Saturday, June 22, 2013

Life & Times of Michael K

Life & Times of Michael K
By J.M. Coetzee

This is me talking out of my ass...

Often the most powerful, most blisteringly conscious novels are written from the perspective of the naive. Whether it is the innocent naivety of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or the simplistic worldview of Ignatius J. Reilly in a Confederacy of Dunces, or the practical clarity of Yossarian in Catch-22, naivety illuminates the world in a way that erudite characters often cannot achieve. Characters of limited intellectual capacity have a way (albeit filtered through the erudite minds of great writers) of boiling life's complexities down to simple concepts and reflecting them back on the reader as absurdities or truisms or whatever the writer wishes to convey. It is often only through the window of simplicity that we can she the world for what it really is and this particular literary convention is one of the great gifts that novels give humanity.

Conversely, J.M. Coetzee has made a career of reflecting on larger social issues, chewing the fat under the guise of simple characters on flat, 2-dimentional settings. In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee paints a bleak, featureless, Cormac McCarthy-esque landscape in which to wax intellectual on the subject of imperialism. Coetzee thrives in stripped down settings and simple characters. It's no wonder that he is the first person to win the Man Booker Prize twice. Literary critics seems to love simple narratives that involve simple characters. I'm not here to argue with the critics. It's a solid literary device. See Dent, Arthur.

In J.M. Coetzee's Nobel Prize (and Booker Prize) winning novel Life & Times of Michael K, the reader is presented with just such a character. In Michael K, Coetzee has created a character designed exclusively to suffer for the greater good of his reader. Set in apartheid era South Africa, Michael K is a simple man born with a cleft lip who simply wants to help his mother return to her childhood home in Prince Albert in the country before she dies. Unfortunately he attempts this journey in the midst of a war and the trip is rife with dangers. When his mother dies mid-voyage, Michael oscillates between living a life of absolute freedom on the veldt and confined to labor camps as well as living in a state that can neither be called living nor dead. In both circumstances Michael suffers immensely, but only in absolute freedom is truly happy and bears his suffering willingly.

By stripped clear so much of the clutter that the average person's life collects, Coetzee is free to examine man at it's very foundation. Gone are the articles of civilization and the social mores that bind us and dictate kurt behavior. In Michael K, Coetzee has created a character devoid of family and social pressure and completely without material wants and needs. From here, Coetzee is free to use Michael as a vehicle in which to explore the essence of human nature, specifically the notion of freedom.

Freedom is the central theme of Life & Times of Michael K. It is through the clear lens of Michael, a sexless, apolitical entity that we are able to examine the nuances of freedom vs. confinement. In this respect, Coetzee answers the question: is it better to live an indentured life of plenty or a meager life completely unfettered by the demands of society. In true Coetzee fashion, he avoids the temptation to guide the reader's opinion, leaving the narrative open-ended and entirely open for discussion.

There has been much discussion about Michael K's last name and whether or not it is indeed Kafka. Certainly the parallels are there. In fact, the novel bears striking resemblances to The Trial and the themes and tone of the novel seems almost lifted verbatim from its pages. This could have been a travesty, but assuming that Coetzee generated parallels between Life & Times of Michael K and The Trial on purpose, one can rest assured that Kafka's essence is in capable hands.

Bear in mind, if you are looking for a light summer read, steer clear. Life & Times of Michael K is a heavy, thought provoking novel rife with symbolism and heavy with metaphor. I read it as an allegory on the nature of freedom vs. incarceration but I imagine it could be read in a number of different ways (as a parable on race relations, for example). The narrative itself is slow and plodding and doesn't really move much at all, but if it is simply plot that you desire, then you've come to the wrong place if you've come banging on J.M. Coetzee's door. To be sure, this is without a doubt a work of literary genius and deserves to be savored like a fine wine rather than devoured like a Big Mac after a 12 hour shift in the mines.

There is a profound wisdom to be found within Coetzee's work and a good portion of that manifests itself within this novel. The novel is deserving of all the accolades it has been afforded.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Fountain

Whether intentional or not, when Francis Ford Coppola debuted Apocalypse Now in 1979 he was thrusting The Vietnam War back into the American limelight, holding it up to America's face for all to consider. While the film would eventually garner the success it so richly deserves, it was a long time in coming. In 1979, America was only four years removed from the images of the last helicopter rising from the roof of the presidential palace in Saigon... the image that signified the ambiguous end to America's most ambiguous war. In many ways, America was not yet ready to deal with the Vietnam War. In many ways, Coppola forced the issue and demanded America step up and face Colonel Kurtz, a metaphor for America's wayward foreign policy in the post-war years.

