Audition (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

3*

A compulsive, one-sitting read.

I picked this up by mistake while browsing the (Haruki) Murakami section at Waterstones. So this is who they call the ‘other Murakami’! This ‘psychosexual thriller'(?!) races at top speed through the story of Aoyama, a documentary film-maker living in Tokyo with his son Shige. After Shige suggests that Aoyama remarry (his wife died seven years ago of cancer), and best bud Yoshikawa agrees, a series of events is set into motion, ending in a pretty gruesome and genuinely shocking climax.

The premise is this: in order to find a suitable wife for Aoyama, Yoshikawa suggests holding auditions for a bogus movie (that he has no intention to produce). This is a quick and easy way to filter through tons of women until the right one comes along. So far, so good.

The thing is, the premise turns out to be kind of pointless, because Aoyama becomes infatuated with Yamasaki right at the start of the selection process, as soon as her resume catches his eye. At the insistence of Yoshikawa, he reluctantly watches the other women’s auditions, utterly convinced that they are all petty and shallow compared with the stunning Yamasaki. Given that the title of the book is ‘Audition’, and that the audition idea is introduced early on in text and serves as the motor for all subsequent events, I thought a lot more could have been done with the idea. It really didn’t feel germane to the overall plot. I expected it to be explored more deeply and was left feeling a bit cheated when it wasn’t.

Anyway, Aoyama begins his courtship of Yamasaki, who I found to be a bit of a two-dimensional character. I didn’t share Aoyama’s infatuation, and for me she held no intrigue. It seems that in an attempt to make her seem compelling and captivating, Murakami actually constructs her character rather unconvincingly. We see only two sides to her – on the one hand she is lovely and sweet, and on the other a total monster. We are told she suffered awful abuse in the past, but because of the undeveloped characterisation, it all seems a bit mad at the end when she breaks out psycho. I did like the concept though, and if you enjoy the occasional blood and gore and gruesomeness then the final act is a real treat.

However, this isn’t to say the book lacked all manner of depth. Some of the observations contained are thought-provoking. We’re given some insights into Japanese culture and society: a slightly tipsy Aoyama philosophises about sushi bars at one point – how Japan’s conformist, rigid social culture is reflected even in its cuisine. The descriptions of how Aoyama and Shige adapt after the mother’s death are also moving and delicately executed.

In essence – this was a quick, entertaining read.

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Siddhartha (Herman Hesse, 1922)

4*

Written in an elegant, lyrical style (at times it really did feel like poetry), Siddhartha, by German author Herman Hesse, tells the story of a handsome and intelligent Brahmin’s son who abandons the comforts of his home and sets out on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. On a quest to seek enlightenment, he encounters a myriad of people and situations along the way, all leading up to his final realisation that the world must be loved in its completeness, and it is the totality of conscious experience that is the best approach to understanding the nature of reality.

This really read like a fairy tale for adults! Though the text is informed by tenets of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, it should not be seen as a substitute for or guide to the principles of those religions. Published in 1922, long before the Hippie movement of the ‘60s, it was the first major work dealing with Eastern thought in the Western world. For this reason, it has influenced the works of many others ahead of its time, such as well-known Beat-era author Jack Kerouac.

There was both a loveliness and profundity present throughout the pages of Siddhartha, and the ending left me feeling uplifted, positive and to an extent, wiser. The final chapter was particularly touching, with its musings on love and life and meaning, and I put the book down feeling light and airy.

And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid, 2007)

3*

Short, very evocative read.

Simple structure – a monologue. The protagonist, a Pakistani man named Changez, tells his story to a nervous American stranger in a tea shop in Lahore. His story – falling in and out of love with America – is a gripping one. He tells us of his studies at Princeton, his relationship with an American woman, his high-paying job at a valuation firm where he’s quickly recognised as one of the brightest talents, and then his gradually occurring disdain for the nation, post 9/11.

Changez’s account felt real and convincing. His disillusionment comes about slowly, progressively, and as a result, we are empathetic. The love story between him and Erica is poignant and delicately written, and takes up a large part of the novel, serving as a sort of allegory of Changez’s turbulent relationship with America (but to me it still felt like a touching – albeit sad – love story in its own right).

