(2015) The Year in Books – Part Two

[In Part Two of my review of my favourite books of 2015 I write a couple of paragraphs about some books deserving of far more attention, and Too Many paragraphs about an obscure novel that everyone but me thinks is rubbish.]


Natsume Soseki – The Miner

I’d been meaning to read something by Soseki since I moved to Japan two years ago, but I was always put off by their standing as ‘classic literature’ – novels a hundred or so years old that you see piled up in a corner of Waterstones; their English translations so ancient they require a second act of translation just to read them comfortably; their covers featuring strangely off-putting oil paintings of imperious women in petticoats and big hats. I’m not sure what it is, but I spent a period reading a decent number of ‘Classics’ and the best I came away with was that Crime and Punishment would be a pretty great book if we didn’t have to check in every thirty pages on Raskolnikov’s sister and her impending marriage to a boring man who didn’t matter.

Anywaymy hangups aside, I decided to read a Soseki novel, and, not knowing anything about his novels, I just picked out the first one that seemed interesting. That one was The Miner, and I’m very glad I didn’t do any research beforehand, because if I had I probably never would have read it. Because everybody but me seems to hate it.

The Miner‘s set-up has a fair amount in common with The Catcher in the Rye . Its naive-yet-world-weary protagonist (here a 19 year-old heir to a wealthy aristocratic family in Tokyo) runs away from home, but instead of wandering around New York and having an epiphany about his life, he gets roped into becoming a copper miner, descends into the lonely bowels of the earth, has an epiphany about his life, immediately forgets about it, gets really scared for a bit, kind of has another epiphany, then works for a few months as a bookkeeper and eventually gives up and goes home.

It sounds messy, and it is. The whole story is related stream-of-consciousness style by its nameless narrator as he encounters various people and places, describes his thoughts on them, explains why he thought that specifically, ponders why exactly he thought that specifically, and then eventually remembers to stop ruminating and get back to the story. It’s the kind of writing style that could easily become throw-book-against-wall irritating, as it constantly interrupts the action. And as I mentioned above – everyone seems to hate it. Pretty much everyone at the time, and most people since, even big fans of Soseki’s work, seem to either hates The Miner, or at best regards it as a weird, slightly embarrassing outlier among his other novels.

I can definitely see why people get frustrated by it, but to my mind not only are these interruptions consistently interesting and amusing, slowly-building up a surprisingly endearing portrait of its awkward, obnoxious protagonist, they’re the reason The Miner stands out as such an honest, touchingly personal book – one that has a hell of a lot more to say than most people seem to have given it credit for. Instead of being a coming-of-age story where the protagonist relates his difficult experiences and how they changed him for the better, The Miner puts its narrative to one side and goes all in on stripping its central character back piece by piece to explore his mental processes, and the way he makes sense of the world around him.

The protagonist of The Miner isn’t a character from a novel; sketched into being by clear aims and strong, definable motivations (as the book itself takes great pains to point out). Instead he’s an attempt by Soseki to capture the way real people actually are – changeable and contradictory. Sometimes high-minded and sometimes petty. Often thinking of themselves as characters with set motivations existing on a coherent narrative path, but actually wandering from place to place, cobbled together from a million tiny influences that even they themselves can’t hope to name.

We see the character’s pettiness, his high-mindedness, his arbitrary whims, and his painstaking introspection. And we also see, throughout his experiences, the way his thoughts, feelings, and even patterns of thinking are surprisingly malleable. A moment of absolute confidence suddenly gives way to feelings of helplessness with very little outside influence, only to be replaced by a life-changing epiphany that seems set to change the entire course of the narrative, only to crumble apart at the slightest touch.

At the risk of sounding pretentious at the start of the eighth paragraph of my review of an obscure Soseki novel that everyone else hates but which apparently I alone see the True Value of, I think it’s  one of the best, most honest representation of what it’s like to be a person I’ve ever read. It might be more narratively satisfying to have characters act with definite purpose and strong, consistent motivations, but The Miner shows us how people really are most of the time – just existing; acting and reacting in accordance not with deep-rooted pillars of Character and Ethics and Motivations, but with however a thousand different variables have collected together to make them feel on that day.

You can argue that the book itself isn’t interesting enough – and while I’d say the writing is sharp and witty, and strangely optimistic throughout, plenty of people clearly disagree. But you’d be hard-pressed to say that it isn’t honest. That alone makes it worth reading, in my opinion (but I also really hope you like it as much as I did).

