Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

At the End of the Matinee by Keiichirō Hirano

Although At the End of the Matinee shares stylistic and thematic similarities with Keiichirō Hirano’s A Man, it makes for a far less intriguing read. At the End of the Matinee lacks the psychological edge that made A Man into such a compelling read. The story and characters of At the End of the Matinee have little depth, and, as the narrative progresses and the storyline veers into melodrama, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by what I was reading (and disappointed too, considering that—abrupt ending aside—I found A Man to be a well-written and engaging read).

The opening pages of At the End of the Matinee are very reminiscent of the ones from A Man. Readers are informed that the story they are about to read is real and that to “protected their privacy” this unnamed author has “altered” certain details (such as their names). Yet, whereas this ‘fiction posing as true story’ device fitted A Man (given that the novel adopts a story within a story structure) here it just seemed a half-hearted attempt to make Satoshi and Yoko’s story more interesting to the reader. This prologue, after all, has no real impact on the remainder of the narrative.

Set in the mid to late 2000s At the End of the Matinee recounts the love story between Makino, a classic guitarist who as of late has become a wee bit disillusioned by his playing and performances, and Yoko, a journalist daughter of a Japanese mother and a Croatian father, who happens to be a renowned film director. The two are introduced after one of Makino’s performances through a friend of Yoko and immediately hit it off. Yoko is however engaged to a generic American man.
Despite the distance between them—Makino is in Japan or on tours that take him all over the world while Yoko, who is based in France, is for a period reporting from Iraq— the two begin an email correspondence. Their connection to and feelings for one another are intensified by their virtual exchanges. Makino believes they are meant to be together so decides to visit Yoko once she is back in France. Their reunion is ‘complicated’ by Jalila, who was forced to leave Baghdad and is now staying with Yoko. Yoko, who is also dealing with PTSD from her experiences in Iraq, is unwilling to leave Jalila by herself so her relationship with Makino is postponed. It became quite clear that Yoko cared very little for her American fiancée, and he merely functions as a plot device to make Yoko ‘unavailable. Makino is also going through a musical crisis of sorts, he feels like he is no longer a musical prodigy and that he does not compare to up-and-coming young musicians. The guy was bland, he is the kind of male protagonist you could expect in a work by Murakami. Yoko, instead, is the kind of female character that was clearly written by a man. Her love for Makino makes her all the “more beautiful” and she “ached to give herself to [him] with total abandon, to dissolve in his arms”. After Makino declares himself to her she immediately wants “to marry him and have his child”. And we are supposed to believe that a female journalist in the 2000s has never been confronted by an arrogant and or condescending man. Yeah, two days ago a British man, who knew full well that I am Italian, felt the need to tell me about how the rest of Italy views Rome.

Half-way through the novel reaches sky-high levels of miscommunication and I hated how things unfolded. I just did not buy into any of it. It also seemed far too easy to make certain characters into ‘bad’ eggs make Yoko and Makino’s behaviour seem just. And, I am so sick of this kind of clichéd portrayal of women (Yoko with her “unself-conscious beauty”, the ‘other woman’ is vapid and big breasted—a trollop clearly—and the ‘jealous’ woman whose jealousy knows no bounds).
The story is brimming with platitudes (“Happiness was having someone with whom to share all the everyday experiences”) and spirals into soap-opera levels of melodrama. There are attempts to make Makino and Yoko Not Like Other People™ because they talk extensively of literature but I found their comparison to Death In Venice to be both contrived and ill-fitting (also, they do not seem to feel the need to point out that Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio is…problematic to say the least).
At the End of the Matinee was a vexing read. The story is clichéd, the characters lack depth, the obstacles that keep Yoko and Makino apart were overdone, and I found myself annoyed by almost every single thing I was reading (like having Yoko and Makino be Jalila’s ‘saviours’….bah!). If you have not read anything by this author I suggest you pick up A Man instead.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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After Dark by Haruki Murakami

 

