A Delightful Romp Into Brazil: Through the Arc of The Rainforest

9780918273826_p0_v2_s260x420I’ll be teaching Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest in the fall, so I decided to get a headstart and read it now. And I’m awfully glad I did because now it might give me the chance to read it again in the fall. Yamashita’s novel is an amazing romp from Japan and into South America with a cast of no less than 6 main characters and a variety of minor characters. At the centre of the narrative action is a substance called Matacão, a strange dense, hard, and malleable substance that resembles plastic. It is discovered underneath the Amazon rainforest and is responsible for the massive growth of the GGG corporation, a whole industry of rubbing feathers on your ear to heal sickness/stress/anxiety, and a religious pilgrimage communication empire. When I call Through the Arc‘s plot sprawling, it really is. The central character is a Japanese boy named Kazumasa Ishimaru, who follows his cousin to Brazil, hoping to make his way. The five other main characters who eventually are pulled into his orbit include: J.B Tweep, a three armed corporate lackey who becomes GGG’s hidden CEO; Batista Djapan, Kazumasa’s jealous neighbour whose wife builds an international communications empire out of homing pigeons; Mané da Costa Pena, a poor Brazilian rubber tapper who becomes an instant celebrity after GGG realizes the marketability of the feather; Chico Paco, a Brazilian fisherman who decides to make a pilgrimage to the Matacão after his best friend Gilberto is miraculously cured of his paralysis. All of these characters build empires on or out of the Matacão in some way as the novel continues. It is quite amazing to see, and it can cause you to wonder whether this novel is about human characters or corporations.

Oh, and the sixth main character? That’s the narrator, an unnamed ball that attaches itself to an orbit in front of Kazumasa’s forehead when he is a child. It is the catalyst for the discovery of the Matacão, and a central character in the final pulling together of all the diverse threads in the novel’s final chapters. Yamashita’s novel is more than a little strange, but that’s what makes it so great in my mind. She throws plausibility to the wind and embarks on a wildly imaginative free-for-all that satirizes corporations, consumerism, environmentalism, globalization, and any number of other targets. The book has more than a hint of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude to it. Both use magic realism, and both are sprawling narratives. I loved the fact that the ball narrates the action and provides its own mysteries, particularly on the last page of the book.

However, what made the book most rewarding for me was the fact that it also takes the environmental destruction of Brazil seriously. As much as it is a hilarious satire and veritable carnival, Yamashita is clear that Brazil is being destroyed by corporations and people hungry to exploit its natural resources. She is also clear that the poor will be made to bear the burden of this destruction more so than the rich who run these operations. However, Yamashita does not let this critique get in the way of narrative fun and I think she blends criticism with humour and wonder in an amazing blend.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Amazon or south American literature. Actually, I recommend it for everyone. It’s really good!

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rainforest. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 1990. Print.

 

Back to Space Opera and Loving It: The Player of Games

theplayerofgamesAs I am winding down my PhD, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to science fiction in my pleasure reading. I feel like I might be struggling from a 4 year overdose on “literary” fiction so that when I start encountering obvious symbols/allegories or complex characters, my pulse begins to plummet rapidly. This is not to say that science fiction does not have these things as Iain M. Banks’s The Player of Games is a complex, rich, and richly rewarding work of science fiction. For better or worse, science fiction is becoming my “escape” literature in that I feel no compulsion to analyse the novel’s texture or narrative, no need to think about how this might relate to other works I have read, and no anxiety about how this might change the course of my dissertation/research. I can just read it and enjoy it.

And Banks’ The Player of Games is a great read. I encountered his first Culture novel last year, and loved that one. However, I would say that this second novel is a much better one. Where I had trouble empathizing with Horza, Consider Phlebas’s protagonist, I developed a deep connection to Jurnau Gurgeh, one of the Culture’s best game players who lives an idyllic life on an Orbital. He grows somewhat bored with a life of playing, thinking about, analysing, and theorizing the myriad games that the galaxy has to offer and ends up, via some drone blackmail, travelling to a distant Empire built entirely around a single, massively complex game called Azad. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an avid board gamer who hosts a board game night once every three weeks or so and craves the complexity and deep pleasure of playing a good game. So The Player of Games immediately appealed to me. But Banks also does an incredible job of weaving the theme of game playing into the narrative itself as Gurgeh senses that on some level he is being “played” by Culture in his trip to play Azad.

