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.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths

Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most imaginative writers I have come across, could have been a mathematician, a physicist, a philosopher or a theologian. I can see his influence on Umberto Eco in the manipulation of text and the blending between fiction and reality. To read Borges’s Labyrinth is immerse myself in a magical world where the concept of infinity manifests in space and time, where the boundary between dream and reality fades, where the past and the future converge into an instant, where levels of texts superimpose on one another, where fiction imitates nonfiction and life is a drama on stage. To read Borges is to become children again, listening to stories of magic and wonder, of unfathomable worlds.

In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges creates a fictional world, where Berkeleyan idealism dominates its inhabitant’s thinking. “The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts.” Through the narrator Borges, we encounter a language without nouns, but with “personal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value.” The author Borges has created an alternative world, where the language and the worldviews differ from our world and from it we learn of our biases and blind spots. And we can begin to imagine new worlds, new possibilities. We can create our own languages, as Tolkien has in his fiction, and as software engineers has BASIC, FORTRAN, PASCAL, and so forth. We see similar blending of fact and fiction in Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery.

In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” we encounter an infinitely long book where at every juncture of the story, all possibilities are written and the branches grow exponentially. “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.” When I was younger, I have read stories where the reader can choose one of several actions—the decision tree—and turn to the appropriate page for that choice. The story continues from there until there is another choice. And the story would have several endings. After reading this story, I realize where the idea came from. Perhaps, Borges read about the many world interpretation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that before an observation, a system could be in various states—position, momentum, time, energy—according to a probability distribution and only when someone has observed the system—photons bouncing off the object—would it collapsed into a single state. In science fiction, such as Star Trek, we read about parallel universes but this may be the first story with such a concept.

In “The Library of Babel,” Borges again plays around with the concept of infinity, but this time also with combinatorics and I can imagine Borges as a mathematician or computer scientist. A labyrinth of infinite number of rooms stores books that include all combinations of a 22-letter alphabet plus spaces and the comma and period. Since we know the number of characters in each book, we can calculate the number of possible books (not infinite). Of course, most of them are meaningless. Is this universe of repeated rooms each with five shelves and thirty-five books a mirror of our world? Interestingly, in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the blind monk who oversees the library is named Jorge of Burgos.

I have heard of the argument that Judas betrayed Jesus to force the latter to reveal his divinity and complete God’s work, but in “Three Versions of Judas,” the controversial theologian reinterprets the Biblical text and declares Judas the savior and God’s incarnation. “To save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which make up the complex web of history; He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; He chose the vilest destiny of all: He was Judas.” Borges’s fascination with text, whether historical documents or his own creation, dominates much of his stories and Eco certainly inherits that fascination.

In “The Circular Ruins” where a man is only another’s dream figment and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” where a man’s execution for betrayal is part of a drama, Borges again mixes fact with fiction to create worlds as ephemeral as mist.

I recommend Labyrinths to anyone who wants to dream of magical worlds, who wants to reflect on reality and fiction, who wants to analyze the boundary between text and the interpreter, and who wants to contemplate on the nature of infinity.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review of Ubik by Philip K. Dick

When a bomb explodes on Luna and kills Glen Runciter, head of an anti-psi prudence organization, the world begins reversing in time and his team of anti-telepaths dying off one after another, shriveling up and decaying into dregs. The new leader, Joe Chip, must keep Runciter in half-life, the mind continuing to work while the body suspended and decaying, find the cause even as he began to decay. Through his half-dead boss, Joe realizes only Ubik, a mysterious spray, could save his life, but an evil force seeks to prevent him from getting hold of the cure.

Image by Meul

Ubik, Philip K. Dick’s futuristic tale of telepaths and precogs, takes the reader into a surrealistic world of time reversal and pseudo-science. Like other successful sci-fi writers, he creates a compelling world where the readers are willing to suspend their beliefs and experience coin-slotted doors and refrigerators with attitudes. Joe Clip isn’t likeable but the twists in plot lead the reader guessing on the causes of the changes and what Ubik is. A fun sci-fi read.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The Future of Humanity

In Foundation, Isaac Asimov created a compelling world where the psychohistorian Hari Seldon foresees the empire crumbling under its weight and seeks to direct the future by gathering a group of mathematicians and scientists and creating the Foundation in the planet Terminus, at the end of the galaxy. He predicts the Foundation would usher forth the second empire and prevail against the warlords in the outer region of the empire. So begins the political machinations of Foundation leaders like Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow, who would use religion and then commerce to control more powerful enemies around Terminus and whose strategies and tactics are worthy of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. In Foundation, Asimov shows knowledge not only of science but also of human nature, creating characters who scheme to undercut their opponents and achieve their goals. A great science fiction read.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

David Mitchell's Cloud Altas

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell tells the six interrelated stories, each with a distinct voice and style, using a symmetric structure: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1.

