Finished Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize winning, and number one Tournament of Books seeded, The Sense of an Ending in what was essentially one sitting today. It is split into two parts, a reflection on growing up from a man past middle age, and then a reanalysis of that life after a bequest from the mother of a former lover. The first part is brilliant, funny, and full of insight into growing up as a man a little too afraid of consequences:
Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival?
I can’t remember where I came across the idea, but what if we were to live our lives without fear? This is something I have thought a lot about since then, and whether I will have regrets over not choosing the hard road at one time or another because I was afraid of the consequences. Barnes’s narrator clearly has these regrets.
The second part was also very interesting and dealt a lot with another subject I’ve thought about (and which becomes the subject of Open City in similar ways to this book): how the re-telling of our own story, even to ourselves, is often dramatically different than the way other people experienced shared sections of it, and that even when we keep letters, photographs, journal entries and other “objective” records of our lives, our own history has no definitive plot line.
Later … later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches.
I didn’t like the ending as much as the rest of the book, and based on reviews I’ve seen, many others had the same problem. But there’s a lot of great stuff in this book, and I recommend it. It falls into the “Good, worth your time” category of my last post.
One other note on memory and history: Last week I mentioned to a coworker that I’d never read any Julian Barnes. Turns out I read Metroland in January 1999 and wouldn’t have known it except for the meticulous records I’ve kept, chronicling that part of my history.
The 2012 Tournament of Books judges, books, and pairings have been announced. ToB is my favorite “best-of” books contest, and I'm very much looking forward to the contest itself, starting in March. Meantime, I can attempt to read some of the 2011 books I haven't yet read. I was in the middle of David Foster Wallace’s Pale King, but since that isn't on the list, I'll put it aside for the second time.
Here’s the list. Click the ToB link above to see the judges and pairings (checkmarks indicate what I’ve read, updated to the present):
- Nathacha Appanah, The Last Brother ✓
- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending ✓
- Teju Cole, Open City ✓
- Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods ✓
- Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers ✓
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot ✓
- Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding ✓
- Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child ✗
- Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones ✓
- Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 ✓
- Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
- Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table ✓
- Ann Patchett, State of Wonder ✓
- Donald Ray Pollock, Devil All the Time ✓
- Karen Russell, Swamplandia! ✓
- Kate Zambreno, Green Girl ✓
I’ve read Open City, The Sisters Brothers, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, 1Q84, and Swamplandia!, and just finished Green Girl.
Rather than ranking them, I’ll put them into thee categories:
Great, should win
- The Sisters Brothers — a hilarious western novel. Deadwood as done by the Cohen brothers.
- 1Q84 — Murakami at his best, this time with a kick-ass female lead.
- The Art of Fielding — fantastic story (plus baseball!) that lived up to the hype.
Good, worth your time
- The Marriage Plot — I enjoyed this one a lot, but I thought it lagged in the middle.
- Open City — A very interesting reading experience. I imagine those familiar with New York City would really enjoy it since the book is basically about a guy walking around New York reflecting on his life.
- Swamplandia! — I was hoping this would be another Geek Love, and it started off really well, but I lost interest by the end of the book.
- Green Girl — I just finished this one, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. It is the story of a girl from Chicago trying to make it in London. Why she moved there and what motivated her to do the things she did (mostly debase and feel sorry for herself) were not clear enough to me, and I found it depressing and boring.
Now I'm onto The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, one of the top seeds, so I'm hopeful I'll enjoy it more. I doubt if any of the others on the list can compete with my top three, but it will be interesting to see what I think, as well as to follow the competition in March.
South of the Border, West of the Sun is one of Murakami’s “relationship” books, meaning it is primarily about love and sex between the characters, rather than being a mystery or puzzle for the characters to solve. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best way to split up his novels, but until After Dark, they break down pretty well this way. I think Norwegian Wood is the best of his books in the relationships category (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is my favorite in the puzzle category), but South of the Border is a good, melancholy variation on the same theme. There is a lot of what seems like biography in here—the main character owns a jazz bar—and a lot of sadness and the feeling that the main character’s fate is sealed:
Just after I turned twenty, this thought hit me: Maybe I’ve lost the chance to ever be a decent human being. The mistakes I’d committed—maybe they were part of my very makeup, an inescapable part of my being.
