Review: Life Form, by Amélie Nothomb

n404315>>Published (in English): February 2013

>>Finally got around to it: March 2013

Two hundred pounds is already a huge person. I’m richer by one whole huge person now. Since she came and joined me here, I’ve been calling her Scheherazade. It’s not very kind to the real Scheherazade, who must have been a slender creature. But I’d rather identify her with one person and not two, and with a woman rather than a man, probably because I’m heterosexual. Besides, I like the idea of Scheherazade. She speaks to me all night long. She knows I can’t make love anymore, so instead of doing it with me she charms me with her beautiful stories. I’ll let you in on my secret: it’s thanks to Scheherazade’s storytelling that I can live with my obesity. I don’t need to make you a drawing to show you what would happen to me if the guys found out I gave the name of a woman to my fat. But I know that you won’t judge me. You have a few obese characters in your books, and the way you portray them they never lack dignity. And in your books they make up strange legends, like Scheherazade, to be able to go on living.

It’s as if she were the one writing this letter. I can’t get her to stop. I’ve never written such a long message in my life, which proves it’s not me. I hate my obesity, but I love Scheherazade. At night when my weight presses down my chest, I imagine it’s not me but a beautiful young woman lying on my body. I immerse myself in the story and I can hear her sweet feminine voice murmuring indescribable things in my ear. Then my fat arms squeeze her flesh and it’s so convincing that instead of feeling my own flab, I am touching a lover’s smooth skin. At times like that, believe me, I am happy. Better still: we are happy, she and I, the way only lovers can be.

***

Since discovering an English translation of Amélie Nothomb’s first novella Hygiene and the Assassin a couple of years ago, I’ve devoured, in very short order, what little of her work I’ve been able to find. This is fitting, given the themes of consumption—both of the artist and their art—at the heart of Life Form.

Employing a predominantly epistolary format, Life Form tells the story of the world famous writer Amélie Nothomb and her was-it-real-or-wasn’t-it correspondence with a man named Melvin Mapple, a dangerously obese and downtrodden American soldier stationed in Iraq in 2008. Mapple is a fan of Nothomb’s writing. He reaches out to her first for understanding, then for inspiration as he pours his woes out to an intrigued if not entirely confident ear. Mapple’s body is at once his worst enemy and closest confidante; he is a compulsive eater, using food to deal with the horrors he’s experienced as a soldier in Iraq. Over time, he has developed an attachment to the extra weight he carries around, seeing it as a lover, a family, an act of sabotage, and in the end, a work of art.

Through their correspondence, Nothomb addresses not only her own misgivings about Mapple’s attitude towards his self, but her reluctance to emotionally involve herself with a fan—someone she’s never met who, like so many who write to her every week, is in some way devouring a part of her as he slowly devours his own will to exist.

I won’t say much more about the plot because, like all of Nothomb’s books, Life Form is a trim, fast read that is best experienced in only one or two sittings. This novella, while embracing its uniquely epistolary format, does tread on some familiar ground for the author; weight, size, obesity, and the control or lack thereof such things symbolize are a continuing source of antagonism in her work—never a thing for belittling or condemning, but something to be at first acknowledged, then confronted, pulled into the here and now in order to be better understood.

From the beginning of her career, via the embittered, misogynistic Prétextat Tach of Hygiene and the Assassin, obesity and size have been prominent components of Nothomb’s literature. In Life Form, she’s able to muster an appreciation for Mapple as long as he remains on the other end of their correspondence, invisible and out of sight; she can dispense sympathy and support with greater ease than if her were in front of her, confronting her with his size. This point is made clear when two thirds of the way through the novella she receives a photograph of Mapple in all his corpulence. In that instant, the pondering over his girth and what it means for his health and mental state is replaced by an overwhelming parade of visual notes:

It hit me right in the face: a naked, hairless thing, so enormous that it spilled over the edge. A blister in full expansion: you could sense the flesh constantly searching for new opportunities to spread and swell, to conquer new terrain. The fresh flab must have to cross continents of fatty tissue to blossom on the surface, before crusting over like bacon draped over a roast to become the support for even newer fat. Thus is the void conquered by obesity: to add weight, the body annexes the empty space.

Not terribly warm-hearted of her, but striking and sense-igniting all the same. This passage, for all its negativity, is the author once more stripping her skin for the reader, revealing her… not her hatred of fat, but her fear of it, her struggle for control projected outward. Before seeing Mapple, his fat is simply an idea, not yet a reality—a mirror into which she sees something still worth raising one’s hackles over.

