Book Review: Chronicles by Bob Dylan

If you haven’t been following the Bob Dylan-Nobel saga, this post has a pretty good summary of the latest drama, although I disagree about the “damage” to the prize.

Anyway, I always look forward to the Nobel because it either introduces to a new author or motivates me to read a book that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Even though Dylan’s primarily a songwriter that are meant to be listened to, this year was no exception. Dylan has written some prose: an experimental novel entitled “Tarantula” (I’ll get to it in the coming weeks) and a memoir, “Chronicles.”

“Chronicles” is actually meant to be the first volume in a three book autobiography project, but it appears Dylan has all but given up on volumes two and three (one was published in 2004, the next book was supposed to come out a few years after, and here we are, 12 years later with no news). It’s not a straightforward story. It starts in the early 60s, when Dylan was trying to establish himself, and jumps around decades, like to the 80s, where the singer experiences a creative block. In fact, that’s what a lot of the chronologically later sequences are about.

Eventually the book loops back around and ends in the early 60s, and it’s these sections, where Dylan is struggling, that stand out. His eagerness and development back then is much more interesting than the malaise of middle age. Then again, I’m not a Dylan fanatic, so perhaps those later sections might have a special significance for someone following Dylan for a while now.

The debate about whether the singer’s lyrics were high enough quality to merit the Nobel (or if the genre deserved the prize) continues, but his artistry is on full display here. Dylan writes in a snappy prose style that barrels forward in a way reminiscent of fellow Nobel laureate’ Saul Bellow. And the out of order timeline never feels random. I couldn’t always see the logic behind the time jumps, but it never caught me off guard, never left me confused, never felt like Dylan was doing it just for the sake of doing it.

All in all, not the perfect piece, but one that has helped me look at his prize in a new way. I was hoping for Pynchon, DeLillo, Vollmann or Erdrich if the prize had to come back to America, and while I still think they would have been better winners, this book at least confirmed that Dylan’s work rises to the level I expect from Nobel laureates.

Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Win (And Defending Him Against Some Criticisms)

So, if you somehow missed the news, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature last Thursday. To say this was unexpected would be downplaying it; his possible candidacy had long been treated like a joke, a way to throw away money at betting sites (because not only can you bet on the Nobel, it’s a prime way speculation works).

I admit, I’m not head over heels with the pick. My initial reaction when Sarah Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, aka the ones in charge of the decision, read out his name, I was shocked, wondering if I hadn’t misheard her—that “D,” did she mean DeLillo? After all, everyone was saying it looked like DeLillo’s year (based on odds movement on the betting sites). Nope, she repeated herself, and it was in fact Bob Dylan. Over the course of Thursday, I stewed over the news, and I got over my initial disbelief and came to listen to more Dylan, I accepted the decision as a good one. He’s still not the American I would’ve picked, maybe not even in the top 5, but I’ve stopped thinking of literary prizes as representing the best of the best and instead wonder if winners reach my vague idea of quality based on the standard from past laureates. On this basis, then yes, Dylan was a good choice. And, even better, I like the Swedish Academy’s ideas of songwriting as literature—surprisingly forward thinking from a committee often known for being too conservative.

Predictably, his win set off a ton of mixed reactions, even more so than usual. Gone were the articles about how no one knew the winner or that Philip Roth should’ve gotten it; pieces questioning whether Dylan deserved the Nobel instead took the center stage. While some of those that were pro Dylan had nonsensical arguments, it was the ones arguing against his win really annoyed me, and here I’ll be doing my best to defend Dylan against some of the ridiculous reasons he didn’t deserve the Nobel.

Songwriting isn’t literature.

I think this is one of the most common criticisms I’ve seen. It’s BS. Of course songwriting can be literature. Is all of it? No, but then not all books are literature, either. Poetry has been tied to singing for as long as there’s been poetry.

Some have said that because the lyrics don’t hold up as well on the page as other poetry and they rely on being sung to sound truly powerful, it doesn’t count. For whatever reasons, when I’ve seen this come up, plays are usually okay, because they’re still gripping when read, but movie scripts aren’t. I don’t see the logic. It seems like an arbitrary cut off so that it helps the argument. For starters, plays definitely lose something when they’re read. Then there’s also musicals which just do not work at all on the page. Hamilton just won one of the most acclaimed literary prizes in the U.S. Where was the outrage then? I haven’t come across any compelling reasons to exclude songwriting from literature; if you know of any, please let me know.

