Monthly Archives: November 2009

A WILD SHEEP CHASE / Haruki Murakami

A WILD SHEEP CHASE / Haruki Murakami. 1989 (353 pgs)

First Sentence:  “It was a short one-paragraph item in the morning edition. A friend rang me up and read it to me. Nothing special. Something a rookie reporter fresh out of college might’ve written for practice.” [I posted the entire first paragraph since Murakami’s style often requires several sentences to complete one thought. And this book was written prior to texting!]

Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person narrator and main character throughout most of the story. Occasionally the storyline switches to other scenes or readings from the news that have a different narrative source.  Most of the story continues in present tense or present time activity but switches to the recent or distant past as in recalling a memory.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The narrator learns of an obituary and tracks down information on the family and the funeral.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: What is most startling about the first chapter (8 pages) is that the narrator who tells the story of a girl he hung out with, fed and slept with when he was twenty-one, doesn’t seem to be actually involved with his own story. The characters remain nameless and somewhat unidentified, except for their mental / emotional descriptions. We learn that this part of the story takes place in Tokyo, but we learn nothing else of the where or what the place they inhabit looks like. There is a date stamp of “October 25, 1970” as a chapter heading, but little other information of time, place or setting is revealed to the reader. I estimate that this is to offer a sense of uniformity and interchangeability to the characters, their situation and setting. In the last short paragraph, and from out of the blue, we learn that the girl he is sleeping with projects that she “…is going to live to be twenty-five,” she said, “then die.” July, eight years later, she was dead at twenty-six. This, seemingly, ties the story back to the obituary and funeral at the beginning. In the next section titled: “Part Two, July, eight years later”, we meet the narrator returning home, drunk (presumably from the funeral) and justifying the difference between being drunk and being a drunk, which his business partner has lately become.

Character: There isn’t much to say about character description. This narrator / main character does not describe character traits very far beyond wardrobe quirks and language exchanges. The reader is not offered much in the way of description beyond what they can glean from the narrative. Even though one may feel they are being narrated to by a somewhat disembodied guy, there is still a strong sense of a person with a good story leading the reader down the narrative path.

Setting: In the first ten pages there is so little setting revealed beyond the most intimate and interchangeable elements of chairs, beds, streets that the narrator occupies, this reader wonders if we are supposed to already be familiar with the larger setting of Tokyo in order to comprehend the lesser portions. As there is a large time jump between the first and second chapters and that each of the characters narrated and narrating seem to be mixed up, the lack of ground in the form of setting seems justified. There is a strongly unsettled feeling about the story being told by the narrator, to the point that I don’t trust him to relay information accurately. It is very odd to me that, as a reader, if I am not connected to the setting of a story. In this case I have a difficult time entering the world of the narrator’s story. Murkami has utilized this effect expertly, leaving this reader hanging at every turn, waiting for more information that will support the narrative.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Like several of the first ten pages posted on this site, there is a tremendous expectation that the narrator is going to let us in on more information at any moment. The title is odd. The events in the first paragraph are odd. The events that unfold during the first chapter are unconventional (think 1970). And so there is a building desire for some element of convention that the reader can relate to.

Random Comments: Why does the reader continue beyond these first ten pages? In this case the book was assigned to my class by a fiction-writing professor. Based on the book jacket blurbs and the author’s bio, I would not have chosen to read A WILD SHEEP CHASE. But, I was soon drawn in to the world of the nameless narrator and all the other generically named characters in the story. (“My ex-wife, my girlfriend, the secretary, the guy across the hall, etc.) Murakami creates a very simple story where the main character must find a sheep. Murakami presents all the information for the narrator to present back to the reader without the narrator grasping the gist of the facts and so he spins his wheels in the pointless (self-admitted) distractions of fruitless meandering that somehow circle around into making a lot of sense. If you are a fan of author JIM KRUSOE’s stories, you will really enjoy Murakami. A further note about character: Even after finishing the story, I cannot tell much of what the main character looks like. I made a racial generalization, which I plugged in to meet the needs of my imagination, but other than “generic Japanese twenty-something pre-slacker” I wouldn’t be able to point him out in a line up. I find that odd.

