Imaginationland

In my experience, reading is a lot like working out. If you’re in the habit of doing it regularly, it feels easy, almost second-nature. But take a week or two off and starting up again can seem like a chore.

As with exercise, I go through phases of reading. If I get into a book I like, I’ll move through it in a matter of days. When I finish one, I have to start another right away or I lose all my momentum. Compounding this is the fact that, if I lose interest in a book halfway through, I won’t put it down in search of a replacement. I’ll just dawdle my way through it, which means even when I do eventually finish, I’m rarely inspired to jump right into another book.

When I get on a roll, though: look out. Earlier this month, after finally limping through the last third of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise (which, in spite of its charms, was very long for a book devoted entirely to evaluating statistical prediction models), I salvaged some forward motion and pounded through three shortish books in a week: The Dwarf, a novel by Par Lagerkvist; I Suck at Girls, a memoir by Justin Halpern; and This is How You Lose Her, the new novel-but-it-feels-like-a-memoir by Junot Diaz. Short books like these are great because they let you build up a head of steam with which to leap into something longer. In this case: Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie’s been in the news a bit recently because of his newly-released memoir, Joseph Anton, a third-person recounting of his time in hiding from the Ayatollah Khomeini. The memoir has received mixed reviews, but it reminded me that although I saw Rushdie speak in person during my freshman year of college, I hadn’t actually read any of his books.

After seeing Rushdie speak, I remember telling my parents that he was probably the smartest person I’d ever seen in real life. This was a silly thing to say, though the speech was plenty impressive, as much for the fact that Rushdie spoke continuously (and articulately) for over an hour without the aid of cue cards. Though I remember nothing from the speech itself, one of his answers during the subsequent Q and A stands out: asked for his opinion on The Da Vinci Code, Rushdie said that he hadn’t read it–perish the thought–but that the popularity of Dan Brown’s novel was a terrible thing for literature in general, characterizing it as (I’m paraphrasing) “writing for the lowest common denominator.” It was a dick thing to say. I liked him immediately.

So, Midnight’s Children. Rushdie’s novel, which embellishes on the real events following the partition of India in 1947, could easily fill up an entire post, and I will get to my thoughts on it a little later. But first, I want to discuss something that occurred to me while I was reading it.

As a genre, children’s books are, by and large, a much more imaginative lot than those written for adults. Children get the very most extraordinary worlds to gallivant about in, whereas the rest of us are left to toil over epic tomes about marital strife and wasted youth. (Looking at you, Franzen.) Why should a bunch of nose-pickers get to hog all the sweet adventures while I’m stuck with sneak previews of what promises to be an exceptionally depressing mid-life crisis?

Well, there are reasons. For one thing, children may not be stupid, but they are gullible as hell. You know why children don’t have any money? I mean, yes, it’s illegal to employ them, so they don’t have any way to sustain an income. But that’s not the real reason. Children don’t have any money because they’re all suckers. You can convince a child of virtually anything, which is why I tell all my elementary school students that American children are born with clothes on. You think Aiko-the-third-grader, with all her worldliness, is going to refute that? She just wants to know what color t-shirt I was wearing.

(Did you know the expression “child’s play” actually refers to the ease with which one steals from a child? It’s not a coincidence that every rich kid since King Tut has been robbed blind by parents, managers, advisors, and circus folk. In these cases, it isn’t so much that the thieves are bad people as it is the kids are such easy marks, who could resist? If you tell little Joey that his guest spot on Dora the Explorer pays in temporary tattoos, and he believes you, that’s not a scam: it’s a life lesson.)

And but so anyway, children’s books are imaginative because they can be. Kids will believe anything, which gives authors license to push the envelope with stories and worlds that might otherwise meet with skepticism. Grown-ups, especially the analytically anal-retentive, sometimes take more pleasure in finding plot-holes than in reading the story itself. This tendency to chase loose threads is decidedly an adult preoccupation, a purely intellectual exercise that children will have no part of. If the story is good enough, children are famously willing to overlook the implausible or unlikely elements of it.

Also, by and large, children lead phenomenally dull, routine lives, consisting of school, homework, baths, pizza (OH YEAH), asparagus (OH NO), video games, and attempting to “collect” one type of worthless object after another. In the event that they can be coaxed away from their joysticks, kids will not suffer a book as mundane as the rest of their existence. If, in the first ten pages, somebody hasn’t (A) teleported to a different world; (B) become invisible; or (C) conversed with an animal, then you’ve already lost every reader under 14. Children’s book authors know they need to expedite delivery on the awesome or it’s back to Angry Birds by page 25.

