeper into danger as the evil Inspector Fumero sought to settle an old score…

The Shadow of the Wind is a historical mystery that takes us into post Civil War Barcelona, where the residents tried to return to a normal life. The intertwining events around Julian Carax draw us into love and lost and regret. Although there is a parallel between the Julian-Penelope and Daniel-Bea love affairs, the former outshone the latter as the sun that of a sparkle. And Fermín is as lovable as Fumero is detestable. A mystery as enjoyable as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon, through the protagonist’s obsession with prime numbers, his aversion to people and yellow and brown objects, succeeds in writing from an autistic person’s point of view. The drama around his family unfolds as Christopher, the protagonist, obsessively searches for the dog’s killer and when he finds out what happened to his mother, the “skeletons” in this dysfunctional family overwhelms him. Christopher’s mother left because she couldn’t deal with the drama around him. So he travels to London to look for her.
London Underground ("The Tube")

After he visits her, she argues with her new lover and breaks up with him. So, Christopher remains the central character around his parents’ lives. The dynamics between Christopher and those around him keeps the story moving forward and grips the reader’s interest. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a novel unlike others and through it we begin to appreciate an autistic person’s mindset.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ryu Murakami's Coin Locker Babies

Their mothers left them to die in coin lockers when they were born, but they survived. Kiku and Hashi grew up together in a foster home as brothers, but must deal with their own demons.

Kiku becomes a pole vaulter and eventually kills his mother, landing him in jail. But he escapes and goes to the Garagi Island to search for a substance call “DATURA,” which he would use to destroy Tokyo.

Hashi becomes a bisexual singer and rises to stardom on the heel of Kiku’s killing his mother. But the trauma of surviving the coin locker continues to haunt him and it destroys his career. He kills his pregnant wife and journeys into a surreal world, and he couldn't escape the nightmare.

In Coin Locker Babies, Ryu Murakami ventures into the fringes of society. And Toxitown is a symbol of the darkness in the protagonists and an entire society. Kiku hears the murmuring, perhaps recalling his mother’s beating while he was in the womb. And Hashi believes he has swallowed a fly with a human face and he must kill to continue his success. Two broken individuals reflecting Toxitown reflecting society. But we would find Toxitown not just in Tokyo but also in New York, London, Paris, etc. Murakami’s graphic description of its mutated denizens and their activities matches the story’s theme and his commentary of contemporary society. He means to shock the readers, and moviegoers, and he succeeds. The kid with the hole in his head is only the beginning.

The surrealist, and dreamlike, ending blunts the horror but leaves the reader wondering whether Kuku will use “DATURA” on Tokyo and whether Hashi has become insane. Still, whatever happens, Murakami makes his point and the reader will recall Toxitown’s landscape, the crocodile’s death in the highway, Kiku shooting his mother on live TV, Hashi stabbing his wife in the shower, and all the while D, the producer, looking to sell more and more of Hashi’s records. Not everyone will be able to stomach the book, but if a reader can pass the first paragraph, then he or she will be ready to enter Murakami’s dark world and glimpse into contemporary society’s tormented souls.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Richard Wright's Native Son

From time to time, a voice from the desert would call and awaken us and Native Son was and still is such a voice.

Bigger Thomas in a panic suffocated Mary Dalton and then burned her body to hide the crime and to avoid capture he smashed Bessie Mears with a brick and let her freeze to death. There is no question of the brutality of the crimes. An even Bigger, when in jail, believes he deserves to die for them.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

But through the story of Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright depicts a people confined to the edge of existence. Their physical segregation, having to live in certain neighborhoods in the city, symbolizes their existential segregation. Mr. Dalton, the building’s owner and Bigger’s employer, donates to help the Black community, but still allows his landlords to only rent units in certain neighborhood to Blacks. Perhaps the social force overwhelms this man’s will to kindness.

To Bigger, white people aren’t flesh and blood but an impersonal force overwhelming him. “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one's feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they fear it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it.”

So when Mary and Jan try to befriend Bigger and treat him better than other whites had, Bigger feels that force upon him. They, perhaps unknowingly, exert their power on him and Bigger resents that, even if the power comes from their kindness and goodness. He doesn’t want to be told what to do; he wants to live. And so he hates Mary and Jan for forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to. He tells his attorney Max, “Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything… You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more.”

“‘I always wanted to do something,’ he mumbled.” Bigger wants to fly a plane but he is Black and he is poor, so he can’t attend aviation school. And he expresses this confinement to his friend Gus as “They don’t let us do nothing.”

