Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Online there was sex and security and plenty and glamour.

In a once-vibrant city hemmed in by an approaching civil war, two people meet while taking a night class. Saeed is fascinated and intimidated by Nadia. The former is quiet, reserved, and a simple traditionalist. Not a radical, but Romantic and nostalgic. The latter presents a formal, cloaked form to the world, but beneath it is a fiercely independent woman who veils her body precisely so that she may act as she wishes.

Their affair begins innocuously enough, but becomes increasingly fraught as war disrupts the routines of life. Together they exit west, passing through doors to other worlds. First they land in Mykonos, then London, and finally outside San Fransisco. Nadia and Saeed are forever linked, but where she becomes liberated, he succumbs to his nostalgia. The relationship is doomed to failure, but not out of malice. Nadia and Saeed cling to each other, first out of affection and then out of familiarity. Indeed, the shared trauma of dislocation extends an affair that could have ended as unremarkably as it started simply because people change.

Exit West is a beautiful and tender emigration story. Hamid does not name Nadia and Saeed’s home city, but it is a composite of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, all deeply torn by the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. When the war closes the world open to people online and by phone collapses into the immediate concerns of survival, and the opportunities for sensuality, through sex and drugs and other forms of pleasure, disappear. Gone is the world that allowed Saeed’s parents to lead satisfying and well-rounded lives in the city and in their own home. The young lovers cling to each other to preserve what they can, remembering what might have been through their bodies.

Escape comes at a price and each time they they enter lands of plenty, it is with nothing to their names. Hamid’s focus in Exit West is the consequences of each move on Nadia and Saeed, and how they experience the world. News of hatred and war and political actions are dim observations rather than the central issue because that is how the protagonists experience these things. The result is a sad and sympathetic story of two people trying to find their way in the world.

Violence is omnipresent, surrounding and affecting Nadia and Saeed, but only directly touching them once. Each chapter of the main narrative is further divided by interludes that give a glimpse of someone and somewhere else. Doors and windows feature also prominently in these passages and serve to reinforce the transience and fragility of life.

Exit West is a story of loss and dislocation, remembering and forgetting, but it is also fundamentally optimistic. This emerges in the story’s conclusion (which I will not go into here), but also in the way in which the protagonists look at the world. Both Nadia and Saeed are looking for a better life, first in their intimate relationships and employment, but later in terms of safety and security. These ambitions drive them. They resist the temptation to turn bitter at the violence and hatred that they encounter, instead choosing to embrace the kindness and generosity of people they meet.

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I just finished reading Inventing Ethan Allen, a study about the cultural memory of Vermont’s founding “patriot.”

The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak

At the height of Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign a curious pair arrive in Istanbul. One is a young white elephant named Chota, the other a twelve year old boy named Jahan, both allegedly from India. The elephant and mahout join the Sultan’s menagerie, a position adjacent to the opulence of court, but fraught with risk. Safety lies in Chota’s ability to win the favor of the Sultan, through tricks and through utility in war and peace—and certainly not in Jahan becoming smitten with the Princess Mihrimah, who desires to know where this pair came from. Nor does Jahan’s life become easier once he catches the attention of the royal architect, Sinan, who takes him on as apprentice. Instead, Jahan finds himself caught up in his master’s feuds that swirled and eddied around the construction of some of the crown jewels of Ottoman architecture.

At some level, The Architect’s Apprentice is a novel without a plot—or one with several light plots connected by Jahan. One follows Jahan’s infatuation with Mihrimah, others follow Jahan’s other relationships, including with Captain Gareth who saw him installed in the palace for nefarious purposes and with the the Roma, who adopt him as family. Another is the titular plot, following Jahan’s relationship with Sinan and the other apprentices, first during the master’s life and then in the wake of his death. Beyond resistance from Sinan’s enemies at court, the projects do not progress without complication, for reasons that become apparent.

The virtue of this approach is to follow Jahan as he grows up, surrounding him with an eccentric cast of characters and getting lost among the rising mountains of mosques on the streets of Istanbul. In this, Shafak is partially successful. Some of the characters are funny or insightful or interesting, but too often I found them flat and acting from motivations that were opaque until telling Jahan a story about it after the fact. The narrow narrative focus on Jahan thus is an inherent limitation, particularly because I was generally uninterested in him as a character. On the one hand, hidden motivations can provide a story depth, but this combined with the flat characters gave the sense that there were two distinct stories, one being told by or to Jahan that is superficial, and another more interesting one lurking beneath the surface.

