Friday, 28 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: The Landlady by Roald Dahl

Card Drawn:


Ding-dong.
Up until quite recently, I did not know that Roald Dahl was such a prolific short-story writer. I will always associate him with fond childhood memories and learning to read during grade-school. Like so many other kids, I was obsessed with his books, reading them over and over again until the pages fell out: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, The Twits. All classics. His books sparked my young imagination and I was totally enchanted by Dahl's immersive story-telling skills. My lifelong love for reading probably started around this time.    

Roald Dahl's stories always had a dark sense of humor about them and were also quite creepy ("The Witches" definitely freaked me out as a kid) but "The Landlady" turned out to be surprisingly macabre for an author known mostly for his children's stories. The premise is quite simple: Billy Weaver is a young man traveling the English countryside and is in need of lodging for the night. He comes across a quaint little bed and breakfast that catches his eye and is met by a slightly odd but solicitous landlady who is very eager to have him as one of her guests. Everything seems pretty normal at first until Billy notices that the landlady is fond of creepy-looking animal taxidermy and also urges him to sign the guest book, which he discovers only has two names listed from several years ago. Dahl seems more concerned with creating an ominous and unsettling mood rather than focusing on plot, which is predictably formulaic. It would not be a spoiler to say that Billy Weaver is doomed from the moment he rings the doorbell but the fun in reading this story is to relish in Dahl's playful invention and twisted dark humor. The gloomy atmosphere and depiction of the devilishly creepy landlady provides plenty of foreshadowing so the "surprise ending" is not really a surprise at all since the author makes it obvious pretty early on that things won't end well for Billy. A brief short-story that is entertaining in a darkly amusing way but a far-cry from the high level of quality writing expected from Dahl. 


Monday, 24 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: For Esmé—with Love and Squalor by J.D. Salinger

Card Drawn:

Shhhh...it's me. J.D. 
I will always have a soft spot for J.D. Salinger because he was instrumental during my formative years when reading became my obsession. After being introduced to Catcher in the Rye along with a few of his other short-stories by my high-school English teacher (thank you Mrs. Bordo!), my intense passion for literature sent me into a complete reading frenzy--hence, the name of my blog. Catcher in the Rye was a cathartic experience and unlike anything I had ever encountered before up until that point. It was as if a switch went off in my brain allowing me to recognize that fiction could be so much more than just entertaining stories--it was an art form capable of evoking powerful emotions while connecting with me on a deeply personal level. From that moment on I wanted to be writer just like Salinger, or at the very least, become an English teacher so that maybe one day I could inspire a new generation of young people to fall in love with literature. Suffice it to say, my life turned out quite different than initially planned. Years down the road I eventually got around to reading Franny and Zooey (my review can be found HERE), which blew me away. Salinger could do no wrong in my eyes. It has been nine years since I have read anything else by him so you can understand my excitement and high expectations for this story.

"For Esme with Love and Squalor" is proving to be one of the most difficult reviews to write for the DMI challenge because it left me with so many mixed feelings. I have read this story twice now and still cannot decide if it is worthy of all the hype or a flawed piece of cloying sentimentalism. I seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Many critics would probably agree that Salinger's writing was molded by his traumatic experiences in WWII and this story is explicit in its portrayal of a solider suffering from PTSD before this diagnosis was even properly recognized by the medical community as a legitimate psychological condition. The narrative is split into two sections: Part 1 is the first person narrative by an unnamed solider before going to training camp and his encounter with the young choir girl at the tea shop. Part 2 switches to a third person narrator and follows the mysterious Sergeant X who is stationed at a military recovery home after the war is over. 

Salinger, of course, delights in teasing the reader through misdirection, ambiguity and withholding key information--he only offers us a fragmented glimpse into the lives of these characters. Moreover, it is also important to keep in mind that the solider claims to be a "professional short-story writer" and is self-conscious about the art of fiction. He is consciously aware about the actual narrative process, subtly drawing attention to the story's artifice through irony and parody. The ironic tone is most prevalent in the first section, especially during the lengthy scene at the tea shop when the solider and Esme meet after she first captures his attention while singing at a church choir practice. She is a precocious thirteen year old girl and her adult sophistication is deliberate on Salinger's part; reminding the reader of the text's artifice, undermining certain expectations and the desire for verisimilitude. She is meant to appear contrived and much of her dialogue feels forced, almost unnatural. If Esme is to be understood as a metaphorical representation of innocence, purity and unconditional love, then Salinger seems to be parodying such sentimental notions. Are we to believe that they share a genuine love for each other after only a brief meeting? The whole situation is absurd and that is the point. The subject of writing comes up during their conversation and she asks the solider to write a story for her: "Make it extremely squalid and moving," she suggested. "Are you at all acquainted with squalor?" Notice that Esme misinterprets the meaning of "squalor" and this inherent irony is the main thematic link between Part 1 and Part 2: the quixotic notion that love conquers the squalor of war.