The Pacific Journal Adam Ewing, as the title implies, is a journal of the protagonist’s adventure in the Pacific. Reading the story is like reading one of Joseph Conrad’s stories, with the European colonists dominating over the natives. Dr. Goose, Rev. Horrox and the first mate Boerhaave, epitomes of greed and callousness and the sense of entitlement, could be villains from The Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim.

The Pacific Journal Adam Ewing

Letters from Zedelghem is an epistolary about Robert Frobisher’s coming of age, and he could be one of Stendhal or Flaubert’s protagonists, charming his way through life until he meets his match.

Letters from Zedelghem

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is a mystery written in multiple third-person POV and it is a John Grisham style thriller about a reporter stumbling into documents that reveal a nuclear plant’s safety issues. The company’s executives would do anything to conceal the problems. The hunger for energy drives the greed and ruthlessness of these executives. The Pelican Brief comes to mind.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish written in a first-person POV is a humorous account of the title character’s adventure in a retirement home, a twist on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Only through such an ordeal could this callous and cynical publisher learn to appreciate life.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

The Orison of Somni-451 is a sci-fi about a fabricant server’s rise to self-awareness. The interview between the Archivist and Somni-451 reveals the sickness of the consumer-oriented society and the encroachment of technocracy. Reminiscent of A Brave New World and Oryx and Crake.

The Orison of Somni-451

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After is a first-person POV dystopian tale of survival in Hawaii. Humanity comes full circle from savagery to civilization back to savagery, as if, after Nea So Copros, society could only descend into barbarism. Again Oryx and Crake comes to mind.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After

The six tales would just be interesting stories, if written by six writers, but David Mitchell manages to cross genres—from mystery to sci-fi and from historical fiction to literary fiction—and integrate the stories through common human predicaments into a teleological vision.

Cloud Atlas, in addition to being great storytelling, is a postmodern study of text. In Sloosha’s Crossin’, an aged Zachry tells a yarn, where truth mixes with fiction, to a group of children. His son finds an orison which when warmed would create a hologram of Sonmi-451 telling her story, which is The Orison of Sonmi-451. And in Orison, Sonmi-451 watches a movie about a twenty-first century publisher called Timothy Cavendish. That movie is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. In Ghastly Ordeal, Timothy Cavendish receives from an author, the manuscript of Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. In Half-Lives, Luisa Rey comes across Sixsmith’s letters: Letters from Zedelghem. And finally, in Letters, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journals in the famous composer’s house. And so, we go from yarn to stored data, to cinema, to novel, to letters, to journal—a journey through various communication media. In the spirit of Italo Calvino and other postmodern writers, Mitchell creates several levels of texts, and thus various levels of fiction. Since the aged Zachry is an unreliable narrator, we would question his yarn’s truth, as his son was doing so. The orison as stored data recounts an earlier historical period and might be true. Or is it, given the story of Orison is a setup to manipulate Sonmi-451? The movie The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is fiction within fiction but since it is based on the life of the title character, the story may be true within Somni-451’s world. Half-Lives, Letters, and Pacific Journal are various levels of fiction within the novel Cloud Atlas.

Cloud Atlas is a modern masterpiece where the aesthetic form matches the intriguing stories. And the reader will continue to reflect on the human condition long after she has finished the book.

