Review of Bliss Montage by Ling Ma

This surreal collection of short stories put me in mind of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, and Life Ceremony.

It uses the same recipe of injecting everyday tone with bizarro aesthetics. This is upmarket bizarro. Genre fiction pretending to be literary fiction. A popular tactic nowadays.

It discusses the immigrant experience from several angles. Its characters experience disorienting isolation and loneliness. There is much less “bliss” than might be expected. The final story capitalizes on the horrors of motherhood where the earlier stories cast mothering in a demonized light. Some great pithy lines, but also some weirdly out of place ones.

For instance, she describes a house in which 100 ex-boyfriends live, how the rooms extruded from the structure. Then when the boyfriends begin to leave the rooms retract “like an old man’s balls back into his body.” That image is 100% wrong when compared to real anatomy subjected to time.

An amusing story about a Yeti and the travails of women who identify as Chinese in a society that tends to place expectations on them. It can be heavy handed but I cannot say any of it is off the mark. The scenarios are still moving and entertaining. The language is not elaborate and the imagery is striking.

The collection does what many story collections do, which is try to touch the heart while stimulating the brain. The most striking thing about them is often the unconventional structure, the blending of multiple timelines and the non-sequential storytelling.

When I read Severance I was disappointed. It is still the most boring book about zombies I’ve read. Her first book won a disproportionate number of awards. The author subsists off an aggravating number of foundations and fellowships, considering how long it too her to produce a 200-page collection.

I look forward to her next book. No thanks to Netgalley or the publisher are owed, since they denied my early access to an arc. Why, people, why?

Will she stick to short stories or give us another novel? I rather think that her subtle quirkiness is suited to short form.

Review of People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami

Hiromi Kawakami collects here a dreamlike conglomeration of semi-related characters and events from her part of town, if the title and interior clues are to be believed.

The random nature of the images and events lend the collection an experimental feel. The writing is smooth and simple and unadorned. Her earlier novels and stories were more atmospheric and consistent in my opinion. The quality of the ideas wavered from intriguing to objectively bad. Nonetheless, I admit it is hard to judge absurdist or bizarro works. They are not trying to make sense. Yet, I only consider a bizarro idea successful if it is either memorable or comments obliquely on the real world, either through satire or subtext. There appears to be some of the latter going on, and I only wish more of the vignettes resolved into memorable stories or packed more of a punch.

Like with her previous works in English, her subdued storytelling is softer than Yoko Ogawa’s and the spheres from which she draws her subject matter are not as far-flung as Yoko Tawada’s, but any of her books are approachable, somewhat enjoyable, and similar in feel to Banana Yoshimoto’s.

Be prepared for dog principals, pigeonitis, and other wacky scenarios. None of them are explored into perversity and remain tethered to a quirky sort of mundanity. No matter how out-there H. K. ventures, she is typically unwilling to offend anybody. If you liked Convenience Store Woman, you should check out Kawakami’s work, and watch for a subliminal appreciation for wabi-sabi.

I do hope more of her translated works make it into English soon.

Review of Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

I needed this.

More unrestrained than Kawabata. Less brutal than Mo Yan. The voice is folkloric, the storytelling all over the place but always entertaining. With beautiful language, Gao depicts a China in transition, whose government and people are full of contradictions, but also resonant with long-standing traditions, suffused with the aura of millennia. It oozes history without secreting it. Deserving of the Nobel prize in the same sense that Mo Yan is, Gao gives us something unique, a hodgepodge novel that immerses the reader in the sensual and political climate of an era of China, and yet feels universal, important, profound. It does not force complex plots and characters through arcs and sinusoidal developments, it simply weaves a fabric of fictive reality. Xingjian’s brush is delicate, yet forceful. A fully realized mingling of experimental and traditional forms. As another reviewer said, Pynchon for the Chinese reader. I will probably obtain and read his other translated works.

Review of Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

I am cautiously optimistic regarding Mieko Kawakami’s literary future. She is a rising star of popular Japanese fiction, but I see her writing style suffering from common traits plaguing the English translations we are getting within the past several years. 

