Odyssey of Ten Thousand Lifetimes: A Review of Reincarnation Blues

I have always envied the people in bookstores, the ones who can pick a book at an impulse and not think twice about their purchase. They are the risk-takers, the ones with the courage to free fall into stories without a second thought as to whether they are any good. Ever since my childhood, I have suffered from the dread of dying someday, my one regret being that I shall run out of time to ever read the wonderful books that are being written, or the ones published already, because I had spent too much time in a bad book, stubborn as I am prone to be to finish something that I have started.

Perhaps that is why Reincarnation Blues was a change of scenario for me. I had been listlessly strolling across the humongous Round Rock Library in Texas on one cold wintry morning, when I had been spellbound by just the cover of a book, with all its patterns of blues, and reds, and yellows. And for what had felt like the passage of a dreary lifetime, I had stood there, just gazing at that beautiful hardcover and trying to muster up the courage to take a chance. And so I picked up the book, and came home, settling under the covers while winter raged outside my window, snow and winds twirling in tandem.

Reincarnation Blues spins the tale of the oldest soul in existence, a man named Milo, who has lived almost ten thousand lifetimes, and still not achieved what is referred to as Perfection—emancipation, if you must. And he only has a handful of chances left, a handful of lifetimes so to speak, before he is obliterated from existence permanently, if he cannot achieve Perfection. To further add to his list of problems, he is in love with a personification of Death, a woman who goes by the name of Suzie. And so the story begins with a motley of his lives lived, and the ones he lives from then onward. Michael Poore, the author, takes you on a journey thrown across lifetimes, across the construct of Time itself, across universes, and planets, and pasts, and the present, and the plethora of futures to show you a single man’s journey to find himself.

Reincarnation Blues is an ambitious novel. It may have been borne from the vast infinities of imaginations in a single man, but it reads like the admixture of a thousand voices speaking to the reader at once, thwarting them with information, and still being gentle in the process. Michael Poore, with what can only be described as something akin to a miraculous ingenuity, has successfully achieved the quality to make and break a character sketch of a protagonist. With every sifting lifetime of Milo, he has strove to create a new character, even if the backlog of the initial character existed in the core. And in doing so, he has minutely weaved the memories, and the touch of the previous incarnations in the newest life of Milo. Each chapter thus reads like a new short story, only with the added bounty of being an extension of something lived prior.

And so the author spins tales and anecdotes, sewing in information and realization on the same beat, and still maintains a symmetry in the act itself. He weaves in thousands of years worth of philosophies, and sometimes breaks said ideals to portray a level of evolution in Milo himself. From lucidly describing nihilism in more ways than one, through each of Milo’s lifetimes, to actually thwarting the idea itself through a sense of nirvana, Poore has actually taken you into the flesh-and-bone journey of showing the development and thus, the evolution of Milo. For this form of writing, some of the chapters that still rivet in my mind include “The Hasty Pudding Affair”, “Lifting Elephants, Juggling Water”, and “Buddha in Winter”.

Another little detail that I admired in Poore’s storytelling was the development of Milo’s ladylove, Death herself, in Suzie. Unlike what is often observed in singular-narrative storytelling, Poore takes it upon himself to not refrain from showing the character sketch and thus development of Suzie herself. That a personification of a phenomenon or an idea itself can be made to go through the nerve-wracking process of character development has already been done by the likes of Neil Gaiman in the Sandman graphic novels and Markus Zusak in The Book Thief. Taking a page out of their literary oeuvre, Poore crumbles the iron curtains of surrealism and magic realism to actually approach Death as a character and not as an idea. He puts flesh and bones on her, makes her almost human, without the use of sentimentality and inessential vulnerability, and still makes her appear as stranger, just outside the edges of reality. Hence, Suzie’s observations of mortality, although not holding the same magnanimity of Zusak’s Death, is characterized more through a bystander phenomenon, rather than the all-powerful omnipotence of an universal overlord. And although the proclivity of inconsistency in the narrative, thanks to the motley of realizations that go hand-in-hand with the actual actions of the novel, may be a letdown for certain readers, it does not actively harm the passage of the story in general. Moreover, it paces the way of the stream of consciousness throughout the narrative frame.