The saving grace for me was the ulterior message of this hidden story. At its best, The Architect’s Apprentice is a story that interrogates the fissures between the face we show to the world, the image the world projects on us, the underlying assumptions, beliefs, and relationships that inform these stories, and the lives we lead. Beneath the surface of every person or object is a story and each story contains a secret.

The Architect’s Apprentice was not totally satisfying for me, but Shafak showed me enough that I am going to give her books another shot.

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I have since finished Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful Exit West and begun Inventing Ethan Allen, by John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III.

Two Short Reviews: The Buddha in the Attic and Journey into the Past

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, but one of my favorite slices of literature recently has been books written by Japanese-American women, so I picked it up on a whim. The result was somewhat surprising, but not disappointing.

The Buddha in the Attic is a group biography of Japanese picture brides—women who left their families in Japan and crossed the Pacific Ocean to marry men in California who they had never met in the early 20th century. In succession the book follows these women from their voyage to the meeting, to their relationships, children, lives, and departure to the internment camps in 1942.

Some of the women receive names, but rarely individual personalities. Instead, this is a true group biography that captures diversity within their collective experience. As a group they were transplanted to a new world, married men who were not like the pictures they saw, and were rejected by their new country. Individually, they had affairs, dreams, and heartbreaks, leaving mementos behind.

The result is a poignant slice of lives, with a highly specific spotlight on a fundamentally American story of acceptance and rejection.

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Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig

Ludwig is an ambitious young German scientist taken into his employer’s home as a secretary and confidant. There he falls in love with his employer’s wife, a feeling she reciprocates. They delay their feelings, first out of a sense of propriety and then because he departs for a two year stint in Mexico, only to be trapped there by the outbreak of World War One. When their communication falters, Ludwig marries and has children in Mexico, but when he is able to return to Germany after the war he attempts to recapture that moment he lost from his youth.

On the one hand, I was put off by the triteness of the sexual cliches at the heart of Journey in the Past, both in the arc where a young man falls in love with the wife of an employer or other authority figure and in the arc where the slightly older man ignores any loyalty to his family in order to complete the conquest of a woman he thought was his due from an early age in his life. The first is an issue I have had with Zweig before, notably in Confusion, while the latter is a toxic fallacy regarding the relationship between men and women.

The problem is on the other hand. Zweig does not wholly exonerate Ludwig’s behavior even while couching it in terms that seem designed to make them understandable. Both characters have changed and the period of young love has left them both behind, and this, ultimately, is the message.

I appreciate Zweig’s observations on a number of fronts, some of which hit close to home. For instance:

Outwardly his title of Doctor, cheap but impenetrable armour, made up for his low social status, and at the office his fine achievements disguised the still sore and festering wounds of his youth, when he had felt ashamed of his poverty and of taking charity. So no, he was not going to sell the handful of freedom he now had, his jealously guarded privacy, not for any sum of money.

I just wish that Zweig’s plots offered a less problematic vehicle to explore these issues.

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I am now reading Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.

White Trash – Nancy Isenberg

[Redneck] had become part of the cultural lingua franca, a means of sizing up public men, and a strangely mutated gender and class identity.

White Trash starts from a provocative thesis: all (or nearly all) developments in American history can be traced to the underlying tension between “the American Dream” on the one hand and what to do about the *white* people who don’t measure up. Isenberg examines how these tensions are articulated, repurposed, exploited, and weaponized as America went from a country where land was plentiful to one that was heavily urbanized, and as notions of science, eugenics, and racial uplift changed.

America’s tortured history with non-white people, Isenberg suggests, are painful consequences of this other, innate conflict.

Isenberg begins her story in Britain, showing how the only reason many of the early white settlers left was that they were “waste people” in England, discarded to North America to turn their lives around or just not be around anymore. Once in America, though, the question of what to do with these people remained. Many of the colonial elite wanted to avoid interbreeding with people they saw as lesser than themselves, and there was an open question whether giving them land (where squatters were often already living) would allow for racial uplift. Then came the Civil War, a hybrid class-race war, the age of Eugenics where the idea was to stop poor whites along with African Americans from breeding, and finally the emergent “Cult of the Country Boy” in the 1950s.

