Wednesday 26 October 2011

An unlikely trio

Another round-up, my friends! I'm looking forward to soon finding the time for writing round-ups of one. Today, three books that in no way belong together form the subject of my early morning musings. (Actually, it's not that early; it's almost 9:30 ayem as I begin writing this. I woke up late. Yesterday, I gymmed for an hour and then later had an hour-long swimming lesson. I feel both very strong and very tired today.)

Last week, I finished reading China Miéville's fat novel Perdido Street Station. I can't give you a plot summary without telling you the whole story, so I won't even try. Some generalities: it's fantasy completely sans swords but not sorcery (but no funny hats or wands are involved), it's sci-fi, it's an excellent example of literary world-building, it's absolutely full of disturbing and bad shit.

Perdido Street Station is almost 700 pages of trouble going down. For a long while, I loved the perpetual climax (crisis!) of the plot but 300+ pages of unremitting tension started to wear on me a little by the end. China Miéville, who is lovely because he looks like a bouncer but has a PhD from the London School of Economics and a vocabulary at least 10 times larger than most people's, is also generally a very good writer. As I noted in my review of The City & The City, I really admire his ability to write compelling fiction in a semi-academic "voice"; I honestly don't know how he manages to make this work, but he does, and that's my third reason for adoring him.

But I didn't adore Perdido Street Station, at least not as a whole. And my biggest complaint about the book is something I'm not sure is, in fact, a problem with the book; it might very well be only a reflection of the limitations of my being a Bear of Very Little Brain. This is the problem: I kind of hate descriptions of the physical context of a story. I like some very basic information to set the stage, and then my own brain takes over and aggressively creates its own set of visuals. This compulsion was set repeatedly in conflict with Mieville's extensive, rich, and unending details about the physical aspects of the world he creates; unfortunately, all his information couldn't silence my own notions of how things looked and so I suffered from a mild but persistent headache the whole time I was reading this book. Also, and this is a much smaller issue but it grated on me more and more as I neared the book's conclusion: the word "architecture" was so over-used it started to make me feel crazy. With a vocabulary bigger than god's boots, I know Mieville needn't have relied so heavily on this one word.

These seem like pretty minor problems, yes. Indeed, much of the book was wonderful, fantastic. But there is one major problem with Perdido Street Station that doesn't seem minor to me at all, but which I can't reveal here as it occurs at the very end of the book and to discuss it in any detail would be to blow the whole plot up in the air. But I will say this: Isaac's reasons are damned stupid, because the moral bind Miéville puts him is a total cop-out. That said, I'm still desperate to read Kraken.

Next up was a collection of short stories edited by Kenzaburo Oe: The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath. In terms of historical, archaeological reflection this is an excellent collection as it covers writers of different ages, experiences, and gender. As a literary collection, it is wildly uneven and the only reason I see this is a problem is that, given how rich Japan's literary history is, I just can't imagine it was actually necessary to choose historical variety over artistic merit.

Indeed, stories by Tamiki Hara and especially Hiroko Takenishi's "The Rite" were literarily amazing which, of course, lent much greater poignancy and pathos to the historical moments they addressed. These two recognized, or at least were able to articulate, that the physical calamity of the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II was only the beginning; that the emotional, familial, social, mental calamities would go deeper and last much, much longer. So, this book was also not all it could have been, but I'm incredibly grateful to have been introduced to two excellent Japanese writers I hadn't before known of.

And to make it three partial disappointments in a row, there's Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, which I finished yesterday. I keep reading Roddy Doyle but the fact is, I think I've actually only really loved one of his novels so far: The Snapper. All his books have great moments, and sometimes those great moments are lengthy. But his writing style is so set, his approach so uniform that even different topics come out looking pretty similar. All his characters speak exactly the same way.

I've concluded that Roddy Doyle is quite good at what he does, but he only does one thing. Or, he sort of does two things: funny books and not funny books, but the writing style and voice issues remain problems, and so it's really just one thing. And that one thing is lower middle class Dubliners screwing shit up and having tough lives. The question is simply whether or not there will be laughs involved.

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is about one Paula Spenser, a woman with an abusive husband and a problem with the bottle. There are some truly powerful moments in this novel; indeed, I found myself tearing up on the subway train yesterday. But I already can't remember why; Doyle's style just isn't strong enough, on the whole, to find any purchase in either my short- or long-term memories. I'll still read the sequel, Paula Spenser, just to find out what happens though; if Doyle's writing isn't memorable, it's easy and sometimes that's what's required.

Being such a negative Nelly isn't enjoyable for me either, by the way. But it's mid-morning and it's as dark outside as midnight during the apocalypse; sprightly blog writing simply can't occur under such conditions.


andrew said...

That's a really interesting reaction Colleen! I'm a huge Miéville fanboy, having read all his books except his political thesis, and I heart Perdido in a big way, but even I can't deny that it's a bit messy. You might actually enjoy Iron Council or The Scar more, as they are set in the same universe, but are more tightly focused. I think Iron Council is one of his most underrated books actually--its prose style is a little different in spots and quite rewarding.

But Kraken is a total blast. It's like China's version of a Terry Pratchett book in some ways. Also, I suspect it may have been influenced by Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, it sort of plays like a less dense, more madcap version of that kind of tangle of conspiracies--only with real craziness.

Trapunto said...

This was the first and only Meville I gave a really good try (was not able to give King Rat a good try). I liked it not at all. Partly the descriptive habits you mention, partly the Urbano-centrism of his world-building which I know is just me, I tend to find that claustrophobic in a boring way. And yet Meville always seemed like one of those writers I *would* enjoy. What would you recommend for a third try?