April 5, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 5 April 2012

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

The Snow Whale, by

The Snow Whale
By John Minichillo
Atticus Books

Of all the different types of contemporary novels out there, perhaps my favorite is the "Michael-Chabon-type" one (for lack of a better term), in which an academic attention to style and craft is applied to a fast-moving, often wackiness-infused plot; and the latest volume I've read to fit this bill is John Minichillo's The Snow Whale, a delightfully dark and smart comedy that's sure to appeal to fans of Karen Russell, Jonathan Franzen, and other urban-hipster types. The story of a sad-sack corporate manager stuck in a loveless marriage in the bland suburbs, our tale kicks off when he completes one of those trendy home DNA tests one day and surprisingly learns that he has a significant amount of Inuit blood in him; then after learning that the diminishing actual Inuit population in northern Alaska are still allowed by law to hunt whales once a year with literal canoes and hand-thrown harpoons, he decides that this is just the thing he needs to shake him out of his middle-class white-guy malaise, declaring to his bewildered wife and neighbors his intention to participate in this year's whale hunt, but not before impulsively hiring an inner-city black kid known only as Q (who he accidentally meets after almost getting mugged in a bad neighborhood one night) to be his assistant and the producer/director of a low-budget documentary Q will shoot about the trip, forced to pretend to be the lily-white man's mixed-race son in order to be legally allowed in the canoes in the first place.

Much like T.C. Boyle's Drop City, then, the rest of this cynically funny story is essentially a comedy of errors, as Minichillo hops back and forth between the two equally dysfunctional environments, laying the groundwork for them eventually coming crashing together -- not just our protagonist's struggles over his "Iron John Moment" in an environment determined to crush it (with even the employees at the overpriced REI store at the mall warning him that he will almost certainly be killed if he goes), but with an equal amount of scenes set in the crumbling small Alaskan town where the bored, alcoholic Inuit live, the main conflict there being between the half-senile tribal "leader" who relishes the idea of this clueless white guy's help on what he's decided is going to be a suicide run during his very last whale hunt, and his pragmatic, exasperated middle-aged son who can only picture the decades' worth of lawsuits that would arise from such a thing -- the story itself turning into a much more straightahead action-adventure in the second half once the whale hunt actually begins, with an ending that I'll let remain a surprise but let's just say is unexpected and highly satisfying. It's a dry humor to be sure, but one I found really engaging (take for example the military submarine trackers stationed at the edge of town, and the ongoing bets they have with the Russian sailors they're "spying" on over who will win each new subsequent round of American Idol), and I can confidently state that this will be right up the alley of McSweeney's fans and other lovers of wry, dark, world-weary character-based comedies. It comes strongly recommended in that spirit, and has a good chance at this point of making CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year.

Out of 10: 9.3

Watch the Doors as They Close

Watch the Doors as They Close
By Karen Lillis
Spuyten Duyvil

(IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE: About a year ago, the author of this book wrote a complimentary article about CCLaP for her personal blog, although in no way was this done in expectation of a good review in return. Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind when reading this write-up.)

Knowing what I do about author Karen Lillis, I had been sort of gritting my teeth in expectation of reviewing this latest novella by her; because to be frank, this academically-minded former bookstore employee has a habit at her popular blog of championing the kinds of abstract, highly experimental work that I have a low tolerance for, and I was afraid that this was going to be the case as well with this newest slim volume of hers. But the good news is that this is actually a highly readable, engaging and entertaining story, essentially a deep character study of one of those douchbaggy, intellectually bullying, constantly mooching "artist dudes" that otherwise smart women seem to constantly fall for, written entirely as a series of reminisces from one of these smart women and examining all the sneaky ways that such guys manage to burrow under such women's skin. As such, then, potential readers shouldn't expect anything even resembling a traditional three-act plot, but rather should be prepared to enjoyably wallow in Lillis' casual, unhurried prose style, the point not really to find out "what happens" but rather to get a complex inside-out understanding of just what makes such Proust-quoting underachievers tick, jumping randomly from location to location around the world but admittedly at its Romantic finest (with a capital R) when looking at the characters' time spent in a deliberately precious contemporary Paris, cliched days of staying on back cots at Shakespeare's Books and pretending that poor artists still hang out in the Left Bank, but effective and moving nonetheless. A perfect companion to Ann Beattie's Walks with Men (covering the exact same subject but set in early-'80s lower Manhattan), this will strongly appeal to fans of New Yorker stories and other intriguing blends of academic and mainstream work, and it comes recommended to that specific audience.

