Thursday, March 10, 2011

The curious malady of the modern novel

I am currently reading Snow , by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Written in 2002, it paints a very nuanced and detailed picture of modern Turkey and its problems, particularly the schism between conservative Muslims and the more western-learning republicans. The ostensible plot is this: Ka, a minor Turkish poet, returns from a 12-year exile in Germany to Istanbul and sets off to the border town of Kars to cover the alarming rise of suicide rates among young women. These women had recently been condemned by various outlets (government officials, school officials, family, media etc.) because they heeded the call of conservative Muslims and began wearing head scarves. I won't go into too much detail about the story because that's not what I want to discuss here.

Snow has flashes of utter, overwhelming brilliance, which are unfortunately punctuated by periods of unbearable stupor. And this seems to plague a lot of modern/postmodern novels. The authors tend to get tangled up in their own web of symbolism, meta-narratives, and abstractions. They lose focus and as result, the novel tends to lag. Now I don't mean the novel lacks "excitement" or a "binding plot." I have read plenty of things where nothing seems to happen for long stretches of time (Lampedusa's Leopard comes to mind) but still manage to provide a very enjoyable reading experience.

Haruki Murakami's Wind-up bird chronicle, a 600-something page behemoth is a classic example of this. A very mundane event opens this long, twisted, exhilarating novel: the protagonist Toru and his wife Kumiko become concerned when their cat disappears. As Toru begins the search for this cat, bizarre things start happening in his life. The rest of the plot is too convoluted for me to describe here, but suffice it to say it includes weird dream sequences, a mysterious mother-son duo who claims to cure people of unspecified problems by touching them, a gruesome detour into the forgotten Russo-Japanese conflict along the Manchukuo border right before WWII started (a man gets skinned alive), and a disturbingly blase 16-year old who works in a dreary factory and spends her free time thinking the duck people talk to her.

There are parts where the novel becomes very frustrating. It just bogs down. It's like Murakami got himself stuck in a quagmire and had to figure his way out. Emotionally draining novel. I think Murakami could have slashed 150 pages easily and still conveyed the same message and tone.

At the same time, I can't stop reading post-modern stuff. The flashes of brilliance abso-frickin-lutely make it worth reading the whole novel. They are so good at giving a glimpse into the complex thought process of their respective authors that they more than make up for the dreadful lags in the middle.

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