Category Archives: Book Review

Tar Baby

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 8.41.28 PMTar Baby
Toni Morrison (1981)
Picador, Pan Books Ltd (1991)

I would like to write about the role which nature plays in Tar Baby. Initially, the book seems to be focused on the particular inter-relations between individuals, but as the opening suggests, this is a story about the various universes which coexist outside the levels of our perception. Many of which never touch, nor know about one another’s existence. This operates clearly on the human level, Valerian is orbiting in another existence entirely to his wife and that of the historical past of their son. Similarly, Jadine and Son begin and end their shared history on different wavelengths. These separate revolutions eclipse one another for a short moment (not even a year), only to be thrust back into their respective orbits and realities.

More interesting for myself perhaps, is the kingdom positioned at the natural level. From an anthropomorphic perspective, we could suggest that phrases like “water-lady” (p.3) or “teenage avocado” (p.135) suggest an agency to nature which is operating on a human level, almost as an imitation of human forms and definitions. However, as the book progresses, a different image of the natural world emerges, one which is epistemologically incredibly difficult to fathom given the locked-in nature of human perception. Even so, I would like to suggest that Morrison does at times touch at an understanding of one layer of nature which is external to the human experience. One way to access this layer of symbolism is through the image of the house. In the description of Son’s nocturnal wanderings we see the possibility of parallel universes which co-exist, but never meet:

“He spent some part of every night with her and grew to know the house well, for he sneaked out just before dawn when the kitchen came alive. And he had to admit now, standing in the sunlight, that he had liked living in the house that way. It became his, sort of. A nighttime possession complete with a beautiful sleeping woman. (p.138-139)

Interestingly, Son’s adventures are only nocturnal to the protagonists which command the story, individuals like Valerian and even Jade. They are not nocturnal for Son, for his cycle of rest is at direct odds with the other inhabitants of the house. So once we grasp this symbol of the house, we can see that nature also exists within the story on the level of an alternate universe. If we look back to Son’s initial vision of the house, we see him there, one hand on the tree, eyes looking at the “cool and civilised” (p.134) house, and more than ever the world of nature emerges in sharp contrast to the the world of humans and practical industry. I think this is the only moment in the book when the gulf between one very specific layer of nature, the nature experienced through the sensations of a man on the run who exists on the fringes of human worlds, and the layer of civilised existence, merge. Civilised in the colonial sense, where a mother can abuse her own child due to the perversity of the socialised environment to which she has been brought. It is at this instance, before Son begins to float among the fringes of the world of the house, that nature and human species are rejoined.

Importantly, this coming together of worlds is only possible through the perspective of what one would call an ‘uncivilised man’ in the social lexicon of prison based society. From this lense, Son is a man who has lived on the borders of society, an escaped convict, a criminal and a deserter of his way of existence. And it is through his eyes that the house is incredibly ugly, and of course Son knows this too:

“They are drinking clear water in there, he thought, with ice cubes in it. He should have stayed on the boat for the night.” (p.134)

When viewed through this perspective, the ending is simply Son’s return to a state of being,  which is not to be classified as ‘nature’ for how can we understand that which he has become from without? Again, this would be an endeavour in anthropomorphism. Instead all we can do is watch from afar, in the same way as Son initially viewed the house, and only touch at the universe within.

“By and by he walked steadier, now steadier. The mist lifted and the trees stepped back a bit as if to make the way easier for a certain kind of man.” (p.309)


The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Milan Kundera
Kniha Smichu a Zapomneni (1978)
Le Livre du Rire at de L’oubli (1979)
Translated from Czech by Michael Henry Heim (1982)
Faber and Faber (1992)


So much of Milan Kundera’s writing in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” is exceptionally self-aware of his role as a writer. More so than perhaps the content of his book, I was struck with the layers of perception which filter through its structure. Interspersed with the poetic and incredibly fragile vignettes which expound on the themes of memory and laughter, is a consistent stream of conscious elaboration of the nature and form of literature. I can’t say that I know much about re-explaining or reconceptualising something said with undeniable poetry and feeling, but I do know how to see the layers between the phrases and to uncover some of what builds to their meaning. In the case of Kundera, even they layering of his structure is poetic. So if we take what Kundera himself says, that the book is a form of variations all leading to one intangible yet synthetic whole, then each of the characters are but constellations of separate universes. Tamina revolves in and around a certain memory of herself and her home, filtering through shared wavelengths but never touching the worlds of Mirek and Marketa. Often in this book, it appears more like the stories are woven apart rather than together.


screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-8-01-55-pmKurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Vintage, London 2000

I thought Slaughterhouse-Five was a completely different book. I imagined that it would be a coming of age tale in a time of war, centered around five young lives and their discovery of a run-down slaughterhouse somewhere in Middle America. I imagined a scene where a dominant child takes to the emotional and even physical torture of another, whilst the others standby as onlookers. I imagined an allegory of war and of the wild and inhumane acts that people perform upon one another.