I saw the movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry around the same time I read the novel and I prefer latter over the former. The movie, which changed various stories’ endings, destroyed the beauty of the novel. I recommend reading the book rather then seeing the movie.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives

Through a dozen viewpoints, Roberto Bolano recounts the lives of two visceral surrealist poets—Arthuro Belano and Ulises Lima. From Mexico City to Paris to Barcelona, the poets live their chaotic lives and seek to initiate a new movement in Latin American poetry. They encounter Octavio Paz and other prominent poets, but most of the time they live as outcasts of the literary community. Through their adventures and exploits, we can glimpse into Roberto Bolano’s life and his struggle to usher a new direction in poetry. The Savage Detectives is a literary tour-de-force that lets us glimpse into the Latin American literary community.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five Book Review

    In 1968, after recovering from an almost fatal accident and after his wife had died, Billy Pilgrim went to New York City and disclosed on an all-night radio program about having been kidnapped to the planet Tralfamadore. So he says.

In 1967 on his daughter’s wedding night, a flying saucer kidnapped him and took him to the planet Tralfamadore. He was displayed in a zoo and mated with a movie star Montana Wildhack. So it goes.

Billy Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York. He graduated from Ilium High School and attended the Ilium School of Optometry. So it goes.

In 1944, he went to South Carolina for maneuvers. He was an assistant chaplain, “powerless to harm his enemies or help his friends” Later that year, he went to Luxembourg to replace a deceased assistant chaplain just in time for a German attack. He survived but was behind the German lines. He met Roland Weary and they were captured by the Germans and sent to the extermination camp for Russian prisoners of war. So it goes.

In early 1968, Billy and other optometrists chartered a plane to go from Ilium to Montreal for a convention and the plane crashed on top of Sugarbush Mountain, Vermont. Only Billy and the copilot survived. So it goes.

His wife, having heard about the crash, drove to Vermont but had an accident on the way to the hospital. She was able to reach the hospital but died shortly after she arrived. So it goes.

He came back from the war in 1945 and returned to the Ilium School of Optometry. In his senior year, he was engaged to the daughter of the founder and owner of the school and suffered a nervous breakdown. So it goes.

In May 1945, the Germans shipped him and about a hundred American prisoners of war to Dresden as laborers and they lived in Slaughterhouse Five, where butchers used to slaughter cattle. About a month later American warplanes bombed the city and turned the streets into “the surface of the moon.” So it goes.

Through the time-shifts, Kurt Vonnegut simulates Billy Pilgrim’s experience and his delirium and the reader begins to understand a soul changed by war. Humorous, satirical, sad, and powerful. Slaughterhouse Five is a tale of the men brutalizing men and of an individual helpless against the current of history. The narrator describes Billy’s reactions toward his experiences rather than his feelings toward them. In the end, though Billy becomes a rich and successful optometrist in Ilium, he could only “get unstuck in time” through the Tralfamadoreans kidnapping him. So it goes.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Clockwork Orange: A Vision of the Future

On a nochy, Your Humble Narrator Alex, a malchick not poogly of Bog or millicents and govoreeting in nadsat speak, peets chai in Korova Milkbar and then like goolys around the streets with his droogs to crast deng and cars. The banda removes platties including neezhnies from a ded and horrorshow shalagas his rot. They like drat another shaika’s nadsats and shives them with ozhs until horrorshow krovvy drip drip drip.

But when Alex tolchocks a baboochka with kots and koshkas and she snuffs it, he is loveted and sent to the Staja. To oodakeet jail earlier, he agrees to the Reclamation Treatment. And he viddys sinny of nadsats tolchocking deds and baboochkas and Nazis oobivating Yahoodys and all that cal until he would bolnoy at thinking of tolchocking another veck. He even wants to sick when he slooshys Ludwig Von’s Symphony No 9 and Wolfgang Amadeus’s Symphony No 41.

At one level, A Clockwork Orange is about the horror of teenage violence but at another, the dystopian novel is about the terror of a government trying to reengineer socially acceptable individuals. Anthony Burgess in the last chapter seems to imply that when teenagers grow up, the energy that drove them toward violence would propel them to construct society.  Whether the reader believes such a thesis, the novel would give food for thought.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Prague Cemetery: Umberto Eco's Postmodern Narrative

Simonini is a forger who helps the secret services of Piedmont, France, Prussia and Russia implicate the Carbonari, the Republicans, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and the Jews and his allegiance is only to the paycheck. He travels with Garibaldi as the general defeats the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and unifies Italy. He helps the French and Prussian spy on each other before the Franco-Prussian War. He forges the document that implicated Dreyfus in the famous affair. But his masterpiece is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, detailing the Jewish leaders’ plot in a Prague cemetery to take over the world by amassing wealth and destroying “Christian” principles.

