Naoko

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Affecting, unsettling, and heartbreaking, Naoko is one of those books that lingers with you long after you flip the last page.

Naoko is a story of everyman Heisuke Sugita, whose life is utterly discombobulated when his wife Naoko and 10-year old daughter Monami are caught in a horrific bus accident. Naoko is seemingly killed, while Monami  survives unscathed physically. But when Monami wakes up, she has the psyche and memories of Naoko.

What ensues is an odd family drama – where Naoko, resigned to living Monami’s childhood for her, has to deal with her second childhood, while Heisuke grapples with the fact that his wife is now his daughter. The novel is an exploration of how such an uncanny arrangement might ensue.

Keigo Higashino is known for his hardboiled detective thrillers, and my reading of Naoko was somewhat coloured by my knowledge of this – it was, for the most part, tinged with the tension of wondering when things might become lurid – but, thankfully, it doesn’t. Higashino does have some mystery elements into the mix, notably in Heisuke’s investigation into the circumstances of the bus accident, which leads him down some minor lines of inquiry, but for the most part, it’s an emotional portrait of normal people trying to live in the wake of something extraordinary.

Its an intriguing conceit that Higashino handles well in his workmanlike, matter-of-fact style. Heisuke is the portrait of a 1980s salaryman; well-intentioned but somewhat insecure in himself and in his relationship with his wife, now in their daughter’s body, leading him to do some less-than-salutary things in his attempts to preserve some status quo in their family life. His struggle is that of a father letting go of a daughter whom he has cherished to live her own life, with the added complication that she is, in some essential way, his wife. Naoko-as-Monami, on her part, uses her new circumstances as a chance to define a new identity for herself that is removed from her previous happy but cloistered existence as doting housewife and mother. In doing so, she necessarily tugs away from the orbit circumscribed by Heisuke’s place in her life.

In this sense, Naoko has often been called a meditation on gendered politics in Japan, but it’s also about parenthood and letting go. For the most part, Naoko handles this with sensitivity, treating both Heisuke and Naoko sympathetically. While they do hurt each other, it seems inevitable as part of their exceptional circumstances. Essentially, they come off as real people.

Naoko was an unputdownable read all the way through, even given its domestic setting, wending its way to a truly heartrending denouement that felt at once inevitable, yet also unbearably melancholic. Rare is the book that makes me feel the way I felt reading the second last chapter of Naoko. And yet, after that wallop of a false ending, Higashino still has one more trick up his sleeve – he throws us a twist in the end, so unexpected yet so apropos, a twist that adds a final zest of mystique and intrigue into the concluding chapters of this utterly unconventional domestic drama.

Highly recommended.

I give this book: 5/5 teddy bears

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The Shadow of the Wind

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The Shadow of the Wind is chock full of the elements that make reading so pleasurable – gripping stories, larger-than-life characters, an evocative setting, rip-roaring comedy, melodramatic tragedy, and a likable, engaging protagonist – although it does get somewhat smothered in its own grandiloquent melodrama.

Set largely in post- Civil War, Francoist Spain, Shadow is the story of young protagonist Daniel Sempere, who stumbles across a book (named Shadow of the Wind, for reasons that are made clear by the plot later) by a mysterious and unknown author, Julian Carax, and becomes embroiled in a deepening mystery concerning Carax, the books, and somebody who is out to erase everything associated with them. Shadow is also a bildungsroman of sorts for Daniel, who has to deal with the impact of his raging teenage hormones.

Carax’s life is slowly revealed by Daniel’s investigations, as he runs around Barcelona in an attempt to discover the truth about the mysterious writer – through letters, re-tellings, and fragmentary documents. The details of Carax’s life could almost have come out of an Alexander Dumas novel – a gripping and melodramatically tragic story of love, jealousy, disfigurement, exile, and revenge. But as Daniel investigates further, he starts to be implicated in the questing threads of Carax’s unresolved tale, and his own teenaged existence takes on an almost dramatic quality of its own, mirroring, somewhat, Carax’s own life.

