A few weeks ago, I heard an author named Min Jim Lee interviewed on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show. Could that be the attorney I used to work for? Yes, it was. We had a warm reunion at her reading at the KGB Bar. Then I read her book. "I always knew you'd do something great!" I told her, and she has. Pachinko is an excellent read from cover to cover. The characters come alive, the plot is sturdy and subtle, and the writing is incisive. It is about Koreans in Japan. If you are Korean or Japanese, you probably know some of this story, but aside from the occasional newspaper article or television report about “comfort women,” for example, I knew little of the enmity of the two countries. How odd that we lump them together in our minds when they are such deeply sworn enemies! Pachinko did not leave me chastising myself for ignorance though, it left me grateful for the insight. Since I was neither Korean nor Japanese, I read this as a cautionary tale. I am American, and inside America, we have the African population and the Native American population who have been treated as cruelly and hypocritically as the Koreans in Japan, though there are differences between the two situations. Lee's universal message is that in the end, human beings have an irrational need to feel better than others, and that has caused us no end of suffering for no reason at all other than atavistic ego. When you have been callously mistreated, you have several choices – jump lemming-like off a cliff, outwit your rivals at their own game, or stay so far below the radar that nobody notices you. I doubt that Min Jin Lee began her book as a didactic exercise in tolerating prejudice and cruelty – there is way too much humanity in it for that - but she covers all bases. Her knowledge of the two cultures is deep, and whenever a person gets to know another person deeply, enemy or friend, it is impossible to view them without at least a grain of compassion. Her story is rich with detail, perception, understanding, and conscience. The masterful writing style is transparent, skillful, manages time and language seamlessly, including the insertion of Korean terms which become familiar as the story progresses. Don’t worry. You won’t put it down. Lee is also a wonderful reader of her own work, and if you have a chance to hear her at a venue near you, don’t pass it up. She is a person of massive intelligence and humor.
It would be unhealthy for me to even imagine the things that happen in A Little Life. I admire the fortitude of the author, Hanya Yanagihara, who bore the burden of Jude’s (the main character) life for 18 months while writing the book. Her fecund imagination is paired with an extravagant gift for storytelling, and I was engrossed for all but the last hundred of its 810 pages, where the story becomes swampy and a touch maudlin. A Little Life is a fairytale. I’ll explain it this way – imagine living with Cinderella. She is an attractive, but dirty, uneducated, unschooled girl who has been living in isolation in the basement for a decade or so. Then suddenly she’s a princess. She would be charming for a while, but after Prince Charming finds her down in the kitchen having chocolate chip cookies and milk with the cook and learns that she has shared her intimate problems with her ladies’ maid, after he deals with her wish that everyone would “just leave me alone,” after she makes egregious errors like not curtseying before the queen, the prince might get a bit touchy. “Listen Cinderella, there’s a war going on in Otherland, and I don’t have time to go along with you every time you have to take a walk in the garden with Queen Biscuit and her bratty children, and I can’t wake up every time you have a nightmare that your stepmother turned into a woolly mammoth and is trying to eat you.” Like Cinderella, Jude and two of his three best friends come (mostly) from unlikely backgrounds, yet become successful enough to 1) have a multi-floor show at the Whitney Museum, 2) build fabulous buildings in Dohar, 3) be an awe-inspiring litigator so successful that his clients fly him to Nepal in their private plane, and 4) become a movie star who stills the room when he enters. Each of these busy people flies in from Rome for Jude’s birthday party or drops everything at 3:00 am to help him in emergencies. Every time. With no complaints. Sigh. Unfortunately, I don’t know any people who would so disrupt their lives for others. Up to a point, yes, but every time, with no resentment? Perhaps the point is supposed to be that unquestioning love is redemptive, but despite extraordinary self-sacrifice by a dozen people, Jude is not redeemed. He is distracted at best. So in the end it is sad. After all that effort, he is only distracted. So perhaps the point is that childhood cruelty of the kind Cinderella and Jude suffer warps people beyond repair, though it is admirable, maybe miraculous, that anyone so abused can turn into a functioning, though tortured, adult. (I don't know about Cinderella -- her story stops at the wedding dress.) I loved the way things that take up whole books, such as homosexuality, being black in America, and various disabilities and disadvantages, flow through the book like pure waters from a mountain spring. Whether a person is black or white, gay or straight, crippled or fully able makes no difference in their social lives. Very refreshing. The book is peopled by characters like the ones in the Star Wars bar scene. Each has only one or two distinguishing traits, and they are usually friendly with each other. The central characters have accessible names; Harold, Andy, even Willem (that’s a touch exotic, but not much). Outside of the central group though, we meet Sanjay, Lucien, Linus, Phaedra, Cressy, Fausta, Hemming, Josiah – to make a long story short, I loved the names the author chose. I loved the names she gave to the movies one of the characters makes. The fruits of a lively imagination. Reading a modern fairytale was, as I said, engrossing. The interior monologues critique modern life and human relations, and mull over what is right and wrong, good and bad. In that way, the book is edifying and challenging. The ultimate challenge is could you do what Jude’s friends did? The answer will almost always be no, but we try. We do the best we can. Yanagihara has set the bar impossibly high Yanagihara, by the way, divulges nothing in the end pages and elsewhere, except “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.” But a friend dug around on the internet and discovered that the author is a woman of Hawaiian descent who lives in and is very attached to the part of New York City where A Little Life takes place. She has written a previous novel, too, The People in the Trees, which is only 350+ pages long. I might read it after inserting another author’s work between the two books. We need modern fairytales.
