Nearly Norwegian Wood : David Mitchell – “Number9Dream”

“‘Truth is,’ John Lennon continues, ‘”#9dream” is a descendant of “Norwegian Wood”. Both are ghost stories. “She” in “Norwegian Wood” curses you with loneliness. The “two spirits dancing so strange” in “#9 dream” bless you with harmony. But people prefer loneliness to harmony.'”

ABOVE: Number 9, Number 9, Number 9

Hint for novelists: If you don’t want reviewers to make Haruki Murakami comparisons, you probably don’t want to pepper your Tokyo-set surrealist sci-fi noir with references to John Lennon and The Beatles, and maybe don’t show your hero reading “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and definitely avoid titling the whole thing “Number9Dream.”

Or you can disregard the advice, as David Mitchell does in his second novel. He simply submits to Murakami’s influence, acknowledges that he’s perilously close to pastiche, and has John Lennon’s dream ghost spell it all out at the novel’s climax. “Number9Dream” is the direct descendant of Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” – a younger, even more immature version of a modern classic that does not count maturity among its many charms.

It’s a canny move that anticipates and deflects criticism. After all, everyone is influenced by someone, usually many someones, so who cares? Some would say: “Fine, but make sure your influences are buried, either literally, in a graveyard – or metaphorically, in your text.”

In any case, there’s plenty of other things to criticize, because “Number9Dream” is a frustrating Frankenstein of a novel, as thrilling in some parts it is galling in others. It’s divided into 8 chapters of wildly varying dreaminess and interest, (that ninth  “dream” chapter is blank, which is either poetic or an admission that even the author lost interest in fulfilling his organizational conceit.) The (very good) bulk of it mainly concerns Eiji Miyaake, a young man looking for the father who abandoned him and his now-defunct sister as children, and the quest that takes him deep into the ultra-violent Yakuza underworld, where traitors and transgressors are expected to lose first their little fingers and then other increasingly more vital body parts. These sections are indebted to “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” but that was a good book, so what could go wrong?

What goes wrong is that Mitchell once more suffers from the mode-shifting anxieties that marked his debut, “Ghostwritten”. It’s as if he worries that Eiji’s tale isn’t compelling enough, or that the reader’s ADD must be appeased, or that a straight-forward story isn’t really going to wow the fickle critics. So he incorporates two other lengthy narratives into the tale. For impractical, unconvincing reasons, Miyake stops the flow of things to read a) a children’s story and b) a World War II diary from his Kaiten-pilot ancestor. Different readers will react differently to those. Do you enjoy forced “whimsy”? Then you’ll enjoy the faux-Lewis-Carroll fairy tale. Do you enjoy History Channel documentaries? Then you’ll enjoy learning about Kaiten submarines and the proud, suicidal nationalism that drives men to give all for Emperor and Country.

I hated both stories.

ABOVE: “As accomplished as anything being written” is meant to be grand praise, but it also reads a lot like: “I guess it’s as good as any of the other crap out there.”

I hated them in direct proportion to how much I LOVED the main story – the REAL story, as far as I was concerned. They’re not complements to Eiji’s quest: they are digressions that scream “Look at me, Man-Booker-Prize! Ain’t I versatile!” They can easily be excised from the novel without any loss to the main body. They’re fancy tumors.

This is why “Number9Dream” elicits a very conflicted reaction from me. There was so much I enjoyed, (I want to follow Mitchell’s career from here on out), that I didn’t know what to do with the parts that didn’t do anything for me. I found the WW2 diary to be simply a dull test of patience. By contrast, the Goat Writer segments are embarrassingly bad: but embarrassment is at least an emotion. These are pretentious stories about the “nature of creativity,” and involve the anthropomorphic “Goat Writer,” “Mrs. Comb,” ( a servant and hen) and their hairy handyman, “Pithecanthropus.” They’re supposed to be written in Japanese, but they’re full of barf-inducing, English-language alliterations so nearly non-sensical that if any pauperish parochial pupil were punished into the perusal of their pages, it would propel the poor person into any propitiatory, popping-hot pyre propped up in the proximity.

Yeah, exactly.

Another writerly hint: Murakami already had a Sheep Man character; so don’t have a Goat Man character.