In the end, as I sit writing this review, bombarded as I am with the voices of the other customers speaking at Starbucks, I realize the essence of Reincarnation Blues, of how a chaotic mind is the beginning of a singularity. And I remember one of the many memorable quotes of the novel, “It’s dangerous, applying hindsight to something as complex as why someone wrote a poem, because the temptation is to try and make it make sense. We can apply reason, but what we can’t do is apply the storms and variations that govern a human mind moment to moment.”

And I cannot help but think that maybe the storm is the passage of a lifetime, that silence means the end of something, until beginnings take you somewhere again, in some new story, in some new universe where you shall be born free.

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The Melody of Words: A Review of South of the Border, West of the Sun

The evening falls in like the caress of a lover. The lights dim, and a heart of darkness is awakened. A faceless pianist plays a rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in a jazz bar in Tokyo. Hajime, the narrator, sits there, at home and yet stranded, sipping his last drink of the night, when the doors open, and in comes a woman, a woman with a face he treasured in another life.

 

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‘“For a while” is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.’ South of the Border, West of the Sun

In 1992, Haruki Murakami penned a story that started in a quaint little town in Japan in the 1960s and sped across decades into the heart of a beguiled jazz-loving romantic Tokyo. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition of the swansong that was Hajime’s life, one intermixed with love and melancholia in equivalent proportions, and narrates a simple, and eerily futile, tale of an ordinary man’s life, a man burdened by enormous dreams.

Growing up as a lonely single child, Hajime the child finds friendship and the first pangs of unrealized love in the company of Shimamoto, his childhood friend. Carrying her memories and the symphony of Nat King Cole’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’, half-remembered in the sounds of vinyl records and the silence of afternoons, Hajime steps into adolescence. He finds love in the arms of his classmate and girlfriend, Izumi, and yet, the sense of incompleteness, of inadequacy, never truly deserts him.

 

Ending the relationship at the cost of being haunted by ghosts of regrets and guilt in years to come, Hajime the dreamer comes to Tokyo, where he continues his education and gets himself a job as a book editor, only to be disillusioned by the monotony of his existence.

 

The following years are spent as Hajime the young man who finds stability and settlement in life, as he makes a home with his wife Yukiko, and opens up two successful jazz bars with the help of his father-in-law in the popular city. Yet the memory of the wraith from an unfinished love story never truly leaves him, giving him only a half life in return.

 

That is where Murakami uses his sheer brilliance of language to create a trance and uses his knowledge of music to frame a sequence that forever emblazons itself into the reader’s mind, somewhere after a third of his short novel is completed, as he reintroduces Shimamoto, the phantom of Hajime’s past in the heart of his present, inevitably creating the most iconic turning point of the plot.

 

Spinning a tale that follows a lucid trajectory, South of the Border, West of the Sun is by no means a complicated novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It does not drive you to constantly be on your toes, or crave for further details. Instead, it flows like a stream of words that gradually woos you into its lull, offering you the aftertaste of melancholy and inadequacy behind.

 

But the essential soul of the novel lies in the spin of its words. Murakami masterfully injects a unique Murakami-like melody to his words, threading the spaces in between with music, especially jazz, as he sews in a heartland of ineffectual romanticism. In an act that is not often associated with the writer, he lets the grand narrative and the overarching threshold of the novel supersede the character depth, letting the sequencing of events speak bounds about it instead.

 

And with this conjugation of music and lyrics, Murakami lets the novel transcend to a plane hitherto achieved by a handful of contemporary books, where language creates visual frames of reference with every change of sequence. From a description of poring rain to the sunrise in the end, the words weave themselves to embody a lens, something to view Murakami’s world with.

 

Another added layer of penmanship is the rise and fall of the counter-development of characters. Even if Hajime is the compass of visualizing the plot, Murakami lets Shimamoto rise as a concept perceived by the narrator, as if looking through the haze of a dream, while Yukiko gradually, and steadily, rises as the pillar of reality, Shimamoto’s polar opposite. The graphs presented by either of the two women form the moral framework of the novel, as the reader is forced to dwindle in the insufficiency of the narrator, only to question the trajectory of the novel even when the last line has been said and done.

