I know, it’s ridiculous.
I am, by a significantly large margin, the most cynical person I know. At times, I border on misanthropy. Show me a miracle and I’m sure to be the one who runs over and yanks back the curtain, revealing an elaborate projection system and its red-faced operator.
My philosophical role models are Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Swift–heavy on the satire, please, and spare no one the whip hand. When it comes to contempt for our species, I make Stalin and Mao look like a couple of octogenarian nuns. It’s time to own up to it: humankind is a failed experiment, rinse out the petri dish and start again.
Except…around mid-December my normally un-sunny demeanor undergoes a marked change. Having kids has something to do with it but, when I think back about it, I’ve always loved Christmas. The closer it gets to the 25th, the more excited and tingly I get. This reaction is completely unconscious and involuntary but, regardless, I offer no defense for the shameful sentimentality that overcomes me every December. True confession: if I could, I’d spend the last two weeks of every calendar year walking around, giving money to orphans and kissing old ladies on top of their wispy, age-spotted pates.
The origins of this revolting affliction are not known to me. I have hesitated to share it with you lest I provoke the ire and scorn of my fellow curmudgeons. We aren’t exactly known as a tolerant, open-minded bunch.
I can remember very clearly, the recollection dating back over 35 years now, sitting in my pajamas and listening to an announcement on the local news that Santa’s sleigh had been picked up on radar and he was definitely on his way…
My fondest childhood Christmas memory was when I was nine (ten?). I contracted a mild form of hepatitis and missed two months of school. As an added bonus, I cleaned up at Christmas time: a couple of Hardy Boys books and one of those electronic football games, which ended up maddening me because most of the magnetized players spun in slow, futile circles on the vibrating field. My one regret was that my specialized diet meant I couldn’t have any chocolate. Watching my sisters stuff themselves just about killed me.
As I’ve gotten older, the holiday season became an opportunity to sit back and assess the year; tote up the amount of work accomplished and berate myself for everything left undone.
During that week between Boxing Day and the New Year there’s always a strong sense of something impending. Maybe 2009 with be the year. Just like 2008 was supposed to be. And 2007, come to think of it. Oh, well…
Anticipation. Expectation. Something is coming. Something important.
Waiting. Waiting. Sam Beckett made a whole career out of it.
The curmudgeon in me curls up his lip when the Hallowe’en decorations come down and the Christmas displays start going up. People have staff Christmas parties starting in mid-November. And the Santa Claus Parade often takes place a month before the fact–as a kid I often wondered how the Old Man could take time off during the busiest part of the year to haul himself up on to a float and wave inanely for two hours.
Christmas specials on TV start the first week of December. It’s the old favorites that still appeal. “Charlie Brown Christmas” and the animated “Grinch”, with Boris Karloff narrating. Alastair Sim in “The Christmas Carol” (although, in a pinch, the Muppet version will do).
We’re big fans of the “Wind in the Willows” series too so that one will likely resurface during the holidays. Anyone who has ever seen me trying to assemble something or figure out printed instructions quickly recognizes that I am the very spitting image of Toad. And my friend Dan is undoubtedly a Badger…
I haven’t seen either “Wall-E” or “Finding Nemo” so I’ve promised my family I’ll sit down and watch those two with them; I miss out on too much, sequestered away upstairs in my office. All the movies Sherron and my boys have sat through without me…
We’re not a family who believe in big, extravagant presents. It’s just not us. Small, heartfelt gifts…combined with great food, friends dropping by, the chance to spend lots of time together, no school, no work, no obligations or duties.
Sprawled on the couch or draped across the big arm chair, engrossed in a new book. My boys are teenagers now so, admittedly, there isn’t the same sort of excitement present as there was when they were little gaffers. Up until a few years ago, the house would rattle with their excitement as the big day drew ever nearer. A friend used to buy them an advent calendar and after breakfast the boys would get the calendar down and pull open the little hinged hatch to retrieve their allotted square of chocolate. It became part of our ritual, like scones on Christmas morning (we tried champagne and orange juice once but I ended up passing out at 11:00 a.m.).
