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A long journey not worth making

Book cover of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky showing a hand holding a photo of a woman.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Idiot begins with the young Prince Myshkin coming back to Russia after years of treatment for epilepsy in Switzerland. Poor and sickly, he is hoping to see the one distant relative that he knows of. He meets the gruff Rogozhin on the train to Saint Petersburg, who tells him of his love for the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna. The book’s core is Myshkin’s involvement with this couple, with several subplots and countless characters moving in and out of the story.

There’s an interesting concept here, as Dostoevsky, after Crime and Punishment, decided to write a character quite the opposite of Raskolnikov. Myshkin is an innocent man in a corrupt world, almost a Christ-like character. But Dostoevsky doesn’t really do much with this idea. Myshkin wins many people over with his frank honesty, although it’s unclear whether most of them pity him or really admire him. In the end, his followers get him nothing as he gets tangled up in a tragic mess of crisscrossing love interests that eventually lead to his downfall.

The book seems intended to be a critique of late nineteenth century Russian society, although to this modern reader it lacks bite or humor. I also found the characters to be fairly generic, created to express different points of view rather than being fully fleshed out characters.

As translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the prose and dialogue do read easily, but the book still felt like a very long slog. There are several very lengthy scenes with pages upon pages of exposition. There is lots of talk about morality, the Russian character, and philosophies of Christianity, but to me it seemed to be little more than nationalist and religious ranting. Much is made of a painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger. Dostoevsky and his character see this work as confronting and negating Christian faith, but I think Dostoevsky missed the point of this sixteenth century German painting, which was to drive home the suffering that Christ endured, not to imply that Christ wasn’t divine. This misguided, forced argument, to me, represents what is wrong with the novel, as Dostoevsky seems to force actions and opinions on his characters to prove points he wants to make. One way to read this is that he believed their society was hopeless and wouldn’t recognize a Christ-like figure if it encountered it. But in the end, it just doesn’t amount to much more than a yarn.

Making the book even more difficult to read is that there are more than 25 characters to keep track of, each with multiple names. As the translators explain, Russian names are composed of first name, patronymic (from the father’s first name), and family name. Then there are two forms of diminutives used among family and friends–the familiar and the casual or disrespectful. The translators use these as I assume Dostoevsky did, but to this Western reader, keeping track of dozens of unfamiliar names for characters with little to no distinguishing features was extremely difficult.

I did want to love this book. Crime and Punishment was one of my favorite books in high school, and other books with similar approaches are among my favorites, like Don Quixote, The Pickwick Papers, and Being There. But I found this one kind of a mess. Despite an intriguing concept, it just wasn’t worth the time spent on it.

Cogs in the machine

Book cover of The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada showing smoke rising from a trash bin.

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Factory is a surreal, existentialist novel. You might call it magical realism. It’s what you might get if Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Angela Carter were living in contemporary times and collaborated on a project together. The novel follows three people who work at a sprawling factory in Japan. No one knows what the factory actually produces, and none of the three main characters seem to understand their job or how it fits into the broader scheme.

Hiroko Oyamada rotates point of view between the three, and at times it’s difficult to know who’s talking because their voices all sound similar, down to the side remarks they make about others. At first, I thought this similarity might be a fault of the translation by David Boyd, but I came to think that Oyamada did this intentionally to emphasize the lack of individuality of the factory workers. There are strange phenomena that appear to be real, like an ever-growing mass of unidentifiable black birds living outside the factory, and others that may or may not be, like lizards that have adapted to live behind the machines in the factory’s two cleaning facilities, subsisting on bugs, dust, and dryer lint.

Boundaries are thin in this novel. It’s sometimes hard to know who’s talking because of the lack of paragraph breaks in the dialogue. The breakdown of boundaries continues as the novel progresses–between timelines, between characters, between reality and the fanciful.

I found the theme of the factory as a dehumanizing force a bit facile, and without more uniquely drawn characters, it’s hard to feel too invested in them. The end was also abrupt. But I’m a sucker for existentialist novels, and The Factory is a creative and thought-provoking read.

Overgrown kids at play

Cover of Sayaka Murata's Earthlings showing a cute stuffed alien toy.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

My rating: 1.5 of 5 stars

Like Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman, the main character in Earthlings appears to have some kind of autistic spectrum disorder and fails to understand how to navigate society or relations with other people. In Convenience Store Woman, the characters rant about the rules of society, but the narrator quite enjoys the structured existence of working in a convenience store. Earthlings takes this concept further and depicts a complete removal from not only society but reality. It’s a sort of cousin to Jean Cocteau‘s Les Enfants terribles, but meaner and with less insight.