As the narrative progresses and, following certain revelations, plans to meet are made, the correspondence as a hunger in and of its self is made clear. Nothomb discusses the trouble with correspondence—the public feeding off the artist, always begging, always asking for more of her mind, her time, and her ideas. What become more obvious over time are the direct parallels between Mapple’s at times bi-polar reaction to his own physique and Nothomb’s semi-transparent social anxiety, each of which has roots in the other. Both, when all is said and done, tread a delicate balance between acknowledging their own fears and psychological limitations and self-victimizing in order to better avoid life and the world outside their tiny, protective-yet-destructive bubbles. Life Form is a missive about devouring and being devoured in every sense of the word, and where control rests in such situations.

There’s a certain amount of curiosity and innocence to Nothomb’s writing and how she sees and interacts with the world—in a perfunctory and highly visual manner, but not at all outwardly combative or dismissive. By often placing herself—or, at the very least, a heightened, possibly slightly fictionalized version of herself—at the forefront of the stories she tells, Nothomb crafts an unusually strong relationship with the reader in which she largely avoids social criticism and points her knives instead at her own chest. Life Form, like all her novellas, is a clean glass of ice water embracing an absolute brevity of language to maximum effect. Whether the correspondence between the author and Mapple actually happened is irrelevant, and surprisingly enough I have no desire to look further into the matter. What is important in the case of this narrative is the author’s willingness and ability to, without reservation, sheer away any and all pretension she might have had in favour of an honest appraisal of both Mapple and herself. What is revealed by the narrative’s end is equal parts sad, unsettling, and touching.

Review: In the Miso Soup, by Ryu Murakami

tumblr_lgscn3AE9g1qdh8kto1_400>>Published: 1997

>>Finally got around to it: March 2013

I didn’t want to go. But with Frank’s eyes drilling into me, I couldn’t have moved anyway. I had turned to stone, from the tip of each hair on my head all the way down to my toenails. Frank grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me inside. At the door I lost my balance and nearly fell, but he caught me and easily supported my entire weight with his right arm. He carried me inside as if I were a piece of luggage and dropped me carelessly on the floor. I heard him walk back to the door and pull down the steel security shutter outside it. When I opened my eyes I saw two pairs of legs, a man’s and a woman’s. I knew the woman was Maki by her red high heels and white lace stockings. A wet, shin, scarlet line slithered down the shin of one stocking. Like a living creature, some sort of parasite maybe, it was crawling along the delicate threads at a slow but steady pace. At a table facing her, Lady #5 along with Mr. Children and Lady #3 sat goggling slack-jawed at Maki. The moment I looked up and saw what they were staring at, everything in my stomach began the journey back up my esophagus. It looked as though Maki had another mouth below her jaw. Oozing from this second, smiling mouth was a thick, dark liquid, like coal tar. Her throat had been slit literally from ear to ear and more than halfway through, so that it looked as if her head might fall right off. And yet, incredibly, Maki was still on her feet and still alive, her eyeballs swiveling wildly and her lips quivering as she wheezed foam-flecked blood from the wound in her throat. She seemed to be trying to say something. The man beside her was the manager. He and Maki were leaning against each other, as if they’d been positioned to hold each other up. His neck was twisted in an unnatural way, his head turned as though to look over his shoulder, but drooping limply, chin resting on his shoulder blade. Just beyond Maki’s high heels, Yuko and the waiter lay in a heap on the floor. A thin blade, like a sashimi knife, was buried deep in Yuko’s lower back, and the waiter’s neck was twisted like the manager’s.

***

Kenji is a twenty-year-old “night life” guide for Americans looking to get their fuck on in Tokyo’s many exotic clubs and love hotels. His girlfriend Jun is a sixteen-year-old high school student who tacitly endorses Kenji’s at-the-moment career and his dream of saving up enough money to go to America. Just prior to New Year’s Kenji meets Frank, an American businessman in need of Kenji’s particular expertise. Together Kenji and Frank embark on a multi-night sex tour of the Tokyo ward Shinjuku that ends in murder, mayhem, and a peculiar, almost impossible to understand bond that develops between two very different men.

Frank discovers Kenji through an advertisement in the Tokyo Pink Guide—a guide to some of Tokyo’s many sexploits and sexcursions. He offers him a grand sum of money for three nights work—three nights to show Frank the ropes of the seedier side of town. Right away Kenji is suspicious of Frank; we learn in the beginning of a young woman found mutilated and discarded in a neighbouring area. Kenji suspects Frank—an out-of-towner with strangely artificial skin, an oddly shaped penis, and suicide scars up and down his wrists—might have had something to do with the killing. Almost immediately gaps begin to appear in the stories Frank tells Kenji; either his mind and memory are firing at random intervals, or he is not being entirely honest with Kenji. He is unpredictable, his emotions tripping between extremes at regular intervals. It isn’t long before Kenji’s questions are answered and Frank crosses over from odd duck to full-blown psycho killer territory.

