Posts filed under ‘Fiction’
Rouse Up… is ostensibly about a famous author father, K, and his relationship with his son, nicknamed Eeyore. The book, like many of his, is semi-autobiographical, based on Ōe’s own life experience with his disabled son. I say “ostensibly” because it is not really about Eeyore at all. Told in the first person by K, the story is primarily about the narrator. Other characters come in and out of his life and thoughts like planets with elliptical orbits. Eeyore is the most prominent of these satellites, and the one that leads to the most reflection, but the story is not about him. The most that can be said of Eeyore is that his inscrutability, caused by his personality and amplified by his disability, leads K to meander in his own thoughts, trying to decipher ways to explain life, death, and imagination to Eeyore while at once attempting to discover if Eeyore already understands them. For almost all such concepts, it is revealed at climactic moments that Eeyore does understand those topics that K thinks most valuable, but has done so organically, largely independently of K’s own parental and literary artifice. The benificary of such work, of course, is K himself.
This is not to say that Rouse Up… consists solely of unself-conscious projection: Ōe has a deft touch as to the timing of K’s revelations, in terms of K’s criticism of himself, his parenting, and his place in society. Sometimes these moments occur, as I said, in tandem with an event or phrase of Eeyore’s, sometimes within frequent meditations of the work of William Blake and its applicability to K’s own life, and sometimes on one of many tangents and switchbacks into K’s life and travels. The last device, whose use sometimes makes it difficult to follow exactly how events in the main plot are unfolding, is what makes Ōe fit with Kawabata and Mishma. Rather than plowing through events involving K, Eeyore, and their family in a strict, chronological narrative, K is led to describe episodes from his childhood, education, and professional life. Early on in Rouse Up… this is done under the pretext of explaining K’s view towards life or death so as to find some way to explain them to Eeyore, but as the narrative goes on the episodes are introduced more and more as personal reflections performed for personal moments. One theme in the story is the frequent criticisms levelled at K that he hides behind Eeyore in order to never change, progress, or take a stand on modern issues. Ōe answers these charges, (which, given their prevalence in the story, have likely been leveled against him), by allowing his narrator to mature in front of our eyes.
I’ve been putting off writing this review, even though I finished reading Ficciones a few days ago. Every time I think of how I want to write about Borges’ stories, a different tactic comes to mind. This is similar to the actual reading of his stories, which caused regular revisions in my understanding of what it was, exactly, that Borges was writing about.
Borges best trick is that he has masterful control of the rate at which he introduces curiosities. It is as though he knew how long a reader would sit and attempt to puzzle over a phrase, paragraph, or theme before continuing to read, at which point another curiosity quickly emerges from the text. Despite the complexity of his stories (and their initially perplexing nature), Borges knows how to totalize a story so that it stays in one’s mind as one continues to the next. The more of his stories I had in mind as I was reading another, the more subtle connections the individual ficciones shared.
It is not as though most short story collections I have read did not have some connection between stories: most authors like to have a similar toolbox of style, voice, and theme that they go through in the time it takes to put such a collection together. If the collection has an editor other than the original author, they might be selected for variety, or to correspond with some development in the author’s work. Borges, though, seems incredibly self-conscious for an author who rarely lets loose an emotional adjective. On my reading, the artifice of Borges comes through most clearly in terms of pacing, but there is much more than that in the Ficciones.
One of Borges’ favorite themes is time and eternity, and another favorite is the nature of fiction and imaginary worlds. These themes come together not just in what Borges writes about, but also in how he writes. Both themes come together especially well in my favorite of the Ficciones, “The Babylon Lottery”. The story details the development of a lottery system that is recognizable at first, then incredible and monstrous, through its metamorphosis into an entity at once understandable and mysterious. The lottery begins as just that, a drawing of lots, with a prize for some. Soon though, penalties are introduced for those with shorter lots. Once the lottery is simultaneously rewarding and punitive, it begins absorbing other societal institutions. Eventually, society is fully dictated by the lottery, with fortunes rising to dizzying heights one month and being wiped away the next, all thanks to the workings of the Company that delivers the results of the lottery. And all at once, the lottery is a constructed incarnation of fate.
Once that moment arrives, that revelation, the lottery and the Company pass from the artificial to the natural and eternal. It’s all somewhat Nietzchean, the way in which the artificial becomes timeless. The separation from Nietzsche, however, is in the pacing, in the statement, in the act of revelation. Borges shows how it could be that the lottery, with its results carried out by humans, becomes fate, with no obviously human agency involved. By the time “The Babylon Lottery” finishes, the Company has passed into legend and nobody draws their own lots, or knows when, where, or by whom they are drawn. Except for its’ human origins, by then lost into mythology and legend, the lottery is indistinguishable from fate. “The Babylon Lottery” is not the only story in the Ficciones to meditate on the limited understanding of time we as humans have, but it is the finest. It is also one of the best I have ever read.
With Gregg’s The Middle East done, it’s time to swerve back into fiction. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones is next in line. Borges is an Argentinian author famous for all sorts of things, but I’m looking forward to being puzzled by his short stories and style. After that, I have Kenzaburo Ōe’s semi-autobiographical Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! out on loan from the library.
I also found an interesting suggestion for a reading list on the A.V. Club, from an interview where Harold Bloom discusses Cormic McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Apparently Bloom used to teach a class in which he taught, succesively, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (should I be ashamed that I’ve never heard of it?), Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and then Blood Meridian. I might do the list backwards, or just the last two… if you’ve read one, some, or all of these, what do you think?