I suppose The Player of Games felt a bit like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness in that it is deeply anthropological. It lays out a complex empire for readers to study and think about. Yet where le Guin’s novel occasionally felt too distant for me, Banks includes humor, intrigue, and action to keep readers interested. In fact, I found the novel so compelling that it became my reward for a hard day’s work of revising my cumbersome and lengthy dissertation. There were a number of moments in The Player of Games where the Empire that we encounter feels eerily similar to our own, a parallel that I am sure Banks intends. Of course, the fact that Banks is writing space opera – a genre that is largely disconnected from our reality and makes little to no attempt to connect them – seems to complicate this, but I’m not sure it does. Instead, we encounter an imaginative world animated by desires and impulses that are very similar to our own. This is an intriguing form of meta-critique that masks as pure entertainment. Or maybe masks is the wrong word. Instead, it doubles as critique and entertainment. Either way, I’m sold and Use of Weapons is already sitting on my bed side table, waiting for me to finish a few other books.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any fans of science fiction. In fact, I would recommend starting here rather than with Consider Phlebas because this one seems more polished and coherent.

Banks, Iain M.  The Player of Games. London: MacMillan London, 1988. Print.

Taking Stories Where Stories Have Not Gone: Pastoralia

PastoraliaMy friend had really hyped up George Saunders and his work, so I was excited to pick up Pastoralia. I was also a little sad because this is the last collection of short stories that I will read this year. There is something about the shortness and conciseness of this narrative form that I really like. I guess I only have a month and week or two before I can read them again anyways. Pastoralia was something completely unexpected and I guess I am having an ambivalent reaction to it. I think Saunders is very clearly performing satire and critique on a number of levels, but after reading Munro I felt like the stories in Pastoralia were not quite as satisfying. Perhaps this comes down to character as Saunders is much more interested in satirizing contemporary North American culture than writing genuine characters with problems, emotions, depth and complexity.  Perhaps I am being too sweeping in this judgment because it is not as thought there are no memorable characters in Pastoralia (Morse in “The Falls” and Mickey the barber in “The Barber’s Unhappiness” are complex and enjoyable characters) or that there is no satire in Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (her whole collection is quite critical of the small-mindedness of rural Ontario).

At the same time, Saunders does show some intriguing story-telling abilities. In the title story, we are introduced to a strange amusement park where visitors can see humans from different time periods living/acting out those lives. The narrator lives and works in a pre-historic cave with a less-than-willing co-worker named Janet. The whole story mocks our desire for “authentic” reproductions of old ways of life, but also corporate culture in general. It works amazingly well because on the surface it seems to have no relation to reality but the more you dig into it, the more you see it in the world we live in. Similarly, “Sea Oak” presents a dystopian world where the narrator works at a male strip joint/restaurant. His sister and cousin live at home with their two children while their spinster aunt slaves away at a drugstore to keep the roof over their heads. However, the aunt soon dies but comes back as a re-animated corpse to help them escape poverty. With this story, Saunders is quite critical of the work world, in a very funny way, and yet I cannot help but feel like the world he paints is not too far off from the low-income areas of many cities. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the narrative straddles the line between the fantastical and the real, constantly asking readers to question our own reality.

In writing this, I realize that what Saunders is doing is very subtle and extremely effective. He is speaking to our world in the way he knows best: by creating a magical place that seems like unreality but is in fact far too close to reality. I can see why he has won many awards – including a MacArthur “genius” grant – but I am still not sure where I stand in relation to his work. This is more a question of taste, but at the least I can say that Saunders is a prophet preaching his message to a world that desperately needs to slow down and think twice about the place we find ourselves in.

I would recommend Pastoralia to fans of Vonnegut and other satirists.

Saunders, George. Pastoralia. New York: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.