Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Write a Movie or Book Review

Now, I will freely admit that I am an amateur reviewer. I am not a professional. I am not a highly trained film or book critic with an English degree and extensive schooling in literary criticism. I have some background in it, however, as textual analysis is often an extremely important part of historical and cultural research.

Nevertheless, I write my reviews in order to achieve two things: 1) to keep my mind sharp while I'm in Korea, and 2) to practice and improve my ability to write good reviews. I enjoy reading books, and I also enjoy cinema. I read fiction and watch cinema for the same reasons as I read philosophy, history, and political science books--to keep in practice with textual analysis and criticism, to think (I enjoy thinking), and to learn something.

Now the bulk of the books I've reviewed here I give generally positive reviews. The reason for that is many of the books have been preselected due to their reputations or the reputations of their authors. I could write a number of reviews on books that are not very good, but I honestly don't want to waste my time with dreck. I did enough of that in high school and college.

Anyway, in the past year, I'd come across two amateur internet film reviewers. These reviewers are Confused Matthew (pictured below) and Mr. Plinkett (pictured left) at Red Letter Media. Of the two, Mr. Plinkett is the superior reviewer. He not only analyzes the plot and pacing, but also costume design, set design, cinematography, and overall effectiveness of the film.

Confused Matthew is an extremely flawed, although quite talented, amateur film critic. Matthew's strength is the ability to analyze the plot of a film and zero in on inconsistencies, sloppy scriptwriting, and poor characterization. As an example of some of his better reviews, I'd like to indicate his critique of the Matrix sequels. Matthew is very good at exposing plot holes and characterization inconsistency, as well as pointing out how the Wachowski Bros. clumsily attempted to deepen their story's metaphysical and philosophical meaning by shoehorning Baudrillard into their dialogue and plot points. Matthew is the sort of reviewer who can tell when a character has been handed the idiot ball, or when lazy scriptwriting and poor plotting choices lead to wall bangers. These strengths are also possessed by Plinkett, but Plinkett doesn't demonstrate any of Matthew's flaws.

Confused Matthew's weaknesses all stem from his own subjectivity. As Quantumjoker has indicated, Confused Matthew is an extremely subjective reviewer. Now, all of us are very subjective. It's almost unavoidable. However, Confused Matthew's failing is his inability to approach something he dislikes from a coldly rational standpoint. This has led to his extremely flawed 2001: A Space Odyssey review. As I mentioned before, Chase Melendez responded to Confused Matthew, in my opinion demolishing his entire review. Matthew's rebuttal failed to address Chase's criticisms effectively, and ultimately, Chase's absence from the Internet world has led Matthew to discontinue his self-defense. Chase hasn't been the only person to respond critically to Confused Matthew's inexplicable review--Poparena and Quantumjoker collaborated on a multi-part response as well.

Matthew's bias against 2001: A Space Odyssey effectively invalidated his entire review because anyone who has seen 2001 and watches Matthew's review should see how Matthew effectively turned his brain off during the entire feature. His premise that 2001 fails as a film--indeed, for Matthew, is not a film--because of the absence of narrative is demonstrably false. Indeed, it is self-evident during other reviews of other movies that Matthew simply stopped paying attention to what was happening on the screen and instead focused on his own initial impressions and frustrations. A good example of this is his review of Spirited Away--there are parts where a viewer who watches Matthew's review, then views the film, can demonstrate scene-by-scene how Matthew is simply wrong in his assessment.

Personal biases are capable of being overcome if one chooses to do so. A great example of that is a friend of mine who viewed Darren Aronofsky's art film, π. This friend said that he despised the film. When asked why, he said that it was the grinding pacing and the overall bleakness of the experience that generated a visceral, negative reaction. He did not say that this was a flaw, however. He stated that this aspect of the film was actually an integral part of it. The film was incredibly effective at what it was designed to do. The film was not a failure for him. He was capable of moving beyond his own biases and appreciate the movie.