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THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS / Kiran Desai

THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS / Kiran Desai. 2006 (324 pgs)

First Sentence:  All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Traditional close third-person told in the past tense. (see random comments below)

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  The reader learns they are in a BIG place, the Himalaya to be exact, in a landscape that disappears into eternity. The reader is introduce to three of the main characters and a subtle irony: one character sits reading a National Geographic article on giant squid (an animal no human has ever seen alive) in a location that most people are only ever introduced to via the National Geographic Society’s magazine.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The reader is also introduced to decay; spiders, scorpions, rot, mold, disuse and neglect, both in the framework of the home and those living within it. The reader is further introduced to an Indian judge and his overly encompassing sense of privilege and power; his convent-raised sixteen-year-old granddaughter who is awaiting her algebra tutor and their Nepalese cook. The cook dreams of his son, alone in NYC. The granddaughter dreams of romance with her tutor and the judge shuts himself off from recurring memories of his past. Halfway through the first ten pages their colonial-era estate is overrun by local guerrilla fighters. They are robbed and humiliated in the process. By the end of the first chapter (which is nine pages) we have learned that these events are in the recent past; it is February 1986; India, particularly Darjeeling, is in the midst of redrawing its boarders and that for these demi-colonialists it will be impossible to maintain “life as we know it.”

Character: Desai intricately links character, event and setting as she unfolds the first ten pages. The characters we meet are those already mentioned, but there will be many more who will take the stage of this gigantic and episodic story. Each character desires change, which would be typical to reveal at the beginning of a story, but there is something huge and all encompassing in the desire for change and the need for stasis, particularly in the older characters. There is security in keeping things the way they are, no matter how broken they may be, but change is inevitable, particularly in this society in this era.

Setting:  As mentioned above, the setting is crucial to the events of the story (duh) as it is crucial to the time in which the story takes place. What is unique about Desai’s telling of these events is that these people represent a much larger national and international story of the third world and its desire to emulate the first world. The setting in this story is India and the era is roughly the past one hundred years, but it feels easy to interpret that this is a story that has occurred in many ways and over many times in history.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  At the time I read these first ten pages and then re-read them for this review, I was unclear how the story would progress. From the liner notes and cover blurb I figured that there would be lots of characters with many intermingled storylines. And there are. What Desai does to make this large story more human and more economical is that she uses information from one character’s plot to parallel information from another’s plot, creating a feeling of universality from one person to another. But when I first read these first ten pages it seemed as if the reader was embarking on the story of a young girl trapped in the decaying household of her possessive and selfish grandfather and the native, ancient (male) cook who keeps the house from falling down on top of them, and their dog.

Random Comments:  After I wrote this post I finished the rest of Desai’s novel. Incredible! At the beginning of each chapter, Desai has italicized the first word or few of the opening sentence and those words tend to convey an overall meaning for the chapter. Her chapters tend to be short and there are fifty-three of them in the novel. Designing the opening language and text gives it special meaning as if it were a heading or a title. Another word on the NARRATIVE VOICE: The traditional close third-person told in the past tense is crucial for consistency as the author tends to utilize parallel facts and events from one character to illuminate events of another’s plot line.

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THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH THE MOON / Tom Spanbauer

THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH THE MOON / Tom Spanbauer. 1991 (355 pgs)

First Sentence:  “If you’re the devil, then it’s not me telling this story.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: A first person narrator / main character speaking in past tense about events in the sequence they occur. A fictional auto-biography.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The reader is acquainted with several seemingly main characters during the first several paragraphs (and the first few pages) of this novel. Each of the first paragraphs spends much of its energy on the topic of names and the various names for the same person or thing without exactly telling us what the narrator’s name actually is. The reader learns that he is an adolescent, Shoshone boy who didn’t know his father and whose mother died when he was ten. He lives in a shed and that might be his name.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The reader very quickly learns that he is a Berdache who lives behind a bordello and turns tricks for a living. Berdache being the Indian word for “holy man who fucks with men.” It is introduced in the first ten pages that the narration will focus frequently on fucking with a frank and unabashed perspective. The reader is further introduced to a quartet of folks who seem to be a makeshift family; his boss (the madam and mayor), her girlfriend, and the title character of the book, the man who fell in love with the moon. The first chapter (9 pages) of Spanbauer’s book is a whirlwind of information that is presented to the reader in a somewhat haphazard way and juxtaposes events from the end of the story, the story before the story, along with elements of story that will be told in more detail when their time comes up. I found it a bit unsettling and had some difficulty hanging on to what information was to be connected to which character or event. I was relieved when the second chapter began with, “My earliest memories are ….”. The second chapter shifts gears and slows to a pace that seems will follow a linear progression.

