Review of Seduction of the Golden Pheasant by Damian Murphy

I suspect the author has spent some time abroad. Such were my impressions while reading this novella, steeped as it is in the aura of its locales.

Seduction of the Golden Pheasant provides us a brief glimpse at Damian Murphy’s implementation of oodles of subtext. Several of his stories function on the level of a Guillermo Del Toro flick, introducing a subversion of the setting, providing a narrative cosmos beneath a simple premise. The comparison is only partial of course, as this author’s tales lack gore, and rely on purely psychological insinuation and intimate portraiture. I was drawn in by the playful games of the characters, which are revealed to contain mystic significance.

There is a falling into lush surroundings, an entrancing focus upon inanimate patterns, the arrangement of furniture, serving for the establishment of place. Subtle shades of intertwined Occidental and Oriental motifs. A true seduction in every sense of the word. I felt a mental suction from the text, enwrapping my imagination. The author has a penchant for curious protagonists, propelled by abstract lusts into a contemplation and then a revelation of the divine properties of that sensual imperative, which is almost a disintegration of their persona into aesthetic appreciation. I believe he is trying to achieve a marriage of the sublime and the epicurean.

Concealed charms, sacred texts, and architectural splendor, atmosphere slanted toward decadence, conversations amid a haze of foamy cigarillo smoke, spooky liqueurs, and the dawning of the uncanny abyss behind the thin veil of our senses. This is the supreme and utterly irresistible essence I feel while reading this author’s work.

Review of The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada

This book is a prime example of the commercial bent of recent Japanese translations. It is a case study in how to underestimate your readers.

It is a case study in how to underestimate your readers. It was well-marketed to adults by a very reputable publisher. Of course it is selling well, garnering misleading blurbs and reviews, and impressing lots of important people. However, it is written at about a sixth-grade level, is only about 30,000 words long, and boasts no innovation in character, plot, or prose. Did we learn nothing from the author’s last book? A year from now, are they going to rinse and repeat this same process with another example of this lite, disposable, un-literary silliness?

It is no surprise that it received the Akutagawa prize, and that is the most likely reason for its short length. In recent years, this prize has come to indicate the opposite of its original intention. When they gave it to Kenzaburo Oe and actual writers, I had some respect for the prize. The downhill track it has followed since is startling.

This short novella reads very like the examples I encountered in Creative Writing 101 in college. 75% of the short, repetitive sentences could be edited out. The attempts at building atmosphere are transparent and simply an accumulation of mundane interior monologues. The narrator will ask up to twenty rhetorical questions in a row sometimes. And the rest of the prose is simple reportage on the surroundings: grass, cicadas, trees, houses, hoses, fences, store items.

Very little happens during the course of the novella: Main character moves to new house. Weird, unexplained things happen to her. It concludes without resolving any of the questions raised. You are supposed to draw an allegory using these dreamlike hints throughout. The housewife is feeling directionless. When she literally falls into a hole, you are supposed to realize she has metaphorically fallen into a hole as well. Society pigeonholes women. Japanese traditions are getting old. Those are the background themes. But lacking all character development, relying so heavily on bland descriptions, is simply amateurish. This is not fit to be printed. The author has ideas, but lacks formal development.

Comparing this book to this year’s translation of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, I see a world of difference.

Review of The Narcissus Variations by Damian Murphy

Another unsettling and atmospheric novella from Damian Murphy, who has concocted an aesthetic all his own comprised of dense subtext, dark, elaborate interiors, and esoteric rites, woven into an ongoing meditation on the mortal soul and the responsibility of the artist. 

This one centers around the Kin and an enigmatic journal, given life by the scrivener protagonist. You will find an interplay of striking symbols, the return of the mirror as a gateway, an untrustworthy implement, and the coaction of written, spoken, and deciphered language.

Most of the author’s works are representative of his pristine imagery, his elusive double-meanings, and his refined and polished style. To read any of his books is to enter into a vast subconscious layer of the human experience, replete with mythological creatures, shimmering glades, doorways leading onto the abyss, and a nightmarish reality haunting this veil of existence we call the quotidian.

Review of Old Floating Cloud: Two Novellas by Can Xue

A rare scatological mosaic elevated to the highest levels of artistic expression. Can Xue is my favorite contender for the Nobel Prize. 

Rising out of humble beginnings in China to become in the space of a decade, a force to be reckoned with in world literature. A titan of disjointed, haunting, sloppy elegance. A feverish, hyperactive geezer with a child’s imagination. She has published some 50 novellas, a few dozen stories and about 9 novels so far. They all partake of the same excruciatingly visceral style. The critics love comparing it to this or that author, like Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Cortazar and others, but she is entirely in her own league in my opinion.

Yellow Mud Street, the first novella in the collection, is a revolting, beautiful, contradictory summation of life in the ditch. A recounting of a fabulous town sinking into a pit of its own excrement. The bats and the centipedes, and the people and pigs, all leaking and spewing into each other, the roofs collapsing, and the hungry, sad animals beneath them called human beings, crumbling and festering in their own resentful sties. Can Xue conjures a continual excrescence of polyp-sprouting images. The characters and lunatics she peoples this scourged landscape with are hideous, Goya-esque renditions of nightmare beings, hovering between life and death and love and salvation.

So why is Can Xue doing all this? Why does she fly in the face of convention and challenge the notion of enjoyable reading and the status quo? Each moment, each gory detail, each unimaginable horror taking place is the even-toned, straight-faced, loving joke of an activist. She uses our fears and aggravations to build a castle of images, colors and flavors. Whether the Chinese government reads it or American students or Argentine professors, there is something to be gained from her intense vision. You can draw parallels to the questionable bureaucracies that spawned the human suffering she depicts in exaggerated detail. Beneath the hyperbole lie wounds of truth and blisters of history. You can find in the hairy horrors and pus-dripping walls, the squealing prostitutes and puddles bubbling with frogs, a cause and a purpose. She sees human beings as dependent creatures. Communities, when built upon mud, can only foster mud creatures. Yet in death and decay there is often found a germ of life and a sick kind of natural beauty. Can Xue excoriates our taste, and abrades our minds. She is the loving dictator of the lost hells of impoverished villages, where patches of our worst habits lurked and corrupted our ancestors.

Old Floating Cloud, the second novella, is a subtler, pointillist display of her powers. She weaves a tapestry of symbols to convey brilliant satires and memorable dreams. Plot and character development are not her main concern. The roles of family and community, the emotion and trauma we compile in our daily, animalistic existences, are her bread and butter. We are walking contradictions, all of us, and what we love, often destroys us. Our adornments are all sequins, and our blemishes are our defining characteristics. While this story is far more readable, far easier to digest, it is not as powerful as Yellow Mud Street. The sheer accumulation of her images, and the Jenga tower of her atmospheric malaise are impressive to a startling degree. Even more than her other short story collections, these two exemplar works are enough to prove to anyone that she is not afraid to expose and explode our literary refinements and the sealed bags of cultural baggage we all lug upon our shoulders like severed heads.

Can Xue may be overlooked by some now, but in the future, I think, her great artistry will continue to grow in influence.