Category: prose fiction

The Castle (75 Books – XX)

Is it fair to criticise a book that the author left unfinished at his death? Well, it was published, so I suppose so.

Most of Franz Kafka’s The Castle doesn’t really feel unfinished, anyway. There are a few spots that could use some editing, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have guessed that the author died before completing it until the book stops. That’s probably the main problem, really, which is hardly Kafka’s fault – though there is a note at the end of my audiobook edition about how Kafka intended the novel to end, the manuscript we have just stops in the middle. I sense that the story was likely nearing a conclusion, but obviously it’s still frustrating to have a story just stop with no conclusion at all.

Not that I mind the novel ending soon, so much; it started getting tedious to listen through well before the stop. The majority of the novel consists of the protagonist, K., going from conversation to conversation trying to sort out his position in this town where he was summoned to work as a land surveyor, only to find that this was likely a mistake. One problem is that most of these dialogues take the same basic form; one character relates some event, interprets it, the other says, essentially, “Ah, that’s what you think it means, but actually it means this…” Conveying the tedium of K.’s efforts is part of the intended effect, but unfortunately Kafka may have succeeded a little too well.

Also, I may have missed something here, but it’s not entirely clear to me why K. can’t just leave the town, aside from stubbornness. He talks about the difficult journey to get there, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he’s not going to be able to work as a land surveyor, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing keeping him there. I’d assumed early on that he must have a hidden reason for wanting to stay, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Perhaps Kafka planned to add some explanation later, but I can only take the novel as it is now.

I listened to this in an edition published by Naxos Audiobooks, and read by Allan Corduner, who does a fine job narrating. He’s actually the first narrator I’ve encountered whose work I’d listen to just because he’s the narrator. My only problem, and this is very much a minor issue, is that the main character’s name (or initial, I suppose) is pronounced with the German name for the letter, “kah,” instead of the English “kay,” so it took me a while to figure out what his “name” actually is. Everything else is fine, though, and the narration was probably the highlight of the book.…

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The Picture of Dorian Gray (75 Books – XIII)

Another audiobook, this time Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, published by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Simon Vance.

Now, when I wrote about Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore, I criticised the author for being too eager to show off how intelligent he is by name-dropping famous musicians and such at every opportunity. Wilde goes much farther, as a large part of the novel consists of long conversations that don’t seem to have much purpose beyond giving Wilde an opportunity to show the reader how clever he is, or filling a chapter describing the various musical or gemstone collections his protagonist acquires and making sure we all know how much research he did in the lore of these things. To be fair, Wilde is genuinely clever, and his dialogues are often amusing, but they make the novel longer than necessary and quickly begin to feel tedious.

Despite this, though, the story of literature’s second-most-famous Faustian bargain is engaging from beginning to end. I suspect that this story may have been better served as a stage play, though, since most of the action occurs either in dialogue or relatively simple actions. This would also have forced Wilde to trim the dialogues down, probably for the better – I remember several lines from The Importance of Being Earnest, and don’t recall it getting anywhere near as tedious as Dorian.

Simon Vance’s narration was solid throughout, though his upper-class British accents for some of the minor characters were a little too stereotypical and cartoony; the major characters all sounded about perfect.…

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Kafka on the Shore (75 Books – X)

The one benefit of having a very long commute to work each day is that it allows one to get through a lot of audiobooks and podcasts. Not that I actually listen to a lot of audiobooks, admittedly, mainly because I like to mark up my books and share interesting passages on twitter as I go. They do benefit from professional narration, though, like a radio play, and poetry especially benefits from being read out loud. Of course, audiobooks are also a distraction while driving, though if I do get into an auto accident at least I’ll go out listening to something good.