In many ways this picture is not wrong, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is not so different from my own. It is the story of horror and dread and inexplicable madness. It is also ominous for the greater part of the novel, a quality I saw inherent to my own fantasised version. However, it also tells of the circularity of life and the ever existing movement of life and death. I did not imagine my children of the slaughterhouse to engage so profoundly with the nonexistence of life in a universe where no one really dies: and so on… ad infinitum.

Billy’s idiot-savant approach to life recalls that of Dostoyevski’s Myshkin, and causes the story to unfurl in a manner similar to his unending stream of flashbacks and episodes of time and space travel. There is really no beginning to this story which starts by letting us know exactly how it will end, so that the ending never actually happens. It is as though with each step forward we take two steps back, further into the depths of Billy’s plundered mind.

I don’t know where I got the notion of another entirely different Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps it was from a cover I had once seen, on which five small children could be seen dancing infront of a red barn. Often with a book of such renown and popularity, the contents are often obscured and influenced prior to any reading. This was certainly the case for myself, I couldn’t help but think of Billy as any one of my invented slaughterhouse children, at once tormentor and tormented. In such a way, it is certainly a book to add to The Brief History of Books that do not Exist


William S. Burroughs
Penguin Books, 2009 (1953)

Junky as a title is misleading, for this is not the story of a man, a junky; but rather the story of Junk.

It is no surprise that I approached this book with the idea of an autobiography in the style of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism. Junky‘s reputation certainly precedes it and having the advantage of over 60 years of fascinated readers, along with its place as a Penguin favourite, meant that I had heard more than a few opinions on its content.

However, Burroughs himself has no intention of fooling us, and makes sure to teach us right from the outset that:

Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life. (xxviii)

What is to come is no raucous trip through the ungrowth of a deep and mesmerizing world of addiction and inhibition, rather it’s the simple but solid fact that junk takes no prisoners. There is no one behind the junky and there is no story about the life behind the junk. All that we see is the stark image of the opiate: how it consumes, empties and retains the user.

None of what Bill does throughout the book has any meaning, nor does it give us any clues as to what motivates his story. The void is filled only by the Junk and its overwhelming power of effacement. Supposedly Bill has a wife and numerous sexual exploits occur, but these are all peripheral, they only exist by virtue of their coming into contact with Junk.

There is one point, towards the end, at which another spectre is given the chance to emerge. Given no name and defined as ‘neither a user nor a seller’, this is something worse than the junky and calls for one of the most descriptive and graphic portrayals in the book:

So this man walks around in the place where he once exercised his obsolete and unthinkable trade. But he is unperturbed. His eyes are black with an insect’s unseeing calm. He looks as if he nourished himself on honey and Levantine syrups that he sucks up through a sort of proboscis. 

What is his lost trade? Definitely of a servant class and something to do with the dead, though he is not an embalmer. Perhaps he stores something in his body – a substance to prolong life – of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialised as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function. (112)

What we see here is the description of a being no longer useful as seen through the lens Junk. The Junk has now assumed the role of narrator and tells of a horrible creature now devoid of any value through an absence of usefulness. It doesn’t crave the drug nor even try to control it in the way the Law might, it is a parasite of the ultimate order and now abhorred.