Another good example may be my own reactions to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. When I read this book at 15 or 16, I despised every moment of it. I thought Holden Caulfield was an indescribable moron, irrational to an extreme, and thoroughly reprehensible a character. I believed the book failed as a novel because Holden Caulfield, for me, failed as a character. When I was 26 and reread the novel, my opinion of Holden hadn't changed. I still disliked the book. However, being older, wiser, more well-read, and more experienced, I was able to understand what Salinger was trying to accomplish through Holden. That understanding completely altered my assessment of the book's merits. My own personal opinion is that I still dislike the book, mostly for Holden's character. However, my assessment is that the book is an extremely deep meditation on the loss of innocence and teenage anxieties. Holden isn't a character, he's a stand-in for all pre-teens his age, and his actions aren't meant to reflect the actual actions of a boy so much as express the paradoxes and contradictions warring within the pubescent psyche of a male youth. The book is actually extremely worthwhile and is an important piece of American literature, and though I don't really enjoy it, I cannot recommend anyone not read it.

Confused Matthew is an extremely smart and astute guy--he is capable of giving his opinions on films and backing them up. However, what he does not understand is that the role of a critic is not to simply give your opinions. Your role is to assess the merits and flaws of a film or novel as objectively as possible. In order to do that, you are obligated by intellectual honesty to divorce yourself from your own opinion as much as you can. In that regard, I'd like to hold Confused Matthew up as an example of how not to write a review.

But how can one divorce oneself from one's own opinion? Well, it's really impossible to do so totally, but it is possible to mitigate one's emotional response. There's no accounting for taste, and that includes your own. So the critic has to develop a rubric or a set of guidelines that they follow in order to limit the intrusion of his/her personal taste regarding the subject of his/her criticism.

For these guidelines, I turn to the advice of novelist and renowned literary critic John Updike.
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never... try to put the author "in his place," making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

--"Remembering Updike," The New Yorker Online
Let's tackle each of these points in turn, shall we?

Rule #1 is perhaps the most important rule we should remember (hence its prime position). Do not criticize the film or novel for failing to do what it wasn't attempting to do in the first place. Only critique whether it succeeds at doing something the director/scriptwriter/author intended, or if it fails. If it fails, provide an explanation as to how and why, and provide suggestions on how it could have been successfully attempted.

Rules #2 and #3 are somewhat connected. Quoting (or playing segments, if your subject is a film) is incredibly important, especially when you are trying to illustrate your point. It can provide direct evidence for your criticism or your praise. It also helps you hone your criticisms--you are providing both your audience and yourself with something tangible that can help to focus and clarify your analysis.

Rule #4 is difficult to achieve, especially when you must give concrete reasons why a film or novel fails or succeeds. This is up to the individual critic's taste, and both Plinkett and Confused Matthew essentially unravel large swathes of the narratives they analyze, often out of necessity. Fortunately for them, these are often films that have already been watched and therefore, aimed at audiences for whom the plot won't be spoiled.

Rule #5 is, like Rule #1, something Confused Matthew needs to consider very closely. Matthew's review of 2001 leaves him open to attack (an opening Chase justifiably exploited) when he compared it to Jurassic Park as an example of a film that was successful. Both films were attempting to achieve radically different goals--indeed, Jurassic Park's goal is nowhere near as deep or complex as 2001's, and the former far more simplistically didactic than the latter, which is more open-ended and compelling.

But the most important part of Rule #5 for Confused Matthew is perhaps this little line:
"Sure [the failure]'s his and not yours?"

In the case of 2001, I believe the failure is not of the film, but of the critic.

Finally, the fuzzy, vaguer Rule #6, firmly states that the critic should not review a piece that he/she is predisposed to dislike. This single comment completely and utterly invalidates a great many amateur film reviewers online.

Updike's advice is the key to writing a good review, and it is advice that I struggle to follow in every book or film review that I write. I believe that more reviewers should take John Updike's advice--it will improve your ability to really, truly perform critical analysis on a text such as film or fiction.