Fast forward a couple of decades and a couple of even more morally ambiguous wars and you come to Ben Fountain's debut novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. In much the same way as Apocalypse Now, this novel is a stark and ofttimes blistering story that may well do with the Iraq War what Coppola's film did for Vietnam.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is mainly set over a single Thanksgiving weekend in Dallas. Bravo Company is winding up a tour of the home front after having achieved a level of heroic stardom because one of their recent battles with the insurgency was caught on camera by an embedded Fox News correspondent. The footage  The company has been wined and dined by the country's elite including a stop at the White House. Their final stop is a Dallas Cowboys game where they are to be paraded as heroes in front of an American television audience during a halftime show featuring Destiny's Child. Over the course of the day, the Bravos meet the tight-fisted, conservative owner of the Cowboys, Billy falls in love with one of the cheerleaders and virtually everything they know and understand will be called into question by a world they no longer understand. To the home front, the war is simply a primetime spectacle rather than the real life tragedy it actually is. At it's essence, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is, at its core, heart-breaking.

Told from the perspective of Billy Lynn, a surprisingly astute nineteen-year old soldier with a ferocious game-day hangover, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk instead parades the reader through a particular view of America circa 2004. It has been lauded as the Catch-22 of the Iraq War and with good reason. Fountain delivers a panoply of ironies and absurdities about American culture and society ranging from the tyranny of organized sports to the fallacies inherent in the notion of trickle-down economics. All observed with the full capacity wisdom that a nineteen-year old soldier from small-town Texas can muster. The fact that it is set during the ostentatious, over-the-top consumerism-fueled pomp of an NFL football game (A Dallas Cowboys game, even) provides high definition contrast necessary to see the ironies and absurdities in all their particular glory.

In one especially poignant scene the owner of the Cowboys is addressing a press conference called in order to introduce the Bravos to the Dallas media. He takes the opportunity to provide his own personal justification for the war in Iraq, rattling off a laundry list of reasons pertaining to the economic plight of the Iraqi citizens and the corruption of the Saddam Hussein government. What he and all the people at the press conference fail to realize is that he says nothing whatsoever that differs from the problems faced by most Americans.

And this is the real success of this novel. Fountain delivers his story in such a straight forward, un-ironic tone that the irony of the words are almost (but not quite) lost in their simplicity. I say not quite because Fountain's complete and total lack of subtlety allows the ironies and absurdities to be both peripheral and front-and-center at the same time. All without compromising the actual story arc. Make no mistake, the Bravos are heroes. That is the one constant in the entire narrative. The rest is so decidedly ambiguous it is difficult to maintain a moral compass setting.

With so many themes running side by side throughout the novel it is a little difficult to pin down what, exactly, it is about this novel that sets it apart from virtually everything else written on the subject of the Iraq War. Perhaps, unlike so many other war novels, the actual soldiers are incidental to the story. It is the American public with its obsession with celebrity and shopping and instant replay and meaningless buzz words like nina leven and currj and terrR that plays the central role in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Everybody supports the war and honors the heroes in theory. Everyone can spout off the necessary platitudes about sacrifice with expert media savvy. But do they mean it? America is still a land of haves and have-nots and there are systems in place to ensure that it stays that way... or so it seems to Billy. The culmination of the novel is such a succinct metaphor for the state of America today that I'm surprised it's not cliched (Maybe it is and I'm simply blind).

About halfway through this Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk it occurred to me that I was probably reading what would be regarded as a classic novel in the years to come. It has the style and grace and poignancy in writing to last generations and yet it is so deeply rooted in our own time that it would be a stellar illustration of our world circa 2004. I have no way of knowing whether what I predict will come true, but in my own mind, this is precisely the novel we should be reading ten, fifteen or fifty years from now when we attempt to understand the social, political and cultural motivations America had  during it's most ambiguous war. But more importantly it is a novel in the here and now and perhaps Fountain can force the issue as it pertains to the Iraq War. Perhaps this novel will force America to examine its motivations and try to understand the war's legacy

In that respect, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is not only this generation's Catch-22, it may also be this generation's Apocalypse Now. Absolutely crucial reading.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior
By Barbara Kingsolver

I love the opportunities that writing a blog gives me as a reader. I didn't get into it for the free books and I most certainly do not take the few books I get for granted, but it's always nice for me, living overseas, to get an opportunity to read a hardcopy (as opposed to a Kindle version) of a book that I would otherwise have to wait years to get here in Taiwan. Case in point: Flight Behavior. Since reading The Poisonwood Bible a couple of years ago, I have been extremely keen to delve into Barbara Kingsolver's catalog. Alas, the gods of access have conspired against me until recently when I got the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for Kingsolver's most recent recent novel. As an avid reader and a fan of Barbara Kingsolver, I couldn't be more appreciative to the good people at TLC Book Tours.