He travels with Garibaldi as the general defeats the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and unifies Italy.

He forges the document that implicated Dreyfus in the famous affair.

Umberto Eco interleaves European history with Simonini’s exploits and integrates the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and the Jews in multiple conspiracies against each other. Political maneuverings that Machiavelli would applaud. But it is in manipulating the text into a multi-level narrative that Eco shows his genius.

But his masterpiece is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Umberto Eco interleaves European history with Simonini’s exploits.

At the first level are Simonini’s forged documents, including the letter Dreyfus wanted to send to the Germans and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which the protagonist knows to be fake and which we the readers believe to be so. At the second level are Simonini’s journal entries—including the fake Dalla Piccola’s writings—which our protagonist believes to be true (the diary describing how he had forged them) and which we the readers know is fiction (Eco’s novel) but aren’t sure whether our hero accurately recorded his exploits. At the third level are the Narrator’s comments throughout the novel to complement the diary and fill in the missing events, as a record of Simonini’s exploits. We the readers don’t know who the Narrator is and can only trust his/her account.  But in the section “Useless Learned Explanations” the Narrator outlines the novel and reveals that all the characters beside Simonini are real people. And he/she even provides notes that reveal Hitler read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. At first, we the readers might believe these to be the author’s notes, but then we realize the Narrator is commenting on these events (Simonini’s narrative) as a historian and the comments are part of the novel.

Political maneuverings that Machiavelli would applaud.

A truly postmodern narrative, in the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones, where each layer of narrative comments on a lower one until the reader questions the boundary between fact and fiction.

A truly postmodern narrative.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman : Analyzing the American Dream

In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller examines the American Dream through conflicts in the Loman family. Willy Loman epitomizes the disillusioned, having great dreams but suffering a dead end job and an ordinary life, and so transferring his dreams to his elder son Biff. Biff is the realist who accepts his limitations and despite trying to satisfy his father, only wants to be a farmhand. On the other hand, Happy the dreamer after his father, lusts for success and is willing to achieve it through less than ethical means.

Morosco Theatre

In America, we are taught to believe in our greatness, to reach for the stars, but Miller examines the question: What if we don't have the abilities to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? Should we be Biff, accepting our limitations and being content with "ordinariness?" Or should we be Happy, reaching for he sky by hook or by crook? For some, Biff may be a disgrace to the America Dream, for others, the model. Still, for others, the only way to live is be Happy.

The issues that Miller looks at are as relevant today as it was in his time. Though some believe there are less opportunities today than four or five decades ago, the American Dream is alive and well. Both individual dreams and the collective Dream drive the U.S. forward, and when entrepreneurs prod through obstacles, companies like Google and Facebook result. Bit it is difficult to know when we have reached our breaking point, when we have dreamed the wrong dream. How may Willy Lomans are there for every Elon Musk?

But perhaps the problem with Willy is not that he dreamed, but that he became contented with his job and not plotted his path and worked toward his goal. And that he tries to transfer his dream/burden to Biff.

The power of Miller's play is that it raises some deep and timeless issues about American society: the social norm, the accepted values, the vision of success, etc. In this sense, Death of a Salesman is a classic.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book Review of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Handmaids are the vehicles of reproduction in the Republic of Gilead, where radiation from sabotaged nuclear power plants had reduced the birthrate and mutated three in four fetuses. The Angles root out threats to the theocracy—nuns, scientists, scholars, etc—by hanging them on the wall of Harvard Yard and displaying the hooded figures to the public. The bastion of freethinking has turned into an exhibit of tyranny. Instead of using Newspeak as in Orwell’s 1984, the leaders here deny the people education. But the idea is the same: without the ability to think and analyze and critique, the masses would only react to threats and occasionally rewards. Pavlovian conditioning.

Margaret Atwood (Photo by Vanwaffle)

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. The means of control may be different, but the goal is the same. A subservient mass that would accept the social norm and cultural values, whether they be good or bad, without questioning their validity and without recognizing their assumptions and biases.

