Disappearing In Plain Sight – Meditations On Old Age, Loneliness, And Death

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am
By Kjersti A. Skomsvold
Published by The Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
Translated from Norwegian by Kerri A. Pierce

This new book that I just recently finished clocks in at only 147 pages (novella length, especially when one considers the near-mass market sized dimensions), so this should be a fairly brief post, but… well, I tend to get distracted.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am comes to us from Norway, written by first time novelist Kjersti A. Skomsvold.  I’m particularly favorable to Norwegian writers, especially since I was introduced to Knut Hamsun (by way of John Fante) nearly a decade ago now.  And one thing I’ve noticed about Norwegian writers (or, more honestly, any writer in translation) is that so much depends upon a simple translation.

For instance, Knut Hamsun’s superb novel Hunger was first published in 1890 and several translations followed.  Given the time period, more bawdy scenes were either trimmed, or cut entirely from the first translation.  A second translation, by American Poet Robert Bly was next, in the late 60s.

Bly’s version is good.  Much of the strength of Hamsun’s plot comes through quite well.  I was content with this version until I stumbled upon a newer version, translated in 1996, by Sverre Lyngstad, himself a Norwegian.

Lyngstad’s version is highly superior.  The intricacies of the language shine forth.  Passages are more descriptive and sparkle with more beauty than Bly’s ever could.

What does this have to do with The Faster I Walk… outside of the normal amount of padding I have to add to my blog posts?  Well… the first bit of the novel I read was posted on The PEN American Center.  I loved it.  The main character, Mathea Martinsen, leapt off of the page and I had to finish her story.

Then comes the copy of the book I read.  The first thing I noted was the difference in translator.  I wasn’t concerned as the excerpt I read was only a chapter and… surely, I wouldn’t notice a difference?  Well… I did.  Not major differences, but (as when comparing Bly and Lyngstad) little inconsistencies in both tone and intent cropped up.

But I persevered.  And I’m glad I did!  Despite my reservations, the novel zips along and reads very well.  And the story it tells, about Mathea, a widow whose time spent living alone has made her feel invisible, is simultaneously humorous and tragic.  She attempts, mostly in earnest, to be noticed more often…

…at the grocery store, where she’s certain the checkout clerk wouldn’t be able to identify her minutes after she leaves.
…on her rare walks around the town, where she dons her dead husbands watch so she’ll be able to tell time to the people who don’t ask.
…in the future, as she buries a time capsule that she hopes will be dug up in decades (what does it contain? Read the book to find out!).

The best moments of the novel, however, come when the humor springs forth like the gods of Olympus, suddenly, fully formed and painful.

My favorite example of this is when Mathea takes her dog for a walk to the park and some school-children make fun of the dog’s weight and wonder, in jest, if he’s able to swim.  Mathea feigns throwing a treat into the water and the dog, Stein (appropriately, his name translates as “stone”), swims further and further out in search of the treat, never to return.

“The kids looked from the water back to me, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I pretended everything was fine.”

Despite the fact that there was nothing funny about the situation, I couldn’t stop laughing.  I still smirk now, about a week later, when I remember the scene.  Am I a terrible person?  The real question you should ask yourself is just how terrible I am.

Mathea makes many other faux pas throughout the novel (another favorite is when she compares her love of animals to Hitler’s love of animals…) and the opening half of the book is full of humorous little bits of information about Mathea’s life, both past and present.

But the second half is where the book really takes off.  Mathea comes to the conclusion that none of her attempted excursions into the outside world are successful and she starts internalizing more and remembering past events more.  Eventually, one starts to wonder what is artistic license on the part of the narrator and what really happens (which makes previously chapters that much more interesting).

Every time I try to write about the ending without spoilers, I say too much (especially for those who have read a lot of the same sort of pre-20th c. lit that I have), so I’m just going to shut up and say that I liked the ending, despite the fact that I saw it coming fairly early on.

The novella is brief, but powerful.  I typically would read 2-3 chapters in a sitting, despite these brief groups only totaling to about 15 pages because the humor clashes in painfully familiar ways with the more dramatic moments…

But you should do yourself a favor and track down this book!  It is another darkly humorous novel (I certainly have a type, don’t I?), but it meditates on life, death, the relationship between the individual and society, loneliness, mental illness, and old age.  And all in less than 150 pages.

To Be Or Not To Be… A Graphic Novel

So the question was asked, Should books be translated into graphic novels?

And generally, my answer is… no!

There are some books that work really well as graphic novels.  Sandman, Watchmen, Violent Cases, Y The Last Man, Batman, Superman…  The main thing you’ll notice that ties these all together… is that they all started out at comics and graphic novels.