White Trash has something of a teleological progression toward the final two chapters of the book, a section called “The White Trash Makeover.” Her argument holds water. The terms change and the widespread cultural cache that the lifestyle currently holds is a modern phenomenon, but “white trash” has been a persistent part of the American landscape for centuries. The change, Isenberg posits, is that what was once explicitly marginal is now mainstream, albeit in a way that still consciously frames itself as marginalized.

The story in White Trash is distinctly uncomfortable, particularly as someone whose hometown Isenberg might as well have been writing about. This same discomfort makes it all the more important. Certain aspects of redneck culture have been commercialized and accepted, but it is notable that in the latest iteration of the electoral victory for this class of people, the people filling the executive branch are overwhelmingly not representative of them. This seems to me not an accident, the latest iteration of the same issues that shaped the debates around squatters in the 1700s.

In a classroom, I would want to build from Isenberg’s book to make more explicit the horrific consequences of these class conflicts for people of color and other minorities, and not simply in that they are treated as a lower class. Overall, though, I found White Trash to be an effective frame through which to think about American history, one that recognizes the aspirations of the American dream, but also recognizes the ways in which that dream is dangerous as an exclusionary club with which to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t measure up in terms of breeding, education, culture, or wealth. There are ways to quibble with White Trash, but the overall product is a powerful message that demands consideration.

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I’ve been in the end of semester crunch the past few weeks, with a conference thrown in to boot, and have also finished two short novel/novellas, Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past and Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. With the semester coming to an end, I hope to start writing here with some more frequency, but, at the moment, I’m mostly just tired.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Steven Sherrill

Note: this book did double duty, since I applied a tried and true technique of assigning for class a book I have been meaning to read for years. It was on my list first, though, so I’m going to count it toward my non-academic reading anyway. The opinions expressed in this post are my own, but developed through class discussion with my students.

The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps–the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life–is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.

Some men are born to lead, to envision, to shape and mold the politics and opinions, the attitudes, the mores, the outcomes of their times, from individual to individual or on a world scale. Others take it upon themselves to intervene rather than to forge, to serve, to help, to intuitively recognize problems or the potential for problems and give whatever is necessary to prevent or at least rectify them. Still others merely exist. Trembling at the thought of the horrible responsibilities that making a decision entails, and willing to let their lives –and, by association, the lives of others—unfold or collapse according to dumb luck, they seek out obscurity. They choose or arrive at insignificance and soon enough become willing to suffer the consequences. There was a time when the Minotaur and his ilk were important, creating and destroying worlds and the lives of mortals at every turn. No more. Now, most of the time, it is all the Minotaur can do to meet the day-to-day responsibilities of his own small world. Some days he can passively witness the things that go on around him. Other days he can’t stomach any of it.

What if Theseus lied? What if, instead of killing the dread Minotaur in the Labyrinth and returning a hero, Theseus was struck dumb with fear and perhaps defeated and in the darkness struck a deal with the Minotaur in return for his life? What if the immortal Minotaur has been existing on the margins of human societies for the last five thousand years?

This is the basic premise of Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. After millenia of wandering, M. finds himself in rural North Carolina, where he lives in a trailer park and works in the kitchen of Grub’s Rib where Grub, the proprietor, pays him in cash so that he doesn’t have to deal with a bank. Despite issues with his horns in the cramped kitchen, M. likes the work; cooking, like sewing, and working on the mechanical engines such as are found in cars, makes sense to him, consisting of simple, repeatable patterns that tend not persist through the years. Certainly, these are easier to assay than the intricacies of conversation that is dependent on ever-changing contours of society, even before considering the limitation of a bull’s tongue in forming human words.

The kitchen staff accept M. as a member of the team. Cecie even flirts with him. The wait staff is generally not hostile to M., but neither are they willing to include him in their social interactions outside of the restaurant. Mike and Shane are exceptional in their mockery, something that M. chalks up to the malice of young men that lashes out at whatever is different and incomprehensible to them.

But then there is Kelly, a new waitress who suffers from epileptic fits. Her difference draws M.’s attention and forces him to face questions about what he wants in life. Their budding romance gives M. hope that, at least for a while, he will not be alone, but also exposes prejudices hidden beneath a facade of civility.

