A Person of Interest – 4/5 Stars
So I don’t know who did this book a disservice, but someone did. It was NOT the author, who wrote a very thoughtful touching and interesting book. Maybe it was the synopsis writer who tried to make it seem like a mystery novel, when it very clearly is not. Anyway, the novel is about a math professor in the 1990s who is in his 60s and he works at a smallish liberal arts college. One day a bomb goes off in his department and kills a hotshot professor beside him. His proximity to the bomb puts him in the spotlight of the investigation, especially after he makes some conservative but earnest remarks to the news media about the bombing. But this does not mean that he’s a suspect, so much as he has information about the bombing that would be useful for investigators.
However, in the same way that his career is not in anyway substantial next to the hotshot, his own ability to help is also limited. He does however receive a cryptic letter from an old “friend” who he takes to mean a former colleague with whose wife he had an affair and also a short marriage. This chain of events opens up a significant exploration in the novel of Professor Lee’s life, and while the novel itself is shrouded in a lot of mystery, the identification of the bomber is not the most interesting part. It was written in 2008, but plays upon a very pre-9/11 set of fears and is almost nostalgic for the bombings of that decade. It has shades of Unibomber, Timothy McVeigh, and the Atlanta Olympics informing it’s cultural consciousness.
Convenience Store Woman – 3/5 Stars
This very short novel won the prestigious Akutagawa prize in Japan upon its publication. This is interesting to me because of the ways in which a similar, fictive prize plays hugely into the plot of 1Q84, which I recently read. My reading of this book was also deepened by my playing through the Playstation 4 game “Persona 5” which is nothing like this novel in much ways, but does teach you a lot about the different parts of Tokyo and its various subway stops.
This novel, as you can imagine, takes place mainly in a convenience store. It’s about a woman who begins working there when she is 18 and now at 36 is still there, not particularly interested in advancement, content in her state of being, and perfectly suited to the work. It’s a real fish in water story, and plays like the inverse of fish out of water stories in some very interesting ways. For example, while many novels about someone in their 30s working a not particularly interesting job, the story would revolve around the sense of unease and discomfort, the listlessness, the sense of unfulfilled potential, a rut, a deadend, and just about any other kind of image or metaphor that aptly spells out that set of feelings. In addition, there’s usually an accompanying sense of stifled worth and unmet potential exuding either from them or those around them. Whether this sense of worth is intrinsically or extrinsically sought after, it’s a driving force. This is not one of those novels. Our protagonist is very content with her life and her job. She’s good at it, and she’s not at all concerned with a sense of what might have been at all. Others in her life, whether they are married former friends or family do seem to think she should be doing more with herself, the actual content of their concerns seems unfounded, as she seems to think that there wasn’t anything else in particular she either wanted to do or might really have done. It’s radical in its stability and sense of place and ease rather than the opposite.
The Accompanist by Nina Berberova – 3/5 Stars
Another novella that is interesting in not so much what it is, but in what it is not. This short novel from a Russian expat takes place around the time of the Russian Revolution, and like novels such as Doctor Zhivago, plays upon the contrast between the before and after of that time period. But this novel was written in 1936 and not within the regime either.
This is a devious little novella that’s interesting and dark and plaintive. It reminds me a lot of the Edith Wharton novella “The Touchstone” one of my favorites of hers and some of the lesser and more genre like Henry James, though the writing style is significantly less baroque than theirs.
What it most makes me think about is the failure of so many contemporary reader who seems to want to “connect” to writing as if it were supposed to be instructive instead of reflective. This is not a novel that that is particularly “nice” to think of and I would imagine few people would want to see themselves reflected in the characters, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Because it’s from a Russian writers writing not in defense or critique of Russia, I could also see it getting lost. Russian literature had a decades long absence as too many pieces were held to that impossible standard.