Thursday, January 26, 2012

Courtneybelle's Intro to Absurdistan

[No spoilers]

“I was born in Russia and came here as a boy.
And in Russia all you can eat are bowls of tears.”

- Eugene Mirman

Even though I had been to Russia several times and professed my undying love of its people and culture, I never truly understood the Russian Idea of love till I heard this introduction on This American Life. It is from an episode called "Lost in Translation." It clarified for me what years of reading Russian literature could not. Moreover it explained why I’m comforted by Russia’s salted, broody subtlety.

This excerpt is preceded by a short story about correspondent Alex Blumberg, who was, at that time, a student. This whole exchange between Ira glass and Alex is five minutes long and can be found here .

But the important part is this…

“I have a clear, perhaps, culturally informed idea of what a great date is. It has to do with my idea of falling in love. In my mind, what I see is like the falling in love montage in the movies. When you go on a great date this often involves a board walk, there is a great deal of throwing your heads back in laughter, you might chase each other around a tree, the splashing of water is almost always involved. In Russia it is a totally different thing. In Russian literature there is a lot of talk about the soul and soul mates. So for them FALLING IN LOVE MEANS FINDING THE ONE PERSON ON THE PLANET WHO UNDERSTANDS THE MISERY OF LIFE AS DEEPLY AND FULLY AS YOU DO."

When I asked my teacher about this theory that Americans and Russians have completely different views of what it means to fall in love, she totally agreed. And then she went on a rant about Americans. “Americans have no understanding of what it’s like to fall in love! I never understand why do you always say “he makes me laugh”? Why is that so important? Every American I’ve ever met, all they say when you ask them how the relationship is, they say “he makes me laugh” as if that’s the greatest thing in the world! What’s so great about it?””

I think about this story almost every day. I suspect it might help us on our journey to Absurdistan.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Karen Contemplates the Idea of Romantic Love

In anticipation, we book clubbers are checking our mailboxes daily to see if our next selection, a Russian novel,  has arrived.  In the mean time, I am contemplating the notion of romantic love as it’s portrayed in our past two selections. A common theme in both IQ84 and Ready Player One is the sappy relationship between the main characters.  In both books, the couples love each other from afar; and after enduring difficult obstacles, hook up passionately. Oozing in sentimentality, we assume they will spend the rest of their lives together. During our discussions, I am a pragmatist among romantics, protesting that in real life, love doesn’t happen that way. I predict these couples will stay together a month or two before the demons they carry surface, leading toward a devastating break-up.  Love, I say, is very complicated.

However, I have a confession for my dear book clubbers.  That sappy romantic love is how my long-term relationship started in true storybook fashion.  We saw each other from afar. It was love at first sight.  A bolt of thunder hit us.  Under it all, I am a deep romantic.

Of course, in both our novels, escape from reality is also a theme. When we are in the Oasis or IQ84 worlds, we are not sure just how real anything is. I am curious about what daily life would be like for these characters if they stayed together in a real world.  Would Tengo change diapers?  Who would cook the meals in the Art3mis/Wade household?  Would Aomame insist that Tengo get rid of his shabby pants? Would Art3mis argue with Wade if he forgot to take out the trash?  For me, the question of  “could these couples stay in love? “ is more intriguing than how they fell in love.

We’ll see if the Russians choose to tackle a love theme in our next novel.

Friday, January 20, 2012

For February: Absurdistan

Courtbelle has spoken: in February, PBR Book Club shaves 600 pages off the reading assignment for a comfortable 333-page read, Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. Because he's Russian, and he's not dead.

This is the only thing you'll need to read to be convinced to go get a copy, right now:

"Why praise it first? Just quote from it — at random. Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself." (From the NYT book review.)
Next beer drinking session is tentatively planned for Monday March 5. See you then!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Does 1Q84 Mean

If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.”

