Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What to Read When You're Absolutely Buried

Sometimes you feel like two vast and trunkless legs of stone standing in the desert, even if you actually make your home on a tropical island. In that state of mind, the thought of opening a full-length novel can seem like an invitation to despair.

Rather than submit to such hopelessness, I've been reading short books. On the nightstand for the past few months: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, John Steinbeck's The Red Pony, and The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide.

The Invention of Morel was first published in 1940, with a prologue by Jorge Luis Borges. Though Borges called it "perfect," I think that description misses part of the book's great charm. It's science fiction in the same sense that Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" is science fiction, and has inspired adaptations for screen or stage by many notables, from Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet to Richard Colton and Jared Green.

One of my favorite passages occurs as the fugitive-narrator contemplates the possibility of an afterlife: "this island," he thinks, "may be the purgatory or the heaven . . . (the possibility of several heavens has already been suggested; if only one existed, and if everyone went there and found a happy marriage and literary meetings on Wednesdays, many of us would have stopped dying)."

The 2003 edition from New York Review Books includes the original illustrations by Borges' sister Norah.

The four so-called chapters in The Red Pony were written from 1933 to 1937 but did not surface in print together until 1945. Understanding this fact up front might help you to negotiate the expectations created by the title story. I was unaware of the book's publishing history and read it with a combination of awe and wonder: in awe of its power, and wondering how in the world it would end. In a line like "Jody liked the things he had to do as long as they weren't routine things," Steinbeck reveals great sympathy for human frailty but offers scant comfort.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide first appeared in 2001, although readers of English had to wait for New Directions to publish a translation in 2014. The book's rise to bestsellerdom has been attributed to a review by NPR's Juan Vidal, which might be true. On the surface, it's the story of a copy editor and his wife, living in the suburbs of Tokyo, hunting for a new apartment, making friends with a neighbor's cat. Perhaps I found it so affecting because all of those details once applied to me, personally, but the more likely source of its success are sentences like these: "They were the color of topaz, and several iridescent violet streaks ran down their backs. If you poured boiling water over them, the purple streaks turned to bronze." Or: "I'd read in a book that the male of the species is solitary and tends to stake out a fairly extensive territory, and prefers being near water."

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