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Category Archive for 'Humor, Satire, Absurdity'

Before one reads even the first sentence of THE COCKROACH, author Ian McEwan uses the introductory epigraph to clearly establish the satirical nature of this work. Inspired by Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, an existential novel in which the main character, Gregor Samsa, finds himself gradually transformed from a human being into a cockroach, McEwan gives that concept a twist. Here main character Jim Sams has experienced the reverse, starting out as a cockroach and becoming human. This change has come suddenly. After waking up in bed one morning, he sees that he now has fewer legs and, most “revolting,” he now feels a “slab of slippery meat…squat and wet in his mouth…[which] moved of its own accord to explore the vast cavern of his mouth.” His color has changed, as has his vision, and his “vulnerable” flesh now lies outside his skeleton. Just last night this new human had made a difficult trip in his previous body from the Palace of Westminster through the underground garage, the gutters, and across Parliament Square. A political demonstration had been going on, complete with horse guards and police, but somehow he had avoided them, making his way from there to the bedroom of a residence for the rest of the night. Now, however, he remembers he is on an important, solitary mission. When the phone beside the bed rings, he is barely able to move in his new body, and he misses the call, only to be greeted by a young woman at his door who says, “Prime Minister, it’s almost seven thirty.” There is a Cabinet meeting scheduled for nine o’clock.

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Life for Sale opens with main character Hanio in the hospital recovering from an overdose of a sedative, assumed to be intentional, though “He was not suffering as the result of some romantic breakup…Nor did he have any serious financial problems.” He had been working as a copywriter for an advertising company and had no particular thoughts of suicide. He decides to resign from his job and use his substantial severance pay to do whatever he wants in the life he has left. Returning to his apartment, he places a note on his front door: “Hanio Yamada – Life for Sale.” What follows is a series of adventures, as five different characters come to his door to hire him to work for them on projects so dangerous that Hanio could die. Since there are five different “sales,” it is obvious that something unexpected happens each time Hanio is hired, and it is these bizarre twists which make the episodes fun to read. It is tempting to “see into” some of these episodes to imagine some of the issues which the author himself may have been facing in his own difficult life, but the overall feeling here is one of clever trickery, rather than horror, with Mishima’s literary skill surviving even the accusation that this is “pulp” fiction.

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In this sequel to THE SECRET DIARY OF HENDRIK GROEN, 83 1/4 YEARS OLD, from two years ago, “Hendrik Groen” continues his iconoclastic, humorous, and irreverent commentary on life in a senior care center outside of Amsterdam. A full year has passed since Groen completed his earlier diary in 2013, and now, in 2015, he has finally decided to start another one. “This diary will give me a sense of purpose again,” he believes. Though this sequel continues the stories of many of the previous characters from Groen’s first book, the mood is a bit different, and the focus is not so sharp. Some international news is inserted here, and this 440-page book about life in a “care home,” told with humor, could have been condensed significantly, and its focus sharpened. Fans of the first novel will enjoy seeing what has happened to characters in the ensuing two years. Newcomers who have not yet “met” Hendrik Groen, however, may find it advantageous to begin with the more focused – and more humorous – first novel, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old.

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Can’t say much about this one without spoiling some of the incredibly dramatic action, but I really enjoyed it. Irish author John Boyne creates several plot lines within a novel that is both gripping for the stories within the story and wildly satiric for its depictions of the writing life. As he reveals the life of loathsome author Maurice Swift from his young adulthood until his fifties, Boyne clearly relishes the opportunity to focus on the writing profession from a new point of view, one in which dreams can become nightmares, and no subject is barred. As he develops some of these nightmares, he mitigates the shock by writing with his tongue held so firmly in cheek that the reader is constantly aware of the satire and dark ironies involved. The result is a novel which, according to the reviews on Amazon and other public sites, appeals to a wide audience, to many critics, and to book prize committees, though it is controversial among a few critics, who have criticized its overly dramatized sentiments and its sometimes wandering plot lines. For me, Boyne shows the remarkable ability to control every aspect of the reader’s attitude toward main character Maurice Swift, an antihero and narcissist, and he does this naturally and efficiently by highlighting those qualities which make the reader want to identify on some level with this struggling writer, even while recognizing that he is a loathsome individual.

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In Some Trick, a 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. 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. 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, darkly satiric and sometimes eerie or bizarre, are also heady, intense, concentrated, and often difficult, and 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.

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