This novel about a classical monster is at its core a story about interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise. M. is moderate and careful, aware of his bovine instincts, but communicates through lows and single words. His rich and sensitive thoughts are known only to the reader. Most people do a double-take upon seeing M., but generally mask their reactions with civility, while kids are both less judgmental and less circumspect. M.’s difference (along with the difference of the other mythological creatures who are living on the margins of American society) is simultaneously all-encompassing and totally irrelevant.

Sherrill makes M. occupy the intersection two two masculine stereotypes in modern America. On the one hand, he is the African American man, gawked at and assumed to possess overwhelming, subhuman sexual appetites that threaten to be unleashed, particularly against white women. On the other hand, he is the hispanic illegal immigrant, handy and silent, working on the margins of society. In neither is he totally accepted by the white establishment except by the handful of benevolent patrons and a smattering of outcasts who sympathize with his otherness.

But lest one get the impression that The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is a serious interrogation of issues of race, I should say that it alternates between an emotionally powerful look at loneliness, isolation, acceptance, and the search for connection in modern America and an absurdist comedy. Much of the humor comes from putting M. in absurd situations unique to him such as a brief stint as a rib-cutter operating a mobile cart, but others, such as a first date playing miniature golf at a course next to a drive-in XXX theater, are simply absurd situations.

I really liked The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, both as a novel and because it gave my students ample material to talk about in the context of monsters and monstrosity in modern America. The writing struck me as overly dramatic at points, self-conscious in a performative way, but neither should that small critique detract from an excellent novel, which works both in the sense of inventive reception of classical myth and in that it offers a thoughtful look at issues that have only grown more important in the years since its original publication.

There is a sequel, The Minotaur Takes His Time, published in 2016 that I have not read yet. As a final note, this is the first book I’ve read from cover to cover on Kindle. I didn’t love the experience, but did like the highlighting and annotating features that allowed me to skip directly to the spot, particularly for the purposes of teaching.

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Life has been busy of late, what with the fast-approaching end of the semester and some academic conferences, as well as some unexpected and time consuming developments. Nevertheless, I am now reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which interprets US history through the lens of class, with a particular focus on the down and outs among people who are theoretically still represented by those in power. I am also working on several posts that will probably go up in the near future.

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

The Interdependency has existed for a millennium, ruled from Hub by the House of Wu, whose monopoly on military equipment and strategic location enables it to control access and charge demand tariffs on commerce. Hub is so named because it is the nexus of “the flow,” a poorly understood phenomenon that allows (in relative terms) rapid transportation between the far-flung systems that humans occupied after leaving earth. The stability of the flow has allowed the the development of the Intedependency, an artificial social system of family-based monopolistic guilds, the church, and parliament, all headed by the Emperox. By design, no part of this system can exist on its own, as the new Emperox Cardenia learns soon after her accession, but that does not stop the ambitions of the Interdependency power players.

At the heart of events is the Nohamapetan family, which has aspirations to a marriage with the royal family and designs on End, the most isolated planet occupied by humans and one consistently beset by rebellions. The question is why.

Caught up in the conspiracy are two additional families, Claremont and Lagos. The latter is logical enough in that Lagos is a major trading family and rival of the Nohamapetans, and so a natural target. Claremont, on the other hand, is a minor imperial representative on End, sent away from the center of politics decade ago for reasons that were never made public. Jamies Claremont is not, however, a mere bean counter, but a flow physicist working on a secret project: his models predict that the flow, the very foundation of the Interdependency, is collapsing, or at least access to it is. With his model finally complete, he decides to dispatch his son Marce on what may be the last ship out, represented by Kiva Lagos, to deliver the report in person.

The Collapsing Empire consists of two interlocking threads. The first is the story of the political intrigues of the Nohamapetan clan; the second and more significant one is the race against the impending disaster that will end human life as it is currently known and could end human life altogether. The second thread gives the book a sense of urgency, but remains ultimately unresolved.

