Tuesday, April 23, 2013

After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima

Death figures heavily in the writing of Yukio Mishima, as even a casual reader knows. However, his 1960 novel, "After the Banquet," does not fit so neatly into the complete body of work. I've previously written about Mishima here and here.

Mishima himself grouped his novels into two categories - pièces noires and pièces roses, of which "After the Banquet" falls in the former category. It has a female protagonist and dashes of humor, and it displays an advanced and detached understanding of contemporary Japanese domestic politics. And its stance on death, more than anything, gives it a place of its own among Mishima's bloody and brilliant works.

"After the Banquet" opens with Kazu, the female owner of the Setsuogoan, a Tokyo restaurant frequented by the powerful and rich. Kazu's ownership is the culmination of a long climb to respectability, and her reputation as a hostess is well-known and well-earned. Her life changes when she meets Noguchi, a semi-retired former minister possessing a quiet style and a proud, stubborn, antique modesty.

The two form an attachment that later leads to marriage, though laying dormant in their relationship is their incompatibility. Kazu has a fierce, protective love for Noguchi, but we understand that she also sees their marriage as the final seal on her acceptance into polite society. But she is, at long last, an independent woman, and her love for the diplomat is complicated by the demands of her owning the Setsuogoan. Noguchi then begins a political campaign that Kazu takes part in, to the frustration of her husband. She discovers another part of herself in the process.

"After the Banquet" does not often get into the heads of its characters, dwelling instead on details of dress and scenery, going so far as to produce the menu for certain meals at social occasions. There may have been other reasons for this beyond simple considerations of style. Mishima based the story on events in the life of a real politician, Hachiro Arita, who later sued for invasion of privacy in a famous Japanese legal case.

One is constantly reminded that Noguchi and Kazu are older characters, though Noguchi is the more elderly. He has come to see his marriage as his final home, Mishima writes, and Kazu sees it as her tomb. "But people cannot go on living inside a tomb," the narrator's voice intones. 

When Noguchi takes Kazu to his family cemetery plot, and she encounters the grave of his first wife, we suddenly get a peek inside her head:

"Kazu had had no opportunity even at the wedding to meet the living members of Noguchi's family, but she could imagine how the dead ones with their high principles and absolute incorruptibility had transmitted the family's heritage to succeeding generations. Grinding poverty, obsequiousness, lies, contemptible natures - these were no concern of this family. Confused memories returned of obscene parties in country restaurants, of drunken customers thrusting their hands inside an innocent girl's kimono, of a runaway girl shrinking in terror as she boarded a night train, of back alleys in the city, of bought caresses, of petty ruses of every sort employed to protect herself, of the domineering kisses of cold-hearted men, of contempt mixed with affection, of a persistent craving for revenge against an unknown adversary: such experiences were surely undreamed of by this family."

Suddenly, we see Kazu has had a desperate fear of death, as though her life and its struggle would disappear into nothingness at the moment she leaves the earth. At one point in the book, Kazu realizes her possessions, symbolized by a vast collection of kimonos, is meaningless, and she feels "a desolation as if her flesh were suddenly melting away." By marrying a man of means and prestige, she has insured that one day she will buried among his family, her name finally having status and meaning. She perceives that death is the ultimate negation of her vital, emotional life. But by marrying, she has cheated her inevitable destiny.

She returns to the cemetery on election day, after lighting a candle before a Buddhist altar. She has a strange expectation that she can somehow woo the spirit of the former Mrs. Noguchi into bringing about an election victory supernaturally. Even the fact that mosquitoes are biting her is taken as a hardship, the endurance of which will bring about a reward.

"What do you say? Let's join hands, one woman to another, and help him win somehow." Kazu felt as if a beautiful friendship for this woman she had never met was rapidly materializing, and she wept a little. "What a fine lady, a fine lady. I am sure that if you were still alive we'd become good friends!"

Noguchi's defeat, which seems inevitable after a pamphlet reveals Kazu's notorious career for the voters, dooms the marriage. The couple cannot stay together because Noguchi had wanted a quiet retirement, while Kazu still longs for the Setsuogoan. In a decision much like Huck Finn's resolution to "go to hell" in helping a slave escape to freedom, Kazu chooses, in a sense, oblivion.