My experience with “1Q84”, my introduction to Haruki Murakami, was that it was a beautiful, insightful and surrealistic gem that works on the multiple levels of a plot-driven tale of magical realism, a love story where abused children grow up and finally fall in love decades later as a way to heal, and a literary and philosophical statement about the power of the novel, of the imagination and of the creative and subconscious impulses and their effects on both reader and author. What’s not to like.


I also choose to see a strain of quantum mechanics’ Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Schrödinger's Cat style, in which in chain-of-dominoes fashion the act of observation from Perceiver to Receiver transmits the power of the narrative from author to author (Chekhov’s gun to Murakami) to work to other works (Murakami’s character Ushikawa in “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” persisting into “1Q84”) to character to character (Fuka-Eri to her sister to Tengo to Aomame to Ushikawa) to reader (we enter the author’s environment that he conceived out of thin air like a cocoon and it seems real to us while we are immersed in it). And even from this collapsing chain to the reader’s own sense of reality if insanely successful. Don’t be like an author that gets so obsessed with his characters and literary world that it causes damage to those around him in his real life; don’t mistake the narrative for the reality. Don’t become bewitched by the moon and become a lunatic. But can we truly distinguish one experience of reality from the other when we become heavily immersed in our inner worlds.


To consider these ideas in modest detail:

1 The Little People come out of the forest.

2 They come when we are sleeping.

3 They are neither good nor bad but they can cause trouble.

4 They create things out of nothing that give birth to other things.

5 They beat the drum to keep things moving.

The Little People are our subconscious impulses and will, creative and unruly. 1Q84 is the world of our imagination. If we stay on the expressway, on the built road, teaching math, the Little People can’t affect us as much and we stay in 1984, the world of perception seen through our cerebral cortex (the latest part of our brains which evolved in the last blink of an eye in the grand reach of epochs). But what happens if we do the unthinkable and follow our impulses sometimes, deviating from our customary arc through time and existence.

We climb down the emergency stairs like Aomame; we keep to the forest like the venerable Gilyaks; we move to the unsettled world of narrative creation like Tengo. And now our subconscious wills and impulses can drive us to other worlds, to forgotten memories intertwined with current patterns that govern our lives, where cause and effect break down. We perceive the universe around us through a different filter bubble, through a different way of knowing. We truly experience a different reality. Can we call it anything other than 1Q84.

There is a tension between our ancient subconscious mind and our more dominant Johnny-come-lately abstract, rational concepts-and-symbols-using mind. Fuka-Eri, Tsubasa and perhaps other characters seem to be abstractions and ideas more like Plato’s Platonic Forms than flesh and blood figures. But symbols and concepts can be conduits to channel our subconscious and give birth to new developments in our living narratives, to work through painful memories from childhood, or to give birth to children in consummated literary storylines – storylines that are driven by desire and longing but shaped by conscious manipulation of possibilities and ideas. Symbols and concepts can be used to counteract the effect of our innate drives and strong impulses, the triumph of reason over instinct – the rise of an opposing force to the Little People. But sometimes our cerebral cortex, our Professor Ebisuno, sees the subconscious as something to be feared, to be lured out and contained by equations, facts and the mechanics of cause-and-effect, as something bordering on thought-crime when experienced through the top-down filter of logic and reason.


There is a tension between our ancient subconscious mind and our more dominant Johnny-come-lately abstract, rational concepts-and-symbols-using mind. 1Q84 explores this balancing act – one of the most difficult challenges we face in the course of our sentient journey in this world and through our time awake here – with spectacular insight, humor and creativity and for this reader, just the perfect dose of surrealism blended in throughout. What more could one ask for from a 925 page odyssey.

This Thursday. 7:30. The Taproom.

Come on out to the Taproom tomorrow night for a tipsy discussion of hand-holding, magical boners, and misshapen heads! Even you, lurkers -- we know you're out there. The meeting will commence at 7:30 when Bananasuit chugs a PBR.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Richard and Reality and Fiction and Dreams and Time and Narrative and Proust

{No spoilers]

One of the most impressive things about IQ84 is how skillfully its themes are bound up together. A good example is a small moment regarding Aomame's reading of Proust where we see reality/dreams/fiction/time all merge.