Murata provides only superficial pop-psych explanations for why her characters have wound up feeling like stranded aliens among earthlings, and delves into little else in this novel in any depth. The goofy, absurdist story, told in a flat, emotionless tone, gives the reader no insight into the workings of society beyond what a typical teen might observe. The characters rage on about being tools and cogs in the Factory, expected to reproduce and to get jobs to support themselves, but like overgrown kids they can think of no feasible alternative. Their solution is basically to mooch off of the society they criticize and the people they can’t stand to be around. It all plays out with graphic violence, turning into what’s essentially a horror story written in the style of a mediocre YA novel.

Once more, I’ve finished a book by this author baffled about all the positive reviews. There is a long history of literature depicting the angst and unfairness of life as a young person in a restrictive society. The topic is also a specialty of the horror genre. This novel gives neither fresh perspective about the structural problems in society nor makes you feel the frustration of it. A cute stuffed alien on the cover and a simplistic writing style don’t mask the fact that there’s less of substance here than in a decent horror novel or movie.

It did occur to me that this book might be satirizing the frustration and empty rage of young people who are angry at the situation they’ve been put in but don’t even attempt to come up with realistic solutions. If that were the case, I’d dislike this book even more, as making fun of the troubles of people who are clearly mentally ill just seems cruel and heartless. Which just about sums up this mean, unenjoyable book.

Under a fluorescent glare

Cover of Convenience Store Woman, with rice ball in form of a smiling woman's head on a plate.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman is a short novel about a woman, Keiko, who finally finds her place in Japanese society at the age of 18 working at a convenience store, where she is told exactly how she is expected to behave. After a difficult childhood, this is a huge relief for her. Now, at 36, she realizes that her family and friends feel sorry for her, assuming that she wants a different job or to get married and have children. She is perfectly happy being a cog in the convenience store machine, but is compelled to try to satisfy society’s expectations.

Like the convenience store Keiko works in, the book is brightly lit, airy, and clear. Murata, who worked in a convenience store herself, drew from personal experience, and life in the convenience store is the most interesting aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, the characters seem as if they were selected from a shelf, thinly drawn and mostly sticking to stereotypes, such as the misogynistic young man, Shiraha, who wants to withdraw from society but seems incapable of anything beyond insulting Keiko and spouting inane opinions about how society is still in the stone age. Keiko seems to see right through him but takes him in because she thinks it will be advantageous for both of them. The result is obvious and tedious, even for a novel this brief.

Closing this book, I was befuddled by all the great reviews it’s gotten. It was a quick read and fairly entertaining in its oddness, but there wasn’t much to it. Reading beyond the brief quotes after I finished (I try not to read full reviews until afterward because they tend to reveal too much), it occurred to me that it’s a sign of a very thin novel when virtually all the reviews mention the exact same points: Keiko hitting a boy over the head with a shovel in childhood, wanting to cook a dead bird she finds, eyeing a knife when her sister’s baby starts crying. The reviewers also all seemed to use “fluorescent” as an adjective to describe the book.

Convenience Store Woman, Murata’s tenth book, was a big hit in Japan, and I can understand its power as a critique of the restrictiveness and expectations of Japanese society. In translation, though, without being steeped in the culture, it comes across as an odd, quirky, almost comic work. I think it was meant to be dead serious, but this is one book that really does seem to get lost in translation.

A trying life, living omitted

Cover of Chéri and The End of Chéri
by Colette, translated by Rachel Careau showing pink roses behind lettering.

Chéri and The End of Chéri by Colette
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having not been familiar with the world of courtesans in early twentieth century France, I was somewhat surprised by the premise of the novels Chéri and The End of Chéri, which were published in 1920 and 1926, respectively. Chéri is a young man whose mother is a wealthy, independent courtesan, and the first novel focuses on his affair with his mother’s fellow courtesan, Léa, who, at almost 50, is about twice Chéri’s age. Chéri and Léa lounge about and make love, and Chéri seems like he would be quite happy spending the rest of his life with his face nestled in Léa’s bosom playing with her pearls. He has no direction and very little personality, but, as we are told, he is very beautiful.

Léa is a more interesting and fully-formed character, as are the other courtesans in his mother’s circle, but the focus is on Chéri, who is entering into an arranged marriage with Edmée, a rich young woman who, for reasons that weren’t clear to me, is willing to put up with his nonsense. Chéri is very unhappy about his impending nuptials, and behaves like a spoiled child, bucking against his fate while doing little to open any other options for himself. I found him infuriating, as I’m fairly sure Colette meant him to be. At its core, Chéri depicts how emotionally fraught and destructive this relationship is for both Chéri and Léa, and it is by far the better of the two novels.