Another example of the narrator's self-reflexivity occurs when he directly addresses the reader in the first section before the story transitions into the second part with Sergeant X: 


"This is the squalid, or moving, part of the story, and the scene changes. The people change too. I'm still around, but from here on in, for reasons I am not at liberty to disclose, I've disguised myself so cunningly that even the cleverest reader will fail to recognize me."

Again, Salinger is being deliberately playful here, emphasizing the unreliable narrator's self-conscious mediation of the actual story. Sergeant X is not fooling anyone about his true identity and that is why it is so important recognize the use of irony and parodic elements at work in Part 1. The juxtaposition between innocence (Esme) and the squalor of war (filth, chaos, death) becomes most pronounced by Sergeant X's nervous breakdown. The reader must decide for themselves if love conquers squalor but it is impossible for me not to interpret the ending as a parody of sentimentalism: Esme sends her dead father's wrist-watch to Sergeant X and this romantic gesture of love supposedly cures him of his PTSD. This scene is exaggerated as parody, further highlighting the story's preoccupation with artifice. The final line is indicative of the self-conscious narrator's mimetic narrative construction: "You take a really sleepy man, Esme, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac--with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact." Paradoxically, Sergeant X is the story's authorial voice, as he attempts to create a sense of order and meaning within his damaged psyche caused by the "squalor" of war.

I'm so torn. There is much to admire in this story such as Salinger's deft prose and ironic sensibility. However, the narrative can feel tedious and also quite frustrating in its idiosyncratic style, especially during the first section. Objectively, I can see why this is such a celebrated short-story but for me, the self-conscious artifice and parody takes away from the story's emotional impact. Maybe a third reading will change my mind.



Sunday, 23 February 2020

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz


Quite possibly the best collection of short stories that I have ever read. An anomoly indeed, since most collections are rarely ever this consistent in quality. While some stories are more engaging than others, there are no weak links amongst them. From the sensational opener "The Sun, The Moon, the Stars," which sets the ironic tone for the entire collection; to "Alma" about a devastating break-up with a college girlfriend because of the narrator's infidelity (clearly a recurring theme); to "Miss Lora" about the young narrator's affair with an older woman; culminating in the incredible final story "The Cheaters Guide to Love," an explicit parody of the instructional manual that ironically teaches men 'how to' perpetuate cultural stereotypes and perform masculinity. All of these stories showcase Diaz's mastery of the form--his innovative use of language, narrative voice and literary technique is nothing short of dazzling. "The Cheaters Guide to Love" absolutely floored me and is worthy of an extensive analysis. As a matter of fact, each story deserves it's own review and I plan on doing that at some point. 

Diaz is easily one of the most exciting new voices that I have come across in contemporary literature. He is a stylistic virtuoso, a literary rock-star. Nobody out there writes like him. For me, his talents as a great writer are demonstrated by his playfulness, irreverent humor and ironic engagement with racial and gender stereotypes. While constantly pushing the boundaries of the modern short-story form by cleverly dismantling its conventional boundaries, he delivers something truly unique, especially in regards to his representation of the subjective-self. Yunior is the narrator for almost all of these stories but he uses a second-person narrative voice that seemingly has several functions: (1) self-reflexivity invoked by the "you" pronoun allows for pensive contemplation, self-criticism (ex: racialized self-hatred); (2) ironic pedagogical instruction intended for younger self but also implicates the reader;  (3) clever and funny narrative voice makes him likable and sympathetic even though he is mostly unpleasant and down-right despicable at times; (4) healing through the creative process of writing; and (5) parody of self-help books. I will try my best to go into greater detail within the individual reviews regarding any of these important aspects, concomitant with the fascinating second-person narrative voice. Additionally, complex issues such as race, gender, sexual politics and class are also worth exploring.  

Most notably, Yunior along with other male characters are not always embodying stereotypical Latin machismo on a conscious level; rather, they are influenced by cultural gender norms. They are portrayed as complex human beings, struggling with their identity as racialized individuals in an oppressive American society. Moreover, Diaz is keen to emphasize the damaging psychological effects of cultural memory and its inextricable link to destructive male behavior, especially towards women. He offers an insightful critique of intergenerational trauma and sexism (patriarchy, heteranormativity, male chauvinism, etc.) within a post-colonial context. Anyone who claims that the short-story is a "minor" literary art form will certainly be proven wrong with this amazing collection. These stories possess an explosive energy and emotional complexity of human experience that is  provocative, edgy, intelligent and surprisingly poignant. 

