Monday, February 11, 2008

A Tale of Two Books

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami is a lovely elegiac novel set in Japan during the civil unrest of the late '60s. This novel , his third I believe, catapulted Murakami into the international spotlight. It, along with South of the Border, East of the Sun, are relatively traditional narrative love stories, although they are not without Murakami's subtle surreal touches. The protagonist, Toru Watanabe, a college student who is searching for life's meager answers, is thrown into a relationship with his best friend's girlfriend, Naoko, after Kizuki, the friend, commits suicide. The novel details Naoko's slow decline into madness, and how this and other forces, including the incredibly wacky Midori, alter Toru's path. Particularly moving is the innocence (but hardly naiveté) of the characters, and Murakami's affection for them and their situations is omnisciently evident. This is a gem of a novel and I recommend it without qualification. Of course I recommend most of Murakami's novels without qualification.

A total contrast to Norwegian Wood in tone is Lost Souls by Michael Collins. Collins, although Irish, has an incredible sensitivity for midwestern gothic. Although this novel also involves coming-of-age students, it is thoroughly dark and twisted, full of drunkenness, despair, suicide, murder, adultery, madness, poverty, a hung dog with a slashed throat, and did I mention despair? Oh, and lots of deserted buildings. Of course it's set in Indiana, so that explains a lot. Collins writes sharply and intelligently, and not without touches of very dark humor. But this is brutal stuff. The actual plot of this mystery was irritatingly complex, compounded by the fact that Lawrence, the protagonist, tells the story from a distorted first person, missing clues, ommiting details, and entering into conspiracies with the town's mayor and police chief. Lawrence, a divorced cop (sorry, didn't mention divorce) finds a three year old girl dead in a leaf pile on Halloween night. Brutal as this is, it turns out the girl was actually run over twice by two different vehicles. Here I have to say "come on." The town's star quarterback, Kyle Johnson, on the eve of a historic run for the quarterfinals, is implicated. And the story spins out of control from there. Joanne Wilkinson in her Booklist review states the novel "is a comment on how the American way of life has failed to deliver on its promise." Or maybe he just picked the wrong town.
Collins is local, writes well enough, and I've heard enough praise, that I'm giving him another try, Death of a Writer. I'll have the Vodka handy for this one.

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