 

South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition that is borne of words, caricatured with imagery in interloping sequences, and a powerful ode to the bildungsroman genre, with the signature Murakami taste of existential crisis. And even when the book has been long since read, its words half-remembered and erased, Ellington’s notes resonate to the lull of melancholia whenever you hear ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in the years to come.

 

Masters of the Universe: A Review of I’ll Give You the Sun

Somewhere in Jandy Nelson’s book, Jude gives the trees, the stars, the ocean and even the sun to Noah, her twin brother, all in exchange of a face, of a portrait. And in that moment, as I read across the lines, once, twice, thrice, and over and over, I realized in some 400 pages, that for a moment, even for only the briefest speck of time, the sun was all that could be given and yet, so much more, so much warmth, so much brightness and infinite love could be gained in exchange.

Nelson spins a tale stuck in the melancholia of opposites, of dichotomies that crave to touch one another, only reticent for the underlying regret and self-loathing that lies in between. With overarching narratives of identity crisis, fragile familial bonds, the discovery of one’s sexuality and the undying passion towards one’s art, Nelson stems out a simple plot that covers the perspectives of two congruent narratives in alternating timelines, only to fluidly intermix the two in one wholesome concoction of masterful completion, something which I admit is extremely hard to achieve when the para-text of a novel is the size of a gigantic universe that spitefully looms over the characters and their unique voices.

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Beginning the story with Noah’s narrative, a voice that is woefully subtle and loud about its desires at the same time, Nelson tells the story about a young adolescent boy who is passionately in love with his art (drawing portraits) and discovering his homosexuality through his bubbling puppy love towards the neighborhood boy. Mixing magnanimous quotes with the touch of innocent erotica, Nelson brings the mind of a homosexual softly, slowly and most importantly, with empathy.

The narrative then shifts to show Noah’s perspective towards his wilder twin, Jude, who is freer, feistier and the apple of their father’s eye. Jude is reticent to expose her art, yet hedonistic enough to freely surf in the California bay, drawing the lustful eyes of all the male residents in the area.

But the point of contention gradually emerges as the twins’ mother, Diana, comes into the plot. Battling to gain her attention, the twins fight in every sphere, from art to their secrets; everything is an act of winning the love of their art-loving mother.

Intermingling with this sibling rivalry, Nelson blooms an innocent, almost intangible, love affair between Noah and the new neighbor, Brian. Perhaps the most iconic sequence in this narrative is how Nelson beautifully pens a scene where the two adolescents watch the constellation Castor and Pollux through a telescope one night. The voice of Noah’s longing, intermixed lonesomely with his hesitation, brings out a splendid nostalgia, an ode to the memories of first love.

The novel then sweeps over and falls into the narrative of Jude, the wilder twin, and the timeline too speeds over to a couple of years later, leaving unanswered questions that intrigue the reader to the fullest. Unraveling mysteries from the previous narrative, while simultaneously weaving the inner dilemmas of Jude, Nelson walks a fragile line that might bias the elements of the narrative and unbalance the scales at any moment. Yet, the writer succeeds in maintaining the brittle balance between the past and the present, and even brings to life the words of the supporting characters.

Continuing the theme of conflict, Nelson then shows a more mature version of adolescent love through Jude’s narrative, as she spins a more reluctant love story between the quintessential bad boy Oscar and Jude. Shoving into it, she plays the underlying dwindling passion of Jude towards her art (making sculptures) through the interactions with her mentor, before she begins the face-off conflicts between the twins, inadvertently beginning the vulnerable climax of the plot.

I’ll Give You the Sun packs in a strong narrative, overarching themes, scaled characters and the sine curves of rising and falling character development. It makes a poignant effort at a social message with the subtlest undertones, but never lets that overtake the voices of its narrators. Jandy Nelson stays to the core of most tropes used in a coming-of-age novel, but her greatest credit is how she uses her well placed twists to build a new visage in a seemingly easy plotline.