However, it's a shame with all the #MeToo controversy surrounding Diaz over the last few years concerning his abusive and unprofessional behavior towards multiple women who have all spoken out against him. I find it somewhat ironic if we are to interpret many of these stories from This Is How You Loser Her as being semi-autobiographical. Life imitating art? Let me clarify that I am not in any way condoning his behavior but does this controversy make me enjoy these stories any less? No. If anything, these stories have now taken on another layer of meaning: the meta-fictional elements blurring the lines even more profoundly between fiction and autobiography.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: Poor Yorick by Theodore Sturgeon

Card Drawn:


"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy."
Hamlet is one of my favorite plays so of course I would be interested in reading a story titled "Poor Yorick" by Theodore Sturgeon who is often recognized as one of the preeminent writers from the Golden Age of science-fiction. Consider my disappointment to discover the only allusion to Shakespeare's famous play is a human skull and the story is not even remotely science-fiction. Theodore Sturgeon was a huge influence on the genre, providing inspiration for many writers such as Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, two authors whom I hold in great esteem. Vonnegut even named one of his most famous characters after Theodore Sturgeon: Kilgore Trout (Kilgore = Theodore, Trout = Sturgeon. Get it?). Yet, after reading some of his other novels, short stories (some have already been reviewed on this blog) and now this story, he is one of those distinguished authors that has failed to really impress me. He is a writer of big ideas and I acknowledge his impact but his writing tends to come across as bland, unpolished; lacking a certain kind of poetic energy and finesse. He started off writing for the pulp-magazine market and "Poor Yorick" is one of his early stories so perhaps that might explain why it feels so insipid, bogged down by clunky prose and silly plot contrivances. 

On a more positive note, the story actually begins with a great opening sentence: "If you don't want to read an unpleasant story, we are even. Because I didn't want to write it either." A pithy and tongue-in-cheek remark that sets the tone. Good stuff. Indeed, the narrator is correct about this being an unpleasant story but for all the wrong reasons. June is a stereotypical blonde girl and her boyfriend is fighting overseas in some unnamed war. The story takes a morbid turn when he sends her a skull in the mail as a token of his love. June is thrilled and even uses it to play pranks on people. She thinks that the skull belongs to a Japanese solider because of its smaller size. Sturgeon's blatant racism is on full display. We also find out that her brother is fighting alongside the boyfriend in the same war. Later on she invites a friend over who also happens to be the family dentist (coincidence?) and he notices that the skull's teeth has two distinct fillings...the horror!  The "twist ending" is utterly ridiculous and Sturgeon gives the reader no reason to care about the outcome.


Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: The Ice Man by Haruki Murakami

Card Drawn:


"Dreams come from the past, not from the future. Dreams shouldn't control you--you should control them."
Another Murakami! I'm getting lucky with these diamond cards.

It is difficult to come up with a universal definition of magical realism since it embodies many different schools of thought. As an author who has written extensively in this literary mode, I prefer Salman Rushdie's interpretation, which draws attention to the contradictory aspects of the oxymoron term: "it is a commingling of the improbable and the mundane." In short, the "improbable" aspect often refers to an intrusion of reality by something magical and fantastic that is too uncanny to believe but is accepted as empirical truth. Taking Rushdie's definition into consideration, Haruki Murakami's "The Ice Man" is clearly a work of magical realism and the eponymous character is presented as a mythical figure in the folk-lore tradition. 

The story is narrated in the first person by the Ice Man's wife as she reflects upon their unconventional relationship from their  very first meeting at a ski resort ("It's hard to imagine a more appropriate place to meet an Ice Man"), to getting married much to the chagrin of friends and family and eventually moving to the south pole. He is nothing like the superhero from Marvel's X-men, bearing the same name, who takes an ice-covered form with the special ability to manipulate ice and cold into powerful attacks. Rather, this Ice Man is covered with permafrost so his body temperature always exerts coldness. He is often reserved, solitary, cold and distant; thus, The Ice-Man being an apt metaphor for someone who is taciturn and incapable of expressing their feelings. He loves his wife but is heavily withdrawn and emotionally detached, which causes her to feel empty in their marriage. His origin story is never revealed because he claims to have no past: 


"I know the past of everything else, and preserve it. But I have no past myself. I have no idea where I was born. I don't know what my parents looked like, or whether I even had any. I don't know how old I am, or if I even have an age." 