The End of Chéri opens after World War I, six years after Chéri and Léa have parted. Chéri has returned from the front a changed man, but this change is apparent to the reader only in that Chéri can’t rally with his usual bravado when he’s down, and that people keep noting his beauty is now tainted with weariness. The novel amounts to an oddly detached portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder–Chéri’s experiences in the war are only alluded to, with the reason for his malaise placed squarely on his lost love with Léa. The book is a trying grind as he wanders aimlessly in a changed society he no longer understands. Colette focuses on the effects of aging and the passing of time, visiting Léa only briefly. I missed her in the novel almost as much as Chéri did. I also never gained any insight into Edmée, who is now presumably finding emotional satisfaction in her nursing work and her own love affairs.

Both of these novels were innovative for their time–the first in depicting the emotional wreckage of an unusual relationship and the second in focusing on a character with PTSD. However, Colette’s narrow spotlight on Chéri, whose emotional distance frustrates both Léa and Edmée, creates a detached, unemotional experience for the reader. While I found the books interesting in an intellectual sense, they weren’t involving. Colette picked her most boring character for her main one. I wish she had gone into the other characters’ heads more, making Chéri an enigma for us to figure out along with them. That would have made for a truly fascinating pair of novels.

Rachel Careau seems to have done a very thorough, careful job with these translations, so if you’re interested in the later Colette novels, I would highly recommend this edition. if you’re not already a fan of Claudine at School and her other better-known works, though, I wouldn’t start here.

Firmly within belief

Cover of Beyond Belief with title written vertically in blue and John Koethe horizontally in black.

Beyond Belief: Poems by John Koethe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Koethe is a retired professor philosopher as well as an established poet. Beyond Belief: Poems, his 2022 collection, is a set of philosophical poetic musings. These abstract and slippery poems are mostly about time, aging, and the sum of a life. While many were thought-provoking at times, there was little that was vivid or particularly moving in them. As much as I enjoyed some of his thoughts, they are told from something of a detached remove, and the feelings evoked were rarely sustained throughout the long, meandering poems. They came across almost like brief but rambling essays.

That said, there was a warmth and introspection that I did enjoy in this collection. Reading it felt like sitting before a fire with a wise older friend and listening to him impart some of what he’s learned as he reflects on his years on earth.

Poems of the car wash

At the Car Wash by Arthur Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Arthur Russell‘s At the Car Wash, recent winner of the Rattle chapbook prize, is an extraordinary chapbook of poems centered around the author’s experiences working at his father’s car wash in the melting pot of Brooklyn back before the current wave of gentrification. Russell lived in both of the areas I did growing up, and his vivid poems bring to life the gritty, rough world of the borough at that time. But their true focus is the author’s complicated relationships with his parents, particularly his hard-hearted businessman of a father.

In form, the poems range from portraits of the people who worked at the car wash, like “Checkout Man” to broader conceptual pieces about the poet’s life’s choices, like “Burning Garbage.” The most powerful poem in the collection is “How to Replace a Toilet,” a grand summing up of the author’s upbringing and work in his dad’s business, with all the mixed feelings it entailed. Told as a how-to guide, it begins: “First, have a father, one who owns a car wash / where he employs poor Black men / preferably those who’ve come north in the Great Migration, / but any poor Black man will do / as long as they have historical disadvantages / that have translated into self-destructive behavior…”

I found this short collection touching, unsettling, and thought-provoking, and read through the entire chapbook in one sitting. Highly recommended. You can purchase it here.

A patchwork creation

Cover of Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, with the letters XXX in foreground.

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In Frankissstein: A Love Story, Jeanette Winterson plays in various ways on Mary Shelly‘s seminal work Frankenstein. Part of it follows Shelly as she conceives of the idea for the book. This alternates with a contemporary section in which a transgender doctor, Ry, falls in love with an AI maverick not so subtly named Victor Stein.

I’ve been a fan of past works by Winterson, particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but this book had none of that magic. Winterson throws out all the usual ideas that Shelly kicked off more than 200 years ago about what humans create and why. We still haven’t answered these questions adequately, which is why they have such lasting interest, but Winterson doesn’t advance anything in this book. About the only interesting idea is Stein’s fascination with Ry’s partial transformation of their body and his view that this is a new stage for humanity, where we can alter our bodies to our perceived gender. But like all the other ideas in the book, Winterson does little beyond raising it.

