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Helen DeWitt–SOME TRICK

If ever if ever a wiz there was
The Wizard of Oz was one because
Because because because because because
….
But Dorothy? I don’t BELIEVE Judy Garland could fake it.
I think she was glad Technicolor was only a dream
Glad to find she had never left home
Glad to wake up in grey black and white.
Because because because because because”–epigraph to Some Trick.

I51eFcFCZwiL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_n “Here is Somewhere,” the poetic epigraph to Some Trick, her collection of thirteen thoughtful and challenging stories, author Helen DeWitt calls to mind a mood similar to that of her first published novel, The Last Samurai, published in 2000.  Short-listed for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Award, The Last Samurai tells the story of a single mother, Sybilla, as she brings up her genius son Ludo.  Ludo could speak English, Greek, and French by the age of four, and as he grows in that novel, his interest expands into other esoteric subjects – Japanese language, Icelandic verse, Fourier’s analysis, Arabic, astrophysics, and tournament chess, bridge, and piquet, among other challenging pursuits.  His mother home-schools him and also pursues these favorite subjects on her own.  A reader seeking entertainment within the intellectually exotic subject areas of this book will be charmed by the engaging personality of Ludo, who feels like a “typical” boy, sharing a warm and protective relationship with his mother.  Despite the many layers of academic study here, the novel is very much a story of two people and their personal issues.

Author Helen DeWitt.

Author Helen DeWitt.

DeWitt had written fifty novels before she felt comfortable enough with The Last Samurai to submit it for publication, and it was a ground-breaking literary success when it was published in 2000.  Lightning Rods, her second novel, eleven years later, was a similar critical success, though less popular.  In that novel DeWitt writes a dark satire in which a businessman develops a way to deal with issues of sexual harassment in the workplace.  He simply contracts with the female employees to have anonymous sex with the male employees as part of their jobs.  Jennifer Szalai, in the New York Times, noted “the novel’s brusque disregard for any depth of feeling,” at the the time of the novel’s publication, but she also said that “To find fault in DeWitt’s broad strokes…would be like denouncing Mel Brooks for having made ‘The Producers’ instead of “The Pawnbroker.”  Some Trick, DeWitt’s new story collection seven years after Lightning Rods, is yet another level removed from Lightning Rods in terms of feeling and the reader’s ability to identify with the characters.  Though a few of the characters repeat throughout the collection, and many of the themes and areas of academic reference are similar to those of The Last Samurai, the stories overall lack the warmth and charm of The Last Samurai and the earthy satire of Lightning Rods. 

Painting by famed artist Robert Ryman, which appear to be as "goopy" as those by Nuala in "Brutto."

Painting by famed artist Robert Ryman, which appear to be as “goopy” as those by Nuala in “Brutto.”

Instead, Some Trick examines difficult issues about writing, publishing, an artist’s relationships with the public, the involvement of agents and representatives who sometimes distort an artist’s goals in the name of sales, the dependence of creative scholars on outsiders for professional survival, and the lonely life of a creative artist who will never be fully understood.  The stories are often darkly satiric and sometimes eerie or bizarre as the author exaggerates problems that creative geniuses have in dealing with the real world, even in their everyday lives.  The stories convey the feeling that the author herself has been confronting problems like these for virtually all her creative life, and the critical response to the book confirms that others can also identify with these problems. 

Muccia Prada of Prada Designs in MIlan features in "Brutto," the first story.

Muccia Prada of Prada Designs in Milan features in “Brutto,” the first story.

“Brutto” (meaning “ugly”), the first story, tells the tale of Nuala, a struggling artist who is forty-nine as the story opens.   She is two months behind in her rent and she is owed five thousand pounds by a Serge, a male friend. People visit her studio on certain days to see her “goopy,”  all-white paintings, some of them so heavy with white pigment they take a year to dry.  When Adalberto, an Italian, visits, he discovers a suit she made for her dressmaking apprenticeship years ago – an ugly suit – and he wants twenty copies of it to display in his gallery in Milan.  With hopes high, she makes the  twenty identical suits for a high price so that he can display them.  He also wants samples of her bodily fluids for display; again, she complies.  Eventually, she becomes much more “canny,” and she takes action on her own.  The second story, “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” is the tale of an author who has written a book of robot tales and  is negotiating for a second book.  He ends up involved in complex issues of probability, the distribution of heads, and the Gaussian curve as these issues may affect the future of the book.

