Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tenar, the high priestess to the Powers of the Earth, loses her faith when a wizard penetrates the Tombs of Atuan

Everyone kept telling me I needed to read Ursula K. Le Guin, that she was as good as any literary writer. So I read The Tombs of Atuan. A short novel, the prose was beautiful, tactile, spare and meaningful, and the plot was gripping, but there was a dragon in it, ok? I’m too old for dragons.

In a faraway land, a high priestess dies. In the same way a new Dalai Lama is appointed, the high priestess' acolytes search for the reincarnation of her soul in the country's new babies. The child Tenar is found, chosen, symbolically beheaded (in a wonderfully depicted scene) and is renamed “Arha”, the Eaten One. She spends the rest of her childhood figuring out the rituals and secrets of her religion. Arha is the guardian of the labyrinth, the Tombs of Atuan. It is her job to memorize the twists and turns of the dark tunnels. Light is forbidden. Kossil, the High Priestess of the powerful Godking, is her enemy/tutor. After Arha, to prove her toughness, lets three prisoners die a dismal death, she starts losing heart, and the discovery of a trespasser in the tombs, Ged, causes her to question her faith, her purpose. This blasphemy committed in the tombs causes the world to collapse. So perhaps the Gods, or the Powers of the Earth, are real after all. Arha becomes Tenar again, and she follows Ged to his world.

This was a story about learning and knowledge, about re-evaluating one's acceptance of the received truth.  Upon second thought, the dragon was an alleged dragon, so I will be open to reading more Ursula K. Le Guin.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

The documentation of the known and unknown

Dusklands is comprised of twin novellas. In the first, a Vietnam War researcher documents his experience of studying propaganda techniques. Then he goes mad. In the second, an eighteenth century Boer settler in South Africa documents his experience meeting an unconquered Hottentot/Namaqua tribe. Then he goes mad. In the first story, Eugene Dawn works on a paper analyzing the effectiveness of American propaganda.  But his narrative is far more concerned with his awful wife, misogynistically portrayed, and their (her?) son (Dawn seems strangely detached from the boy). Dawn is also tormented by Coetzee, his superior at work. The story ends badly. The Vietnam theme is a little dated – the motivating passions are not clearly explained, except for the technologically superior society destroying the farmers. Yet who is the victor?

The second novella was more compelling, a gripping journey into the human soul. Jacobus Coetzee and his domesticated Hottentots enter the uncharted desert and encounter a Namaqua tribe who has never before seen a white man. That is, they don’t know they are supposed to bow down. Coetzee thinks he is in control, but immediately is stripped of his cattle, his servants and his pride. He is humiliated, much as the narrators in Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, were humiliated. The physical body betrays them, and without imperalistic civilization as a framework, they are worth nothing. Coetzee escapes, then returns to the desert and exacts a terrible revenge. But as he does so, his heart is not in it.

This book is about men who think they have things figured out, then it becomes apparent they have NOTHING figured out. This ignorance extends not only to the narrators of the “documents” but the “editor” of the historical “documents” (who cannot understand their meaning). Does this also extend to the reader of the “documents”? 

As usual, the real strength is the bold uncompromising prose lacking any sentimentality. There are also metafictional tricks here, as "Coetzee" the character appears in both novellas.  Also there is a conceit that the “documents,” written by obvious madman, were discovered and published with no reference to the obvious madness. There are similar themes as in other Coetzee work-- a playful literary trickiness, a faux documentary narration, uncontrollable sexual yearning, and the tension between civilization and brutality. The editor of the Jacobus Coetzee section laments the fact the Americans were able to kill all their natives, unlike the Boers, who must continue to live with theirs. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

A spiritual journey, accented with upscale details

Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir, although it’s almost a “memoir in a can.” The structure of the book is preconceived, made to order -- nothing out of the ordinary had happened to Elizabeth Gilbert before she decided to have some experiences and write a book about them.  Feeling deeply depressed at the end of her marriage, she comes up with a book proposal, gets a big advance, travels to three different countries, undergoes three different types of instruction, and then writes the book.   A cold blooded description like this might sound as if I hated it. Anyway, I loved it.  Elizabeth Gilbert is a delightful non didactic writer, and the prose is engaging and readable. Technically this book is a travelogue: four months in Italy, four months in India, four months in Indonesia.

