Saturday, October 29, 2011

November's PBR Book Club Pick: Ready Player One

I don't know about the rest of you but, after an October of Japanese matricide with Kirino's Real World, I'm more than ready for a romp through a virtual world of 80's geek culture with Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. Perhaps you book-clubbers will want to check out the official mixtape for the book from Ernest Cline's blog. Now it's time to read and drink PBR and listen to Buckner and Garcia's "Pac Man Fever!"

And who else thinks that the cover of the "Advance Reader's Edition" is far superior to the official cover?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cubism and Rashomon

[contains spoilers]

"Deregulation of the Japanese capital asset markets set off what was, and would remain until the NASDAQ, the largest speculative bubble in human history, combining speculation in stocks and speculation in real estate to an astonishing degree. Valuations in both became wholly unhinged."

"MacKaye's lyrical approach had changed dramatically in the two years since Minor Threat. He wasn't railing against teenage hypocrites, bullies, and poseurs anymore - the subject of his songs was often himself."

"As the postmodernists would remind us, we have stuff, we have signs for stuff, and we have symbols of signs."

"With no armor, and no shielding of any kind, we were totally exposed. Our vehicle was like an elephant wandering past the lions' den, holding the tail of the Bradley in front of it. An IED would kill us all."

"Having reached this conclusion, the limbic system sends an all-clear signal to the reptilian brain, and you find yourself walking toward the intruder with open arms."

What do all of these quotes have in common? Together they make an intriguing aleatory cut-up abstraction of the PBR Book Club's October pick? No, it's that they are all NONFICTION. Which is all I have been reading lately. Then along came a lady in a banana suit and forced some fiction my way for a change. I must have needed it because I tentatively began piecemeal reading it and suddenly I'm at the end. While she isn't quite a Picasso or a Kurosawa by any means, the more I read Natsuo Kirino's "Real World" the more I felt like I was wandering through a Cubist painting with "Rashomon" playing on a black and white TV in the cultural background.

At the center are four teenage friends. Surrounding them are their families, their prehistories, an outsider, a few peripheral connections, and an abrupt circumstance. What begins as a relatively straight-forward narrative with flashbacks to the past casually slips into n-dimensional space when the first persona shift sneaks up pleasantly from behind.

I got into an argument with a friend at Mirth Cafe recently in which I claimed that every human being was capable of great evil and great good but that most of us spent most of our time in the comfortable middle of the bell curve (the opposing viewpoint was that some people just don't "have it in them" to commit murder, for example). This novel examines those places and times where people find themselves suddenly and gradually near the extremes of that distribution. Or rather, it uses those situations as a seer would a crystal ball to glimpse how our minds and relationships work out at the edges of everyday experience.

At the root of this Cubism - this differential in perspective that emerges from a flatter tapestry of assumptions about other people's views and motives when viewed from the differing viewpoints of the various persona - is a pervasive space. I didn't actually interpret this space as emotional distance but rather as indicative of the personal space that so epitomizes the Japanese cultural answer to high population density across a small territory - when there is no physical space, people and ultimately society create a mental and behavioral space to compensate.

One of my favorite interludes (other than Worm's salt suit phase - I totally dig the salt suit!) is Terauchi's telling of her entire childhood seemingly spent commuting long distances on a busy metro and suffering all kinds of injustices with no support or guidance other than to just deal with it. The cultural difference here is hammered home, at least to my mid-western sensibilities, even allowing for the large urban aspect of her commuting experience.

In a train where many of the same people are packed in every day, in our culture I have to believe that if a grade school girl were by herself every day, getting shoved off balance and cutting open her cheek, puking up her breakfast on a bad morning, or later as a teenager getting sexually abused by office workers and students there would generally be a different response from some of the "regulars" than just looking the other way or verbally criticizing the young woman and deriding her. Let's just say some vigilante-style pervert-ass stomping would be going down.

In addition to this pervasive sense of cultural or social space overlaid on the close confines of their physical existence, the sibling element that made this experience engaging for me and evoked the sense of Cubism is the mismatching and misreading of each of the characters by the others as a result of this insidious space and the more general human tendency to make false assumptions about what's going on in even close friends' or loved ones' heads and then proceed as if the assumptions were real. Occasionally they guessed right (Terauchi about Yuzan's sexuality for example), but most of the tension in the story line and in the reader coming to understand the inner workings of the characters is derived from this fascinating menagerie of failed mind-reading.