I'd also like to say that, though I believe Confused Matthew is a flawed film reviewer, that doesn't make him bad or stupid. Indeed, I think he's actually one of the better amateur film critics out there, and especially enjoy his reviews of the Matrix sequels and The Lion King. I believe, however, that he has no desire to improve as a reviewer, and that his internet celebrity status has, perhaps, had an unfortunate impact on the tenor of his reviews lately.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Review -- THE BIG NOWHERE by James Ellroy

James Ellroy, the self-proclaimed "Demon Dog of Crime Fiction," is the culmination of everything that began with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, writers whom he read heavily in his youth, accompanied by drug and alcohol abuse. The darkness of his own life experiences would come to be channeled into his fiction, producing works that are the ultimate realization and perfection of the hardboiled noir genre.

The Big Nowhere is no exception, and perhaps my favorite book by Ellroy that I've yet read (and, ironically, the only book in his LA Quartet that hasn't been made into a film). Sandwiched between The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential, The Big Nowhere plumbs the darkest depths of the human soul and dredges up the blackest ichor that we spend immense amounts of energy trying to ignore or escape. It is a dark, pessimistic tragedy, and yet simultaneously a triumph for the hardboiled noir genre as a whole. The book is a wrecking ball written in a terse, staccato, laconic style, laced with jive-talk and bebop rhythms.

This is one of the books that forever changed me. The list of books is pretty short: Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Blood Meridian, and Fight Club are pretty much at the top. James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere is among them as a book that has had a tremendous impact upon me.

This is the tale of three very different cops that are drawn together for a grand jury investigation into communist influence on labor union strikes in Los Angeles of 1950. Mal Considine is an up-and-coming DA's Bureau detective with a very dubious act of "heroism" on his war record, and a resentful Czech wife and her son as spoils taken from Germany. Danny Upshaw is a homicide detective with the LA County Sheriff's Department, arch-rivals of LAPD, who is on the trail of a twisted killer. Turner "Buzz" Meeks is an Okie ex-cop, moonlighting as an enforcer and occasional pimp for Howard Hughes that is drawn into the grand jury investigations through his connections to Mickey Cohen, local mobster kingpin.

Ellroy rushes in where Hammett and Chandler feared to tread. Drugs, prostitution, corruption, racism, and homosexuality are openly and brutally exposed. Ellroy is not afraid to illustrate the darkest pits of mid-century Los Angeles. As with most of his novels, the city of LA is, itself, a character, and not a very nice one, either. The city that is the 1950s embodiment of the American dream is little more than a thin veneer of fantasy over a seething pit of vice and iniquity. Ellroy is a brilliant talent at crafting real, believable characters, and is a genius at creating tragic heroes out of noir protagonists.

To truly understand Ellroy's writing, one must understand the conventions of the hardboiled noir genre. The noir protagonist is a sort of antihero. He is often a world-weary individual, disillusioned and cynical. He sees the world as corrupt, a place where no good deed goes unpunished and lives to get his kicks. At heart he may be a sentimental romantic deep at heart, but he keeps it hidden and repressed, because whenever he allows himself to be vulnerable and truly care about someone, it always backfires. He lives by a code of honor that is his own, and strictly defines himself according to it. In a world of predators, prey, and scavengers, the hardboiled hero struggles to be his own man and not to fall into any of those categories. Typically, a noir hero will come up against some sort of challenge to his code, and will either compromise it and fail, or he will succeed and triumph, only to find the reward to be not worth the cost and the victory Pyrrhic at best, empty and meaningless more often than not.

Considine, Upshaw, and Meeks don't perfectly fit the archetypal noir hero, but that is because Ellroy creates unique and multidimensional characters. They're not a riff off of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, or J.J. Giddes. They're each deeply driven by believable motives, possess compelling personalities and worldviews.

Considine is haunted by his cowardly slaying of a Nazi officer--an action he took in order to avenge his Czech girlfriend's tarnished honor. The victory became hollow when, after years of marriage, she began to resent her life in America and yearned for the Czechoslovakia of her youth, before the occupation. Her son, who had suffered horrific sexual abuse during the occupation, associates the Czech language with his traumatic experiences--something his mother disregards in her desire to de-Americanize her son and make him into a good Czech boy. Considine, sees the grand jury investigation as a way to propel himself to the highest pinnacle of DA Bureau brass and make an inviolable name for himself in order to secure custody of his adopted son in the divorce proceedings.