In comparison the junky is painted as a pleasing and degenerative soul for whom a passion for Junk is justifiable and even encouraged. In many ways the junky is simply another form of organic matter waiting to be consumed:

We are turning into plants. (147)

At first difficult to understand and even frustrating, Junky soon shows itself as but another rhythm of life, ebbing onwards at a slow and dull beat.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami

Harvill Secker, 2014

Set out almost in the form of a detective story, Murakami leads us on a quest for answers, both metaphysical and historical in his book, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of Pilgrimage. And it is indeed Murakami and not Tsukuru who takes us down this path, for the narrator often speaks in place of Tsukuru’s own voice when in fact it would be more conventional to have inserted a dialogue. Conversely, internal monologues read as though they should be written as a conversation: “He was young, and there was so much about the world he still didn’t know. And Tokyo was a brand-new place for him…” (p.22). This idea of either ambiguous communications or meaning ducking and weaving through conversations and thoughts only to be lost is pervasive throughout the book. Tsukuru is no longer is own master. This follows closely to the persistent feeling of many words left unsaid and lives not lived. It is common within Murakami’s stories for certain realities to be interspersed with others so that sometimes we are left with the feeling that many people could, at certain common points, have shared the same life: “He was, of course, Haida the son, but Haida the father had been his same age in this story, and so the two of them began to overlap in Tsukuru’s mind. It was an odd sensation, as if the two distinct temporalities had blended into one.” (p.65) This blurring of boundaries between reality and unreality is paired with intermittent reminders of sleep: the wakefulness and unconsciousness through which Tsukuru moves in an aimless fashion. In a sense it mirrors his obsession with death, as someone who is neither engaged nor actively disengaged from his existence; Tsukuru is never fully awake. Even when he assumes another life after his first metaphorical death it is only another state of half-wakefulness; “Tsukuru didn’t particularly like his new looks. Nor did he hate them. They were, after all, just a convenient, makeshift mask.” (p.41) Tsukuru has thrown off the death mask he had worn before only to assume another without much difference. Although there is no resolution, Murakami does at least allow for an emotionally cathartic moment to provide hope for another life for Tsukuru; “Sorrow surged then, silently, like water inside him. A formless, transparent sorrow. A sorrow he could touch, yet something that was also far away, out of reach. Pain struck him, as if gouging out his chest, and he could barely breathe.” (p.264) We can see he is beginning to feel the ebb and tow of his existence and that it is distant is more significant than if it were to roar down upon him. Finally, Tsukuru seems to be coming back to himself.

The Judgement of Paris

Gore Vidal, 1952

Carroll & Graf – 2007

A very contextual book; set in the period directly after the Second World War The Judgement of Paris deals with a world and a man coming to terms with their own horror. That the book is based allegorically around the Greek myth of Paris was loosely apparent throughout the text but does not seem to add much to the story itself. The main character Philip is a young man who sets out on a quest of self-enlightenment in a Europe still struggling to find some correlation between the dawn of the day after the war and that which came before it. The various themes of self-discovery and spiritual inquiry are often forced upon the reader with a jarring effect, when it seems as though the characters are less inclined to a discussion amongst themselves than detached lecturing towards us personally. These episodes, whilst theoretically interesting were the least effective in obtaining a sense of sympathy with the characters, the plot or the book itself. Vidal’s evocation of love and passion on the other hand did manager to reach heights of mythical proportions and leave us feeling as though we had stepped onto the last edge of the world:

“Three miles of Saint Malo they stopped and got out of the car. In the distance, partly hidden by the sea mist, they could make out the pyramidal shape of the ancient castle, set far out in the sea. Half a mile away was a stone cottage with a thatched roof, the only building in sight. The land undulated, soft and green, white-dotted with rocks and grazing sheep. The clover-scented air was still and warm as they stood by the side of the car, looking out upon the dark blue sea which broke on a dun-coloured, rock-strewn beach at the meadow’s edge.” P.285

Something about the point at which a meadow full of sheep meets the sea conjures an image of infinite desolation. All has been forgotten apart from these two people strewn across the last frontier of the planet: a lost place reckoning back to a disappeared history of Kings. Vidal offers us a glimpse of a place where Paris’ great myth must have begun.


The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber & Faber, 2005 (1989)

A very English book in the stereotypical sense of the word. It moves along at a haltering pace where each diversion leads us deeper into the knowledge of a man who knows not himself but follows blindly. A lengthy tale told in an anecdotal style, Ishiguro presents us with a bleak view of the English class system and the way in which we treat one another in a professional context. His insight into the workings and tidings of a professional butler are commendable and never do we feel that Stevens is a caricature. Here we see a man living quietly beneath an unassuming layer of self-effacement and servitude, the result is something quite disparaging for the depiction of apparently mutually beneficial relationships.