16 June 2007

Po-Mo novel-ties

I know I just wrote a book post, but here I am with another. This time, it's about three novels that on first glance have nothing to do with one another: Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna, Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, and Murakami Haruki's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The stories couldn't be more different (I apologize in advance for the absurdity of reducing complex novels to a few book-jacket sentences):

In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna, a man wakes up from an accident with total amnesia of all personal memories, but can remember facts, books, all of his "public" memory. He spends days rooting through his childhood country home in Italy, re-reading old books and magazines, to recapture his family and personal past.

In My Name Is Red, a manuscript illuminator in 16th-century Istanbul is murdered, sparking off both a murder investigation and an inquisition into the nature of art as the Eastern styles are being influenced by the "Frankish" concepts of perspective, portraiture, and individual style. Each chapter is told in a different voice, including the voice of a coin, a tree, the color red, the murderer, etc.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a jobless modern-day Japanese man loses his cat and is suddenly deserted by his wife. He meets a curious string of people who might be able to help him get his wife back, including a 16-year-old suicidal neighbor, a psychic and her sister, a war veteran, and a fashion designer. The past and the present, the real and the dream world begin to merge into and emerge from one another.

What do these novels have in common, you ask? While reading them, my enthusiasm changed drastically from the beginning to the end. Reading the first two, I was completely enthralled at the beginning, and utterly tired of it all by the conclusion, almost ready to ditch the book altogether. The third begins "normally," and ends surreally, and is more complex, so my interest was more steadily sustained.

What all three also have in common is that I would characterize them as "postmodern" novels, in the sense that traditional notions of plot, narration, and temporality are violently skewed. I love that about them. Eco's book incorporates many visual reproductions, thus creating a simultaneous visual narrative; meanwhile, we question the narrator's reporting, due to his amnesia, his admitted need to reconstruct the past and thus present personality (an impossible task, of course). I loved the way the novel opened up questions of reliability, of present/past and public/private, of memory and history.

The Pamuk novel also plays with narration, this time using multiple narrators (even of objects, colors, and the dead) to accomplish its instability. The first and second chapters are titled, for instance, "I am a Corpse," and "I Will be Called a Murderer." The whodunnit plot, as well as a love story, drive the exploration of artistic technique and the clash of cultures. We hear from the murderer both in his guise as a murderer and as a respected artist, without knowing which speaker's voice is the same as the criminal's. I was really digging all of this. So clever, I thought!

But what happened in both the Eco and the Pamuk is that the story was abandoned altogether. By the end, the reader is lost in a murky chaos, unsatisfied and awash in the cleverness of the author's philosophical play with plot, narration, and temporality. Finding out who the murderer is somehow is a letdown. In other words, they're too clever.

The Haruki novel takes things from the reverse angle. It starts out as a straightforward story of a sad-sack guy, and descends into the worlds of his dreams, of visitors who explain the past, their letters, computer realities, television personalities, psychic connections, and more. I love that all of this is disturbingly surreal at times, yet is still logically linked to the quotidian details of a regular life, and the surreal seems to be explainable by the real.

What this novel does successfully that the others don't, in other words, is that the plot-drive is maintained, despite all of these flights of reality. The guy wants to find his wife and bring her back. And although the ending does not supply a hollywood scene of reunited lovers, it at least brings us back to that crucial point, recognizing that what the reader wants is not to be left with a big void, a big question mark. Even if there still is one (or many). Does that make sense?

Don't take this as a rant against postmodern novel techniques. What I guess I'm saying is that I think authors should somehow maintain a balance between narrative that questions narrative and narrative that provides a good story. Why do we read, anyway? It is both to find out "what happens" and to find out how we find out what happens, i.e., how the story is told. (There is a reason we read books even when we know the ending.)

Traditional novels, thrillers, love stories: these all focus mostly on "what happens," without drawing attention to the "how," even if the way of telling the story is breathtaking or original. Postmodern novels focus on the "how," playing with readers' expectations, sometimes abandoning the "what happens" altogether. I'm suggesting that novelists shouldn't abandon one over the other.

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