Sunday, May 22, 2016

What Now?

Boy meets girl, girl meets boy, they get married. Their child is about to leave home for college. He is looking forward to them growing old together, him and her, growing old and dying together. His wife, Connie replies, “ Douglas , who in their right mind would look forward to that ? 

In Us, David Nicholls,  once again cleverly tells a contemporary love story about two protagonists that has lasted more than two decades, how they got together and the dynamics between them.  Just like the couple in One Day, the much acclaimed novel by Nicholls, the couple in Us is put to the test. In One Day the mismatch was between Emma, a serious minded woman and Dexter, a self-indulgent man. Their friendship spanned over twenty years as they kept in touch with one another by meeting  up once a year. In Us, Douglas Timothy Petersen, a 54-year-old industrial biochemist, a disciplined  man is married to 52-year-old Connie whom Douglas loves very much. Connie and Douglas is another unlikely match. While it appears unlikely that she who loves art and culture and has done a lot of sex and drugs would have been attracted to Douglas who knows nothing about art and a scientist who is consumed by  his work.The story is told from the perspectives of Douglas who is very much troubled when Connie tells him that she thinks their marriage has run its course and she thinks she wants to leave him.

Us is a story about the relationships between a man and his wife and also between a man and his eighteen year old son, Albie. Before their son goes to college, Connie suggests a grand tour of Europe to prepare their son for the adult world and he hopes that the family trip will bring them closer. In his desperate attempts to get close to  his son and make Connie fall in love with him all over again, things keep going wrong and he ends himself in odd and embarrassing situations which are hilarious and incredibly silly .

Like many of us , Douglas thinks he is doing  things differently from his parents and he wants to be a better parent than his father.

‘Because throughout my childhood and teenage years I had been compiling a list of banal and irritating remarks that I swore  I would never, ever make when I was a parent. All children make this list, and all lists are unique, though no doubt there is considerable overlap. Don’t touch that , it’s dirty! Write your thank-you letters, or no more presents! How can you waste food when people are starving?   All through Albie’s childhood, out they rumbled. No more biscuits, you’ll spoil your appetite ! Tidy your room ! It is WAY past your bedtime? Do NOT come downstairs again! Yes, you do have to have the lights off ! What on earth are you afraid of ? Don’t cry ! You’re acting like a baby. I told you, stop crying. Do. Not. Cry !'

Connie  does not share the same parenting style as Douglas and she voices her concern.

" So can we just assume that Albie will learn these things and that the time you spend constantly getting at him, which is all the time, is not well spent?”

“ The point you’re making doesn’t stand.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s not about teaching him how to tie his laces or to eat broccoli or talk sensibly. It’s about doing things properly; teaching him application , perseverance and discipline.”
“I’m teaching him that not everything in this life is easy or fun.”
“Yes ,” Connie sighed and shook her head. “You certainly are.”

In Us, Nicholls writes in the voice of Douglas.
  Was I an authoritarian? Certainly less so than my own father, and never unreasonably so. Connie was of the school that thought a certain degree of cheekiness, irreverence, rebellion – the crayon on the wall, the unwanted cauliflower hidden in the shoe –should be treated with an indulgent nod, a wink, a ruffling of the hair. I wasn’t like that, it was not in my nature or upbringing, and neither was I of the school that thought praise should be unearnt, or that ‘I love you’ should be tossed around with wild abandon, just another way of saying ‘goodnight’ or ‘well done’ or ‘see you later’, a clearing of the throat. I did love my son, of course I did, but not when he tried to set fire to things, not when he refused to do his maths homework, not when he spilt apple juice into my laptop, not when he whined because I’d turned off the TV. He would thank me in the long run, and if I did overstep the mark sometimes, if I did lose my temper, snarl when I should have forced a smile then, I was very, very tired.'  

Raising children becomes a project for many couples with children and when their children are all grown up, they suddenly find themselves having only each other thus the term empty nest syndrome has been coined. Over the years when their common goal is to make sure that their children make it to colleges and universities, they overlook the quality of their relationships between one another. It is a perfectly ordinary chapter of many marriages. What now ?  Change is an inevitable part of life. 

