Friday, October 29, 2010

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark's "old people" novel from 1959 has dozens of major characters, and we jump in and out of every one of their consciousnesses, at one point or another.

Most of the charcters are elderly, living in retirement homes or in their homes, but in their seventies and eighties. Spark's touch with them is gentle: it is not the first thing you find out about them, that they are aged. Instead, you got an insight from their perspective, a perception that does not seem to come from a feeble or senile mind.

The central plot element of the novel is an anoymous caller who telephones each of the old people at one point or another to tell them, "Remember that you must die." The police are called in, and various theories about the identity of the caller are propounded. But his voice, accent, age and inflection differ for each person; he seems to know where each person has recently been, and so the wise (and elderly) former detective on the case, by novel's end, is forced to surmise that the caller is Death himself.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima

A powerful, beautiful, brutal book. As if reading it for the first time, I was stunned by it. (I went through, or thought I went through, an intense Mishima obsession as an undergraduate back during the Grover Cleveland administration, but can't be sure of anything from that period, it seems.) The point of view shifts throughout the book between the three main characters, the sailor Ryuji, the widow Fusako and her 13 year old son Noboru, but the reins are held by a cool and fatalistic omniscient narrator. The sailor and the widow fall in love during the sailor's leave, one summer, and the son watches their lovemaking from inside his dresser cabiner in his room, through a crevice in a wallboard.

Mishimi's language is at once strikingly metaphorical and disturbingly concrete. The sailor's memories of the sea, transmiited to Noboru, take on a deadly chant-like rhythm, as the sailor realizes he will put the sea behind him and marry the widow, giving up the highs and lows of the dramatic, and sometimes monotonous, ocean, for the peace and living-death of a comfortable marriage. (He was dealing here with no ocean squall but the gentle breeze that blows ceaselessly over the land.)

For the boy, this is ultimately a betrayal of the canon of his gang of friends, led by the psychotic "Chief," who instructs the rest of the gang in a grisly system of nihilism and existenialism that renounces almost everything in the world as worthless. "Except for the ocean, and a couple other things," the chief says at one point. "Ships," Noboru adds hopefully. "Maybe ships," the chief replies. The widow moves between the two men, tending to her clothing store, hoping to replace her dead husband and thus further "care" for her son, overjoyed to end her five year loneliness as a widow.

Friday, October 15, 2010

You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon

By the author of Await Your Reply. This is his first book and a very good one, if a bit long. It's an examination of two young men, separated at birth: the older brother given up for adoption by the troubled mother, who then has the second child and vows to keep him and make up for her first grievous loss by hanging on to him. In many ways, it's an inversion of the standard view that the child given up for adoption is the loser, for in this case, though the adopted son has struggles of his own, he is a joyful case compared with the son who is kept, who watches his mother disintegrate via substance abuse and severe depression, and eventually takes her own life. The younger son strikes out to find his older brother, a small-time marijuana dealer who has done time, but who marries (if badly) and has a son whom he worships.

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