Who will they award next, a Youtuber?

Okay, first of all, ignoring that slippery slope, as far as songwriting goes, Dylan is not your typical one. Academics have been analyzing his work since the 70s and he’s been nominated for the Nobel since the late 90s. Compare that to a Youtuber, or even most other songwriters. Second, he’s just better than almost every songwriter out there. Eminem is not going to suddenly win 30 years from now; Dylan won because he’s produced a large body of literary and critically acclaimed songs and lyrics.

This is actually a quite conservative choice dressed up as a progressive one.

Okay…and? This is one of the oddest critiques I’ve come across. Dylan’s an American white male, so this is actually quite a conventional pick. I don’t see the problem with his ethnicity. Sure, it’s annoying the Swedish Academy doesn’t award more PoC, but Dylan still deserves his Nobel. And no matter how you look at it, awarding a songwriter for the first time is definitely a step forward. Sure, it might not be the radical choice you wanted, but it’s still something new, and anyway, I don’t see how this in anyway takes away from the decision to give it to Dylan.

If they were going to award it to him, why not give it during the 60s or 70s when he was still producing quality work?

This just displays ignorance about how the Literature Nobel works. Almost all winners are older. Getting it at 75 is pretty common. The youngest winners recently have been in their mid 50s, and those were close to being outliers. Also, you don’t win for a few hits; your entire body of work is awarded. In the 70s, he didn’t have nearly the body of work (nor the age) winners often have.

In addition, the Swedish Academy made a point to mention his memoir from 2004 and his album Modern Times, which debuted 10 years ago, when discussing his work. Not the most recent “masterpieces,” but longer gaps between last published quality works and winning have happened (see: Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing).

The prize should’ve gone to a lesser known writer who needed the money.

 Contrary to popular belief, most writers who win the Nobel aren’t just scraping by. In fact, a lot are bestsellers (just not in the U.S.). Mo Yan, Patrick Modiano and J.M.G. Le Clezio, despite being virtually unknown in the English speaking world, were all bestselling novelists in their home countries. Alexievich did say it would allow her to pursue one or two projects she needed to save for, but she’s also an exception, as her nonfiction work requires her to travel a lot. And, anyway, where was the outrage over this when Alice Munro and Mario Vargas Llosa won? They were both incredibly famous and didn’t need the Nobel to pin themselves into literary history.

Him over _____ (insert other writer here)?

This reaction comes up almost every year. It’s how prizes that can only pick each winner a year work. Someone has to win, and plenty of others have to lose. Sorry the Swedes’ taste in literature doesn’t exactly line up with yours, but then it doesn’t perfectly line up with anyone’s, not even individual committee members (there have been some nasty disputes over past winners).

I don’t think Dylan’s lyrics (poetry) compare to the work of other poets.

This is actually one of the few arguments circulated against Dylan’s win that I feel really holds merit. True, it’s subjective, but then all literature is. And it’s not some weak protest that crumbles under closer scrutiny. If you don’t like Dylan, you don’t like Dylan, nothing wrong with that. But don’t dress up your dislike and pretend it’s something that it’s not. “Oh, I like Dylan, but he’s a musician not a writer. He shouldn’t win.” “He’s so rich and won so many other prizes, did he really need this one?” etc.

And at the end of the day, it’s just another literary prize. Granted, it’s one of the oldest ones around, but the Nobel has made almost as many missteps as it has awarded true greatness. Only time will tell if Dylan is a great choice or a gimmick winner best forgotten, but if you ever find yourself arguing over the Nobel, just remember that’s it’s far from the end all be all in books.

Bob Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize

In a very unexpected move, the Swedish academy, the group in charge of awarding the Nobel, gave this year’s award to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Dylan had been nominated before, had even shot up in the odds on Ladbrokes before, but his candidacy was usually treated as a joke. This morning, his odds went from 50/1-16/1. Like I said, he had risen before, I think most prominently in 2010 when he was in the top 5. Most people assumed that since he was such a familiar name, people were betting on him, but now it seems like he might have been a serious contender then.

It’s a real surprise. Although I like Dylan’s music and the academy’s rationale that a songwriter should win (comparing the occupation to Homer and Sappho of the Greeks), I’m still not sure how I feel about Dylan winning. I’m sure I’ll warm up to it, and it is nice to see an American nab it. It’s such a difference with the usual little-known and little-translated author.

I think this will be met with negative reception, but time will tell. I’m sure the general public will be happier with this.