Once again, the Ice Man is emblematic of the magical realism in the story because he is presumably supernatural and surrounded by mystery that cannot be explained in rational terms. He simply exists in this world and that is enough. However, one of his many oddities is that he possesses the gift of intuitive perception but for some reason remains clueless about his wife's emotional needs to feel desired and understood: "I just know these things, like I'm looking deep into a clear block of ice. When I gaze at you like this, I can see everything about you." The inconsistencies in his character were a little confusing and difficult to grasp. Moreover, as you can see, Murakami is fond of using a cold/ice similes and metaphors but they do become a tad redundant. Here's another one: "The Ice Man was as isolated and alone as an iceberg floating in the darkness." We get it. He is a literal and figurative Ice-Man. The author returns to familiar themes of isolation and loneliness although the story seems to lack the usual pathos expected from him. Still, Murakami's beautiful writing and his occasional nuggets of wisdom help to make up for some of the story's deficiencies.



Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: Girl by Jamaica Kincaid (1978)

Card Drawn:


"Dukona" or Duckunoo is a traditional Jamaican dessert often with sweet potato, raisins and lots of sugar wrapped in banana leaves.
Now here is something that I have never come across before: a short story written in a single sentence! After reading the magnificent novella A Small Place, I have been eager to read more of Jamaica Kincaid's work and "Girl" is a masterful display of her literary talents. Not many writers would be able to pull this off with such precision, lyricism and depth. It is a crying shame that she is not more widely read or discussed (this is just my general impression but perhaps she actually does have a huge following unbeknownst to me) and I think that "Girl" should be essential reading for anyone interested in the creative power of the short-story.

This is a fascinating text structured around ambiguity and therefore open to much interpretationOne of the few aspects that we can claim with any certainty is that the narrative involves a dialogue between a mother and her daughter. Tone is very important here and we get a sense of an imposing mother figure based on the specific use of language, and general inflections of speech. She is speaking to her daughter in both a condescending and loving manner; offering motherly advice with a litany of "do's and dont's" with only two interjections from the daughter that are italicized. The brilliance of this story is that these two female characters are never explicitly identified by name or race but Kincaid drops various clues to suggest that they are indeed Black Caribbean women belonging to the working class. Firstly, the speaker's emphasis on a woman's customary domestic role (cooking and cleaning) is strongly suggestive of the gender construct within a postcolonial context. Secondly, food is inextricably linked to cultural identity and the many references to distinct Caribbean cuisine further re-affirms this connection. 

Also, pay attention to Kincaid's particular use of Caribbean vernacular ("wharf-raft boys") and cultural references ("Dukona", "benna", "soak salt fish overnight before you cook it"). Western readers might not immediately pick up on these nuances and it almost feels as if she is highlighting the effacement of black female voices within a Eurocentric literary context while paradoxically asserting black female empowerment through the technique of stream-of-consciousness. Presumably, the mother is providing her young daughter with important life lessons and moral instruction to become a strong independent black woman. A black feminist critique reveals that Kincaid is implicitly challenging prescribed gender roles and dominant patriarchal norms. Notice that the mother is overly concerned about her daughter's feminine virtue and sexuality. The word "slut" is repeated twice and she seems overly concerned that the daughter will fall into ruin if she is not careful. However, she also provides advice on how to carry out an abortion if necessary. The re-claiming of black female autonomy and the performance of gender is an important subtext. Despite it's short length, this is a major achievement and no mere gimmick. 


You can read this story HERE.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson

Card Drawn:


Before the Matrix, Keanu Reeves starred in this lesser-known SF cyberpunk thriller.

The opening sentence of "Johnny Mnemonic" by William Gibson is totally badass and indicative of the story's smooth hip-lingo and 
ultra-cool style often found in the SF cyberpunk genre: 

"I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you're crude, go technical; if they think you're technical, go crude."

I love this. Beginning in medias res, Gibson jumps right into the action without any explanation or context, which is disorienting and constantly challenges the reader with a fast-paced plot, jam-packed with a high density of information that can only be described as "sensory overload." What a ride. This is a familiar trope in cyberpunk that emerged in the mid 1980's  to early 1990's that was highly influenced by the aesthetic and cultural aims of the 'New Wave' from a few decades earlier but aimed to push the boundaries of science-fiction even further. Stylistically ambitious, greater attention was placed upon an experimental, avant-garde and unconventional approach to story-telling that can certainly be considered postmodernist. Moreover, many cyberpunk writers saw a return to and reworking of "Hard Science Fiction" that was also a political response to the hyper-capitalism of the Thatcher/Reagan era. 

Another salient feature of cyberpunk is pastiche or the merging of different genres and what we get here is a film-noir/hard boiled detective story (think Raymond Chandler) meets the gonzo science-fiction of Philip K. Dick but on steroids. Gibson's depiction of a near-future earth is dark, gritty and a dystopian nightmare of technology run amok. The narrator, Johnny-San, makes a living as a data-runner for the criminal underworld but not in the traditional sense: he has been augmented with hardware that allows him to store encrypted data in his brain. He gets mixed up the Yakuza and is hunted down by a cyborg assassin who has been sent to retrieve the stolen data. He meets some unusual characters along the way and perhaps that might be an understatement. For example, there is Jones the cyborg dolphin addicted to heroin who is a skilled hacker and the super-cool Molly Millions: a femme-fatale and cybernetically enhanced female assassin with blades for nails. They both team up with Johnny to help him break the code in his brain before the deadly assassin hunts them down. Their journey into 'Nighttown,' a technological wasteland inhabited by 'Lo-Tek' freaks (people living on the margins of society and unable to afford the most expensive technological upgrades on their bodies) and the final showdown on the 'Killing Floor' is full of hallucinatory weirdness.