Aomame describes the world that Proust creates (in In Search of Lost Time) as feeling like a "lonely little I'm experiencing someone else's dream. Like we're simultaneously sharing feelings. But I can't really grasp what it means to be simultaneous. Our feelings seem extremely close, but in reality there's a considerable gap between us" (775).

The gap recalls the gap between Aomame and Tengo, of course, on a narrative level, but also suggests the gap between writer and reader. Aomame's attempt to explain the feeling of reading Proust might well resemble our own experience immersed in Murakami's world: "there is a sense of time wavering irregularly when you try to forge ahead" (775).

A few pages later Aomame describes a dream as feeling like "a detailed scene from a small planet somewhere else" (781). Obviously the "small planet" links back to the description of Proust, connecting it to her dream world, which she recognizes as a dream even as she dreams it, just as Murakami's world takes on a reality of its own within our reading experience even while we recognize it as fictional.

I'm sure we'll find plenty of things to criticize when we meet, but can all of you book-clubbers agree that Murakami delivers a very enjoyable and sustained mindfuck?

Now check out this pic of Murakami browsing some records circa 1980:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bananasuit's Life Lessons Learned from 1Q84

Aside from being a deeply metaphysical and profound book, Murakami has given us some prescriptions for living happy, healthy lives in his 925 pp tome, 1Q84! I don't get why they don't shelve this thing in the self help section. Here are just a few of the life lessons I've gleaned:

1. Eat simple food. Veggies, tofu, miso. Sometimes fish.
2. Iron your clothes.
3. Read no more than 20 pages a day, then reflect.
4. Wash your pajamas, especially if there's a chance a physically attractive 17-year-old with freshly made ears will wear them.
5. Look at the moon unironically (this one's for you, hipsters).
6. Own dogs, not cats.
7. Visit your parents in the hospital.
8. Don't take money from strangers.
9. Pay your NHK fee.
10. Don't go into weird sex paralyses and then have ambiguous congress with shrine maidens.

What about you, fellow PBR Book Clubbers -- what lessons do you have to add to the docket?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Richard and IQ84 and DeLillo and Chekhov's Gun

{very minor spoilers regarding Book 2]

Good old Chekhov. Try as I might, I can rarely convince my Intro to Drama students that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy (even after reading statements from Chekhov himself insisting that the play is a comedy).

The wily old Russian has popped up twice in IQ84. Once with the Gilyak travel narrative that Tengo reads to Fuka-Eri (which you book-clubbers have already discussed) and again in Book 2 with the idea of "Chekhov's gun," introduced by Tamaru as he procures a handgun for Aomame. This oft-cited maxim states, basically, that if a gun is introduced early in a narrative, we know it's going to get fired later on. It's a very meta idea, if you think about it, diverting our attention away from the "reality" of the work and toward its artificiality, toward the narrative devices that make the work cohere. This is appropriate for IQ84, of course, since "reality" seems to be bending more and more toward Tengo's fictional world.

Aomame has found herself suddenly transported from one world to another, from 1984 to 1Q84, and (as one might suspect in such an instance!) she feels a little unbalanced. The gun, however, brings a sense of power, restoring a bit of control over "reality": with one bullet SHE can control the transition from one world to another, in this case from life to death. But such a power transfigures reality as well: "The awareness that she now possessed a pistol was enough to make the world look a little different. Her surroundings had taken on a strange, unfamiliar coloration" (353). Those lines, in particular, transported me from one literary world to another: out of IQ84 and into DeLillo's White Noise, in which Jack Gladney, mild-mannered professor of Hitler Studies at the College on the Hill, experiences for the first time the power of holding a gun: "The gun created a second reality for me to inhabit. The air was bright, swirling around my head. Nameless feelings pressed thrillingly on my chest. It was a reality I could control, secretly dominate." Jack has spent his life terrified of death, living a purposefully mundane life because he doesn't want to "enmesh" himself in "plots." "To plot is to die" is one of his mantras. But late in the novel, in possession of his trusty "25-caliber Zumwalt automatic," his philosophy undergoes a complete reversal and he begins to believe that "to plot is to live." So what will Aomame's future hold? Like Jack, she too has found herself bound up in a dense plot, the likes of which she has heretofore managed to avoid, yet she feels like the "rules" can be defied: "not all guns have to be fired," she thinks, in reference to Chekhov's law.

