2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Quick and the Dead

Three very different teen girls, all motherless and strange, share one summer in the American desert. Full of vibrant supporting characters, poignant quips, and haunting imagery, The Quick and the Dead was a surprising and often uncomfortable read.

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Joy Williams’ three teen girls were an offputting mashup of spot-on depiction, and unbelievable diatribe megaphone. There were moments of pure familiar cringe for me as rebellious eco-terrorist Alice preached to disinterested adults (which definitely still happens to this near-30 year old adult). Likewise with the steely detachment of recently orphaned Corvus, and Annabell’s most annoying whining. I loved these moments; Williams can purely distill a previously ineffable feeling with just a quick phrase. She’s remarkably good at this throughout, exposing shivery truths using childish revelations.

There was something shameful about surviving sorrow. You were corrupted. She was corrupted. She was no good anymore. She was inauthentic, apocryphal. She wanted to be a seeker and to travel further and further. But after sorrow, such traveling is not a climbing but a sinking to a depth leached of light at which you are unfit to endure. And yet you endure there.

Despite the real joy of reading some of Williams’ passages, she’s also prone to going all Tom Robbins on me (at his best, brilliant. At his worst, ridiculous.) All the characters in The Quick and the Dead speak as if they are reading a speech written by a very creative mind. They speak over and above each other, in universal ideologies and proclamations, or deep into their own navels. The only narrating character who felt remotely real to me was Annabell’s widowed and coming-out father, and he spends the entire book haunted by the insufferable ghost of his dead wife. The main characters do much of this monologuing, but the worst are the supports.

I’ve seen what comes next. Vigils. Concern is the new consumerism. A person’s worth can be measured by the number and intensity of his concerns. Candles, lighting a candle, confers the kind of fulfillment that only empty ritual can bring. Empty ritual’s important. It’s coming back as a force in people’s lives. Its role is being acknowledged. It’s the keystone for tomorrow’s dealings in an annexed and exploited world. And holding a candle, cradling a little flame with others holding their candle, cradling their little flame gives people the opportunity to experience something bigger than themselves without surrendering themselves to it.

Ugh. Look how long that block of text is. I hate paragraphs like this, even when they are spoken by evangelists (which this one is). I hate it when authors rant. It is definitely a style many people enjoy, and power to them. But it makes me feel the same way as when I’m stuck talking to a drunk stranger at a dull house party.

The Quick and the Dead was equal parts brilliant and boorish. Williams is an astonishing writer; for those who like to see an author in every spoken line, in every desiccated coyote and nursing home scrubs color, I can see how Williams would be a fave. Not my fave, but undeniably brilliant.

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Vegetarian

After a series of nightmares, Yeong-hye becomes convinced to stop eating meat. Her unconventional and subversive choice throws the people around her into chaos, forcing her to take her personal choice into more extreme and frightening forms of rebellion. This modern South-Korean novel explores Yeong-hye’s choice through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister to provide an allegory of modern Korean culture. The Vegetarian turns an unflinching eye on social isolation, imprisonment, and individuality that transcends culture and speaks to human nature in a deeply personal and frightening way. Read my First Look here.

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Simply put, this book messed me up. It is short and fascinating enough to read in one sitting, and that’s what I did. Yeong-hye’s personal life choice, and how the people around her respond to it, is heartbreaking. The societal response to Yeong-hye has little to do with vegetarianism itself, and more to do with individualism, making this book all too familiar. Yeong-hye’s story is like watching a bird throw itself against a cage until all her bones are broken, and then realizing that every bird feels that same desperate need for freedom. The solution that Han Kang offers to our desire to be free is nothing short of devastating*.

“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

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This book reached into me and activated a seething and quiet rage that I think many people, and specifically many women, will recognize as an animal we cradle deep inside ourselves. How we deal with that animal, by letting it free, by feeding it like a pet, or by burying it, is explored through Han Kang’s various characters, most devastatingly in Yeong-hye’s sister in the last section.

“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

Many reviews reference Kafka’s Metamorphosis when discussing this book, which I honestly feel is a disservice. Metamorphosis never spoke to me like this book immediately did. The choice to never let Yeong-hye narrate her own story adds another layer of heartbreak, anger, and strangeness, and an additional layer of feminist critique. As I read through reviews for this story, I see a distinct difference in how men and women review this book, and I can’t help but believe that Kang speaks to a distinctly feminine despair and expectation to shoulder the everyday burdens that crush us. Abutilon_-_Flowering_maple

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

This short book packs a gut-punch that left me in an existential funk for days. While it is not a happy read, I think it is one book I will be forever grateful to have found. It may make you want to abandon everything and everyone in your life, but sometimes that is exactly the kind of book a person needs to read.  The Vegetarian is powerful existential horror with a distinctly feminist lens. It is also just an excellent story, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Scent Notes: Fresh blood, flower-painted skin, and the forest after rain

*CW: The Vegetarian spends a long time with suicidal ideation, and features suicide attempts in the form of cutting, hanging, jumping, and starvation. In my interpretation, Kang does not discourage any of these behaviors. 5

2017 Reviews, Short Fiction

Revenge | Eleven Dark Tales

These eleven short stories by Yoko Ogawa reveal the morbidity and horror in the everyday. I had never read Ogawa or much Japanese literature; what stood out was the precision and restraint of Ogawa’s writing (or rather, the translation). She does not use gratuitous or even particularly evocative language to build the tension in each of these loosely interconnected stories. And yet, her work seeped into me- maybe all the more effectively because of that.

Each mundane setting; inside a bakery, an apartment, a coat closet, the car; almost seems to be rendered in pastel and from a distance. Narrators; children and mothers, men and women, jilted lovers and obsessed murderers; are less characters than vehicles for the reader to observe the carefully constructed scenes. Strange details; a dried plum in a pocket, a back brace, raw tomatoes on a street, an empty parcel; become more upsetting the longer you sit with them.

The items that Ogowa describes over and over are not haunted in a literally way- not by ghosts. But there is a craftsman obsessed with a masterpiece underappreciated, a woman protective of a book never written, a man fearful of a medical device not worn for decades, and an old woman who can’t seem to get rid of her husband years after he’s died. Ogawa’s characters are affected by something in a way I’m not sure how to describe but haunted.

“Even long after my bedtime, she would still be reading, staring at the notebook without looking up… Mama’s lips would get dry and cracked, and her voice would go hoarse. Eventually she started to slur her words, and her voice quivered so much I worried she was about to cry. I would pray for her to stop; I didn’t like to see Mama suffering like that.”

The author is particularly skilled at using food to vibrantly illustrate the fragility and
destruction of life. The sticky, messy, soft fruit, cakes, and vegetables feature in nearly every story, often smashed, devoured, left to rot, or misplaced. It is these singular images that last much longer than the normal details I’d expect to recall from a story. After gaining some distance from when I read Ogawa, I don’t necessarily remember the gender or age of a narrator or the relationships between the two people in the scene. But I remember the affection of the tiger, the coat falling apart with each step through the snow, the kiwi juice on the girl’s hands, the too-raw tomatoes on the salad.

This collection is not chilling, sleep-disrupting horror. But to experience beautiful restraint in creating impactful images, Ogawa is masterful.

Scent Notes:  day-old sweet creme, kiwi juice, and tiger musk

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