The cover of my copy of In the Miso Soup has a blurb from the Guardian: “Reads like the script notes for American Psycho.” This is accurate, but only to a point. While there are definite psychopathic similarities between Psycho’s 1980s poster boy for all things effed Patrick Bateman and In the Miso Soup’s businessman-on-a-sexual-bender Frank, the styles of the two novels are drastically different; whereas American Psycho is a send-up of the culture of the moment and aesthetic conventions and obsessions, In the Miso Soup is borderline surreal in its marriage of Japanese culture and one American’s spur-of-the-moment killing spree.

Following Frank’s mid-novel rampage, Kenji pretzels himself into accepting what’s happened—at first out of fear for his own life, then out of some misguided concern for how going to the police might negatively affect his not-totally-legal career, and finally because of the distorted friendship that blossoms between them as more of Frank’s twisted and idiosyncratic past is revealed.

The three acts of In the Miso Soup are all quite distinctive: set-up and suspicion; a glorious, blood-soaked killing spree; and a point-for-point (and very detailed) excursion into one’s disturbed past. Kenji’s gradual acceptance of Frank—despite still fearing him—is steeped in a mix of curiosity and concern for Frank’s well being. There are strong mental illness undertones to Frank’s actions; however, they are, to a degree, undone by the novel’s brief but totally unrealistic side trips into is-it-or-isn’t-it black magic, such as Frank’s inexplicable ability to hypnotize innocent bystanders.

To the novel’s benefit, the connection between Kenji and Frank, while strange, is intriguing. By associating with Frank, Kenji is given an inverted view of the world that until now he’s only seen from safe places. Conversely, Frank spares Kenji because he sees in him an agreeable sort—a guide not entirely unsympathetic to actions he feels emotionally removed from.

Despite the mid-novel bloodbath, In the Miso Soup is decidedly tame by Murakami’s standards. Kenji’s progression from suspicion to fear and eventually tacit understanding is believable, as is his sympathy for Frank in the aftermath of the second night’s events. While Frank’s almost supernatural abilities take the reader out of the novel in brief moments, the journey overall is interesting, though not entirely thrilling.

In the Miso Soup is if nothing else a curious exploration of psychotic behaviour.

Review: In and Down, by Brett Alexander Savory

iad_frontcvr_highres>>Published: September 2007

>>Finally got around to it: March 2013

Stephen looks at his brother over their mother’s shoulder while she leans down to attach the bandage to his ear. Michael’s looking at him and he’s thinking—and this is one of the clearest thoughts he’s ever had—he’s thinking: What’s wrong with me? Why would I do that to you?

Once she’s attached the bandage to Stephen’s ear and given him a good, strong hug, she turns around, swivels her head, and her eyes find Michael in the corner.

She sees something in his eyes. The look she gives him says: There’s something rotten inside you. I can see it. There is something wrong with you. You’re a terrible, terrible boy, and I don’t love you anymore.

The boys’ father walks in the back door, folding and tossing his newspaper on the kitchen table. He looks at no one.

Growing up, Michael remembers sometimes wondering what it was that their father stuffed into him and his brother, what things he crammed into those holes that he dug in them both. Standing in that kitchen—the smell of his mother, the sad, confused eyes of his brother across the room, and his father walking through the wreckage as if none of it touched him—Michael realizes that those things his father dug and stuffed into his children were pieces of himself.

Pieces of himself that he didn’t like.

***

A little bit of The Good Son, mixed with a healthy dose of Memento and a pseudo-personality-swapping structure that in some ways echoes Lynch’s Lost Highway, Brett Alexander Savory’s In and Down is a narrative matryoshka painted with a twisted, grime-drenched carnival aesthetic. It’s about learned hatred, assumed blame, the misconceptions and cruelties of childhood, and the many, often dangerous, ways siblings target and wound one another.

Stephen and Michael are brothers—Stephen being the eldest, and Michael the story’s focus. Michael is in many ways a delicate boy. He is frequently picked on by Stephen, sees his father as a rough, guttural example of a man (who’s personality is a toxic mess of racism and neglect), and is investigating the whys and wherefores of his mother’s disappearance.