"There flashed before Kazu's eyes an unvisited grave in some desolate cemetery, belonging to someone who had died without a family...If Kazu were no longer a member of the Noguchi family, she would assuredly travel a straight road leading to that desolate grave...But something was calling Kazu for the distance. An animated life, every day wildly busy, many people coming and going - something like a perpetually blazing fire called her. That world held no resignation or abandoned hopes, no complicated principles; it was insincere and all its inhabitants fickle, but in return, drink and laughter bubbled up lightheartedly. That world seen from here looked like the torchlight of dancers scorching the night sky on a hilltop beyond dark meadows."

In this sense, Kazu is not very different from other "heroes" in the Mishima universe, for whom death is simply another, more final statement of life that adds a meaning, even if the meaning is meaningless. Like much of his audience, it is now that matters - knowing it will not last makes even the pain somehow sweet, in the sort of sad, philosophical sense that only a writer can believe. After the banquet, it is the hired help who cleans up after the celebrants. And the party becomes just another memory, if only for the sober.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises" for .99 cents here.  Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book "The Uncanny Valley" for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Ghost of John Updike and the Boston Bombing

This weekend's capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the brothers believed responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, brings up many questions. Time and investigation will tell whether the brothers were acting alone, had identified future targets, or were supported by means beyond their own.

But the episode also poses an obscure cultural question - will the events of last week and the coming weeks' vindicate one of John Updike's last, and least regarded, novels?

"Terrorist" was published in 2006, five years after the 9/11 attacks. It follows the life of a teenage Muslim American, Ahmad Mulloy, and his high school counselor, Jack Levy, along with a number of other characters in the forgotten American urban landscape of New Prospect, N.J.

The novel came at an interesting juncture in Updike's career. Long regarded as a possible Nobel Prize candidate, Updike's work landed in bookstores with the regularity of the seasons. Novels arrived every two years, in between short story collections, essay collections or poetry. His reputation was unassailable. But there was a feeling, hovering in the background, that Updike's suburbanite guilt-ridden adulterous Christian protagonists, swathed in his characteristically elegant prose, has grown way too precious. There was a feeling that the Master had become too detached from reality.

The first hints of this came after the triumph of "In the Beauty of the Lilies," still my favorite Updike. He followed this up with experimental works, such as "Toward the End of Time," a pseudo-science fiction work, "Gertude and Claudius," giving the backstory of "Hamlet," and "Seek My Face" and "Villages," workmanlike and occasionally perplexing examinations of the art world and the early days of computers. 

Next came assaults from outside. Updike's contemporary, Philip Roth, executed his late career renaissance with his celebrated American trilogy of "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain." And from the right came Tom Wolfe, fresh off "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man In Full." Wolfe, responding to criticism from Updike that his work was not literature, called Updike a "stooge" who had lost touch with his audience - a critique he didn't reserve solely for Updike but for most of the literati.

"Terrorist" is, in some ways, Updike's attempt to answer back. He fills the novel with as much modernity as he can muster - when he wrote the novel, there was still a lingering criticism that American writers had not fully engaged the ramifications of the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror. (Something that still remains largely unattempted.)  And "Terrorist" is many things, but most of its main characters are not suburban middle-class people struggling to contain their hormones. It's possible to see the book as a combination of Roth and Wolfe - engaging American society while registering as many status details as possible.

The criticisms of the novel at the time, as I recall, were that Updike's Muslim, Ahmad, was not credibly rendered. Ahmad's mother, as well as Levy, come off as a stereotypes, as well as the novel's black characters. These criticisms are interesting when one considers that the characters of Roth's "The Human Stain" are almost all stereotypes, but it works. The sense we had at the time was that "Terrorist" didn't work. Taking it off the shelf, it took a few minutes to remember precisely what happened in the book.

The first line of the novel:

"Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God." 

Ahmad thinks of his teachers as weak Christians and nonobservant Jews who "make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint" but whose "shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief." From the opening is established a critique - we see the world through Ahmad's eyes and we see America as a false, hypocritical place full of soul-destroying danger. 

It's also important to remember that 2006 was when the War on Terror began to take on a different shading. President George W. Bush, fresh off re-election, was no longer a unifying leader but was by now mortally wounded politically due to the aftermath of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. To many, we as a nation weren't in a generational global cultural conflict so much as replaying, in a Middle Eastern setting, our nation's continuing angst over Vietnam and presidential power.

That's why Updike's characters often fill "Terrorist" with liberal political critiques that sound more like a writer airing his frustrations than characters stating their views. It is this lapsing voice that is the novel's most frustrating problem. You find yourself admiring Updike's ambition in tackling the story at the same time you wish his execution was more exacting. When Ahmad's planned attack doesn't come off in the end, the reason, meant to be life-affirming and uplifting, instead feels false and unearned.