Shadow is at its best when it focuses on Daniel’s own experiences. Tonally, it is much less melodramatic than the accounts of Carax’s own magnificently tragic life, and is therefore more grounded and relatable. Daniel is also surrounded by a cast of interesting and sympathetic characters that populate the little corner of Barcelona in which he lives – a community of neighbors that bring Barcelona to life as a lived-in place. In particular, Daniel’s friend, Fermin Romero de Torres, is the breakout character of the book – an amusingly grandiloquent spinner of tall tales of his inveterate womanizing, who is nevertheless Daniel’s most steadfast friend and ally (and a partner in a sweetly monogamous relationship over the course of the book). As Daniel and Fermin traipse around Barcelona, piecing together the fragments of Carax’s life, while it still remains an abstraction on the page as opposed to a living agency, the book is still assured of a kind of groundedness to its storytelling, interspersed as it is with Daniel’s own adolescent romantic preoccupations.

Nearer the end of the story, however, when the figures of the Carax story emerge, they begin to colour Daniel’s own life with their own portentous melodrama, with less than salutary results. Symptomatic to this is the introduction of one of the book’s least compelling characters –  the antagonist Inspector Fumero, a childhood companion of Carax who has a massive, massive bone to pick with the man. Fumero is pure moustache-twirling villain without a single redeemable bone in his body – a straight-up psychopath with a weird “odd-one-out” origin story. Fumero’s motivations never really get fleshed out beyond a generic dramatic desire for revenge – almost elemental, or mythological, in its simplicity – which is okay for what is essentially fiction-in-fiction but not when made a part of Daniel’s own story.

The result of this enmeshing is a story that lurches tonally as it turns into full-on melodrama, culminating in a bombastic climax that segues into a coda of Daniel’s later life – one that is supposed to show how his life has broken the hold that Carax’s own story has had over his own, but does so in a way that reminds the reader that the author had essentially turned Daniel’s own life into a soap opera in the interim.

For all that, though, Shadow is still an eminently enjoyable book, exuberant, old-fashioned, and larger-than-life; a book that, like its namesake, leaps out its pages in its immediacy, even it is somewhat overwhelmed by its melodramatic bombast.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Victor Hugo pens

Logan

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***WARNING: SPOILERS***

Reading the exuberant reviews of Logan on the Internet, I’m left wondering if I watched the same movie as everybody else.

Logan is the latest in a line of X-men movies featuring the titular be-clawed superhero, played by the irrepressibly iconic Hugh Jackman. It tries to take a different tack from most superhero movies; showing our heroes not in their prime, but in a state of decline brought about by the slow wear of senescence.

Set in a near-future Trumpian vision of America, dust-choked and garish and xenophobic, Logan’s setting is a distillation of a world in which the forces of exclusion have won, and the final vestiges of those who are different eke out meager existences at the fringes of society.

The first half of the film is still very good, because it so elegiacally shows the state in which we find our once-great superheroes; it is cathartic in its evocation of desolation. Mutants are no longer being born, resulting in the death of Charles Xavier’s grand life project. In his advanced age, Charles has also started having seizures that prove lethal to the people around him if unchecked. Logan himself is aging, the adamantium in his body slowly poisoning him, reducing his healing factor. He ekes out a living as a limo driver, hiding out with Charles and  behind the Mexican border in an abandoned water tower, smuggling in the meds that will prevent Charles from having his destructive seizures, and saving up to buy a boat so that Charles can sail out to sea to live out his last days without fear that he will hurt more people with his seizures.

Patrick Stewart gives a truly heartbreaking performance as the now-bitter and forlorn Charles, a far cry from his earlier gravitas as Professor X. Pent up with an almost childish resentment at the state of the world, he lashes out spitefully at Logan, dependent as he is upon him. His lofty ambitions have given way to the forlorn hope getting a boat. When Laura shows up, a young mutant fleeing from the clutches of evil corporation Transigen (as always), he jumps at the opportunity to help her, though it seems less because of altruism but because it reminds him of his glory days. It is truly tragic to see Charles Xavier portrayed in this way, as an old man reduced to this, and in this sense, the film has succeeded in achieving that sense of pathos.