It is a kind of commercial dumbing down of the prose. Contemporary Japanese books are sliding into the mainstream perhaps, and losing some of that Mishima-level literary refinement. You don’t get anything on the level of Ryu Murakami anymore, and a lot of these super-young, female literary writers are appealing to the same crowd as Haruki Murakami whose pop celebrity status spawned a new generation of imitators.

If the style of this novel resembled her short stories from the publication Monkey Business, it would have easily merited more enthusiasm from me. Yet, it would be easy to slide this into the YA category. Like her recent Breasts and Eggs, she wrestles with important and emotionally trying topics, boasting a wealth of subtext, but employs a utilitarian style I can only describe as bland.

I realize this book takes place from the perspective of a 14 year old, but I would’ve liked to read something more developed than straightforward, childish thoughts and internal argument. The conversations are surface level, and the atmosphere is poorly established. The syntax is so literal, unadorned, sloppy, straightforward and fast-paced it felt like reading a newspaper. I would have to put this in the same category as Snakes and Earrings, which is pulp, adolescent fiction, not challenging in any way. This is simply my opinion, and I will read anything Kawakami puts out into English. She is certainly capable of establishing a similar output to Banana Yoshimoto or even Dazai, but not if she chooses to continue taking the easy route to popularity. I would like to see her recapture the bent toward magical realism you’ll find in her short stories, and strive toward producing complex portrayals of modern life.

To bolster my argument, I’ll have to look at the book’s interior logistics. You get a few main characters. The bullied kid with a mild deformity, a visibly poor friend, and the self-justified douche of the school bully. Nothing revolutionary in this set up. The kids confront one another. There are graphic scenes of creepily sadistic bullying and one or two scenes utterly inappropriate for children. I wouldn’t care, except who exactly, is the audience for this novel? If it is really YA why does she include the graphic sexuality – especially when it is not relevant to the story, and if it is for adults, why is it so simplistic and forced, so underwritten?

I wish I could say it was more than a disposable read, but I have seen all of these themes explored elsewhere with more lyricism and depth. You get plenty of examples and moral arguments here, but their context is so very contrived. A confounding mixture of heartstring manipulation and weak writing.

Review of Hokusai Manga by Katsushika Hokusai


One of the most ensorcelling art books I’ve found by one of my all-time favorite artists. You are familiar with Hokusai’s woodblock prints. His art has become synonymous with Eastern art. A legend. This edition is small in size, but impressive in content. His depiction of creatures, landscapes, plants, and people both drawn from life and his imagination are fascinating for their precision and that delicate balance of suggestion and detail. Like all truly great artists, any human being, upon viewing his works, can interpret his images and instantly recognize the subjects and fall into the parallel universe crafted by this unique genius.

Review of Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love by Haruki Murakami

I began by pretending this was a short novel about a t-shirt and vinyl-record-obsessed old guy, who happened to also be an obscenely successful novelist and it worked for the most part in the sense that I enjoyed reading these table scraps of autobiographical reminiscences from the most influential Japanese author ever.

Just learning more about this celebrity’s everyday, even boring, existence, was still fascinating in the way gossip webpages and home invasion footage is. Is it wrong that I want to rifle through Murakami’s closet and thumb through his record collection? Stalkerish fans are one thing Murakami has in spades, and it is quite generous of him to release this enticing expose to fend off their frothing hordes. But it also appears a tad exploitative. At this point, I will keep reading the translations they spoon feed us of this author because I can’t stop now.

The tactics he employs as a novelist have been discussed to death, but the agony uncle side of him, the uncaring, sloppy, endearing, and well-intentioned side of him, remains absurdly interesting out of all proportion to what he is writing about, which has long since ceased to matter, since all we want is more Murakami, more Murakami, more Murakami.

