What I’m reading right now

I’m in the midst of two books at the moment, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, and The sky so heavy by Claire Zorn. They’re very different, but in both I’ve enjoyed the way they deal differently with pace, with the speed of things happening in real life and in how they convey that in their stories.

Image from wikimediaImage from wikipedia

This is my second Murakami, and I’m loving it. There’s less of his magical realism flavour to this one, so in some ways I’m finding it a little easier to get into. What I’m particularly enjoying though is the different pace Murakami brings to this one. I don’t know if it’s just his style, or a particular literary tradition I haven’t come across before, but there’s a much slower pace to this book than other things I’ve read. Or … it’s a much gentler pace. In some books, a simple set of events can be laden with meaning, and each step and gesture is heavily imbued. To a certain extent, there are moments in Norwegian Wood where inflection, tone, and the subtleties are critical. But what I really like is that he’s willing to let a gentle pace unfold. He’ll tell about a quiet scene – the character drinking a few glasses of water in the kitchen. He won’t rush through it, or skim past it, but at the same time he won’t try and dredge meaning or significant from it – it’s just a thing that happened. In more clumsy hands I think it could feel very awkward, or slow. But in this book, I’m loving it.

The sky so heavy is a post-apocalyptic novel. I’m only about halfway through, but so far the novel’s largely dealt with the protagonist and his younger brother, staying in their house, as society collapses following a nuclear explosion (location and cause unspecified) that’s left a sky darkened with ash. One thing Zorn does very well is draw out the monotony of the situation. Before reading, I would have expected it to be action packed, pulling apart the hectic pace of the days after the explosion. Not at all. Zane tells of days and weeks sitting in the house, and draws it out. Which I think is a strength – I think it’s too easy to focus on the flashy, the dramatic, and it’s difficult to convey a sense of grudging, grinding boredom without creating a book that’s unreadable (Solzhenitsyn is an author who I think excels at conveying drudgery without making his writing tedious).

But the other thing that I’m interested in with The sky so heavy is how it deals with the actual event of a nuclear disaster, and how society responds afterwards. To a certain extent, I think, any story that focuses strongly on characters or human interaction has some element of psychology or sociology to it. For a post-apocalyptic novel, I think, unless it’s re-telling a historical event, it’s effectively a sociological hypothesis – in the case of event X, this is how society or this group of individuals would respond. And an interesting aspect of Zorn’s telling, as far as I can tell, is that people who are geographically close to each other, wouldn’t interact much when other forms of communication are cut off. Which I think is wrong.

She has the boys stuck in their home for days on end, with only the very occasional visit from a neighbour or two. Even my own experience suggests that if you put a group of people in a setting where there is no television, internet, or phone, they will start to talk to each other regularly, even if it’s only once or twice a day. And, if there’s a lot to talk about (say, the end of the world), my guess is that they’d talk a lot more. I’ve done a little reading in the area, and the best resource I’ve come across is The Human Side of Disaster by Thomas Drabek, a sociologist with an interest in how people and organisations respond to disasters. Another excellent book (written for more general consumption) is The Unthinkable: Who survives when disaster strikes – and why, by Amanda Ripley. My general impression (although it’s been a few years since I read them) is that people do generally come together when disaster strikes – that there’s a surprising degree of resilience, and that things don’t automatically, or as quickly, descend into the brutal competition that Zorn describes (or has started to, at the point I’m up to).

Norwegian wood is an amazing book, and I’d highly recommend it just based on the half that I’ve already read. The sky so heavy has its points, but I tend to disagree with its assumptions about how a society would fall apart.

UPDATE: I’ve just finished The Sky So Heavy. The more I read it, the more I liked it. Some parts of it felt clunky (a factor that’s been a driving force for the protagonist through a good third of the novel is suddenly reversed is about two paragraphs, without much more said), and some parts of it I thought weren’t a good prediction of how things would go. But for all that, it asked a lot of the right questions (how would society break down? which parts would fall apart first), and I thinks looks at some of the right issues (resources – who controls them? who was prepared? who wasn’t, and why?). For a first young adults book, and for tackling such an enormous topic, it’s actually not too bad.

UPDATE: I finished Norwegian Wood the other day. It was great.

The back cover described it as a ‘coming of age’ story, which I suppose in some sense it was, if only in that it follows the protagonist from when he’s seventeen through to when he’s twenty. But it didn’t feel as though his age was essential to the story. Instead it felt like a novel about loss. What stuck out to me was the absences that people can create when they’re gone, the vacuums they can leave, and how different people deal with it – that was the thread running through the piece.

As always, I was overwhelmed by the quiet beauty of Murakami’s prose, the way he lets his characters’ days quietly spool by, without a need to enliven or embellish them.

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