Review of Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

Japanese Slice of Life Versus American Literary Fiction.

Slice of Life: mundane day to day events occur regularly. Characters go to work, commute, go shopping, etc. They interact with others in quirky and amusing ways. Characters make decisions, but the consequences are not usually earth-shattering. Readers have the chance to live a life vicariously through these people, to feel their accumulated stress and experience the joy of simpler lifestyles. They supposedly depict life in Japan (or another culture) and share cinematic aesthetics with film directors like Ozu. The writing style is simple, readable, approachable, unadorned. Examples include Convenience Store WomanThe Nakano Thrift ShopThe Easy Life in KamusariNorwegian Wood, and There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job.

Literary fiction: Characters just have money without ever having to go to a job. They spend it with abandon. They drive themselves into desperate situations through their glaring character flaws. They cheat on significant others for lack of anything better to do. They pick fights, usually make the most destructive choice, and are supposed to grow through these hardships and emerge a better person, but sometimes come out more despicable. They often worship idols (themselves, their lovers, money, status, etc.). They do drugs. The writing style is ornate, complex, rich, textured, and possibly pretentious. Common themes include marriage and mortality.

When it comes to reading genres, I think if a reader sticks too heavily to one or another, they will run up against fatigue. Thanks to the recent influx of translations from Japanese into English I have been able to enjoy many slice of life novels this year. But are they the literary equivalent to sitcoms? One of the advantages the Japanese genre has over the American literary output I’ve gotten through so far, is the relatable main character. More often than not, books by Roth, Updike, Ellis, Franzen, and others cast deplorable characters in the lead role, and put them through hell, and thereby create tension, conflict, and a general terror of the wages of excess. Sometimes I just don’t want to traverse the perverse landscape of the human soul and prefer to follow likable people through their ultimately trivial travails. They are too often about wealthy people who feel sad sometimes.

While Diary of a Void is not the most elegant Slice of Life I’ve read this year, it is generally recommendable, enjoyable, and rife with a few relevant subtexts. It tackles the common Japanese literary trope of workplace burn out, and discusses the image problem in that country, which many woman writers point to as the sustaining conflict in their feminist works. Shion Miura, on the other hand, pursues other themes in her recent translations, and the strikingly similar book, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, manages to pull the reader into an even more down-to-earth reading experience.

When it comes to light reading, I would place Diary of a Void somewhere in the middle in terms of quality. It does not pack a large emotional punch and is surprisingly bland. The complaining in the first half is countered by some improbabilities in the latter half. It is less believable and more forgettable than expected. Nonetheless, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to place a pleasant window before the reader, a lens to peer through, by which we may come to appreciate the small things in our lives all the more.

Review of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Not much left to be said about this brilliant book. 

It was brilliant and disturbing and a perfect reading experience. Another first person narrative by this famous author plumbing the depths of human loneliness, wish fulfillment and modern society. A magnificent satire and unputdownable headlong plunge into the heart of all that is wrong with the modern world, condensed and epitomized by a few characters who are laugh out loud funny and haunting at the same time.

Better than Bret Easton Ellis and at least as good as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Review of Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

My ranking of Ottessa Moshfegh’s books.

1. My Year of Rest and Relaxation
2. Homesick for Another World
3. Lapvona
4. Eileen
5. McGlue
6. Death in Her Hands

Lapvona was midrange Moshfegh, in my opinion. It lacked the intimate first person perspective of her other works and possessed a cold, alien tone, making use of uncommon sentence rhythm, like the final story in her collection Homesick for Another World where two children interact in horrifying and malicious ways. She captures a palpable discontent throughout her body of work, but her suggestions about humanity’s past and future are unsettling, more clearly in Lapvona, with its aura of crushed innocence and ceaseless desensitization. It relies heavily on edgy subject matter without the simpering edginess of much modern fiction. Her language radiates from the setting and characters as naturally as that of classic authors like William S. Burroughs. Her voice is supple, but recognizable, even in this historical disguise.

I would prefer a return to a tighter focus and closer perspective in her next work, since she excels at these qualities, and when she pares her writing down to the essentials and takes us on a deep dive down the icebergs of human depravity, she is able to plumb relatable interior worlds with exquisite candor, as in her masterpiece MYORAR. Lapvona is a densely populated, frenetic nightmare.

Review of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Why do people read literary fiction?

I ask myself this whenever I try to define the difficult term “literary fiction.” I think of Philip Roth and John Updike most readily. I see that Moshfegh manages to impress literary readers while also capturing a large audience, ie, being a bestseller. But unlike Roth or Updike, I feel like her work is more fluid, less samey.
This is the first thing of hers I’ve read, and it was standard 1st person literary fiction. Nothing that hadn’t been done before. It was a tad more intimate (grosser) than average, and had a quick pace and compelling voice. Contrasted with my recent read of Liar, Dreamer, Thief, I much prefer this book, which did not talk down to its reader. The titular main character was more realistic in my opinion.

