Thursday, March 21, 2013

Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is a guilty pleasure for me - her books are such easy reads that surely something's wrong with them. I started some years ago - the first I really remember is Ladder of Years, about a woman who walks away from her family during a trip to the beach, goes to the next town, and sets herself up: a rented room, a job, a routine. From that distance she communicates with her bewildered husband and children. I liked it because what mom hasn't enjoyed the fantasy of just leaving, pulling the rug from beneath her family's expectations of her? Imagine the family car suddenly having a mind of its own, and instead of schlepping on errands, taking off for parts unknown just for the change.

Then I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and began to know Tyler's milieu - the eccentric (which means off-center) characters who bumble through life trying to be fair, trying to understand a world that fails them, trying to reconcile their own histories with who they think they should be.

Tonight I finished Digging to America, a rumination on what America is, what makes a person American, and the nature of outsiders. Two Korean baby girls arrive on the same flight to Baltimore's airport, each met by her adoptive family. Because the Americans are loud and inclusive, they pull the Iranians into association which becomes friendship. The two extended families are full of ideas about each other, assigning cultural attributes based on peeping through this window onto others' lives. They're often comical, sometimes offensive (and offended), but as their lives intertwine they become just people, close in the way family members are: a source of irritation, but like a grove of bamboo, connected underground.

Tyler's a best-selling author, which suggests that eccentricity is a refuge for many readers: a place to contemplate and make peace with our own oddities, and to come away more tolerant of others' foibles. Much light fiction is escapist: science fiction, spy stories, steampunk, vampires, a school for wizards, mysteries in which we can read at a happy distance about someone else's fatal problems. But she writes another kind of novel: reflective, in which rather than forgetting our own lives in favor of those more glamorous and dangerous, we find the poetry and humor in ourselves. And appreciate ourselves more, as she exalts failings by showing the humanity and compassion that precipitate them. Her characters may not be swashbucklers, but by their own measure they dare, and sometimes succeed. And she is kind: the highest achievement in her books is the growth and recognition of love.

If I were teaching high school English, she'd be on my reading list. Her characters don't outgrow oddity, they learn to flourish within it - surely that would be a comfort to a fifteen-year-old who's pretty sure no one understands.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

A primary benefit of being in a book group is reading works one would never know of. Such is my experience with Tan Twan Eng's saga The Gift of Rain. This novel explores Malaysia in the years preceding and during WWII, as the Japanese prepare then execute their invasion.
The Gift of Rain is told in two parts. Book 1, set before the war, lays out for us the multicultural milieu primarily of Penang, a small island off the Malay coast opposite Sumatra. In flashback we learn the story of protagonist Philip Hutton, youngest son of a British industrialist by his second wife, a Chinese woman who forsook her family to marry, then died while their child was seven. The youth's two brothers and sister, from their father's first marriage, are estranged from him to varying degrees - like Penang, Philip is an island. When he's about eighteen he meets a Japanese gentleman who practices aikijutsu, an early form of the martial art aikido. Endo-san takes him under his tutelage, where Philip learns Japanese as well. Aikido differs from the other martial arts in its core belief that violence is a result of being out of harmony, and the proper response is not to react with violence but to use the attacker's energy to restore harmony. This ideal is not only at the heart of what Endo-san has to teach his pupil, it also stands as a metaphor for their relationship. Endo-san travels up and down the Malay coast, sometimes with Philip, who unwittingly provides him a great deal of information which later becomes useful to the invading Japanese.

Book 2 is about the war, and where there was much lightness in the first section, now all turns dark. When the Japanese invade China, the rape of Nanking horrifies everyone, and the local Chinese population swells with refugees. Endo-san is regarded with suspicion, as is Philip for spending time with him. Once the Japanese take over Penang, Endo-san openly works for the Imperial Command, and Philip collaborates, translating for them. Most stories featuring collaborators are told from their victims' point of view - it is fascinating to view such actions from the inside, watching a naive young man try to do something he considers honorable (save his family) while enabling atrocities.
Tan Twan Eng's language is often beautiful as he describes the peoples and cities of Malaysia, and the dilemma he explores is a wrenching one. Philip's lack of perception about Endo-san's presence in Penang may annoy some readers - but he's obviously in love with his mentor, and love is famously blind. Though the story delivers him a measure of comeuppance, the very fact of his survival may prove unacceptable to those who have been on the receiving end of that combination of passivity, naivete and fear that mark a collaborator. The road to hell is paved indeed with the best intentions.

The novel explores the questions of fate and past lives. Though Philip rejects the idea of reincarnation, ultimately he falls back on it as some small justification for things he has done. Certainly he suffers, but not as much as those betrayed by his choice to make himself a tool. Ultimately, it is only through the broad view that humans are flawed and deserving of forgiveness, that I am willing to think of Philip with anything but contempt.