“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
Once I started reading Piranesi I understood why so many reviewers disclosed very little about its story. The driving force in this novel is the not knowing what the hell is going on. The summary for Piranesi hints at the narrative’s peculiarity: our narrator, Piranesi, lives in a house, which happens to be his entire world, with many many rooms and many many corridors, his only companions are the statues adorning this house and The Other, a man he meets twice a week to discuss A Great and Secret Knowledge.
“Piranesi lived among statues; silent presences that bought him comfort and enlightenment.”
Although the publisher recommends Piranesi to fans of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Madeline Miller’s Circe, I think it would appeal more to readers who enjoy metaphysical and absurd narratives, such as the one penned by the likes of Kafka or Samuel Beckett. Similarly to Beckett’s Endgame, Piranesi‘s disorientating qualities are heightened by the repetitiveness of certain words or phrases. Piranesi, like Beckett’s Clov and Hamm, offers no explanations for his peculiar environment or strange circumstances, leading readers to speculate whether the house truly is in another world.
Readers will probably be baffled by Piranesi’s casual attitude towards his surroundings, his incomprehensible reasonings, his perception of time and death, and his devotion to his labyrinthine house. Unlike Beckett however Clarke does eventually answer the reader’s questions, but I was ultimately unconvinced by her novel’s denouement. Nevertheless I enjoyed Piranesi’s absurd narration as well the humour that livens his story. If you are the type of reader to find puzzling reads entertaining, this might the right book for you.
A very Wilsonesque collection of stories: dysfunctional families, spontaneous human combustion, surreal scenarios, and plenty of eccentric characters. Each story in this collection held my attention, and while they share similarities, they also showcase Wilson’s range: from lighthearted tales (such as “Grand Stand-In” and “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth”) to more bittersweet stories (such as “Birds in the House”) and even ones that I can best describe as heartbreaking (“Mortal Kombat”). Regardless of their tone, each story is permeated by surrealism. At times the surreal elements are overt (such as with the first story in this collection), while in other times they are more covert. Ordinary moments or exchanges are injected with a dose of the bizarre, and this weirdness was a delight to read. Wilson vividly renders his characters and their experiences (however unreal they were), and his mumblecore dialogues always rang true to life (even when the discussions veered in seemingly absurd territories). This was a wonderful collection of short stories. They were extremely amusing and always surprising. Each story had a certain focus, and didn’t meander in other directions, seeming committed to expanding on specific feelings or ideas. My favourite ones were “Mortal Kombat” (as sad as it was), “Birds in the House”, and “The Museum of Whatnot”. Funny, original, and tender, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is a marvellous collection of stories, one that I would thoroughly recommend it to readers who enjoyed other works by Wilson, such as Nothing to See Here.
Once again, I am in the minority as I did not find Red Pill to be a particularly artful or clever novel. To be clear, I do think that Hari Kunzru can write very well indeed, however, his narrative struck me as all flash and no substance.
I was amused by the first quarter of this novel. Kunzru’s writing didn’t ‘blow’ me away but I did find his narrator’s inner monologue to be mildly entertaining. The more I read however, the more my interest waned. My mounting frustration at the silliness and superficiality of the story soon morphed into an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. Maybe, this is my fault. The summary, cover, and general ‘hype’ surrounding this novel led me to believe that Red Pill would be something more than your average ‘well-educated yet exceedingly average straight man has midlife crisis in Europe’ story but I was wrong. As per usual, if you enjoyed this novel, well, ben per te. And, at the risk of anticipating righteous Kunzru devotees: No, I did not in fact ‘get’ this novel. There you have it.