David Nicholls is an acute observer of contemporary way of life and  Us details the mores for many modern days middle class families. It is a good read indeed. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What's in a name?

Thoughts flow in and out of our mind. If we observe our thoughts and behaviour, we will note that they can be inconsistent, so random and inconsequential. There are times these unruly thoughts lead to some resemblance of an epiphany but very often they are fleeting and volatile. As life progresses, if we do not pay attention, unresolved issues from our past get carried along and become embedded in our subconscious mind like a growth. Grudges and disappointments unwittingly affect our point of view and behaviour in general. I feel that the past is imbued with the elements of a dream and what we remember about  the past may not be accurate as it is probably what we remember remembering about the past.

Often we view ourselves in the way we think that is how the others see us.In one sense, growing up means we should be able to know when to care and not care about things that happen to us or said about us. Nothing is certain, everything in life is subject to change. Life is full of challenges even in its banality thus  there is  nothing wrong to crave some sense of predictability in our  everyday life. There are times when certain unresolved memories from the past crop up to haunt us and makes it necessary for us to revisit the past just like Tsukuru Yazaki, the main character in Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the novel written by Haruki Murakami.

At a public high school In the suburbs of Ngoya, Tsukuru belongs to a rare and harmonious group of friends where all but he had a family name corresponding to a colour : White, Black ,Red and Blue. Red and Blue are boys and White and Black are girls. Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a colour in its meaning.

His father had been the one who named him. Well before Tsukuru was born, his father had already decided on his name. Why was unclear. Maybe it was because his father had spent many years of his own life far removed from anything having to do with making things. Or maybe at some point he’d received something akin to a revelation – a bolt of unseen lightning, accompanied by soundless thunder, searing the name Tsukuru in his brain. But his father never spoke of where he’d gotten the idea for the name. Not to Tsukuru, and not to anybody else.

When it came to which Chinese character he would choose to write out “Tsukuru,” however – the character that meant “ create,” or the simpler one that meant “make” or “build” ----his father couldn’t make up his mind for the longest time. The characters might read the same way, but the nuances were very different. His mother had assumed it would be written with the character that meant “ create,” but in the end his father had opted for the more basic meaning.’

Tsukuru goes to Tokyo for his sophomore years.  One day he is told that the group no longer wishes to have further contact with him. He quietly carries the pain of rejection into his adulthood. When he is a grown man, he makes two friends, one is Haida who draws him into the realm of classical music and when he plays a recording of Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage”, it reminds him of his school friend , Shiro (White)who plays “Le Mal de Pays” beautifully. When Haida vanishes from Tsukuru’s life, he has left behind the record set of “Years of Pilgrimage”. Tsukuru feels that he is an empty vessel and when people come to him, they discover how empty he is, and leave and sometimes they leave behind a momento, like Haida and the boxed set of Years of Pilgrimage.

Maybe I am just an empty, futile person, he thought. But it was precisely because there was nothing inside of me that these people could find, if even for a short time, a place where they belonged. Like a nocturnal bird seeks a safe place to rest during the day in a vacant attic. The birds like that empty, dim, silent place. If that were true, then maybe he should be happy he was hollow.

When Tsukuru meets Sara , the latter senses that the former has to rid of  the pain of the loss of his four school friends, thus she insists that he seeks them out. He must find out  the reason that they no longer wish to have  any further contact with him. After Sara has made on line search through Google, Facebook and Twitter, she provides him the information about his friends who are located as close as his boyhood home of Nagoya and as far as Finland.

Even though he is successful as a young man, Tsukuru has low regard for himself. He works as an engineer and builds and refines railroad stations. He is the kind of person who craves stability. The only real interest he has is train stations so he ends up working in an area where his passion lies.

Finland is his first trip abroad and when he arrives at Helsinki, he feels no different than when he had gone back to his hometown, ‘only the currency  in his wallet had changed’.

 “Where are you from?” asked the taxi driver in English, shooting Tsukuru a glance in the rearview mirror. He was a middle-aged man with a full, thick beard.
“ Japan,” Tsukuru replied.
That’s a long way to come with so little luggage.”
“ I don’t like heavy baggage.”
The driver laughed. “Who does?But before you know it, you are surrounded by it. That’s life. C’est la vie.” And again he laughed happily.
Tsukuru laughed along with him.