Upshaw is far more complex and troubled. He is a young crusader cop that is tormented by his latent homosexuality and plagued by his own revulsion of female sexuality. Throughout most of the novel, he keeps it deeply buried and subdued, denying it to himself. However, the clues are there--with every stomach churn he feels when a woman winks at him, or his fascination with certain young men's appearances. A brutal murder with homosexual underpinnings begins to absorb Upshaw, who has been obsessed with the darkness in the human soul since he witnessed the barbaric slaying of a young woman as a youth. This obsession seems to be a sublimation of his own sexuality. However, the trail of this killer, who stalks and murders homosexuals, begins to drag his own buried demons out of his subconscious and into the light.

Meeks is the most straightforward character in the book--but that does not mean that he is shallow or two-dimensional. Meeks doesn't have any deep dilemmas or skeletons in his closet. At heart, he is a gambler, and the thrill of risk gets him into trouble. Knowing full-well the stupidity of his actions, he falls in love with Mickey Cohen's squeeze, and plays a huge gamble to keep his association with her secret.

These three seemingly unrelated characters are pulled together by the labyrinthine nature of LA intrigue. Ellroy writes like a spider, weaving a silk web of murder, politics, conspiracy, and betrayal. The heroes' flaws prove their undoing, but not in very predictable manners, and only the most tarnished of the characters really manages to make it through (although his ultimate fate is not revealed in this volume, but in the prologue of the next--LA Confidential). Their flaws, however, make them so real, it is difficult not to like the characters. Indeed, despite past rivalries and bad blood, they find it difficult not to like one another, resulting in a friendship between the three that, unfortunately, gets them all into more trouble.

Most compelling, however, is Lieutenant Dudley Smith.
Mal shook the man's hand, recognizing his name, his style, his often imitated tenor brogue. Lieutenant Dudley Smith, LAPD Homicide. Tall, beefside broad and red-faced; Dublin-born, LA raised, Jesuit college trained. Priority case hatchet man for every LA chief of police dating back to Strongarm Dick Steckel. Killed seven men in the line of duty, wore custom-made club-figured ties: 7's, handcuff ratchets and LAPD shields stitched in concentric circles. Rumored to carry an Army .45 loaded with garlic-coated dumdums and a spring-loaded toad-stabber.
An astute reader who has seen LA Confidental or read Clandestine will recognize Dudley Smith. Of all Ellroy's characters, he is the most persistent--and perhaps the most evil and villainous. Dudley is a master-manipulator, kingmaker and breaker, vindictive to the extreme, with a small cadre of loyal underlings and enough bureau clout to make or break any man's career. The man is far, far more than he appears, and if I was a bit more of a literary romantic I'd suggest that the character was actually the Devil himself. Smith is generally soft-spoken and not given to great displays of emotion, but just as still waters run deep, Smith's appearance as a mid-level policeman is remarkably deceptive--Smith is perhaps one of the most powerful men in the entire city. He resurfaces in many of Ellroy's books, and indeed is often somehow or some way at the root of many of the mysteries and intrigues that take place. Dudley Smith is almost always the ultimate victor--true to hardboiled noir form, the smart, subtle, and remorselessly ruthless are the ones who win.

