on Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library. Published 2005 but written early in his career; translated into English 2014 by Ted Goosen.

This brief tale reads like an allegory of reading itself, the Library as emblematic of the world. But it feels sharply different the twentieth century’s most famous allegory of reading, Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” Both Borges’ and Murakami’s fables are suffused with an unspeakable melancholy. But Borges’ tale is an expansive parable about infinity—and the hubris of pedantry—told by a wry ancient sage. Murakami’s uses a child’s poiny of view to describe a descent into hell, a story not about books opening doors but about being a labyrinth that narrows and narrows your choices until you’re entrapped in its inmost cell underground, forced to read in a “reading room” presided over by a tyrant, a little old man behind a desk with “black spots dott[ing] his face like a swarm of flies.” And in that room all your worse fears come true. You are a frightened boy who just wants to borrow some books and return home to the comfort of a dinner cooked by your mother. But you have a ball and chain shackled to your ankle and must sit and read in the dark, memorizing books at the old man’s command. Even worse, you learn that afterwards he will devour your brain and all its contents, including absurd information about tax collection that you’ve been forced to study. Is reading really just about mind control and punishment, combining vampirism and surveillance all in one?

Of course, the boy’s situation is not without some wacky and whimsical moments, shafts of light that heighten the darkness. “Don’t you think that’s awfully cruel?” asks the boy, describing his situation. “Speaking from the suckee’s point of view, of course.” Companions also appear, a man in a sheep costume who seems like a jailor but who also wants to run away; then a girl pushing a tea-cart full of treats. She can speak only in sign language and may or may not be the sheep man in yet another disguise, or a being dreamed up by the boy in his desperation. She warns him against hard-and-fast conclusions. “Just because I don’t exist in the sheep man’s world, it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist at all,” she says.

Which leads to the tale’s second allegory of reading: “ ‘I get it,’ I said. ‘Our worlds are all jumbled together—your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t. That’s what you mean, right?’” Somehow we have to try to communicate across the gaps. Reading about Ibn Armut Hasir, the author of a book with the scintillating title of The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, the boy becomes the tax collector and even experiences the world through his senses, seeing a crescent moon floating over Istanbul, hearing a distant flute, meeting his three wives. But this is a brief illusory moment of beauty, almost a kind of bait to make the boy forget imprisonment.

The boy eventually plots an escape with the help of his two new friends. But the old man has anticipated their every move, a minotaur waiting murderously at the heart of the labyrinth. Here’s the third allegory of reading: in reading, like dreaming, we confront our deepest fears. “That’s the problem with mazes,” the boy tells himself, to keep his terror at bay. In the boy’s case, it’s of a black dog who bit him in the past and has now apparently killed his favorite pet bird: the dog now stands before him next to the old man, anger in its green eyes.

What happens next I won’t give away. But it presents a fourth possibility for reading—that it gives us “powerful wings” after all, and through it we can discover new powers. But not without a horrible cost: when the boy wakes from his dream, the world seems greatly diminished and he can think of nothing but his losses. He’s plunged back into endless darkness that seems even worse than that of the cell in which he was imprisoned. And more isolated, eternally so: “how it feels to be alone, and the depth of the darkness surrounding me. Darkness as pitch black as the night of the new moon.” The Library has become a nightmarish place of estrangement. The boy vows never to return. His original joy seems now completely gone, replaced by a paranoic convinction that reading is tyrannical and isolating, with the protagonist frightened and alone. That’s a fifth outcome for reading that haunts the tale’s ending.

Or is the true Library now entirely within, its darkness and mysteries not necessarily only negative? The tale’s most haunting sentence comes in its middle, from its depths: “Like a blind dolphin, the night of the new moon silently drew near” (opening of chapter 18).

I’m struck by how different Murakama’s devastating little parable is from another tale about being spirited away, namely Hayao Miyazaki’s famous animated film Spirited Away. That tale also deals with parental estrangement, terror, imprisonment, labyrinthine spaces that constantly change, domineering tyrants, and constant new challenges. Yet though both possess moments of wonder and whimsy, how animated (excuse the pun) and hopeful Miyazaki’s masterpiece is in comparison to The Strange Library. Its protagonist, a young girl named Chihiro, grows up emotionally through her adventures to become a leader unafraid to confront and outwit tyrants. She makes friends easily, even with frightened little lumps of coal, and eventually each of these new friends helps her with their special powers, just like in old fairy tales. Miyazaki and Murakami share a sense of the powerful presence of spirits just under the modernist sheen and pace of contemporary Japanese life: the job of their plots is to usher us into those portals to another vision of the world. But in the end Miyazaki’s is a profoundly more social and optimistic vision, one whose driving force is transformation, not abandonment.