Nobel Prize Speculations

So, the announcement date for the Nobel prize in Literature has been pushed back by a week. The committee said that this is due solely to the dates and when they meet, but as others have said, it’s quite probable that this delay is actually because of a disagreement about who to award. Most times in past years, the eventual winner was in the top 10 at Ladbrokes (yes, people bet on everything; not only that, but betting sites are actually used quite frequently in Nobel speculation), and, to my knowledge, the few times it wasn’t, the laureate had been added to the list and was rising suspiciously through the odds at this point in time. So, going off this, who could be this year’s winner/if there is an argument, which writers could they be battling over?

Haruki Murakami has consistently been the odds favorite for many years now, could this be his year? Could some academy members wanting to give him the prize be the reason for the delay? Honestly, probably not. As a fan of Murakami, I don’t know if I’d say he’s deserving. His prose is simple (and not in the Hemingway-sense where it feels like there’s an artistic reason behind it) and at times awkward (which could be the translation, but I’ve heard the English versions are quite close to the original). His stories are all similar, and, most importantly, if they’ve passed over him before, I don’t see any reason to give it to him now. His latest book wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, and if he didn’t win before, I don’t see him nabbing the Nobel now.

There is Adunis, though, a Syrian poet who writes in Arabic. I’ve read a short collection by him, and although poetry is not really my thing, I wouldn’t mind to see him win. That said, he has been considered the frontrunner before and has certainly been nominated—in 2005, the last time the announcement was delayed by a week, he was thought to be a finalist—meaning, why would he win now? The political situation in Syria? The civil war and refugee crisis isn’t new this year, and in 2005, sources said Orhan Pamuk, who was undergoing a trial in Turkey over freedom of speech, was another finalist but that the academy might pass him over in order to prevent the prize from getting too political (Pamuk would end up winning the following year). Perhaps the row is over giving it to Adunis, but I don’t see why he would end up walking away with it.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long been thought of as Africa’s frontrunner, but he has the same problem: nothing he’s published recently has really made waves. I also greatly dislike his work, so while it wouldn’t be the end of the prize if he won, I would prefer to see another African win. (On the other hemisphere, I put Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth in this category. I don’t understand why they keep coming up year after year).

Jon Fosse rose in the odds in 2013, when Alice Munro turned out to be the winner, but since then he’s been thought of as a likely candidate. Boosting his chances are his plays—Pinter was the last playwright winner—and a recent prestigious award for his recent “trilogy.” So we have an underrepresented type of literature with a recent big important work that might put him over the edge. I am hesitant, though: the same academy that awards the Nobel also gives out a smaller Scandinavian-only prize that Fosse won in 2007. If it was his year, I don’t know if an argument like this would be happening—the academy clearly already likes his work.

Javier Marias, meanwhile, is one of the few writers to see real changes in odds this year. He started out around 50/1 and moved all the way up to 17/1. The thing about him, though, is that he really didn’t deserve to be at such low odds originally. If I was a betting man, I’d have put some money on him just because of how low he was. He’s been bandied about in discussions online as a potential winner for several years now, and betting on him at 50/1 could give you a pretty penny.

Mircea Cartarescu has been called the Romanian frontrunner for several years now, after his humongous work Blinding, and just this year he published another large, critically acclaimed work. Like Marias, he also saw a jump in his odds, but also like Marias, he really should have been higher to begin with anyway.

So, who will end up winning? Other than Cartarescu and Marias, a few others have seen their odds go down (Fosse, Adunis and Roth included) but those changes were so small and there has been no other movement from them that no conclusions can really be drawn. And anyway, those with the lowest odds usually see them drop even lower in the weeks prior, so it’s not unexpected. Hopefully this next week, as the academy figures out who will win, we see more movement/even a leak.

As for my picks, I’d like to see Fosse or Marias win it this year. There are a number of others I wouldn’t mind seeing win (William T. Vollmann, Can Xue, Su Tong, Louise Erdrich), but I don’t think it’ll be any of them; had they made it to the shortlist, we probably would have seen their names rise (or just appear) on a betting list.

Book Review: Zero K by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is one of the most acclaimed contemporary American writers, one of the so-called “Bloom Four” (named after the literary critic Harold Bloom; the others are Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy, all perennial Nobel candidates). But, of this exclusive group, DeLillo’s work is probably the most uneven. He rose to prominence with the publication of four novels–White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Underworld–and his early and later output has veered from quirky cult classic to “what the hell was he thinking?”

