Max Winter

Japanese author Haruki Murakami's latest offering, Kafka on the Shore, is vast, complex, odd, funny and strangely peaceful: business as usual, but more impressive business than some recent books. It describes two parallel odysseys across space and time (literally), linked by a strange, ambiguous pop tune written by one of the book's mysterious characters. Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old runaway, struggles to dodge an Oedipal fate; simultaneously, Nagata, an illiterate old man who can talk to cats, searches for an all-powerful stone. The two stories link neatly and yet Murakami makes sure we are never entirely confident in their connection.

Murakami has written many novels about tough, disenchanted young men, and Kafka is no exception. Through his horny and visceral eyes, his sexual adventures, such as a non-therapeutic massage from a winsome teenager or sex with a woman in her mid-50s (who may be his mother), acquire pornographic rawness like his life, which has the simplicity of youthful fear behind it. And yet, by journey's end, Kafka experiences losses that ultimately deepen and empower him, making his juvenile panting and belligerence worth our tolerance.

If Kafka is the book's raging ego, the elderly Nagata is its unlikely id. Early in his quest, he fights with whiskey-label presence Johnnie Walker when he learns that the stolid advertising symbol has been disemboweling Nagata's feline soulmates. Everything from a rain of leeches to Colonel Sanders lies in his path as he pushes onward, and yet his dignity and calm go unruffled. The gradual union of these stories brings a pleasant release, despite the all-too-familiar difficulties leading up to it.

Murakami's progress here resembles that of novelists like Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, whose early storylines carried by external strangeness have of late given way to a dense burrowing into truly thorny human psychologies which, as we well know, could make the wildest novelistic creation seem more ordinary than checkers.

 

Max Winter writes from New York City.

Japanese author Haruki Murakami's latest offering, Kafka on the Shore, is vast, complex, odd, funny and strangely peaceful: business as usual, but more impressive business than some recent books. It describes two parallel odysseys across space and time (literally), linked by a strange, ambiguous pop tune written by one of the book's mysterious characters. Kafka […]

This follow-up to Roddy Doyle's rambunctious and courageous A Star Called Henry is every bit as fiery, if not more so. Like such recent books as Darin Strauss' The Real McCoy, Doyle's latest novel shows us an entire period through the eyes of one character in this case, an Irish renegade assassin. Doyle, an Irishman himself, displays great sensitivity for the nuances of the American vernacular of the '20s and '30s and convincingly portrays the American national character at that time, by turns downtrodden and explosively arrogant.

Henry Smart, on the run from his stormy IRA past, leaves his wife and comes to America to try to reconstruct his dignity and build a new legacy. Upon arrival, he becomes a succession of different Henrys. One is a smashing sign painter and salesman, whose con-artistry brings his employers success. Another is the assistant, or "white man," to the young trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The master musician, as Doyle portrays him, is a true rake. From his drug habits to his love of female flesh to his willingness to accompany Henry on criminal capers, Armstrong is far from the wooden historical figure one might expect.

On his haphazard journey across the continent, Henry finds himself at last reunited with his tougher-than-tough wife. He also comes face to face with many criminals who are none too happy to see him. Doyle's dialogue reads like a hybrid of classic-movie chatter and near-gnomic condensation. This mixture makes the book sashay right out of its historical-novel trappings. The quirks here the way the characters constantly say "yare"(for yes), or Armstrong's semi-grammatical utterances, which tamp the depiction of his virtuosity, give this work extra zip. Oh, Play That Thing charges along in a suspenseful manner, but not without a fair bit of craft on Doyle's part not willing to sacrifice poetry for action, the accomplished author instead merges the two.

 

Max Winter writes from New York City.

This follow-up to Roddy Doyle's rambunctious and courageous A Star Called Henry is every bit as fiery, if not more so. Like such recent books as Darin Strauss' The Real McCoy, Doyle's latest novel shows us an entire period through the eyes of one character in this case, an Irish renegade assassin. Doyle, an Irishman […]

<B>Sifting through the rubble of a sister's ruined life</B> Though many novels that involve current events acquire a dull, refried sheen, the engaging <B>Going East</B> avoids that particular pitfall. British journalist Matthew d'Ancona's tale of a young woman who survives the loss of her family and then excavates the story behind that loss is consistently entertaining and written with a balance of psychological closeness and accumulative suspense, managing to examine sociological dynamics in contemporary London as it goes.

