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Review: Sea of Trees (2012) by Robert James Russell   Leave a comment

Sea-of-TreesThere is a short documentary on YouTube, about twenty minutes long, about the Aokigahara Forest (also known as Jaiku) in Japan. The documentary follows Azusa Hayano, a geologist who frequents the forest, as he explores the undergrowth, looking for signs of people who might have committed suicide there. The forest, after all, is famous as one of the most popular sites in the world for people to commit suicide, a tradition that stretches back even before modern times – in times of famine, the locals used to leave the elderly, unwanted babies, the sick, and other people that society sought to exclude for the sake of survival, leading to a longstanding association of the place with death and, not surprisingly, the ghosts of those who died there.

The forest, with its rugged density and lack of wildlife, enveloping the place in an eerie blanket of silence, seems particularly conducive to this kind of mythologizing. In 1960, Seichi Matsumoto captured the Japanese imagination with the publication of his (as yet untranslated) novel Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees), a romantic story of two doomed lovers. Robert James Russell’s novella seems to have been inspired by a conjunction of these sources.

The narrative is simple enough. Divided into chapters with headings like “Sacrifice” and “Enlightenment,” the main story follows two characters, Junko, a beautiful young Japanese woman, and Bill, an American, the two having met and fallen in love while they were students. The purpose of their journey is to discover some sign of Izumi, Junko’s older sister, who had disappeared in the forest, presumably having committed suicide. Each chapter concludes with a self-contained, italicized story about an unrelated character (or characters) who died in the forest due to various motives: shame, guilt, murder, and even a simple fascination with death.

I had a number of problems with Sea of Trees. For a start, so many of the elements from the aforementioned documentary seemed to have been incorporated into the basic details of the story: the abandoned car in the parking lot, the deserted campsite, the forlorn body of a deceased person, the doll nailed to a tree with a suicide note nailed next to it. Often it felt as though the novella I was reading was a transposition of the documentary into written form, with only minor modifications.

As we get into the second half of the book, the personalities of the two main characters start to emerge, revealing a major weakness of Russell’s abilities as a writer. Both Bill and Junko are disappointingly flat characters – Bill simply switches back and forth between lusting after Junko and meekly allowing her to walk all over him, while Junko is so unrealistically obsessed with finding her sister that she abandons all logic and, particularly in the final pages, believability. She reveals secrets about Izumi that make sense of her sister’s suicide, but her own behavior is so over the top that she made no inherent sense to me at all – her actions seemed a rather artificial device on Russell’s part to push the plot to its culmination rather than any explicable, organic development in her character.

The element of Sea of Trees that I was least able to stomach, though, was its uncritical romanticism. Let’s not forget that the world’s first romantic novel – Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) – also deals with the issue of suicide. While I can sympathize with the seductive power that Aokigahara, with its legends of demons and death, wields over the human imagination (it was what sparked my interest in Russell’s novella in the first place) what I found both lazy and problematic about the book was its wholesale acceptance of this tradition. The reader is not only led to empathize repeatedly with the suicide victims in the book, but also to accept the mystical power that is associated with the place. Bill does make some feeble attempts to give voice to reason, but they are quickly lost in the emotional deluge of Junko’s mania.

Sea of Trees could have been a powerful and complex examination of what life means in the face of death, especially when humanity is faced with the complex phenomenon of its own self-destruction. Russell draws on the operatic, emotional power of the romantic tradition to give his novel punch, but the problem is that this formula is so worn out that, quite simply, I can’t believe in its nobility anymore. I read Goethe’s Werther, for instance, and I think “Put the pistols away, young man – this Lotte woman is not worth it. Your momentary, youthful despair is far less daring than having the maturity to face life with all its prismatic hardness.” Surely that is what novelists, in the twenty-first century, ought to have learned, too – or at the very least, that romanticism is fine when it arouses us into life, but pushed to its extreme it descends into the very worst kind of nihilism.

Rating: 2.5/5

© 2014 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.


Review: The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) by Will Self   Leave a comment

The Quantity Theory of Insanity is Will Self’s first book, and although I had previously read Cock and Bull before I picked up this text, I felt as though I was starting over with his oeuvre. Reading Self from the start, in sequence, is not a bad strategy – after all, his fiction is littered with intratextual references, recurring characters, and little in-jokes that build from one book to the next.

Self is a polarizing writer whose reputation usually precedes him. He tends to be either loved or hated as a consequence, which is unfortunate, because authors should not be judged solely on the emotional reactions they provoke. You see, Self is clever and witty and erudite in a way that only the English seem to be able to pull off. Personally, I was captivated by the stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Self is not merely showing off here: his satire has real teeth, and is grounded in a fierce intellect that attempts to be revolutionary even as it acknowledges such precursors as Kafka and Chekhov.

My experience of reading the first story in here, “The North London Book of the Dead,” is a perfect example of the unsettling yet amusing nature of Self’s texts. What appears at first to be a tragic tale of how a man loses his mother to cancer gradually transforms itself into minor pathos. The dead don’t go away altogether, the narrator discovers, they merely move to a different part of London. I was, by turns, confused and then amused as I realized the true purpose of the metaphor that Self was creating.

This biting caricature of the dullness of English life is replicated in other stories, such as “Understanding the Ur-Bororo.” The story follows the career of Janner, an aspiring anthropologist who dedicates his career to studying this obscure tribe, the Ur-Bororo, winning a special grant dedicated to this specific purpose. What Janner discovers, however, is that the romance surrounding the tribe derives purely from their obscurity. In reality, they are the most boring people in the world, whose culture shows a remarkable indifference to sex and whose conversations consist of bland observations about the weather. Janner marries one of the tribe and, in a brilliant satirical twist, brings her back to England, where she fits right in.

The stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity thus typically explore one of two themes: the unexciting, self-limiting way in which humanity tends to live life, as exemplified by the two stories mentioned already as well as the book’s closer, “Waiting,” and Self’s exploration of madness, rationality, and power. It is in this book, for instance, that we first meet Self’s most important recurring character, the experimental psychiatrist Dr. Zack Busner, together with his notorious mentor Alkan (a not-too-subtle but utterly enjoyable caricature of Jacques Lacan). This latter theme is by far the most profound and interesting, and I particularly liked “Ward 9” (an inversion of Chekhov’s “Ward 6”) and the title story, which engages in a brilliant deconstruction of psychology’s attempts to legitimize itself through “objective” testing, a message that few will appreciate and even fewer will understand.

On the whole, I loved The Quantity Theory of Insanity with only a couple of reservations. The first is that I didn’t like the story “Mono-Cellular,” a testament to the occasional tendency of English fiction writers to overreach their abilities (I’m looking at you, A.S. Byatt). The second is that, well, at times it felt strangely dated, in the same way that reading literary and critical theory from the same period feels dated. I get the same feeling when I read Self’s other books, too, as if he is still trying to push the boundaries of 1980s postmodernism without realizing that the rest of the world has moved on. Nonetheless, it’s wickedly clever stuff, for all its strange anachronisms, and I highly recommend it if you are in the mood for something intelligent and anarchic.

Rating: 4.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted May 15, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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