It’s weird how everyone has all but forgotten Ryu Murakami, and we haven’t seen a new translation of him in years, and they are clearly holding back a bunch of Haruki’s early stories and nonfiction writing to trickle through the translation pipeline after his creativity dries up – But maybe he’ll go on, like Philip K. Dick’s android or Hokusai, producing mesmerizing works into his nineties and hundreds, and most of his fans will finally discover other pleasures, having finally read Absolutely on Music and realized the depth of their paramour’s insanity.

Review of North Station by Bae Suah

Bae Suah in experimental mode.

The 7 stories in North Station display many aspects of this author’s formidable powers. Unlike the novels of hers I’ve read, this collection depicts similar characters in a greater variety of situations, while not relying on dramatic plotting. They are very slow, and will not be to everyone’s taste. Pre-eminent themes include the contemplation of loss, and the melancholy of inertia. The narrative contains more voice than action. These stories resonate with controlled desperation, contained storms. They play with language and time, and seethe, even while they slowly dissipate in the mind.

With effortless complexity and poetic lyricism, Suah weaves together unconventional travel narratives, amid psychological stability, confronting the mobility of the mind, and navigating the chaotic urban landscapes with rock-solid perceptual analysis.

There is a little German flavor to her works, which only makes sense considering she is a translator of German works into Korean. There are traces of Mann, Hesse, Kafka & Goethe, Rilke and others I’m not familiar with. The solid, striking prose is organized into defensive walls of intelligent arguments crafted through bulky, content-rich paragraphs. But this is not to say she does not have a delicate touch all the same. The mechanics are elaborate while the characters are never hurried. They are collected and observant in the extreme.

Her translator’s mentality informs her fiction writing. Suah takes her time composing exquisite images which converge, like coupling trains of thought, to flow and separate again. She asks: how much of a writer’s personality does a work contain in “Owl.” Her characters are People “vainly flirting with life” fighting off with deep meditation the slow trickle toward death. But there is always an awareness of art’s impact on the human soul and the barriers we erect between each other – either as an emotional coping mechanism or as a filter through which we encounter life on our own terms.

In some ways, her writing resembles Akutagawa’s. Especially in the way she combines elements of Eastern and Western culture, how she explores another culture as a foreigner, and how she interprets these cultural anomalies through her own lens. Some of the descriptions are reminiscent of “Mandarins” – especially the fascination with trains.

Without a doubt, her writing possesses the intelligence and innate sensitivity of timeless literature. Yoko Tawada is another inevitable comparison, as she too lived in Germany. Suah provides commentary on Goethe’s strictness and exactitude as she employs certain literary disciplines with a master’s touch and she does not seem to borrow too often from her home country’s myths and history. What these stories lack in plot, they make up with psychological tension and insight.

The debt life owes to death is one of her characters’ preoccupations. “Nature maintains equilibrium. Man Grieves.” By blending dialogue, monologue and straight narration, Suah enlivens her extended essays on human mortality in the storyteller’s framework, while also commenting on art and the responsibility of the creator to their own vision, and how exposure compromises that. The final story provides a scenario similar to Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Suah’s style is well-suited to endless permutations of detail. As a result, there is also great musicality in the deft translation we are given in English, such as in the subtle word order: “vividly revived,” and “secret creases.”

Complex sentences can either be a joy or a pain. In this case, they are Suah’s stock and trade. The display of ruined mentalities in characters shifting through life’s tribulations, lugging around their baggage of uncertainty, and the exploration of human psychic borders, provide an unflinching examination of our bodies and spirits in the cold metaphysical environments we inhabit. Combined with the elegant, ravishing descriptions, and the gorgeous atmosphere, this made for a luscious read. Her Mishima-like control of narration, the contemplation of the writerly life, and the academic versus literary ambitions on display fully qualify Suah as an important figure in world literature. Her literary theory, criticism and analysis, integrated smoothly into her novels and stories, along with the fragmentary hints which compose the tableau of life as we perceive it suggest that she has a deep and heartfelt understanding of human nature. The searing holes left in the tapestry by loss and grief are some of the most striking moments in her fiction.

I look forward to reading every word of this author’s work as it makes its way, inch by inch, into English translation.