Well, we’re all older…but we still enjoy sharing time and space with each other. We laugh a lot and if I was a betting man I’d say this old house will be fairly ringing with mirth in the next couple of weeks. And if this cold snap ever breaks, we’ll get a game or two of shinny in and go for long walks, gawk at the gorgeous river valley, pristine in the sharp, white light of winter.
It’s hard for even a confirmed curmudgeon to maintain an appropriate air of disdain when he is perpetually surrounded by good cheer, a loving family and devoted friends. The barbed remarks and wisecracks stick in my throat, refuse to budge.
There will be other opportunities to prick balloons, pontificate gloom and doom. This is a chance to give thanks for the blessings and good fortune that sustain me even during my darkest moments.
We’ve had enough despair. Now let us sing songs of thanks and praise for what has been bestowed upon us and be all the more grateful and deferential, knowing it can’t possibly last.
***Reviews of new books by Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Alessandro Baricco & James Othmer ***
Meet J.P. Yates, noted prognosticator and forecaster of things to come. His presence at conferences and corporate retreats is de rigueur, his opinions on THE NEXT BIG THING much sought after by world leaders and gilded CEO’s. But Yates, as our story begins, is suffering a crisis of faith: he no longer believes the future can be predicted and he’s tired of all the moral and philosophical compromises he’s been making in order to secure his lofty position and cozy lifestyle.
Not only that, but his fiancé has just dumped him. And. He. Never. Saw. It. Coming. A futurist who’s, yes, short-sighted. From the moment Yates opens the “Dear John” letter on the plane, everything starts to fall apart. A fierce bout of boozing leads to a rambling, incendiary speech before the well-heeled and well-connected in South Africa. It’s an attempt to commit professional suicide and it nearly succeeds. The next thing he knows, he’s getting stomped in his hotel room, shunned by colleagues and approached by two scary operators who claim to represent American corporate interests. Their names are, get this, Johnson and Johnson.
Mr. Othmer misses few opportunities to lampoon and skewer Western culture and its metastacizing tendencies. Nothing is too sacred and the level of cynicism is refreshing. In a not so subtle swipe at entities like the Gates Foundation, one of Mr. Othmer’s characters observes:
“(These) billionaires make me sick. They think now that they’re rich, they can satisfy their egos, alleviate their guilt, by thinking their accidental windfall somehow means they’re geniuses, cosmically ordained and therefore eminently qualified to solve the world’s problems—AIDS, loose nukes, illiteracy. They’re delusional enough to think that they matter more than others in a larger sense. They think, Now that I’ve made billions on a search engine that can locate highly specialized subgenres of kiddie porn at thrice the speed of light, I’m going to teach the world to read. When in truth they’re rewriting history to say that their original business models, the ones that made them obscenely rich, were not driven by greed and hubris but by some larger calling to transform the world.”
Zang. Somewhere Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut and H.L. Mencken are clapping and whistling in approval.
Yates can no longer serve the interests of consumerism and has no desire to advance the cause of the type of people the Johnsons work for. He wants out of the rat race, frustrated by his “lack of ability or desire to change the world”. But the Johnsons aren’t easily dissuaded and soon Yates finds himself jetting around the globe on some obscure mission for his spymasters, having close encounters with an Inuit fish-woman in Greenland and a fascistic telecom king on his island hideaway in Fiji. He witnesses a car-bombing in Milan and narrowly escapes death in the Middle East.
The Futurist is well-paced, cleverly scripted, as bitter as poisoned water. Mr. Othmer is a skilled and fearless author. Yates, despite his attendant flaws and weaknesses, is an endearing and credible creation. He truly wants to be decent, the kind of person his sturdy, honest father would respect. At its core, the novel really represents his pursuit of happiness, a calm, clear refuge in the eye of a monster hurricane, primal forces rushing safely by.
We look to the future for redemption, often forgetting to register the sins we’re accumulating here, now, acts of malice and negligence that make the notion of salvation seem so attractive…and so fleeting.