I’m all for historical and literary references or philosophical asides but boy, oh boy, Red Pill sure liked to flex. Maybe, one needs a master in Philosophy and Literature to understand the brilliance of the narrator’s endless ramblings on Kleist, the Enlightenment, western philosophers, postmodern theorists, Evil, self-determination, and violence. This nameless narrator of ours (of course he remains unnamed) is experiencing some existential dread. This may be because the novel is set in 2016 and our protagonist lives in America. His conviction that ‘something’ bad is going to happen soon aren’t unfounded. Suffering writer’s block our narrator is given a ‘golden’ opportunity, a three-months residency at the Deuter Center (located in Wannsee, Berlin). Here he will supposedly be able to crack on his “The Lyric I”. Our narrator was no however prepared for the Deuter Center’s many rules. The Center is in fact a “experimental community” that promotes, nay insists, on the “public labor of scholarship”. The narrator finds the idea of having to undertake his research in a ‘communal’ space to be abject. His feelings of discomfort and anxiety are exacerbated by a particularly unpleasant and hectoring resident, a man who relishes in making others miserable, using pseudo-intellectual jargon to ‘demolish’ their thesis and beliefs. Cowed, our narrator, who is fully aware of his own inability to speak against this bullying man, hides in his bedroom, watching episode after episode of Blue Lives an America show about cops gone ‘rogue’ and operate under a ‘violence begets violence’ mentality which sees them torturing and killing criminals. As the narrator’s obsession for this show grows, he starts exhibiting paranoid behaviour. His thoughts too, which are very much convey this sense of ‘being watched’ or controlled (by the Center? The show? Who knows.). The narrative then switches to the story of Monika, a cleaner who works at the Center. Monika decides for some reason to make our unremarkable, and increasingly unbalanced, narrator into her confidante. She recounts of her time in a punk girl band in East Germany, and of the way she was persecuted by the Stasi. The story exists solely as a poorly veiled allegory. This novel is not really interest in Monika, and why should it be? This is very much a narrative about an average man’s midlife crisis and of his ‘descent’ into madness. Pure happenstance, our narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, at a party in Berlin. Anton is a ‘bad’ guy, our narrator is sure of this. Anton does in fact act like a dick, and doesn’t bother to conceal his alt-right leanings. This encounter upsets our narrator so much that he looses grip of himself. What follows is a sequence of fevered events in which our protagonist tries to expose Anton to the world, believing that the best way of doing so is to hurtle down the path of insanity. Paranoia and gas-lightening abound in this part of the novel. Much of what happens seems to exist merely to ridicule our narrator, to emphasise his inability to form cohesive counter-arguments to Anton’s Mad Max worldview. He now ‘sees’ the world in all its ugliest glory, he has indeed taken the ‘red pill’ mentioned in the title.
The cartoonish characters (the Center guy and Anton are pompous and blustering finger-wagging caricatures) and awkward interactions could be chalked down to Kunzru’s predilection for hysterical realism. This is satire. Okay. Fair enough. Still, what lies beneath his ‘satire’? An intelligent social commentary? A cautionary tale? Methinks not. The exaggerated characters and outlandish plot did not seem to have anything particularly to say. Beware ‘Antons’? Those who hold extremist views and use scholarly or high-register words to deflect their audience from the true meaning of what they are saying? Paranoia is a sane response to an ‘insane’ reality? Kunzur’s arguments felt tired, especially in 2020, and serve a merely ornamental function. Take the role of the show Blue Lives in the story. Our narrator watches it with a mix of horror and fascination. He worries that no one has caught on the messages that Anton has peppered in his show, particularly a troubling quote by Joseph de Maistre. Our narrator tries to call out Anton, by criticising his show’s pessimistic worldview, in which the world is an “abattoir”. But that’s it. He doesn’t try to think why viewers of this show condone this kind of vigilante sort of justice. Kunzru has one quick scene in a kebab shop in which he attempts to unpack the psychology of people like Anton, but he does it in such a harried and obvious way (Anton telling our protagonist why his friends dislike immigrants and non-Western cultural influences), to which our inept narrator responds “fuck you”. Kunzru also tries to show how good intentions can be misunderstood by having our supposedly progressive narrator attempt to help a refugee father and her daughter. Except that his attempt to help them is from the get go dodgy as he wants to prove Anton and his violent worldview wrong. He’s also, surprise surprise, like Monika, made to seem complicit with Anton (so that he’s mistaken for a Fascist). I get that we are not meant to like the narrator (he’s kind of a coward, kind of pathetic, kind of a creep when it comes to attractive women), but did the author really have to go out of his way to humiliate him? I already felt little for this man, and the more the story seemed intent on emphasising his many failings, the more I lost interest. The author seemed more focused on making his narrative as nebulous as possible than of fleshing out or giving some nuance to his characters. Yet, the structure of the novel isn’t all that innovative. The plot too unfolds rather predictably. The narrator’s unreliability and his imminent breakdown are obvious, and I felt no apprehension about his decline or wellbeing. While the author’s prose was exceedingly well-articulated, I failed to grasp the meaning behind his words. The narrator often recounted the conversations he had with others. Consequently, not only did the plot lack immediacy but the majority of