Everyman by Philip Roth

Regret, loss and aging. Three things that are universal to every man/woman on this planet.

There’s no remaking reality… Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way.” 

4/5 stars.
Hardcover, 182 pages.
Read from March 27, 2017 to March 28, 2017.

Mortality, aging, regret and loss are the biggest theme winners in Roth’s awarding winning novel. The unnamed narrator is an Everyman, just an average joe, who has not lived the most sin-free life.  The title of this book is taken from a 15th century play called The Summoning of Everyman that discusses the Christian concept of salvation and how it must be attained.

Our narrator is successful man with a family and long career in creative marketing. He is, however thrice divorced and, for the most part, it is of his own undoing. He just can’t seem to stay faithful. He is the youngest brother yet he is the one that is plagued with the most health problems. He is in and out of hospitals his whole life; from a hernia, appendicitis and multiple heart issues that plague him through his adult life. Some of his children hate him due to the fact that he has ended marriages and families just to pick up and start another one soon after. His driving life force and biggest hinderance is sex. His latest wife is young but inexperienced and ultimately unattached and unprepared to deal with the ailments of an aging man. Our Everyman retires to a home and despite trying to stay lively and busy he is surrounded by the imminent feeling of death, decay and regret.

The pain makes you so alone…We have a pathetic need to be comforted.”

As it becomes apparent that this latest heart problem is going to be the last of him he tries to make amends and find salvation in repairing some relationships with some friends and family.

Many readers were conflicted or disgusted with our Everyman’s lust for young women, Is he a disgusting old man or a withering old man trying to regain a sense of spark and purpose in his quickly declining life? The conflict in reactions is a necessary part of this story because Everyman is us. He is imperfect. He regrets and is afraid of dying. His vigor has been one way that he has defined his ‘aliveness’ and his life.

Many have considered this book partly autobiographical, as Roth himself was a second child and has had many failed marriages and is technically retired.

Regardless of whether or not you liked or appreciated the life of our Everyman, there are moments in this book everyone can sympathize with. Roth’s writing style is morbid and unapologetic, and honest. As well as literary in fashion, concise and engaging. The novel is not a caring piece on how to deal with the nuances of aging and dying but more of a reminder of certain futility in life and in death. A miserable approach, but a philosophical one.

Overall, this book will make you dread getting old but it will also help you appreciate how fleeting life. I would recommend this book to any literary fiction fans as well as those who have an appreciation for Roth’s work. If you are a first time Roth reader I would recommend starting with something a bit lighter, like Portnoy’s Complaint. I would also recommend this book for the older crowd but not for the dying.  There is a little consolation in this story.

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami

The first two books that Murakami ever had published. The start of his remarkable writing career.

There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 234 pages.
Read on February 15, 2017 to February 18, 2017.

I am going to review these two novels at the time same as they really are the same story. I imagine had these novels not been Murakami’s very first he would have put them together into one, though technically there are two more books in this loose series, though I have yet to read them.

In the first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, an unnamed male student is visiting home during the summer break. Like many youth, he spends his days at a local bar called J’s drinking and smoking. It is here that he likes to converse with his friend, the Rat, until the early hours of the morning. Rat appears tough and impermeable but there is a lingering tension about his latest love interest. The narrator becomes involved with a young woman who happens to be missing one of her fingers.

In the second novel, Pinball1973 the same unnamed protagonist, having finished school, has started up a successful translation company. His life is uneventful until he randomly meets a set of twins who abruptly move in with him, in which an intriguing affair begins. The protagonist has not seen the Rat in a long time and has not been to J’s bar as he becomes obsessed with tracking down a particular pinball machine that he use to play. Meanwhile, the Rat is spiraling into depression and on the brink of falling apart.

As with many Murakami novels, loneliness and isolation are the most prevalent themes. In Hear the Wind Sing, the two male character’s nightly chats are emphasizing their loneliness and search for love that alludes them with their sexual conquests. The nine fingered lover suffers from isolation after having an abortion. The narrator’s quest for the nostalgic pinball machine is a way for him to alleviate his loneliness and relive what he remembers of love, happiness and friendship. In Pinball, 1973, the narrator and the Rat do not meet, further stressing this theme.

It was clear that these were Murakami’s first books as his style is not yet fully developed, making both of the story’s less ubiquitous than his more popular novels. It was relieving to hear that even Murakami is not a fan of these first few novels. Murakami was actually opposed to having them translated into English even though he admits they played an important part in building his career as a writer.