This demand, to be not merely entertained but enthralled and enchanted by books, has produced some pretty wonderful stories. Today’s kids have Harry Potter and, I dunno, The Hunger Games, the most recent in a long line of children’s books that dazzle the imagination: The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis; the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques; the Ender saga of Orson Scott Card; Prydain, the mythical world of Lloyd Alexander; Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials; Madeleine L’Engel’s Wrinkle in Time; and, of course, Norton “TOLLBOOOOOTH” Juster, whose canonical work needs no introduction. These are just a few of the many fantastic worlds inhabited by generation after generation of bookish children.

Then, somewhere along the line, our tastes begin to change. Sometime during our teenage years, as we become aware of the drama in our own lives, we gravitate inevitably to books that feed our budding narcissism. The Catcher in the Rye; The Outsiders; A Separate Peace; To Kill a Mockingbird; as teenagers, these novels resonate with us because they are realistic and plausible in a way that validates how we already feel about ourselves–namely, that our lives are tragic and poignant, and that who we are as teenagers will echo out, revisiting us time and again as we walk through the hallways of our future.

As we recognize the depth and complexity of our own world–made all the more fascinating by the fact that we’re in it–the fantasy realms of our childhood can seem shallow by comparison. I remember being about 13-years-old and looking at a map of Mossflower Country, where many of the Redwall books take place. Many fantasy books have a rudimentary world map in the first few pages, so that readers can follow the geographic movements of the story. As I pored over its features, I thought, “But what else? Beyond Mossflower, beyond Salamandastron, beyond the Isle of Terramort, what else lies beyond the borders of the map?” For a child, these worlds express limitless possibility, but for maturing readers, the infinite nature of such possibilities only serves to highlight how bounded and superficial these worlds actually are.

Of course, there are exceptions. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, or George R. R. Martin’s now-trendy A Song of Fire and Ice. Books like these prove that it is possible to write fantasy novels that feel at home outside the young adult section of Barnes and Noble. Thanks in part to TV and film, Tolkien and Martin’s novels have achieved mainstream popularity, but they are somewhat unusual in that regard. Many other fantasy authors, the Terry Pratchetts and Robert Jordans, sell extremely well but never achieve the kind of name recognition or notoriety that you would expect from such success. This may be due to the literary establishment’s haughty view of the genre, or it could be due to the fact that–in spite of massive sales–the Pratchetts and Jordans are generally appealing over and over again to the same niche of hardcore fantasy readers, who are willing to read 40 volumes and tens of thousands of pages all set in the same universe.

And that’s the real dilemma facing fantasy authors. In order to appeal to adults, these imaginary worlds need a level of depth, detail and sophistication that requires a herculean effort, both by the writer (to render them) and the reader (to properly appreciate them). It’s no wonder that a series like Discworld, Pratchett’s 40 volume opus, inspires intense devotion in those brave enough to undertake it. Even for a voracious reader, committing to a series like that means years of work, at the cost of other books and authors left unread. For most of us, the idea of taking on such a challenge feels burdensome rather than exciting.

All of this conspires to drive adult fantasy novels to the margins, while children’s books from the same genre are rightfully honored as milestones of a literary upbringing. As I realized this, I thought, “What a shame!” Because–without taking anything away from the delicate chords of pathos, ennui, and impermanence that underscore the great novels of adulthood–if we must sacrifice imagination in exchange for realism, that is a lofty price indeed. Books for adults seem intent on helping us to better understand our own lives, but does such a goal really preclude us from, every so often, being spellbound by something never-before-seen?

One of the reasons Harry Potter was such a phenomenon was that it cultivated the thrills of childhood fantasy within the framework of the known world. Harry’s world isn’t one conceived out of thin air, and it isn’t even a parallel universe; it is, ostensibly, a world that lies just below the surface of the one we experience every day. This isn’t a revolutionary concept, and in a series that was innovative in a multitude of ways, it doesn’t explain the immense popularity of J.K. Rowling’s novels by itself. But I do believe that, for adult readers, the familiarity of the setting made Rowling’s story more accessible.

At the end of the day, though, Harry Potter is a still a children’s series, albeit one that appeals to all ages. While I won’t stoop to dismissing it the way Rushdie did The Da Vinci Code, we must admit that in spite of their many virtues, Rowling’s novels lack sophistication. Some readers will cry foul at such a criticism, but as evidence, I offer this: whenever a new installment of Harry Potter came out, my Potterphile friends would invariably mow through it in a matter of days, if not hours. A testament to the gripping nature of Harry’s adventures? Sure, but also to the lack of substance contained in Rowling’s prose. It should not be possible to read and enjoy a 759-page book in a single day, but Harry Potter made it doable.

