Saturday, December 26, 2009

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

"Nocturnes" opens with a haunting short story, "Crooner," which for me is the best of this collection. "Crooner" gives us vividly what is best in Ishiguro's fiction - his ability to draw characters and his use of carefully concealed information - sometimes from the reader, sometimes from his characters.

The narrator is a musician in Venice who grew up in Eastern Europe under communism. During a set, he sees a popular cabaret singer whose career has seen better days sitting at a table. The narrator introduces himself, expecting a hasty greeting followed by a tactful exit. Instead, he finds himself invited into the singer's life and, subsequently, his troubled marriage.

In "An Artist of the Floating World," Ishiguro gave us the portrait of an artist recounting his life, artfully and obliviously concealing his involvement in wartime Japan's martial culture. The artist's spiritual twin is Stephens, the butler of "The Remains of the Day," who is unaware or unwilling to admit his employer's complicity in appeasement with the Nazis or his love of the head housekeeper. Ishiguro's characters are human beings who live by, because of, and imprisoned in their own illusions.

The narrator of "Crooner," however, draws a few conclusions, as does the reader about Tony Gardner, our seemingly forgotten singer who dreams of a Tony Bennett-like comeback. The narrator also gives a few words of encouragement as he assists Gardner in a midnight serenade of his wife from a Venice canal. But not everything is what it seems. Just as the narrator's mother was a "prisoner" of communism and lost love, it is apparent that either Gardner or his wife Lindy too are prisoners of something, whether it be lost fame or love. Figuring out which is left up to the reader.

Ishiguro's characters in this story, as in the other stories of this book, are adequately described in one story as "well-intentioned mediocrities" - people who are in the grip of music and hover just on the borders of notoriety or popularity. There is an appreciation both for the arrogance of the musician, and the humility playing music demands from its practitioners. As in the final story, "Cellists," we hear from the same narrator as "Crooner," who tells of another friend in a relationship that is not quite love. A cellist meets a woman he believes to be a virtuoso, but instead is someone who hasn't played in years because she doesn't wish to "damage her gift" with the well-intentioned mediocrity of a teacher. What in another writer's hands would be a tiresome crank becomes a character of beauty and, of course, blissful ignorance.

Ishiguro's other stories toy with humor giving action that sometimes feels forced but entertaining. When a character begins describing a fascination he has with a female dentist, the explanation made me laugh for several minutes uncontrollably. It is good to see him occasionally straying out of the darkness, but it is there that he, like the crooners of old, is able to work his old black magic.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Twilight: New Moon by Stephanie Meyer

Fall in love with someone, and you fall in love with them in time. Whatever they experienced in the past makes up who they are. The present is wrapped up in the life of the other. The future, presumably, is about the constant renewal and tending of that love. Even a temporary relationship entails a marriage of sorts - circumstances and ambitions bound together, for whatever reason, for however long.

Having spun out a love story in "Twilight," Stephanie Meyer then has to necessarily expand the universe she created into a larger world. Simple stories, like simple organisms, must at some point grow in order to survive. A love affair between a teenage girl and a vampire caught forever between his teen and adult years may go on, but for how long? When Bella, the teenage narrator of "New Moon" asks early in the novel, "What's so great about mortality?" she is angry that her love, Edward Cullen, will not transform her into a vampire, presumably to share immortality with her. Her ambition is that the love she feels for Edward go on, and not be tainted by age or circumstance.

But an unwelcome reminder of Bella's humanity drives Edward to leave - for her sake - and unwittingly triggers the next step in the story: Bella's association with Jacob, the werewolf guardian. Jacob appeared briefly in "Twilight" and planted the seed of the enmity between the werewolves and the "cold ones" - the Cullen vampire clan. Bella, caught between Edward and Jacob, of course chooses Edward. But this sets in motion her meeting the Volturi, an ancient group of vampires who require that she eventually become one of the undead.

Confession: I did not enjoy "New Moon" as much as "Twilight," frankly. Bella's birthday party, cut short by the accidental spilling of her blood, seemed forced, in light of "Twilight's" climax when Bella's blood was everywhere. The extended period during which Bella sleepwalks through life after Edward's departure went on much too long, and was wisely cut short by the makers of the movie. (They also introduced an e-mail correspondence between Bella and Alice which helped move the story forward.) The writing also seemed rushed - it would be nice if Stephanie Meyer could find some other word to describe Edward besides "beautiful," over and over and over. Word choices are often overwrought and overly dramatic. I also was put off by the almost camp attitude of the characters toward their supernatural surroundings. "Sure, I had a lot on my mind - revenge-obsessed vampires, giant mutant wolves..." Bella observes, before asking:

"What kind of a place was this? Could a world really exist where ancient legends went wandering around the borders of tiny, insignificant towns, facing down mythical monsters? Did this mean every impossible fairy tale was grounded somewhere in absolute truth?...Wasn't one myth enough for anyone, enough for a lifetime?"