The Collapsing Empire is in some ways vintage Scalzi. It is irreverent, with plenty of sex and cursing, thoughtful social and scientific constructions and quickly moving plots. In other ways, it represents the next step in his evolution as a writer. First, its four groups of characters mean that variously intersect mean that the book is the most complex narratives of his that I have yet read. Second, while Scalzi’s characters have always been fun with their snappy dialogue, the characters in The Collapsing Empire struck me as more mature. Not in the vocabulary, but more well-rounded on the one hand, and more varied in their motivations and personalities. (By his own admission, these were some of his favorite characters, too.) While Scalzi also hints at deep insights about humanity in how the Interdependency will be forced to adapt, those issues are put on hold while people resist the inevitable changes to come.

Scalzi’s appeal, and one that he fulfills in The Collapsing Empire, is a witty, fast-paced science fiction adventure. The optimistic potential of human society, tempered as it is by ambition and greed, and political resonances are just a bonus.

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I recently finished reading a collection of Camus’ essays. I’m not going to do a full write-up, but I like his lyricism and his aspirations to investigate the meaning of life. He is well-worth reading. Now I’m reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which demonstrates how poverty has been articulated as a foundational sin in US history.

American War – Omar El Akkad

“So? Wouldn’t you, if you had no stake in it?”
“Nobody has no stake it in,” said Sarat.

They didn’t understand, they just didn’t understand. You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

The Second American Civil War broke out in the year 2074, months after the Daniel Ki, president of United States and driving force behind the fossil fuel ban of 2069, was assassinated by the secessionist suicide bomber Julia Templestowe in Jackson, Mississippi. Rebellion in South Carolina came to an abrupt end after the introduction of a contaminant that forced the entire state to be quarantined by both sides, but Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi formally declared themselves the Free Southern States with its capital in Atlanta on October 1 2074, surrounded by a ring of purple states and blockaded by the Blue.

The southern cause is barely held together by regional identity, foreign aid, and a defiant loyalty to the now-banned fossil fuels. Northern “Birds” (drones) rain fire from the sky, displacing southerners to refugee camps such as Patience, while the south is reduced to striking back with suicide attacks, after the conclusion of the bloody battles in the oil fields of Texas (now a Mexican protectorate). That is, until the reunification ceremony after the war in which a suicide attack unleashes a deadly plague that kills millions of people across the country.

American War tells the story of the second American Civil War through the experiences of the Chestnut family, interspersed with reports, articles, and government documents.

Sarat Chestnut is about five when the war breaks out, living near the broad Mississippi river in southern Louisiana with her parents, brother Simon, and twin sister Dana. She loves her home, but her life changes one day when her father goes to a government office seeking a work permit to move the family further north. He never returns, killed in a suicide attack, and when it looks like the war is going to become active by the family home, Sarat’s mother accepts the offer of the Free Southern States to relocate her family to the Patience Refugee Camp in Mississippi.

Sarat is radicalized at Camp Patience by a recruiter named Albert Gaines, and her righteous rage comes fully into bloom when northern troops appear in the camp and massacre many of its residents for harboring southern fighters. As survivors of the massacre, Sarat, her twin sister, and brother (who miraculously survived being shot) are given a house in Georgia where she lives until rounded up by a Blue raid and imprisoned in Sugarloaf detention facility in the Florida Sea for the duration of the war.

American War is an allegory for our time. The future conjured by American War is evident from the opening pages when a map indicates that rising sea levels have erased Florida and sheared off much of the east coast, leading to the new US Capital in Columbus, Ohio. Much of the southwest, including Florida has been ceded as a protectorate to Mexico and, of course, there is the secessionist territory. And yet, this is all setting.

Omar El Akkad’s strongest point is setting a familiar Middle Eastern story of circling drones, refugee camps, suicide attacks, and radicalization in America. There is no reason why Sarat ought to become a fanatic for the southern cause, and yet she does. Thus, we see, this is not something unique to Muslims, but consequences of the circumstances that are exacerbated my US military action and an inability to, as they say, win hearts and minds. To drive home this point, we are introduced to “Joe” (Yousef), a friend of Albert Gaines and minister in the ascendant Bouazizi Empire that has been providing most of the humanitarian aid publicly and weapons privately to the Free South. He explains their motivations to Sarat:

“It doesn’t really matter to you, does it,” she asked, “who wins this war?”

“No. It does not.”

“Then why? Why be a part of it?”