In searching for his mother, and by result his sense of self and place among things, Michael discovers a letter written by her, detailing her reasons for leaving—because of the unease she felt living with one of the two boys. Michael’s search for answers quickly intensifies, leading him into a lucid dream state where he encounters Hob, a guide or ringmaster of sorts for the carnival of Michael’s mind. Dressed in a green suit and purple top hat, Hob opens the door for Michael, starting him on a journey to the very centre of his being. As Michael travels deeper into his dream and with greater frequency, he meets an assortment of characters like Marla, Smithy, and Crimley, each representative of another aspect of the journey (such as the construct of the ideal woman/mother carved from a block of wood and personalized, or the permanent mask worn to shield one from the hideousness of self).

In and Down is not a book you read once. Savory has gone to great trouble to give each and every character a sense of physicality, and of purpose—even if that purpose is at first obscured. From the dead dogs buried in Michael and Stephen’s backyard, to their father’s obvious racism, and the slow, steady descent into the dream carnival’s freak show—and by proxy the rotten core of Michael (and possibly Stephen)—In and Down is about a slow peeling back of the layers, like a hangnail that when tugged tears a long strip of skin up the side of one’s finger.

Michael is, in many ways, an unreliable narrator. We can’t trust him because he doesn’t truly know himself. The sense of discovery in In and Down is richly apparent in the bleeding of realities via Michael’s dream descent. And as the elevator gets closer and closer to the bottom, and the carnival is inundated more and more with freak show attractions, clowns, and single-serving acquaintances, Michael comes closer to learning the truths about his mother’s disappearance and his difficult relationship with his father and brother. Nowhere is this unsettling sense of discovery more obvious than when a clown drapes a blanket over Michael and “he closes his eyes, sucks the heat into himself. Buries his face in the fabric of the blanket and inhales.

“It smells like makeup and dirt.”

Without spoiling certain late-novel events, I began to ponder part-way through the narrative if ever there were two brothers, or if there had only ever been one, and the trip through the carnivalesque nightmare world was in fact a slow-motion psychological break—one child feeling responsible for the disappearance of a parent and needing something to blame, and crafting that something into the body and mind of a brother that never existed in the first place.

I wish I could say I felt with total confidence that this was the case, but as previously mentioned and more than any book I’ve read in recent months, I think I need to start back at the beginning and give In and Down a second read.

Savory’s story is not difficult, nor is it convoluted, but it’s easy to slide down the mountain of vivid imagery (with too many fucking clowns for comfort) without giving it too much thought at first, only to look behind after the fact and realize what it was that had just been revealed. Michael and Stephen are believable as children—their voices feel authentic without being “written down to.” And the sporadic use of images and illustrations, such as dirty, handwritten notes, add emphasis and an air of the macabre without disrupting the narrative flow.

I was pleasantly surprised by In and Down and how it not only subverted expectations as I was reading it, but has continued to change in my mind as I’ve taken the time to really think about it in the days since finishing. It’s an unsettling look at the lives of children and siblings, and of memory and assumption, and it is not to be breezed through lightly. Take your time with this one. Pick it apart—you’ll be glad you did.

Review: The Placebo Effect, by David Rotenberg

placebo>>Published: February 2012

>>Finally got around to it: March 2013

“I told him, ‘It doesn’t work on people I care about or family.’”

Decker had thought at the time about telling his father about the lines in his head—how they aligned when he heard a truth—then decided against it, as he decided against telling the southern girl across the table from him.

“My father’s eyes widened then he said, ‘I want you downstairs next Thursday night.’

“I protested, ‘But you and your friends are way better pool players than—’

“‘I know,’ he said.

“‘But I’m not good enough to play with—’

“‘No you aren’t, but come down and play that lying trick of yours.’

“I really didn’t want to do it, but I did. After their game ended and the men left, my father asked me what statements made by his friends were truthful. I identified the very few truths spoken that night, then added, ‘And Mr. Walsh pocketed a twenty that belonged to you.’

“‘You saw that too?”

“‘Yes.’

“My father nodded slowly. ‘This is pretty interesting, don’t you think?’ he said.

“But I really didn’t find it interesting. I found it scary and isolating. And I didn’t like the way my father looked at me—like I had confirmed in his mind that I really was a freak. So I stopped using it.”

***

Decker Roberts is a synaesthete. Not one of those “silly” synaesthetes who can smell words or see colours and shapes in music (of which I am actually the latter), but an actual benefit to society and the protection of life and liberty. Through some crossed wiring in his brain he is able to tell, with incredible precision, when someone is telling the truth. Sometimes, that is. When there are no possible outstanding factors that might give someone reason to fib. Oh, and that’s another thing: he can’t tell when someone’s lying, only when they’re not being entirely truthful. Which is a round about way of saying that though Decker is in possession of a unique ability, it comes a pre-packaged laundry list of ways it can be circumvented. It’s a little like getting a mobile phone that only works when you’re standing in one specific spot at a certain time of day.