I return to and rephrase the question: Why do we like to read about miserable people who sadly shuffle through meaningless existences? Franzen and others help us tackle this difficult quandary in countless iterations of men and women cheating on one another and making fools of themselves in public. The sub-genre of this also mix in race relations and historical atrocities, just to add fuel to the fire of suffering and distinctly human cruelty.

Moshfegh came off as genuine in her portrayal of a sloppy woman, living messily, in a messed-up world. Alcoholic fathers and dying mothers have become cliches, but what works best amid the unremitting bleakness of the setting is the strong voice. It is not concise or overly elegant, but it does its job of carrying the reader through the typical scenarios with verve. We live vicariously through characters like this.

I appreciated the frank and telling depiction of life’s gruesome hardships and felt the struggle of a woman trying and failing to make something of a depressing life. It had its highs and lows, but I can recommend the book to anyone with a strong stomach and a pulse. It rises above the trillion other hard-luck stories out there and indicates a talent ready to operate within and outside the norm.

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 Stoner by John Williams

Good storytelling. A memorable picture of American life.

Steinbeckian. Stoner the famer becomes Stoner the stubborn professor. We witness his heartbreaking home life and his harrowing professional life–two spheres most middle class Americans dwell in like split personalities.

It has been called a perfect novel. I would like to point out a few of its weaknesses, from my standpoint. The writing is too passive. Too many filler words, especially in the first half, too much hedging, too many adverbs, gesticulations, and passive verbs. It’s all telling, not showing, summary, not scene. Most early literary classics indulge in the same vices. I think Nathanael West, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald could write better sentences, but despite all of the polite Henry Jamesian prose inflation, it has solid character, thought provoking themes and moving emotional highs. It’s not dense, but it is deep. It stands as a worthy classic. In short it could have been more tightly written. For being published in 1965 it reads a bit like Dreiser or Steinbeck. Today we get un-tight books by Cormac McCarthy and Delillo, but they aren’t fluffy, they’re maximalist. Still, the minimalist plot and moral arguments here are old fashioned and the author succeeds in what he set out to accomplish.

It is a descent into the human psyche. A closed-perspective study of values. The thesis defense scene and its fallout are masterfully done. The whole book is unforgettable.

Review of Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo

I have read 16 Delillo novels so far. 

His literary cobbling definitely intrigues me. The sense of place, the weird characters saying off-the-wall things. The long, unnecessary, wandering, plotless sections of simply intriguing writing.

My ranking of Delillo so far:

1. Underworld
2. Americana
3. Cosmopolis
4. The Angel Esmeralda
5. The Body Artist
6. White Noise
7. Mao II
8. The Names
9. Zero K
10. Point Omega
11. Great Jones Street
12. Players
13. Libra
14. Falling Man
15. Ratner’s Star
16. The Silence

Most people could disagree and come up with their own rankings. I think the reader brings something to Delillo, interprets his aesthetic and appreciates his writing on different levels.
I’ll be tracking down and completing his final remaining works with trepidation and a touch of sadness. I will have to return to Ratner’s Star, having been disappointed. Then I will return to Underworld, having been enraptured. Is he a genius or a clever collagist?

My guess is he writes sentence by sentence, stringing together thoughts, characters, scenes. The themes bubble beneath the surface, but the subtle dance of his point is often elusive. You can always be assured that he will crisply construct elegant phrases, and incorporate many universal emotions and pointed comments related to the zeitgeist.

This book is only marginally about a rock group, a drug, a commune, writer’s complaints, and many other side topics. There is a near constant refrain of social commentary. Delillo’s books teach us a little bit more about being human, with all of our flaws, misconceptions, and compassion. Taken together, I think his body of work is more compelling than most other American authors, and comparable to Cormac McCarthy’s, or Steinbeck’s.

A true original, like Pynchon, who placed style and sentence precision above plot. Yet, I believe that most of his books fall just short of masterpieces due to their unfocused approach. Occasionally, whole sections fall flat to me, or certain books require an uneven amount of effort, with dense, impenetrable monologues abutting cinematic descriptions. This could be a failing in me as a reader, and proper appreciation of the hidden nuances may come with time.

This is as good a place as any to start with DeLillo. But I think Angel Esmeralda is the more perfect distillation of his powers.

Review of A Cool Million by Nathanael West

Greasy satire of the most malicious kind. 