In contrast, Logan is more straightforward, driven by survival instinct and an odd sort of filial piety to his erstwhile mentor. His tireless physicality has been his only source of strength and with that dissipating, his vulnerability shines through. It makes the initial premise – that, as a shell of his former self, he must take on one of life’s crowning responsibilities – to be a father-figure to Laura and bring her through trials and tribulations to face a better future.

The film chugs along fine till the halfway point, when the group lodges for the night as guests in a kindly farmer’s abode, and Charles, in a heartbreaking scene, tearfully expresses his guilt at having killed innocent people during a psychic seizure to a person who he imagines to be Logan. But this person is actually a mindless, aggressive clone of Logan: X-24, who proceeds to kill Charles and the rest of the farmer’s family. Logan and Laura escape, but not before Logan sustains terrible injuries from which he is slow to recover.

After this point, the film just turns into irredeemable pablum. The sudden collapse of plot coherence is breathtaking. The film starts to reveal that Laura is actually fully in on a game plan orchestrated by the other mutant escapees from the Transigen lab to split up and meet at a staging point to attempt a border crossing into Canada, where they will allegedly be free of Transigen. To accommodate this plot twist, Laura’s character completely transforms. From a vulnerable, mute, unworldly, and emotionless, cold-blooded experimental test subject in need of a nurturing figure, Laura suddenly becomes capable of elocution, turns worldly-wise, and is suddenly emotionally adjusted. Her previous indifference to Logan turns into a daughterly concern. She drives him to a clinic to have him checked out – which really begs the question of why she needed help to escape in the first place, if she could manage a cross-country trip by herself. It’s almost like the plot had to make Logan just as vulnerable as it could make him, and this required creating a dea ex machina in suddenly making Laura into a different person, and not showing the process of character development that led to that point.

Essentially, Logan and Laura’s relationship, the tentpole of this film, is never actually developed. Logan never actually exhibits outward concern when he’s travelling with her – there is little indication that he does the things he does for her – until the very end, when, having delivered Laura to her destination, he tries to leave but returns to help the children when he realises that Transigen has found them, sacrificing himself to kill X-24. He’s a hero, sure, but a father-figure? Not really. At that point, Laura is suddenly grief-stricken at Logan’s death, calling him “father” at the graveside. But that father-daughter bond was never established in the film, making this scene utterly void of emotional heft.

It’s this sudden narrative incoherence and the writer’s willingness to accommodate gaping plot holes to rush the story to an intended end-state without doing the leg work that makes the latter half of this film such a failure, so different from its more affecting first half. Unfortunately, the clumsiness of the plot takes away any emotional catharsis the film might have had if it had devoted more time to exploring Logan and Laura more fully, instead of leaving it to the audience to fill in the gaps. Logan’s end might have been a fitting send-off to the comic-book legend, but the journey there is less than satisfying.

I give this film: 3/5 adamantium bullets

The Mating Season

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Having read The Mating Season, I’m of the view that I may enjoy Wodehouse better in smaller doses.

While What Ho! was a curated selection of the best and funniest that Wodehouse had to offer, The Mating Season is but one of many of Wodehouse’s prodigious output of comedic stories about the misadventures of the idle rich. By contrast, it has an almost by-the-numbers sort of feel to it.

That’s not to say that it’s not a rollicking fun read on its own, but there is a sameness to it that speaks to how Wodehouse had perfected a comedic formula for his stories, taking the limited assortment of tropes – harridan aunts, excitable young ladies, bumbling sidekicks, and a variation of an impossible love tangle that Jeeves must solve on behalf of Bertie.