Assembly Required : Brian Michael Bendis – “New Avengers” ( 1 – 64 )

Re-read. Still feel conflicted about the long, sometimes lazily winding road taken by Brian Michael Bendis’ “New Avengers.” Perhaps my main problem is what little it takes to become an Avenger within these pages; practically any superhero that meanders by gets sucked into the vacuuming vortex of the team. Most of them can’t even feign interest, and can’t wait to exit the revolving-door cast. It’s like the Avengers is a fraternity of ill-repute desperately recruiting during rush week. The worst are the forced, massive battles that crowd every page with characters all straining to get one bantery line into the fray. This is a superhero-team staple, but here it has the counterproductive habit of turning what are supposed to be vibrant, action-packed panels into visual slogs. There are better arcs than others, (I enjoyed the opening, “Breakout,” without reservations.) With so much to say (good, bad, and meh-ish) I’ll opt for silence and instead treat you to a sampling of covers:

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH within the Marvel Universe



Torn in a Small Town : Philip K. Dick – “The Cosmic Puppets”

“First I find out I was dead, that I never lived to grow up. Then those two goddamn luminous people come walking through the porch. Then that damn kid goes around looking for bees. And he shows me a guy fifty miles high. With his head made out of an electric light bulb.”

That’s a sampling of the strange on-goings at the heart of Philip K. Dick’s “The Cosmic Puppets.” It begins as a Twilight Zone episode: All-American Ted Barton revisits the small town of Millgate, Virginia, only to realize that it has been replaced by a DIFFERENT small town of Millgate, Virginia. It ends as a Zoroastrian battle between Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) and Ormazd (Ahura Mazda). The path from A to B is full of needle-wiedling clay golems and gross episodes involving rats, snakes and spiders. FUN! PKD is very good at linking small town life with universal struggles, as he did in “Dr. Bloodmoney”.

Here’s a sampling of covers:

RATING : I find it pointless to rate individual Philip K. Dick novels. He’s a “body of work” kind of guy. They all tend to be “GOOD ENOUGH” to “GREAT!” building up to a cumulative “MASTERPIECE!!!”

How Close Wonder is to Horror : Caroline Hagood’s “Making Maxine’s Baby”

“Making Maxine’s Baby” is Caroline Hagood’s second poetry collection, after “Lunatic Speaks” (of which I’ve written elsewhere, and consider one of the finest contemporary collections of poetry I’ve read.) First disclosure: I know the author. Second disclosure: I tend to look down on the work of personal acquaintances, (who needs competition?) so the fact that I generally find her poems to be pretty fantastic is an endorsement.

But there’s a third disclosure:

ABOVE: Baby Boom Room

I originally wrote a rather gushing review of this poem cycle about Maxine, a homeless NYC woman who’s happily unable to distinguish the magical from the squalid, but then I sat on it for a few weeks. I went and re-read the collection and I felt much more critical – even as I loved the individual poems even more the second time around.

I found that praising it is too easy, so let’s get it out of the way. Hagood’s trademark charms are there: the language sculpted into shining simplicity; the juxtaposition of a child’s bright-eyed awe with the intellectual’s cocked eyebrow; the LOL-provoking lines ; and the sensual awe in the presence of the commonplace – or rather the uncommon that gets taken for granted by the less poetic among us.

“Making Maxine’s Baby” even has a fantastic centerpiece in “Horror Theory,” a poem-cycle-within-a-poem-cycle where Maxine dissects her reality with a scary-movie scalpel. How could you not love its encyclopedic tangle of the Aurora killings, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Onibaba,” Jodorowsky’s “Santa Sangre,” David Cronenberg,  “I Spit On Your Grave” and “Dawn of the Dead”? When was the last poetry collection you read that alluded to Tom Savini as a symbol of healing through art? When was the last poem you read that alluded to Tom Savini at all?

ABOVE: “This makes so much sense to Maxine when she remembers / Sally’s hysterical laughter as she pulls away/ in a pick-up truck, leaving Leatherface/ to shake his now meaningless / chainsaw over his head.”

The problem, as I found it, is that “Making Maxine’s Baby” has story-telling ambitions that it only tentatively tries to fulfill. It almost wants to be a novelist’s portrait… without quite committing to the cohesiveness of fiction. Poetry comes foremost for the poet, unsurprisingly. I know that’s a misguided charge to level against a POETRY collection, but I fear the problem is expressed right when “Horror Theory” comes up. Up to that point, Maxine functions as character: she’s homeless, haunted by childhood abuse, schizophrenic, borne along by the uncertainty of subways, hallucinating among garbage bags, and avoiding the elements by sneaking into movie theaters for an education. Maxine, for all her lunacy, made sense. But with (and subsequently to) “Horror Theory” the consistency of the homeless-woman character evaporates to a puzzling degree.