In the years since his wife’s death from ALS, Decker has forged a side-business to take advantage of his particular set of skills. On paper he teaches acting courses and has a past in the Broadway theatre scene. Off the record, however, he is available on a case-by-case basis for jobs requiring him to tell whether or not someone—usually an employee of a business with too much money to burn—is being truthful. When not jetting around North America on one-night-only jobs, Decker makes his home in Toronto, in an area of the city known as the Junction, where he pines for slivers of knowledge as to the wellbeing and whereabouts of his estranged son, Seth, who abandoned Decker years earlier for reasons not explained in this book.

The plot of The Placebo Effect, the first in a trilogy of books, revolves around two primary elements: the NSA’s tracking of known synaesthetes (not unlike the mutant Registration program from X-Men, minus the towering, thirty-foot-tall sentinels); and Henry-Clay Yolles of Yolles pharmaceuticals orchestrating a scam to sell his company’s medication for maximum profit using a carefully calculated ratio of placebos to actual medicine. The ratio itself was calculated beyond a shadow of a doubt by another synaesthete—the tragically simple Mike Shedloski (aka the Ratio Man). Henry-Clay is aware of Decker Roberts and his special skill and puts him to the test—supposedly to see whether or not he can be used as an asset. But when Mike the Ratio Man threatens to reveal Yolles Pharmaceuticals’ underhanded behaviour, Henry-Clay deems both him and Decker as threats to be quickly discarded.

There are a great many more characters and plot elements to the story—too many, in fact, given how little time is spent developing each character. I had several problems with The Placebo Effect, chief among them that it’s simply not very well written, plotted, or paced. The characters themselves are two-dimensional cut-outs. They have back-stories, sure—like Crazy Eddie attempting to regain custody of his daughter, or the mostly-untold history between Seth and Decker—but there is so much jumping around scene to scene, and often with only single paragraphs dedicated to one time or place before moving onto the next, that it is almost impossible to get any sort of emotional or psychological feel for any of the characters. The structure is spastic in how quickly it moves between people and places, and as such there is no room for the narrative or the characters to breathe, to be anything to one another but basic screenplay devices. And when Rotenberg does attempt to give a little depth via comparisons or interests, it is still handed in a frustratingly surface-level manner (eg: using albums, films, and TV shows to illustrate character traits, but not explaining how or what the relation is—such as referencing one’s dislike of The Fountainhead without giving context as to why). And when all is said and done, no actual depth has been added through these plentiful asides, and the reader is left perpetually wanting more—and not at all in a constructive I-can’t-wait-for-the-sequel manner.

Beyond these issues, I found the manner in which topics related to race were handled to be insensitive and heavy-handed, the amount of information which is teased but deliberately held back for future installments to be overwhelmingly distracting (and by holding so much of it back, especially with respect to Seth and Decker’s relationship, it actually harms are ability to take an interest in either one of their lives), and the level of detail—especially with respect to the language and imagery used to explain Decker’s particular synaesthesia—to be startlingly sparse and illustrating a surprising deficit of imagination.

Most egregious though is discerning Yolles’ motivation, especially with respect to his targeting of Decker. At the end of the book I’m left seeing this as a shot-first scenario, where it is Yolles’ fear and lack of understanding about Decker that causes him to go after him in the first place. Had he just left it alone and not done a thing, or waited to see if someone like Decker would actually ever be a threat in the first place, then it might have made sense to go after him. As it stands, the plot of The Placebo Effect feels as if it hinges entirely on Yolles making an incredibly stupid error in judgement, drawing Decker into a plot that would have otherwise passed him by. And all this without touching on NSA Special Agent Yslan Hicks, who vacillates so jarringly between intrigue and being a force of unnecessary oppression and antagonism that by the end I’d lost interest in discovering who she was beneath the surface.

I have a lot more I’d like to say (like how ridiculously simple it is for Yolles to gain Mike’s passwords to the online synaesthete community) but the long and short of it is that The Placebo Effect did not work for me on any level. I like the basic idea of employing synaesthetes in unconventional ways, but at no point does Decker’s skill—or any of the synaesthetic skills presented—feel necessary to the goings on in this book. In the end, too many characters and questions are left hanging for the second book in the series, while not enough has been given for me to know why I should want to read on.