Gaussian curves and issues of probability are factors in "My Heart Belongs to Bertie," the second story.

Gaussian curves and issues of probability are factors in “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” the second story.

“On the Town” takes place in New York, and features an innocent young Iowan named Gil who is so besotted with New York that he spends all his time exploring its possibilities.  He becomes friends with Benny Bergsma who has already “arrived,” and slowly begins to imitate him and his friends. The story becomes a wicked satire of New York behavior, life, goals, and even speech patterns, as they pertain to the creative world.  Carefully planned on all levels, like the other stories in this series, the satire works its way to a grand climax on all levels.  “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” is the tale of a pianist famous for having the world’s finest sensibility in interpreting Chopin. “Climbers” tells of Peter Dijkstra, a Dutch novelist who has spent time in an asylum.  Several characters from other stories reappear here as the machinations within the current literary publishing world begin to resemble games, with elements of chance part of the equation.

"The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto" features her stylistic excellence with Chopin, and may be a reference to Asuka Matsumoto.

“The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” may be a reference to the work of Asuka Matsumoto.

The stories are heady, intense, concentrated, and often difficult, as intellectual concepts of special interest to the author dominate the lives of the characters.  While the stories are unquestionably unique, offering new and thoughtful visions of the creative life, and a number of the odd characters are intriguing, the overall intellectualism of the collection is so weighty that readers unfamiliar with DeWitt would do well to read the more charming and character-driven The Last Samurai first.  Some Trick, read leisurely, is a fascinating encore for those, who crave more.

ALSO by DeWitt:  THE LAST SAMURAI

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.vulture.com

The all-white, “goopy” painting by Robert Ryman, from 1961, is owned by the Museum of Modern Art.  https://www.moma.org/

Muccia Prada is interviewed here:  http://www.alainelkanninterviews.com/

The Gaussian Curve is from https://ned.ipac.caltech.edu/

Asuka Matsumoto may be the subject of the story “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto,” in which her sensitivity to the work of Chopin is discussed.  Her photo is here:  https://www.theaudiodb.com

SOME TRICK
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Satire, Absurdity, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Helen DeWitt
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 05/29/2018
ISBN: 978-08112
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

REPRINT OF A REVIEW POSTED IN 2011.  I will be posting a review of Helen DeWitt’s new collection of stories, Some Trick, within the week.

Note: This novel was SHORTLISTED for the IMPAC Dublin Award of 2002.

“I got home and I thought I should stop leading so aimless an existence. It is harder than you might think to stop leading an existence, & if you can’t do that the only thing you can do is try to introduce an element of purposefulness….and though I might have to wait another 30 or 40 years for my body to join the non-sentient things in the world, at least in the meantime it would be a less absolutely senseless sentience.”–Sybilla

Author Helen DeWitt expresses her admiration, at one point, for “the type of person who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.” And she obviously writes for this type of reader as she performs amazing literary and scholarly acrobatics in this unique and energetic novel which never flags–and certainly never bores!  No one will ever accuse her of the “senseless sentience,” she rejects in the lead quotation.

Main character Sybilla is the hard-working, single mother of Ludo, a 6-year-old genius who gobbles up even the most complicated subjects, seemingly overnight, and DeWitt incorporates many esoteric subjects here – Japanese language, Greek verbs, Icelandic verse, Fourier’s analysis, Arabic, astrophysics, and tournament chess, bridge, and piquet, among other things – as she describes their intellectual daily life together.  Despite Sybilla’s arcane subjects and complex ideas, DeWitt manages to write so entertainingly about them that they enhance, rather than obscure, the human story at the heart of the novel, even for readers like me with little interest in many of these subjects.

Though Ludo is obviously extremely precocious, he is nevertheless a completely engaging and in many ways “typical” little boy, and the relationship between mother and son is mutually warm and endearingly protective.   Both Sybilla and Ludo are fans of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which Ludo knows by heart and searches in an effort to find the model for his absent father.  This film (completely unrelated to the Tom Cruise film of a similar title) eventually forms the framework of the novel when Ludo decides to test seven fascinating and brilliant men whom Sybilla has known to see which, if any, of them might be his unknown father.  His tests are ingenious and great fun to follow.