The plot is an excuse for the main attraction – seeing Bertie put into a succession of comic crises from which he must save himself, or have Jeeves rescue him at the end of the whole thing, that arise when one foolishly sets oneself up for sure disaster by impersonating somebody else in front of a group of people who should know better. Like a Shakespearean comedy, the action bungs back and forth until everyone is happily attached, except Bertie, of course, who revels in his bachelorhood.

Bertie himself is a surprisingly compelling narrator, not least because underneath that cheerful, aristocratic obtuseness is a character that can sometimes be an interesting subversion of the spoilt rich brat. Wooster may be self-aggrandising, prejudiced, uppity, and prone to wild spurts of impulse and a sorry lack of capacity for self-introspection, he is still a good-hearted person within the narrow confines of what he deems worthy of his help.

Jeeves, on the other hand, while clearly the doer of the duo, isn’t as compelling as I first surmised. Jeeves himself is a secondary character, an unflappable butler of Bertie who acts as a kind of plot lubricator to move things along; his brilliance is usually spoken about, rather than described. Jeeves is capable of supernatural feats of competence, but they are, in The Mating Season, depicted “off-screen”, as it were, blunting the impact of his accomplishments to the plot. Flashes of the real character behind the stoic mask of servitude, no matter how shrewd, are not nearly enough to make Jeeves the character that he should be. In a nutshell (though it may be sacrilege to say so), Jeeves is more plot device than character.

The world of Jeeves and Wooster is so cloistered and privileged, that the worst that anybody in the stories have to worry about is the wrath of their dreaded aunt and the threat of a romantic mismatch. I won’t even go into its problems with depictions of gender and lack of diversity – it would be too much to demand of a mid-century white English author. Some call it idyllic, others hopelessly elitist, but at the end of the day, it is the fruit juice of the soul, saccharine, eminently drinkable, and comforting, not what you’d call particularly complex or robust.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 misplaced envelopes

Ministry of Moral Panic

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Ministry of Moral Panic makes one hopeful for the future of Singaporean literature, even if it isn’t quite where I’d like it to be yet.

Amanda Lee Koe has here written a short story compendium of vignettes touching on various parts of the Singaporean lived experience, across times, places, and identities. Some are stories in and of themselves, others are vehicles to make a point. But most deal in relationships deemed verboten by our collective cultural mores, told in a way that reveals the interlocking web of unspoken assumptions and prejudices that pervade us as a people.

Flamingo Valley is a tale of how two lovers, separated by racial differences, meet each other decades later in a hospital; she is old senile, and decrepit, yet he is the only one she remembers. Pawn is a meditation on the complex power dynamic between a Singaporean Plain Jane who adopts an attractive PRC noodle-shop assistant as her male companion, in a subversion of the usual transnational phenomenon. Two Ways to do This is a magic realist tale of a domestic helper who crosses oceans to fulfill her destiny of siring the child of her employer. With astonishing frankness, they transgress and upend the cultural orthodoxies that can be found even in this allegedly cosmopolitan state.

The stories are told in Koe’s urbane prose peppered with clever turns of phrase. They are replete with the doodads of the Singaporean lived experience, our cultural and memetic paraphernalia – road names, iconic locations, local foods, references to local history, politics, and people – but not cloyingly or self-consciously so. And yet, she writes with a matter-of-fact worldliness, just as someone who grew up with one foot in both the local and the global is wont to do.

Some stories are better than others. Some try too hard to be avant garde and end up being somewhat opaque. Others suffer from a disjoint between the people she is trying to depict and her narrative voice, dripping constantly with a sophistication that her characters should not otherwise possess. In some of her stories, her desire to make a point about something supersedes her more important task to tell a good yarn, and sometimes characters are depicted as walking stereotypes just to play the roles in the drama she is creating.

But every story in Moral Panic is arresting, punchy and vital.  I still remember randomly picking up a prominently displayed copy of the book in Books Actually and being utterly seized by the first few pages of Pawn. At that moment, I knew I had to read it, even though I had a 30 book backlog to slog through. It’s not often a book has that effect on me.

