In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

In the Miso Soup is narrated by Kenji, an unregistered tour guide to Tokyo’s sex district, tailoring his services to foreign, English speaking visitors. From the moment he meets his latest client, Frank, an overweight American tourist, he senses something is off about him. There is a strange tautness to his skin, a dangerous twist to his smile.

Kenji’s anxiety turns out to be far from paranoid and his sixteen year-old, high school girlfriend, is a tantalizing addition to the plot. Will she meet Frank? Will she become part of his horrific holiday?

All the way through the novel, which turns a tour of Tokyo’s sex trade into an exploration of Frank’s sick mind, are the considerations of what it means to be alive and why being alive should have any value.

The front cover of In the Miso Soup quotes its Guardian review, ‘Reads like the script notes for American Psycho – the Holiday Abroad’. This quote was not only the reason I bought the book, it set the novel up for a continuous internal game of comparisons which I ultimately decided I wasn’t qualified to judge. Not qualified because if this novel was to be anything like American Psycho it needed to be a critique of society specifically, in this instance, Japanese society. And while there was indeed a great deal of criticism that spread beyond Japan, the psycho at the novel’s heart is American, which strikes me as an easy way out: why use a foreigner? That is where my ability to compare falls apart: I don’t know enough about Japan and Japanese culture.

I understand that young people in Japan and elsewhere feel a sense of loneliness and futility in the face of social media and technological advance etc. etc. and this novel certainly explores whether vestiges of meaning can be wrung from a life all about connections that never seem to go beyond the surface, the touch screen if you like. And yet, should this really suggest a ruthless cull, a virus that wipes most of us out, is really the answer?

I enjoyed reading In the Miso Soup and was impressed by how nervous I felt about completing the book (wait and see). Whether it does more than reiterate themes from American Psycho though, I’m not sure. Whether that is even the right avenue for exploring the novel, I doubt.

In the Miso Soup treats violence seriously, but how deeply it has thought about its manifestation of that violence and the reasons for it, I can’t be certain. Frank claims to be ill, but I wonder if sickness excuses his monstrous deeds when in fact the real horror would be to warn us not of what mad people can do but of what sane people might do. Perhaps this is what Frank means when he says, ‘And now with all this social surveillance and manipulation going on, I think you’ll see an increase in people like me’ (p171).

Next week I’m reading Unthology 7 edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I was excited about reading Persepolis. Not only did I want to read a graphic novel, this was one I had intended to read since its popularity a good ten years ago. I haven’t been disappointed.

Not only is Persepolis moving and funny it is also a mini education in its own right. Marjane, the author and protagonist, is always returning to education as a way to better herself and to improve her life. Reading Persepolis has given me a new perspective on Iran and on the eighties and nineties of my youth. I was one of those westerners worried about what the Iraq war would mean for Europe, one of those people that Marjane and her father laughed about. How could I be so worried about a war so far away? My house wasn’t about to be bombed. I didn’t have to black out my windows so neighbours couldn’t see me having a party or drinking alcohol.

The nature of the illustration – its way of distinguishing people whilst giving them a flavour of uniformity – along with the careful choice of words is enough to turn one woman’s life into the story of generation. I really enjoyed reading Persepolis. I laughed, I cried, I questioned my judgements. I will certainly open its pages again and no doubt enjoy it just as much a second time. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to pick up a copy.

Next week I’m reading In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami followed by Unthology 7, edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones and published by Unthank Books.

In The Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González

I’m not sure what to make of In the Beginning was the Sea. ‘She was the spirit of that which was to come and she was thought and memory’ says the Epigraph from Kogi Cosmology. Is it possible to have memory before anything else?

The novel begins when two rich Colombians, J. and Elena, decide to lead an alternative life on a Caribbean island just off the Colombian shores mostly populated by fishermen and farmhands.

They buy a finca (a farm) with cattle, wood and crops and whilst Elena resents the attentions of the locals who stare at her young, butternut skin – she assumes them ignorant – J. has no difficultly in seeing the people of the island as people just like himself and he is well-liked by the villagers.

But J. and Elena are a tempestuous couple. The heat drags them down. They drown in the waters of the sea, their sweat and aguardiente. Were they ever really cut out for this life of sea sand and nature?

I enjoyed the heat of this novel that set fire and languor against each other, but the ending seemed to offer no clear meaning or trajectory. True, life can be full of surprises, but I wasn’t sure what I was meant to understand from an ending that has the definitive hallmark either of a writer just learning his craft and seeking the easiest means to an ending at a creator’s disposal, or of autobiography. The elegance of the ambiance created by Tomás González, the excellent depiction of these two characters and their differences, their unfulfilled passions and ambitions, seemed to me to be at odds with the narrative arc, but perhaps I was meant to leave the novel with a sense that meaning is a futile pursuit.