The style of prose is terse, direct, and laden with vernacular, giving a lot of spice to the tale. Ellroy writes how his characters think and unabashedly drops racist epithets and slang that were commonplace in the mid-twentieth century American parlance.
Buzz checked his watch. 4:45; Howard Hughes was forty-five minutes late. It was a cool January day, light blue sky mixed with rain clouds over the Hollywood Hills. Howard got sex crazy in the winter and probably wanted to send him out on a poontang prowl: Schwab's Drugstore, the extra huts at Fox and Universal, Brownie snapshots of well-lunged girls naked from the waist up. His Majesty's yes or no, then standard gash contracts to the yes's--one-liners in RKO turkeys in exchange for room and board at Hughes Enterprises' fuck pads and frequent nighttime visits from The Man himself. Hopefully, bonus money was involved: he was still in hock to a bookie named Leotis Dineen, a six-foot-six jungle bunny who hated people of the Oklahoma persuasion worse than poison.
Raw, visceral, staccato, jazzy, and unapologetic. Ellroy often writes in dangling clauses, creating a conversational, matter-of-fact tempo that lends his prose the texture of concrete and asphalt. The end result is a masterpiece of crime-fiction. Ellroy's world is not a happy one--it is very much the hardboiled noir setting where no good deed goes unpunished, good folks are just saps waiting to be suckered, and the bad guys can (and do) win. When such a world is populated with characters like Meeks, Considine, Upshaw, and Smith, and described with streetwise prose in jazzy rhythms, the combined result is a masterpiece of American literature. Ellroy describes a bleak but essential facet of the American reality using an urban American cant. With The Big Nowhere Ellroy's song is a lament for the heroic, a funeral dirge played in saxophone jazz, much like the eponymous tune that a certain Coleman Healy would compose within the novel's pages. Ellroy has crystallized hardboiled noir into one single, perfect narrative that carries forth every theme of the genre to true fruition. It is not an archetypal noir tale--the archetypes are books like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, or movies like Chinatown. Rather, The Big Sleep approaches the Platonic ideal. Ellroy has broken his chains and left the cave where Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett create shadows of noir upon the cavern wall, and realized the heights--or depths--which the genre can achieve.

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
Substance A+
Overall A+

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review -- THE ELEPHANT VANISHES by Haruki Murakami

Reviewing short story collections is much more difficult than simply reviewing a novel because you have to assess each individual piece and then somehow analyze the entire collection as a whole. Yesterday's review of Dunsany's The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories went well enough, I guess, for me to take another stab at it, this time with 象の消滅 by 村上 春樹.

I've reviewed a novel by 村上 春樹 (Murakami Haruki) before, my first review for this blog: Wild Sheep Chase. This particular volume, 象の消滅 (Zou no Shoumetsu -- translated as "the/an elephant's disappearance") is a collection of short stories that showcase the author's Kafkaesque style.

This style is heavily influenced by a great deal of irreverent American fiction from the early 20th century. Murakami's written translations Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and My Lost City, everything by Raymond Carver, several works by Truman Capote, and most notably Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. The Chandler connection is something I'm quite familiar with, being a fan of hardboiled noir, and his influence on Murakami's style comes through the story translations by Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum. Almost all of Murakami's characters are cut from the same cloth--they smoke Hope regular cigarettes, drink, listen to vinyl records, possess a wide knowledge of music and haute cuisine, and live on the fringes of decent, acceptable Japanese society. However, this doesn't mean that they are all uniform--many of them are extremely unique and outstanding. However, a number of them seem to be little more than stand-ins for Murakami himself, or perhaps projections of Murakami's ideal character--a little bit Philip Marlowe, a little bit Nick Carraway, some Holly Golightly and Fred, and a dash of Holden Caufield, mixed in a uniquely Japanese environment.

Indeed, it is probably easier for an American to identify with Murakami's protagonists than it is for a Japanese person.

Nevertheless, they do suffer from the overwhelming regularity of their personalities--between novels and stories, there isn't a huge amount of difference between Murakami's protagonists. I have a difficult time believing that, if one would switch them between stories, they'd react any differently to their situations. As time grows on, this weakness becomes more and more apparent. In his novels, Murakami's heroes are somewhat better defined, but that is because it is much easier to develop a character's personality in a novel-length work than in a story of 25-30 pages. It isn't helped that Murakami almost universally utilizes first-person narration throughout his stories, but only further manages to make the protagonists appear identical to one-another.

The stories themselves are all infused with a sense of weirdness, often to the point of surrealism. The most outstanding ones are "The Second Bakery Attack," "Sleep," "The Little Green Monster," "TV People," "The Dancing Dwarf," and "The Elephant Vanishes." The more subtle ones are actually somewhat more powerful because of their subtlety-- "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning," "Lederhosen," "Barn Burning," "A Family Affair," "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon," and especially "The Silence."

I feel compelled to talk about all of these stories, and indeed I could go on at length, but I'll limit my analysis to just a few.