A rags to rags story about one man’s valiant pursuit of the American nightmare. A surprisingly smooth and cinematic journey through the underbelly of America, which is not an underbelly so much as a carcass here, teeming with greedy maggots. The swindles are clever and the racism is either intentional or very sad indeed. Caricatures that will stick in the mind and slapstick that will make you wince. This mock picturesque ramble through urban squalor will titillate any enthusiast of descriptive prose or moral quandaries. Ask yourself, has anything changed? A poignant classic shedding light on societal struggles often brushed under the rug.

Review of The Anthologist (The Paul Chowder Chronicles #1) by Nicholson Baker

Baker’s deep dive into poetry analysis and history succeeds on every level except for his audiobook narration, which is uneven, ranging from blasting your ear drums out to indecipherable murmurs. The whole book is a poetic interlude about an anthologist failing to write a poetry book introduction. The minutia of his life is cast under starkly touching light in that way only Baker can capture.

Review of Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

A short, atmospheric novella relating the enigmatic beauty of an unremarkable life. 

A quiet, heartfelt rendering of human beings intertwined in the awkward embrace of modern life in an out of the way place. I really enjoyed the setting. A well-structured short work, but less striking than a more-developed novel would’ve been. It was a tight and smooth read, fraught with elegant expression and straightforward narration, with moments of icy clarity and melancholy meditations. An innkeeper’s life, in a nutshell. She meets a graphic novelist. The relationship is a bit stark and undramatic. Plenty of subtleties. A bit like an old foreign film, grainy, radiating depth of feeling, but nonetheless transitory.

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 Dancing With Disorder by Andrew Lawes

When I picked up this book, I knew it would map out the plight of the mentally ill in some form or another, but I did not expect the intimate perspective, which delves deep into psychology and the emotions incumbent in major life changes, without losing the focus on character and dialogue.

The way it explores the interiority of fear and societal pressures with descriptive scenes and quick pacing made for an intriguing and mature look at the topic. The interior monologue is balanced with straightforward narration, which depicts a rich variety of experiences, along with an open-hearted attitude and graciousness. It communicates a deep understanding of troubled individuals who suffer from the challenges of mental disorders. Add to this figurative language and colorful interactions, and you have a very readable product. While the flights of fancy can get rather grandiose, the narrator is not without charm. It offers a valuable glimpse into institutions and the minds of those unfortunates who find themselves therein. Courageous, wise, humorous, and thought-provoking by turns. We’re introduced to quirky characters and shown a variety of believable attitudes. It reminded me in places of David Foster Wallace’s kooky institutionalized characters, though the comparison is one of atmosphere and tone. At bottom, the author managed to convey the originality of these people; no matter what situations they were in, they remain themselves. I could only conclude that it was written by someone who was at one point close to his subject matter.

The realistic, idiosyncratic dialogue contains local flavor and provides an immersive quality to the streamlined prose. Amid all of these techniques, the author manages to tell a good story, which is really one composed of many small interlocking pieces, as in real life. It goes into how to navigate relationships and stressors, pursue recovery and harmony with one’s fellow sufferers, channeling nostalgia to inject life’s rough patches with a hypo of hope. An easy-to-read, surprising, and subtly moving chronicle, that charts social dynamics and private growth through characters you can grow to love.

Review of Mimi by Lucy Ellmann

Mimi is not Lucy Ellmann’s best work, but this book was still intelligent and more entertaining than 99% of inanimate objects on this planet.

Ellmann’s acerbic brand of feminism doesn’t really work with the goofy male narrator, as other reviewers have pointed out. You most certainly won’t like this plastic surgeon guy, but again, entertainment is the name of the game. If I can be intellectually engaged with and laugh at a novel, it has done its job. I don’t ask it to be balanced, tonally perfect, or unbiased in order to earn 4 stars. Lucy Ellmann knows how to write well. Every book of hers I’ve tried so far has been good to stellar.

This, like her upcoming Ducks, Newburyport, will likely polarize readers. I would not call this vintage Ellmann, but it is welcome padding to her modest body of work. Calling her work modest is completely inaccurate though. There always seems to be one person, male or female, at a party or event – think of your wedding – who just cannot behave themselves. Ellmann relishes these moments of misbehavior and delves deeply into the troubling psyches of her characters at the same time. The plots are typically simple, where they exist at all, because her focus is internal monologue, which she could write a whole book using – oh wait, DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT!

Don’t begin your foray into her oeuvre with Mimi. Likely, you’ll laugh, but the literary experiments toward the back of the book (extra padding on an already padded book) will just confuse you. Her use of musical sheets and pictures doesn’t get on my nerves. It’s a little distracting but I’m there for the writing. I’m not averse to long lists and tables, if used in service of character, though I wish the overt comments were kept to the sidelines, or used more subtly.

Subtlety is used more effectively in her other works, and it is a poignant spice missing from this particular concoction.

Interview in The Collidescope

Thank you to The Collidescope for the interview. Check out this fascinating literary publication for informative and brilliant content.

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