Anyway, Kafka on the Shore is the first book I’ve read (listened to? whatever) by Murakami Haruki. The book starts with a fifteen-year-old boy running away from home, and at first one thinks this will be a realistic story about a runaway. By the time one gets to the old man who talks with cats and fish raining from the sky it’s pretty clear that this isn’t that sort of novel, though perhaps it does qualify as magical realism, since these things are dealt with straightforwardly and relatively realistically. The boy, who takes the name “Kafka,” takes up about half the novel in first-person narration, while the intertwined other half has a third-persona narrator, focusing on the old man, Nakata, and his backstory.…

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula Is Surprisingly Boring

Once in a while, I come across a work of fiction that should be better than it is, and unfortunately Bram Stoker’s Dracula fits firmly into that category. The premise carries the novel through, and the story does have some strong points, but Stoker does a couple of things that undermine the whole work.

The first major problem is that Stoker wrote this as an epistolary novel. I believe this style used to be much more common than it is now, but was already long past its prime when Stoker wrote Dracula, and good riddance. Ideally, the epistolary style adds a sense of realism, making the reader feel like he’s a researcher going through primary documents, rather than reading an artificially constructed narrative. Since much of Dracula is essentially a mystery story, this approach does serve the plot well.…

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Associations of The Dissociation of Haruhi Suzumiya

The American release of Tanigawa Nagaru’s Haruhi Suzumiya novels are in the home stretch, with the recent release of The Dissociation of Haruhi Suzumiya. It’s the first of a two-part story, to be concluded in the next and last novel, so I’ll hold off on a full review. There were, however, a few things I found interesting with this one.

The most obvious feature of this novel is that the narrative splits halfway through, and what occurs over the next few days differs significantly between the two versions. Though there is some overlap between the two, the differences aren’t subtle like, say, the “Endless Eight” story arc from a few volumes back. I don’t see any hint as to how these two parallel timelines may relate to each other, except that Kyon, our intrepid narrator, does mention not having encountered a slider yet near the beginning of the book. Is it time for one to finally appear?

Another thing is that every member of the SOS Brigade now has a counterpart, including Haruhi. The newly introduced Sasaki makes an interesting foil for her, though it’s not apparent at first that they have anything in common. Sasaki is far more reserved, formal, and logical-thinking than Haruhi. However, I suspect that Sasaki shares Haruhi’s dissatisfaction with how the world isn’t quite amazing. In a conversation Kyon remembers having with her a couple of years prior, she mentions that “Reality is not constructed the way your favorite movies, TV shows, novels, or comics are. And it’s unsatisfying.” She goes on to explain why fiction and reality can’t operate in the same way (and as a side note, her speech reminds me somewhat of Koizumi’s digressions), and later on she also says “I always want to be rational and logical, no matter the time or place. To accept reality as it is, emotional or sentimental thinking is nothing more than an obstruction.”

She’s so formal, though, that I suspect that this is just a mask, and other people sense this. Kunikida talks to Kyon about her briefly, and comments, “[W]hen people call me strange, I don’t understand it. But she does understand [when people call her ‘strange’], and she fits herself into that frame. I get the sense that she’s very careful not to go past its edges.” Why does she do this? My guess is that she’s had the same realisation of how mundane the world is, and how she’s a tiny part of it, but whereas Haruhi’s reaction is to rebel against the world, completely disregarding what others think, she’s decided to simply accept the world as it is.

Is one approach better than the other? I’d guess that that question will factor heavily in the next book, and I’m looking forward to reading what sort of answer Tanigawa provides.…

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Impressions of The Sea

Last week I read The Sea, by John Banville. I went into the book essentially blind; I didn’t know much about Banville and didn’t even know what the novel’s about, but an acquaintance whose opinion I highly respect recommended it to me, so I dove in quickly.

