Sunday, May 13, 2007

I don't want no satisfaction

Way back when, 18 months or so ago, I started Cultural Snow (go there - it's like another world) with a vague idea in the back of my head that I'd use it to log what I was reading and watching and hearing, and what my responses were. My adherence to that intention has been patchy, to say the least. Part of the reason is that I find my attention span is reducing: books remain half-finished; there are DVDs I mean to watch; CDs I'll buy when I get round to it. What's worse, I can't even point to anything significant that's getting in the way, other than watching the sales of my own book grind to not much, despite the not-bad reviews for which Amylola watches the skies. (My publisher reckons the figures will pick up next month, when the 10th anniversary of OK Computer sparks fresh interest in all things dystopic, middle-class and wonky-eyed. That's what publishers do. They're optimistic on your behalf.)

Anyway, just to prove I don't spend my whole time Googling myself, here are a few thoughts on the last three books I read, none of which mention Radiohead.

My Year of Meat, by Ruth L Ozeki, is the story of Jane Takagi-Little, a documentary maker tasked with producing a lifestyle/cookery show for Japanese television. The show is sponsored by an American meat consortium, and Jane finds herself under constant pressure to present gaijin flesh in the best possible light, even when she uncovers some nasty truths about the way it's produced. Her story is interwoven with that of Akiko, the meek, traumatised wife of the show's tyrannical, macho producer.

It's an involving read, as the two women learn more about the world and themselves over the course of a year. However, Ozeki seems intent on cramming every issue under the rising sun into the narrative: the dark side of food production (fair enough); cultural clashes between Asia and the West; domestic violence; commercial manipulation of media; the politics of fertility; medical malpractice; racism; homophobia. All of which are important things, and valid subjects for fiction, but when they're all in the same place, the book starts to feel like an all-purpose down-with-this-sort-of-thing rant, rather than a coherent story. The quotations from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon at the start of each chapter over-egg an already dense (steak and kidney?) pudding; and the unlikely happy ending seems to offer the same sort of compromise with commercial forces that the pro-beef advertorials represent. But Ozeki does have an ear for the wry humour inherent in people juggling the competing claims of job and principle. As Jane pleads, in a fax to the producer after she puts a mixed-race, lesbian, vegetarian couple on Saturday morning TV: "Thank you so much for this chance to redeem myself. From now on I will only make wholesome programs about beef and normal people."

Taichi Yamada's In Search of a Distant Voice also deals with East-West relations, but the similarities with Ozeki's novel pretty much end there. It's set in Tokyo, with an extended flashback to Portland, Oregon, the source of the traumas that bedevil the central character, immigration officer Kasama Tsuneo.

It's essentially a story about memory and guilt, with overtones that hint at the supernatural. In this, the most obvious link is with the work of Haruki Murakami: the conflict of male bourgeois mundanity with female transcendence, and the deadpan, slightly melancholy style accentuate the comparison. The disembodied voice that addresses Tsuneo, making him doubt his sanity, also hints at Waugh's Gilbert Pinfold. But if there's a single work that's echoed here it's Nicolas Roeg's adaptation of Don't Look Now: we get a sudden, traumatic death; a quest that combines redemption and explanation; a blind woman; one character is even likened to Donald Sutherland. The publishers rather hammer home the similarities by placing a small figure in a red hood on the cover.

There's an element of resolution in the narrative: we discover the details of what happened in Portland, and the identity of the mysterious 'Eric'. But the voice that haunts Tsuneo remains elusive, without a conclusive twist or tidy answers.

At first, Christopher Priest's The Separation seems to be on the genre-driven path to neatness and completeness. It's fairly clear that we're in the realm of alternate realities, as a fictional historian investigates a World War II that left Britain prosperous, America broke, and Madagascar taking a far more important role in proceedings than we imagined. We then flip back to the Berlin Olympics of World War II, and find that two of our key characters are identical twins. Everything seems set for a tale of intrigue that revolves around mistaken identities and chance happenings that change the course of events, probably with historical figures appearing in the fictional narrative.

But Priest is cannier than that. True, for long stretches, we're not completely sure which twin is which, and this is mirrored by reference to persistent rumours that both Churchill and Rudolf Hess were impersonated by dopplegangers at various points during the war. Unreliable narrators - dontcha just love 'em? But this is more than just a what-if-the-Nazis-won? scenario (see Robert Harris's Fatherland, or Stephen Fry's Making History). But as the book flips between voices of varying veracity, the plot seems to fall apart in the reader's hands. The alternate history (in which Britain pulled out of the war in 1941) and the legitimate one (I hope we know what happened there) become tangled together, depending on who's talking, and what his state of mind is. One reality seems to be imagined, but at the end, it's still not clear which one. A story that, at first, seems to be predicated on a simple "wouldn't it be funny if..." notion becomes a wry consideration of the liberties a fiction writer can take with fact.

As I get older, I find myself more and more drawn to books, like Yamada's and Priest's, that fail to offer trite conclusions. Maybe because the realisation slowly dawns that life is drawn in shades of beige, rather than the primary certainties that seem so appealing when you're young. The odd thing is that Ozeki's book is, superficially at least, the most 'realistic' of the three. But a novel about an immigration officer who talks to ghosts, and another that shows Hitler living to a ripe old age, are essentially the ones that feel true to life.

7 comments:

orange anubis said...

I love The Separation (and, really, all things Priest) a great deal - particularly how it deliberately makes it impossible to tie everything together sensibly at the end.

Interesting you should choose to talk about it after drawing attention to the differences in your own narrative voice in the 'alternate' Cultural Snow from ver past.

Anonymous said...

My Year Of Meat - I enjoyed that one, mainly because of the subject matter, seamy hormonal additive fast food nation type thing - and the wry portrayal of what an intelligent independent-minded woman has to put up with in Japan. (Wasn't she a cop-killer? That vague thought comes to mind - or was that someone else?) The Separation sounds good though.

Anonymous said...

That was Voice from the Village by the way. Er, technology has me beat.

Tim Footman said...

OA: Oooh, I hadn't noticed that. Although I never think of myself as having a 'narrative voice'. It's like being aware of having an accent. (I speak moderately estuarised RP, therefore I have no accent, except when I'm talking to Americans.)

Voice: Oh, I quite enjoyed it, and the characterisation of the two women was good. I just thought it all became a bit too tidy at the end, and equation of masculinity, violence, capitalism and meat was a bit too overdone. Like a bad steak.

Jun Okumura said...

The last three books I haven't read...

gaijin flesh?! Ugh! Cannibalism!

oh... Speaking of gaijin maybe it takes a gaijin to take note of the accessible fluency in the Japanese idiom that unites Taichi Yamada and Haruki Murakami in their universal appeal.

Christopher Priest? Sorry, don't know the guy.

Tim Footman said...

Sorry, I didn't phrase that very elegantly, did I?

I do find that a number of Japanese writers (Murakami, Yamada, Banana Yoshimoto) do seem to have this air of wry melancholy about them. This may be down to the translators; on the other hand Ishiguro (who, of course, writes in English, and isn't really Japanese, although his roots obviously have an impact on his work) has the same sort of feel.

Don't want to make generalisations, and I haven't read enough J-Lit to do so: there are others who don't seem to be like this: Ryu Murakami; Eri Makino; Genichiro Takahashi. And a study of British literature that drew all its conclusions from Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons would draw equally odd conclusions...

llewtrah said...

I reviewed My Year of Meat not long ago on Llewtrah's Soapbox, having re-read it recently.

Saw the review of your magnificent book in the Guardian at the weekend!