Reading “The Corrections”

There are few works that have caused as much of an uproar in the last ten years as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.” I would mention Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” as one of the few game changers in literary work during the last decade, and Franzen would certainly be on that list as well.

Is “The Corrections” the novel of the decade? I wouldn’t say so. Is it a novel I would hope to read again in ten years without disappointment? I sure hope so.

Part of the beauty of Franzen’s work is the utter confidence with which he moves you through the narrative. If you go to the bookstore to check out the book, I urge you to read page eleven. I can’t really replicate it here because it’s a page-long sentence, but trust me when I say that it is worth your time to read this novel.

Saying that “The Corrections” is about family is like saying “Disgrace” is about a college professor. Franzen’s epic is more about expectations, parenting, decline and death, and what it takes to really love someone. He also kind of skews the familiar tale of the couple who have been happily married for almost fifty years.

There’s some random shit here, but it all works in concert to make something extraordinary. My only complaint is that the end, while it gives us wonderful closure for Alfred, Enid, and Chip, I felt like Denise and Gary get left behind in the dust of rushing through to the end. It’s not a big complaint, particularly because the novel really is about Alfred/Enid, but if I had an opportunity to see a different version of the end, I would have liked more info about Denise in particular.

Definitely a novel that is worth your time.

Sundance Day One – Restrepo (war is hell)

Day one of Sundance is now over, and it was quite interesting. Though we came at the absolute worst time of the week because all the films are showing next week, I still got to watch one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, “Restrepo.” I think many people felt the way I did about it, because after we left the screening, people looked, for lack of a better word, stricken and in despair.
The film, named after a soldier who is killed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, an area that was, for a time, called the deadliest place on earth, follows a platoon of combat infantry for one year through the first person perspective of two embedded journalists, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (they co-directed the film).
We don’t really know Restrepo. What we see at the beginning of the film is a video shot by Restrepo, in which he and three other members of the platoon are goofing off on a train heading to their deployment site, most likely in Italy. At the end of this short video (shot for family/friends back home), Restrepo says that when we next see him, he will be “going to war.”
We never physically see Restrepo again, though there are echoes of his presence throughout. Instead, we get a harrowing demonstration of one year in hell, during which the soldiers that Junger and Hetherington follow are constantly besieged by enemy fire, and in interviews conducted after their tour (15 months later), we see the emotional toll that their time in Korengal has taken on them.
The film is powerful because of its honest portrayal of what it means to be a soldier and, really, what it means to retain one’s sense of humanity when people around one are dying. There is very little violent content, and we never see who the soldiers are fighting (and neither do they), which is ironic. Perhaps we’ve seen too many violent films, because throughout the first twenty or so minutes, I had the sneaking desire to see someone actually get shot, which is a wholly disturbing idea.
A few touching moments stand out: a soldier who has just been involved in an act of hazing is told that “we’re making a man out of him” while a black lab puppy licks his hand. In another, three soldiers unabashedly dance to a pop song inside their makeshift barracks. A third, more tragic scene shows a soldier having an emotional breakdown on the battlefield while another tells him “Don’t look. You don’t want to look” in reference to another soldier (not Restrepo) who has just been killed. In a fourth, a post-tour interview in reference to the dead soldier, a soldier says “I wanted to cry but I couldn’t.” In a fifth, a soldier fixing the placement of a machine gun has a radio conversation with another soldier who asks about what kind of ranch he lives on, and whether it has “cows and stuff.”
We see glimpses of violence – a soldier with a blood stained back and hands, an IED exploding under a Humvee while the cameraman is inside, and a child inadvertently killed during a mission, but most important and profound are the testimonies of the men themselves, taken after the fact, in concert with the footage shot by Junger and Hetherington.
Films that stand alongside this one in terms of thematic structure and their ability to expose the humanity evident in every soldier: “Jarhead,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Platoon.” “Restrepo” is more subtle about its ends, but no less forceful.
Two quotes come to mind when I think about how best to sum up this film. One is from another Afghanistan film released last year, “Brothers,” in which the main character says, “Who was it that said only the dead have seen the end of war? I have seen the end of war. The question is, how do I go on living?”
The other quote is from Sebastian Junger, who was present with Hetherington at the premiere and answered a few questions. When asked about how people as citizens should go about helping these soldiers recover and readjust to society, he said that “no matter how you feel about the war, and no, war is not fun, no one should like it; no matter how you feel or what kind of political stance you have, just tell them you understand.”
This film goes a long way towards showing us how we can all understand.

Kazuo Ishiguro – “Never Let Me Go”

“She said they revealed your soul.”
“Did someone think we didn’t have souls?”
“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end, it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. […] But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.

I’m at a loss as to why Kazuo Ishiguro is not being read in English classes, at least not in any classes I’ve ever taken. He won the Booker Prize in 1989 for “The Remains of the Day,” which was later adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins. Three of his other novels, including “Never Let Me Go,” have been shortlisted for the Booker. It might be that he has a Japanese name (though he has actually lived in Britain since the age of 5) and, like Murakami, is deemed inaccessible or irrelevant by many American readers. Someone recently had this to say about an article featuring Ishiguro (the article was about how to write novels):

“Kazuo Ishiguro was interviewed. I want to start reading him. No, not because reading Murakami is becoming passé! Stupidtrendbookwhores. Anyways, he writes his first draft by hand. Bad ass.”