Ahmad in some ways fits what we know of the actual terrorists who have shown up in the past 20 years in America. Like their godfather, Sayyid Qutb, the 9/11 hijackers were not Islamic hermits who disengaged themselves from American culture. They were part of it - indeed the 9/11 hijackers conducted a meeting in Las Vegas weeks before the attack. It is the freedom of the culture that outraged them, even as they insinuated themselves into it. Ahmad doesn't square with what we know of the Tsarnaev brothers - Dzhokhar had a Twitter account much like any other, commenting on the movies and sports, and he was known to smoke pot. Ahmad's conduct seems naive, sheltered, abnormally sensitive. In this regard, he does not fit the profile - our real-life terrorists, at some crucial point, leave one with the lingering impression that their faith or the ideology is simply an excuse to inflict pain - ruthless, pitiless pain, on a grand scale.

There is an interesting scene involved Ahmad and Joryleen Grant, a black classmate who later becomes a prostitute. She undresses for him, talks to him, teases him, then sings "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." Is Ahmad being tempted by sex, or Christianity, or both and neither? It is this temptation, whatever it may be, which eventually inspires Ahmad to undertake his act of terrorism - in the end, violence is the only response when one succumbs, even in the mind, to temptation. That is the only way the true believer can earn redemption. At least this part seems true to life.

Updike's career will endure largely because of the length and depth of his talent and the character and quality of earlier novels. "Terrorist" is an interesting book, but it suffers in its critique for one reason at least - the reality it depicts wasn't born out later by events. Updike's depiction of the War on Terror has a disquieting moral equivalency between Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and America's reaction about it, and that reads less charitably after an event like the Boston Marathon attack and the city's response. Writing, perhaps with ideas of rendition, waterboarding, warrantless wiretaps and other causes in mind, Updike has one of his characters remark, "An open society is so defenseless. Everything the modern free world has achieved is so fragile."

If anything, the last week's events - senseless tragedy, national sympathy, patient police work, calm civic resolve - affirm that open societies are well-equipped to fight terror with the same freedom that inspires the attacks in the first place. Perhaps one of the flaws of our time is that we collectively expect something darker in our fiction to ring truer, darker even than evil that can strike in the most public places, when all we want to do is run.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises" for .99 cents here.  Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book "The Uncanny Valley" for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mad Men: "The Doorway"

The sixth season of “Mad Men” opens in paradise, but Don Draper’s mind is in hell – he sits on a Hawaiian beach, Diamondhead in the background, reading the opening of Dante’s “Inferno:"

“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and awoke to find myself in a dark wood, alone…”

When last we saw Don, he was still recovering from the suicide of his business partner Lane Pryce, and finding his way after the departure of Peggy Olson for a rival agency. He spent the first year of his marriage seemingly committed to his second wife Megan, but we were left with the impression as the season ended that 1967 would see the end of his fidelity. And after a period of near failure, his advertising agency is finally beginning to assert itself as a player on Madison Avenue, following the firm’s securing an account with Jaguar. 

But what can we make of Don’s dipping into Dante? The answer comes at the end of the season opener, “The Doorway,” when we discover that Don has been having an affair with Sylvia, the wife of his neighbor, the heart surgeon Dr. Arnold Rosen.  “Did you read my Dante?” she asks, during their New Year’s Eve rendezvous. We understand from their dialogue that Don wants their affair to end, but he, of course, sought her out.

“The Doorway” is chiefly concerned with mortality, which you might expect from an episode that begins with the first lines of “The Divine Comedy.” Dante, in exile, writes of a supernatural encounter with the ghost of the classical poet Virgil, who then takes him on the beginning of a journey through Hell, Purgatory and, and eventually, Heaven. It is there that he will be reunited with his love Beatrice, and come face to face with God.  

As Don puts down his book on the beach, he notices his watch has stopped. Time has seemingly come to a standstill in paradise. But time is chiefly what Don and his coworkers are obsessed with. It is New Year, after all, the one time of life when we have no choice but to note its passage. There is Jonesy, the doorman for Don’s apartment building, who had a heart attack shortly before their trip and was saved by Dr. Rosen. There is Roger, who has to deal with the death of his mother after a long life. But time and mortality haunt Don, to the point where he can’t sleep and drinks so much that he vomits at the Sterling funeral, during a speech about what Mrs. Sterling’s life meant. 

