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.

 

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Essential Reading: Everything That Rises Must Converge

oconnor-cover-for-everything-that-rises-must-convergeIt seems strange to me that only a year or so ago, I had not really read Flannery O’Connor. Sure, I’d studied “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and ” Good Country People”, but I had not truly read her. You need to experience O’Connor’s work in its full depth. One story, even if it is a real gem like “A Good Man” or “Good Country People” , does not really do here justice. I read A God Man is Hard to Find last yearand thoroughly enjoyed it. Having just finished Everything That Rises Must Converge, I believe this is a stronger collection and left my jaw dropped consistently. This is O’Connor at her strongest, touching on Christianity, Southern politics, race, rural life, poverty, and, most especially, the bizarre nature of being human throughout.

For the uninitiated, O’Connor was an American writer who only published two collections of short stories and two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away). She writes what has been called Southern gothic fiction, set mostly in rural areas of America’s south, and often featuring irruptions of the extraordinary or magical. In “Parker’s Back,” Parker, a former Navy-man covered in tattoos who married a woman he does not love, has a revelatory experience when he crashes the tractor he is driving into an old tree in the middle of the field. The sight of the burning tree and tractor scares Parker so much that he immediately goes to a tattoo artist to have a Byzantine Christ portrait painted on his back. He believes that the accident was divine revelation and hopes that putting a religious tattoo on his back will propitiate God. He also hopes that his wife will be pleased, but when she sees it, she throws him out calling him an idolater for putting a picture of God on his back. While it would be easy to join the wife in ridiculing Parker, there is an earnestness in Parker’s response that prevents it. The final sentence of the story (“There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against the tree, crying like a baby”) reveals a broken and defeated man. The central scene, the accident, is both realistic in the sense that it could have happened but also something else entirely because of the religious tones and epiphanic framing. O’Connor frequently uses these moments, leaving realism behind for a moment and then coming back to it.

The other thing that stood out for me in this collection was O’Connor’s ability to throw a twist in the endings. These are not cheap-tricks but key moments that force readers to re-examine everything that has come before. In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury believes he is dying from a self-induced existential fever. Readers are invited to see through his self-delusion throughout, but in the final sentences, he has an epiphanic experience of the shape of a dove made in the cracks of the ceiling plaster morphing into the Holy Ghost descending on him. Asbury had invited a Jesuit priest over to spite his mother, but in this ending O’Connor suggests that something more spiritual has happened to him. While it might be easy to see these as imitation Edgar Allan Poe plot twists, they cannot be discounted.

I think it was these more than anything that made Everything a more enjoyable read than A Good Man. The characters of Everything are both despicable and lovingly crafted. We despise them and yet cannot help but see through their eyes. Simply put, Everything That Rises Must Converge is essential reading for any fan of short fiction.

I highly recommend this collection.

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965. Print.

Precious, Naive, Quirky, but Lovely: No one belongs here more than you

no_one_belongs_here_more_than_you.largeAbout three quarters of the way through Miranda July’s collection of short stories, No one belongs here more than you, I had a funny reaction. I felt like her stories were too precious, too quirky, and, even, too naive in terms of characters and plot. On finishing, I got over this reaction. Call it a momentary bout of too much. July is a very talented writer and these short stories are crisp: succinct yet packed with poignant punch. But at moments they can be very, what shall I call it, LA Hipster? Her characters are far from ordinary, middle class people trying to make their way through life by very unordinary means.

One character, in “The Swim Team,” leads swimming lessons for a group of elderly people in Belvedere, Nevada. The only problem is there is no pool in the hamlet. Instead, the characters practice swimming on the narrator’s floor, pretending their way through all the different strokes. This story is almost magic realism, but more quirky than anything. This is both the collection’s strength and weakness. At some points, I felt like the stories were just too unbelievable or too obscure to be relatable. This is not to say that everything should be Carver-esque ordinary people or that all stories must be intensely realist. It is to suggest that July walks a very fine line between keeping a reader’s attention and losing it with too much eccentricity. At times, No one belongs here more than you can feel like a really earnest but too quirky indie movie. At other times, it is breathtaking.

Maybe it comes down to the writing itself. “The Swim Team” is amazingly written. The whole story is only a few pages long, but it is framed by the narrator’s comments to some kind of ex-lover that she hopes will explain herself in some way. This seemingly insignificant plot device puts the entire narrative into a kind of temporary space more akin to folk tale or fable. Could the entire story just be something the narrator made up to make her ex-lover jealous or angry? Or does it hold truth? Or, perhaps, do questions like these miss the point entirely? Which might be that July is able to create magic out of the mundane.

Like her film Me and You and Everyone We Know, July is interested in moments of magic, be they obscure, naive, or implausible. “Mon Plaisir” is about a couple struggling to make meaning in their relationship but finding temporary inspiration in an afternoon when they act as extras on a film set. “Making Love in 2003” is about a young female writer’s attempt to get Madeleine L’Engle’s husband to read her now-complete manuscript after taking a class with him. “The Boy from Lam Kien” is about an agoraphobic woman who meets a young Vietnamese boy who then gives her house decorating tips which, in turn, frees her from her fear for a moment. These are well-written stories with a central hook (that can sometimes wear thin) that reward careful readings.

I would recommend this book to those interested in contemporary short stories or others looking for a unique reading experience.

July, Miranda. No one belongs here more than you. New York: Scribner, 2007. Print.