It was difficult to miss some of the ironies though. One that struck me in particular was when Changez referred to Erica’s father’s tone (he makes some rather arrogant comments about Pakistan’s political problems) as having a ‘typically American undercurrent of condescension’. This felt a little hypocritical, considering his lofty manner of speech and pompous narrative throughout when addressing the American stranger who sits opposite him. But this, I think, was the point.

An intriguing novel, to say the least, and one that forces the reader to confront uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951)

5*

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel that I think will always be relatable. Through the mind of the narrator and protagonist, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, we too begin to observe our surroundings with increasing disenchantment and disillusionment. We are, along with Holden, in total despair at the adult world.

I first read this when I was eighteen or nineteen, and, being of an angsty age, it felt somehow significant when I began to identify with the bleakness of Holden’s musings. The polarising nature of the novel, it seems, comes from the fact that you’ll either identify with Holden, or you won’t.

Holden is not a child but not yet a grown-up either. This is a period of time that everyone has experienced and to an extent, never stops experiencing. For me, that’s what makes Holden’s story memorable. It follows his rather spontaneous (and often drunken) escapades over the course of three days, after he’s expelled from his boarding school. His observations and perceptions expose the banality of the real world, and of adult life, serving as a very astute commentary on the ‘phony’ nature of everyday human affairs. I especially enjoy the stream of consciousness style of fiction, but even for those who don’t, the novel isn’t short of dialogue or humour. There’s an awkward incident with a prostitute, a confrontation with a pimp, and several other bizarre encounters through Holden’s erratic exploits. The atmosphere of alienation and isolation, rather than making Catcher a depressing read, force us to see the astonishing beauty in moments of innocence:

I felt so happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.

Here, Holden describes his joy at seeing his little sister going around on a carousel. That’s another thing about Catcher in the Rye – it’s written in in the teenage colloquial speech of the time, and allows us as readers to fully engage with Holden’s thought processes and identify with his impressions of the world surrounding him. We are cocooned in his disgust for corruption, and there is a certain comfort to be found in the loneliness of his ventures.

Holden’s attitude remains unchanged at the story’s end, differentiating the novel from other young adult fiction. If there is an overriding message to be understood, it is vague and unclear. But again, this is what sets the book apart. There are no dramatic character epiphanies or revelations. There is no Hollywoodesque element to the story (Holden by his own admission hates Hollywood), and no real purpose to our hero’s adventures. It is simply an account of something that happened to a lonely teenage boy.

The Unbelievers (Gus Holwerda, 2013)

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In this documentary film, we follow two world-renowned scientists – evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss – on their quest to spread scientific understanding and awareness, and encourage people to abandon blind belief in the supernatural.

I generally enjoy most things Richard Dawkins does, and I definitely didn’t expect this film to be an exception. There was so much potential in its premise – to promote science, reason and critical thinking throughout the world, and to convince people that a scientific, evidence-based world view is, above all things, interesting and rewarding.

But director Gus Holwerda didn’t seem particularly interested in this – the film is surprisingly lacking in substance. In its 77-minute running time, I think there were probably only about 20 or so minutes spent on showing actual intellectual discussion and debate. The rest of it: bizarre time lapses, scenes of Dawkins or Krauss gazing dreamily into the distance (there’s also one scene in which we’re shown Dawkins flicking through TV channels in his hotel room), car journey chit-chat, and thundering applause as the scientists walk onto huge stages with eager audiences (mostly all of whom already hold a scientific worldview). All of this is fine, of course, and makes the film more appealing to mass audiences, but to somebody who may be new to scepticism, science, and perhaps comes from a religious background and has recently started to rethink their position, this film does a terrible job in terms of persuasion. If I hadn’t already seen an abundance of material on the topic, including other talks and documentaries by Dawkins, I would think these scientists are really quite irritating – and perhaps not very nice people!

The whole thing was just very lazily done. It felt to me as though Dawkins and Krauss were simply on a mission to have a laugh (I’m sure this isn’t true, rather just bad direction), after growing tired and weary of the whole persuading-people-to-believe-in-science thing. The rigorous, exciting quality of enquiry isn’t present in this film. It seemed more just a celebration of how wonderful these men are, as opposed to trying to convince, educate and enlighten. Two guys, both brilliant in their fields, killing time. This was a shame.