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on Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers

The FlamethrowersThe Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Flamethrowers is burning-hot good. It works on so many levels: a coming of age story; a feminist analysis/satire/tragedy re entrapping gender roles; an anatomy of “revolutionary” cultures of violence and dissimulation (esp in NYC and Italy in the 1970s); film history and criticism–you’ll never think about “china girls” or “stock footage” or Italian neo-realist cinema the same way after reading this. Plus we get a reflection on modernism’s dream machines and their connections to colonialist violence (hip Valera motorcycles and rubber plantations in Brazil)….

Wickedly well-turned sentences, paragraphs, entire episodes. Its ambition and its moves also at different times reminded me of reading Hemingway, or Plath, or even Henry James (Portrait of a Lady‘s scene when Isabel first encounters Italy: guess who takes Osmond’s part!).

An excerpt, from the interior thoughts of Reno, the book’s heroine: “You have time. Meaning don’t use it, but pass through time in patience, waiting for something to come. Prepare for its arrival. Don’t rush to meet it. Be a conduit. … Some people might consider that passivity but I did not. I considered it living” (30). Remember those lines when you get to the book’s brilliant ending.



View all my Goodreads reviews

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Reducing the Bull: the NYTimes Gets It Wrong Equating Apple Design and Picasso’s Art

Brian Chen’s NYTimes’ August 11th article on design training at Apple is fun and informative, particularly the anecdote about design decisions that led to a Google TV remote control with 78 buttons (all the design teams got what they wanted) vs. the Apple remote eventually distilled to just 3 buttons. But in using 4 famous Picasso graphics of a bull and comparing it to the famous evolution of Apple’s mouse design, the article makes an amusing error. Read on and see what you think.

10university-bull1-custom1

10university-bull2-custom1

10university-bull3-custom1

10university-bull4-custom1

10university-mouse1-custom2

10university-mouse2-custom2

10university-mouse3-custom2

10university-mouse4-custom2Yes, the mice designs progress nicely toward greater beauty, driven by ergonomic science, refinements in “click” and wireless technology, and an aesthetics of simplicity and abstraction. (Note also how the Apple logo becomes progressively more prominent with each redesign.)

But it’s a mistake to see Picasso’s lithographs as a similar demonstration that greater abstraction = greater beauty. Or, as the Times clumsily asserts, “the drive to boil down an idea to its most essential components.” Picasso’s works are NOT meant to be interpreted on a sliding scale moving from good to better. Each drawing succeeds on its own aesthetic logic, with #2 above being especially interesting since it is willfully heterogeneous in techniques in tension, mixing lines and solids and giving Picasso ideas that he’ll explore in the next 2 lithographs.

There’s also this fun fact to consider: if Apple really wants to argue that Picasso’s last lithograph in the series is “better” than the first, just as Apple’s last mouse is better, Apple and the NYT need to acknowledge that Mr. Bull’s brain and his, um, phallus have greatly been shrunken by Picasso’s changes! Anyone who knows Picasso knows that he considered both to be rather important “component parts” of male identity. Picasso’s 4 lithographs experiment with 4 different, equally interesting ideas of where (male) strength and beauty come from. Imposing a tech progress narrative on the arts causes lots of distortions in understanding how art actually works, including the ones vividly illustrated here.

[Bull images by Art Resource, NY; 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.]

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Freedom of expression or the need to speak against oppression in a single voice? Coetzee and Gordimer debate

This 1988 debate between Coetzee and Gordimer (RIP) is eloquent and important, and VERY relevant for current debates in 2014. It’s given a fine overview here. The debate is notable for their focus on the _principles_ at stake; their disagreement was tense but didn’t devolve into personal attacks.

For me these words of Coetzee’s are the most memorable moment:

“There is nothing more inimical to writing than the spirit of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing. Fundamentalism means nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there. It stands for one founding book and thereafter no more books.

As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasize themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematised, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon.”