It's in the best interests of a writer of the fantastic not to ask a question like this, not to point to the zipper down the monster's back and ask the audience not to notice.

Having said that, there was many things I enjoyed. As I said, for this story to go on, it has to grow. And Meyer gives us a higher vampire hierarchy and the idea of something even beyond immortality. When Bella and Carlisle begin to speak of the hereafter for vampires, she reminds us of why we were originally spellbound by Edward - his fallen angel character, the idea that he might be redeemed, presumably by Bella's love. We also have Jacob, a reluctant (teenage!) werewolf who takes on the guardianship of his people, and presumably, Bella.

Reading these books, the phrase that pops to mind is courtly love - and it probably comes from the inspirations for these two stories - "Pride and Prejudice" and "Romeo and Juliet." Passion burns sweetly, but only so long as it is passion and nothing more. Bliss is eternal, if not confused with the day-to-day business of love. Anyone can look like a god as long as you don't have to watch him pick his teeth after a meal. Which is why these books have attained their status in culture - they're safe. Vampires who hunt animals and only attack other vampires, werewolves who attack vampires and not humans, and a woman caught between the two of them. "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds..."

It is also a mark of the author's ambition when she tackles the eternal, as she does in the words of Carlisle. "But never, in the nearly four hundred years now since I was born, have I ever seen anything to make me doubt whether God exists is some form or the other. Not even the reflection in the mirror."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov

The subtitle of this posthumous novel is "Dying Is Fun," and one senses the sarcasm even from beyond the grave among the bones of this work. Nabokov, as he succumbed to a host of ailments toward the end of his life, left "The Original of Laura" with his family to destroy - the first draft of a novel scrawled on 138 index cards, which are faithfully reproduced for the reader after decades of indecision by Nabokov's family. Index cards, we are told, because Nabokov liked to arrange and rearrange his passages as the mood hit him.

One sees, upon a first reading, why Nabokov might have wanted to spare the public this work in progress. It is hard to divine just where he was headed, what he might have changed, what he might have expanded upon. What is here is only the barest outline of a plot - a young woman named Flora becomes the subject of a novel as she is prisoner in a lifeless, loveless marriage. Beyond that, it's difficult to judge where he intended to go. Scenes are only barely sketched in. Extended dialogue is scarce. This is only the beginning of birth pangs.

What is here is interesting, nonetheless. There are typical Nabokovian puns and putdowns - observations such as how people seem to stare with "nasty compassion," or how an aging child molester died of a stroke in an elevator - "going up, one would like to surmise." We get the opinion that Malreux and Mishima, among other writers, "could get away with the most excreble writing, provided they represent their times." The introduction proves that this kind of literary snobbery did not die with the author but is alive and well with Nabokov's son, Dimitri, who wrote the forward.

And that makes the whole business tantalizing enough. I found myself wishing there were just a little more flesh here among the bones. It is nearly impossible to see what Nabokov meant by some of this. For example, would he have retained the name Hubert H. Hubert for one of his characters, which seems such an uninspired homage to "Lolita?" While Nabokov's style is evident here, it is not fluid and not constant throughout. The total is occasionally as indicipherable as his handwriting.

But this is clear: much of the book deals with self-destruction. From what we know about the state of his health just before his death, this would have been a welcome subject for Nabokov, as it is for his narrator. What few observations are intact among these pages deal with losing toes, limbs, and the welcome effects of oblivion:

"I hit upon the art of thinking away my body, my being, mind itself. To think away thought - luxurous suicide, delicious dissolution! Dissolution, in fact, is a marvelously apt term here, for as you sit relaxed in this comfortable chair (narrator striking its armrests) and start destroying yourself, the first thing you feel is a mounting melting from the feet upward...(card ends)."

