Review: The Strange Library, by Haruki Murakami

91S4vBGYdUL>>Published: December 2014

It was a real sheepskin, and it covered every inch of the sheep man’s body. There was an opening for the face, however, through which peeped a friendly pair of eyes. The costume suited him well. The sheep man looked at me for a moment; then his eyes shifted to the three books in my hand.

“Holy moly, you came here to read, for real?”

“That’s right,” I answered.

“You mean you really and truly came to read those books?”

There was something strange about the sheep man’s way of speaking. I found myself at a loss for words.

“Come on, out with it,” the old man demanded. “You came here to read, is that not a fact? Give him a straight answer.”

“Yes. I came here to read.”

“You heard him,” the old man crowed.

“But, sir,” said the sheep man. “He’s only a kid.”

“Silence!” thundered the old man. He drew a willow switch from his back pocket and whipped the sheep man across the face. “Take him to the Reading Room now!”

***

Earlier this year, Haruki Murakami released Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage to somewhat tepid response (not poor, just not ravenous). This was especially surprising, as his previous book—2011’s 1Q84—was such a success. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki was by no means a bad book. As a matter of fact, I quite enjoyed it. However, it was noticeably lacking in the usual authorial staples: a plethora of cats, spaghetti, jazz, and magical, otherworldly phenomena. By virtue of its deliberately “grey” protagonist, the novel itself seemed to be missing something just that little bit… surreal.

Fortunately, 2014 brings us not one new Murakami but two.

The Strange Library is far and away the author’s shortest work—not even a novella but a novelette. The story is that of a nameless teenage protagonist who seeks to check out books from, well, a very strange library, only to become trapped within its labyrinthine subterranean levels. Our timid, non-confrontational hero is jailed in a “Reading Room” by the mercurial, cannibalistic overseer, who gives him one month to read and memorize three books on how taxes were done in the Ottoman Empire. Why? Because then his brain will be juicy and full of knowledge—a delicacy—at which point, “The top of your head’ll be sawed off and all your brains’ll get slurped right up.”

Given the book’s brisk length, to say anything more of the plot would be to give away too much.

There are only a handful of characters in The Strange Library, all broadly sketched: our teenage hero; an aloof, briefly seen librarian; the cannibalistic old man; the sheep man (a returning favourite); and a young woman with no voice who speaks to the protagonist with her hands (and in a lovely blue font). The curious young woman is an unknown entity in the bowels of the library, and may or may not occupy the same physical space as the sheep man, though on another plane of sorts.

Really there’s not that much more to say about the book. It’s a charming return to form that’s over all too quickly, yet also feels just long enough. I went into The Strange Library expecting to see an experiment—a surreal snapshot of a place and an idea the author felt necessary to isolate, rather than release as part of a larger narrative or a short fiction collection. What I got instead felt a little like a greatest hits, pulling a number of Murakami’s quirks into a blender and giving them a quick spin. That’s not a dig, by the way. I did thoroughly enjoy this book, though it was only on its final page, with its smaller font—a whispered truth in a book of lies and labyrinths—that I felt the weight of loneliness at the narrative’s core.

And as a small aside, the construction of The Strange Library is artful and elegant, with an unconventionally fastened cover and beautiful full-colour images throughout. I would love to see more novellas and novelettes get similar treatment. For fans, this is a must—a perfect treat at the end of the year. For Murakami newcomers, The Strange Library is but a taste of his weird, wonderful worlds.

Review: Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

9780316216821_custom-9314b4e5c79d54b389b2144bca04f3270a1956da-s99-c85>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: November 2014

She turned left again and comes to the center of the maze—and finds Marcus.

She only knows him by his name tag.

He is wired to one of the big industrial pillars, his arms outstretched in benediction, wearing a spiky halo of beams as if in a medieval painting, gold wires stuck into his scalp. One palm has been painted with a sheaf of barley. The other has a sun. Religious symbols, she remembers from one of Layla’s school projects. Life and Death and rebirth. There are wooden angel wings attached to his back, painted to look like flames, red and yellow, and a giant clay egg split open at his feet as if he has hatched out of it, amid a messy nest of kindling.

She focuses on these details because she can’t bear to look at his face. Where his face should be. Her chest is so tight she can hardly breathe.

Oh, Sparkles.

His face is gone, sheared clean off, and in the center, where his nose and mouth and eyes should be, is an ornately carved wooden door embedded in his skull, with tiny gold hinges. She can’t open it. She won’t.

She doesn’t want to know what might be inside.

***

Clayton Broom is fifty-three years old. He’s got an ex and a kid she doesn’t want him to know about, a burgeoning late-in-life art practice, and a brain tumour. In November 2014, he became a serial killer dubbed the Detroit Monster—a villain known for his less than conventional sculpture and installation work. His first public piece was “Bambi.” Materials: the lower half of a deer, the upper half of eleven-year-old Daveyton Lafonte, and meat glue.

I love you, Lauren Beukes, but fuck if I didn’t cringe several times while reading Broken Monsters.