So, anyway...

Flight Behavior answers the proverbial question: If a butterfly flaps its wings in rural Tennessee do unhappy housewives fly the coop? Dellarobia Turnbow is the aforementioned unhappy housewife on the cusp of throwing it all away. Married early and suffering from a severe case of seven-year itch, she accidentally stumbles upon the new and alarmingly inappropriate winter roost of the bulk of North America's monarch butterflies on a stretch of undeveloped land behind her home. To make matters worse. the land, which is owned by her overbearing father-in-law, is set to be sold to an irresponsible logging company (in literature, is there any other kind?) in order to save the family farm. But the arrival of a scientific research team determined to study the butterflies causes a deep divide not only among the citizens of Feathertown but also within the Turnbow family itself.

What ensues is a litany of local conflicts that act as a microcosm for the growing divide within American society. Democrat vs. Republican. Science vs. religion. Rural vs. urban. Rich vs. poor. It's a veritable cornucopia of Man vs. Man conflicts and that is even before we get into all the man vs. nature and man vs. himself  subtexts. In true Kingsolver fashion (or at least from the perspective of someone who has read The Poisonwood Bible) these divides are examined with a maturity and clarity that is rare among contemporary writers. Rather than simply taking a specific side and hammering her own opinion home, Kingsolver relishes in the role of devil's advocate and gives a fair shake to every side of the coin (well, except the media. Kingsolver saves all a special vehemence just for them). The end result is a rational, open dialog between sides that are not used to rational, open dialogs.

In true Richard Russo style, Kingsolver seems to thrive in telling stories that occur in small, tightly-knit communities. In The Poisonwood Bible, the Price family are living in a small village in the middle of the Congo, far removed from the workings of the modern world. In Flight Behavior she maintains the same sort of isolation by setting the narrative in a small, deeply religious Tennessee town that sees the bare minimum of outsiders. It would seem that Kingsolver enjoys crafting narratives with closed systems.

But one must examine her motivations for maintaining such pristine character cultures. In using small, closed communities, Kingsolver is able to limit the input/output of her characters and introduce specific environmental stresses to her story in an attempt to forecast specific reactions among her carefully constructed characters. Like the lepidopterists that inhabit the laboratories of Flight Behavior, Kingsolver approaches her narratives with the mindful deliberation of a scientist, ensuring that no outside contaminants will sully her instruments prior to the data read out.

And this is the reason for Kingsolver's success. In approaching a narrative in much the same way in which a scientist might approach a problem, Kingsolver is able to do away with outside contaminants and get to the root of an issue. I have heard more than a few people complain to me about the way in which Kingsolver crafts her characters. They are often one-dimensional personalities. That many of her characters can be reduced to single issues (he is a climate change denier) or single character traits (she is an uneducated racist). That may be true, but in Kingsolver's world (as opposed to the previously mentioned Richard Russo), stereotypes are a Kingsolver-esque narrative necessity in that they highlight the very real divides that plague our own communities. But Kingsolver fleshes out the stereotypes and makes it difficult to take specific sides along the way.

But let's not let all this analysis get in the way of a good story. For anyone expecting a repeat of The Poisonwood Bible, you will be sorely disappointed. In that respect, Flight Behavior is decidedly mediocre fare from one of America's great contemporary writers. But still, Barbara Kingsolver's mediocre is most writer's genius, so not to worry. As in real life, there is an ambiguity in everything that occurs in this narrative. Despite the absolutes in which the characters speak, events happen and the characters are forced to compromise their expectations and morals. And just like real life, nobody gets exactly what they want. Make no mistake, Flight Behavior is not a quick moving narrative. Rather, it simmers like a rump roast in a hot country kitchen. And considering the immediacy of many of its environmental themes, Flight Behavior behaves itself by not moving any faster than it should. No more than one would expect if it were propelled entirely on the strength of a butterfly's wings.