Review: She of the Mountains, by Vivek Shraya

9781551525600_SheOfTheMountains>>Published: October 2014

When she did leave, and a second head appeared on his shoulder, he tried to conjure her love. She loves you, she loves you, she loves you, he said to the head. It refused to disappear.

Why isn’t this working? She loves you, she loves you, she loves you, his original head kept telling the other, his voice increasing in volume, thinking perhaps the new head’s ears could not hear very well.

You’re wasting your breath, the new head replied. And it was right. Her love did seem to have limitations. Its effects were temporary, and he desired a more permanent solution.

But she loves you, he cried. She loves you, she loves you… I love you, he accidentally blurted.

No you don’t, the other head responded. It was right again.

***

She of the Mountains tells two stories partially in concert with one another: The first is a retelling/reimagining of the Hindu myth of creation, focusing on the relationship between the mother of the universe Parvati, the Lord of Destruction Shiv (Shiva), and Parvati’s son Ganesh, who is beheaded by Shiv before having his head replaced with that of an elephant demon’s; the second narrative details the sexual evolution of a young boy and the girl he loves, despite the voices in his head and those surrounding him from all sides and shouting at him, telling him in no uncertain terms just how gay (and in denial) he really is. Tying these two narratives together, beyond slight repeating themes and ideas, are occasional sparse illustrations used to blur the line between the two realities.

At its core, Vivek Shraya’s unique twin narrative appears to be about embodiment and dysmorphia—and not just dysmorphia in the physical sense so commonly attributed to those suffering eating disorders (although there is an element of that within the text), but dysmorphia tied to the perception of others who see the main character’s expected black-or-white sexuality as a badge or label that quite literally transforms his appearance—or should.

The novella is similar in detached tone to that of a fable. The non-mythological characters are only “he” and “she,” a collection of experiences and physical attributes woven together but never quite achieving genuine depth or dimension. The story follows the pair from Edmonton to Toronto, offering small pieces of information here and there regarding who they are and the worlds they’ve come from without ever really giving them concrete identities the reader can latch onto.

What is made clear from the beginning is that “he” is representative of both the “other” and the opposition to what the “other” represents—the hard lines dividing one lifestyle from another. “He” is:

“… in a brown category that was generally frowned upon by other brown people, especially other brown parents: Alternative brown. This meant he wore vintage clothing, had his ears pierced, had blond streaks, and hung out with non-browns.

Additionally, his sexuality is questioned by others before he can begin to address it himself—the words “you’re gay” are flung at him first as something to be ashamed of, and later as something to define his passions (which when tied to the phrase’s initial intentions—shame—cloak his desire beneath a veil of unease).

Taking this detachment from self a step further is the character of The Only Other Gay, whom the main character meets while still living in Edmonton, just as he is beginning to accept himself as both being gay but also loving and finding himself attracted to his dearest friend, the “she” of the tale. Through The Only Other Gay, the protagonist sees with greater clarity the hard line that exists for many between gay and straight, and how little it differs from the hard lines so frequently drawn between people of different races and socioeconomic classes: He wonders if in fact he is bisexual due to the conflict between his nature and his heart’s own desires. Even among those expected to want to include him, the protagonist is still the “other” in his refusal (or inability) to fit comfortably beneath just one banner.

I found the novella strongest near the end, in the third part, as the protagonist, deep in the throes of self-doubt and/or self-hatred, begins to psychologically unravel. He imagines himself with extra limbs, extra fingers, a tail—all manifestations of his struggles with accepting himself as someone hovering between several worlds without something to keep him grounded. That something, in this case, being first her pronouncement of love for him, and second, his reciprocation (given unexpectedly). This felt like the payoff for the slight anxiety-based dysmorphia that had been alluded to throughout the novella.

Overall I enjoyed She of the Mountains, but I wasn’t as moved by it as I’d hoped to be, based on its enticing premise. Additionally the images, while lovely, did not feel particularly essential to the narrative, or even to its presentation. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy looking at them—they’re lovingly executed—only that had they been removed, I don’t feel as if my reading of the text would have suffered in any way. However, Shraya’s novella is still an interesting, wholly unique read, one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. I just wish I were feeling a little more “full” from the experience.

Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

murakami-us>>Published: August 2014

Tsukuru Tazaki was the only one in the group without anything special about him. His grades were slightly above average. He wasn’t especially interested in academics, though he did pay close attention during class and always made sure to do the minimum amount of practice and review needed to get by. From the time he was little, that was his habit, no different from washing your hands before you eat and brushing your teeth after a meal. So although his grades were never stellar, he always passed his classes with ease. As long as he kept his grades up, his parents were never inclined to pester him to attend cram school or study with a tutor.

He didn’t mind sports but never was interested enough to join a team. He’d play the occasional game of tennis with his family or friends, and go skiing or swimming every once in a while. That was about it. He was pretty good-looking, and sometimes people even told him so, but what they really meant was that he had no particular defects to speak of. Sometimes, when he looked at his face in the mirror, he detected an incurable boredom. He had no deep interest in the arts, no hobby or special skill. He was, if anything, a bit taciturn; he blushed easily, wasn’t especially outgoing, and could never relax around people he’d just met.