Let's stay tuned and find out who's right.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Murakami Side Trip: 19th Century Erotic Japanese Woodblock Prints

Among other things that we pondered during our last meeting of Murakami’s book is the Japanese view of sexuality.  Steve proposed that Japanese society is probably open about sex.  “Look at 19th Century erotic Japanese woodblock prints.”  I corrected him with a know it all authoritative voice,  “But the buyers for these types of prints were exclusive.  There were government bans on erotic prints.”  We know of their existence, but exactly who was buying erotic printmaking of this time? Was it a small niche of buyers?  Was it an exclusive upper class?  I decided to explore the topic further.

I have many books on Japanese printmaking. One example is a survey Japanese Prints, from the Early Masters to the Modern by Michner, published in 1959, once considered a staple of survey books of Japanese printmaking. The inside jacket cover explains the book as a “tour so carefully arranged as to give a deep understanding of the history of aesthetics of Japanese prints….so far as consonant with his aim at presenting a full survey, Mr. Michner has illustrated the book with lesser known masterpieces rather than with those few prints that have been reproduced almost at Nauseam.”  Among other illustrations, the book includes dainty courtesans, often with attendants, with fans or musical instruments “representing the beauties of Edo.”

Utamaro: The courtesan Imose of the Yoshiwara House Akatsuta-ya parading with her Kamuro

Another book, The Japanese Print, a Historical Guide, by Munsterbeg, 1982, is a survey, and points out the three main genres for Japanese woodblock prints: Kabuki actors, glamorous courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, and heroes and heroines. The informative book outlines the masters, their students, and the genre they specialized in.  Examples of courtesans depicted in the book show women in beautiful flowing costumes like a fashion plate. Some illustrations show courtesans with a “companion” serving tea or entertaining with music. There is a notable inclusion of an explicit work by Utamaro, Lovers, 1790.  The book is published with a black line through middle of the illustration.  In two paragraphs, the book admits the existence of erotic printmaking. The book explains that the prints are Utamaro’s “ supreme achievements” (he is probably considered the greatest master of this genre). Production was made with the best craftsmen of the day.  “It is probably no exaggeration to say that these Japanese woodblock prints of the 1790’s are the most perfect works executed in this medium in any age or during any civilization in the entire history of art.”  The second paragraph gives insight, “although the portraits are often said to depict specific women such as the celebrated tea house waitress Okita….they all look very much alike, for they embody the ideal of feminine beauty envisioned by the artist rather then the actual women themselves.

 Utamaro Lovers

Both of these books were bought at library book sales in Lawrence and were former public library books. 

A book I picked up years ago when browsing the stacks at the Murphy Art History Library included another genre of prints from the floating world, the sexual shunga. The prints show couples in the act of sex with graphic depictions of insertion. Although most of the figures represented in shunga are heterosexual couples, prints include women masturbating with objects, women with women, men with boys, and women with animals. The prints often show the “it girl” courtesans and actors of the day who appear glamorous, and the subjects desirable.  However, the book points out that this is an idealized portrayal for what was probably in reality a difficult life for prostitutes.