Suddenly Maxine is a hobo that’s also quite capable of affording a grad-school education that allows her to keep up with Julia Kristeva’s feminist structuralism and casually reference Donald Barthelme. I began by believing a traumatic event had thrown Maxine off the grid during her adolescence – and then I stopped believing in Maxine altogether, at least as anything other than the author’s educated, decidedly non-homeless perspective flowing into the receptacle of her creation. You can dig through trash all day OR meditate on Walter Benjamin, but not both. OK, fine, maybe you CAN (and New York would certainly be the place where that would happen) but I need a STORY of HOW. And “Making Maxine’s Baby” teases with its illogical story elements.

And how many street people personally resent the boasts of accredited university twits, as Maxine does in “MFA In Vapor”?

“Screw you and your credentials.

I have an MFA in vapor and urban

reek, I have been featured in anthologies

of knock knock jokes and engine

sounds, have a degree in failing

spectacularly, won a Pushcart Prize

for blowing a man on one of the last

subway bathrooms…”

I love those lines as poetry (“anthologies of knock knock jokes and engine sounds” is particularly brilliant) and yet I don’t get where that resentment could come from in that particular character. Is there an epidemic of academics harassing the homeless, condescendingly brandishing copies of Granta outside soup kitchens?

Here’s a seemingly small moment that makes me wonder how much the author envisioned Maxine’s reality:

“If one more person asks if she’s named after Max

from “Where the Wild Things Are,” she’ll just have to kill them.”

Really? This lonely, schizophrenic vagabond gets asked THAT cute little question a lot? By who? I mean, as someone named after a children’s story, I would fully sympathize, but how many dumpster-crawling buddies would ask something so intrinsically cute? See, I believe a child called Max would get that question, and even then it would only be asked by charming peers with the kind of warm childhoods that allow for Maurice Sendak readings at bedtime. (Not as universal an experience as all that.)

But I guarantee the questions homeless women get asked, when people interact with them at all, are of a far more sordid nature. Maybe she might get asked about being named after MAD Max. Maybe.

ABOVE: “No, Max! Don’t tell me it will take that long until Caroline gets another collection out! That’s scary!”

“Making Maxine’s Baby” is made of fully-developed poems about a sketched-out character. After hearing so much about the horrors of Maxine’s street life, after being given access to the wonder of her elevated, delirious inner world, I should have UNDERSTOOD more about her, instead of still grappling with the unresolved duality of a character who can’t function in society, and yet is highly educated; who is trying to survive on the streets, and yet surrounded by ivory tower chatter. I can’t even decide if she is a repulsive bag lady (as she seems at times) or an alluring street gamine, (as she seems at others). I suspect that, if pressed, the author would be puzzled by my dumb dichotomies. Why not repulsive AND alluring? That may not make sense to me, but…

“It all makes sense to Maxine when she considers

life’s double nature, how close wonder is to horror:

how the first man walked on the moon

the same year as the Manson family killings,

Or how rubbish can be so fetching – oil puddle rainbows,

Streaks of smoke left behind by airplanes,

And that colorful garbage mass floating in the ocean

Featured in the New York Times-

Or how in classical mythology ichor

is an ethereal fluid flowing in the veins

of the gods, but in pathology it’s an acrid,

watery discharge, as from an ulcer.”

End of the Innocence : Jillian and Mariko Tamaki – “This One Summer”

ABOVE: Jump In

Vacations are nice, an all-ages diversion, but it is during YA-hood that a summer holiday reaches nearly apotheosic levels of freedom. Cousin-team Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s”This One Summer” is a seasonal ode to the way a handful of idle weeks can transform the universe of an observant adolescent. 15-year old Rose spends her summers at an idyllic cottage in Awago Beach with her parents and her best friend Windy, but “this one summer” the real world encroaches.  Her parents are fighting over “adult junk that doesn’t mean anything.” The pimply-faced “older” teenager who works the convenience store acquires magical attraction powers.  So do horror movies, from Freddy to Jason. And the specter of S-E-X haunts the woods. The coming-of-age rituals are fairly standard, but here they are elevated by Mariko’s nuanced story-telling and Jillian’s masterful drawings: she makes faces and natural landscapes equally expressive. Together, the Tamaki team knows how to capture the woods and the waves… and the ways young people simultaneously blossom and drown. Up there with Craig Thompson’s now classic “Blankets.”

ABOVE: Float On