Remember, Gibson is writing at time before the Internet existed; his prognostication of cyberspace, data piracy and hacker culture feels eerily accurate but also totally uncanny, which further highlights the story's cognitive estrangement. The dystopian dialectic of technological innovation is convincing and an all too real possibility, especially with the huge advancements being made today. The story's hard technological edge can be a little confusing because Gibson refuses to explain anything so it is up to the reader to disassemble the onslaught of techno-speak and puzzling opaqueness. He introduces new language ("Chiba", technical boy, idiot-savant mode, squids), terminology (The Killing Floor, Lo-Tek, factory custom) and unique technology (cyberspace/the matrix, superconducting quantum interfence detectors, etc) to establish a sense of 'cognitive estrangement' coined by Darko Suvin as one of main aesthetic ideologies of the Science Fiction genre. This is a wonderfully bizarre yet entertaining story that maintains a high-adrenaline intensity from start to finish. It is easy to see why Gibson is often considered one of the most influential authors of the cyberpunk genre.

My apologies for the slight digression, but I am very curious about the film version of this story and anxious to watch it. Keanu Reeves often has the reputation as a dull and uninspired actor but I seem to be in the minority who really enjoys his movies. I have also heard people say that he is a bad actor who just happens to star in really good movies. Perhaps there is truth to that statement. Granted, he is no thespian and lacks a certain emotional range but I still think he is talented with great screen-presence. Despite being a big fan of his work, I was too young when this film adaptation was released and never got around to watching it, which has become sort of a cult-classic. I think casting Keanu Reeves as Johnny is perfect because he is a character defined by his technological alterations, not personality. My initial reaction while reading this story was that it would make a great movie because of it's cinematic style, cool characters, snappy dialogue, great action scenes, dark atmosphere and such a fascinating futuristic world. There is an opportunity and so much potential to flesh out the characters and interesting story-lines, especially hinted at by the wild ending. Seriously, I would watch a movie just about the adventures of Molly Millions. I have seen the trailer and it looks incredibly cheesy but William Gibson also wrote the screenplay so how bad could it be? 

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: The Doll's House by Katherine Mansfield

Card Drawn:


So purdy.

Can someone please explain to me why "The Doll's House" by Katherine Mansfield is so highly revered? Not to say that the story is without any redeeming qualities but it's reputation as a "classic" is completely bewildering to me. I recall reading one of her stories called "The Garden Party" years ago and do remember it being quite good so I know that she is capable of  more accomplished writing. 

This story is all about social status and class inequality experienced through the perspective of children. If the reader is not made aware of this theme in the first paragraph, Mansfield makes sure to emphasize it continually with specific character relationships and heavy-handed symbolism: the elaborate and expensive 'doll house' representing class privilege being the most obvious one. There is nothing subtle about her story-telling or thematic approach at all. Writing at the turn of the 20th century, Mansfield was influenced by the modernist movement, which is odd, since the story is quite plot oriented as opposed to focusing more on shifting tone or moods.

One of the more frustrating aspects for me is that Mansfield builds up the tension nicely between the rich Burnell sisters and the poor Kelvey sisters but the end result is very anti-climactic. I was expecting the Kelvey's to put up more of a fight and fiercely retaliate against the Burnells for being treated so badly. Their shared experience of transcendence after stealing a glimpse of the "little lamp" in the doll house felt very lackluster and contrived. They really should have taken a sledgehammer to that doll house to teach those spoiled and arrogant Burnell sisters a lesson in humility. 


Friday, 14 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: A Perfect Day for Kangaroos by Haruki Murakami

Card Drawn:


Baby Joey is a little shy.

Sweet, another diamond card and that means another story by Murakami! 


In the realist tradition, if the short story writer's task is to capture a glimpse, an impression, a slice-of-life or snapshot of "life in the moment," then Murakami succeeds in "A Perfect Day for Kangaroos." However, whether or not the author is able to transform this pared-down verisimilitude of reality into something significant is dubious. The very shortness of the form itself means that a certain economy of style is required that does not allow for detailed explanations. Although Murakami is experimenting with minimalism here, my main gripe with this particular story is that it feels too sparse, too understated and elliptical in its condensed form. Nonetheless, the stylistic execution is on point with the use of direct language and crisp prose making this a delightfully quick read. The story's title is likely an allusion to J.D. Salinger's excellent short-story of a similar name, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" but that is where the similarities end.