However, the one thing she fails at is to bring out the deliverance of certain characters, especially the twins’ father, with relevance to the actual plot, therefore creating questionable loopholes at times. Although this creates holes in the layer of the voices, she does make up with her own narrative in the end, at times through dragged descriptions and sometimes through incomplete information.

Nonetheless, the novel rises above all else as a poignant read, with its textured characters and unique narrative skills, with a far more fleshier sketch than her debut novel, The Sky Is Everywhere. It is interesting, therefore, to see the author’s development too through the consecutive readings of both her books.

Finally, reading I’ll Give You the Sun is very much like its soulful quote, “Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.” You would know the flow of its story, and yet seek out its journey just the same, as if finding your way around the dark in a home that resides in your bittersweet memories.

Beyond Borders: A Review of Exit West

“And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

 

Somewhere amidst the clouds that spread like cotton in blue skies, un-bothered by the borders of different countries, and some 30, 000 ft above land, I started reading Exit West inside the uncomfortable metal box called an airplane.

 

I believe that books have a peculiar way of coming into our lives, call it their lovable quiddity, if you please. Some books we choose to read, and some books that choose us to be read by. Perhaps Exit West fell into the second category, because as I drudged through the most mind-numbing eight-hour layover at Newark airport three months ago, I stepped into the rather expensive outlet of Hudson Books to get myself a book to read.

 

Remember those days before college when you felt like the greatest champion for humanity after scoring a rather admirable score in your SATs or high school finals, and then the world thwarts you into the university, and you feel like you are just another brick in the wall? Well, that was me. Here in my country India, I am considered quiet the avid reader, or so I am often told. But there, standing among the rows of bookshelves at Hudson Books, and realizing that I knew exactly ten percent of the books there, a meager two percent of which I had personally read, I realized I am a miserable Alice lost in a Wonderland that she definitely did not anticipate.

 

So I found this book, this beautiful blue hardcover with the most seamless spine and I ran a finger across it. I turned to the cover, and sifting through the pages, I realized it was written by Mohsin Hamid, a writer I had serendipitously come across two years back, after reading Moth Smoke. Resigned, I took my exhausted self to the billing counter and paid a whopping $25 (believe me, that is a fortune in the Indian currency, especially for the forever penniless bibliophile that I am, as I shamelessly satiate my reading pangs with free PDFs and weathered old books found in quaint bookshops) and settled with it on one of the many seats at the bustling airport after my security check.

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My copy of Exit West, somewhere in Newark Airport

The whole imagery that I gave before I begin this review, it is relevant because after some 20 or 30 pages, the surrounding world squeezed itself into an atom, the white noise cut itself out, and all I could do was trace the footsteps of the star-crossed lovers in the book, the fiery Nadia and the restrained Saeed, as they trudged through their lives across an unnamed city.

 

In some 240 pages or so, Hamid spins a tale that encompasses journeys across the globe, only with the bittersweet craving for belonging. Artfully weaving in the most subtle imagery of magical realism, with mysterious dark portals and the act of reaching foreign lands in only a moment’s notice, Hamid persuades you to feel, rather than “think”, the latter of which is often associated to most Man Booker nominees.

 

He tears apart convoluted subjects such as illegal migration, refugee crisis, the sense of loss and disconnect that hits the victims in full force post-migration, and explains them in the voice of two opposing yet simple voices, one of the fiercely independent Nadia and the other with the controlled and more and more religious Saeed. He quantifies the bigger images on a screen through a lens, distilling the excess out of his narrative and singularly concentrates on a plot motif that is driven by emotions alone.

 

The book takes you from families, from friends, from conditioned identities, and throws you into the foray of unknown countries and strangers, only to incite the longing that sensitizes you to the acute melancholy of unfamiliarity. Smoothing the edges with beautiful descriptions of Mykonos and London, Hamid enraptures you with the visuals of countries that you often visit in your dreams, countries which are far off in reality with their invisible borders.