One of my pet peeves is when modern publishers take something that didn’t begin as a graphic novel and attempt to turn it into one.  One example of this is Neil Gaiman’s illustrated story Sandman: The Dream Hunters.  This prose story is lavishly illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, a Japanese illustrator best known for his work on Vampire Hunter D and the Final Fantasy series of video games.

The Dream Hunters is a fantastic story with wonderful illustrations.  But apparently someone somewhere thought… this should really be done in the style of Sandman.  And to do it they brought on one of the best Sandman illustrators P Craig Russell.

P Craig Russell, in addition to illustrating the wonderful Sandman story “Death and Venice,” Russell also illustrated one of the most beautiful single issues of Sandman, the fiftieth issue entitled “Ramadan.”  The story is beautiful from start to finish and is by far one of my favorites in the entire run of Sandman, especially the illustrations.

But even though Russell’s version of The Dream Hunters isn’t that bad… it loses a lot in the translation from Amano’s illustrations.  Still, Russell manages to keep the new version in line with the Sandman issues of past and, in that case, it actually works fairly well.

But… That isn’t the only adaptation of Gaiman’s prose into a graphic novel.  Enter The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch.  This time, the adaptation is handled by another Sandman alumnus, artist Michael Zulli.  Zulli is best known as the illustrator of Sandman issues 70, 71, and 72, an arc titled “The Wake.”

And boy is it fantastic!  Zulli brings the Sandman characters to life in ways not seen before as his artistic style is hyper-realistic.  In addition, no inker was used for these three issues, so the combination of Zulli’s pencils and colorist Daniel Vozzo’s colors is a staggering contrast to the rest of the series illustrators.  Zulli’s work shows a particular contrast to that of the illustrator of the previous story arc Marc Hempel, who works in a more cartoony, angular style.

But Zulli’s work on Miss Finch… is just unnecessary.  The prose version of the story was originally included in Gaiman’s first collection of short stories entitled Smoke and Mirrors, but… only in the U.K. release.  Why?  Stupid editors, probably, as the story is great!  But it didn’t need to be illustrated, regardless of the beauty of the art.

Still… these sorts of adaptations are at least understandable, given the nature of the writer and his popularity within the comics community.  Additionally, Gaiman is involved in many parts of these adaptations and has a descriptive enough style that one could certainly get a great set of illustrations out of the prose (and these artists have!  beautiful, if unnecessary, art).

But then we have books like The Kite RunnerFahrenheit 451, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I’m certain dozens of others, being translated into comics.  At this point, I would ask… what can be added by making the book into comic format?  Is there anything in the text that would benefit from being condensed into pictures?  How much of the beauty of the language is lost in translation?

These are the same questions I would ask if someone is going to make a film of a book.  Can you do it justice?  Will you lose the authorial voice when rewriting it?  Do you plan on staying true to the characters, themes, and imagery of the novel, or are you going to hire actors who look NOTHING like the descriptions of the characters because you want star power to bring in box office bucks (I’m looking at you here Golden Compass)?

Overall, I understand the desire to adapt novels into comics.  You’re hoping to find a way to get a story to an audience that might not otherwise encounter it.  But is dumbing down the content of a novel, not originally visualized in the comic format, really the way to go?

Kids like reading comics, especially adventurous stuff like Bone and Tin-Tin, because they’re clever, funny, and gorgeously illustrated by really talented artists.  But maybe, just maybe, The Kite Runner doesn’t need to be experienced in the same way.

Infinite Jest – 100 Pages At A Time

So 100 pages in… what is Infinite Jest about?

Well just to begin…

A teenager trying to get into a fancy tennis school.

A unidentified man waiting for a delivery of drugs.

A medical attache to a Prince, obsessively watching an unspecified video on repeat.

Brothers, families.

A series of burglaries.

An accidental murder.

A woman hospitalized for depression.

Drugs. All kinds of drugs.

Teachers and students at the aforementioned tennis school.

Large gangs of feral hamsters that have taken over major parts of New England.

Espionage. Double Agents. Triple Agents. Quadruple Agents. Maybe. A cross-dressing agent (who cross-dresses, apparently, only for the amusement of his superiors).

And a great many of all these things connect. Most of the book, so far, is written in third person, but several passages (shorter ones, mostly) have been in first person. There’s more I’ve forgotten I’m sure (it occurs to me there’s a brief passage about rape, child abuse, and other problems in an apartment in the ‘hood). But the writing is absolutely brilliant and I’m already seeing the threads coming together.

And there’s still 9/10s of the book to go.

However, I will say that I vehemently disagree with Dave Eggers’ statement from the introduction where he says that it does not “want to send you to the dictionary every few pages” (Eggers, xiii).  There’s such obtuse (yet beautiful) vocabulary that I want to know what it all means.

My favorite part so far?  When Wallace uses the line, “[they] finish their swift and with-the-best-of-intentions non-violent business of stripping the Brookline home as bare as a post-feral-hamster meadow” (Wallace 58).

This line is funny to me.  When I first read it, I made a mental note and then laughed.  How ridiculous a notion!  But I also thought it was a simple throw-away line.

NOT SO!

Several chapters later, the robbery of the home mentioned in that chapter (as well as about three or four other plot threads) are mentioned briefly after a completely surreal (and hilarious) discussion between to secret agents, one of whom is a double (triple? possibly quadruple?) agent.

The addendum chapter begins, “It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains…in what used to be Vermont.  The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free … at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper.”

Yes, feral hamsters have taken over most of northern New England.  Apparently, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire… these are all a part of Canada now.  Why?  I don’t know yet.

But let me briefly explain the line of “the subsidized Year of the Whopper.”

Each year in the book has its own corporate sponsor.  The Year of the Whopper, The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, The Year of Dairy Products From the American Heartland… several more.  Even the short hand of these years is used… i.e.: 3 November Y.D.A.U.

Why?  I have no earthly idea, but thus far most events seem to occur in the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.

So far, would I recommend this book?  Without a doubt and definitely.  But it isn’t for casual readers.  This book demands much of you.  Your concentration, your ability to track dozens of characters across multiple time periods, even remembering strange throw-away lines that turn out not to be.

Coming from someone who finished the (much more straightforward) book The Instructions without much trouble…  This is difficult reading.  Not bad in my opinion.  But I certainly work to get through chapters.  Analyzing everything, questioning everything.  But the book is stunningly written.

Characters emerge fully formed in even the briefest of chapters and I honestly can’t wait to meet them again as I keep reading.  If you have any interest in the brilliance and genius of modern writing (and you’ve already read the brilliant Midnight’s Children), I suggest you read this.

Unplug your phone, toss your computer in the trash, close your curtains, and curl up with a dictionary and Infinite Jest.  If you make it out alive, I think you’ll enjoy it.

A Seemingly Negative Review That Isn’t – The Hunger Games

So, it’s come to this.  I’m going to write a blog post about the entirety of The Hunger Games trilogy.  Or as I’m going to cheerfully refer to it as 1984-lite.

This is going to be one of many comments I make that is going to sound more negative than I’m actually intending it.  So in order to try to fend off those complaints, I’m going to first state that, in actuality, I enjoyed the series more than I expected to.

The trilogy, written by Suzanne Collins, is a teen series that has a good number of moments that bring it above the rest of a very generic and mostly boring love triangle.  The unfortunate part is that for all the good passages about rebellion and visions of a seemingly inevitable dystopian future… the spine of the book series (GET IT?! A BOOK PUN!) is still the love triangle.  Oh noes, who will she choose?!?!

Also, I’m going to avoid spoilers where possible, but… if you haven’t read it, plan on reading it, or are in the middle of reading it… stop here.  Turn back!  There’s still ti- TOO LATE!

OK.  I’m going to do my best to leave that kind of thought out of the rest of this review.  But… I make no promises.

The series stars Katniss, 16-year old resident of District 12, as a girl who is fighting for her life in a gladiator-style tournament (TWENTY FOUR ENTER! ONLY ONE LEAVES!).  You may ask yourself… why would someone do this?

Well, the government in power is basically a fascist state that forces two children from each of the twelve districts it controls to fight to the death, just to show the people under its thumb who has all The Power, and why it’s useless to fight back.

The first book is basically all about the fighting.  Sure you have some plot elements describing the terrible conditions of District 12, various ways of showing just how terrible the government, and several references to what a mockingjay is (and just how it can be construed as an insult and act of rebellion), but… if I’m a 12 or 13 year old reading this, I just want to know when the violence comes in.

And boy does it.  From the start, the battles in The Hunger Games are brutal. Frustratingly, though, Katniss is spared from any real acts of violence for most of the battles, being more of a thinker than a fighter.  Frustrating because I feel that, as a character, she could benefit from getting her hands dirty in a more up-close-and-personal way than she does for most of the novel.

My favorite example of this is in the character of Rue, a 12 year old from District 11.  Young Rue is what can best be described as The Death That Will Make You Outraged Later.  And you think… “Oh boy, how will Katniss deal with having to kill someone the same age as her sister?”

Well… she doesn’t.  Another competitor takes care of that for her, and we the audience, as well as Katniss, rage on.

By the end, of course, The Hunger Games comes down to just Katniss and her fake\real boyfriend from District 12 Peeta.  A daring act of rebellion allows the pair to make it out of The Games alive, against the wishes of The Government and its snake-in-the-grass leader President Snow.  Here ends book one.  And here my troubles began.

The second book begins with small groups within various districts in various states of open rebellion.  Katniss and Peeta begin their victory tour, which President Snow will help stem the tide of the uprising.  Katniss then makes sure not to think for more than a moment, thereby accidentally making things worse.

And then… stay with me on this one… Katniss and Peeta and brought back into The Hunger Games by way of a Convenient Plot Point.  In the training, they meet all the characters you could ever hope for.  The Bitch, The Sexy Guy, The Nerdy Kid, and The Old Lady (i.e.: The Death That Will Make You Outraged Later of book 2).

The Head Gamemaker also gives her the single most obvious example of the fact that he is on her side when he shows her a Mockingjay on his watchface.  At this point, despite the fact that she OBVIOUSLY knows the significance behind the symbol (for fuck’s sake, you only gave us the FULL GODDAMN HISTORY OF IT IN THE LAST BOOK!!!), she passes it off and looks all the dumber for it.

OK, fast forward… The second Hunger Games that Katniss and Peeta fight in is long, difficult, and bloody.  Lots of violence, lots of innovative death, dismemberment, and destruction.  Katniss continues to be as dense as dark matter, not realizing that just about every fucking person around her is on her side, even when they practically spell it out for her…

GAAAAAAAAAAAAH!  OK, fit over.  The Games end when Katniss is whisked away by the rebellion, but poor Peeta is left behind!  What’ll happen to poor, innocent Peeta?

Well fortunately, the third book will tell us.

The third and final book, Mockingjay, is by far my favorite.  Despite the fact that Collins goes full out serial killer, basically ROWLING over them with a steamroller (get it?!  ANOTHER BOOK RELATED JOKE!), this book had the best plot twists of the trilogy and only one or two of them felt forced.

The first third of the book though? Plods on like molasses.  Damn!  Remember the first half of Order of the Phoenix and all of that angst?  Yeah, this book gets angsty too.

Best part in the first third though?  They find Peeta and manage to get him out of The Government’s clutches.  And as soon as he sees Katniss, he gives her a big hug and everyone is happy.  Well, replace “hug” with “larynx crushing choke” and “happy” with “horrified” and you’ve got a more accurate sentence.  It was completely out of nowhere, and I loved it!

The second third of the book picks up significantly, though, and provides us with more of the over-the-top violence that we’ve come to love.  Remember when that one character got rehabilitated and was turning his life around?  Fuck him, he’s dead!  Remember when that other character who was just two days from retirement?  Yeah, he’s dead too.

I know you’re on pins and needles, wondering what other scene there was that just blew my socks off, right?  Well, here we go.  War’s over.  The rebels have won (because, of course, they had to!), and Katniss is the one who gets to execute ex-President Snow.  Oh joy of joys!

But harkening back to an earlier conversation where the pair have agreed not to lie to one another and realizing that Snow was being truthful when he told Katniss about New President Coin trying to kill her off… Katniss buries an arrow into Now-Dead-President Coin’s brain-pan and is taken away.  Again, this moment was a complete, unpredictable shock and I was laughing for weeks after when I thought of it (in fact, I’ve got a huge grin on my face as we speak just remembering it).

So, Katniss is declared legally insane and she’s free to retire with the boy of her choice and become Queen of Crazy Town.  And who does she pick?  Oh, who gives a shit.

(Peeta)

And so our series ends, with Katniss and Peeta living together with their two children, in a more peaceful and more vague world.

Now after all that… I sound like I hated the novels.  Not true!  From start to finish, I enjoyed myself when I was able to put my brain on autopilot and stop over-analyzing EVERYthing that happened.  But my brain kept popping up and saying, “Hey dude… Brain here.  That whole thing… doesn’t really make sense.” And I responded, “Shut up brain, there’s bound to be some awkward teenage groping somewhere in here.”

Spoiler alert… there isn’t!  Which brings me to my next complaint.  For a series that doesn’t shy away from overly descriptive passages on bee stings, stabbings, gushing wounds, arrows to various body parts, explosives, and severe emotional distress… the whole thing is as chaste as a hymnal.  Seriously, these are teenagers… do they have horomones at all?

Bah!  There I go again!  I’m sorry, I just can’t help it.  The series is great.  It has an interesting plot, some memorable characters, and the social commentary is actually very subtle.  I also enjoy the idea of the books because I hope it will lead teenagers into reading other dystopian books, like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World.

And if not?  Well, at least the little bastards are reading!  The Hunger Games is a great series as long as you don’t become a complete assbag like me and over-analyze the little details (and I’ll readily admit that I was more sensitive to overly-convenient plot points that I know I have forgiven in other novels I’ve read).

So read the series if you haven’t.  Do it now before the movie comes out and you’re forced to put one of those ugly movie covers on your shelf.  Hell, I’d do it just to avoid having Lenny Kravitz’s name on anything that I own.