The premise is quite simple. A couple visits a zoo to see a baby kangaroo and the girlfriend is disappointed that the cute baby joey is not hanging out in it's mother's pouch. They observe the kangaroos in their cage, talk about kangaroos for a bit, eat some hot-dogs, do some more kangaroo watching and eventually leave to grab some beers. The end. Seriously, this is all that happens and it all feels slightly trivial. The driving action and underlying tension of the story is whether or not they get to see this magical moment between mother and baby kangaroo but the dilemma is so slight, so meager as to be rendered superfluous. Murakami chooses to only offer a brief glimpse into this couple's relationship entirely through dialogue and it is difficult to extract any discernible insight into their dynamic or personal history. Perhaps the subtleties were lost on me but I am not sure what else we are expected to take away from this story. 



Thursday, 13 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luis Borges

Card Drawn:


"He understood that modeling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake, even though he should penetrate all the enigmas of a superior and inferior order; much more difficult than weaving rope out of sand or coining the faceless wind."

"The Circular Ruins" is one of Borges' shorter works and might be slightly more accessible but that does not make it any less challenging. While the short-story form lends itself to brevity within a condensed narrative framework, it is not uncommon to be presented with only sketches or impressions as opposed to dense exposition that one would find in a novel. 
Thus, the very conciseness of the form induces ambiguity, suggestiveness and story-material that exists on the periphery, outside the text. Yet, Borges is one of those unique talents that seems to constantly push the boundaries of traditional narrative conventions of the short-story form. Here, with this story, he somehow miraculously packs an immense amount of detail and ideas within such a limited amount of space without compromising the intense qualities or complex meanings of the narrative. It is truly a wonder to behold.

This story is typical Borges and contains many of his familiar motifs: magical-realism, dreams, metaphysics, mirroring, illusions, paradoxes, ontology, human consciousness, cosmogony, art vs. artifice, parable, a self-reflexive narrative (the paradoxical relationship between reader, text and author is most prominent) and of course, myth-making. The premise revolves around a wizard who enters a mysterious ancient temple in the attempt to create man through dreams: 

"The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality." 

He is playing God but struggles to fully triumph over the powerful dream-world in order to conjure an idealized man and this serves a metaphor for the artist's difficult creative process. The "twist ending" is indicative of this metaphorical representation, creating a mirroring or doubling-effect that is cleverly executed. The final sentence is haunting and gives me goosebumps. 

Another interpretation is to read this text as a possible parody of the fantasy genre. Borges can be seen as subverting conventional genre tropes such as wizards and magic by placing them within his own unique metaphysical realm of the imagination, a dialectical exploration of mythopoesis through art. In his typical postmodernist fashion, Borges' concern with the creative imagination in direct correlation with literary aesthetics is inherently paradoxical--more specifically, the construction and deconstruction of the subjective self. For him, reality cannot be understand in empirical terms; it is far more subjective and mysterious than we can possibly conceive. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: Her Sweet Jerome by Alice Walker

Card Drawn:



Warning: this review will contain spoilers.

My goodness, what a bleak and depressing story. Taken from Alice Walker's collection of short-stories called In Love & Trouble, "Her Sweet Jerome" perfectly embodies the aptly titled subject matter: an overweight black woman is blinded by the unconditional love towards an abusive and manipulative husband, which ultimately leads to her own self-destruction. Walker writes, "Her troubles started noticeably when she fell in love with a studiously quiet schoolteacher, Mr. Jerome Franklin Washington III, who was ten years younger than her." She is never given a first name and is only ever referred to in the story by her gender pronoun or husband's name. This is an important detail to note because the anonymity further reinforces her lack of individualism and damaging co-dependency. As a black woman who does not meet the idealized standards of beauty because of her physical appearance, she suffers from increased self-loathing, insecurity and paranoia to the point where she is utterly convinced that the husband must be cheating on her with another woman. 

Her destructive behavior in tracking down the husband's alleged mistress is presented by Walker as darkly humorous. However, the author is also keen to emphasize the insidious effects of sociocultural forces on the black female's psychological development. The story examines racialized and gendered cultural norms imposed by white hegemony within these various social contexts. The female protagonist is already a vulnerable member of the marginalized group and becomes even more ostracized by the black community for her eccentric and violent behavior. For example, the pernicious gossip about Jerome being a womanizer provokes her to assault random women in the street with a knife who are simply minding their own business and falsely accusing them of sleeping with him. The townspeople obviously try their best to avoid Mrs. Jerome Washington after these incidents occur, further demonizing her as an outcast. The story takes a few unexpected twists and turns as the obsession to find evidence of Jerome's infidelity takes over every aspect of her life. Walker subtly captures the protagonist's vulnerability beneath her hard exterior. At the core, she desperately wants to feel loved and desired as a black woman in a society that is systemically racist and fatphobic. 

