Monthly Archives: April 2011

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

I confess that it took me about 300 pages to actually start enjoying this book. It was frustrating: I loved the writing style, the wit, the satire, empathised with the various intricacies and peculiarities of the various characters, yet the book simply didn’t hold my attention. I am not sure what exactly changed at the approximate-300 page mark, either it was that the humour suddenly took hold (the Christmas Pageant was quite hysterical) or it was that Irving began to clarify his questioning of faith and the implications of this questioning. I found myself torn between my desperate desire to know Owen Meany more, to read the unfolding of his narrative, and my general irritation with John Wheelwright and his overall lack of commitment to … well … to anything. Owen is the strength of his book, he is “a great and luminous character”,

definitely the hero of this tale, possessed with infinite wisdom and conviction. He is somehow all-knowing and omniscient, despite the fact that he is not in fact the narrator of this tale.

I was quite taken by Owen’s relationship with Hester and intrigued by the strength of their connection and the depth of feeling which went along with that bond. But so much of this relationship was hidden, unknowable for readers. We caught glimpses of the nature of their love, but it was constantly left in the background.

In fact, Hester becomes a remarkable character in this text, despite the relatively minor role that she is assigned. She is the signifier of the age, her finger on the national and cultural pulse of the peace movement, the swing of the anti-Vietnam War swell, and the music and passion that accompanied it. She remains with her finger on that pulse throughout the text, appearing towards it end as Hester the Molester, a famous rock singer.

I flew through the last 200 pages. Gulping enormous portions in my agony as I came to realise the essence of Irving’s tale and message. Who was Owen Meany? How does one navigate through the hypocrisy of life? How does life go on when all seems lost … There are no answers, only questions and a lingering sense of loss. I am glad I ‘knew’ Owen Meany, glad I followed him and stepped into his vision of palm trees.

The Complete Review

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Ghostwritten, David Mitchell

It has taken me quite some time to come to terms with this book – largely due to the book itself and only somewhat due to my general apathy with regard to trying to contain the uncontainable!

David Mitchell. What a book. What a journey. What an out of body reading experience – Adam Lively of The Guardian describes it as a “firework display”. Startling that an author can compose something so disjointed using language that I know how to use, can use myself, yet, I cannot, for the life of me, formulate a method of capturing this text in literal terms. It seems too fluid, too filled with tiny pockets of distracted air to be harnessed into something concrete and firm. This is a book in ten parts, ten vignettes, ten mini narratives which are all united in their quest to explore the inexplicable. The links between these stories are so tenuous and scant that I found myself actively searching for them, waiting with bated breath for the next one to appear. I highlighted my text to oblivion, trying to calculate where things were joined and where disconnect reigned.

The book starts: “Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?” – a chapter called Okinawa about “the New Earth sweeping this festering mess away like a mighty broom, returning the land to its virginal state” when “the Fellowship will create something we deserve, which the survivors will cherish for eternity.” It is flummoxing, the subject matter of this first part of the novel. A cult supporter out to commit the ultimate declaration of his support for the cult and its grand master. “My role was to pulse at the edge of the universe of the faithful, alone in the darkness. An outrider. A herald.” Our narrator, Quasar (either a reference to the fictional superheroes in comic books or meaning a quasi stellar radio source, a very energetic and distant active galactic nucleus), is driven by his awareness that there is “so much sadness in this twisted world”, ironic since he is so much a part of the twisting. As an outsider, our narrator is dead – “Before His Serendipity lit my life I was defenceless” and invisible. “This is a war against the unclean myriad, and in this war acts of courage do not go unacknowledged, nor unrewarded.” The poor reader is totally baffled at this point, unable to resolve the head or tail of this narrative as we travel through the chaos of this twisted world. We are relieved when the chapter ends and “clouds began to ink out the stars, one by one.”

Ghostwritten’s next chapter, Tokyo, is about a “city (that) never stops rewriting itself… a tall city, and a deep one, as well as a spread-out one. Things are always moving below you, and above your head. All these people, flyovers, cars, walkways, subways, offices … it all adds up to a lot of weight. You have to do something to stop yourself caving in, or you just become a piece of flotsam or an ant in a tunnel.” It is this type of sensitive description of places which I think lies at the heart of Mitchell’s brilliance: “in Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.” The vividness makes this novel palpitate or even, perhaps, to sweat.