the secondary characters were made to speak only through our narrator recalling the gist of their words (one could say that this is realistic as he is retroactively describing his time in Berlin but why do we get some dialogues then? Am I to believe then he has a sporadic exceptional memory?). The narrator’s inner-monologue is repetitive and appeared to be little other than navel-gazing. Many of his thoughts and feelings aren’t all that complex, and yet the author will dedicate entire paragraphs to them. Also, while I understand that there times when you can get so flustered as to be unable to form a cohesive sentence or valid counter-argument (just think how many videos there in which ‘liberals/snowflakes/feminists are destroyed with FACTS and LOGIC’) it didn’t ring quite true when at the Center what’s-his-face is offensive towards every single other resident, and no one does anything about it. He wasn’t their boss or a threatening guy, yet, not one of these learned individuals was capable of calling him out. His behaviour, as far as I remember, doesn’t even get reported (which it should be given that he says inappropriate things, and actively works against the Center’s ideology). Speaking of the Center, that felt very much felt like ‘bait’. It seems that it will play some sort of role in the novel but it is totally sidelined in favour of our narrator spiralling out of control. Another thing I couldn’t quite behind was Anton and his supposed powers of influence over our main character. While I can recognise that the narrator was in a susceptible, if not vulnerable, state I wasn’t convinced by the way Anton comes to dominate his every-thought. The guy may have been able to quote some obscure philosopher but that hardly makes him into almighty persuader. The ‘writing about writing’ angle was but underwhelming and obnoxious. If anything, the narrator’s reflections on writing seemed to serve as excuses for the actual novel’s failings: “Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality” (insert headache inducing eye-roll here). And of course, Chekhov’s gun gets a mention. How very self-aware. While the protagonist did touch upon interesting subjects and ideas, often using researched vocabulary, he did so superficially, so that ultimately his narration seemed little other than bloviating.
In spite of the novel’s lampoon of the academic world, the narrative struck as being extremely elitist. Red Pill tells a meandering and ultimately inadequate story, attempting perhaps to shock or impress its own importance onto its readers. But I felt mostly annoyed by it all. Meaning and depth are lost in a prolix narrative that meanders maddeningly from one subject to the next without having anything substantial to say. Reading this was a huge waste of time, time I could have spent watching ContraPoints or Philosophy Tube. Did the world need another book dedicated to a self-proclaimed ‘average’ man who is having a ‘midlife’ crisis?
Comparing this novel to the work of Ottessa Moshfegh or Sayaka Murata seems somewhat misleading, if a bit lazy. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job has elements that may bring to mind certain aspects of Convenience Store Woman but it has almost nothing in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Still, I could have enjoyed Kikuko Tsumura’s novel if it had something interesting to say or if it was written in a particularly inventive or catchy way. Sadly, I found There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job to be an exceedingly boring story that is written in an exceedingly boring way. Some of the issues I had may be due the translation (more on that later) but for the most part Tsumura’s prose is kind of dull. Her protagonist, the classic unnamed narrator, lacks the deadpan tone of Murata’s mc, nor does she have the same upbeat voice as the lead in Temporary (a novel that explores modern workplace in an absurdist fashion). Tsumura’s book is divided in five sections, each one focusing on a different job: in the first one our mc works a surveillance job (this happened to be the only section I enjoyed), in the second one she records ads for a bus company (advertising the shops that are on the route of that bus), in the third one she has to come up with ‘fun/useful facts’ for a packet of crackers, in the third one she puts posters up, and in the final job she works at a park maintenance office. We never gain any real insight into her private life (I’m fairly sure she lives alone and her parents are still alive) and we never learn anything about her past (other than she left her job because of burnout syndrome). The jobs she are peculiar and yet they never held my interest. I liked Temporary much more because the jobs the mc does there are really weird. Yet, I think I could have tolerated reading about a relatively ordinary workplace if the dialogues or mc’s inner monologue had been amusing, as they are in Murata’s novel (which managed to make tedious tasks entertaining). Even if I where to judge Tsumura’s novel without drawing comparison to other novels, I still can’t think of anything positive to say about it. The narration lacked zest, oomph. She recounts her routine in a very prosaic way, and she offers no real insights into why ‘modern’ work culture makes her feel so uninspired. Usually when I read a translated book I don’t really notice that the prose was not originally written in the language I’m reading but here the writing had this stilted quality that made me kind of aware that I was indeed reading a translation. Certain word choices struck me as awkward. There are many instances in which the narrator’s colloquial style is interrupted by high-register and or antiquated words (such as nigh!). Maybe this was simply reflecting the original Japanese but I can’t say for sure as I’m afraid my knowledge of Japanese is abysmal. And yes, I understand that translation is not an easy chore (in the past I tried my hand at translating) but that doesn’t change that the prose There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job offers some eyebrow-raising phrases/passages.