Zero K, his latest novel, is similar to his recent works, such as Cosmopolis and Point Omega, but better (and I say that as one of his few fans who loves Point Omega). It is not so much a plot or character driven book as it is an idea-driven one. Death permeates every page, as do theories about it. Abstract talk about violence and meaning also frequently come up, though never so concretely that DeLillo lays out his own thoughts with clarity.

The book opens with Jeffrey Lockhart narrating as he arrives at a strange facility near Kyrgyzstan to see his stepmother die, or, rather, see her final moments before she is cryogenically frozen so she can awake in a future where she might live longer. Jeffrey’s father, a billionaire businessman who walked out of his wife and son some years ago, plans to join her. The strange futuristic area they’re in creates some unease in our narrator. Its sleek interior is simply too sleek. Displays appear showing news clips of violence, usually silently, though out the halls so that violence and death are always with Jeffrey.

As the novel progresses, we return to America to see more of the narrator’s everyday life. Those hoping for a thrilling plot or even well developed or intriguing characters should look elsewhere, but what would be a death sentence to other writers DeLillo pulls off. The book knows it’s a meditation on death and language’s limitations and doesn’t try to be anything else. Gluing this together is DeLillo’s prose, which is, as always, incredible.

As for flaws, it’s not so much the novel is flawless as it just features flaws that are always present in the author’s books. The dialogue is still stilted as characters talk in the same poetic, abstract manner DeLillo writes in. There is a lack of satisfying resolution. Not much happens. Themes are repeated over and over again. But fans have surely come to expect all this.

This is a novel to be thought about. Once I finished it and started examining the plot, structure, thematic devices, and it became a bit clearer what DeLillo was after (or, at least an interpretation of what he is after), the book went up from three or four stats to a low five out of five.

I would not recommend anyone start DeLillo here, but this is definitely one of his better books. Those who liked White Noise or Underworld but were turned off by a few others works are advised to give him another try with this one. It’s not a masterpiece like those two books, but it’s far from being a mess like some of his others.

Book Review: In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s oeuvre has an odd cumulative effect: the more books you read by him, the more you like him. The novels occupy special places in his body of work, complementing each other. But, other than a few highly acclaimed near-masterpieces (Missing Person, Dora Bruder, and Pedigree), all of these feel incomplete with taken alone, and sometimes even placing them within the context of his other novels is not enough to shake this feeling. Thankfully, In The Café Of Lost Youth belongs in the former category of near-masterpieces.

Those familiar with Modiano, however, might appreciate it more. It deals with all the typical Modiano tropes and themes: a dreamy recollection of years long past, Parisian locales, possible shady dealings, a detective, a mysterious young woman. If Modiano doesn’t click for you, it’s easy to get tired of the same old tricks, but here it works. He varies the formula just enough to make it new.

The novel begins with a typical Modiano narrator, a young student with a literary bent. He describes a café he begins to frequent, the regulars there, and an odd woman who attracts him. But 25 pages in, the point of view switches. There are four different narrators in total, including a passage narrated by the intriguing young woman. This allows Modiano to avoid a pitfall he frequently has trouble with. Too often he is too vague in his endings, not so much not answering questions readers have as not even providing the framework to know which questions to ask. By switching the point of view, he manages to give satisfying solutions to problems one narrator might not know which another reveals, while still evoking the mysterious atmosphere he is so famous for.

And, much like his other novels, this is incredibly short, with around 130 pages in my edition.

Though perhaps not as great as Missing Person or Dora Bruder, this is up there as one of the author’s best. Anyone—fans, those who tried a book and weren’t wowed, newcomers—are all recommended to take a look at this.

Book Review: Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

Soon after they come into power in China, the Communists killed numerous landowners. Ximen Nao is a fictional landowner based off of those condemned. Through sheer stubbornness, he manages to convince the Lord of the Underworld, Lord Yama, to grant him another chance at life, which Yama agrees to but with a twist: Ximen Nao is reincarnated as a donkey. The novel follows him and others from his town through most post-1950 Chinese events.

The first section features Ximen Nao as a donkey, but he doesn’t stay in this form for long. Each part has Nao reincarnated from various animals, from a dog to a bigheaded baby. And although he provides the crux of the novel, he is not the only narrator: the son of Nao’s former servant also has a voice. The narration style has been criticized as being hard to follow at times, but I never thought this was the case. At first it is not clear to whom the narrators are telling these stories, but it never hampers the narrative and after a few chapters it becomes obvious.