As a Murakami fan, I am glad that I read these novels, as it has allowed me to see how his writing career and style developed. As a reader though, I did not take a lot of pleasure from either of them, especially Pinball, 1973Neither novel was very concise and while the themes were present the stories felt dull and lacking. The characters felt underdeveloped and I was left wanting to know more.

While I would still encourage Murakami fans to read these books, I would not however recommend either of these books for first time Murakami readers.  For first time Murakami readers I would recommend: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore or Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

What happens when people open their hearts?”
They get better.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 269 pages.
Read from February 7, 2017 to February 14, 2017.

Norwegian Wood is the novel that brought Murakami international fame and has become one of the books that he is best known for.  It set a standard for his future novels in terms of themes, overall feel, and characters.

Toru is a young man about to enter college in Tokyo.  However, he has had trouble dealing with the sudden and accidental death of his close high school friend. As a result, he is drawn to the beautiful Naoko, who was his best friend’s girlfriend.  Toru becomes devoted to Naoko as the two of them try to deal with the death of someone they each cared deeply about. While a dedicated student, Toru becomes invariably lonely and lost during his university studies. He walks with Naoko, even if it means not speaking a word, to help deal with this emptiness.

However Naoko is struggling much more with the realities of adult life than Toru and eventually withdraws from society to an outlying facility to help her deal with her own sadness and emptiness. Continuing to stay devoted to Naoko, he visits and writes her as often she will allow. However, as Naoko continues to retreat into her own world with little signs of improvement, Toru finds himself drawn to a smart, feisty and rebellious student name Midori. Toru is still unrelenting with his devotion to Naoko, yet he has to make a choice. Stay in a dream world with Naoko with the hope that she will love him, or move forward with Midori?

This book is about loneliness and grief. Every one of the characters in the novel has dealt with or is dealing with some form of loss and the book is the outcome of how each of them deal with it.  In typical Murakami style, the book is evocative and dreamlike, as Murakami soothes his reader’s senses with his visceral and philosophical approach to storytelling.

I am adding this book to the top five favourites of my Murakami pile.  The plot is simple and easy to follow. The feelings of each of the characters practically seep out of the pages making for a very enjoyable read. The only part I struggled with was with Toru’s specific intimate moment with Naoko. He clearly took advantage of her and he knew it, resulting in Naoko’s own downward spiral inwards. Naoko is in such rough state for most of the book that it is hard to deal with her fragility and what feels like, Toru’s betrayal. Despite, the unfolding events Toru does eventually determine that Naoko will never love him, despite him wish it, and as a small resting punishment he is left with those memories and lingering regrets of what would never be.

As much as I enjoy Murakami, I am coming to see that the pretense to the majority of his books is very similar. Here is the formula I have come up with for making a Murakami novel:

Male main character – Always a man, somewhere between 20 and 30 and he will experience some sort of existential crisis loosely based in reality.

Female characters – There are female side characters but they are always sexualized and often love interests. They are also often portrayed as weak, indecisive, needy, or mentally unstable. Though not all of the time, as there are few exceptions to this rule. For example, Aomame from 1Q84; she is remarkably resilient and strong. However, the plot of that story is shared equally with Tengo, who is a stereotypical Murakami male character, with whom Aomame is the love interest.

However having said that, all of the characters, even the main character, sometimes give the feeling of being gender neutral. This is perhaps how female readers can still relate to the main character without hating the portrayal of the women in Murakami’s stories.

Sex – There is a ton of it. The main character will have sex with one of these said female side characters, or perhaps more than one of them, with at least one of the acts being morally questionable. The act is often meant to show some deeper philosophical meaning in relation to the plot or the main character’s journey.

Food – There will be many, many paragraphs about cooking food.  It is alway something that is really healthy but sounds down right delicious. It is often followed with beer.

Cats – a Murakami story would not be complete without mentioning cats. Either the cat is part of the main story or they are at least a part of an evocative scene when the main character is reflecting on his said existential crisis.

To be a Murakami fan, this formula has to be one that you’re comfortable with or at least willing to accept to some extent. I mean, besides the majority of his novels providing thought-provoking content, there is always the sex scenes. And cats.

Returning to Norwegian Wood, this book is the start of the style that Murakami fans love, so it is a must-read.  Whether you are interested in his writing style or not, this book is also iconic, so if you don’t have it on your to-read list you better add it!