The nihilistic ending left me confused and I am still unsure about what Walker intended to achieve here. Is Mrs. Jerome Washington's suicide by fire a heroic act of defiance against black male authority orchestrated by the white power structure or are we suppose to view her as some kind of martyr figure? She also burns all of Jerome's black revolutionary texts before stepping into the flames, which is probably a symbolic gesture of sorts but the meaning eludes me. Perhaps this is her way of getting back at her husband for the years of neglect, abuse and duplicity in marrying just to gain access to her inheritance so that he could fund his left-wing political movement in the fight against racial oppression and anti-black racism. Regardless, her tragic suicide seemed a tad extreme to me. Maybe Walker is suggesting that it was the only option left after struggling for years with mental health issues, a bad marriage, subsequent alienation and low self-worth promulgated by the racist origin of the dominant white standards of beauty. You tell me.


Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

“It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.” 

I figured it was time to take a quick break from short-stories and focus on reviewing a novel instead. Shocking, I know.

I love discovering hidden gems and Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners is certainly one of them. The story follows a group of black men living in--yes, you guessed it, London--during the 1950's as they experience various hardships of being discriminated in a foreign city that is predominantly white and xenophobic. Many immigrants arriving on England's shore from the West Indies are bravely optimistic like Galahad (a fitting nickname given to him by Moses, the central character in the novel who has lived in this country for many years) who have left their homeland in search of a better life only to experience a rude awakening that any notion of England's roads being paved with gold is a pure myth. Living in London as a black person is to be treated with blatant racism, a racialized "other" who is considered less than human. Work is scare and many of these people live in abject poverty, barely scraping together enough money to pay rent or feed themselves. While this sounds like it would be a bleak and depressing read, which it can be at times, the author's satirical critique of racism and black identity is actually quite funny. Selvon has a great ear for dialogue and his witty humor shines through in highlighting the absurdity of displacement within this diasporic space.

The narrative framework consists of a series of 'ballads' or vignettes mostly mediated from the perspective of Moses and is written in a type of creolization that lends itself to an authentic representation of a working-class black vernacular. Thus, Selvon's narrative technique is intrinsically connected to the articulation of lived experience and the need to establish a collective voice against the oppression of language itself. He uses specific language to shape the fragmented Caribbean consciousness. Despite its relatively short length, Selvon's work offers a complex representation of the black diaspora--more specifically, home and homelessness. The underlying irony is that even though life in England is pretty terrible, many of these black men refuse to return home. On other words, they are stuck in limbo, neither here nor there. Selvon's London is often presented as a phantasmagoria, a dream-like and confounding space for them as they battle loneliness and disappointment. Their desire for stability remains out of reach and they must adapt to a hostile environment. Yet, Selvon somehow manages to find humor in their interminable struggle, which is no easy accomplishment. Such a great read. 



Monday, 10 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: Dabchick by Haruki Murakami

Card Drawn:


"The little palm-sized dabchicks taste so bad you couldn't get a dog to eat one."

Murakami does his best to channel Kafka in this nightmarish and funny story about the absurd and oppressive bureaucratic system. The protagonist in "Dabchick" finds himself trapped in a literal and metaphorical labyrinth of bureaucratic nonsense. The term Kafkaesque would certainly be appropriate to describe this story, especially regarding its hallucinatory aspects and critique of authority. 

The protagonist is starting a new job at some faceless corporation and finds himself lost in a maze of corridors trying to find the office. He eventually locates the correct door after what seems like an eternity but is then met by a guard that denies him access because the correct password is required. Their comedic exchange makes up the bulk of the story and is meant to be ridiculous. Perhaps Murakami is excoriating the absurdity of functional hierarchy, useless policies and perfunctory regulations that depersonalize the individual caught up in the machinations of bureaucracy. However, this is probably just me over-analyzing the text since I do not get the sense that Murakami's aim is to provide some kind of profound social commentary. The dark satirical humor and complete absurdity of it all is what makes this story memorable. The ending is hilarious in all of its anthropomorphic splendor with the dabchick boss sitting at his desk thinking about death and getting angry over the intercom at the protagonist being late for work. The surrealism of this scene alone is enough to crack me up. 


Sunday, 9 February 2020

Deal Me in Challenge: The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant

Card Drawn:


Pourquoi devez-vous être un gamin gâté, mon chéri?