The resulting story has everything. It is funny and sad and disarming and challenging – simultaneously amusing and poignant, and thought-provoking. The many layers which emerge as Ludo engages in his quest should keep readers, critics, and book clubs intrigued and entertained for years.   But the book is at heart an absorbing human story–of identity, of aspirations and achievement, and, ultimately, of the love and connection which makes our personal journeys worthwhile. A wonder-filled novel from beginning to totally satisfying end.

ALSO by Helen DeWitt, a new collection of short stories, SOME TRICK

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://gggozu.com

The poster of the Japanese film version of The Seven Samurai is from  http://www.japan-zone.com

Note: This novel is completely unrelated to the Tom Cruise film entitled The Last Samurai, though the author would probably have enjoyed the irony.

THE LAST SAMURAI
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Exploration, US, Japan, Literary
Written by: Helen DeWitt
Published by: Miramax.
ISBN: 978-0786866687
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“When he thought of his life on the farm, he would always think of those quiet times in the barn; the old man, neck craned, studying it as though seeing it for the first time every time.  It seemed to him then that the old man had wanted to pull it deep into himself and he liked to think he had.  So he carried the urn into the tack room and cleared a spot on the shelf where bits and bridles and hackamores hung.  He set it there….until he could figure out the proper place to scatter the ashes.” – from the Prologue.

cover starlightWhen author Richard Wagamese died on March 10, 2017, Canada lost one of its most articulate and best loved authors.  He left behind this nearly finished novel, Starlight.  Anyone who has read Wagamese’s other novels will immediately recognize this novel as a grand summing up of the author’s deeply felt relationship with the earth, the animal world, and with all of Nature, and will rejoice with him in the sense of peace and confidence he has found and shared throughout this novel.  The end of Wagamese’s life was far different from his beginning.  Born an Ojibwe Indian, he and his three siblings were abandoned before he reached the age of three, and his several foster families were often abusive.  According to Susan Walker in her essay “Stories that Heal,” in the Literary Review of Canada (March 29, 1017), young Richard ran away for good at age sixteen, lived on the street, abused drugs and alcohol, spent time in jail, and was finally rescued by an older brother when he was twenty-five.

richard-wagamese-macewan-university-book-year-prizWagamese is quoted in that same essay by Walker as saying, “I did not speak my first Ojibwa word or set foot on my traditional territory until I was twenty-six. I did not know that I had a family, a history, a culture, a source for spirituality, a cosmology, or a traditional way of living. I had no awareness that I belonged somewhere.”  It was his connecting with the past through elders from his tribe that he began to discover a sense of  “belonging.”  He eventually became a journalist and Native Affairs columnist in Calgary, and later turned to fiction, always working on subjects which allowed him to explore his Native American heritage.

Frank Starlight specializes in photographing wolves.

Frank Starlight specializes in photographing wolves.

This novel will thrill those who have enjoyed Wagamese’s past novels, even though it is unfinished.  Here he dramatically recreates and shares the breath-taking, almost magical, moments in which he becomes one with nature in its grandest sense, and as he teaches a young, abused woman and her child how to feel the pulse of the world and to find peace, he becomes real in ways I have not seen in his previous novels.  He becomes a teacher here, sharing what he has learned in his lifetime, without becoming preachy or sentimental, and I found the book’s lack of completion an ironic benefit: He is so good at conveying the essence of what he has learned in his lifetime that the story itself becomes a simple vehicle, rather than an end in itself.  For those who prefer an obvious resolution to the narrative, in addition to the clear resolutions to the themes, the publisher has provided “A Note on the Ending,” in which the pre-planned resolution to the narrative is described in general terms, along with an essay by Wagamese entitled, “Finding Father,” which provides parallels between his own life and the ending planned for this book.

As Emmy becomes more attuned with nature, Frank challenges her to touch a wild deer. (Still photo from a YouTube video.)

As Emmy becomes more attuned with nature, Frank challenges her to touch a wild deer. (Still photo from a YouTube video.)