I suppose the fact they each thought they were individually to blame for the tragedies involved is not only the aggregation and culmination of all the interpersonal perceptual slippage but is also representative of the unavoidably self-focused universe that is a teenager's mindset at that phase of life; it certainly brings the morass of missed cues and intentions over a lifetime into sharp relief.

Kirino does a great job at painting these mental landscapes for us without an excess of detail. Worm's evolution from wanting to steal the neighbor lady's panties to obsessing on Toshi to the dazed and sleepy running phase (did I say I love the salt suit!) to the amplification of the old Japanese movie that had made an impression on him as a child into this all-consuming inner narrative to a final abandonment of these constructs - each of the characters has these and they're all adequately interesting. But a series of insightful internal portraits alone wouldn't have done the trick - inviting us into the web of mismatches and misreads reaching back over their entire lives is what engages us and provides us a glimpse into the reasons why people commit murder or take their own lives.

I found myself frequently flipping back to prior narratives to see how something said by one character from a given viewpoint interfaced with the current narrative's timeline and viewpoint through a twisty hallway of offsetting times and places, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle where you can only see part of the puzzle at any given time and the pieces look different when viewed from different sides of the table.

I've seen too many examples of disenfranchised people throwing away opportunities and too much suicide in my life, as I know many people have, and perhaps my personal history helped these particular stories to resonate more easily with me because of that, but mostly I respect the overall effect of the entire webby ball of it - the juxtaposition of all the out-of-kilter (and occasionally dead-on) interconnections against each other and onto these passionate young minds bludgeoning their way through personal and cultural space and the intense pressures and expectations that seem undiminished by that space.

Dan's take on narrative structure and Yuzan's window

Now, before I begin, a little caveat. Textual and layout analysis of a translation is problematic, but since I’m agnostic, and gave up Walter Benjamin a long time ago, lets make Gabriel the author, and turn the translation into the text. If we can ignore questions about God, we can ignore the Japanese.

I’m about, or rather, exactly 1/3rd of the way through Real World. Location 1000. Worm is going on about his salt suit. So far, Kirino’s novel is easy to read. It’s compelling, and the violence, fear and isolation go down easily. I can sit here at the pig, be a compliant reader, and the words just slide along. There was one jarring narrative moment, though, near the end of Yuzan’s chapter. Yuzan is a comfortable first-person narrator. She doesn’t address me as ‘gentle reader’, but might as well. She describes the ping, the crack in the glass of her window, and the phone call when she learned her mother died. Suddenly, another reader interjects, “So what you mean is that pebble was your mother?” Disturbing, to learn I’m reading along with Worm.

I like this shock in the narrative structure. It’s clever, bringing the symbol of the window, crack, and pebble into high-relief, for explicit analysis and interpretation within the novel itself. It turns Yuzan’s poignant description of loss into an anecdote she relates for a social purpose. Within the structure up to this point, it is unique, highlighting this particular symbol (window, pebble, crack, loss) and its subsequent interpretation.

Lets pull back for a minute and look at the structure of Yuzan’s chapter. We start with Yuzan as a first person narrator, reflecting on the end of the chapter before, where we left Toshi. The change in perspective is casual, unremarkable, continuing in the same plot-based timeline. Following Yuzan through the chapter, we read her perspective on recent events, her personal history, struggle integrating her sexuality, loss of her mother, and her relationship with the other mother killer, ending up, in the plot-based timeline, directly before the chapter begins--Worm leaving with Yuzan’s bicycle and the new phone, Yuzan returning Toshi’s bicycle and phone.

There are 4 major breaks in the page layout, separating five parts of the chapter:

1) From describing the assault to Yuzan’s return from Toshi’s house (Maybe that’s why it wasn’t such a shock when Dahmer suddenly disappeared. / It was exactly eleven when I got home. Dad was waiting outside for me, looking unhappy.)

2) Between Worm’s most recent call and his first call (The glass was perfect, not a scratch on it. / The first time Worm called my cell phone was after dinner, when my dad and I were in the middle of a fight.)