The Sea is narrated by a man whose wife is dying, and the novel jumps back and forth between scenes with her and their daughter in the present, and his memories of spending time with a family in a beach town where he spent much of his childhood. I enjoyed Banville’s writing style; he spends a lot of time describing the setting and characters, so the story feels very real. He seems to have taken a great deal of care in how he phrases each statement, choosing just the right words for what he describes and savouring each paragraph. The narrator’s speech, though, still sounds natural, like someone speaking deliberately, trying to convey an experience even as he himself can’t quite tell why it feels significant, as in the following passage:

A dream it was that drew me here. In it, I was walking along a country road, and that was all. It was in winter, at dusk, or else it was a strange sort of dimly radiant night, the sort of night that there is only in dreams, and a wet snow was falling. I was determinedly on my way somewhere, going home, it seemed, although I did not know what or where exactly home might be. There was open land to my right, flat and undistinguished with not a house or hovel in sight, and to my left a deep line of darkly louring trees bordering the road. The branches were not bare despite the season, and the thick, almost black leaves drooped in masses, laden with snow that had turned to soft, translucent ice.

At just under 200 pages, the novel is fairly short, but it’s slow paced. Not a lot really happens here; the story meanders about, occasionally stopping to linger over this or that scene, or detail of a place or person, like a man freely sharing his memories. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy the novel, even though there’s not much really wrong with it. Rather, I think I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get the most out of it. The Sea has a nostalgic sort of mood to it, and a reader probably needs to be in a nostalgic sort of mood himself to fully enjoy it.…

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Golding’s Golden Lord of the Flies

This past week, I read through William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for the first time. It’s been a few years since a book held my interest so firmly, and I made it through the novel quickly. It’s the sort of book that reminds me of why I love literature so much, being symbolic but not presumptuous, intense, and realistic. It does have a few problems, but overall I loved this novel.…

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Welcome to the NHK (Novel)

In his mostly autobiographical comic Disappearance Diary, Azuma Hideo notes that in order to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, he’d removed as much realism as possible from his book. Azuma’s dry humour and cartoony art style make what should be a depressing story about a man running away from his responsibilities and living homeless seem rather light-hearted and funny.

Author Takimoto Tatsuhiko, in the afterword to his novel Welcome to the NHK, notes that his book also has a fair amount of autobiography. NHK also has a depressing subject, a twenty-two year old college drop out living as a shut-in (Japanese: hikikimori). Like Disappearance Diary, there’s a dry sense of humour, but here it serves to sharpen, rather than dull, the story’s edge, and though well-written, that edge makes it a sometimes difficult book to read.…

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Impressions of The Sound and the Fury

So, I didn’t flunk out of any classes on the first day, but I did encounter another unprecedented situation.

In my American Modernism class, my professor told us that if we have the time we ought to read The Sound and the Fury now, even though it’s not due until later, so that we will have time to re-read it. Figuring that Faulkner’s novel must be quite the beast to warrant such advice, I took the time to read it once through.

After finishing my first read-through, overall I liked it. However, each of the four sections of the novel (each with a different narrator) generally improved as the novel continued. The last two were excellent. The first, however, I could not make heads or tails of.

Now, I don’t mind if a novel is difficult, but the first section is narrated by a retard (literally, not pejoratively). In Faulkner’s own words from a question-and-answer session with an undergraduate class, he is “incapable of relevancy.” Now, that’s a good way to start a novel, isn’t it? Set the theme with the character who can barely string two coherent thoughts together, much less relate an extended narrative. The second section, and to a much lesser extent the third, also wander around more than the typical novel, but are at least coherent. In fact, my greatest frustration of the novel is that, when Faulkner isn’t being deliberately obscure and just gives a (mostly) straight narrative, the book is compelling.

Interestingly, though, Faulkner himself may have had a similar opinion. In the same interview mentioned above (included in my Norton Critical Edition of the novel), Faulkner refers to the disjointed narrative of the first section as “part of the failure[…] that’s a bad way to do it.” He explains that, at the time he wrote the novel, he thought beginning with the idiot was the best way to lay the groundwork for the rest of the novel, but given the previous quote it seems he regretted the decision.…

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