Too much substance or too little: this tightrope is the plight of every fantasy author. For every highwire genius, every J. R. R. Tolkien, a hundred authors tumble to their deaths.

Thankfully, though, the paucity of quality adult fantasy novels does not relegate us to a world devoid of imagination. For that, we are grateful to Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the fathers of magic realism; we are indebted to Murakami Haruki, whose prodigious imagination astounds and confounds in turns; and if you see Salman Rushdie, you should probably buy him a beer for writing Midnight’s Children. (Just don’t tell the Ayatollah about it.)

As I grew up, I slowly lost my taste for imaginative fiction, replacing the fantasy novels of my youth with bildungsroman and books about society. But in recent years, that old taste has returned, the way a single ingredient can stir memories of homemade meals from decades past.

What Marquez, Murakami, and Rushdie have in common–what separates them from Terry Pratchett and Robert Jordan–is the ability to weave elements of spectacular imagination into the real world. These authors need not invent new worlds because they possess a gift for revealing the mystery hidden in ours and coaxing it out into the open. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez soaks the world in its own history and rings it out like a towel until it drips with magic and secrets. In Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Murakami exposes the hidden chambers of the mind and maps them upon the streets and tunnels of urban life.

And Midnight’s Children is, perhaps, the most delightful of them all. I won’t say best–that, perhaps, goes too far–but delightful, yes. Because reading Midnight’s Children is like watching a master illusionist up close. Rushdie meticulously foreshadows every event in the book; he shows you the cards in his deck, allows you to inspect them. And then, even as you watch for them, they disappear before your eyes. But as your brow begins to furrow, your cards reappear in the most unexpected places, just as suddenly as they vanished. At times, the sleight of hand is nothing short of breathtaking, and all you can do is shake your head and smile.

Like Marquez’s masterpiece, Midnight’s Children is the story of a family, told over generations, and the story of a particular time and place in history. Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, Rushdie makes a special point to anchor his story with watershed moments drawn quite literally from the pages of his country’s history. The effect of these historical details is ambiguous, for while they ground Rushdie’s narrative in real time, he undermines them at every turn. The past, he suggests, is not so reliable by itself, and seldom all it seems to be. Should we be surprised if the present is any different?

I could continue, but I won’t, because spoiling a book like Midnight’s Children with endless analysis would be a crime worthy of a fatwa. It’s enough to say that, if I’m ever in the same room with Salman again, the first round is on me.

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The beginning of the end

On Friday, the end of a strange week in which I returned from Hawaii to a house without hot water and had my internet temporarily suspended for delinquency on a two-month old bill, I formally declined the Minamishimabara Board of Education’s offer to extend my contract through 2014.

I am, officially, coming home in August.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen this coming. I’d maintained, since before I even left for Japan, that this was to be a two-year engagement. I never saw myself living here long-term, and I was pretty straightforward about that from day one. So when I announced on Friday that this would be my last year in Japan, it didn’t come as a big surprise to my coworkers. Teachers are transferred from one school to another in Japan frequently and without ceremony, so they are particularly inured to the departure of their colleagues. When the school year ends in March, more than one of them will be packing up their own things and starting over somewhere else in Nagasaki.

But although I’d made my decision months or even years ago, I stared at the contract for two days before I was able to sign away my job. In the end, it was inevitable, and thinking about it rationally, the reasons to leave far outweighed the reasons to stay. But especially these days, leaving a good, solid job is hard to reconcile as a rational act, even with all the reasons in the world. With so many people still struggling to scrape by, it feels a bit like tempting fate to spurn decent work for something unknown. How many people have made the same choice only to regret it bitterly?

Of course, my situation isn’t nearly as dramatic as some, since my exit strategy has been planned for awhile now. In the fall, I’ll be going to graduate school in education, to build on what I’ve learned in Japan these two years. The prospect of returning to school after four years away is a little scary, but a lot less terrifying than returning to the U.S. without a next step. (Job-hunting in the U.S. from Japan is as difficult as it sounds.)

And so, I’m coming home. (Although where exactly home will be remains up in the air–I’ve got one acceptance letter in hand but am still waiting to hear on five others.) But not yet.

In the meantime, I have seven more months to make the most of Japan. Seven more months to eat takoyaki in Osaka, soak at an onsen in Unzen, and watch the sunrise on top of Mt. Fuji. Seven more months to imprint Japan indelibly upon my mind. Seven more months to call this country my own. Seven more months to remember Japan.

Let the farewell tour begin.