3) Transitioning from Yuzan’s identification with Worm’s matricide to her experience with her terminally ill mother (This wasn’t a lie. I might not have done it with my own hands, but inside it felt like I did. / They found out Mom had ovarian cancer just when I entered junior high in April.)

4) The window, pebble, crack and loss (Not long after this the phone rang with the news my mother died. / “So what you mean is that pebble was your mother?”)

The window, pebble, crack, and loss figure prominently here, with the mother killers’ analyses tying them together in the final transition. Yuzan’s revelation throws light on the novel’s major themes of isolation and violence, using the bond of violence and hate as a reluctant attempt to escape isolation.

“I thought my mother was blaming me,” I began. “That she hated me. When you hate someone like that, your spirit still hangs around and you can’t properly pass on. That’s when I started to get scared. Not scared of my mother or her ghost or anything. Scared of how strong the bonds between people can be. So when I decided I’d abandon my mother I felt like I’d murdered her.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Courtneybelle Asks: Maybe Japan Just Needs Central Air Conditioning?

(Warning: spoilers)

So, I had noticed the near constant whining about the heat and sweating in Real World.But after hearing a recent NPR story, I finally decided that heat is a character in this book. The NPR story was about how baseball pitchers hit batters more frequently in stifling heat. The researchers have several theories, as do players, about the relationship between the temperature and this behavior, but the numbers were undeniable. So, while reading Real World, was anyone else reminded of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing?

I admit that this book could be an account of the way self centered adolescents become self indulgent adults. Kirino might indeed have something to say about the bone crushing pressure Japanese youth are stranded under. She clearly has something to say about the sexualization of young people in Japan. And she might even want the reader to think that Japan still doesn’t have this giggling, subservient female archetype neurosis thing sorted out yet. But, I want to suggest that maybe the author just sees an opportunity for better climate control. Moving room to room turning on air conditioners and what appears to be a complete lack of box-fans, might be enough to drive Japan’s super-industrialized posterity into a buck-wild manga murder sex fiasco.

As an American who only studied one semester of Japanese, I couldn’t help feeling I lacked cultural knowledge and perspective to fully appreciate this book. Her real message seemed continuously just out of grasp. If Kirino wants me to have a strong feeling about the changing gender roles in modern Japanese society, I’m going to need more than 200 pages of sexually repressed teenagers kvetching about how brain-fucked their parents are. I grew up in the Midwest, I already know that story. If she wants the Japanese art of subtlety to inadvertently drown her message in subway sweat, then sure, I love it. Message received.

On a lighter note, it was generous of Kirino not to let the afflicted and simpering “Worm” die a virgin. At least there is some justice in the Real World.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Nick Wonders How It All Breaks Down

[Spoilers for the latter half of the book]

Going back and forth, from character to character, as Real World approaches the end, it's almost like a frame-by-frame analysis of Worm breaking down. The first half of the book, Worm's almost charming. When he first meets Kirarin, he seems almost clever and suave:
"I'd pictured Worm as this haunted-looking sweaty, smelly guy, confused and saddened by what he'd done. But the real Worm was tanned and healthy-looking. He looked neat and tidy, with a clean white T-shirt on and oversize black shorts. [...] Could he really have killed his own mother?"

This contrasts with Worm's own description of himself just hours before, in a convenience tore, where some guy's going to puke, he stinks so much. Kirarin makes mention that there's a "metallic, rusty sort of smell" about him that's usually from guys who want to have sex, but that it seems to be some other desire driving Worm.

That desire is some sort of twisted, confusing (even to Worm) conflation of anger, control, and sex. Worm attempts to seduce, cajole, and outright threaten Kirarin into sex, but every time he's rebuffed. She's well aware of whatever lurks within him. It seems like Worm has flashes of impulse that can quickly be subverted by a strong-willed woman. His ability to maintain any sort of idea or plan for very long seems weak, and easily deflected into some other thought - usually by Kirarin or Toshi demeaning him in some fashion.