For my quest, I interviewed Kris Ercums, curator of the Spencer Museum Asian art collection. I knew of their existence, but who was purchasing the erotic prints of 19th century Japan? According to Kris, the answer is “Everyone.”  The floating world represented the sanctioned entertainment district of Edo.  Although there were government restrictions, erotic art in the form of printmaking was extensive. All major artists created this genre of work because it sold well. Although I could never again find the book I had looked at when browsing, Kris told me the name of the book is Sex in the Floating World: Erotic images in Japan 1700-1820 by Timon Screech, 1999.  It is frequently checked out at Murphy, so I ordered it on Amazon.

My incorrect assumption that erotic 19th century Japanese printmaking was a niche was based on incomplete reporting from former public library survey books that ignored an important genre because it was viewed as inappropriate. I was pondering Japanese views of sex through information from survey books of art, but the lack of inclusion of shunga by publishers and editors reveal, instead, a prudish American view.

More: From WikiShunga was probably enjoyed by both men and women of all classes. Superstitions and customs surrounding shunga suggest as much; in the same way that it was considered a lucky charm against death for a samurai to carry shunga, it was considered a protection against fire inmerchant warehouses and the home. From this we can deduce that samurai, chonin, and housewives all owned shunga. All three of these groups would suffer separation from the opposite sex; the samurai lived in barracks for months at a time, and conjugal separation resulted from the sankin kotai system and the merchants' need to travel to obtain and sell goods. It is therefore argued that this superstition was euphemistic, and ownership of shunga was not superstitious, but libidinous.[2]
Records of women obtaining shunga themselves from booklenders show that they were consumers of it.[1] Though not shunga, it was traditional to present a bride with ukiyo-e depicting scenes from the Tale of Genji.[2] Shunga may have served as sexual guidance for the sons and daughters of wealthy families. This has been disputed since the instructional nature of shunga is limited by the impossible positions and lack of description of technique, and there were sexual manuals in circulation that offered clearer guidance, including advice on hygiene.[2]

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Who the F*** is Narrating This Thing?

(Spoilers for Book 1)

One of my favorite threads of inquiry from our mid-1Q84 support group session was about the narrator. A lot of weird things happen in Book 1: Aomame assassinates a guy with a homemade ice pick, seduces a bald man, and starts up an all-night sex feast ritual with a complete stranger. A 17 year old dyslexic girl recites epic Japanese poetry about Nuns. Tengo puts Fuka-Eri to sleep by reading her Chekhov's passages about the poor Gilyaks. Aomame sees two moons in the sky.

But I think the weirdest passage from Book 1 is when the dowager goes to sleep next to ten-year-old Tsubasa, and the safe house falls quiet:
"Soon [Tsubasa's] mouth began to open wider, and from it emerged, one after another, a small troupe of Little People. Each one carefully scanned the room before emerging. Had the dowager awakened at that point, she might have been able to see them, but she remained fast asleep. She would not be waking anytime soon. The Little People knew this. There were five of them altogether. When they first emerged, they were the size of Tsubasa's little finger, but once they were fully on the outside, they would give themselves a twist, as though unfolding a tool, and stretch themselves to their full one-foot height. (ch. 19)
This passage freaks me out because it's the first time otherworldly phenomena are described firsthand, by someone other than Aomame, Tengo, Professor Ebisuno, or Fuka-Eri. It's the first time our omniscient narrator confirms that the Little People exist outside of Fuka-Eri's imagination. It's the first time shit gets REAL.

And so we wondered: who is narrating 1Q84? The narrative structure is definitely split between Tengo and Aomame, but they are both unreliable third-person narrators, and there's still the question of true authorship -- is Tengo writing the Aomame story? ... Vice versa? Murakami seems to be playing with the idea of authorship and what happens when a story is told, retold, and told over again, creating echoes and ripples co-authored by different voices. So who is this third omniscient voice that confirms the existence of the Little People when everyone else goes to sleep? Is he Murakami? The reader? A metaphorical "Leader" or Little Person? Obvi this question can't and doesn't really need to be answered. But it's uncanny, unsettling, and begs the question: who's telling our stories?