Out of 10: 8.8

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

1Q84
By Haruki Murakami
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

It was an ex-girlfriend in the 1990s who introduced me to the early work of Haruki Murakami, which has made me a big fan ever since; so needless to say that I've been looking forward to the English release of his massive new epic 1Q84, a three-book sensation in his native Japan which was released as a literal thousand-page tome here in the US last October. But alas, after finally finishing it last week, I became acutely aware of just how long it's been since I've stayed abreast of his latest work (besides the slim After Dark from 2007, I haven't actually read any of his new books since 1997's life-changing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle); because not to put too fine a point on it, but 1Q84 is f-cking terrible, and it makes me wonder now if Murakami has been slowly devolving over the early 2000s to this terrible point, or if this is yet another case of an aging writer deciding that he's going to write his Grand Unforgettable Saga and then simply not being up to the task.

Essentially a short story padded out to twenty times its natural length, it tells the intertwined tales of a number of people in 1984 Tokyo as they are affected by a group of malicious spirits known as The Little Ones: there's the serially raped teenage-girl runaway from an apocalyptic cult that gets its cues from these spirits, for example, who has written a tell-all book about her experiences disguised as a Murakamiesque bizarro tale; there's the young novelist who was secretly hired to turn this raw manuscript into a mainstream-friendly book, which has now become a huge bestseller; and then there's his old childhood sweetheart who he hasn't seen in twenty years, a gym instructor who also happens to be a professional assassin, charged by her rich, elderly client with killing only men who abuse women, and making it look like a natural death so that the battered wives will receive the full amount of the life insurance. And granted, that's a very Murakami-sounding setup, especially when you add such strange random details as emergency stairs on the side of an elevated highway that lead to an alternative universe, magical cocoons made out of thin air that contain soul-dead doppelgangers of ourselves, and sexual obsessions over things like big ears and balding men.

But instead of weaving this together in his trademark memorable way, which in his '80s and '90s work feels like you're glimpsing some sort of Grimm-like grand cultural mythology that's been mostly forgotten over the centuries, Murakami here plods forward with no subtlety as if he were writing some supermarket-aisle horror potboiler; and then what makes this turn from merely bad to freaking intolerable is what I said before, that the story itself is so thin that most chapters exist solely and exclusively just to get across one single plot point (you know, like a bad JJ Abrams television show that makes you sit through an hour of mediocre crime drama each week, just so that you can learn officially one more thing about the show's mysteries in the last thirty seconds); and with Murakami maintaining the infuriating habit over an entire thousand pages of having a second character literally repeat every single line a first character is telling them, literally so that he can double the length of the book without having to come up with double the story. (Or to misquote The Simpsons: "The key to comedy is repetition." "The key to comedy is repetition?" "The key to comedy is repetition!") And meanwhile, what was promised to be complex references to the concepts introduced in George Orwell's 1984 amounts basically to a couple of characters every hundred pages or so remarking, "Hey, have you ever read George Orwell's 1984? That's a weird book, isn't it!"; and sadly, this book also continues the troubling tradition among contemporary Japanese literature in general of coming up with creative justifications for including scenes of graphic rape of teenage girls (in this case by arguing that the teenage girls being raped here are actually ghosts, and it's okay to write fetishistically detailed ten-page descriptions of teenage girls being raped when they're ghosts!).

A book that would've actually been okay if not so-so if published as 200 pages, it's unforgivable at a thousand, and its breathless embrace by the academic world simply proves once again just how full of sh-t the academic world is. The good news is that this novel has inspired me to put The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on reserve at my local library, so I can read it again for the first time in fifteen years and see whether my twentysomething memories of it have been playing tricks on me, a review of which will be coming later this year; but the bad news is that, anyway you look at it, 1Q84 is a major and bitter disappointment from what used to be one of the most clever and original writers on the planet, and it does not come recommended.

Out of 10: 6.9

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:56 PM, April 5, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |