Friday, April 28, 2017

"A Separation" by Katie Kitamura

The narrator of Kitamura's A Separation is a translator, a profession that has little impact on the story itself, but everything to do with the novel's overarching theme: the way we "translate" others' lives into a reality of our choosing, similar to the real people but ultimately clouded by personal bias. And, furthermore, the way we "translate" ourselves into a self we imagine until "the emulation bec[omes] the thing itself" (228).

The theme of A Separation is clear even when the plot is largely missing--intentionally, but perhaps deceivingly so for readers expecting some sort of mystery/thriller (I blame the blurb writer for phrases like "fiercely mesmerizing"). The general plot is that the narrator is on the verge of divorce from her husband Christopher when she gets a call from Christopher's mother, Isabella, who says Christopher has disappeared in a small town in Greece. Isabella is unaware of the impending divorce and asks the narrator to travel to Greece to find Christopher--something the narrator needlessly agrees to. Once in Greece, she's much without purpose: Christopher is no longer at the hotel he was staying at; she's unsurprised to find he's had an affair with a hotel staff member. Not long after, she learns Christopher has been killed (the narrator and the reader never learn by whom), Christopher's parents arrive, and then they leave. The book ends, and the narrator never publicly admits that she and Christopher were nearly divorced.

If any of that sounds exciting or mysterious, let me disabuse that notion immediately. This is not a suspenseful book. The narrator lies--or is, at least, misleading--about her separation from Christopher, but it's not a heart-pounding will-she-get-caught lie. It's an easy lie, a natural lie, the easy way out. Assuming the role of grieving widow is expected of her, and so she (naturally in many ways) becomes that grieving widow.

Much of the novel centers on the narrator's "translating" of the people around her, imagining Christopher's experiences and thoughts, drawing out the relationships between people like Maria (the woman with which Christopher had the affair), and Stefano (a driver who has been pursuing Maria). These thoughts aren't mere fantasy, but Kitamura also seems to emphasize that they're colored by the narrator's understanding and expectations, "stories" to help explain her place in the world.

Ultimately A Separation is a boring book--which I don't mean entirely as criticism--as it's about the way we think and interpret, not about narrative. The story itself is banal, and the prose is so calm and measured that you almost want to kick the narrator into an interjection. It's powerful for what it is, but maybe not enjoyable.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Stone Mattress" by Margaret Atwood

It's interesting that, on Amazon, the book's subtitle is listed as "Nine Wicked Tales," though my library copy is just titled "Nine Tales." My copy's subtitle is probably more accurate because "wicked" connotes some kind of horror or perversity that really isn't present in these fairly straightforward stories. Sure, the characters aren't kind and gentle souls, but they didn't seem especially wicked either (okay, there are murders and blackmailing, etc., so maybe I just have pessimistic view of society). Nevertheless, as someone who's a fan of Atwood and her speculative fiction (Handmaid's Tale, the Oryx and Crake series), Nine Tale's primary focus on aging adults and their regrets just didn't live up.

I wondered throughout if my apathy towards the stories is a result of age-ism, as all the stories are narrated by elderly (is that the right term? I'm feeling ageist already...) adults reminiscing about their younger lives. Maybe, as a "young" person (I mean, I'm 33, so I'm not exactly young) I just can't appreciate a book that doesn't focus on my generation(ish), a prejudice developed because so many books do. On the other hand, I enjoyed Atwood's other recent entry, Hag-Seed, the re-telling of The Tempest that's also about an elderly man reminiscing, so perhaps I'm off the hook?

In addition to the similar narrators and the singular focus of the stories' topics, the stories are also so ordinary. At best, they might vaguely tickle the edges of magical realism, but that's about it. Again, I realize my disappointment is partially a result of my expectations that the stories would enter the sci-fi/fantasy genre when they didn't.

The first three stories have interconnected characters, exploring the narrators' earlier relationships from the point of view of the end of their lives. I liked the differing perspectives on similar events, and thought the references to Aphinland, a popular fantasy series written by one of the narrators, showed promise, even though it didn't really go anywhere. Nevertheless, these first three stories were my favorite since they explored the ways we see ourselves and the ways we see others.

Other stories just fell flat for me. The title story, "Stone Mattress," is a traditional revenge fantasy and "Lusus Naturae" is an I'm-becoming-a-vampire-and-am-confused tale.

The final story, "Torching the Dusties," again shows potential, about a sort-of dystopia where the young people have decided to kill off the aged. Told through the point of view of two people in an assisted living facility, it's an interesting idea, but ends suddenly. But the message (of this story and the others) is clear: our society disregards the contributions, wisdom, and even personhood of the elderly. And, perhaps too, the stories suggest that the elderly aren't so "innocent" and "dithering" as we might think. Maybe that's Atwood's primary goal, given that she's 77 and still churning our successful books, whatever my opinion may be.