First, I will discuss the subtle stories, starting with "The Silence," my personal favorite. It describes a student, a boxing champion who almost never raised his hand against anyone, encountering a nemesis in middle school and developing an enmity which would last until high school graduation. This nemesis would avenge himself against the protagonist by indirectly framing the hero of tormenting and bullying another student until they committed suicide. The resulting silence, reflected in the title (沈黙 -- "Chinmoku"), is the silence of complete and total social ostracism. The protagonist effectively becomes an untouchable, invisible, inaudible person--his teachers and fellow students ignore him. This begins to effect him very negatively, especially since ostracism is an incredibly painful experience to a Japanese person. The Japanese value socialization far more deeply than Americans do, and membership in peer groups gives them a great deal of self-worth. Although Americans more-often-than-not are weak and willing to succumb to peer pressure, we have a deep (and sometimes grudging) respect for rebels and renegades who are strong enough to march to the beat of their own drummers and persist, even through friendlessness. Nevertheless, the protagonist manages to get through this experience, but it exacted a powerful spiritual price on his soul. He emerged stronger, but also much less trusting and faithful of his fellow humans, even his own wife and progeny.

This story is incredible, because it is a naked criticism of the herd mentality in Japanese society, the cowardice of individuals unable to break away from collective opinion to do what is right and just, and the use of ostracism as a social punishment. It did a lot to remind me of my own experiences in middle school, a very painful and difficult time for me. It has also comforted me a great deal during my time in Korea.
"No, what really scares me is how easily, how uncritically, people will believe the crap that slime like Aoki deal out. How these Aoki types produce nothing themselves, don't have an idea in the world, and talk so nice, how this slime can sway gullible types to any opinion and get them to perform on cue, as a group. And this group never entertains even a sliver of doubt that they could be wrong. They think nothing of hurting someone, senselessly, permanently. They don't take any responsibility for their actions. Them. They're the real monsters. They're the ones I have nightmares about. In those dreams, there's only the silence. And these faceless people. And then it all goes murky. And I'm dissolving and I'm screaming and no one hears."
That's some pretty powerful stuff, even in translation, and it is Murakami's finger wagging in the face of Japanese society as a whole. What is subtle here is the strangeness that is at work; the sense of the surreal is very subdued. However, Murakami's "j'accuse" is loud and unmistakable.

I think it is reasonable that I approach perhaps one more story, although there is something I'd like to say about almost all of them, but that would stretch the length of this review to absurd lengths. "The Little Green Monster" is about an eponymous creature that crawls from the ground and asks the protagonist to marry him. Her reaction is abject revulsion and disgust. This creature, despite its appearance, is actually a very gentle and empathic being, capable of feeling emotions and thoughts. When she realizes this, the heroine focuses her disgust and hate against the creature, effectively killing and dissolving it until not a trace of it is left.

Although there's a lot I want to say about this story, I'll try to keep things brief. This story is about hate, specifically the hatred of anything that is different or unfamiliar. The creature is weird and terrifying at first, but it means no harm and its distinctly human eyes should convey vulnerability and honesty. However, to the "heroine," they convey wrongness and are part of the overall discomfort that this creature's strangeness causes her to react with fear and revulsion. This revulsion is turned into pure hate and destroys the creature, a creature who came with peaceful intentions and love on his mind. Whether this story is about women in particular or humans in general, I can't really answer, but Murakami rarely chooses women as his protagonists, so that may say something. In almost every surrealist story that Murakami writes, things are symbols and metaphors for something else, and in this case, the creature is just that--the strange and unfamiliar. This is a meditation on fear, disgust, and hatred, and the darkness that hides in the human heart--darkness and hatred that can easily lead to murder if the conditions are correct.

Murakami's work is a rebellion against the ordinary. Indeed, he contentiously injects weirdness and absurdity into the immensely average lives of so many Japanese characters in order to shake them up. Through his stories, he aggressively critiques the everyday life of Japanese society--the uniformity and homogeneity, the disingenuousness of Japanese politeness, and the herd mentality that permeates Japanese social relations. Murakami wants to shake up the reader by shaking up the characters.