The action begins in 1980, with a young woman named Emmy skulking in the dark toward a cabin in which she has lived with Jeff Cadotte, a violent and abusive man who is often drunk, and his work partner, the enormous Anderson.  Emmy and her six-year-old child Winnie plan to sneak into the house, take their belongings and a bit of food, steal the keys to Cadotte’s truck, and take off while he and Anderson are drunk and unconscious.  Unfortunately, Cadottte awakens, and violence results.  Though Emmy and Winnie eventually escape in the truck, they are on their own with no money, dependent on siphoning gas for the truck and on breaking into houses for food.  She cares, however, feels guilty and embarrassed to do what she is doing to survive, and at one points leaves a thank you note to the woman whose house she has robbed of food and a chocolate cake.  While she is escaping into rural territory where she thinks she will not be found, she and Winnie are arrested for stealing at a supermarket.  It is only the kindness of Frank Starlight, who happens to be present in the store, that she escapes.  He offers her a job as his housekeeper and satisfies the store owner, and eventually the social worker, that he will be responsible for seeing that Winnie go to school and Emmy work to repay what she owes.

On a trip to Vancouver, Frank and the group see a herd of wild horses.

On a trip to Vancouver, Frank and the group see a herd of wild horses.

Frank Starlight is a photographer of Native American descent, with an uncanny ability to capture images of wild animals, especially wolves, and he is well known among patrons of a gallery in Vancouver for his work.  Emmy becomes the perfect housekeeper and cook on his farm, thrilled that he is willing to buy new appliances for his house and for her and Winnie.  His friend Roth, a former employee who lives on the premises, is also delighted to have Emmy, and especially little Winnie, in his life, and Winnie, in turn, grows to love him as a father.  All four agree that this is the closest any of them have ever felt to having a real home.  Camping trips on weekends show Emmy and Winnie learning to ride horses, explore nature, catch fish, find mushrooms, survive on their own, become physically fit, and come to some awareness, for the first time, that personal peace can be achieved by communing with nature.  Emmy eventually recognizes that Frank has not just taught her about the land, however. “You were teaching me to listen to myself,” she says, and he admits he was.  When he challenges her to use all her newly acquired talents to touch a deer, she accepts the challenge.  He later comments,“You touch a deer, you gallop a horse.  There’s no room in there for hurt or anger.  That’s where you learn and live when you come to the land.”

The group crosses into Vancouver via theLion's Gate Suspension Bridge on their way to an art show featuring some of Frank's photographs.

The group crosses into Vancouver via the Lion’s Gate Suspension Bridge on their way to an art show featuring some of Frank’s photographs.

Alternations in the narrative reveal how Cadotte and Anderson have been trying to find and exact revenge on Emmy for her past actions – before Starlight – and their plans finally come near to fruition, but not resolution, near the end of the narrative, an eventuality which the editor and publisher address directly in their notes at the end. Though parts of the novel feel a bit artificial, the novel, overall, is one that I found totally involving, moving, and emotionally satisfying, despite minor quibbles that probably would have been corrected in final editing.  This was a novel which pulled together many of the themes which Wagamese has been developing and expanding for his whole career, and I found it, unfinished as it may be, to be his crowning glory.

ALSO by Wagamese, reviewed here:  MEDICINE WALK

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://edmontonjournal.com/

The wolf photo may be found at https://americanexpedition.us/

Patting a wild deer, a challenge Frank gives to Emmy, is featured on this YouTube video, from which this still photo is taken.  https://www.youtube.com/

A herd of wild horses becomes a part of the group’s trip to Vancouver for an art show featuring some of Frank Starlight’s photographs.  http://artofliving.summitlodge.com

The group crosses into Vancouver via the Lion’s Gate Suspension Bridge on their way to an art show featuring some of Frank’s photographs.  https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca

STARLIGHT
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Aboriginal nations, Native, Canada, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Richard Wagamese
Published by: McClelland and Stewart
Date Published: 08/14/2018
ISBN: 978-0771070846
Available in: Hardcover

Zhou Haohui–DEATH NOTICE

Note:  Zhou Haohui is regarded as one of the top three suspense authors in China today, and  The Death Notice Trilogy is China’s best selling and most popular work of suspense fiction to date. The online series based on these novels has received more than 2.4 billion views and achieved almost legendary status among Chinese online dramas.—Penguin Random House