Here's your question to ponder: Worm repeatedly gets the butcher knife out to threaten Kirarin. He never actually attacks her with it, but it's repeatedly pointed to as the possible method of death for Kirarin. Is this foreshadowing of the fact that cutting the cab driver's throat results in her death>

Monday, October 10, 2011

Richard Ponders Real World's Parent/Child Relationships

[Spoiler alert: this focuses on the Worm 2 and Terauchi sections]

So our astute writers have been doing sharp work parsing individual passages and meta moments, but I want to look at the bigger picture. Since this is, after all, a book with a matricide at the center of it, what point is Kirino making about parent/child bonds (or lack thereof)? And why DOES Worm kill his mother anyway?

In the second Worm section, he attempts to explain his actions: "She was guilty of creating a history between us, a past that justified me putting her in her place...I was a colony and she was the occupying force...A colony where everything was plundered. I don't know what exactly was stolen from me. But most definitely the old lady continued to steal something."

Worm's military language (occupation) is obviously significant here, as he uses it throughout this section, believing himself to be "transforming" into some sort of Japanese soldier. And there's definitely an us-against-them mentality in regards to parents and children that extends to the novel's female voices as well. Is there a single well-developed adult figure in this book? (or are they similar to the nonsensical "wawawa" voices of authority figures in Peanuts cartoons?). Fathers tend to be absent figures who work late then go out drinking. Mothers, if living, are smothering figures, ostensibly looking out for the girls' best interests but also stifling their individuality. The Terauchi section drifts into a lengthy flashback regarding her childhood and how her parents forced her into solo train rides at a young age, left alone to fend off the perverts on her way to school. "This was my reailty," she says, accepting her fate, but Worm's drastic action seems a rejection of such a fate. He's hellbent on forging his own "reality," though Terauchi, interestingly, is the only girl so far who's overly critical of what he's done. In fact, she sees her own loss of faith in her parents as a tragedy far greater, more "irreparable" (her favorite term) than Worm's matricide: "Kids lose their trust in the parents they love, but still accept them, so they end up not trusting themselves anymore."

This is a dark fucking book.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Real World" Stops Kidding Around and Gets Pretty Meta

Kirarin and Worm are the perfect foils for each other in Chapter 5, which ends in an ultra hip, postmodern cliffhanger. I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't gotten there yet, and instead just leave you with the bread & butter of meta-ness, found on p. 123.

Worm has just decided that Terauchi is the only one of the 4 girl friends who's enough of a "cadet" to ghostwrite the manifesto of his crime:
"I want you to pretend you're a boy who's killed his mother and write a story about it. It doesn't have to be long, but something that's better than what that killer Sakakibara wrote. Sprinkle in some Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche or whatever. But do a good job of incorporating those, so nobody can trace the source. Then sort of wrap it up like 'Evangelion.' Or maybe--it might be better to make it all avant garde-ish, know what I mean? Philosophy of life, moaning and groaning about the absurdity of it all, like that. I'm counting on you. If a story doesn't work out, then a poem's fine. If you make it kind of incomprehensible and look cool then a poem might just do the trick. The kind of poem that they could use as evidence in a psych evaluation, that sort of thing. Something that hides my real intentions and confuses the reader."
Scenesters, discuss! 8 page paper due next week.

Friday, October 7, 2011

King of the Road

Having worked my way through Real World, I keep coming back to the introduction of Worm's reading habits. The books by Stephen King that he mentions liking are The Running Man, Carrie, and The Long Walk, in addition to Battle Royale. It almost seems too easy - like Kirino is following the High Fidelity adage that "What really matters is what you like, not what you’re like."

All it takes is a surface gloss of the plots of these books, and Worm's personality is laid out: three of the books are about teenagers (and two of those deal with teens being placed in life-or-death situations by adults), and one is about a man trying to get away from the system. One book deals with an oppressive mother, and all four end in death.

Hell, take the fact that The Running Man and The Long Walk are both books Stephen King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, and you've got another layer to parse: hidden identity, and whether what's presented is in fact the truth, or if it's a front to fool the world.

A reviewer on Amazon (accurately) noted that the various internal monologues are essentially indiscernible from one another. While I agree, the fact is that each of the girls has her role - slut, brain, lesbian, and plain Jane - externally. Internally, they're all the same, and that's significant. The girls all essentially mention the fact that they feel like none of the other girls would understand what they've got inside, and thus maintain the role they've assumed, yet all the while, each girl is having the same issues.