Murakami also wants to explore other themes that go beyond simple social criticism. He contemplates existentialism and the regularity of life--indeed even the meaningless of it and detachment from love and human contact (in such stories like "Sleep") or pondering what could or perhaps should have been but never was nor will be ("On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning"). Loss and nostalgia play definite roles in many of his tales, including the changes in relationships brought about by age, maturity, and marriage ("A Family Affair").

By-and-large, Murakami's stories hold up. They're not as profound as his novels, but they are much more immediate in their impact, and more visceral in the reactions they elicit. Despite his tendency toward repetitive protagonists, the secondary characters throughout his tales are often unique and interesting. The stories themselves are well-crafted. Murakami paces things well, narrating his tales and injecting elements of the strange or surreal at proper intervals to hook the reader and continue to draw them in. Curiosity is a major motivator in reading a Murakami story, and the author channels our curiosity extremely well. He's a master storyteller, and this collection stands as evidence of his ability to spin an effective yarn that not only keeps our attention, but challenges our assumptions and demands that we think a little bit deeper about ourselves and about our world and society.

象の消滅 (The Elephant Vanishes) by 村上 春樹 (Murakami Haruki)
Style B+
Substance A
Overall A-

Monday, January 24, 2011

Book Review -- THE SWORD OF WELLERAN and Other Stories by Lord Dunsany

It's been almost a month since my last review, but I've not been idle. I simply haven't been in the proper position to give a well-thought-out review of any of the material I've read in the past two months. I've had a lot of personal issues through which I've had to work and a lot of difficult choices I've had to make. However, I've the next two weeks off for winter vacation and intend to use those two weeks to get some more reading done and to bring my blog up-to-date on my reviews. Thus, I'd like to inaugurate this new year (belatedly) with a review of Lord Dunsany's The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories.

Edward J.M.D. Plunkett, the 18th Lord Dunsany, was an Irish fantasist who, in 1905, published The Gods of Pegāna, a collection of short stories set in a fantasy world. This collection would come to heavily influence J.R.R. Tolkien, among other authors. I should also comment that Dunsany was one of those authors cited by E. Gary Gygax as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons in the oft-cited "Appendix N" of the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide.

It's not difficult to see why Dunsany is such a heavy influence. His stories alternate between the mythic, the idyllic, and the nostalgically romantic. I've not read his earlier writings, such as The Gods of Pegāna, or any of his later works, such as 1912's The Book of Wonder, though it's reported to be far more nostalgically wistful.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories is infused with a sense of bittersweetness, a sort of pathos that the Japanese call 物の哀れ (mono no aware), a kind of empathy for things passing and ephemeral. It is this sense of passing that permeates all of the stories in this collection, and resurfaces in Tolkien's writings as the passing of all things fantastic and elven from Middle-Earth.

A great example can be found within the first, eponymous story in the volume, "The Sword of Welleran."
And now that the ardour of battle had passed away, the spirits of Merimna's people began to gloom a little, like their leader's, with their fatigue and with the cold of the morning; and they looked at the sword of Welleran in Rold's hand and said: "Not anymore, not any more for ever will Welleran now return, for his sword is in the hand of another. Now we know indeed that he is dead. O Welleran, thou wast our sun and moon and all our stars. Now is the sun fallen down and the moon broken, and all the stars are scattered as the diamonds of a necklace that is snapped off one who is slain by violence."

Thus wept the people of Merimna in the hour of their great victory, for men have strange moods, while beside them their old inviolate city slumbered safe. But back from the ramparts and beyond the mountains and over the lands that they had conquered of old, beyond the world and back again to Paradise went the souls of Welleran, Soorenard, Mommolek, Rollory, Akanax, and young Iraine.
These final paragraphs of the eponymous tale illustrate some of that lacrimae rerum that infuses nearly ever tale in this collection. In the moment of their victory, the citizens of Merimna have saved their city from destruction, but at the cost of their legendary heroes. They knew that those heroes would now never return to them, and though they had a new hero among them, Rold, they still wept for those heroes that they knew were forever gone.