“Won’t you join me, my old friend?
I know you’ve been looking forward to this for far too long.  
I can see you reading this letter.  You’re trembling with excitement, aren’t you?  Your blood burns and an unstoppable pressure is building up inside you.  I feel it, too.  
I smell your eagerness.  Your anger. Even your fear.  
Hurry.  I’m waiting.” – Eumenides to victim.

cover death notice zhou haohuiIn this complex mystery, Chinese author Zhou Haohui creates main characters who are so surprisingly human that their behavior crosses the usual political, geographical, and cultural boundaries which often limit mysteries from other nations.  Exploring crimes which are among the worst and most vicious behaviors of which man is capable, the author describes two impeccably planned murder sprees attributed to the same criminal mind – that of Eumenides – a name chosen to recall the Furies, the gods of vengeance in Greek mythology.  Eumenides committed his first murders on April 18, 1984, crimes which resulted in several grotesque deaths.  The Chengdu Criminal Police established the 4/18 Task Force at that time to try to deal with these crimes on several levels and within several different police departments, but the crimes stopped before the police concluded their investigations.  Eighteen years later, many of those police officers are still working within the department when the murders begin again.  The police are more experienced now, and they know they are dealing with the same person when his unique modus operandi reappears.  In every case, past and present, Eumenides has sent a Death Notice to his intended victim, detailing the person’s crimes, stating the date of punishment (that day or the next day), and identifying himself as the executioner.

Author Zhou Haohui, whose on-line novels have sold 2.6 billion copies in China.

Author Zhou Haohui, whose on-line novels have sold 2.6 billion copies in China.

Eumenides has always been successful in executing those he decides are guilty of particular crimes, no matter how much advance notice he has provided them or how many police have been involved trying to protect the intended victim.  One person, Zheng Haoming, a Chengdu police officer from the 4/18 Task Force, knew some of the victims well, and he has never felt comfortable as long as these deaths have remained unresolved.  Investigating on his own for years, he finally gets some real clues and decides to seek out a man with horrific scars from a bombing years ago to ask for help.  He hopes this man can identify people in some photos he has recently obtained.  Zheng is disappointed when the man cannot help, but the maimed bombing victim is equally disappointed.  Later that day, a mutilated body is discovered.  A man has been killed with a razor-like weapon, and further investigation indicates that the killer is Eumenides.

Tianfu Square, the center of Chengdu.

Tianfu Square, the center of Chengdu.

As each of the eight members of the newly reconstituted 4/18 Task Force begins to become more individualized for the reader, the relationships become clear, along with the rivalries, the private motivations, and the past histories. Eumenides is clearly playing a highly specialized game with the police, and as the murders increase –  and include members of the police – the tension increases dramatically.  Everyone has secrets, and Eumenides plays on these to bring about his own sense of perverted justice, always escaping capture.  As the new investigation begins, Pei Tao from Longzhou, an outsider on the new 4/18 Task Force, comes to the fore. He not only knew the first two victims killed in Chengdu in the same explosion, but he also played a dangerous game with one of them when they were students together in Chengdu.  Personally annoyed because he believes that two of the Task Force members have been wasting time conducting an internal investigation of him, he has angrily approached Captain Han, leader of the group, to demand answers as to why. Ultimately, he requests that the 4/18 cases from the past be declassified so that the new Task Force members will have additional information, currently unavailable.  The Captain complies.

Several times the Mount Twin Deer Park is mentioned. A herd of nearly extinct Pere David's deer has been reconstituted in Chengdu.