Margaret Atwood wrote the novel in the shadow of the religious fanaticism in Iran and Afghanistan, but she dedicated it to Mary Webster, an ancestor on her mother’s side who was tried for being a witch in Puritan Massachusetts, but survived the hanging. She understood that such a nightmare could happen anywhere in any century.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera

Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza and against the wish of her father, they are engaged. But at a whim, she calls off the marriage and later marries Juvenal Urbino, a distinguished doctor in the city. For fifty-three years, while Florentino rises through the ranks to become the President of the Caribbean Riverboat Company and takes on more lovers than he could count, he waits to possess Fermina, hoping Dr. Urbino would die before him or her. When the doctors dies, he arrives at her house at the age of seventy-eight and proclaims his love for her. And he wins her over and takes her on a voyage that he doesn’t intend to return.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a tale of carnal love in the early twentieth century Columbia. In a time of epidemics and revolutions, when life was as fleeting as the wind, passion seems more certain than tomorrow. Only Swann’s obsession with Odette—In Search of Lost Time—could match Florentino’s with Fermina. But as much as the premise of the novel is intriguing, I enjoy Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s prose much more than the plot or the characters. His writing creates a dream-like world where the sights, sounds and smells become mesmerizing. A world far away brought back through the magic of words into the reader’s imagination.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Brando Skyhorse's The Madonnas of Echo Park

The Madonnas of Echo Park tells the stories of Mexicans who struggle through their daily lives in Echo Park, a section of Los Angeles. The book starts with "We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours," and ends with "This is the land that we dream of, the land that belongs to us again." A summary of the characters' attitudes toward the land they love and struggle to claim as their home.

Echo Park (Photo by User2004 at Wikimedia Common)

For a migrant worker, "I have no heartbreaking story of the journey here; the heartbreaking journey is here, in this small couple of square miles of land called Echo Park." And for the bus driver, "America is there for the taking if you aren't lazy and have no qualms about the kind if work you do." Succinct descriptions of their lives in the United States. They are among those who know that life is tough but also that America is the land of opportunities.

At the same time, Skyhorse shows his witticism when he said, through another character that "Catholicism gives everyone something to feel ashamed about." And the lady of the house spoke broken English to the maid, believing the latter doesn't understand a word. When in fact the maid understands the mistress and was learning English through her daughter. These bits of humor modulate the gravity of the subject matter.

Through the book, Mr. Skyhorse gives voice to the voiceless and shapes to the invisible. And he fills the writing with insights into the dynamics between these invisible people and the country that they seek to claim as home.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Possibility of an Island: Michel Houellebecq's The Brave New World

Book Review of The Possibility of an Island

The species have reached immortality. Through cloning and the propagation of historical memories. But the time of the humans is over. It is the age of the neo-humans, clones without joy and grief, without neurosis, without community, without sexual desires. Only a lifetime of reviewing and of analyzing the life of the human from which their DNA came. A lifetime of isolation, except for a pet. A lifetime of pseudo-touch through electronic communications. A lifetime of reflection and contemplation.

When the grief, the denial, the struggle to remain virile and attractive dominated the aging man or woman, the life of the neo-human seemed heavenly.  And no wonder the creator of these neo-humans chose to eliminate the neurosis associated with aging.

Neo-humans live without joy; and they die without grief. They don’t need food, only minerals and water. A superior race more suitable for survival. Living in a post-apocalyptic world. What does it mean when a few decided to leave their isolation, to end their immortality, to trek across the dried ocean surface, in search of a legendary community?

Would you choose to be human or neo-human?

The Possibility of an Island is a sad, sad depiction of the possibility, or impossibility, of humanity. Without youth and sexual virility, what is man or woman? When our mind and body decline, what do we make of life? Is a lifetime of tranquility more preferable to the fluctuations between joy and grief? What kind of Omega Point are we moving toward?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Call It Sleep: The Immigrant Experience

In Call It Sleep, David Schearl, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, straddles between his Yiddish background and the American culture. The dialogues in the novel—Yiddish written in prose and English in dialect—highlight the clash and synthesis of the two worlds. It is the essential immigrant experience, to straddle between two cultures, to struggle with identity, and ultimately to reconcile and integrate the two into a new creation.

Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been a microcosm of the “melting pot” where Jews, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Puerto Ricans and Russians mingle and yet retain their unique identities. Often, second and third generations move to more affluent neighborhoods, but this place remains “ground zero” for the dynamics of cultural synthesis. Henry Roth in Call It Sleep gives a glimpse of that cultural dynamics for the Jewish community. An essential novel for the immigrant experience.