If pressed to identify something special about him, one might notice that his family was the most affluent of the five friends, or that an aunt on his mother’s side was an actress—not a star by any means, but still fairly well known. But when it came to Tsukuru himself, there was not one single quality he possessed that was worth bragging about or showing off to others. At least that was how he viewed himself. Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.

***

Tsukuru Tazaki sees himself as a bit of a blank slate—an uninteresting person without anything truly special separating him from the rest of the rank and file populace. It wasn’t always this way, though. He was once a part of something greater, an integral piece of a group of five colourful friends. Aka and Ao—red and blue—were the other men in the group, Shiro and Kuro—white and black—the women.

And then there was Tsukuru, who unlike his vibrant friends, had no colour, shade, or hue attached to his surname. He was, as a boy and later as a man, a creator of sorts, obsessed with train stations—with designing and building them, being a part of their creation (and thus being an integral cog in the social makeup of things). One day, during the summer of Tsukuru’s sophomore year at college in Tokyo, he received a call from Ao, telling him the group, all who’d remained at home in Nagoya, had decided to cut him free as if he were a tumour. Ao requested Tsukuru never contact any one of them again. When Tsukuru asked why, he was met with the ever frustrating and high school-like “if you don’t know we can’t tell you.”

So it was that Tsukuru found himself abandoned by those he’d grown closest to, without apparent reason or cause for their actions. For sixteen years the question of why he’d been so unceremoniously cut off from the group dogged him; for a time he was so preoccupied with death and feeling lost and unwanted in the world that his physical appearance changed. At thirty-six he starts dating a woman named Sara, two years his senior, who has definite feelings for Tsukuru but can also sense the weight of his past, unresolved and gnawing at him. If they’re to move forward, Sara says to him one night, then he must confront his past and learn why it was that the four people in the world for whom he had the most love so suddenly and viciously removed him from their lives. Sara decides to help Tsukuru in this endeavour, offering to locate his former friends so that Tsukuru can journey to them and finally come to understand a rather dark chapter of his past, one that has had long-lasting ramifications on who he is and how he sees himself.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is, in some ways, a return for Murakami to a style not seen in some time. Absent from this book are magical cats, alternate realities, and a predominance of both jazz and spaghetti—elements common to his more magical works like 1Q84 and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Instead, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is more familiar in style and vibe to Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun (the latter being my favourite of his works). It’s a grounded narrative, with its more whimsical elements isolated inside Tsukuru, confined to his dreams and self-doubt. However, that does not make it any less of a Murakami book.

Tsukuru is an interesting character, strangely enough, in that he feels intentionally dry and dispassionate. He views others as constantly flitting through him, leaving him with gaping holes he cannot close while maintaining their own physical and emotional integrity. His journey is one of completion—he is half the man he needs to be, and Sara knows it.

It isn’t long before Sara returns with the knowledge Tsukuru needs to embark on his quest—the locations of Aka, Ao, and Kuro, and the sad revelation that Shiro died six years earlier. The fate of his friends and the surprising directions their lives have taken—surprising to Tsukuru—become the catalyst Tsukuru needs to finally discover why it was they deleted him from their group sixteen years previously.

What I think I appreciated most about this book is that once the reason for Tsukuru’s banishment from the group is revealed—Shiro’s rape and how she told the others, falsely, that it was Tsukuru who was responsible—the novel doesn’t suddenly shift gears and become about debunking Shiro’s claims, or getting to the truth of what really happened that night or on the night she was murdered. Those mysteries are for another story—this is Tsukuru’s narrative, not Shiro’s. Though her actions led to his dismissal from the group, the narrative is about the at times crippling wounds Tsukuru received as a result, and not about solving the rape and murder of a friend they all eventually drifted away from as they in turn drifted from one another.

I hesitate to touch upon the meetings he has with Ao, Aka, and Kuro as they are the best parts of this narrative—the unexpected and wonderfully not tense and melodramatic encounters that ran quite contrary to what I expected. While they serve a critical role in filling in the gaps in Tsukuru’s knowledge of past events, what the encounters with his three friends really accomplish is in the colouring of Tsukuru’s persona: while he saw in a mirror a bland, uninteresting fellow, his friends reveal how they viewed in him a strength of character that none of them could match. This is why, even though not one of them believed Tsukuru was capable of committing a crime as heinous as rape, they chose to favour the claims of what they perceived as the weakest and most fragile among them by allowing themselves to sacrifice the strongest, knowing that he would in fact survive on his own, without the others to prop him up. As Kuro put it:

“Because I had to protect her…. And in order to do that, I had to cut you off. It was impossible to protect you and protect her at the same time. I had to accept one of you completely, and reject the other entirely.”

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is not among Murakami’s best or most imaginative works, but it is enjoyable for what it is: an exercise in detailing one person’s quest toward self-confidence and self-awareness. It has its slow, plodding moments, many of which could easily have been excised from the whole in favour of a quicker, more finely crafted read (more or less anything with “Mister Gray”—Fumiaki Haida—who exists primarily to further the thesis that everyone eventually flits out of Tsukuru’s life with an unfortunate ease). Those moments aside, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a fairly effortless read—it moves along smoothly, and I never lost interest in Tsukuru’s pursuit of the truth. By the end, regardless of the outcome of his relationship with Sara, he is a much different person than when he began this personal pilgrimage. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a book predicated on catharsis and its ability to make whole that which had been broken.