As the story begins, Ben Taylor, a financier, is having a 30th birthday picnic with his parents and younger twin sisters. Mia, his other sister, a successful consultant, arrives late and then dashes back to work, promising to return later. The family repairs to Ben's flat for more celebration. When Mia arrives for the party, she finds her brother's house and the house beside it demolished from an explosion, her entire family dead. A year later, Mia is working at a healing center in a shoddy neighborhood in East London, living a completely different life and yet crucial questions nag at her. Was the IRA responsible? Or someone with a more personal grievance? Mia is a worthy guide through d'Ancona's multilayered social diorama. As she begins to investigate her brother's past, she encounters thugs in expensive suits and knights in ratty clothes, including dashing, scrappy Rob, a musician who comes to work at the healing center and later sleeps with Mia; Aasim, a young gang leader who vandalizes local shops with impunity; and Miles, her old boss, who knows more about her brother's past than he chooses to reveal. These characters, as in older suspense classics, suggest entire backstories in the sparest of appearances.

The novel moves explosively from its outset, only slowing when d'Ancona offers us too generous a slice of his characters' psyches or betrays his journalistic past by pulling back too far from the action, becoming almost essayistic in his approach. This, however, is infrequent myriad mini-stories keep us watching, from the sex party in one of the back rooms at an expensive benefit, to Mia's confrontation with a bartender in a rough establishment. All of these scenarios are drawn together into the story of a courageous woman's life in this believable, spirited debut. <I>Max Winter writes from New York City.</I>

<B>Sifting through the rubble of a sister's ruined life</B> Though many novels that involve current events acquire a dull, refried sheen, the engaging <B>Going East</B> avoids that particular pitfall. British journalist Matthew d'Ancona's tale of a young woman who survives the loss of her family and then excavates the story behind that loss is consistently […]

Transmission, a rags-to-riches-to-disaster story about a computer virus, the man behind it, and the people whose lives it touches, is a change of setting for author Hari Kunzru, whose extremely successful debut, The Impressionist, took place in early 20th-century England and India. This story begins in present-day India, but moves to California when young Arjun Mehta, recent graduate of a technical university, lands a much-desired (if not desirable) job with an American software conglomerate. As Arjun's story develops in America, it interlaces with those of several others, including Guy Swift, a wealthy, self-satisfied executive at a London consulting firm whose sleek, ugly full-service high-rise apartment building is as shallow as he is; and Leela Zahir, a Bollywood star who is the secret and not-so-secret crush of many Indian males (Arjun included).

Kunzru uses each of his characters as a point of attack on the corporate world, without being clumsy or partisan. His targets are essentially unlikable, but Kunzru is unafraid to show their strengths alongside their flaws. Arjun is an awkward and unlikely center; trapped between dreams of wealth and a secret desire to take down “the system,” with one of the computer viruses he creates after work in his cramped, company-owned apartment. The virus he unleashes after losing his job, which projects Leela's picture onto computer screens before destroying data, complicates our sympathies, as if his angry destructiveness lessens his right to happiness. Similarly, the near-collapse of Guy's career, due in part to the virus' destruction of one of his computerized presentations, draws sympathy despite his arrogance. Kunzru's narrative moves as smoothly and as rapidly as a fuse on fire. His style here is a bit more explosive and a little less ruminative than it was in The Impressionist, and yet with Transmission he has built a page-turner with poise.

Max Winter writes from New York City.

Transmission, a rags-to-riches-to-disaster story about a computer virus, the man behind it, and the people whose lives it touches, is a change of setting for author Hari Kunzru, whose extremely successful debut, The Impressionist, took place in early 20th-century England and India. This story begins in present-day India, but moves to California when young Arjun […]

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