Rushdie’s own next book, the brilliant little fable Haroun and the Sea of Stories, embodies Coetzee’s truth in story.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/23/salman-rushdie-nadine-gordimer-jm-coetzee

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Satirist George Saunders Strikes Again

… and none of yer nostalgia-y haze is safe. Makes me almost forgive Mr. Bob Dylan’s own liner notes.

I’m just sorry George had to leave off mentioning ELO’s “concept” albums, or Jethro Tull’s, or the majestick edifices of that group named Floyd Pink I think it was.

PS: look for the “us” sentences. Them is sure funny.

PPS: And while enjoying yer spliff ponder the Proustian effervescences of Time in this concluding one: “I will always be glad that I was to have been part of this, and then, at a later time, was being part of this, and then, at an even later time, had been part of this, and then, at a much later time, when I am old, I will know that I once had been glad to have had been part of this.”

George Saunder’s “Liner Notes,” from The New Yorker, June 23 2014

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Daniel Bosch on Daisy Fried’s poem “Torment”

Here is a fine reading by Daniel Bosch of one of the best poems of the last few years, Daisy Fried’s “Torment,” from her Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013). I wonder, though, if Bosch is right? That is, is it true that “Torment” doesn’t allow any ironic distance between the character and the creator/narrator? The difference isn’t secure, true, just as the “Daisy” character can’t feel smugly superior to the confusions of the Princeton students; all this makes for powerful drama. But Bosch’s reading undercuts the reflective power of the poem, its ability to see ironies in retrospect that you can’t see when immersed in experience as it unfolds. That’s another level of “torment,” but also suggests something else: the poem does more than lacerate its characters and author. The Larkin comparison is brilliant, but I’m really struck by how Larkin resorts to quasi-religious/Christian imagery and allusions to generate ironic distance from unthinking happiness or envy in “High Windows,” whereas Daisy on the Dinky train does not (except perhaps via the distant echo of Dante in the title). That said, the depth of this reading definitely honors “Torment,” a poem that’s well worth reading and re-reading. [Full disclosure: Daisy Fried is a Swarthmore grad, but that has little to do with why I so admire this poem.]

http://criticalflame.org/an-invitation-to-torment/

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on Rilke’s Duino Elegies: the best translation in English

A Goodreads review on mine:
Duino Elegies

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Sharing an essay by Leigh Alexander, from the Gamasutra website: The tragedy of Grand Theft Auto V

Gamasutra – Opinion: The tragedy of Grand Theft Auto V.

For my own much earlier piece on the bizarre metaphysics of video games, plus one way to think about video games’ links to early animated cartoons, see Gamer (1999).

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on Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken being sold by PAFA

Click on the link below for a short piece on Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken (1934), being sold by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to raise money to buy contemporary art.

on Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken

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On “In Search of a Gay Aesthetic” in Fashion History, a NYTimes article about a show at the Fashion Institute of Technology

In Search of a Gay Aesthetic – NYTimes.com.

Some key things you get to learn about in this sweet piece by Guy Trebay: 18th-century “molly” houses (yet where is the equally important invention, from even earlier, of the “fop”?); the “tell” as it has changed over time; how things can be “hidden in plain sight”; and how much work it takes to recover a richer knowledge of “history.” But I thought the most moving writing came near the end, with the discussion of Bill Robinson and the generation or more lost to AIDS. As the article suggests, Robinson’s interpretation of queer signifiers in fashion was subtler than many of his contemporaries, which shows a different kind of strength and pride (not to mention wit and style). It’s just one hint here that — despite this article’s headline — the show itself doesn’t encourage us to stress only sameness when we do queer history.

Some things that needed to have been explored more: 1) the article assumes the show suggests the “gay aesthetic” is uniform, but most of the examples point in another direction, hinting that it may not be wise to assuming queering is always the same; 2) the show favors queer, the Times gay: what’s lost in translation?; 3) how to understand the practice of ‘inning,’ the opposite of outing, especially as it occurs in an industry (and a culture) that is both rife with homophobia yet also dependent on queer designers and culture for much of its best creativity; 4) how well does the show balance men’s and women’s contributions?; and 5) what happens when styles originating on the lavender catwalk (as the show and article call it) begin circulating elsewhere, where many viewers and wearers enjoy the aesthetic of something but have no knowledge about its origins or history.

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