Usually I read books of this length in two or three days but it took me five days to finish this novel (and I nearly fell asleep while reading it…which is new for me).
The Disaster Tourist doesn’t tell a very memorable or engrossing story. If you’ve read the summary you know exactly what to expect from this book. We are introduced to Yona who is thirty-three and works as trip coordinator at Jungle, a travel company that specialises in organising disaster themed vacations. Yona is sexually harassed by her boss and seems like she would rather leave the company. She then agrees to go on a paid vacation in which she will have to determine whether Jungle should cancel this package. This vacation takes her to Mui, a fictional island not far from Vietnam. The disaster tourists that are travelling alongside Yona don’t seem all the impressed or shocked by Mui’s desert sinkhole. Yona then is left stranded to Mui and finds herself agreeing to take part in a morally questionable enterprise. As a critique of disaster tourism this book doesn’t really offer anything truly compelling or thought-provoking. Most readers will be aware of the voyeuristic and exploitative nature of this brand of tourism and of the motivations of those who wish to participate in it (wanting to raise awareness, witness sites of devastation in order to understand them). The author’s style does very little showing. Unlike with books like Temporary or Convenience Store Woman readers will never gain an insight into Yona’s job or her mind. She remains a surface character whose actions are either obscure or unbelievable. The tone of this book was also kind of a miss for me (definitely not as darkly funny or insightful as it wanted to be). What could have been an irreverent look at tourism ended up being a forcibly surreal tale that wasn’t half as clever or inventive as it tried to be.
“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”
Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.
Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration. Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.
In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.
In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives. Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained. Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.
Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity. My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.
Yoshimoto’s distinctive style perfectly captures grief and its ramifications. After the death of her grandmother Mikage, an orphan, finds herself without a family. Mikage, unable to bear another loss, attempts to withdraw from others. Yoshimoto renders the emptiness and sadness experienced by Mikage in a rather matter-of-fact way. And Mikage’s grief and depression feel all the more real because of it. Yoshimoto manages to imbue ordinary objects and places (ie. a kitchen) with incredible feeling. By paying attention to small details (such as the way that sunlight shines through a glass) Yoshimoto brings to life seemingly mundane moments. Her writing style really lends itself to the depiction Mikage’s grief. In her estrangement from her daily life she is empowered by small or normal things (such as kitchen utensils and or a beautiful dish).
Overall, Kitchen was a really good novella. I sympathised with Mikage’s and I understood the numbness that overwhelms her. The few interactions she has with other people were really lovely, and of course, her relationship with Yoichi and Eriko was incredibly sweet. And with time, Mikage finds some sort of solace.
“Moonlight Shadow” lacked the realism of Kitchen. It was much shorter and, since I read it immediately after Kitchen, I couldn’t help comparing the two. Kitchen packs so much more feeling and character. “Moonlight Shadow” might also deal with grief but it does it in a far more rushed and predictable manner.
A poignant and gentle tale of a friendship between a professor (whose memory lasts approximately 80 minutes), his housekeeper and her ten-year-old son, who goes by the nickname of ‘Root’. The narrative of The Housekeeper and the Professor although brimming with compassion avoids being over-sentimental. There is plenty of kindness and love to be found in this novel. Ogawa’s style depicts with honesty the friendship between an old and vulnerable man and a hard-working single mother. The housekeeper, a good-natured woman, becomes interested in maths thanks to the professor, who prior to his brain injury was a professor of maths. While living in solitude, cut away from the world, he still possess his love for numbers and a knack for teaching. Nothing eventful really happens, and this is not a plot-driven novel. The narrator recounts this friendship and a particular time of her life in an almost wistful manner. Her reminiscing provides some beautiful observations and some lovely phrases.