Chuck Palahniuk has made a career out of fearlessly going where no one has dared or wanted to go before. In his best novels—Fight Club, Choke and Lullaby—he traverses these dark countries with bravado and imaginative leaps that are truly admirable. His nonfiction essays, collected in Stranger Than Fiction, reveal a man who is not afraid of casting that same unsparing glance at the real world and the places he comes from.
Rant, his latest novel, is composed of reminiscences and testimonials from over fifty individuals, each of them adding a piece to the puzzle that was Rant Casey. The opening line is a killer: “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead”. The men and women offering their views are drawn from every period of Rant’s life and provide conflicting versions of events. Some prove to be unreliable, self-serving narrators, if not outright liars. Then there are those who have formed a kind of latterday cult, with Rant Casey playing the role of unlikely savior. Collectively these people provide a tantalizing, if inconsistent, portrait of a very unique specimen of humanity:
-as a child Rant loved to stick his hand into any hole he could find and hope something would bite him
-the young rascal also concocted a money-laundering scheme using stashes of found coins and enlisting the help of…the tooth fairy
-he became infected with a virulent form of rabies and knowingly, enthusiastically spread the contagion to others
-at some point he stumbled across a method of defeating the “grandfather paradox’, learned how to travel in time and, oh yeah, possibly achieved immortality
In short, this Rant Casey fella was one unusual hombre.
Rant is, at times, compelling and chilling, depicting a plausible, unsettling view of the near future, a society where from infancy people are fitted with ports to “boost” sensory experiences recorded by others. It is a decidedly dystopian world where curfews divide “nighttimers” and “daytimers” and a segment of the population “tag” (crash) vehicles to get their kicks. It is a vision that will strike a resonant cord with fans of David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard and, possibly, William Gibson.
But the final section of the book is confusing as Rant’s time travel scheme is debated and fleshed out by his acolytes and detractors. In a book so grounded in tactile sensations and spasms of gritty realism, the notion seems far-fetched and out of place. I also think that the voices of those testifying aren’t distinctive enough, they should be more dissimilar in cadence, tone and word choice. As a result they are often indistinguishable and that gives the book a one-dimensional feel.
Mr. Palahniuk is an writer of unquestionable skill and originality, his body of work provides ample evidence of his twisted talent. But in his last two efforts in particular, Rant and Haunted, we see a man trying perhaps a bit too hard to top himself. In the case of Haunted, he spared no detail, presenting us with scenes of graphic carnage and depravity that, ultimately, undermined the author’s best intentions. Rant is a creation of a different order and, while nowhere near as intense, it lacks a central core. It is a conceit, a concept rather than a fully-fledged novel.
The problem may lie with the format he has chosen. An account that features over fifty characters, offering a myriad of opinions and speculations, is bound to be unfocussed, lacking coherence. While no one expects a Chuck Palahniuk novel to boast a conventional narrative, peopled by folks we interact with every day, we do expect a good, entertaining read. Rant doesn’t fit the bill. As an exercise it is of interest but as a book it is a cold, uninvolving reading experience.
How dare Alessandro Baricco. The nerve of the man.
He has taken an acknowledged world classic and, gulp, tampered with it. Shortened it, hacked it to pieces. Cut out anything to do with the gods, pared scenes down, added narrative subjectivity and, worst of all, included additional material.
But despite his abominable behavior, this annoying display of chutzpah, Mr. Baricco’s Iliad works. Not always, there are modernistic interjections that annoy, as when Odysseus pipes up during one exchange: “We’ll let him go and when he gets closer we’ll jump him, all right?” (Pg. 67). How much of this is attributable to Mr. Baricco and how much of the fault lies with his English translator is debatable. Robert Fagles, my favourite translator of Homer, has been taken to task for committing similar sins. But the source material is so strong, the power of Homer’s original vision so sweeping and compelling that even this condensed, tarted up version draws the reader in and holds their attention to the last page.