Out of the books I’ve read by Mo Yan, this is by far my favorite (although it is by no means perfect). There is hardly a dull moment in the 550+ page book. His satiric pen is on full display here (parodying some of the odder moments in China’s Communist chapter, such as the Great Sparrow Campaign), as is his unrestrained prose style. For those who think less is more or enjoy the terse styles of Camus or Hemingway, this probably is not the right book for you; for those who enjoy Faulkner or Marquez’s verbosity, you will find more of what you love in Mo Yan.

Actually, the comparisons to those latter two writers run deeper than just on the writing level. Mo Yan was influenced by both of them. The various techniques Faulkner uses throughout his own pieces are present in LIFE AND DEATH. The family chronicle as Mo Yan depicts it here seem to me reminiscent of the one Marquez wrote in ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE.

But, as I said, this is not a perfect novel. Towards the end, during one of Ximen Nao’s last reincarnations (the monkey), it is almost like Mo Yan realized he needed to wrap up the book quickly and speeds through. As a result, it seems unfinished and unsatisfying. A lot more could have come from this bit or it could have been edited out. In this half-assed form, it just doesn’t work.

Aside from that, there are few problems with the text. The first time I read THE GARLIC BALLADS, I knew Mo Yan had it in him to write something truly great; to me, this is him fulfilling that. A great work of not just Chinese but world literature.

(Fun fact: Mo Yan wrote this in 42 days when he was suffering from bad insomnia. I can find nothing about how much editing took place afterward, but knowing Mo Yan and how prolific he is, it would not surprise me if there was only a minimal amount. Another fun fact: though the title in English is a mouthful, it is probably the best possible rendering of the literal Chinese title, which translates directly into something like “Life-Death Fatigue.”)

Book Review: Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe

This is an incredibly Japanese book. At times it makes statements few outside of Japan can relate to, like saying the atomic bombs and their aftermath were worse than the Holocaust (it’s not a pain Olympics, guys). It also dedicates about 1/3 of its size to Japanese conferences on the A-bomb back in the 60s and the factions behind it splitting up, something I don’t think many people nowadays have an interest in. A lot of the other sections feature Oe throwing around vague terms like “dignity” and “courage” liberally; to his credit he does try to define them and the reader does get a sense of what he means by these terms, but the explanations are never truly satisfactory (though Oe himself also admits this).

Still, the sheer power and intensity of these essays outshine those problems. After some talk about the conferences, the rest focuses on the victims and doctors of Hiroshima who struggle to go on living everyday existences, and provides glimpses at those who fail to look past the horror of their condition and those who succeed. It’s very moving, and those who know Oe’s biography know the effect meeting with these people had on him, a feeling Oe manages to condense down on to the paper and transfer to readers.

I wonder how much is lost in translation. At one point, Oe, while highlighting how odd the Japanese word for “dignity” is, writes, “That boy is full of dignity,” noting how odd it sounds in his language and how it sounds translated from a western one. And, reading this book in a western one, it really doesn’t sound too out there. Oe is known for messing with syntax and producing sentences that appear as though they’ve been translated from some European tongue. While translators have been able to reproduce his knotty style with great success in novels like A PERSONAL MATTER or THE SILENT CRY, here the translators attempted no such feats and in the introduction admit that whenever something sounded weird and western in the original they opted for a simple version of the sentence. Too bad, I wonder how this book read in Japanese.

I’m a bit disappointed so few of his essays are available in English. Oe’s role as a spokesman for the new generation in 60s Japan was apparently more for his essays than his fiction. All we have are three small books: this one, a collection of magazine pieces about life with his son, and a short collection of lectures, including the one he gave at the Nobel ceremony. While the beginning of this one is bound in time to the 60s and as a result a bit dated, the middle and end transcend time and are a must read for any one who can get their hands on the collection.

If I remember correctly, Oe once said this was his most important book, and it’s not hard to see why. A must-read for anyone, but power through the first third if you’re not digging it.

Book Review: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

A baby with a deformed head is born to a Japanese couple. The father, Bird, who dreams of an unencumbered life in Africa, keeps the baby’s problem a secret from his wife and conspires with a doctor to give his son weak milk to kill him. The thought of his disabled offspring drive Bird to binging on alcohol and shacking up with an old girlfriend with problems of her own. So begins Kenzaburo Oe’s A PERSONAL MATTER. Oe himself has a with brain issues, born a few months before this work appeared, and while Oe’s coming to terms with his son is probably much more mundane than the events here, it certainly adds a new dimension to the book.