Hawaii: America’s beautiful stepdaughter

It turns out that, aside from being an island paradise, Hawaii is also an interesting place. It’s the youngest U.S. state, having earned the privilege in August 1959, thus edging out fellow expansion state Alaska by a few months. Ethnic Hawaiians seem to consider this something of a dubious privilege, the culmination of almost 200 years of European and American meddling. Evidence of this attitude can be found in the existence of numerous Hawaiian sovereignty groups, as well as the sentiments of modern Hawaiian royalty.

Like indigenous peoples the Western Hemisphere over, the Hawaiians beef is not entirely unwarranted, as they did get more or less boxed out of what was rightfully theirs. But unlike many Native Americans, prior to being formally subjugated, aristocratic Hawaiians had already embraced European influence. At ‘Iolani Palace, the former seat of the Hawaiian royal family in Honolulu, visitors are instructed to take note of all the modern amenities therein. (It featured electricity and flush toilets before the White House.) The walls of ‘Iolani Palace feature portraits of past Hawaiian monarchs dressed in European clothing, alongside those of European royals and dignitaries, gifts that are meant to reinforce the respected international standing of the former Kingdom of Hawaii.

What is interesting about this is that, for all the hand-wringing over the disappearance and marginalization of ethnic Hawaiian culture, Hawaii’s celebrated former monarchs contributed considerably to the Westernization that ultimately saw them deposed. One modern example of this that persists is the Hawaiian state flag, previously used by the Kingdom of Hawaii, which features the Union Jack. This makes the Hawaiian flag similar to that of many former (and current) British territories, despite the fact that Hawaii was never under British rule.

Perhaps the annexation of Hawaii by a foreign power was inevitable, and given what befell other indigenous groups at the hands of Europeans, the relatively bloodless overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 seems preferable by comparison. To native Hawaiians still chafing over past injustices, this is likely cold consolation. But to them, as to those in Alaska, Texas, and the Bioregional Democracy of Cascadia who bristle under the harsh yolk of U.S. oppression, I say: Quit whining. You guys are on the winning team.

(If you are mentioned in the same sentence as the Cascadia independence movement, which is an actual thing, that’s like–sort of weird, not good company to be in. Like being at a party with someone who thinks that condom companies created AIDs to perpetuate their product in an era of oral contraception.)

While Hawaii makes a point to highlight its cultural heritage, it’s hard to know how much this is motivated by a genuine interest in its own history vis-à-vis branding for tourism purposes. Undoubtedly, there are elements of both, and visitors who stray farther from resorts and heavily-trafficked areas like Waikiki are likely to experience more authentic displays of Hawaiian culture. The less adventurous among us will have to be content with the run-of-the-mill articles that populate souvenir shops across the islands: leis, ukeleles, grass skirts, surf paraphernalia, and the ubiquitous Hawaiian shirt. And, of course, the alohas and mahalos tossed around by everyone in the service industry to remind you that you’re on vacation.

(Is there anything that can compete with Hawaiian shirts as far as popularity in spite of overwhelming ugliness? Maybe Uggs?)

But so anyway, for a native son returning to the U.S. for the first time in 17 months, Hawaii felt like a baby step towards normalcy. It’s America, but barely. While it has all the American amenities I had hoped to indulge in–pizza, beer, burgers, and beautiful women–it was also full of Asian tourists, many of whom were Japanese. As a vacation destination for the Japanese, Hawaii’s popularity is such that many hotels, restaurants, and stores have signs in both languages, as well as staff with a cursory knowledge of Japanese.

The high percentage of vacationers also lends Hawaii a relaxed quality that does not recall any other place I’ve been in the U.S. (The weather, which attracts the vacationers, also plays an obvious role in this.) So, although it was thrilling to be back in the U.S., it didn’t feel particularly familiar.

Since I was rolling with the AARP syndicate, my travel itinerary was a little different than it otherwise might have been, but my parents and managed to hit some pretty high notes. In Honolulu, we explored the city, and climbed to the top of the enormous Diamondhead Crater’s rim. We drove along Oahu’s scenic coastline and ate some bomb shrimp at the roadside Shrimp Shack, which purports to be nationally renown. On Kauai, I snorkeled for the first time, which certainly will not be the last time because it was awesome. Going to need an underwater camera before I do that again. We hiked quite a bit, both on Kauai’s famed Na Pali Coast and in Waimea Canyon State Park, often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Having seen them both up close, I’d say the nickname is justified.

Admittedly, Hawaii is a pretty romantic place, and if I go back, I wouldn’t mind doing it with someone who lets me take better advantage of that fact. However, I’m so conditioned to being alone right now that ten days with one other person–especially one I’m not related to and thus obligated to love–might very well have gone down in flames. Plus, you know, my parents are actually decent company, when they’re not pouting about losing at Scrabble. So for this trip, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Except the part about having no hot water when I came home. That I would change.