Mini-book review: “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin.

The title of Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream (translated form the Spanish by Megan McDowell) is apt for both the experience of the main character as well as the reader. A woman named Amanda slowly dies in a hospital room, carrying on a conversation with a young boy named David—or perhaps he is yet another hallucination as she relives her final moments. As he repeatedly tells her about various details in the story she tells, “that is not important.”

The story is told entirely through dialogue between the two characters, with most of the narration of previous events told from Amanda’s perspective. Throughout the conversation we learn the plot of the story—however it would do the book no justice to offer a summary here, as Schweblin manages to make the reader’s piecing together the plot part of the plot. The actual events aren’t as important as the understanding of the events, or at least to the extent in which Amanda tries to grasp their meaning right before she dies.

The book is best read in one sitting, and then if you can stomach the psychological trauma of the characters and depictions of poisoned children, re-read. It’s an unusual book and carries a lot of weight but isn’t undecipherable. The book feels like a dire thought experiment and should gain the respect of anybody who reads it, but it will most serve anybody who’s looking for something different.


Book review: “Moshi Moshi” by Banana Yoshimoto.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Moshi Moshi (translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda) tells the story of a young woman struggling to move on with her life while she and her mother grieve over her father’s bizarre death. Yoshie’s father, a prominent local rock musician, was found dead in a car with another woman in what looks to be a murder-suicide (or possibly a double suicide, we never find out for sure). The exact nature of the father’s relationship is left as just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Yoshie*, but the story isn’t really about his death as much as it affects those closest to him.

The story begins with Yoshie’s mother moving into her apartment in Shimokitazawa as she feels her late husband’s presence in their old home in Meguro. At first Yoshie is reluctant but they both needed each other’s support, not to mention a change of place. Over time the move helps both of them heal from the wound that was dealt to them both. Yoshie works in the bistro across the street, where she meets the manager of the club where her father often played. He frequents the bistro until the two of them start dating. She also gets a couple of visits from a mysterious woman whose first husband also nearly died when having an affair with the woman who killed Yoshie’s father. Throughout the book Yoshie also seeks information and finally solace from one of her father’s former band-mates.

The change that Yoshie’s life goes through is strongly tied to the sense of place, as exemplified by a passage in which she and her mother down an entire cake in the apartment:

I’d never dreamed that Mom and I could do anything as fun as gorging on an entire cake until our bellies ached. We weren’t being hysterical, or depressed. We’d just thought of something nice to do, and done it together. That kind of thing felt wrong in Meguro, but the new apartment somehow made it possible.

In Shimokitazawa Yoshie gets a job at a successful bistro, becoming more or less the owner’s apprentice. She loves her work and the area where she lives and enjoys that she’s seeing somebody. It all has the comfort of a normal adult life. Yet she still dreams of her father. She’s not repressing memories or feelings—she and her mother constantly have conversations about how they feel and memories of times the three of them had as a family. But Yoshie has trouble processing her feelings, and needs all the help she can get in order to work them out as best she can.

Moshi Moshi has a slice-of-life feel throughout the book. It has a plot and it flows well, but it sets itself up in ways that a reader may feel misleading. The death of Yoshie’s father and the visit from the woman whose husband also had an affair with the dead woman implies that this book could have been a mystery. Yoshie’s mother seeing the ghost around the old apartment and Yoshie’s recurring dreams suggest that it could have been a ghost story of some sort. But these end up becoming fact-of-life occurrences, adding to the story but not taking it over.

That is not to say the book is disjointed or jarring. The light atmosphere the book presents with its grim setup may seem conflicted at first, but it only serves to help make the point. Even when struck by the horrifying loss of a loved one, life moves on. We may need some help and a change of place to help it do so, but it moves on regardless.

*Or Yocchan. Characters in the book refer to her with both names. I’m sorry, in the limited time I had to do research before publishing this blog post I couldn’t find out if one is the common nickname of the other, or if there was some other reason why her names were interchangeable. Perhaps somebody could help me in the comments below?

Monday Book Review: “The Language of Dying” by Sarah Pinborough.

On the surface, the “language” of The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough refers to the terminology used by the hospice nurses taking care of the main character’s father—terms such as “cheyne-stoking” and “terminal agitation.” But there are other languages of dying used by the main characters throughout the book. The most prevalent is the language between the main character and her four siblings as they try to cope with the impending death as the family falls apart—language that is both spoken and unspoken. There is also the language between the protagonist and her father, primarily unspoken.

As the father nears the end of his life, the main character’s siblings arrive to the house, bring their baggage with them. First comes Penny, who for a long time couldn’t accept her father’s impending death as a result of her desire to make life as easy as possible, including the avoidance of conflict. Then comes to the two youngest, twins, Davy “the paranoid schizophrenic” and Simon “the junkie.” Finally the oldest brother Paul arrives. Paul shares Penny’s easy nature but his life is more out of control, alternating between successful business ventures and having to go into hiding—either from debt collectors or responsibility. (The main character, the middle child, remains unnamed throughout the story as does the father.)

