Thursday, 10 September 2009

Alex's Book Club - The Rifles, Hell and Shame in the Blood

I've been reading more, of course. I don't know whether this makes it more or less difficult for me to make strings of words on my own, but I like books, so.

William T. Vollmann's The Rifles was interesting, moving and I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. Since it's subtitled "Volume Six of Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes", and Vollman's other works include a seven volume investigation of human violence and a book entitled Poor People, I had feared it was going to be a little daunting.

It was daunting I suppose, but it was surprisingly easy to read and engrossing throughout. The Seven Dreams series examines encounters between native American people and European colonists, and you can guess the kind of points it makes. In this one Vollman's focus is on the Inuit of Northern Canada, and his thesis is that the introduction of the rifle (which the Europeans traded them for food and assistance since the explorers were utterly incapable of surviving in the arctic circle alone) changed their lifestyle catastrophically: depleting the population of the animals on which they lived, destroying their culture and generally weakening their position in the world.

Then, later, the Canadian government shafted them for good measure.

That may look like something of a spoiler, but really it isn't since Vollman often breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly and spends whole sections of the book laying this out and accepting that he may be overstating the case, but that he is being as impartial as possible.

Also, the pleasure of the book for me was certainly not merely in the details, but in the way they were presented. It is a dreamlike narrative of an American who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer who can to a sticky end, and who falls in love with an Inuk girl while studying the people of Northern Canada. The perspective shifts from second to third person and back; chapters start in the present day and end in the 1800s and vice-versa; and all the time Vollmann's characters, flawed and desperate every one, make wonderfully human, believable decisions. It really was a fantastic book.

The week I finished it I spent the night on a mountain at the Magical Camp festival, and as it got colder in the evening I kept thinking about Vollmann's characters (and Vollman himself, as he writes in one of the appendices) almost freezing to death in minus 40 degree weather. It'll probably stay with me for a long time.

Hell, by Yasutaka Tsutsui, was one of the pieces of Japanes literature I borrowed on a whim from the library when I went (I'm gonna get more next week!). He's apparently famous as a sci-fi writer (several Japanese people I mentioned him to knew who he was) but has been highly prolific in any number of genres. Only a few of his books are available in English though, and Hell is a slightly surreal contemporary fantasy work about people dying and going to hell - which in Japanese terms isn't all that hellish, more a kind of limbo where no-one is sure of the rules or conditions for being there. It was short, funny and touching and much better than the other Japanese book I borrowed which was...

... Shame in the Blood by Tetsuo Miura. Written and set in the early sixties, it's described as one of Japan's greatest love stories, but I found the whole thing progressively more and more frustrating and was fucking glad to finish it and put it down. It was mercifully brief I guess (if it had run to 300 pages I doubt I would have finished it) and it has many praiseworthy points. The details of human actions and interactions are excellently observed and I'm sure the tone and the narration really capture certain aspects and attitudes of mid-20th century (specifically post-war) Japan exquisitely. However the story, and the narrator himself (who, sadly, is probably closely based on Miura since the events seem to mirror those of his own life) just annoyed the living fuck out of me, obscuring all the positives.

The narrator comes from a tragic family where two of his sisters kill themselves, and his two older brothers run away from home, one of them stealing the family fortune in the process. Because of this he believes his blood must be cursed, and struggles to deal with it, while falling in love with a woman and slowly... possibly? coming to terms with the fact that he can live a normal life...? I don't want to go on hammering a book that other people have clearly seen a lot of good in, but for me the self-pity was believable but annoying, the structure seemed arbitrary and annoying and the whole thing was inconclusive and annoying.

Actually, I think the biggest problem for me was that I found a set of characters that go through hardships and personal sufferings looking for light or a new start; but who can never find true hope or the truly fresh beginning that they want. But it's not the world that is hammering them down and denying them, as it seems to in some of Denis Johnson's incredibly tragic novels, but their own overwhelming sense of personal shame or belief that hardships must just be endured.

In fact, a lot of the tortured introspection reminded me of the first Evangelion movie I just watched. Except that in that case I could kind of laugh at it and enjoy the giant robots fighting ever more conceptual celestial threats. Shame in the Blood features no giant robots at all! Not one!

It does have a gorgeous cover though doesn't it?


  1. "But it's not the world that is hammering them down and denying them, as it seems to in some of Denis Johnson's incredibly tragic novels, but their own overwhelming sense of personal shame or belief that hardships must just be endured."

    Isn't that how people characterize the difference between western and Japanese society?

  2. It is, yes. The book was published in 1961 and I would imagine that attitude was even more prevalent then (today I would say it's a lot less so). In that respect the narration and tone just add to the book's beautiful evocation of a certain period of Japan.

    (There are also some nice points that I neglected to mention about how his dead and missing siblings might reflect badly on him in the eyes of others, as that was the attitude in Japan at the time; and other characters who have suffered "shameful" events are similarly worried about how others will judge them. However this element is never really explored as the main character always flees such confrontations and we never see them played out)

    But even though all of these points are true and accurate - it still annoyed the living fuck out of me. The protagonist isn't a bad guy, but it feels stupid to root for someone who isn't even rooting for himself.

    I'm sure I've read it suggested that there was a turning point during World War 2 where the Japanese mass conciousness stopped accepting uniformity and conformity and stoic acceptance of misfortune and ever since then they've been moving towards a more western state of mind. Not that that's necessarily a good thing.

    Anyway, let's say the book is a beautiful, subtle exploration of the Japanese psyche - the fucking dustjacket describes it as a love story!

    I didn't like it.