Peeping Toms and Other Reasons You Should Love This Book

I have to admit I was a little nervous during the first two chapters of Real World. I'd already picked a crappy book, and then I made the executive decision to make everyone jump ship to another book. "Please don't let it also be crappy," I prayed.

For such a short, 200 pp. book, Kirino sure takes a long time -- 60 pages -- to warm up and set the scene. We're introduced to Toshi, who has a few witty, wisecracking things to say about feminism, and then Yuzan, who reads kind of like a bad cliché -- the closeted lesbian who's mother died of cancer. But the weirdness does slowly start to accumulate: There's Toshi's alter ego, Ninna Hori. Yuzan's mother who comes back as a ghost pebble. The mysterious killer Worm who randomly starts calling up girls in Toshi's contact list.

Readers, Kirino cracks it wide open in Chapter 3. Worm begins to reveal, in his bizarre soldierly way, the reasons why he killed his mother, and the choppiness I was so leery of in chapters 1 & 2 starts lending itself to hilarity. Opining on manga vs. novels: "The guys in my class see only the outer surface. Same with their parents. Guess they find that makes living easier, like that's the smart way to approach life. What a bunch of assholes."

Then, on page 76, we're finally treated to our first boner ("As I imagined her, I got an erection."). From there Worm shares his back-story of being a Peeping Tom, and the rest is history -- guys, I can't even keep up with this guy's quotables. Let's just say Chip would be very titillated. And then chapter 4 builds on the freakiness, with a bona fide Naughty Japanese School Girl.

I'm not sure where this is headed, but I'm pretty sure I like it.

Pretentious discussion topics: Personas & alternate realities; the Novel as a way to "show you the real world with one layer peeled away, a reality you can't see otherwise."

Best critique of hipsters:
"My old man said he'd use the Japanese-style room on the second floor as his study. A study? Don't make me laugh. All he's got are dusty old sets of collected works. Those aren't books -- they're furniture. And how about all those records he's collected since college? He never listens to them. Hello! Ever heard of CDs? We got MP3s and DVDs, too, in case you didn't know. And don't give me all that crap about how great analog sounds, okay? [...] Okay, so you bought a computer, but do you ever use it? You're just trying to look cool. Do you know that I sneak into your room, surf the Web, and play around on porn sites?"

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Richard Breezes Through Three Chapters of Kirino's Real World

[Spoiler alert level: high!]

What it lacks in a distinctive style, Natsuo Kirino's Real World is making up for by being utterly bonkers. It's like a J-Horror Japanese schoolgirl film with the nihilistic literary aesthetic of someone like Chuck Palahniuk.

Told in alternating voices, Real World begins with the mundane. Toshi has a stable family and she's going to "cram school" to prepare for college and she tells us she is "honest to a fault." But two pages later she's lying to solicitors and several pages after that she's covering up for the matricidal maniac next door whom she calls Worm (a kid she barely knows and doesn't like). In fact, she's created a whole new identity, "Ninna Hori": "Hori is the character for 'moat,'" she says, and the identity seems to be her way of keeping herself apart from a world "assaulted by commercialism" (not to mention random perverts haunting the subway stations).

Then there's Yuzan, Toshi's friend, coming to terms with her sexual identity by hanging around in gay bars with a girl who's renamed herself after a serial killer (Dahmer). Yuzan's had a rough life, losing her mother at an early age, and she too finds herself drawn to Worm's violent acts. Unlike herself, shaped by actions beyond her control, she feels that Worm is creating a "real world" for himself by assuming (insane) responsibility over his own destiny.

And then there's Worm. He enjoys reading Stephen King, listening to the neighbors screw, and trying to steal the neighbor's wife's panties. Typical teenage scamp, until he picks up the baseball bat one morning and gets matricidal. Worm may be a little confused about where the "real world" begins and ends: "Novels are closer to real life than manga. It's like they show you the real world with one layer peeled away, a reality you can't see otherwise. They're deep, is what I'm saying."