 

But the uniqueness in Hamid’s voice lies in the fact that he successfully draws a caricature of the characters as they grow, metamorphose, and embrace their new identities wholly, instead of only concentrating on the lingering love in between. Nadia and Saeed are two complete beings, real and tangible, in spite of their torrid love affair and their bittersweet connection, and as you sift through the pages of the book, they familiarize with you, as if breaking a fourth wall in between the reader and the character, and somehow become your friends, instead of the strangers they begun as.

 

Exit West, in spite of its rather enormous grand narrative, is a singular ballad of melancholia, something that seduces you with its undulating rhythm, leaving only the softest hums of nostalgia behind. And flying some thousand feet above man-made borders, the world appearing only as a speck of brown and green in a heart of ocean blue below, I realized that perhaps belonging is not the end of a story, but only the beginning of embracing something far greater instead. Maybe that is what the author wants you to know, even if you are too scared to believe just yet. And perhaps time will show you that secret, someday, underneath the stars in Chile.

Rainy Afternoons and Murakami: A Review of Men Without Women

Serendipity. Magic. Unfinished love stories.

I type these handful of words and somehow, even when I sit scribbling this on a word document with my favorite dessert to keep me company, I am transported into the heart of melancholia that cloud-kissed afternoons leave behind after the rain has stopped falling.

Perhaps that is the power of Murakami’s words, something that I had lovingly named “Murakamishq” a year ago, literally meaning, the love of Murakami.

So, a month ago, when my copy of the much awaited anthology of short stories fell upon my hands, the August rains as unpredictable as the Japanese wordsmith’s stories, I settled with a cup of tea and my beloved hardcover.

Yet, even after reading a hundred pages, I felt the magic strained, the words forcefully woven to tell a story, and the characters almost reticent to touch the sorcery that Murakami inoculates in them.

Men Without Women is an irregular bouquet of stories, and almost all of them hold the thread of capturing a photograph from the life of an ordinary man. From ‘Drive My Car’ to ‘Scheherazade’, the sense of lonesome longing dwells with an almost mythical aura in every layer of the stories.

Yet, where the magic was so predominantly existent in his previous novels, from the enormous 1Q84 to the lucid South of the Border, West of the Sun, Men Without Women sadly lacks the effortlessness that his novels carry.

One particular story, ‘Kino’, personally stands out for me. It begins with the usual tropes of a Murakami tale, with dimly lit bars and fascinating felines, and gradually delves into the individual’s sordid layers, only to thwart the reader into the realms of obscurity, somewhere between dreamlands and realities. And all throughout, Murakami accomplishes what is so beautifully captured in his novels which are neck deep in magical realism, from Kafka on the Shore to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, simply by the use of brevity.

The showstopper of the anthology, ‘Samsa in Love’, however, fails to accomplish the same. Inspired from Kafka’s brilliant Metamorphosis, Murakami flips the situation and writes a tale from the perspective of the infamous bug. However, whereas Kafka’s lucidity melts into each episode like waves on a stream, Murakami’s narrative seems a tad bit forced, something of a surprise from the usually free-flowing vocabulary of the beloved author.

In the midst of the motley, some stories do strike the right chords, if not throughout, but at least in certain sequences. The narrative of ‘An Independent Organ’ arouses the familiar melancholy that his stories demand, and the culmination of said realization in a few lines almost melts into the dwindling pace that might otherwise hinder a reader’s understanding.

Similarly, the incompleteness of ‘Scheherazade’ lingers like the scent of moist soils after the torrents of rain have long since ceased to be.

Among all of such intricacies, mention should also be made of the translations of these stories. Although the translators are different for almost every story, each of them have successfully captured the unique voice of the author as much as possible, which is a feat worth admiring.

In all, although Men Without Women doesn’t stand out to be the best of Murakami’s works till date, his previous anthologies, the undulating Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman especially, having a far greater taste of his sensibilities, it is a poignant read in the end—it leaves its presence persisting somewhere between your reality and the realm of your thoughts, where words dwell in their lonesome.21268348_10212403586058960_283355567_o