As Paul is the last to arrive he is also the first to go, sparking rage from the main character. The rest leave, first Davy out of spite and then the other two, out of desperation. Finally this leaves the main character alone in the house with her father again, as she’s his primary care giver and the closest to him.

The main character hardly presents herself as normal, occasionally suffering from what she calls “drifts” which result in her shutting out the outside world. When she bursts into a fit of rage against Paul as he’s leaving, she remembers only the anger but not a word that she said. Even the prose implies a certain sense of anguish, taking the form of first person in the present tense but addressing the father in the second person. Thus, the character is giving the narrative in real-time to her father, even if he isn’t there—including during the flashback sequences. The reader then feels like an intruder, hearing these private thoughts that only the father is supposed to hear.

One of the most prominent images in the book is that of a frightening-looking black unicorn which appears whenever the main character loses someone: when her mother leaves the family when she’s a child, when her unborn child dies while still in the womb (and, perhaps, when she divorces the abusive husband that caused the child’s death), and once at the end of the book. The unicorn is horrifying:

Its body is large, like a horse but more solid—without the elegance  but with twice the power. I can see thick sinews bunch along its long neck as it raises its head gain, glaring at me. A black horn grows twisted from between its eyes, a thick, deformed calloused thing, a tree root erupting from the earthy ground of its forehead, the matt texture oppositional to the sweaty shine on its dark hide.

But she is drawn to it, chasing after it as it runs off into the night. She constantly stares out the window throughout her life, hoping to find it waiting for her, finally letting her ride it away.

The prose of the book is elaborate but not “flowery” nor is it over-written. Its melodramatic descriptions of even the most mundane aspects of life gives the sense of the main character’s attempts to make sense out of the dreariness of her life. Only once she can finally let go of all that drags her down can she feel free and ride that unicorn. At just under 130 pages not a word is wasted in this novella. A lot of backstory is packed in as the main narrative only takes place over a few days.

As someone who lost a parent due to a long illness, there is much I can relate to in this book: the presence of hospice workers and doctors, the stress, the disconnect form the outside world as for other people life carries on normally. Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot of the other problems that the main character faced, such as the depression (that came later, and only temporarily) and my family has not drifted apart. But the book still felt familiar in a way that it all felt normal. But, as the book points out, even normalcy can feel ridiculous at times: “I guess sometimes you have to hide from the world to see it properly.”

Farewell, Oderus Urungus.

Despite being a big metal fan I have to admit that I was a huge fan of GWAR. I’ve seen them a few times and enjoyed the shows. I like most of their music every time I hear it. Yet for some reason I never really got into them that much. I honestly don’t know why. I also don’t understand why, then, I actually found my eyes welling up a little when I found out about Dave Brockie, a.k.a Oderus Urungus, died yesterday at the age of 50. Of course it’s sad news but why would I be affected by it, even a little, when I didn’t know the man nor was I huge fan?

I think it wasn’t so much how it affected me directly but the metal world at large. I don’t necessarily feel a sense of community as much as a network of micro-communities that occasionally connect with each other. GWAR was not a key player in the metal world in terms of influential musical experiments but had a large fan base that spanned across all of the micro-communities (and beyond). The passing of Brockie affected a lot of people. I haven’t seen anything yet but I would imagine that GWAR is finished as a result, which is also a sad ending. Scrolling through the “trending” page on Facebook and seeing how the news affected so many people in such a way did cause me to feel a touch of sadness that I otherwise wouldn’t have felt as strongly otherwise.

(As a side note, this could be a topic worth exploring in a future blog post—could the Internet cause people to become more emphatic?)

Yesterday the metal world lost one of its most beloved members as well as the character he created. Just as when any musician dies we still have the albums and concert videos, although they will never fulfill the void left by the concert experience that a GWAR show can produce. There are other bands that incorporate various similar elements to their show  to varying degrees (Ghoul in particular is a band to keep an eye on). But nobody can replicate the feeling of unpredictability of the first time seeing GWAR live. They were the most commercially successful at what they did—okay, I don’t know the exact financial information involved but judging by the amount of fake blood sprayed into the audience alone it sure seemed like they were—and their shows could be the only time that fans could see that type of spectacle taken to that level.

I’m going to end by linking to two reviews that I wrote back when I published metal posts more regularly than I do now. I haven’t even read them since so I can’t make any guarantee to the quality of the writing. It only felt appropriate, though, that I include links to them today.

A review of the album “Bloody Pit of Horror.”
A review of one of the GWAR concerts that I’ve been to.

[gwar on Apr 27, 2012 at Wally's (Hampton, NH)]

Photo courtesy of Return to the Pit.