It is sad that people are comparing Ishiguro and Murakami by virtue of their being Japanese. That’s like saying you should read Atwood instead of reading Munro (you know, since they’re both Canadian). Anyway, Ishiguro and Murakami have entirely different subject matters and styles, so there’s no comparison. For me, Ishiguro is the better writer, mostly because of the subtle ways in which he translates meaning and develops plot, kind of like Atwood.

“Never Let Me Go” is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It nearly beats out “Disgrace” as one of my favorites this year. Strangely enough, “Never Let Me Go” is on TIME Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, but “Disgrace” isn’t. I can’t quite understand that, but oh well.

What is “Never Let Me Go” about? I can’t tell you. The premise is so tied to the plot that the back cover, which attempts to disguise the novel, literally gives you the barest of threads:

“From Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss.

As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules – and teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them so special – and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is another classic by the author of The Remains of the Day.”

Does that really tell you anything? No.

The novel is set in late 1990s England, though through flashbacks, Ishiguro moves the narration anywhere between the 60s and present time. The story is a coming of age saga revolving around three different kids: Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy (the narrator). Kathy is a thirty one year old carer who takes care of donors. Don’t ask me to explain that one. She and Ruth and Tommy grew up at Hailsham, and the novel is separated into three parts: part one deals with their early years at Hailsham, part two moves us closer to the present, with their departure into the real world, and part three brings us to the present time, where all three are reunited for a brief moment.

To be absolutely blunt, “Never Let Me Go” is a dystopian novel, firmly balanced on the shoulders of Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and Orwell’s “1984.” At its heart, the novel questions what it means to be human and how we should live our lives. It is also a love story and a mystery with no ultimate revelation. If I were to give a major spoiler, I would say it is most like one of Jodi Picoult’s novels, but for the literary, intelligent reader.

Ishiguro’s talent is letting the reader know what his narrator and the rest of the characters don’t. We are simultaneously told and not told, just like the students, what is going on. Before we are halfway through the novel, before one of the minor characters reveals the nature of the students’ special nature, the reader already knows. The only question, then, is how will the characters find out, and what happens afterwards? Ishiguro is a master of subtlety, and it shows clearly at the end, when all the small clues illuminate the larger picture of what it means to be alive and to create and to love and to really live.

I think part one and part three are superb. Part two becomes tiring due to Ishiguro’s use of flashback and having the narrator announce that something is important and then explaining it. You have to read through this part in order to get to the heartbreaking and agonizing conclusion. And what a conclusion it is, what an absolutely despairing outlook on the reality of what we choose to do for other people.

A measure of a good writer is the title he or she chooses for the work. In this respect, Ishiguro, much like Atwood, has struck gold. The title plays to all aspects of the novel: the love story, the dystopia, the mystery.

If you also look at the cover, you’ll see a spoiler (sort of). The cover was designed by Jamie Keenan, who’s done some great work.

This is one of the few novels that has made me cry. These characters try to live their lives and ultimately do live them, but to what purpose? Theirs are not the kinds of lives you would wish to live.

Final note: I could spoil this novel with one word, but I won’t. Don’t read Amazon reviews for this novel, because you will lose a major part of what it is about, the fear and tension of not knowing what happens next.

Adjectives I would use to describe this novel: devastating, elegiac, hopeful, heartbreaking

A review: Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin”

I’ve been reading Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” for several weeks now. It’s almost as long as Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” but except for its length, has nothing in common with that novel. I must say that it is one of the most astoundingly crafted novels in recent memory. It won the Booker Prize in 2000, the year after J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” won, and I believe that the committee made a fantastic decision with this one.

The novel concerns Iris Chase, the daughter of a Canadian industrialist who inherited a fortune by way of button factories. Iris has a sister named Laura who dies at the age of 25, leaving behind a science fiction novel titled “The Blind Assassin.” In fact, the first sentence of Atwood’s novel is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

The novel quickly moves from Iris’ autobiography, written in the present, when she is 85 years old, to excerpts of Laura’s novel, a story of a man and a woman who are having an affair. The interspersed narrative voices and historical details combine to create a rich image of pre- and postwar Canada.

Atwood’s structure is perfect. She begins with facts – newspaper clippings inserted into the narrative to give the reader concrete details about what happened. Somehow, though, the novel shows that the truth is completely subjective. As you read the novel, details are introduced in such subtle ways that it seems as though you already knew them.

I don’t know how Atwood wrote this. It is so tightly plotted that it isn’t just a matter of placing certain events in a certain order; it is the difference between saying that something happened, and giving the reader the ability to read between the lines. Halfway through the novel, I knew what happened at the end. The clues are all there. In this regard, the title is absolute genius. It gives you everything.

I think the biggest criticism of this novel is also its strongest point: I hate Iris. The novel shows her to be a naive, weak-willed individual who destroys everything she loves through inaction. She does not change at the end of the novel. She is frustrating and I think Atwood wrote her specifically to show the futility of doing nothing. I think this is a work of social criticism.