Isabel Greenberg – The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

The only comic on my list (so feel free to get angry at me for calling them comics rather than the incredibly forced ‘graphic novels’), The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, is a lovely example of the form. It’s a colourful, humorous, and very lighthearted set of creation stories and myths chronicling the travels of a storyteller through early earth.

The art is always striking – with a simple, sketched style and muted colours that sometimes give way to splashes of bright red and yellow and orange. The characterisation and dialogue skilfully walks that fine line between gently whimsical and cloyingly kooky, with clever jokes and the all-time best portrayal of a creator god in fiction with the character of BirdMan – a cross between an all-knowing cosmic architect, a bored trickster god, and slightly depressing dad figure, complete with an incredibly short, but impotent temper.

Short and sweet, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is inventive, self-aware without being self-indulgent, simple without being lightweight, and touching in all the right places.


Junot Díaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz is one of those rare writers who are so good at the pure act of writing sentences on a page that it’s hard not to resent them for it. People say things like ‘Her voice is so beautiful I’d pay to hear her read a shopping list’. Well, I’d pay upwards of £9.99 to read Junot Díaz’s account of  his most recent trip to the supermarket. Every single sentence of his prose (both in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and in his short story collections) is perfectly done – sticking to the page with a heft, flowing with an incredible ease, and containing that special something you can’t describe but you know you really, really want.

Oscar Wao is the story of Oscar De León, an ineffective, overweight, socially maladroit Dominican kid living in New Jersey, along with the story of 30 years of the dictator Trujilo’s stranglehold on the Dominican Republic. I read it about a year ago and I don’t have too much to say about it other than that, among other things it does extremely well, it captures the awkward desperation of a less-than-popular adolescence just about as well as I could imagine fiction doing.


Kirino Natsuo – Out

I don’t read much crime fiction – as any other good, upright man I’ve looked at it, seen that it’s predominantly enjoyed by women, and then subconsciously decided I don’t like it, but for other reasons. After reading Out, though, I’m definitely starting to see the potential pitfalls of blindly judging an entire genre of fiction based on preconceived notions of its value.

The setup, then: A young woman working the graveyard shift at a bento factory murders her deadbeat husband in a fit of blind rage, then turns to several of her co-workers to help dispose of the body. Everything that follows (even that bit later on that comes out of left-field and becomes the focus of the whole narrative, in a twist that at first feels kind of arbitrary but actually works really well with what the book is trying to do sorry for being so vague) is a deft exploration both of the darker aspects of ordinary people, and the darker side of Japanese society.

Well, ‘the darker side of Japanese society’ isn’t really right though – Out is less interested in the sociopathic world of murder, blackmail, extortion, or the Yakuza (although all that is definitely there, sometimes in great detail), and more interested in the humdrum, far less sexy cracks running across Japanese society – things that those outside Japan almost never hear about. The drudgery of labour, the relationship-straining mountains of stress and overtime that so many jobs force upon workers, the role of women and the way they’re commodified, set aside, and ignored, and then actively (and sometimes aggressively) marginalised if they try to overcome this barrier. An ageing society with fewer and fewer economic prospects for both the young and the old. And the complicated, rather unhappy relationship Japan has with foreigner residents – especially the large population of Japanese-Brazilian workers.

 Out is also a crime story, of course, with suspense and nail-biting tension, and pretty disturbing depictions of suffering and mutilation. But rather than being two part tenuously linked, it marries these two aspects incredibly well – using one to explore and deepen the impact of the other.
It’s a book about loneliness, and isolation, and death and murder, but it’s also a book that’s clearly very angry at the state of contemporary Japanese society (and almost 20 years later it’s hard to find it any less relevant). It takes a long, detailed look at the role of women in Japan and finds it incredibly wanting (its points only made stronger by the fact that quite a few critics at the time chastised her for writing crime stories, when women should only ever write romance stories (yes I know this is actually a real thing that happened in the world)). That Out manages to wrap up this tired,muted anger with a twist-and-turns crime story of such potency without it feeling uneven or pieced-together is very, very impressive.
[Next time, in Part Three – Ogawa Yoko’s ‘Revenge’, Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’, Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s ‘I Do Not Come to You by Chance’, and Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’.]
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