Oe’s typical awkward yet poetic prose is on full display here. Disillusioned with Japanese traditions after the Second World War, he spurned his country’s conventional prose, like the understated work of Yasunari Kawabata, in favor of long sentences padded with odd and unexpected adjectives. Just look at A PERSONAL MATTER’s opening line:

Bird, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a sigh.

This is not a book meant just for those interested in Japanese literature; it was the inaugural pick at Jonathan Franzen’s book club. As such a focused image of despair, it transcends cultural boundaries, and for such depressing subject matter it is quite the page-turner. For those on the fence, it is also a small commitment, clocking in at 165 pages in my edition.

The most common criticism is the ending, with even some mesmerized by the rest of the book being disappointed upon reaching the last pages. The first time I read it, it was the only negative I could think of. As such, the rest of this review will deal with spoilers, so keep reading at your own risk.

Since Oe accepted his son’s disability in real life, it is not too surprising that Bird does the same here. After the innutritious milk fails to off the baby, Bird and his old girlfriend take him to a sketchy abortion clinic and stop at a bar for a celebratory beer before traveling to Africa when Bird has a change of heart and returns to his family life. Many have claimed that all the bad decisions and existential angst preceding this renders the ending unconvincing and out of place.

The first time I read A PERSONAL MATTER, I went through the book cover to cover one evening, utterly entranced until the ending, which made me rethink my rating from a 5/5 to a 4/5. I had even known the conclusion before I began reading and it still seemed tacked on, ranking up there with GREAT EXPECTATIONS for awful endings.

And then, a few years later, traveling through Japan, with my family, I reread it, taking my time and finishing it after a few days. I was blown away. Tons of literary references that went over my head before now made sense and deepened my appreciation for the author. His language went from odd but beautiful to measured artistic rebellion (I had not known about his reasons for incorporating bizarre metaphors and sentence structures previously). And, most importantly, the ending made sense. When Bird shows up to his job teaching at a cram school incredibly hungover and vomits in front of his class, one student threatens to report him to the headmaster, most likely resulting in a termination. Other pupils offer to cover for him but Bird refuses, insisting he must take responsibility although he cannot articulate why he feels this way. This and a few other side plots and references that I missed when I barreled the book in a few hours foreshadow the ending.

Even with this, the ending still is not a 100% fitting finale, but at least it does not seem like a passage ripped from a different novel and made enough sense in context for me to restore that missing point in my rating. Given the relatively quick composition, it’s a wonder that it is only the ending that does not perfectly fit. A PERSONAL MATTER is not a flawless novel, but it comes very close. Just be sure to take your time with it; it is deceptively dense.

Book Review: Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe is probably my favorite writer. Each one of his works is filled with dense, emotionally charged poeticism, and even if a book of his is not particularly gripping, by the end I am always wowed. This book is no exception.

Although some changes have been made, most of the book is rooted in reality: the reader follows the narration of a famous Japanese writer called K, who has written the same books as Oe and who has a disabled son, also like Oe. O ROUSE UP consists of K interweaving the present as his son approaches adulthood with memories, the poetry of William Blake (which serves as an important metaphor), and his own work. The result is an episodic novel (it has been described as a short story collection by its author, although all the parts do cohere) with less narrative drive than some are used to but a powerful book nonetheless.

As an Oe fan, this book is almost everything I want from one of his books. His overt philosophizing, his strange language, his description of human relationships, his mythmaking, his ability to weave all of that into a good story are all present here. But though I don’t have many complaints with this book, I would not recommend anyone start Oe here.

Why? This is a work for those who have already been introduced to him and Japanese culture. When he compares Blake to his own books, I don’t think many who aren’t already familiar with Oe to get much out of it. When he talks about a band of young political youths who united under the famous writer M, you’re supposed to be able to tell that he is referring to Mishima and an offshoot of a militia he formed. Similarly, Oe often talks about his disabled son in his literature and if this is the first time the reader is hearing about their relationship, no doubt they will miss a lot.

If you’re already acquainted with a few of his books, this will probably be a worthwhile book. If you’re looking to get into Oe, there are much better places to start. NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS and A PERSONAL MATTER rank among some of his most accessible, with the former, his first novel, about kids abandoned in a village durig the second world war trying to forge a life for themselves, and the latter detailing a father whose son has just been born with a brain defect and the decisions he makes. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as reviews of those two will be posted soon.