Dividing the book into sections, each narrated in the first person by one of the principals was a risky move but it does have its merits. The characters, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses assume a more solid shape, shedding some of their mythical status. Odysseus, Priam, Agamemnon, Hector and Achilles are humanised, rendered more familiar to modern eyes and ears. Deleting the gods and emphasizing the human nature of the conflict imparts more emotion and real blood to the battle scenes.
Alessandro Baricco, it must be said, has his detractors. Many consider him a poseur, his works derivative or (tut tut) self-consciously “artsy”. I am familiar with him mainly because of his 2003 collaboration with the French musical duo Air. “City Reading” was a spoken word album (the translation, again by Ms. Goldstein, printed in the accompanying liner notes) set to music. It was a Western, a classic revenge fable with a twist ending.
I enjoyed “City Reading” and, despite some quibbles, I find much to praise in An Iliad. The end notes for the book are illustrative, as when Mr. Baricco elaborates on why Homer’s account of the siege of Troy retains its relevance to modern readers:
“The beauty of war…expresses its centrality in human experience, conveys the idea that there is nothing else, in human experience, that enables one to truly exist. What the Iliad perhaps suggests is that pacifism, today, must not forget or deny that beauty, as if it had never existed. To say and to teach that war is hell and that’s all is a damaging lie. Although it sounds terrible, we must remember that war is hell—but beautiful. Men have always thrown themselves into it, drawn like moths to the fatal light of the flame. There is no fear, or horror of themselves, that has succeeded in keeping them from the flame, because in it they find the only possible recompense for the shadows of life. For this reason, today, the task of a true pacifism should not be to demonize war excessively so much as to understand that only when we are capable of another kind of beauty will we be able to do without what war has always offered us.”
Poseur? Maybe. But he makes an excellent point, don’t you think?
A rather modest offering from Haruki Murakami, nowhere near as metaphysical, surreal or genre-bending as most of his other efforts. Which is not to say After Dark isn’t an agreeable and thoroughly literate tale, it just doesn’t have the scope and virtuoso stylings of previous novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or, most recently, Kafka On The Shore.
Told in interlocking narratives, After Dark details one late fall night in Tokyo, as seen through the eyes of a variety of characters, some likable, others exhibiting sociopathic or criminal tendencies. Occasionally, Mr. Murakami employs a brilliant point of view shift where we float above the action like an invisible, omnipotent camera—it allows a cinematic overview, a device Mr. Murakami uses sparingly but to good effect.
There is something magical going on in Tokyo on this particular evening and the author gives us a hint when he writes that some locations and enchanted hours “open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light. None of our principles have any effect there. No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or where they will spit them out” (pg. 168).
Ari Asai had slipped into one such dark place. One day she announces to her family that she is going to sleep and doesn’t appear to wake for two months. Her family holds out slender hope for her eventual recovery and the reconcliation her younger sister tries to initiate in the closing pages of the book is a moving scene. But before she climbs into bed with her ailing sister, nineteen year old Mari Asai traverses midnight streets, experiencing aspects of life previously denied her. She visits a “love hotel” and gets to know some of its denizens, rekindles a relationship with an aspiring jazz musician and has a brush with the Japanese underworld.
This is modern myth-making, possessing “equal levels of sorcery and functionality. It has been handed down from ancient times with darkness and sent back from the future with light” (pg. 49).
Mr. Murakami, like German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, can take a tale that is essentially a melodrama and infuse it with depth and textures that enable a rather simple story to transcend sentimentality and treacle. While the conclusion of After Dark is affirming, it does not tie up every loose end, resolve all the story threads or punish the guilty. That is to his credit.
After Dark is an excellent introduction to the work of this Japanese master and will undoubtedly lead astute readers to more challenging—and rewarding–efforts in his canon. It is not as intellectually demanding or menacing as some of his darker, more substantive efforts. Its charm is undeniable, however, and while it casts a brighter, cheerier light than many of his other works, it also presents an interesting contrast and shows Mr. Murakami to be an author of many moods and depths. So much the better.