Several times the Mount Twin Deer Park is mentioned. A herd of nearly extinct Pere David’s deer has been reconstituted in Chengdu.  (Story link in Footnotes)

Corruption here seems common – and it was surprising to see in this novel – and one of the leaders of the city appears to be more like an organized crime boss than an important leader.  Most of the police officers have secret histories, and a number of civilians with whom the main characters are in contact clearly cannot be trusted.  The gap between those in charge and those who are virtually anonymous in this city seems almost insurmountable.  A frantic pace evolves as deadly events begin to pile up.  Various police officials distrust one another, several begin to come to conclusions of their own, and at times no one really knows what any of the others are doing behind the scenes.  This depiction of police behavior made the novel seem a bit more like a typical crime thriller than some of the other novels I have read from China, but while this activity shows the main characters acting like the flawed humans they are, they do not actually “come alive” to the degree that most western readers expect.  Almost nothing is shown of the characters’ private, personal lives, for example, or about their inner thoughts and feelings, or the personal values guiding their lives.  While these characters may be more fully revealed than what is often the case in novels from China, they are still more limited than what is seen in a typical thriller from western countries.   This  creates some identification problems for the reader as the novel moves toward its conclusion, since the fictional “hooks” and quirks which allow the reader to keep the characters separate and clearly identified are missing.  Keeping a character list that goes beyond the very limited list on the first pages of the book will help with this problem.

This new, mixed use building complex was winner of an international architectural prize in 2013.

This new, mixed use building complex was winner of the LEAF Award, an international architectural prize in 2013.

Fun to read, the novel has excitement and many surprises, one of which comes at the end of the novel when readers unfamiliar with this novel’s past history discover that this is just the first novel of a trilogy.  Though many of the issues are settled to some degree of satisfaction, other key issues are left for the future.  A second and third novel will need to include a significant review of the character list if the reader is to bring past knowledge to bear on the new narratives and keep from confusing Zeng with Zheng, Peng and Deng.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears in https://www.wsj.com/

Tianfu Square, of which this picture is only part, is shown in more detail here:  http://www.discoversichuan.com

The story of the Pere David’s deer, which had been extinct in the wild and were recreated from
DNA, may be found here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Winner of the international LEAF Prize for architecture in 2013, this mixed use building features offices and a hotel.  http://www.nehow.com/

DEATH NOTICE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. China, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Zhou Haohui
Published by: Doubleday
Date Published: 06/05/2018
ISBN: 978-0385543323
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Christian Kracht–THE DEAD

Note:  This novel was WINNER of the Hermann Hesse Literature Prize and the Swiss Book Prize in 2016.

“Droll films in which [Charlie] Chaplin played a down-and-out fellow plagued by bouts of bad luck who still managed to prevail against all odds were enjoying fantastic success in Japan.  Something about the inner, utterly anarchic expression of that short, shabbily dressed, always melancholically amused, mustachioed hero, stirred the Japanese soul deeply; they applauded his cinematographic escapades, and his revolt against authority, usually embodied by cretinous policemen, was felt by the audience to be extremely liberating.”

cover photoSet in Berlin and Tokyo in the 1930s, Swiss author Christian Kracht latest novel offers an unusual fictional vision of the prewar years in Germany and Japan – one in which the primary focus of the author – and ultimately of his two main characters – is not that of reality as much as it is of cinema:  Life and the future can be controlled in a film, even if they can not be controlled in real life.  At this time, Hollywood is recognized as the center of the film industry, and its stars are recognized throughout the world.  With Germany becoming more militaristic and more devoted to expansionist goals, and Japan wanting to counteract the national influence of the Chinese and the seeming omnipotence of American culture, however, it is only a small step before both Germany and Japan decide that the most effective way to accomplish their own specific goals may be to affect national opinion through the production of their own films.

author photo christian kracht

Author Christian Kracht

Emil Nageli, a young Swiss film director nearing his thirtieth birthday, has been in Berlin talking with Reich Minister Hugenberg, who believes that a well-made horror film – “an allegory, if you like, of the coming dread” – would attract much attention, even in America.  He also wants to involve the Japanese, however, since he believes that they “will sooner or later subdue the Asian continent” and when that happens, he hopes the globe will be “overrun with German films, colonized with celluloid.” Masahiko Amakasu, a Japanese film maker and admirer of Nageli, hopes to establish a relationship with the Germans and arranges for a meeting with Nageli in Japan. Amakasu, too, envisions film changing the world, hoping a Japanese film will “counteract the seeming omnipotence of American cultural imperialism in the realm of film.”  As the novel works its way back and forth in time, back and forth between the Germans and the Japanese, back and forth between the two main characters, and back and forth between reality and the imagination, represented here primarily through cinema, the reader is introduced to the characters, in detail, along with their family histories, their personal goals, and just how far they are willing to go to protect themselves and those they love.