Dunsany's pacing and the rhythm of his prose evoke the same archaic or mythic nostalgia as Tolkien would later do. When coupled with S.H. Sime's illustrations, the overall effect is incredibly powerful. The collaboration between the author and the illustrator, in this case, was incredible. Sime gives a form as mythical to Dunsany's words as the words themselves, especially for such stories as "The Fall of Babbulkund," "The Ghosts," and "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth."

The kinds of stories that Dunsany wrote varied throughout the volume. There are elements of fantasy that permeate all of the tales, and indeed, some of these tales are likely to be set in Pegāna, although many take place in the England and Ireland of our world. Specifically, the fantastic, mythic tales are "The Sword of Welleran," "The Fall of Babbulkund," and "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth." These are, generally, the most straightforward of the stories. "The Sword of Welleran" and "The Fortress Unvanquishable" are both tales of mythic heroism against overwhelming opposition with the aid of talismanic swords. "The Fall of Babbulkund," however, tells of an impossible city of incredible glory that is the jewel of all the world, and the travelers who seek to find it, only to discover its ruins. The description of the city that the travelers hear only whets their appetite further as they journey toward it, and each time it is described by someone fleeing the doom that will inevitably fall upon it for its decadence and excess.

"The Kith of the Elf-Folk" is the third story in the collection, and perhaps the saddest. It concerns an elf who desires to sing in a church and worship God, but to do so it would have to become mortal and acquire a soul. However, human life is one of pain and suffering, and the elf soon comes to regret its decision, and desires to rid itself of its soul so that it might return to its idyllic state. This story is laden with social commentary, especially regarding industrialism and wealth. Yet it is always viewed through the eyes of the elf who only partially understands its experience in the modern mortal world.

"The Ghosts" is another extremely interesting tale to consider. Modern rationality is pitted against the supernatural. Dunsany places a skeptical gentleman of learning in a haunted place with only his logic and reason to protect him against the malevolence of the spirits there. The conflict is resolved in favor of reason and cold, unfaltering logic--the province of mortal, living men. But the victory is as soulless and discomfiting as the haunt of the poltergeists.

The remaining pieces are also quite interesting, but easier to assess (often due to their shortness of length). "The Highwaymen" is a meditation on honor among thieves and the bonds of friendship and loyalty, even among reprehensible miscreants. "In the Twilight" describes a near-death experience and the revelation of the passage of time and distance when compared to the smallness of the human experience. "The Whirlpool" is an extended boast and warning by a powerful water-spirit and maelstrom, with a rather profound concluding sentence that demands deep consideration. Likewise, "The Hurricane" is a brief, two-page discussion between natural forces that ends with the heartbreak of one. "The Lord of Cities" regards the debate between different natural features in a sort of Aesopian tale, ending with the spider's triumph. "The Doom of La Traviata" illustrates the afterlife of a licentious courtesan. Finally, "On the Dry Land" is a very unhappy allegory of the kindness of death and the cruelty of love.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough the sense of lacrimae rerum that flows through all of these stories--some far more strongly than others. This entire volume seems to be one great meditation by Dunsany on the themes of loss and the bittersweet. He approaches this sense of loss from a much more natural standpoint than someone like Hemingway. Indeed, Hemingway's sense of loss was always personal, but Dunsany's loss is something else. He seems to view the world as growing less magical and more mundane--a theme that, as I wrote earlier, would resurface in Tolkien's work in force.

I can't really do this work much justice in the space that I have here on this blog. But there is a great deal among all of these stories to analyze. Each one is a different meditation that shares many of the same themes as the others, but is unique in its specific subject matter. And when I say unique, I certainly mean so. The subjects are all very different--ghosts and the rational, mythical cities being toppled, an allegory about love and death, an elf desirous of mortality so it can worship God, an unconquerable fortress, etc. To each, Dunsany applies similar themes, and this gives the stories far greater meaning. Man is mortal and temporary, but that mortality is juxtaposed against the passage of myth and magic with the advance of the modern, the industrial, and the coldly rational--all things that are within the domain of Man. Dunsany wrestles with this dichotomy as a good romanticist should.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories
Substance A+