Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review - Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore
by Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel
2006 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I went into this novel with high hopes for two reason. The first was that I had never read a Japanese novel before; not even Tale of the Genji. I've read more than my share of manga but using it get a perspective on novelists is like looking at current superhero comics and trying to work out what the US literary scene is like. I have read novels from other Asian cultures so I was interested in how Murakami would use the medium and how it would compare. The other is that Haruki Murakami is one of the big names in literature at the moment. Big enough that I've heard some people seriously suggest a Nobel prize in literature could be in his future. Consequently I expected something special.

I have to say that I did get something special. Kafka on the Shore is a strange, dreamy novel. I was left at the end puzzling over it; trying to come to grips with the how and why of the story. It's going to stick in my mind for a long time to come. It's definitely not a novel for entertainment (though there are aspects of that); Kafka on the Shore is there to be interesting and intriguing. It is something to be examined and pondered.

Kafka is a fifteen year old boy with a pronouncement of doom hanging over his head. To escape his fate he runs away from home to hide on the far side of the country where he hides amid a special library. Nakata is an old man who lost part himself in his childhood. He lost his intelligence and literacy but gained supernatural abilities. Kafka's fate puts the two of them on a collision course dragging those around them along with them.

There's a lot of literature and mythology mixed up in their story. Fate in particular as a mythological theme is deeply engraved in it. This does mean that it helps to know your mythology when reading Kafka on the Shore. In particular there is an aspect of Japanese mythology which is important to understanding the conclusion and it never explained in the book. I wouldn't have even remembered it myself to put everything together except for the fact that I've run across the story in four different places in the past two months.

The novel rests securely on the shoulders of its characters. I almost called them "quirky" in my plot description but that doesn't do Murakami justice. There's a few off the wall characters but only the minor ones push the "Isn't that strange?" button. The others are simply richly drawn people each of whom is struggling with fate: recognizing it, running from it, accepting it, or dealing with its consequences.

Kafka himself is not a pleasant protagonist. He's a lost, confused child trying to grow up and often doing it the wrong way. At the same time he's interesting to read about because he is so broken. I never got the impression that the reader was supposed to sympathize with Kafka beyond his desire to escape a bad fate and his confusion. That makes it more effective in my view than trying to justify his behavior to the reader.

The plot itself left me bewildered at the end. It drifts through the book giving the reader moments where the direction is clear but for the most part things happen and run together. I have to give the weight to the character arcs for making the Kafka on the Shore interesting instead of the plot developments which play out as afterthoughts.

I have to mention Philip Gabriel's translation as an exceptional peice of work on its own. It is a monumental achievement to take the Japanese text to English and giving the work a distinctive tone that helps carry the reader through it's strange landscapes.

Kafka on the Shore is a strange book. I can't propperly describe it and do it justice. It is an exceptional novel that I am going to be left considdering possibly for the rest of my life and it has definitely left me with a desire to read more from Haruki Murakami.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Review - Tooth and Claw

Tooth and Claw
by Jo Walton
2004 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

There's a lesson to be learned in books like Tooth and Claw. This novel is a book about a society of dragons and how their biology drives certain behaviors. It takes its plot from nineteenth century romance novels and justifies the strange behaviors as part of dragon biology. That's an interesting concept and yet Walton doesn't managed to turn it into an interesting book. The lesson is, of course, that ideas are not novels.

A family of dragons gathers for the death of their patriarch where a misunderstanding over the inheritance leads to conflict between most of the family and the in-laws. One unmarried sibling must live with her social climbing sister and wicked husband while another is shamed by the sexual advances of a priest. One of the poor sons sues his rich brother-in-law over the inheritance and the other son cannot reveal the truth that would resolve the case without shaming himself. Naturally all of these plot threads collide.

I suppose I should say at this point that I didn't hate Tooth and Claw. My problems with the book essentially come down to it being as bland as a saltine cracker. There's nothing that terminally annoyed me but at the same time there was nothing that thrilled me. Most of what I would consider flaws in it can be excused since they develop from the form that Walton is mimicking but at the same time she never manages to draw me in.

The prose is a good example of what I mean. Walton tells the reader directly that the plot of the novel comes from nineteenth century literary conventions but she is half-hearted in using that influence. She uses completely modern prose that's very terse and is completely lacking in poetry. That's a fine style for some stories but Walton is mimicking romance novels (that's "romance" as in the literary style not "romance" in terms of love story). Compare Tooth and Claw to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell which won the World Fantasy Award next year and you'll see how the latter book completely embraced that style and was a better book as a result.