I am actually surprised that "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant was not spoiled for me since it is one of the most famous short stories ever written. While it does not quite live up to all the hype in my eyes, there is no denying the author's excellent literary technique and should be applauded for his influence on the modern short-story. His taut and economical prose flows seamlessly without any extraneous detail--every word, every sentence, every symbolic or metaphorical aspect of the text serves a purpose towards highlighting the key themes and driving the narrative headstrong towards the "twist ending" that actually took me by surprise even though it was not totally convincing. Indeed, it is no wonder that this story is heavily anthologized and often praised as the pinnacle of the short-story form.


Mathilde Loisel is an unhappy woman blinded by her own pride and vanity. She is the wife to a government clerk and lives a modest life but desperately yearns to be accepted a member of the elite. They both get invited to a fancy party but she is anxious about being humiliated in front of all those rich people by not dressing in the newest fashions or wearing any expensive jewelry. Mathilde needs to look the part if she is to assimilate properly among the French aristocracy. The necklace is intrinsically linked to the woman's self-worth and social status--a marker of wealth and prestige, which allows her access to the social circles occupied by upper class bourgeoisie or nouveau riche that would otherwise have been denied as a member of the middle-class. She suffers from a crisis of identity, which inevitably leads to her downfall. 

Enthralled by delusions of grandeur, success and fortune, Mathilde opts to wear the most splendid fashions and garments. So, she asks her friend to borrow a lavish necklace for the party and wearing it becomes a symbolic conduit of her newly obtained social status. She receives many compliments by the party-goers and is given an honorable social reception. However, that feeling of euphoria is short-lived and transformed into full-blown panic when she loses the necklace on the way home from the party. The story takes a dark turn and Maupassant systematically unfolds her and the husband's fall into financial ruin to pay back the friend for losing the necklace, which is very expensive to replace. 

For those who have not read this story yet, go seek it out and then come back to this review because there will be spoilers. You can find it easily enough online...

Okay, have you read it yet? No? What are you still doing here! Please go read it already!!!  

Wonderful, you finally got around to reading this story. If not, don't say that I didn't warn you:

Now, the flawed ending. Granted, Maupassant makes us sympathize heavily with Mathilde and her husband's tragic fate. However, did it never occur to either of them to first consult with Mathilde's friend after losing the necklace instead of taking on the unnecessary burden of paying her back? While I cannot fault them for their good intentions, are we to believe that they would endure ten years of pain and suffering without ever communicating with this woman? Moreover, the woman did not even contact Mathilde once about returning the necklace during the entire time span so you would think at some point they would stop and properly assess the situation?! Ugh. A gaping plot-hole that is difficult for me to overlook.

Nonetheless, this was still a quick and worthwhile read. Maupassant is a talented writer, working within the constraints of brevity dictated by form to deliver a highly polished and unobtrusive short-story. 


Friday, 7 February 2020

Deal Me In Challenge: Learning to Be Me by Greg Egan

Card Drawn:

"The Jewel" is the path to immortality but at what cost?

My main issue with the Hard Science Fiction genre is that it can be frustratingly inaccessible with its high density of information and unrelenting technical jargon. Taken from Greg Egan's excellent collection entitled Axiomatic, "Learning to Be Me" finds a nice balance between the author's mind-bending scientific concepts and adept story-telling abilities. What does it mean to be human? is often at the heart of a lot of science fiction but here the author reverses the question: What is it like not to be human? Set in the not-so-distant future, this story introduces a new technology where the brain is eventually removed and replaced by a device called "The Jewel," allowing humans to live forever. The device is implanted at birth while the brain is still in the early stages of development and learns over time to replicate all the cognitive functions, sensory inputs and active neurons that make up a person's consciousness. Pretty cool stuff if you ask me.

Transhumanism is the primary ideological discourse explored in the story. Those individuals with the Jewel implant would technically still be human but that does not necessarily mean that they actually feel human. The protagonist undergoes the procedure and struggles to reconcile between his human self and Jewel self. Egan then delivers a terrifying scenario: what if a person undergoes "the switch" (as it is referred to in the story) but there is an error and they no longer have control over their new brain? The paradox of subjectivity engenders the protagonist's otherness and is dramatized by his intense paranoia. An intense cognitive dissonance gives way to the story's psychological realism as the protagonist is confronted by the ontological Other: himself. He is both human and nonhuman. The story's fatalistic implications seem to suggest that humanism is under threat by technological advancements and our impending dissolution is inevitable.

The first person narrative voice gives us direct access to his inner thoughts but this focalization is undermined by the nonhuman aspects of this technological modification. Therefore, who is the real person during this merging of consciousness? Egan's narrative ingenuity is most apparent with the shifting focalization that occurs simultaneously, making the first person narrative voice particularly tricky to pin down. Is the protagonist a reliable narrator or is the Jewel the unreliable narrative voice the entire time? Fascinating stuff.