That might be okay if the writing weren’t so inconsistent. In one paragraph, the tense shifted back and forth, but I couldn’t tell if Winterson was trying to disorient the reader or just being sloppy. The cardboard characters tend to speak as if they’re giving each other TED talks, and in times of emotional tension, slip into an overwrought dramatic style that borders on the comical, almost like the actors in a old Carol Burnett skit. Winterson doesn’t use quotation marks, either, which can make it difficult to tell at times what’s dialogue and what’s just the narrator commenting on things.

After all the retellings of how Shelly created her novel and the infinite plays on the novel itself, Winterson uses both to ride the contemporary AI zeitgeist, but adds little that we haven’t read and heard about it over the past few years. There have been countless more thoughtful and entertaining movies, TV shows, and books about AI (Machines like Me, Klara and the Sun, Her, Ex Machina, etc.). If you haven’t already, read the wonderful Shelly novel, which has a thousand times more heart and thought put into it. This feels like it was patched together like Frankenstein’s monster–and maybe that was Winterson’s meta-intent, come to think of it, but it makes for an unsatisfying read.

A Minor Work from Gaskell

Cover of Cousin Phillis showing a young Victorian woman working by a window

Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Cousin Phillis is a late novella by Elizabeth Gaskell in which a young man, Paul Manning, recounts meeting his cousin and her family and becoming involved in their rural farm life.

Like Cranford, Cousin Phillis depicts the effects of industrialization, and also like that novel, involves a coming railway line. Paul is a clerk for an engineer building a branch line from Eltham to Hornby. Paul’s mother has a second cousin in a nearby village who is married to a minister with a thriving farm, and his father encourages Paul to introduce himself to the family. Paul finds Cousin Phillis to be tall, beautiful, and very well-read, but while Paul is clearly stricken by her and Paul’s father encourages him to court her, Paul wants a wife who is not smarter or taller than he. After some time, Mr. Holdsworth, Paul’s worldly managing engineer, becomes ill and goes to the farm to recover, where he and Phillis fall for each other.

Gaskell is one of my favorite authors, but although this is a late work, it feels more like a minor effort. The Wikipedia entry, if it is to be believed, says that a fifth and sixth part were planned, so Gaskell may have intended to write a fuller, more interesting novel, but most of what happens here is predictable and foreshadowed from the start. As it stands, it’s a simple, straightforward, and somewhat ridiculous story to the modern eye. For example, Phillis’s father, a very perceptive minister in most regards, seems to have no clue about what is going on in his daughter’s head even though Paul sees it quite clearly. And a major plot point hinges on a life-threatening “brain fever,” whatever that is.

As always, Gaskell tells a vivid story and writes with thoughtful empathy–no author of her time was better at understanding their characters, in my opinion. Some of the characters, like the perceptive maid Betty, are wonderfully drawn. But while Cousin Phillis is an enjoyable read, Gaskell’s horror stories are more fun, and Wives and Daughters and North and South have much more complexity and insight. This slight novel isn’t a great introduction to what this wonderful author is capable of.

Typically wonderful Wodehouse nonsense

Cover of Sam in the Suburbs depicting a young man waving to a woman
First edition (UK), Methuen Publishing Ltd

Sam in the Suburbs by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

P.G. Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Blandings series, but once you get past some of his very early novels, almost anything you might pick up by him is a fun read. Sam in the Suburbs, also published as Sam the Sudden, is a solid, silly romp that stands apart from these more famous series.

The story involves the young Sam Shotter. His uncle, who is disappointed with Sam’s careless work, sends him to England to work for his potential business associate, the publisher Lord Tilbury. Not wanting to cross the ocean from New York with Lord Tilbury, who he considers a bore, Sam joins his old pal Hash Todhunter, who is a cook on a tramp steamer. Sam carries around a photo of a woman that he took from the wall of a remote fishing shack in Canada. He has fallen in love with her, he tells Hash, although the photo had been torn out of a magazine without her name attached. When they arrive in England, Hash “borrows” Sam’s money to bet on a dog race, leaving Sam destitute but determined to find the love of his life. The ensuing plot, which entails many absurd coincidences and a run-in with some ridiculous criminals, is typically wonderful Wodehouse nonsense.

Sam is a hilarious character, and I wish he’d appeared in other books. He’s somewhat similar to Bertie Wooster of the Jeeves stories, although Sam is more arrogant and self-confident.

When I’m feeling down or stressed out, I find no better cure than reading Wodehouse’s absurd exploits of the rich and ridiculous in England in the early twentieth century. While it’s true that I and my family wouldn’t have been welcomed in this society, I still somehow find these comic farces, which come across as gentle satires, a comfort. I wouldn’t rank this among Wodehouse’s best works, but it’s a solid entertainment with some hilarious scenes.