While he’s on the run, Bigger realizes that killing the two girls was his only true acts of living in his entire life. He has done something to assert his existence rather than follow the dictates of other. “In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.” It is Bigger’s tragedy that only through killing the girls could he assert his existence, could he live.

I recommend Native Son for its depiction of a people living in the fringes, the despair and the sense of confinement, the longing to live fully. We need not agree with all of Richard Wright’s arguments to sense that despair and struggle, to appreciate the progress since the book’s publishing, to assess the road ahead. And realize our common humanity.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

As in Faulkner’s other works, madness dominates As I Lay Dying. Addie Bundren’s dying wish is the be buried with her people in Jackson, Mississippi, rather than near her home, a request that would bring hardship to the family. And Anse, the husband, agrees to this journey and jeopardizes the family’s safety and livelihood, perhaps with the ulterior motive of getting a set of false teeth. When Cash broke his leg trying to drive the wagon with coffin across the river, they put cement on his leg to make a cast and the doctor has to crack the cement and peel his skin to remove it. Darl, the second son, in trying to destroy the coffin, burns down a barn, almost killing all of its owner’s cattle. Dewey Dell, the daughter, tries to get an abortion by getting some concoction in a drug store but only end up being taken advantaged of. Madness, madness and madness.

The family’s tragic-comedy shows its dysfunction. Dr. Peabody said to Cash, “God Almighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family…” Perhaps it is sarcasm but in light of the absurdity throughout the novel, this is wisdom indeed. In this sense, Faulkner is as much of an existentialist of absurdity as Camus.

In this novel Faulkner proves again to be a stylist, using multiple first-person POV and stream of consciousness. The nearness to the characters and the jumble thoughts reflect this dysfunctional family’s madness. And the stream of consciousness (italic text) versus the monologue (normal text) highlights the conflict between the characters’ internal and external worlds, the inability to express thoughts and emotions. The tension is almost suffocating and echoes the summer heat in the Mississippi. To read As I Lay Dying is to feel the tension and the madness that is the Bundren family.

To highlight that madness, at the end of the novel Darl, the sanest in the family, is committed to the sanitarium, and Anse, for all his eager in fulfilling Addie’s dying wish, gets a set of false teeth and finds his next wife. In the last sentence, when he says, “Meets Mrs. Bundren,” we can only laugh and appreciate Faulkner’s sense of humor and sarcasm.

Life is flimsy indeed, not only because Addie died and Cash broke his leg and Darl has to go to the sanitarium and Dewey Dell may have to become a mother, but also because Mrs. Bundren has transformed from the deceased Addie to this new woman. Vardaman’s fish has resurrected.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow

This story was first published in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. It is now available on Amazon for free.

After a tsunami has taken his daughter and leukemia his wife, Yasahiro Kobayashi goes to the mountains of Hokkaido to commit seppuku, but not before he rescues an old man from several delinquents. "Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow" is a story of a man wrestling  with love and lost, and life and death.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Erich Fromm's To Have or To Be?

To have or to be?

“I have a problem,” or “I am troubled?”

“I have insomnia,” or “I cannot sleep?”

In To Have or To BE?, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the having and the being modes of existence and argues for the latter. Do we live in the realm of objects, to get them, to manage them, to secure them, to use them? Or do we live in the realm of experiences, to sense our surroundings, to relate to other, to understand ourselves?

Fromm published the book in 1976, but his analysis of society remains relevant for our contemporary life. “Because the society we live in is devoted to acquiring property and making a profit, we rarely see any evidence of the being mode of existence and most people see the having mode as the most natural mode of existence, even the only acceptable way of life. All of which makes it especially difficult for people to comprehend the nature of the being mode, and even to understand that having is only one possible orientation.” We have seen some of the havoc, such as the recent recession, this imbalance between the two modes could cause. This book reveals to us the other mode of living, the being mode, and helps us understand the arena in which we live and the challenges we have to overcome.

Fromm proposes that the new society would bring about the new Man and he listed such an individual’s twenty-one traits, including “willingness to give up all forms of having, in order to fully be.” So, he believes that once we remove the external corrupting factors, we can achieve such an ideal.

And I wonder whether he was in the having mode when he proposed such a solution.

Still, I recommend this book for the insight into one dimension of the human condition—the dynamics between having and being. This book lays out the landscape of our contemporary society along this axis, and helps us assess our mentality and way of life and navigate the obstacles between the two modes of living. And though Fromm’s new Man may seem utopian in light of our internal and external constraints, we can strive toward a balance between having and being, knowing the journey may be as important, if not more so, than the goal.