“I came from a new place, Sarat.” Yousef said. “My people have created an empire. It is young now, but we intend it to be the most powerful empire in the world. For that to happen, other empires must fail. I think by now you understand that, if it were the other way around—if the south was on the verge of winning—perhaps I would be having this conversation in Pittsburgh or Columbus. I don’t want to lie to you, Sarat: this is a matter of self-interest, nothing more.”

Sarat smiled at the thought. “You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”

“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”

For as much as I loved American War, I had one major issue with its insight into America: race. Sarat and her siblings are half-Mexican and half-African American operating in a south that in my mind was still dominated by a white aristocracy, and yet there is more clucking over the possibility of the latent Catholicism from their father than there is about race. In fact, there was just one scene, where a Mormon man balks at entering a predominantly African American neighborhood on the grounds that he would not be welcome where the issue of race came to the forefront. By and large sexuality and ethnicity are the two categories that, in as far as they work in the story, there is broad acceptance. The former I believe because it is performed in private, the latter is not. The lack of discussion in this regard might be explained by the story through Sarat’s perspective wherein she becomes a celebrated agent for those in the know, but this was not always the case. The cotton fields of the south might be gone, but it took a suspension of disbelief to accept that the scars of the US history with race were so easily healed through collective intransigence over fossil fuels.

Despite the singular ray of hope for a post-racial America in this grim dystopian future, American War is a brilliant debut novel that ought to be read and internalized by everyone making US foreign policy decisions.

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I couldn’t decide which novel to read next, so I ended up starting a collection of essays by Albert Camus, including The Myth of Sisyphus instead.

Jews with Swords: Gentlemen of the Road – Michael Chabon

The gentlemen of the road are an odd couple, the thin, pale, Zelikman, a physician with his needle-like sword and the dark, burly Amram, a former soldier with his ax named “Defiler of Your Mother.” Their dissimilarity fuels their performances, spectacular duels over, say, a hat, that incite heavy betting; such moments offer opportunities for the canny and unscrupulous.

Other than destroying Zelikman’s favorite hat, everything was going according to plan until they are found out by Filaq, a Khazar youth. Filaq is not interested in exposing their confidence game, but turns out to be on the lam, hunted by agents of Buljan, the new Khazar Bek who had killed his predecessor, Filaq’s father. Owing partly to their natural heroism and partly to the need to retrieve Zelikman’s horse, Hillel, the gentlemen of the road follow Filaq all the way to Khazaria where they find themselves at the heart of a revolution that they have no claim to.

Gentlemen of the Road is a fun adventure story spun out with Chabon’s linguistic flourish. It holds certain positions when it comes to revolution and equality and gender, but does so with a light touch. In the afterward, Chabon explains that he wanted to write a story in a time and place where Jews could wield swords (hence the Khazars, a tribe of nomads who allegedly converted to Judaism), but even this central aspect to the story is not essential to the plot. These are mostly Jews who are not particularly driven by their Judaism.

The sum is a pleasant enough story, but one that is fluffy and insubstantial. It was a good palate cleanser from the emotional power A Tale for the Time Being, but not nearly approaching the level of the other Chabon novel I’ve read, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

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Next up, my partner asked me to finish reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books so that she can talk with me about them, so I’m now reading The Year of the Flood.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

“That’s an interesting idea,” he says. “I’ve always thought time was a little bit iffy, myself.”

Ruth is a novelist living on a remote island in British Columbia with her husband Oliver and their cat she calls Pest. She is struggling to find words for her latest book, a memoir, when she finds a curious package washed up on shore after a storm. The Hello Kitty lunchbox contains the diary of a teenage girl from Japan tucked inside the covers of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, along with assorted other mementos. Suspecting the diary to be detritus from the 2011 tsunami, Ruth begins to read only to discover a mystery.

The diary belongs to Nao. She grew up in Sunnyvale California during the dot-com boom, but when her father’s company laid him off they returned to Japan where she was an outsider, brutalized psychologically and physically by classmates and totally without friends. Making matters worse, they went from affluence to poverty, her father attempted suicide, and Nao fell in with call girls. She declares her intention to kill herself, too, but only after telling the story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a 104-year old “anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era” and whose son was a multi-lingual philosophy student conscripted into being a Kamikaze pilot during World War 2.