The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of a Lost Child We don’t even know if Elena Ferrante is a woman. It’s a pseudonym. Her, or his, last novel, which I haven’t read yet, is on the short list for the Man Booker Prize. Would winning that bring her, or him, out of the shadows? Maybe the author knows that these works are so scathing, so troubling, that he or she would lose a job or prestige in a certain community. By now he or she is so rich and lauded that it’s hard to imagine how that could be a problem, but anybody who reads these novels knows that imagining can take you only so far. The matter of ordinary of lives is unimaginable. The translator, Ann Goldstein, knows who he or she is – I’m glad Goldstein has gone public; she is surely one of the finest contemporary translators. For example, one of the trademarks of the Ferrante novels is the Neapolitan dialect used by the group of friends who grew up in a poor section of Naples. Goldstein simply states that this or that character is speaking in dialect – so simple, yet deceptively difficult to slip into the text without a little bump. No bumps for Goldstein – the language is smooth and bumpless. The fictional writer of this series of books goes on, by dint of luck and persistence, to university and changes the way she speaks. When she returns to Naples it is difficult for her to fit in linguistically. As a speaker of everyday Italian, I can sense the nuance, color and idiosyncrasy that is lost in translation, but it could not have been translated better. In America, we know lots of people who have studied to lose their regional accents in order to fit into the mainstream elite, but we all have native linguistic tendencies. I still say “dawg” and “cawffee,” even though I know it marks me as from New Jersey, or near New Jersey. After reading three of the four books, I am drawn into the harrowing discovery in the novel’s real time that poverty disfigures and distorts everyone it touches. Children barely notice it – it’s just the way things are. As they grow up they are shamed and deprived of much more than a juicy lamb chop, abundant electricity, the privacy of one’s own room, and parents with hope. Their intelligence, pride, convictions, and ambitions are skewed and tangled irretrievably. Money is irrelevant here – in every poor community there are comparatively rich people, accessible by marriage. It is the musty claustrophobia, the strangling dependence on others, the lack of hope which gnaw a hole in every person who grows up in poverty. The characters are as unpredictable as real human beings. You know that Lila is going to disrupt things, but you could never predict how. Yeah, Tony Soprano’s gonna whack somebody – we all know that. What if you took whacking off the table, and lying, and false tears, and blame, and made the game subtler? The sinews of this story are so tight that they carry much heavier stuff. Ferrante establishes the time line by beginning at the end, and then leaving that dangling over four books. The reader is always aware of not the very, very end, but the beginning or middle of the end. (As I said, I haven’t read the last book yet.) Endings are dropped throughout the story, killing off familiar characters as an afterthought attached to some other event. Yes, the storytelling is skillful and solid, the translation and language are fluid and inventive, the social commentary is dead on. None of these facts can touch the way Ferrante shows us what it feels like to be poor. Poor. Really poor. Hopeless poor. Inhumanely poor. You know, the way millions of people live in America. Other authors, like Charles Dickens, have tried to show us poverty, but he reverted to happy endings – it was too painful to show what was happening inside. The scorching eye of Ferrante does not spare us the pain – “pain” is not the right word. Pain is sharp, localized. The poverty in this book is the relentless force of the rack, slowly tearing apart normality. Nobody escapes responsibility in this book.
I’m away from home – my chance to do some heavy reading when I don’t have my television accessible. The first book I read was Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, a classic which fits in, in fact nearly fills up, a tiny niche in literature where authors write about being poor, about poverty itself. If you wonder what it’s like to be really poor, as opposed to deprived, or strapped, then this is the book to read. Orwell’s matter-of-fact description of the people he met, the jobs he performed, the hunger he felt, the humiliation and disdain he encountered, the surprises, and so on, strips him of superiority over the wretches he meets. Once or twice he mentions that he is a well educated, or even just literate, young man and notes the advantages this brings him over the rough-edged, uneducated men who keep him company. He is appreciative of the various circumstances which brought his fellow tramps so low, from exile to illness to unemployment. Stupidity and lack of sensitivity are not among those circumstances. The words are appropriately “man” and “men” because on the trails trodden by the desperately poor, there are few women, at least in his day. (The book was written in 1933.) As he notes in the last chapter of the book, one of the deepest insults to the humanity of the very poor is their lack of hope for affection, companionship, or family life. He quotes Chaucer at the outset, “O scathful harm, condition of poverte.” (scathful means pernicious.) I have driven through parts of America where it seems to me there are people who are poverty-stricken, though I am sure the people I saw in Zimbabwe were a lot poorer. Around New York though, there are only people who are relatively poor. Our poor can find more to eat than the tea and two slices which sustained Orwell’s tribe of itinerants, guaranteeing them a permanent state of malnutrition. Living on MacDonald’s hamburgers would be an improvement, though you would still die young. Being down and out in Paris was interesting enough, but Orwell added a stint on the roads of England for comparison, and the book rears back for a hit on more universal political, religious, and social nerves. Attitudes matter; laws matter; religious beliefs matter. The swear words, at least the worst of them, have been replaced by dashes throughout the book. I don’t know if this was affected by Orwell himself, leaving us to our darkest imaginings of what the actual words were, or by a prudish editor at a later phase of publishing. It looks silly in this era. Orwell seems happy to be home when he gets back to England; on the other hand, he has certain advantages being an Englishman in the restaurant world of Paris, a different kind of advantage being an educated “gentleman” in the English world. Even though he will not be condemned to permanent destitution, as are the other men in his story, he describes the life so well that the reader gets the point. The point is that even when you haven’t had anything but bread and tea in months/years, haven’t slept on anything softer than straw, haven’t stayed in the same place, had a regular schedule, or made long-term friendships, there is still a bit of life to be lived. When a man who has nothing but the clothes on his back sells his razor for a few pence so he’ll have a pallet to sleep on that night, he dissolves in laughter at his situation. Maybe Down and Out in Paris and London is, in the highest sense of the word, a comedy.