A successful memoir needs three essential things – talented writing, an interesting story with high stakes, but ideally there should be a spiritual transformation, a redemption, a change. Otherwise, what’s the educational point of the interesting story? In this case, the shocking experience is Gilbert’s realization that, unlike what she communicated to her husband (and probably to herself), she does NOT want to have a baby and a white picket fence and an affluent suburban American life. Her husband is disbelieving at first, then angry.  He demands penitence and he demands money.  To recover from this battle, she takes a self designed world tour.

A travelogue allows the reader to enjoy a descriptive and historical account of a foreign land. We learn something, we revel in the alien sensuality of another world, but at the same time there’s an underlying comfort, a quiet security – thank God I’m in the US, home of the air conditioned flush toilet and twenty four hour hot coffee. Gilbert visits Italy where she learns to speak rudimentary Italian and eats incredible pizza. She visits her ashram in India where she chants, eats no meat, and occasionally glimpses Nirvana. Finally, she goes, almost on a whim, to Bali, where she rides her bike, studies with a medicine man, and meets a grizzled Brazilian, who offers her the calm she is looking for. He can repair her heart. Perhaps the ending is too neat, but it didn’t feel that way.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

A guy keeps trying but can’t get love right

The point of this short story collection is the voice, readable and funny and vulnerable. The lyrical voice pulls you along, the reader identifying with the smart smartass narrator Yunior. The dialogue is also incisive. I read many of these stories separately in different magazines and loved them, however, reading them one after the other, I felt the power was dissipated. (Perhaps that is the case with all story collections) There was a sort of sameness to them. The stories are about romantic love, unrequited love for the most part. I began to see that maybe the subject of love is slight and one note. 

The stories are also about machismo, the Dominican variety, and how Yunior both identifies and is trapped by the family expectations on how a Dominican man is supposed to behave. His cruel tomcatting father is one thing but his beloved doomed older brother, Rafa, who also treats women terribly and whom Yunior adores, is another. Are you less of a man to be faithful to one woman? To give your power away? And what about the brotherhood? Fidelity is not looked upon honorably. I loved The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, in which a guy realizes he really blew it when he cheated on his fiancĂ©. She won’t forgive him. Miss Lora, in which precocious high school student Junior becomes the (unwilling) lover of a skinny older teacher, was also wonderful. And The Cheaters Guide to Love – regret imparts an instant spine to this story.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

A WASP wedding

This novel takes place on a Martha Vineyardish island during three days of preparations for the oldest Van Meter daughter’s wedding. A beach, a wedding, a quartet of pretty blonde girls. Hmm, could this be chick lit? But the prose is accomplished, the many characters are expertly delineated, and some of the subplots are subversive. Could this be literary fiction? The central narrative consciousness is proper Bostonian Winn Van Meter. My main issue with the book is that Winn struck me as so insecure and phony, that I kept waiting for a Clark Rockefeller he’s-not-really-a-WASP plot line. However, apparently Winn actually is a legitimate WASP and the main plotline becomes can he keep his hands off a cockteasing bridesmaid. That’s dull. What kept me reading was the many nonconforming minor characters, the disabled girl, the Coptic graduate student, the crusty old Granma (now she struck me as a real WASP). The subplots were many times more interesting than the main plot.  

Winn is an uninteresting black hole right at the center of the novel. I couldn’t understand why his wife stayed with him. He’s obsessed with getting into the exclusive golf club – stakes like that are too low. The cockteasing bridesmaid was one-note and I couldn’t understand why he was attracted to her. The final scene with the two of them drunkenly crawling around the roof of a mansion is large, violent, and, as in many debut novels, not sufficiently motivated. However, in the course of the book a dead whale blows up, which is kind of cool. My question is, I think, does a talented writer have an obligation to take on big ideas when drafting a novel? Because I don’t think playing around with pretty paper dolls is sufficient.