I definitely enjoyed In the Beginning was the Sea and I would recommend it to those interested in reading about how rich people unintentionally fritter their opportunities and in so doing knowingly waste the life under their care. The atmosphere is beautifully rendered. The relationships painfully believable. Perhaps, though, my dissatisfaction lies in my feeling that it all ends too soon. And though I wanted more, such forays into foreign parts with no training or local knowledge, merely the sense of entitlement, often do end too soon.

If you like the idea of spending time in a beach house with waves lapping a perfectly sandy beach, if you like the idea of stranded characters living with limited space, money, goods and people, you will relish In the Beginning was the Sea. Certainly it lingers on the taste buds of the mind.

Next week I’m reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

Her by Harriet Lane

I read Her at a feverish pace, falling asleep at night with a feeling of unease. Whenever I approached the book I did so with a mixture of eager desire and dread: I both wanted and didn’t want to know what the main characters were capable of.

Without spoiling the plot, the novel is about two women in their early forties living through very different phases of life.

Emma has small children – she starts the book pregnant with her second – and as such her life is governed by their care, by the relentless cycle of feeding, changing, cleaning and managing emotions that simultaneously saps her energy and brings her joy.

Nina has a seventeen-year-old and a career as a moderately successful painter. Her days are mostly her own. She can chose when to go in to her studio, where to eat lunch; she has time to think and breathe.

Nina is the drive behind the novel because it is Nina who recognises Emma in a busy London street. From that moment, Nina is consumed by the idea of finding Emma, of somehow insinuating herself into Emma’s life. Emma, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to recognise Nina at all.

Though Emma admits that she has ‘always felt lucky’ (p229), that she is ‘due for a bit of a kicking’ (p230), the Emma we meet in the novel is struggling through the fog of early parenthood mostly unappreciated and unnoticed. She may have been blessed with golden charm in her youth, but does she really deserve the flip side of Nina’s attentions?

As the novel progresses we grow ever keener in our desire to understand what happened between Emma and Nina in the past and Harriet Lane does an impressive job of allowing the reader to imagine whilst withholding the truth, letting us think of things that might blacken Emma’s character and warrant Nina’s obsession, without seeming divisive or tricksy.

Even without the enticing plot line, Her is full of sharply observed writing that cleverly exposes the conflictions of modern motherhood and the way in which old pain can linger and consume beneath the surface. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Whether you are irritated or drawn-in by Emma’s self-absorbed, middle class, dilemmas (there are references to Mrs Dalloway), whether you are horrified or delighted by Nina’s cold, clinical regard, you will feel something, you will feel forced into some kind of reaction. And the empty, open maw of the ending is a delight.

Reflecting upon the novel in its entirety, I’m not sure how much I like Her. I’m drawn to it, the characters are brilliantly depicted, but whether I would want to return to it without the relentless pace of the plot I can’t say for certain. I suppose time will tell. For now, I’m relieved to be released from it, though still a little nervous of what my dreams will bring. If last night brought visions of my youngest daughter’s naked chest lurid with welling bruises, I can only hope for better tonight. Let’s just say, you have been warned.

Read it and let me know if your dreams turn to nightmares…

Next week I’m reading In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González.

The Fat of Fed Beasts by Guy Ware

The Fat of Fed Beasts opens in an office. A seemingly inauspicious start but characteristic of Ware’s love for the bizarre within the mundane because although it seems like a typical office filled with red tape, disillusioned workers and colleagues who use it as a place for browsing the internet and drinking coffee, this office is special: this is the Office of Assessment where workers write reports on our souls, recommending where the recently deceased should spend their afterlife.

The comic and theological ramifications of this idea feel unending. Not only might our fate be decided by a bored salaryman keen to clear his desk, there is the terrifying possibility that the Office of Assessment could be infiltrated and corrupted… Especially after a colleague witnesses a bank robbery in which one old man refuses to comply with the robbers’ requests to lie on the floor even after he is shot at. Who is this old man? What does he have to do with the Office of Assessment?

The title of the novel comes from Isaiah and is God’s rejection of sacrifice as a means of excusing rather than renouncing sin. Instead of following the letter of God’s law, his people should change their hearts. Is this a reflection upon how humans live their life, or on the Office and how it judges life, or both?

And this is the beauty and consternation of Ware’s prose and narrative. What is happening and the meaning we ascribe to it is constantly shifting. It is hard not to think of Beckett and Kafka as well as a few other famous literary giants because the machine of the civilized world is pitted against the individual and the individual’s concerns.

The novel is told through different characters’ first person perspectives in which each character is also grappling with the agonies of daily living – their relationships and livelihoods. This enhances the conflation of fate with the transitory, of grand over-arching principle with the miniscule desires of the flesh.

The Fat of Fed Beasts is funny and clever because the sublime contemplation of the soul is rendered petty and banal, is given a hard dose of realism. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, if at times bamboozling, read. I’m already looking forward to what Guy Ware will publish next.

Next week I’m reading Her by Harriet Lane.