Friday, September 19, 2008

The Book of Illusions

I first came upon Paul Auster's work in "Travels in the Scriptorium". The cover, which was of a white horse in a white, spotless room that has a table with various pictures and stacks of paper on it, caught my attention and a reading of the synopsis confirmed my purchase (the more unorthodox, the better chances of getting my money). I finished that book in three days and immediately sought out to read more of his works. After finishing some other stuff first, of course. "The Book of Illusions" is the second novel I've read from Auster. And while some dragging moments and passages that seemed completely unnecessary appeared here and there, Auster's mastery of language and subtle display of interconnecting ideas is again done fluidly.

David Zimmer, a college professor in Vermont, spends weeks and months drinking alcohol on his sofa, growing an unkempt beard and wallowing in his own misery and filth after his wife and children plummet to their deaths in a plane crash. One day, on television he catches a special about slapstick comedians who used to perform in 1920's black-and-white silent films. They talk about a film by one Hector Mann, and while watching one of this actor's comedies, something happens to David that symbolizes the harbinger of major change in his life:

"....it made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time
I had laughed at anything since June, and when I felt that unexpected spasm rise
up through my chest and begin to rattle around in my lungs, I understood that I
hadn't hit bottom yet, that there was still some piece of me that wanted to go
on living." (pg. 9)
After intensely researching and publishing a book about this actor who, at the climax of his stardom, left his Hollywood home sixty years ago and disappeared from the public eye forever, a letter comes in the mail. It's an invitation from a woman named Frieda, who invites David to meet Hector. From here, the main journey starts.

The character David Zimmer comparing film and literary (pg. 14):

"No matter how beautiful or hypnotic the images sometimes were, they never
satisfied me as powerfully as words did. Too much was given, I felt, not
enough was left to the viewer's imagination, and the paradox was that the
closer movies came to simulating reality, the worse they failed at
representing the world--which is in us as much as it is around us."
I, at first, wrote this quote down because I thought its content was brilliant. But upon looking at it again and thinking about the story and David's relation to Hector Mann and his films, I think the character might have been speaking about himself without knowing it. All is eventually revealed about Hector's life before and after his disappearance, and a lot of it bears resemblance to David's own life. But this is only unraveled as the protagonist digs deeper.

In a particular scene where David is being held at gunpoint by the character Alma, he speaks about feeling this....sort of....transcendance, where this rift in reality occurs and for a small period of time he lives as someone else though he doesn't know who. The laugh that hits David in the beginning and starts the story going becomes the catalyst for him to eventually discover, through the consequences of love, conquering fear, isolation, finding purpose for himself and other themes, that his life has been lived and Hector Mann is a way for David to look at himself from the outside and set himself on track again after tragedy. Perhaps the laugh itself was a version of that rift.

A lot of subtle but key things happen in the story, so it's difficult to attempt to pin down anyone or two or fives interpretations of subtext. But I will definitely say that there is coherence, both on the surface of the narrative and underneath it. This, combined with its accessibility makes the book definitely worth recommendation.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Saving Fish From Drowning

Good gungamunga, this book sucks. Or at least I thought so. Do not take my word on whether you should read the book or not; I didn't finish it. I couldn't. If it looks interesting to you, or you're already an Amy Tan fan, then go for it. I see that "The Joy Luck Club" got plenty of rave reviews, but I'm nowhere near inspired to even give that book a chance.

12 Americans, each, of course, with their own micro-drama, sign up for a tour through China and Burma with museum owner Bibi Chen, who is dead before the story starts. Stuck in what she describes as limbo with the ability to go into people's minds and influence them, she follows her friends through the tour in Burma where they're kidnapped by a tribe who believe one of the tour members is a deity called "Younger White Brother" that can save them from being killed and harassed by the military government.

I would have to guess that adventure ensues; I stopped at pg. 204 in the hardcover. This is around the point that the tribesman and the supposedly sacred tour member, Rupert, meet. But I couldn't go on. I could not withstand the cardboard cut out characters with dialogue on par with an episode of Dora the Explorer. I couldn't deal with the terrible balance between the narrative, information and vocabulary. Amy Tan does a good job of making the reader also feel like their on a tour by describing the value and history of various temples, sacred objects, hotels, cultures and foods that the characters visit, but this is all said through Bibi Chen's narrative, whose language is stiff and not very colorful at all. So when she talks about the lantana or scarlet hibiscus they drive by on the bus, or when she uses words like 'lagniappes' or 'schadenfreud', they stick out completely and look unnatural.

I couldn't deal with the teases of adventure Amy Tan would give, by having her characters enter what definitely looks like it would be trouble (one character follows some strange woman to some far-off corner in a Burmese street market, another character gets left behind by the tour bus and falls into the hands of strict, deadly soldiers), only for the situations to result in shockingly bland conclusions. Under normal circumstances, meaning in the case that the rest of the story was entertaining, I wouldn't have minded these scenes. But those bits that looked like they promised adventure were the only saving graces for the book.

The one thing I can say is that I liked the way Tan places the theme of drowning in various places of the story, such as Bibi Chen's past, the history of an ancient Chinese coffin and probably some other places later. But other than this, I'm glad Amy Tan has a solid fan base of her own. I don't have to worry about paying attention to her stuff.