The confluence of events causes Ruth to fear for Nao’s life and she begins an obsessive search to find this person who doesn’t seem to exist anywhere online. Things don’t add up about about how the diary arrived on the shores of the island, and there are questions about the timeline between the chronological hints that Nao gives and the urgency that Ruth feels. The only available leads are in the diary, so Ruth has no choice but to keep reading.

A Tale for the Time Being largely unfolds in alternating chapters between an annotated translation of Nao’s diary and Ruth’s hunt. Woven into the narrative is both explicit and implicit commentary about time. Ozeki invokes both Quantum Mechanics and Zen moments, the different speeds of real life and the internet, and balancing the pace of life in New York and Tokyo with an island in the Pacific Northwest and a dilapidated Buddhist monastery. Finding the strength to accept, forgive, and adapt to the flow of time is, as Nao might say, an important superpower.

Similarly, there is commentary about life versus the written word. All three main female characters wrote books that reflect something personal: Nao’s diary, Jiko’s semi-autobiographical novel, and Ruth’s memoir that she is struggling to write. Ruth is taken by Nao’s self-presentation of her suffering, struggles that may well be accurate, but A Tale for the Time Being, a novel by Ruth Ozeki, blurs the line between the fiction of the novel and the memoir that Ruth is struggling to write.

These words are insufficient to express how much I enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being. There are scenes that are difficult to read, particularly with how poor Nao suffers, but these moments of suffering are balanced by moments of wisdom and serenity. I had a few issues with the plot points transitioning to the final resolution and thought that some of the symbolism came across as overwrought, and yet the beauty, the pain, and the relationships left behind a trail of emotional devastation that left me wanting to sit zazen and meditate. I have finished four novels so far in 2018 and A Tale for the Time Being is easily my favorite, an early front-runner for my top reads of the year.

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I am between books for the few hours during which I am writing this, having just finished Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road this morning. The short version is that it was a good reprieve from the emotional power of A Tale For the Time Being.

The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘—by which I mean, of course, latter adolescents who aspire to real manhood—gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism…’

‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

At the time of his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace was working on a new novel, a book to rival Infinite Jest. The Pale King is a posthumous publication of that incomplete story.

The author’s “forward” (actually chapter 9) informs us that this is an absolutely true vocational memoir of the things that happened to trainee David Foster Wallace at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria in 1985-6. Most basically, it presents the awkward situation young David found himself in on his first day of work when he is mistaken for a much more senior, and therefore valuable, David F. Wallace due to transfer to the center the following day. As a result, David receives insights into the inner workings of (and benefits from) the institution far beyond the typical new recruit. Interspersed with the narrator’s experiences are interludes introducing a wide range of characters (used broadly) that make up the staff of the Regional Examination Center.

Beyond the loose plot formed by the mistaken identities, The Pale King is not a book with a strong plot. There is a lingering sense of doom, perhaps formed by the threat of technology, or perhaps the threat of institutional reorganization, or possibly an internal power struggle…or all three. At the same time, the book creates a series of absurdist character studies that shape interrogate the trauma of early lives that would lead people to choose a life of tedium.

Having read much of Wallace’s oeuvre, I would not be surprised if he was trying to bore the reader toward a state of euphoria (as happens to one of the characters), but the unpolished organization, as well as disorienting chapters some of which use no names, is something else and made the book difficult for me to to follow. These problems were most obvious in the first half of the novel, which does it further disservice.

It is impossible to read The Pale King without looking at it with respect to Infinite Jest. The Pale King shows Wallace’s voice, attention to detail, expansive vocabulary, and style. Where IJ examined addiction, PK takes on tedium. Despite its incompletion, I can see the potential in PK. It shows some hints of the time that it was written, but the setting as a “memoir” creates the potential for a story that is more timeless than IJ‘s near future, and the repeated assertion that modern world is an endless morass of bureaucracy is spot on. If anything the evolution of clickbait social media and the turn to video actually underscores the point being made in the novel. And yet, I have a strong preference for IJ, which I thought was funnier and connected with in a more meaningful way such that I believe my opinion would have held true even if PK were complete.

In my writeup of IJ, I said that it is not a book for everyone. The same goes here to an even greater degree. There are moments and there are scenes, but in its current state, this is not an all-time great book.

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I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and absolutely loving it. This semester has me swamped, but I am hoping to carve time to write about other topics soon.