Christianity, critics often charge, has been too obsessed with the body, or its negation. Those who take it too literally, we are told, pay too much attention to covering up the body in unseemly modesty, or placing too much hope in the promise of resurrection and not enough on the here and now. Explanations for everything from the rise of obesity in America to perceived Republican indifference to the hungry and poor have been wrapped up in such criticisms. Nabokov's novel (and the circumstances under which it was written) reminds us that the inescapable fact of life is that it is not eternal, in this reality at any rate. The very fact that this novel is not finished, that the intelligence that created it has been gone for thirty years, is enough to drive that point home.

But much of who we are is wrapped up in our bodies, and warped by them. When we are most beautiful, we may be simultaneously powerful and vulnerable. Age showers us with the wisdom of experience at the exact moment we become spectators instead of actors. Bodies break, and the spirits within them do as well. Shuffling the cards may change the organization, but the ending is always the same, written or unwritten. This is an unpleasant truth, but it means that unlike another posthumous author's work - Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" - the ending, and the culprit, has already been divulged.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Much of the first book in Meyer's vampire romance series, strangely enough, is concerned with images of imprisonment and living up to expectations. From the very beginning of "Twilight," Bella Swan is happy "to be left alone, not to have to smile and look pleased" around her father. Later on, she remarks about her new hometown of Forks, "You could never see the sky here; it was a like a cage."

There are several reasons for this, of course - Bella is a teenager, the new kid in a sleepy, dreary town who feels abandoned by her mother, and misplaced with her father, who never has recovered from his broken marriage. But as we will soon find, Bella is the hunted, the prey "staring into the dark eyes of the hunter," her love, the 100-year-old vampire Edward Cullen, forever sentenced to be a teenager.

I was suspicious of "Twilight" for several reasons, not the least of which its omnipresent nature in the national consciousness. Every trip to the bookstore means passing a massive table with all four of the Twilight novels as well as their movie spawn, Meyer's "The Host," and teen picture magazines with Robert Pattinson. But also, the book's premise made me slightly suspicious. The vampire in literature- Dracula, obviously - represents evil. Not merely in the creature's bloodlust, since that equates the vampire with the animal outside of human morality, killing for survival. But the vampire represents a perversion of nature - the undead, apart from salvation. The idea of a teenage romance with a vampire, on its face, made me think on our culture in general, shaking hands with evil and attempting to "understand" it, even excuse it. We live in a world where Hitler's self-serving stories of beatings as a child are sometimes used to illustrate the dangers of child abuse, as Ron Rosenbaum remarked. Such easy explanations not only seem to wish for an understanding of evil, but offer it an excuse.

But "Twilight" is closer to romance than the supernatural; a redressing of the standard teenage narrative of the girl who tries to "save" her dangerous boyfriend. The characters are sometimes obvious but just edgy enough to be interesting. Bella is a snarky but basically good girl with a few cynical observations thrown in for depth. Edward is a vampire, but he's a "good" vampire who lives off the blood of animals rather than humans. He's environmentally conscious. He tells Bella she is better off staying away from him, yet saves her life. His warning - "What if I'm not the super hero? What if I'm the bad guy?" - points to something else. All of these qualities are sometimes ludicrous and amusing but necessary for the story to work.

I could have done without the multiple reminders of how "beautiful" Edward is, but Edward Cullen is a close cousin to Milton's Lucifer, with a little of Anne Rice's poet vampires mixed in. But whereas Lucifer is a beautiful being who chooses rebellion against God, Edward awakens during the influenza epidemic of the 1910s to find his life transformed into something immortal and infernal. There is an absurdist quality to it, since Edward feels he should have died nearly a century earlier; The vampire who asks, "Why am I still here?" is also a prisoner, though of something much worse than teenage angst. This self-loathing makes Edward tragic and interesting enough to keep our attention as he and Bella go through the usual steps of teenage infatuation, even as they threaten to bring the book's narrative momentum to a standstill.

But toward the book's close, when Edward is forced to drink Bella's blood, he arrives at the moment he has dreaded - since he is drawing out the venom that would turn her into a vampire. He loves her but does not want her to join him among the world of the undead. Sacrifice? On many levels - in love, in consciousness, in existence. The dangerous guy narrative usually exists with the girl attempting to save her man with her love. Salvation, through love, a Christian idea but one which replaces Christ with the redemptive quality of passion. But the dangerous guy narrative usually ends when he lures the girlfriend, against her will and sometimes his, into destruction. Only Christ can redeem with love, because danger is stronger than passion.

This story, which seems absurd on the surface, could only succeed with a vampire who sees the absurdity of life. An immortal character, who strangely enough, longs for something enduring. "Twilight" succeeds because of this.