Character: The main character, the narrator who refers to himself as “out in the shed” or “no name” or “a name I can not say aloud for fear of the devil,” speaks from an adolescent voice, even though he is clearly narrating from a time much later than adolescence. The narrator is finding his way through life. He seems aware of the low circumstances into which he is born, but through the love and friendship of his quirky “family” he experiences enduring and loyal friendships that bring awareness and meaning to his life and become the crux of this story.

Setting: The geographical locations indicated are two towns “above the Sawtooth range” called Excellent and Gold Bar, Idaho. Contributing to the awkward whirlwind mentioned above is the fact that Spanbauer does not introduce the reader to location until page four. I have found that most authors in this study acquaint the reader with some form of physical setting – parlor, country, street, town – within the first few paragraphs. Setting familiarizes the reader, to some degree, with an era in time. In the case of THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH THE MOON the setting is the environs of two declining boomtowns left over from the gold rushs of ’63 & ’72. Now, there are no more than a hundred people left …before the second coming… “before the Mormons, that is.” I suggest that in delaying revealing the name of the location of the story to the reader creates a sense of unease. The reader feels ungrounded until they become familiar with where and when the story is unfolding.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: When I read this book I remember feeling that I was observing a child’s drawing or a cave painting. I understood what the symbols meant but I was unable to picture the meanings. I would need a good interpreter.  The storyteller and the narrator do exactly that.

Random Comments: This novel is the first by Tom Spanbauer, a very popular Pacific Northwest author. I read the entire novel a couple of years ago and was amazed by his frank writing style and the opportunity to consider man’s relationship to himself, his name and the ways we are formed based on the families we adhere to.

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A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT / Norman Maclean

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT / Norman Maclean. 1976. (115 pgs)

First Sentence:  “In our family there was not clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: A single, first person narrator initially speaking from many years later, but on page nine the past catches up with the present and the voice shifts to the immediate past. Shortly thereafter it shifts again to the present tense. It is the same narrator throughout.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The first paragraphs introduce three things: family, religion and fly-fishing as it relates to these two brothers and their father. All three interrelate. The father is a Scot, a Presbyterian minister and an orthodox fly fisherman. We are also told that they live in western Montana, “at the junction of great trout rivers…”, giving it a holy feeling.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The boys age from very young to their early thirties during the first ten pages. This narrator has the gift of being moderate, or perhaps only moderate as compared to his younger brother. In subtle ways we are told: each man can hold his own in a fight, they won’t fight each other (but I suspect they do later in the book), and in their one and only childhood fistfight they knock down their mother. We are also given particulars of successful fly-fishing; the rhythm, the range, the right type of rod (not pole!) and how, because they are preacher’s kids, the esoteric-religious aspects of grace on the river. As I mentioned above, on page nine the past meets up with the present and the pace of the story slows considerably. On page ten the reader is just becoming engaged in a meeting between the two brothers, one married the other a maverick, hard-drinking reporter in Helena, Montana. The year is 1937.

Character: In the opening pages, much is made of the father and his influence on his sons. The story eventually focuses on the two brothers as told from the POV of the elder. However, there seems to be evidence indicating there will be trouble between them. It is interesting that the narrating brother describes events and actions around him, but spends much less time describing himself.

Setting: The setting is introduced in the first paragraph not only as a location, but also as a location as compared to the Sea of Galilee and other biblical equivalents.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: As he describes the two boys and later the two men, the narrator is careful to keep his POV moderate. It seems with this effort toward moderation there are going to be fireworks between the brothers later in the story.

Random Comments: Norman Maclean is a Pulitzer Prize nominee. A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, written when Maclean was in his seventies, is an autobiographical novella of 115 pages. It is not a full-length novel. Brad Pitt played the younger brother, Paul McClean, in the 1992 film version.

 

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THE PERSIAN BOY / Mary Renault

THE PERSIAN BOY / Mary Renault. 1975. (411 pgs)