“The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time … I think that only we Japanese can really understand that, don’t you?”

In this curious way, the novel breathes on its readers, recalling that first breath on the nape of Quasar’s neck which opened the initial narrative strand. And so the fragments are gathered, reminding me of Ondaatje’s narrative sharing: “The powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters . . . Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”(Skin of a Lion)

And then to Hong Kong and the tone of the text shifts again: “There’s a mechanism in my alarm clock connected to a switch in my head that sends a message to my arm which extends itself and commands my thumb to punch the OFF button a moment before the thing beeps me awake.” The dramatic shift in tone makes this chapter extremely disturbing and even more confusing than the ones preceding it. Our backdrop has changed, money is in the air, markets are crashing and there is something underfoot. What remains constant is Mitchell’s affinity for place: “There are so many cities in every single city” and here place is a palimpsest of proximal experiences and histories:

“Red roses grew wild up the brick wall crumbling back to sand. A roped-up dog went hysterical as I walked past. A flurry of fangs and barks. It thought I was a ghost. Futons, airing. A Chinese pop song. God-awful and tinny. Two old people in a room devoid of furniture, steam rising from their teacups. They were motionless and expressionless. Waiting for something. I wish I could go into their room and sit down with them. I’d give them my Rolex for that. I wish they would smile, and pour me a cup of jasmine tea. I wish the world was like that.”

Such is the reader’s sensory experience of this place and such is this character, Neal, “Here and not here”, able to compartmentalise things into sections, departments, apartments. So fractured is this man that he is in fact invisible, falling “into a snowstorm of silent light”.

Holy Mountain was one of my favourite chapters where “all the yesterdays and tomorrows spin around again sooner or later.” I loved the rawness of this part of the narrative, the fantastic elements, Autumn breathing “dying colours into the shabby greens.” Here more connections are hinted at – a foreigner appearing, Mongolia, is this the daughter or the maid in the previous chapter? Readers are left wondering as the chapter ends as a “ribbon of smoke uncoils as it disappears, up, up, and up.”

And so the story unfolds, leaf by leaf. We read of Mongolia, Petersburg, London and Clear Island. We travel the Night Train and at each point we search for who is in control of this narrative, repeatedly we are reminded that control is an illusion, a fabrication: “We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.”

Finally, we have to ask: “What is real and what is not? Who is blowing on the nape of my neck?”

A truly wonderful, if not unsettling journey.

Nowhere Near Normal, Traci Foust

“You do not merely stretch rhino leather over your own fair skin, for that would deflect pleasure as well as pain, and you do not permit your being to turn stinking inside a shell, but what you do it swirl yourself in the toughness of dreams.” (Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues)

Traci Foust’s memoir provides an extremely honest insight into life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Foust’s ability to clearly convey the intensity of the distress involved in this illness is startling. There are times in the reading of this book hat I had to walk away, pause to remind myself that I was not a part of her obsessions, but that I was an outsider, looking in – this is how real this  book seems for readers. When Foust hid in the bathroom to brush her teeth repeatedly with bleach, I felt as though I was there with her, burying the shame of the need to eradicate any possibility of germs existing in her world. When she traipsed through the house at all hours of the morning while the world was asleep, unplugging appliances because she had convinced herself that if she didn’t, bad things would undoubtedly happen to her, her family, everyone she loved, I too traipsed after her, worrying for her, with her. And I think that this is part of what Foust is trying to convey in this account:  “Later still would come the gratitude toward all the secret hardships a parent must endure and the steadfast patience required to raise a difficult child.”

The bulk of this book is about Foust’s inability to see beyond her own obsessive behaviour, the difficulty she has in being honest with people she cares for and the challenges involved in trying to make something of her life when she is so immersed in and gripped by obscure compulsions. Fortunately for her, she is surrounded by a relatively supportive family, although at times she cannot see this.

Beneath all the trauma of the OCD is the sadness that envelopes Traci as she is immobilised and lost in the mire of her obsessions. Her inability to escape leaves her bereft of hope and stuck in an endless, disabling cycle. How can she possibly define herself when she is so consumed by these obsessions?

Needless to say, I found this book extremely disturbing. Foust has since been diagnosed with Aspergers which clearly sheds further light on the workings of her mind.