As silly as it might sound, there was a bit too much talk of numbers&maths and baseball, so I did feel a bit distanced from the story at times. Nevertheless, if you fancy a quick and moving story, look no further.
I thought about how what I felt for him now and what he felt for me at that moment must be totally and completely out of sync. Trying to imagine it made me dizzy.
Hiromi Kawakami can really capture the most ordinary thoughts and moments of everyday life. While Strange Weather in Tokyo was focused on a woman’s evenings in a bar, leaving out her day job, The Nakano Thrift Shop is all about our protagonist’s job. We don’t know much about Hitomi other than that she is employed at the Nakano Thrift shop. The story is concerned with a particular time in her life, and avoids adding unnecessary information. In her new job Hitomi meets plenty of interesting, eccentric, if not downright weird, people: from her employer, Mr. Nakano, to his sister, Masayo, her colleague, the nervous Takeo, to the many different customers. The novel is divided in twelve chapter, and each one of them tells of a particular period in the Nakano shop, focusing in turn on Mr. Nakano’s love life, or Masayo’s, or even on a set of cursed bowls. There are plenty of colourful characters who provide funny anecdotes or peculiar conversations. Each chapter is self-contained given that they tell of different moments of Hitomi’s time at the thrift shop. Kawakami excels in capturing the misunderstandings and awkwardness that can arise between two people, wherever they are romantically involved or not. The characters’ conversations and arguments are incredibly believable given their propensity for ‘going nowhere’ or ‘around in circles’. Unlike other books, (I’m looking at you Normal People and Outline), this novel relays clumsy interactions, evincing the limitations that our words often have, in a truly credible manner. There are these moments of sullenness over what’s been said or what hasn’t been said or even the way it has been said in. I also love the way in which these ordinary moments can almost seem surreal or fantastic.
I liked the way Masayo held those scissors. It was like she had a small woodland creature playing in her hand.
Kawakami is not for readers who seek plot, action and meaning. If you don’t need these things, and if you are looking for a read that will fill you with a sense of nostalgia and make you smile, look no further.
I hear somewhere that human cells renew themselves every three years. His name might still be Takeo, and he might look just like him on the outside, but this guy was a totally different person.
I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper grown-up. I had been very much the adult when I was in elementary school. But as I continued on through junior high and high school, on the contrary, I became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.
Hiromi Kawakami injects a series of ordinary episodes between two people with a dreamy atmosphere, one that makes the events she describes anything but boring. In Strange Weather in Tokyo, also translated as a The Briefcase, Tsukiko, a 38-year-old woman who works in an office (it is never specified what her job truly entails), runs into Sensei, her former teacher. The two are both gourmands, and find themselves conversing over food and becoming ‘drinking companions’. Their talk feels very natural, especially in the way it often leads nowhere. They talk of their favourite foods or haikus, comment on the weather, disagree over the best baseball teams. As unlikely their companionship is (there is an age gap of 30 years), their connection is vibrantly rendered. Tsukiko’s tranquil yet quirky narration will appeal to readers who enjoyed Hilary Leichter’s Temporary or Convenience Store Woman.
This slight novel is very much a slice of life, a glimpse into the everyday experiences and thoughts of its main character. Each chapter focuses on a certain episode from her life: she goes mushroom hunting, walks around the neighbourhood with Sensei, witnesses the cherry blossom with a former classmate, spends a weekend away from Tokyo. There are paragraphs in which Tsukiko considers fizzy water, and many pages are dedicated to scenes in which she’s eating or drinking (alone or with Sensei). The author’s dialogues have an almost mumblecore-esque quality to them, one that makes them ring true to life. Throughout the course of these self-contained chapters Kawakami showcases an incredible understanding of ‘loners’ such as Tsukiko and Sensei, and of all the little things that go through people’s mind. Each chapter brought a smile to my face. Tsukiko, our peculiar narrator, is an endearing, if puzzling, character, and her gradual relationship with Sensei felt very authentic. There are small, and often silly, misunderstandings or disagreements, drawn out silences, and moments of true companionship. Because the story was written in the early 2000s, I experience a certain nostalgia while I was reading it. There is lack of modern technology (mobile phones appear towards the end of the story) that gives it an enchanting sort of timelessness. I would definitely recommend this for those who want to read something less plot oriented or for fans of quiet yet atmospheric storytellers such as Banana Yoshimoto.