First Sentence:  “Lest anyone should suppose I am a son of nobody, sold off by some peasant father in a drought year, I may say our line is an old one, though it ends with me.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person biographer narrating his life through story and recollection.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The narrator is a proud youth from a significant hill-clan in Persia whose family was instrumental in the outward expansion of the empire as told through the eyes of a mature and articulate storyteller.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  A young boy describes his early years, the betrayal and murder of his family, being ripped from his tribal home, sold as a slave and gelded (which is different from becoming a eunuch). Bagoas is a loyal house slave to a prosperous jeweler, but during an economic recession his master pimps him out as a sex slave to a variety of characters. He is less upset by the sex than the selfish men to whom he is rented. This is instrumental in forming his character. Eventually he is noticed by a friend of a friend of the King (who was a friend of his father before the regime change) and is trained and taken on as the King’s consort. None of these arrangements are considered untoward, as they would surely be today. Bagoas is a favorite of the King and honored in his house. But I get ahead of myself. At page ten he has just been sold by the jeweler and is leaving the jeweler’s house, much to the dismay of the jeweler’s wife. Bagoas is very concerned about living his life as a commodity. He is eleven or twelve. The first ten pages are full of small details of ancient Persian household life as well as a young boy’s viewpoint on the political process of the time, particularly the progress of Alexander the Great across Greece, the Middle East and northern Africa.

Character:  The voice of the storyteller is mature and articulate – narrated from the end of life instead of from the character’s age. The book jacket claims that Bagoas was the real life consort to Alexander the Great, given as a gift by the Persian King. This becomes clearer as the book moves along. It also claims that Bagoas is a real “historical character who may well have influenced history.” At this point in the book he is a youth who has good looks, good training and the presence of mind to make no enemies.

Setting: As in other books considered in this blog, the author brings the setting of the story to life within the first several paragraphs. What would the history of the Persian Empire and the story of Alexander the Great’s consort be without a connection to place? Since Bagoas is often on the move, Renault clearly describes where her main character is both in location and in time.  She also gives enough social and historical information to help the reader understand living in a completely different time, place and social climate.

Plot & Expectations beyond tenth page:  Well, I cannot tell a lie. I read way past the tenth page. At the end of the fifth chapter (pg 58) I realized that I had gone long past my intended end point. I have always wanted to read THE PERSIAN BOY. I’ve known about it since high school when it was released and was considered “scandalous.” Male prostitution! Who ever heard of such a thing! Well I was curious then and I am now. I’ll probably finish this one, although it may have to wait until I finish the first draft of my thesis presentation.

Random Comments: The setting, language and character blend well together. I didn’t feel I was reading great literature. A well crafted story, yes, but great, no. Even so I will finish it over the coming months. This book has been on the top of the gay reading list for over twenty-five years for its candid approach to sex in the service of pleasure and beauty. It was published six years after the Stonewall riots, the groundbreaking moment when gays fought back for a small piece of territory in a Greenwich Village bar. Like Stonewall, THE PERSIAN BOY must have made a huge impact on men who had “lost” their families at a young age and been thrust into an unsure world to survive on their wit, charm, bravery and not to mentions their good looks.

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ALL’S QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT / Erich Maria Remarque

ALL’S QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT / Erich Maria Remarque. 1928. (175 pgs)

First Sentence:  “We are at rest five miles behind the front.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  We is the first word of the story and is used consistently as the dominant pronoun throughout the first ten pages of the book. This story is a narrative of broad strokes via dialogue and description spoken not just by one, but for several, in this case, four school-chums who graduate high school for the battlefield of WWI.

What the reader learns the in first paragraphs: Through a fluke of military planning we are experiencing a windfall of excess; double rations, extra smokes and extra hours of sleep. The reality is that of the 150 men who began the battle fourteen days earlier, only 80 have returned, hence ‘double’ rations.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  War is so much worse than hell, and it is an arbitrary luck of the draw as to who will survive it. There are several episodes in these early pages where the reader meets the four main characters (some of whom will surely not survive to the end) as boys. They have known each other since boyhood and they harbor a great dissatisfaction toward their elders; schoolmaster, clergy, local politicians and parents who baited them with promises of glory and honor.

Character: Like in Margaret Atwood’s story THE HANDMAID’S TALE posted on this site, ALL’S QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT begins with several voices blended into one narrative voice clearly identified as “we”. Like with Atwood’s story, one voice emerges as the prominent storyteller who, lucky for him, will probably survive until the final pages. Coincidentally, both stories take place in a military setting where the characters are under duress.

Setting: There is a sentimental mix of settings in the early pages that I suspect will diminish as events progress. There is the ubiquitous location of the battleground and camp, but there is a long passage dedicated to the soldiers’ days at school and the grudges they feel at being suckered into the military, particularly by their provincial school teacher. The setting swings back and forth from the front line to the classroom giving the reader a feel for who these boys are in uniform and also the men they were intent on becoming after putting away their school uniforms.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: “The brutalizing effects of continuous terror and sudden death and the debilitation of war and the intimacy with death, fear and survival.” Remarque uses his story as a political platform. The characters self identify as simple people from simple backgrounds and yet they are apt to flights of complicated social theory and lush language.