I’m not sure how to characterize After Dark since it doesn’t fit into my artificial dichotomy of his books. It’s is also the shortest, and my least favorite of his books. The plot revolves around four characters (one of whom is asleep), and how they spend a single night in Japan. Much of the story is fairly conventional, but some chapters are written from the perspective of what seems like a movie director, giving instructions to the camera and narrating what it shows. I didn’t really get what Murakami was trying to say or do with this part of the narrative and it took away from the rest of the characters I wanted to care about. The book does give a good sense of place and the eerie feeling of being up all night in a city, but that’s all I really got out of it.
As I mentioned, I read both of these books (as well as three others before it) on an e-reader. In general, this was a very positive experience. Because I can read on the iPad and iPhone, it meant a nice big comfortable screen when I was at home, and the ability to read from the same point wherever I happened to be on the phone I carry with me. The ability to easily highlight and take notes, easily find those notes, and the integrated dictionary + google + wikipedia searching was really great. The convenience of being able to read exactly what I want at the moment I want to read it is also a huge benefit to the format.
But I still can’t tell if this is the way I want to consume literature going forward. I like physical books, I like bookstores, and I like having a house with bookshelves filled with books. I can pull them off the shelf, and more often than not, recall various places or times when I was reading them. Sentimental, sure, but there it is. Does convenience, immediate gratification, and technical sophistication outweigh the nebulous goodness of the printed page, the tactile object? I’m not sure. I’ve still got dozens of unread physical books, so I won't have to make up my mind for quite awhile, and I think I’ll be getting Murakami’s latest (to be released in English translation in October) in physical form, despite it’s 900+ pages.
If it isn't obvious by now, I'm currently working on reading the rest of Haruki Murakami’s novels. I started with Wind Up Bird Chronicle in April 2008, and have only two left at this point. After finishing A Wild Sheep Chase it appears that there is some benefit in reading them in order, as this book and Dance Dance Dance share a few characters and locations. But the plots aren’t connected, so it probably doesn’t matter.
A Wild Sheep Chase is Murakami’s third novel, but is the first that is easily available in an English translation. Like the others, it slowly works it’s magic so that by the time strange things start happening, it seems normal. And the usual Murakami themes (solitude, cats, isolation in nature, etc.) are in evidence. But the whole thing doesn’t quite come together as well as in later novels.
Still, it is a very enjoyable book, and it’s fun to spend time in the strange worlds of Murakami’s characters. South of the Border, West of the Sun is next, and then After Dark. I should have no trouble finishing them in time for the English release of 1Q84.
Shoplifting from American Apparel is part of Melville House Publishing’s “Contemporary Novellas” series. I believe the point of the series is to provide a place for writers to publish short works, longer than what would fit into the usual short fiction outlets. The novella is a complelling format: long enough that the author can stretch out a little and expand on the characters, but short enough to read in a sitting or two. That’s a nice change of pace in between big, complicated books.
Tao Lin’s entry in the series is a collection of brief moments in the life of Sam, a writer who seems to drift around thinking about writing and interacting with whomever happens to be around in the backyards, bars and parties he attends. The writing is crisp and short, and there’s very little plot beyond Sam and where he goes. But at 112 printed pages, I wouldn’t expect a grand plot anyway.
There’s a lot of product placement in the novella, and I suspect that the commercialization of our lives is part of the point Lin is making. At one point Sam started thinking about what his life might be like if he were to really work hard on his writing:
Loneliness and depression would be defeated with a king-size bed, an expensive stereo system, a drum set, a bike, an unlimited supply of organic produce and coconuts, and maybe calmly playing an online role-playing game.
This idea doesn’t get very far, though, and the next scene is largely about the sound a “Synergy” brand kombucha makes when dropped on the ground. I think part of the message here is not that much really happens in real life, and we don’t really know what the moments are that are going to be really meaningful at the time they happen (either that or our lives are basically filled with moments that aren't meaningful).
Anyway, it was a fun read. I like the style and the way Sam moves through his world, but it makes me wonder how Lin would handle a longer format. I wouldn’t want to have read much more than the length of this book at least not without something actually happening.