A meeting takes place between Nageli and Amakasu at the Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A meeting takes place between Nageli and Amakasu at the Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the epigraph which introduces the novel, Virginia Woolf is quoted as saying, “What is life?  That’s the question.  Something not necessarily leading to a plot,” and the author takes this to heart here in The Dead.   In a spectacularly dramatic scene, Kracht’s novel begins with a Japanese officer who “had committed some transgression or other [and who] now intended to punish himself in the living room of an altogether nondescript house.” The reader then discovers that a hidden, live camera is recording the young officer’s every movement, every breath, every thought as he disembowels himself, committing seppuku.  In the next chapter, young Swiss director Emil Nageli is flying from Zurich to Berlin in an old, shuddering aircraft, and he is “at the end of his tether” – terrified – an ironic juxtaposition of the moods and cultural contrasts between East and West which will also be obvious in later scenes between Nageli and Amakasu.  Here both main characters are so obsessed with their own visions of their futures – and their contrasting attitudes toward death and responsibility – that that they fail to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined, and that, according to the epigraph, is what life is all about.  It also explains why the novel moves around so much, focusing on a variety of different times, places, and people without connecting all the details into a neat package.

Masahiko Amakasu, Imperial Army Officer and head of the Manchukuo Film Association.

Masahiko Amakasu, Imperial Army Officer and head of the Manchukuo Film Association.

Despite the thin plot which connects all the events described here, author Kracht does develop his characters.  Nageli is, except for his career, an ordinary person, described as likable, civilized, sensitive, alert, and sometimes grouchy from low blood sugar, a man becoming more myopic, losing his hair, and having a moon-shaped belly. When he was a child, his father sometimes hit him in the face if he refused to eat his porridge, and he often called him “Philip,” as if he did not remember Emil’s name.  On his deathbed, however, Nageli’s father tries to sit up to tell him something important, and then falls back, dead, leaving Nageli desperate to know what his father intended to say, hoping for “absolution, if not pardon.”  Masahiko Amakasu’s childhood was a bit different. Able to read by the time he was three and fluent in five languages by age seven, he was already having suicidal fantasies by the age of five, and he often read (and hid in his parents’ garden) a collection of violent picture books.  On vacation in Hokkaido, he would hide behind trees and envision his own funeral.  Sent to boarding school (which he describes as a “flogging parlor,”), where he was bullied, he eventually acted out his violence against the school.

Actor Charlie Chaplin and his valet, Kono, meet with Nageli and Amakasu in Tokyo to discuss films.

Actor Charlie Chaplin and his valet, Kono, meet with Nageli and Amakasu in Tokyo to discuss films.

As these characters develop further, connect, and begin to discuss film in Tokyo, Charlie Chaplin also enters the mix of backgrounds, ideas, emotions, and experiences, and the whole purpose of the film discussions begins to wane.  Meeting at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom the hotel has been an enduring monument to the power of imagination and its execution in reality, Nageli, Amakasu, Charlie Chaplin, and Kono, Chaplin’s valet of seventeen years, barely escape the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister by military cadets.  By the conclusion, reality is clearly combining with fiction, further enhancing the themes.  Nageli, who is a fictional character, and Amakasu, who was a real officer of the Japanese Imperial Army and the real head of the Manchukuo Film Association, end up on a ship with Charlie Chaplin, eventually arriving in Los Angeles, minus Amakasu.  The fates of the other characters seem not to conclude so much as fade, as life ends and imagination continues.  As Virginia Woolf would reconfirm from her epigraph, life is not necessarily something leading to a plot, and author Christian Kracht obviously agrees, wholeheartedly.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://norazukker.ch/

Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is the site of a meeting that includes Nageli, Amakasu, and Charlie Chaplin.  http://japantravelcafe.com/

Masahiko Amakasu, head of the Manchukuo Film Association and member of the Imperial Army. https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Charlie Chaplin and his valet of seventeen years, Kono, are also in Tokyo to discuss the role of films.  https://www.pinterest.com/

THE DEAD
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Film connection, Switzerland, Germany, Historical, Japan, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Christian Kracht
Published by: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Date Published: 07/17/2018
ISBN: 978-0374139674
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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