Beukes’s fourth novel, following last year’s damn near impeccable The Shining Girls, follows Detective Gabriella Versado with the Detroit PD as she tracks the aforementioned Detroit Monster and his increasingly horrific sculptural installations. Alongside the divorced, work-driven detective are: her daughter Layla, a theatre geek with a penchant for baiting and confronting would-be child molesters; Cas, Layla’s closest friend with a mysterious and troubled past; Jonno, a pre-mid-life crisis journalist with little success to show for all the bridges he’s burned; and TK—Thomas Michael Keen, a recovering alcoholic in “asset reclamation and redistribution.”

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters isn’t content with giving us just one side of the story. The killer is revealed early on because the book’s not actually about him—he’s merely a piece of a larger puzzle, though it is his crimes that serve as the fulcrum for most of the narrative’s events. This novel is instead a mosaic of a city brought to its knees in more ways than one, and the human detritus that results from such discord.

This is one of those rare cases where I don’t want to discuss the narrative’s events in too much detail, because to be frank, this is one of the more pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had this year, and I don’t wish to spoil it any more than necessary. However, there’s a lot more to this book than its core criminal pursuit.

At its heart, Broken Monsters is about poverty, gentrification, racial dynamics, and the death of the American dream as evidenced by modern day Detroit, which has in recent years fallen on some of the hardest times the country has ever seen. While clearly sick and homicidally twisted (how much of this is a result of the tumour—if any—is never directly addressed), Clayton Broom is evidence of a larger disease festering in the shadow of the fallen city—a poisonous juxtaposition of the organic and inorganic: whether structures fail their humans or humans fail their structures, when one goes the other follows, sinking into dissolution, degradation, and depravity. His “art” is the discourse of entropy, showcasing the cost of existing in conflict with the natural world.

Taking this notion of structures and humans failing one another a step further, the novel uses extratextual details to terrific effect: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and subreddit forums are weaponized throughout—used, sadly, as they are today, to gossip, traumatize, and make would-be celebrities from actions and decisions best forgotten. Hashtags, forum posts, and text messages are employed when necessary, to further the narrative without becoming overwhelming or distracting, or as an easy alternative for character development (see Marisha Pessl’s Night Film for an example of how extratextuals can cripple a narrative).

But at the top level, above the extratextuals, and the art and its greater meaning vis-à-vis social entropy and dissolution, Broken Monsters is about characters. In this, Beukes doesn’t disappoint. In The Shining Girls, she not only managed to slip believably into the heads of each character but also to write effortlessly in the style of each epoch travelled to by the novel’s time-travelling serial killer. Though Broken Monsters doesn’t require the same absurd degree of detail (as it takes place entirely in the present day), the author manages to effectively embody so many different voices and personalities that it is no less a feat. Layla, in particular, grows and strengthens in wonderful, fascinating ways throughout the course of the story, in how she comes to deal with being the semi-neglected child of a single, driven parent. Of course the downside of this is that if there is a character so detestable that you, as the reader, would like to reach into the page to throttle them, the more you come to know them the more irritable they become (say hi, Jonno, you arrogant, unreliable piece of shit). When all is said and done, each chapter has its own voice and feel, making the novel seem continuously fresh. And that’s to say nothing of the chapters focusing on Clayton at his most unhinged, which may or may not have been written from the perspective of the tumour warping his mind… Pure surrealist speculation on my part, but I love it all the same.

Often, no matter how much I love a book I will still walk away, at the end, with a small list of irritants. With Beukes’s last two novels, though, I honestly have a hard time thinking of anything I truly did not enjoy—save for my previously cited hatred of one character, but in no way did that detract from the whole. I can imagine some might be put off by the acid trip murder installation/shoot out at the climax, but the lack of clarity in the midst of all that chaos only made me love it more. It was the perfect stitching together of all the book’s themes in one glorious clusterfuck of horrific imagery (the crows, THE CROWS… Christ…).

While The Shining Girls was a sci-fi tale of feminism via a villain crafted to be its direct antithesis, Broken Monsters feels at times like it’s set its sights a little wider. It seeks to address societal failures on a number of levels, dealing both directly and indirectly with race, social profiling, and the ramifications—thanks to the Internet—of having eyes and ears on everyone at all times. The driving ethos behind these issues is detachment, and how said detachment drives people to dramatic acts in order to escape the steep decline of their world. The allegory in Broken Monsters isn’t stronger or weaker than what was in The Shining Girls, but different—it’s less about one idea attacking another, as was personified by Harper Curtis’s hatred of women who embraced their potential, and more about the overreliance we have on the structures we’ve created to (supposedly) better our lives.

Having said all this and made all these comparisons, you might be wondering which I preferred: Broken Monsters or The Shining Girls. And I’ll be honest: I’m not sure. On a scale of one to ten, it’s like trying to choose between an eleven and a twelve—both are incredible reads, and perfect examples of an author coming into her voice with both hands already around your throat, ready to squeeze. And like The Shining Girls, all I can think about post-Broken Monsters is how long I should probably wait before I start back at the beginning and read it again. That should say it all.

And as a total side note, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book more suited to adaptation by a specific film director. So get on it, David Fincher—this feels like it was written for you.