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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan (2013)








Richard Flanagan, deserving winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize, was inspired by his father’s experiences as a WWII POW on the Thailand - Burma death railway to write The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It took Flanagan twelve years and a multitude of drafts to complete. Flanagan’s father passed away on the very day it was finished, as if finally released from the burden of history. The Narrow Road to the Deep North deserves to become a modern classic both for its unflinching depiction of humanity at war and for the quality of Flanagan’s prose.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North is divided into sections featuring short chapters that move through various time periods before and after the war, most featuring the novel’s principal protagonist, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans. In contrast the middle section is dominated by a depiction of the horror of the death railway across two days; it is both unrelentingly bleak and emotionally draining. Flanagan’s writing is subtle but powerful, creating a profound sense of being right there with the POWs in the steaming disease ridden jungle suffering from the cruelty of both the guards and the work itself. This is by far the most visceral depiction of the horrors of war I have ever read. The reality of the death railway is both surreal and medieval in its varied cruelties and appropriately at one point Dorrigo alludes to the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno (1317) when referring to the ulcer ward.

Flanagan’s decision to utilize a linear narrative for most of the death railway section allows it to stand in stark contrast to the rest of the novel. To be faced with chapter after chapter of the horrors of ‘the line’ and ‘the speedo’ makes for an extremely challenging read. This is leavened somewhat by a multitude of superbly written scenes throughout the novel; from a young Dorrigo marking a football in the playground, to his fellow POW survivors drunkenly smashing into a Hobart fish and chip shop to free the fish ‘imprisoned’ in the fish tank to honor their fallen comrade Darky Gardiner. Generally Flanagan’s depiction of character psychology is mostly inspired, but at times he overdoes it, extending paragraphs detailing a character’s mental and emotional states to almost unbearable lengths. This tendency to be slightly long-winded is perhaps the novel’s only flaw, although it is easily overlooked when considering the overall brilliance of the novel.

Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and former commanding officer, now in his seventies, leaves a scene of infidelity, forgetting his book of Japanese death poems. Significantly the Japanese commanders at the POW camp discuss their love of Japanese literature, most notably Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689), an account of his epically dangerous journey by foot into the interior of Japan. Basho writes that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” Although ostensibly Flanagan’s novel is about war and its affect on those involved, the reference to Basho reveals deeper meanings; perhaps obviously as a metaphor for the POWs dangerous journey through the jungle building the railway, but more philosophically as an analogy for each individual’s journey through life. The novel traces many lives, including, in one of the novel’s masterstrokes, the Japanese officers in the decades after the war. It also serves as a reminder that literature, as an expression of humanity, both illuminates and obfuscates the ‘truth’ and that the ‘truth’ is more often than not subjective at best.


Although The Narrow Road to the Deep North was selected to read for the Subiaco Library book club in January, the meeting coincidentally fell in the week leading up to ANZAC day. I have mixed feelings about ANZAC day; it is undoubtedly important to remember those who went to war, but there is also the tendency for nationalism and subtle glorification to creep into our remembrances. Fortunately Flanagan’s novel does not view the past in black and white terms, rather it reminds us that humanity is flawed and war is an extreme expression of our folly. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is so thematically rich and profoundly humane it should become mandatory reading not just in Australia, but throughout the world.


Monday, 13 April 2015

Chronic City - Jonathan Lethem (2010)








After I finished reading Chronic City I searched for some information about Jonathan Lethem and discovered that during his childhood he read Philip K. Dick’s entire oeuvre. This came as no surprise because Chronic City seems designed to make people who are already suspicious about the nature of reality even more nervous. The novel is set in what seems to be contemporary New York, however there is a gigantic escaped tiger roaming the streets, a permanent fog enshrouding the business district and newspapers that run war free editions. There is a lot going on in Chronic City, yet curiously also not that much at all. I’m still trying to decide whether the novel is a parody of western culture, a tribute to Philip K. Dick or a serious meditation about the nature of reality, or perhaps all three.

The aptly named Chase Insteadman is the narrator and principle protagonist. Insteadman is a former child star who drifts from day to day, surviving on royalty residuals and voice acting work, whilst his girlfriend is trapped on a space station because the Chinese have placed mines in a lower orbit. Enter Perkus Tooth, an eccentric former music critic who constantly smokes strong weed whilst ruminating over hidden meanings in the numerous popular (and not so popular) cultural artefacts that litter his rent controlled apartment. Chronic City is dialogue heavy and meanders along, dropping conceptual plot hints in-between joint hits that act to both confuse and illuminate; so much so that a significant amount of the first half of the book is taken up with very stoned character interactions, principally between an unruly and paranoid Tooth and the naive fresh faced Insteadman. The narrative waters are further muddied by cynical ghost-writer Oona Laszlo and beardo Richard Abneg, who also happens to work for the mayor of New York. As the novel progresses there is a nagging feeling that something significant is going on in the background, particularly when the principal characters become obsessed with Chaldrons (sic), that exist both in the ‘real’ world of the narrative and in an online simulated realm called Yet Another World.

Lethem plays around obsessively with the notion of layered realities throughout the novel, he just can’t leave it alone. There are references to people who are real, such as Lou Reed and David Byrne, but many more who are fictional, or at least variations on known entities. A band called Chthonic Youth (Sonic Youth, no doubt) is name-checked at one point and I’m sure that the “congenital sidekick” singer/actor Russ Grinspoon that Insteadman and Tooth meet at the mayor’s celebratory dinner is an alternate Art Garfunkel (one who likes to smoke big joints, of course...). Significantly Insteadman buys a book, once owned by Tooth, called Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker, which is then thrown into a bottomless conceptual art hole on the outskirts of New York; a literary jape that would not be out of place in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

Chronic City is a clever and enjoyable novel, but is diminished by its unwieldy bulk and tendency to be too long-winded. Insteadman, Abneg and in particular Tooth are engaging characters and there is a lot of fun to be had amongst their labyrinthian stoned conversations, if you appreciate that sort of thing; but anyone who is familiar with science fiction tropes as utilized by the likes of, you guessed it, Philip K. Dick will find little to surprise them here. The novel teases and intrigues but unfortunately the plot reveals at the end are rendered mostly ineffectual because they are merely further variations on an all too familiar theme. Despite these flaws I intend to further explore Letham’s work, as long as I don’t fall into one of those conceptual art holes along the way whilst reading Obstinate Dust, whoops...I mean Infinite Jest.