by Carole McDonnell
I’m not sure when I developed my love of literary puzzles. Maybe it was watching Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde on Masterpiece Theater back in the day. Or perhaps all those days of floating around Balzac’s Paris or in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county are to blame. Whatever the reason, I liked watching authors make connections. This often meant sometimes I’d have to backtrack through the pages I’d already read. But this was all to the good because I had to get all this to say that yeah, I love story puzzles, literary games, and the authors who create them.
Which brings me to Borges or to the book marketers who continually throw his name around. The back cover of Tad Crawford’s A Floating Life, not only throws Borges around but also tosses in Castenada and Philip K Dick. Truth to tell, Borges and Cortazar brought me the delightful surreal confusion of natural-supernaturalism and magical realism, but I haven’t read them in 35 years, so nowadays I’m never sure how true literary claims of an author being “like Borges” really are. And I don’t remember reading Philip K Dick, although I have seen movies based on his writings. Such claims generally make me wary and I steel myself for an onslaught of surreal pretensions.
A Floating Life begins with a nameless narrator trying to figure out why he’s being questioned by strangers in a sauna. The scene later shifts to restaurant and we — or he — discover he’s being interviewed for a job. The storyline is mighty slim, although (if you’re reading it to be enlightened) you won’t need a plot. But for folks who like a good plot, much goodwill is needed if one wishes to finish reading. The plot thread, such as it is, is about the break-up of the narrator’s marriage. His wife still loves him, and they still share an apartment, but apparently she feels he is unable to change — hence, all these images of emergence, change, watery surges, sea changes, floating, talking bears, and argumentative dogs. It is all very dreamlike and floaty. But it’s also very talky. And there’s the rub.
Dream-based and dream-like stories are pretty hit-or-miss. Sometimes they soar, leading us to the joy of touching the numinous. But sometimes they are just confusing, coldly distant, loaded with psychobabble, and cloyingly precious.
The story is about floating so the reader is made to aimlessly drift alongside the protagonist. We muddle through, with perhaps less patience than the way-too-calm narrator, until Pecheur arrives. Pecheur is trying to figure out how to hold back the watery forces of nature. He and our nameless protagonist have long deep talks about the sea, emerging water, fluidity, and water energy. Then the narrator is hired as Pecheur’s assistant and possible future replacement. Another character pops up and discusses the energy of unused semen. After a few pages, the thematic questions are clear: “Will our hero learn to change and to accept change, come what may?”
Okay, all this is philosophical and profound and this book could be the Jonathan Livingston Seagull of the 21st century. But darn it! When I chose to review A Floating Life, I really had hoped for something like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities or even something Borgesian. I was not looking for depictions of emotional worlds or psychology thinly-disguised as fiction. True, the caves underneath the earth were pretty neat. As were the holograms Pecheur makes. So how am I to review a book that is not speculative fiction but speculative psychology, a book that turned out to be something I really didn’t want to read? My bad. I guess I should recommend it. Because it wasn’t bad — but it wasn’t for me.
Another book I read this month, which would certainly fall under the category of puzzles and dislocations is The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s his first novel so it has many of the errors of a first novel but even so, it’s become an immediate favorite. The plot is simple enough. Mark Watney, an astronaut, is left behind on Mars and now he has to fend for himself in the cold atmosphere with nothing but his botany, engineering, and mathematical skills. Bare bones plot, right? But who needs plot when one has math? The next mission from Earth to Mars is over two years away. How is our fearless All-American astronaut going to extend his food supplies, oxygen, heat, and water? Never fear, there is nothing that mathematics, chemistry, the table of elements, scrap metal, a little urine, and plain old can-do optimism, can’t do. Yes, sometimes my brain froze and my eyes glazed over — there are math equations from page one through to almost the last page, some of which I barely comprehended — but dang! I could not put the book down. This novel that felt like a science manual-cum-life-or-death-experiment, a mix of the film Gravity, Robinson Crusoe, and MacGyver.
There are a few problems with the novel, though. And I’m not talking about the worshipful attitude toward NASA or heroes in general. I’m cynical about governmental agencies but I don’t feel the need to have others be equally suspicious of them. For one, it feels choppy. True, I felt a literary jolt when the third person narration kicked in. After all, the first portion of the book was written in first person — Mark Watney’s POV. But I could’ve accepted that if the third person narration hadn’t felt so… third rate.
Although the first person sections felt organic and unique, the omniscient POV chapters felt as if Mr. Weir had learned storytelling from movies, from disaster movies, police procedurals, or action scripts. The chapters felt unnecessary and the secondary characters introduced in them amounted to talking heads and caricatures. The first person narration is a string of one math/mechanics/physics/ bio-chemistry problem after another. And weirdly, it works! But when the omniscient-narration comes in, the reader sees the cracks: the author cannot flesh out scenes. Emotions are lacking, stereotypically heroic, or badly-done.
Another issue is how secondary characters interact via dialog tags. And (admittedly this is my own pet peeve) if we were going to have to wade through talking heads and dialog tags, some consistency in the format would have been good. Either “X asked”, “X said”, “X intoned.” Or “asked X”, “said X”, “intoned X.” One or the other; not both. There were also quite a few moments when all the characters in a room did all the same thing. For instance, in one instance all the officials in the briefing room “furrowed their brows.” Group eyebrow-raising is a mark/pitfall of newbie writers, as are three characters with the same initials. (M.W.) The editor should have caught such slips. Upshot: The Martian is fun in the way a good puzzle is fun, involving but emotionally distant. It’s sheer quirky genius — and would have been utter perfection if the third person sections hadn’t been forced upon the story or the reader. I highly recommend this book, however, especially for math geeks.
Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales is not a new collection, but it was new to me, so I’m including it in this review because it was one of my fun reads this month. And because it handles locations in the same way Balzac handles Paris and Faulkner uses Yoknapatawpha County. Originally published in 1998, the version I read was the 2013 translation by Stephen Snyder and published by Picador. And, yeah, the name Borges is thrown at would-be readers. Mercifully, we are spared surrealism. Ogawa’s world is small and a cosmic tragic geography connects isolated, wounded desperate people. Suddenly a minor character in one story is transformed into a major character in her own right in another tale.
The Japanese are good at omnibus novels — collections of self-contained short stories about folks tangentially connected to each other. I didn’t know the collection was an omnibus novel until I caught on to the “ronde” while reading the third story. Then I started skimming backward to see if a “new” character was someone I had encountered in a previous story.
In the first story, we meet a woman who is waiting to be served by a girl in a bakery. Trouble is, the girl is weeping on the phone. What about? Well, we don’t know. The girl is a mere distraction. As is the plump old woman who smells like medicine, and other folks casually mentioned in the narrative. We’re too focused on the narrator’s memory of her dead son, her desire to buy strawberry shortcake for this dead son, the refrigerator in which the son was found dead, and the grief that destroyed her marriage. So, why think about the bakeshop girl crying on the phone? Trust me, that weeping girl, that plump old woman, and other casually-mentioned folks are going to appear later in other stories as main characters and POV characters — all desperate, all interwoven.
These stories are simple, spare, and unpretentious. The evils and tragedies the characters encounter are often so small that the reader isn’t aware — until she has gotten ensnared in this web of stories — that she has fallen into a trap. Although nothing supernaturally horrible happens, the stories are “dark” in the way a suddenly windy day is dark: one gets the unsettling feeling that somewhere someone’s life is being destroyed by a subtly malevolent wind. And subtle is the word. Throughout the tales, there are cruelties — subtle, small, disproportionate, or murderous — and one cannot clearly decipher where the originating wound began. Loss, grief, and insanity are set into motion in such mundane way that human life feels very fragile indeed.
I’ll just say that this slender volume caused me no end of trouble to read. I love omnibus stories but when the POV characters are nameless, are speaking about other nameless characters, or to other nameless characters… well, the preponderance of pronouns and nameless characters can be frustrating. I kept thinking I should’ve bought an highlighter — preferably six or seven of them in different colors. And yet, this is a rewarding puzzle and a book every writer should read. Ogawa gives the pertinent parts of the protagonists’ histories — those telling clues that connect all the characters of all the stories. The tiger skin coats, the kiwi-filled shed, the lost father — all are clues to characters treading the psychological border of insanity and bordering each others’ lives. I highly recommend this book, and these stories touched my heart more than all the others mentioned in this review.
I considered reading the original Japanese light novel, All You Need is Kill, on which Edge of Tomorrow is based. But reconsidered. In the future I’ll do a comparison/compare review of Asian stories versus American remakes but not now.
Edge of Tomorrow is an alien invasion movie crossed with Groundhog Day. The protagonist, cocky protag Major William Cage, is a smug media priss — an artist, if you will. His war reports have helped to enlist soldiers to fight the invading gigantic bug aliens. For reasons that make no sense whatsoever (and which seem to exist solely to make the older Tom Cruise a replacement for the younger hero in the original Japanese novel) Cage has been enlisted to be an actual soldier at the front. Turning war into art and media pap is one thing; living war is quite another. Cage doesn’t want to go to the front but ends up there anyway. Think Verdun and the Normandy Invasion. Except that our protag knows diddly squat about being a soldier. He is wearing unwieldy armor he cannot operate, has no allies, and is blacklisted. On his first day of battle, all the humans get slaughtered. Our hero dies. Aliens: win; armed forces of the world: zero.
But then, Saving Private Ryan gives way to Groundhog Day and Gears of War: Cage wakes up again. And again. He’s not really thrilled about finding himself dislocated in space and relocating in time. This film is in medias res taken to the nth degree and our hero has some worldbuilding to figure out. Why is he waking up? Why does he keep dying? Who will believe his flaky story of the day repeating itself? How can he escape this time loop? How can he learn what he has to learn and meet whom he has to meet to stop the human armed forces from meeting their demise? And, believe me, there are many many deaths that Cage and his colleagues must endure.
I related to the character’s journey, even if Cage — or was it Cruise — felt somewhat distant. But don’t look for heart in this film. Yes, the aliens are deadly, and yes, the film depicts warfare well. But because there are no character backstories, this film is a mental exercise. Where this film excels is in the execution; the first half is expositional perfection. The act of learning and the toils of puzzling through has never been shown so perfectly. “Trial and error” and muddling through was never this deadly.
But then the second part of the film arrives. It’s plain old linear storytelling once Cage finally learns the “secret” and has escaped the death loop. So the second half of Edge of Tomorrow lacks something. This is also where we should see how terrifying real death is. After all, Cage has been dying a lot, but he knew all his other deaths would cause him to a return to life. One would think the screenwriter would differentiate between the new realization of “death without hope of rebooting” and Cage’s previous deaths. But nooooooo. Then the WTF-ending arrives, an ending which seems like fan service for HEA-loving Americans.
Perhaps I’m a romantic but seriously, aren’t heroes allowed to die anymore? If you’re going to have a character sacrifice himself, shouldn’t he actually die? In the end, Edge of Tomorrow comes off as an empty mental puzzle and a film about death which doesn’t take death seriously. But kudos for the visualization and depiction of what a learning curve looks and feels like.
And no… so far no one has called this film Borgesian.
Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.