These intimations of death have clearly gotten to Don (or is he still thinking about Lane’s death?) when he pitches an ad campaign using his Hawaii trip – and inadvertently leaves the impression of someone killing themselves. This references the very first episode of “Mad Men,” when Don struggled to come up with an ad campaign for Lucky Strike, knowing the product causes cancer. Roger comments on this:

“We sold actual death for 28 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? We ignored it.”

In that first episode six years ago, Don said that advertising is a sign saying whatever you’re doing is okay. That’s perhaps what is being said throughout the episode – why do we take vacations to paradise? Why do we drink? Why do we worship? Because we know we will die, but as Dr. Rosen observes at episode’s end – “People do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” They want the sign by the side of the road assuring them that all is well. 

Don’s choice of reading material also reminds us of an earlier moment in the series. Don sent a copy of “Notes In the Middle of an Emergency” to Anna Draper, the wife of his dead namesake in season two. This was at a moment when Don began to grasp the loneliness of his double life, and the ethereal quality of his success. This time, however, it is a woman who has given him poetry.  
Dante’s work – our jumping off point – begins with a journey through Hell. John Ciardi, who translated “The Divine Comedy” says that the souls who find themselves in Dante’s Hell insisted upon it. “One must deliberately exclude himself from grace by hardening his heart against it. Hell is what the damned have actively and insistently wished for.” It is a hallmark of “Mad Men” that Don never stays happy for very long, that he seems insistent on melancholy. As Peggy told him last year, at the moment of the Jaguar triumph, he never seems to appreciate the good moments in life. 

There is also a spiritual subtext to “The Doorway,” much more vivid than is usually the case for “Mad Men.” (I continue to be amazed at how many times the characters refer to Jesus, and not just as a profanity.) For example, after his mother’s funeral, Roger feels moved to give his daughter a jar filled with water from the Jordan River. His father procured it on a business trip, and it baptized not only Roger but his daughter.

Peggy Olson deals with a work crisis while unable to get hold of her boss. We learn, through her end of a phone conversation with a pastor, that he seems to be on some sort of “religious retreat.” When he returns, he informs Peggy that his wife thinks he works too much. We also notice that Teddy is not the same character we were introduced to in the fourth season – a scheming, frustrated second-fiddle to Don Draper. He looks somehow content in a way that Don never seems, and that Peggy can’t seem to find either. 

 When Don meets Sylvia later, the camera pans across the bedroom to reveal a plastic mockup of a human heart – and a cross. And what day is it? Of course, it’s Sunday.  

But where the Inferno begins on Holy Thursday in the year 1300, “The Doorway” takes place in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1967. “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year,” is the headline in The New York Times when Don returns to his apartment. What neither he nor anybody else can know is that they are about to enter the bloodiest year of the 1960s, the most turbulent, and the most dispiriting. The Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the riots, the Chicago Democratic Convention, the hints of absolute disorder are right around the corner. But the future always looks bright on the first day of the year. 

Jules Whitcover, in his book, “The Year The Dream Died,” tells us that 1968 was a nightmare. “It was the year when the sensitivities and nerve ends of millions of Americans were assaulted almost beyond bearing,” he writes, “and the hopes of other millions were buried beneath a wave of violence, deception and collective trauma unmatched in any previous January through December in the nation’s memory.”

Essentially 1968 was a paradox. After less than a decade of expanding civil rights, loosening social attitudes, and unprecedented prosperity and technical innovation, American society descended into chaos, leaving one with the impression that things were not moving toward a social utopia.  Where Don Draper’s generation may have felt a self-satisfaction at the pace of liberal American democracy, the younger, more radical left felt democratic pretensions were  a sham, and American consumerism a dead end. !968 offered a clash of these sentiments, and many others. Instead of paradise,  many were moved to remark, “This country is going to hell.” 

Perhaps “Mad Men” – and the journey of Don Draper – is “The Divine Comedy” in reverse. Don begins in the 1960s in Paradise. “Who couldn’t be happy with all this?” he asks Roger over a drink in his office in the show’s second episode. But he loses his marriage at the same moment he must build a firm from nothing. The season he spent building it, and rebuilding his life, could function as a kind of purgatory. But as Don sits on the beach reading Dante, we wonder if he’s learned anything from his journey. 

Dante’s Hell was not a metaphor to him, just as any man’s suffering is not an entertainment. But as the sign above the gates of Hell reminded the poet, what makes Hell hellish is its never-ending absence of hope. It remains to be seen what awaits Don Draper in the new year.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises" for .99 cents here.  Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book "The Uncanny Valley" for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

To say “Gone Girl” is a love story would be truthful, but it would be truthful in the same way as saying Hannibal Lecter knows a lot about cooking.