Real World is not very deep (so far). It's worldview doesn't seem to extend much beyond "everything is terrible and getting worse." But you can read this sumbitch in a few hours and begin preparing for November's choice...which might be Abby's suggestion of Ready Player One (unless we decide to go big and tackle a postmodern classic like DeLillo's Underworld, which I am needing a good excuse to read again).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Real World, Quarter 1: Nina Hori & Yuzan

***Now with fewer spoilers!***

A lot of you lazy Larryville scenesters are really hurting for a copy of this month's PBR Book Club book, so tonight I did my booksharing due and cracked open Real World for a speed-reading session.

It's a weird little book so far. The thing I loved about Kirino's earlier, better-known book, Out, was the juxtaposition of sterile box-lunch factory ladies against surprisingly grisly yet homey dismemberment scenes. In Real World we have none of the gore, and are instead just getting to know a few chatty Japanese high school girls who are doing their best to navigate a sterile, detached "Real World" in which cold-blooded matricide warrants a "yeah, whatever." The whole thing so far is kind of an absurdist neo-Japanese The Stranger. The translation feels a little awkward and forced, but I find that it somehow helps if I imagine everything in Woody Allen's voice.

My favorite part so far: Toshi talking about all the stalkers and perverts who prey on nice girls for their mailing lists whenever they set foot near train stations and shopping malls. So true! Gentlemen of the PBR Book Club -- take note.

Most depressing quote: "The world laughs at losers."

Moving on to the "Worm" chapter next -- I hope he says lots of crazy existential stuff and starts talking about his 'cool,' 'incomprehensible' manifesto.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Richard Reads 80-ish Pages of Anthropology Before Bananasuit Tosses It Out the Window

So it turns out that a sensitive 600 page coming-of-age novel was maybe not the wisest choice for a snarky book club that wants to throw terms like "meta" and "postmodern" around a lot. So I support Bananasuit's executive decision to discard it in favor of a bit of the old ultraviolence* (Japanese-style!) with Real World (which to Chip's chagrin is not a novelization of the never-ending MTV series).

[*free PBR for the first person to get the italicized reference above]/

But since I waded through most of the first section of Anthropology of an American Girl, I'm damn well going to say stuff about it. First off, it's not AS bad as some of us expected. Evie's an "artist," all sensitive and shit, so naturally she's prone to poetic descriptions, some of them total clunkers, some of them memorably bizarre in a twee sort of way (..."the smells were like fairies escaping"). I can buy her way of thinking, mostly, but I'm dubious that even the most artistic of teenage girls really speaks to her boyfriend this way: "It's life, demystified. A place out of self. Not a waltz, but the whirls within a waltz". Also, nearly a hundred pages in, I still don't buy her as a serious "artist." We've been told that she draws and takes photos, but there's no real exploration of what her "art" means to her, even though the book seems to want to present a Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-a-Young-Woman.

I do sort of like the cultural context in the background though. We start in 1979, and Evie's mother is a left-over hippie, her boyfriend's father is a rapacious capitalist, and her only real adult role model is her best friend's mother, Maman, who is French (and dead).

Will I finish it? Nope. I'm convinced that Evie will successfully come of age without my attention.

Best boner description:

"...something both majestic and vile."

Saturday, October 1, 2011

After Democracy Fails, the PBR Book Club Switches It Up

Scenesters, let this be a lesson to us all in the failures of democracy and consensus building. We collectively fell for the hip title and the aesthetically pleasing book jacket design -- and were collectively let down by the first sentence of this sensitive 600 pp. coming of age tale: "Kate turned to check the darkening clouds and the white arc of her throat looked long like the neck of a preening swan."

Tonight I'm making the executive decision to chuck Anthropology of an American Girl out the window, and invite all of you to channel your hipster rage into Natsuo Kirino's tale of murderous Japanese teenagers, instead. 'Bloated self-indulgent cliches' be damned; ready yourselves for some Heathers meets Natural Born Killers action in October's new pick: Real World! I'm stoked for the beer-induced discussions we're bound to have about violence and class warfare, and for us to write our own 'cool' and 'incomprehensible' PBR Book Club manifesto.

So don't be mad that you spent an extra $15 on Anthropology, and instead get excited that this month's new pick is only 200 pages long. We scenesters may enjoy pretentious postmodern literature, but we're also pretty lazy. (This will give me way more time to catch up on Breaking Bad.) See you at our tentative time & place, 8:30 p.m. October 27th at the Replay!