Without completely embracing that style it makes the limitations of the plot stand out. There's lucky coincidences, multiple deus ex machinas, and a leisurely pace that completely lacks tension. Those are things that Walton took from her source along with other things that are plot contrivances with humans that she incorporated into her dragons. I can't hold these problems against Tooth and Claw since they were intentional and yet they clash due to the fact that Walton chose to use a modern style for so much of the book.

There are other problems with the plot separate from Walton's mixed signals. There's a particularly ugly attack of expository dialog at the beginning that's just terrible. Walton avoids making the rest of the exposition as bad as a son explaining dragon society to his own father lying on his deathbed but there's a lot of clumsy exposition. At a few points Walton puts out the idea in the narration that Tooth and Claw is a book by a dragon written for dragons which makes these pieces of sloppy exposition worse.

The formula that Walton chose to follow also interferes with the reader's ability to connect with her characters. Again this is not necessarily a flaw since she chose to depict dragons in a society that is very different from humanity. The problem is that she doesn't manage to connect her biologically driven caricatures back to the human reader. I can overlook character development I would consider abrupt and jumpy in a human but I never cared about any of the characters.

So with Tooth and Claw I'm left looking at a book that was an interesting idea that the execution never managed to match. It's a book that I just couldn't care about one way or the other. While my criticisms may be deflected by Walton's concepts she doesn't manage to put anything interesting beyond that concept into the book.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review - "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge", "At the Rialto", and "Ripples in the Dirac Sea"

It's time to wrap up the 1980's for those Nebula winning short stories and it's a quirky set of tales this time. Both of my unread winners from 1989 were focused on quantum physics in a way that isn't normally dealt with in SF. As for the other story I think it's obvious right from the start that one of Morrow's biblical reworkings will be odd.

I have finished my collection of the Nebula Awards/Winners anthologies and I have to double check from this point on if the stories I want are in the Nebula Showcase volumes since several of that newer series lack that year's winners. The anthologies were not easily available in hard covers; nearly all of my set are former library books and several show some extreme signs of wear.

"Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge"
by James Morrow
1988 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

As the world floods to wipe out an evil humanity Noah and his family are safely aboard their own boat. A few days into the deluge something unforeseen happens: they pick up a survivor, a whore who contains all the terrible things that were being washed from humanity. Since the flood was intended to kill everyone should they fulfill that purpose or show mercy?

If you've read Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah then you'll find this story much the same only condensed. To his credit Morrow glosses over the ludicrous nature of the flood and goes straight for the moral implications. The story has at its heart that interesting question of what is the right choice to appease an angry god that contradicts themselves? There was a small misstep where the whore shifted into some very modern psychological concepts in making her argument. I can accept 600 year old men building boats containing two of every species to deal with a flood that covers the planet for a story but a prostitute from 3000 BC suddenly talking like a college student from 1988 strikes a sour note for me. Still I think on the whole the story works well.

"At the Rialto"
by Connie Willis
1989 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

At a conference for quantum physicists held in Hollywood nothing goes right. Half the attendees are more interested in seeing the town, the presenters are missing more often then they are there, and the hotel staff is clueless. One physicist tries to keep things on track but finds herself become distracted by the prospect of love.

I'll get the nice things out of the way fast: this is a comedic story by Connie Willis so it's light, fluffy, and fun. It has its charm and if you like Willis at all then you'll almost certainly enjoy this story. There is an ugly aspect to it, though. Willis makes "At the Rialto" about how no one really understands quantum physics and while I personally only grasp the big concepts I know a few physicists who would feel a bit insulted at the idea that they don't understand their field. You only have to look at the short story winner from the same year to realize that at least some people understand some aspects of it. So I can't agree with her message or her conclusion but I appreciated the ride along the way.

"Ripples in the Dirac Sea"
by Geoffrey A. Landis
1989 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Consider the possibility of time travel in a universe where cause and effect cannot be broken. The traditional way to deal with this is the method of the ancient greeks; the universe is fated to be a certain way and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Landis looks to quantum theory and gives us time travel where any changes made are written in sand that is washed away when time rolls back over them. His time traveller can do anything he wants because when he catches up to his point of departure his changes are wiped away; a universe that only exists because one person is there to observe it. Landis does cheat a bit since if the hypothesis he was expanding on is true then the time travelers could not even retain memories of his voyage but I can't hold that against him since it allows him to tell a story about a the painful complications of a very different kind of time travel.

That's as much of a plot summary as I'll give on "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" since part of its impact is how those complications play out for its narrator. The story is a fascinating hard SF take on what is usually a soft topic and it is very effective.