“Gone Girl” is catastrophically romantic, as the character Nick Dunne says of his relationship with his wife Amy. It is a story of obsession, of love curdling into something very close to hatred, then metastasizing into obsession, domination and possession. But one is never really sure who is being possessed, who is obsessed, and where the line between love and hatred exists between Nick and his wife. And the book’s success over the last year can be traced to this hard center which lies at the heart of what might otherwise be only a well-crafted thriller.

Gillian Flynn’s novel uses the device of Nick telling the story of his wife disappearing, seemingly into thin air, one day after they have abandoned New York City for Nick’s hometown in Missouri. His chapters are immediately followed by one written by Amy, giving her side of their marriage. The couple’s move was brought on by the faltering economy, and a sudden change in fortune for the couple, who are both very skilled writers rendered unemployed by the recession and the changing publishing industry. Like many couples, moving unhinges the dynamics that have marked their still-developing marriage. Nick co-owns a bar with his sister Margo, and Amy is struggling to find herself in her new surroundings. But Amy has distinguished herself her whole life – the daughter of a husband-wife team of children’s book authors, their creation being an above average little girl named “Amazing Amy.”

Amy’s disappearance is the catalyst for some truths and some lies between the couple, and each has confessing to do within their pages. But we are conscious early on that Nick is not completely reliable with the truth, and neither is Amy, as we come to discover. Anyone who digests television news on a regular basis can spot the outlines of the story – a woman disappears and her husband quickly becomes the prime suspect. But by putting us in Nick’s (and Amy’s) head, the story doesn’t give us a Rashomon rehash of a marriage coming off the rails, but something else entirely. When the book abruptly changes gears mid-way through, the reader is by this time undeniably hooked.
Tricks? Of course. The couple’s words complement and contradict each other, with chapters ending at just the proper point to drive the reader forward. We know we are getting deeper and deeper into some very dark places, but we hardly care. The Dunnes aren’t a typical couple, by any definition, and they have some surprising things to say about the nature of love.

One theme of the book is genuineness. By taking us back through the beginnings of the Dunnes’ relationship, we see once again how two people assume roles in order to impress and attract the other. The act of courting allows a man and a woman to become, in someone else’s eyes, the person they have always wanted to be seen as. The past can be abandoned and ignored, or even discarded. We find ourselves longing for the artificial instead of the genuine, but the truth will out, as it always does.
But what about in our present world, where the line between the genuine and the artificial, or the genuine and the derivative, is always hard to spot? We live in a time where self-invention takes many virtual forms, but few concrete, tangible ones. Nick remarks on this about a third of the way into the book:

“It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.”

There is another aspect to the story – that of understanding, of appreciation, in the original sense of the word. When love begins in an emotionally immature or still developing person, it usually begins when one person believes the other person “gets them” – understands them on a level previously unknown by anyone else. Usually, this is a positive, and in places of “Gone Girl,” this holds true even for the Dunnes. But gradually, Amy and Nick want each other to fully “appreciate” who and what they are apart, and together. This is not necessarily a good thing at all. One can appreciate a caged lion in a very different way than appreciating one bearing down on you. Some knowledge is better appreciated from a safe distance through a veil of speculation, rather than feeling the full brunt and savagery of the information. 

And then, there’s love itself. In the final chapter of the book, Amy makes an observation:

“I was told love should be unconditional. That’s the rule, everyone says so. But if love has no boundaries, no limits, no conditions, why should anyone try to do the right thing ever? If I know I am loved no matter what, where is the challenge?...It makes me think that everyone is very wrong, that love should have many conditions. Love should require both partners to be their very best at all times. Unconditional love is an undisciplined love, and as we all have seen, undisciplined love is disastrous.”

Since Christian love is supposed to be unconditional, there is a ready answer for this – what Amy is talking about isn’t total unconditional love, not between two people. Because total love is what makes the other “try to do the right thing.”  It is love that inspires action, even constant action, that keeps the lover tuned into what the beloved wants, and vice versa. What Amy is speaking of sounds suspiciously like an act, a pantomime, but it is a serious observation, because for human beings, undisciplined love is disastrous. It easily changes and warps out of love and into the acts that drive the Dunnes apart, together, and back again, over and over. 

“Gone Girl” puts the hook into the reader, and then slowly reminds him that even the clichés that riddle the evening news are embodied by real people, and sometimes the light shines on them to reveal how much larger – and smaller – we all are than the images we cling to, about ourselves and each other.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book, "The Uncanny Valley," for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.