Random Comments:  Again, as with most of the first ten pages I have posted on this site, the author quickly locates the reader into a particular place. We may not know exactly where on the map this company of soldiers have put down for the night, but we are made intimately aware of their immediate sense of place; in their tents, in the field hospital, how they wash up and where.  Locating the characters (and thereby the reader) into a specific place usually happens within the first few pages of these successful stories. Each author I have cited in this blog has done it, and most so seamlessly that it is not until several pages later that I realize I am co-existing with the characters in their setting.

As this book was written almost exactly between the end of WW1 the beginning of WW2, it seems Remaque was submitting a political and personal challenge to the fathers, uncles and grandfathers of those boys who would soon be dying in the second ‘great’ war.

This book was originally published in 1928 in German under the title, Im Westen Nichts Neues. It was translated and published in English a year later by Little, Brown and Company.

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THE HANDMAID’S TALE / Margaret Atwood

THE HANDMAID’S TALE / Margaret Atwood. 1985 (378 pgs)

First Sentence:  “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  In the first chapter called “Night”, which is only two pages, the reader is addressed directly by a collective narrator represented by the pronoun “we.” There is no mention of who “we” is until the last phrase of this chapter/prologue, “In this way we exchanged names from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” Each name is heavy with the languid sound of vowels or keening. Notice how each name is followed by a full stop, which in the case of this story feels portentous.

In the second chapter, called “Shopping,” we meet an un-named young woman who narrates from a distant first person. She names people, customs, objects in her room or in the house but she makes clear that women of her station do not socialize with others and therefore are rarely addressed. It is from this distance that the reader is being prepared to experience the story.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  We hear about the way things were. We experience the gymnasium as it was, full of sweating athletes, cheerleaders and fans. Also, dances where girls are selected and shown off, kissed and the expectations that follow.

What the reader learns in the first 10 pages:  The reader is being readied for a personal revelation in an impersonal setting. Each of the women intimated in the first chapter is clearly an individual and yet each are referred to by their property, particularly their bed and where they sleep. These women do not fraternize (or soronize). It seems the unidentified narrator in the second chapter will be featured for the remainder of the book. She gives the reader a tour of her room, the downstairs household, the other servants and her position within the household as if outlining evidence or telling a tale. (A Tale!) On the simplest level she is preparing to go to market and in those preparations the reader offhandedly learns about her via her position in the household and that hers is considered a privileged position. We also learn that precautions have been taken to prevent her from taking her own life, including a bedroom door that will not completely shut.

Character:  Individual character is vaguely put forward by the method Atwood introduces the reader to the collective “women” in the gym and the female servants in the Commander’s household. In these first ten pages the reader is asked to prepare themselves for a story that may seem far fetched in its treatment of women, and yet, may hold allegorical parallels to society as we know it today, or at least 1985.

Setting:  This is a paramilitary society in the near future where the United States and other countries no longer exist, “…(we had) army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S.” It could also be a metaphor for the polygamous fundamentalist collectives in Southeastern Utah or Texas. There is a creepy sense of living within a compound where there are significant distinctions between those on the inside and those who are not. There are several references to guards, keepers, mandates and rule following. In the larger picture, while we don’t know exactly where the story is taking place, and it doesn’t really seem to matter since this story probably is taking place in many locations in many different ways, the setting is built upon the ruins of a previous, and one must imagine, failed society. In this case the U.S. and her allies.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  Even though the tale begins somewhat collectively and impersonally, I expect that the reader will become intimately familiar with the narrator, even if she becomes one of several narrators who lead the story. I suspect that breaking away from her confinement will be a key element in the story.

Random Comments:  Interestingly, Atwood wrote an essay called “Historical Notes to The Handmaid’s Tale” which appears at the end of the novel. It is written as if the source material for the book has been found a century or so later and is being presented at an anthropological conference. It is humorous and offers some insight to its placement in history (1985) and its fictional placement within the scope of the tale. There was a feature film of Atwood’s story with Natasha Richardson as the young girl and Faye Dunaway & Robert Duval as the tyrannical right-wing Commander and wife who own the young girl for her baby making capacity. [thanks Eileen!] She was supposed to feel honored for being chosen and being able to live on the inside. In Atwood’s book CAT’S EYE the theme of being inside vs. outside is told from the viewpoint of a mature woman recalling her confusing girlhood on her first return visit to her childhood home.

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