Coffee is the drink for Tsukuru and the characters in the story. As someone who loves coffee and cares  about the roast of the beans, I appreciate  one particular quote from the book The fresh smell of coffee soon wafted through the apartment, the smell that separates night from day.' click

Unlike the Murakami’s other books, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki is rather casually written with the usual wry observations interjected by the author. Since I do not read Japanese,  I can only read the English translation copy of the novel. I like  the minimalist writing style as I  can glide through the story in one sitting.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

At the interchange

Everyone of us is a concoction of our nature and nurture that comprise of  all the things we encounter and experience, past and present. How we respond and remember things are a matter of  our perceptions which are very much influenced by our own beliefs and education. We think in the way we choose to think and our thoughts are shaped by what we have come to believe. Education is our life  long vocation. If you think about it , there are a lot of things that are at odds with logic. I thus believe that we must not stop educating ourselves even if we might not find the real explanations nor the true reasons for everything that  has happened or is happening because life is multi-faceted. I also believe that everything is connected and nothing happens in isolation.

In The Forgetting Time written by Sharon Guskin, Noah Zimmerman is conceived after a one-night stand with a man whom Janie meets when she is on vacation in Trinidad as  she turns thirty-nine. Noah is Janie’s world and it breaks her heart when he has nightmares and sometimes pushes her away and asks for his real mother when Janie is his mother. Janie is called into Noah’s  pre-school where she is told that she needs  to seek professional help for her son. Noah is beyond his age as he speaks about scoring a baseball game, Harry Potter and  guns , things that a four year old would not possess any knowledge of  particularly when Janie has never exposed him to these things. Noah is very much terrified of water and bath is a constant battle between Janie and Noah. He also speaks of the time when he was Tommy and lived in the red house in the field in some place called Ashview. After sending him to different psychiatrists, she is at her wits end to find a cure for her troubled child. Enter Professor Jerome Anderson who is into research about reincarnations and consciousness and he, for many decades has been studying young children who seem to recall details from previous lives. Anderson is diagnosed with a rare form of Alphasia and  time is running out for him to prove his point about reincarnation and changeability of consciousness.

His legacy ---oh, he had had high hopes for himself, but he hadn’t gotten very far. There were so many things he still didn’t know. Why were some children born with memories of past lives, their bodies marked with the imprints of past traumas? Was it related (it had to be ) to the fact that 70 persecent of the previous personalities these children remembered had died traumatic deaths?

Noah’s case seems to be Anderson’s only chance to finish his book on the research he has done. Janie is running out of money and  her work is very much disrupted due to Noah’s behaviour. She loves Noah thus she is desperate to find a cure for her son even if Anderson’s theory is not what she is ready to hear let alone accept.

Janie believed in consistency. It was something she took pride in. She said ,”No crackers before bedtime,” and then she stuck with it .She had been even-tempered (mostly);she had been constant (as much as possible). Kids needed that.

She had tried to create order in Noah’s life the way her mother had created order in her own, after the chaos of living with her father. She didn’t remember much of the time before her father had left them. There was a memory of sitting high up on his shoulders at the state fair – but was that a real memory or something she made up from a picture she had ? There was the time the two of them went to the mall on some errand and he had spontaneously bought a huge stuffed polar bear for her, far too big for any room but the living room, and her mother objected but then laughed and let her keep it there beside the TV. There was the smell of his pipe and his scotch, and the sound of him banging on the door all night long when he drank and her mother wouldn’t let him in. There was her mother holding a water glass filled with red wine (the first and only time Janie had seen her drink). Telling her in the matter-of –fact voice she always had that she had asked him to leave and he wasn’t ever coming back, and she was right; he didn’t. Janie was ten then. She remembered that day perfectly, the startling sight of her mother drinking in the afternoon, the way the wine had splashed as her mother talked and Janie had been nervous it would spill over.'

The Forgetting Time is about the length a mother will go for her child and that it examines the possibility that consciousness might survive death. Ms Guskin's writing is beautiful. The novel is a fabulous debut, an engaging read indeed.