I think Moral Panic’s primary virtue is in how it so adroitly and so frankly critiques aspects of the Singaporean condition without verging on being apologetic or condemnatory. Reading Moral Panic, I imagine it is how people in other cultures react to a book that captures the zeitgeist of their moment, reflecting them back upon  themselves in a way that both edifies and chastens. I can take pride in how a generation of Singaporean millennials has captured contemporary Singapore in their unique literary language, in a way that is both empathetic and unreserved.

Moral Panic shows that Singaporean literature has almost come into its own. That being said, I still think we are a bit too self-absorbed in our preoccupations. Too many of our seminal works are about Singapore-as-concept, questing for an identity that already exists beneath notice, critiquing our political and social strictures and hypocrisies, struggling to pierce the miasma of “nation-building” and “national education”. We are still caught up in the struggle to find ourselves amidst the noise.

I just hope that one day, when this struggle for identity is over, we can look beyond the things that we imagine cause paroxysms of moral panic in our elders and write for the world, not just for ourselves.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 parks

2064:Read Only Memories

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A pleasant if somewhat twee game that uses its cyberpunk setting as a lens for advocating a socially progressive message.

2064: Read Only Memories is a point-and-click adventure game set in the retro-futurist city of neo-SF in – you guessed it – 2064 (the reason for the neo-prefix appellation is never really clearly explained). You play a down-on-their-luck investigative journalist, who, one day, is visited by an intrepid robot (ROM, in the game’s parlance) named Turing. Turing turns out to be the world’s first truly sapient artificial intelligence, and enlists your help to locate their creator, who has gone mysteriously missing. In true cyberpunk style, this lead rapidly escalates into a conspiracy involving shadowy corporations, rogue AIs, and killer androids.

 

ROM is less of a game than it is a kind of interactive visual novel – a point and click game where all you do is choose conversation paths, solve absurdly simplistic puzzles from time to time, and generally follow the story along a linear path to one of a few branching conclusions, based on how you’ve treated your compatriots along the way. Such games stand and fall on the strength of their writing. Luckily, there is an intelligence to ROM that is belied by its somewhat cartoonish presentation. Its characters are your standard cyberpunk tropes – genius kid hackers, shady corporate billionaires, murderous androids – and they all play their roles to the hilt, sometimes almost to the level of caricature. But there are underlying threads and bits of lore and worldbuilding that you can find if you take enough time to talk to characters, and they paint a compelling portrait of a 2065 San Francisco.

A large part of this is the game’s abiding mission to present a socially progressive vision to the player through its characters. ROM features a plethora of LGBT characters for whom their sexuality is just one unremarked-upon facet of their identity. In fact, most of the characters in ROM are either gay or genderqueer in some way. The game uses gene-modified human animal hybrids as a stand-in for the latest discriminated-against minority, and leaves it to the player to show solidarity or not, which has some small bearing over the eventual conclusion you get. The allusion is a bit strained – because hybrids, after all, choose to be hybrids – so the narrative makes it so that many hybrids don’t become hybrids voluntarily, but it’s supposed to be a part of wide-ranging gene therapy. It’s a bit of a convoluted metaphor to generate some degree of social commentary on privilege. The game is better at being just a kind of safe space for LGBT players, who can experience a story in which there are many gay people and that’s that – no thematic significance to that part.

Turing’s character is also a way for the game to expound on its calls for greater tolerance and diversity. As the world’s first sapient robot, Turing is an unknown, an “other” – whose charm and humane nature shine out beyond their chrome exterior. The game is a journey of sorts for Turing, who tries to fashion human-equivalent identities, such as gender, age, or the right of autonomy. It’s up to the player to embrace Turing rather than push them away to get the better ending.

To sum, ROM is a short, simple, at times tacky – but ultimately intriguing cyberpunk adventure with a progressive message to bear. While hardly a game, ROM thrives on the strength of its writing and the surprising depth of its cyberpunk setting. Just make sure you check your non-hybrid privilege at the door first.

I give this: 4 out of 5 milk cartons