None of the rich, illuminating arguments and debates for the non-existence of God are presented to us. None of the astonishing evidence (which is many times referred to) for evolution, for a universe from nothing, is properly explained, whether in a lecture or in the context of a debate. In the parts of debates that are shown, we are simply not given enough for anything to resonate, or for it to have any real lasting impact. There’s one particularly bizarre scene, where Dawkins is shown being on the phone with someone in his hotel room, and we can’t hear anything that the person on the other side of the phone is saying – we can only hear Dawkins’ side. What was the point of this?! Sure, we can see that it’s clearly a debate, but the laziness is striking. Perhaps it was simply supposed to demonstrate the looseness and frailty of arguments defending supernatural conviction. But still, a little more context would have been valuable. On the level of engagement, it’s a bad film. After a while, I just kept it on in the background.

I’d be interested to know what someone new to these sorts of debates, and watching the film as a sort of introductory activity thought, because maybe I’m wrong. But ultimately, my feelings: too rockstar-ish, not enough science, not enough substance.

Before the Flood (Fisher Stevens, 2016)

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I saw this at London’s Debtford Cinema, where it was programmed by a friend of mine. It doesn’t really feel possible to review a documentary film made to raise awareness of climate change in the same way as one would another film. The attempt to educate on the issue is commendable, so all that can really be said is that this is a genuine and heartfelt film, and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to Leonardo DiCaprio’s commitment to the cause.

DiCaprio travels the world to investigate the causes and impact of the global addiction to burning fossil fuels. He speaks to politicians, scientists, and other important figures (including the Pope), and tries to achieve the knowledge and understanding relevant to reducing our own carbon footprints. We get a sense of our moral culpability – but also our power to drive change – through the stats and figures presented throughout the film.

There is one particularly powerful scene near the end, where former astronaut Dr. Piers Sellers sits down with DiCaprio in a dark room that’s illuminated by a graphic of the Earth. He talks about how his experiences in space allowed him to appreciate the world’s beauty. After getting a stage-four cancer diagnosis upon returning to Earth, he became inspired to create satellite images that put the world’s big problems onto one image. We can see how different currents and rising temperatures will soon affect different parts of the world, leading to water and food shortages, thereby leading to more conflicts between humankind. But Dr. Sellers is an optimist— he believes that if we can all see our presence in the world on a much larger scale than simply what’s in front of us, we might be able to change our way of life, before it’s too late.

In the Miso Soup (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

3.5*

My second novel from Ryu Murakami. This gave me the creeps! It was delicious. I do like the way Murakami combines the horror/thriller genre with a sort of philosophical quality, addressing fundamental questions of human nature – loneliness, meaning, despair – all within the context of Japanese society.

Kenji is a 20-year-old ‘nightlife guide’ for foreigners who visit Tokyo. He shows them around the sex clubs and hostess bars of the city. His latest client, Frank, an overweight American tourist with disturbing (murderous) tendencies, arouses Kenji’s suspicion from the outset. We accompany Kenji and Frank on their night tour of Tokyo, and through Kenji’s narration, we learn a lot about Japan and Japanese society along the way.

There’s only one really gory part (as in Audition), but when the actual horror begins it completely throws you off balance. Kenji’s state of mind after the horrific event was the most interesting thing to me about the novel – an examination of the human psyche, struggling with questions of right and wrong.

The writing is engaging – Kenji’s insights and curiosities provide plenty of food for thought and reflection on every page, and he remains a likeable character to the very end, even though his decision is shocking. The innocent quality of his narration makes him very sympathetic and exposes the extent of the decadence all around him. Having him as a narrator, the environment we are in becomes easier to deal with and there’s some security to be found in his observations, even after he decides to not to act on what he’s witnessed.

My (limited) experience of reading Japanese fiction so far is that novels’ endings are often left quite open, quite ambiguous – you don’t feel the story is truly over. It’s intriguing, but in this case I would have wanted some more questions answered.