Having heard a lot about the genius of Murakami over the years I was excepting something a bit more out of After Dark, a novel which, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Murakami aficionados, failed to captivate me. Credit where credit’s due, Murakami certainly knows how to create and maintain a certain ambience. Set in Tokyo, this slight novel takes place over the course of a single night, rotating between four characters: we have Mari Asai, who is Not Like Other Girls™, who is spending her night reading at Denny’s, a restaurant chain, Takahashi Tetsuya, trombone player who is as dull as a brick and prone to spouting sexist comments (A girl is reading? A girl knows what a trombone is? MADNESS!), Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister who seems trapped in a realm between dreams and reality, and Shirakawa, a man who beats up a Chinese prostitute in a love hotel nearby Mari.
Takahashi recognises Mari and approaches her, the two talk about fake-deep things. Takahashi goes on to play at some club or whatnot and Mari, who is studying Chinese, ends up helping the Chinese prostitute beaten by Shirakawa. Eri meanwhile is sleeping, but her sleep is disturbed by an ominous presence.
Murakami seems under the belief that women are obsessed by their own breasts (if you think you are dreaming wouldn’t you pinch yourself? Slap yourself? Apparently, if you are a woman, you would likely grab your breasts). I disliked the way Murakami portrayed Mari and Eri is opposites of each other. Mari is intelligent and overlooked, Eri is beautiful and beloved by everyone (yet her beauty is also, alas, a curse). Characters chat about Jazz, Mari complains about her sister, Takahashi says dull things, Shirakawa is emotionless, and the clock ticks away.
The novel ends with an incestuous scenes that exist only because Mari and Eri are girls.
This novel was surprisingly forgettable and having now read some articles and Reddit posts about the way Murakami portrays women…well, I am unsure whether I hate myself enough to read more of sexist stuff.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a favourite of mine so I was expecting Crime And Punishment be right up my street…aaaaand I hated it.

Many consider Crime And Punishment to be one of the most influential books of all time…and I have to wonder…how? The Idiot, although certainly flawed, tells a far more cohesive and compelling narrative. The central figure of Crime And Punishment is an angsty and hypocritical wanker. I do not have to like a character to ‘root’ for them but Dostoyevsky, man, you gotta give me something…anything! Instead we have this appealing main character who for reasons unknown to me manages to captivate everybody’s attention.

Crime And Punishment is divided in six parts. In the first one—which I actually kind of liked—we are introduced to Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished young man who dropped out of university and is now forced to go to a pawnbroker for funds. He believes that his financial circumstances are the only thing standing in the way of a ‘good’ life so he decides to kill the pawnbroker, telling himself that she is a callous old woman who sort of deserves to meet a violent end. In this first part Raskolnikov has various monologues, in which he argues with himself. A letter from his mother, informing him that his sister is engaged to an older man of affluence, he kind of looses it. He also meets another ‘tormented’ soul, Marmeladov, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who basically tells Raskolnikov his life story (his incoherent ramblings go on for pages and pages and pages).
Raskolnikov uses an axe to kill the pawnbroker but things, predictably, don’t go quite as he had planned.

The follow five parts haven’t all that much to do with this murder or with the detective who is pursuing Raskolnikov. After committing this crime Raskolnikov falls ill, he faints more often than Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Lots of people try to help him but he remains an asshole. Razumíkhin, who was also forced to drop out of university due to his finances, is utterly loyal to him. And…why? Even prior his ‘madness’ it seems that Raskolnikov was a noxious mix of moody and unpleasant. Then these two are joined by Raskolnikov’s sister and mother, and by the two ‘bad’ men who are interested in his sister. And of course, we also get some more of Marmeladov and his family, in particular his daughter, a beautiful prostitute whose childlike appearance (insert puking sounds here) and inherent purity make Raskolnikov besotted with her.

Everyone goes on a tirade, no one makes any bloody sense. Ramblings here, ramblings there, ramblings every fucking where. The dialogues are repetitive, the plot makes no sense (convenient coincidences aside it seems odd that Raskolnikov would not think back to his article on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ criminals just once in part one or two given what he wanted to and what he ended up doing), and I have 0 tolerance for grown ass men finding women attractive because they have ‘childlike’ physiques, temperaments, or features. And of course, here we have women who tremble like leaves.

There were so many over the top moments and whereas I found this fantastical realism amusing in The Idiot here they just annoyed me. Raskolnikov is dumb, he isn’t a brilliant criminal, or a genius, or master manipulator, or even charming…he just is. He makes so many avoidable mistakes, which made me wonder why it took the detective so long to finally confront him. Speaking of the deceive, his scenes with Raskolnikov had this very ‘anime’ feel to them (which works in parodies such as Love is War) and I could not for the life of me take them seriously.

What kind of point was this book trying to make? I have no clue. I did not enjoy the discussions on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ men, which seem to suggest that the reason why the detective is so in awe of Raskolnikov is that he considers him to be an ‘extraordinary’ individual, one who should not be punished as hard as ‘ordinary’ individual should. Yikes.

To quote Nabokov: Dostoyevsky’s “sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway”.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book.
Imagine walking into some art gallery and coming across a piece of art that just blows your mind. Later on, when you walk past it again, you actually stop and read the artist’s statement, which consists in the usual meaningless art-speak. And you look back to that work and think “this is so fucking pretentious”. That’s how I feel about Version Control which is all flash and no substance.
Once I finally slogged my way through this 500+ page book I felt cheated. It had so much potential and Dexter Palmer clearly had some great ideas…sadly these were lost in the midst of inconsistent world-building, poor characterisation (the female characters are atrocious), and a surprisingly uninspiring storyline (I mean, how could you manage to make travelling be boring?).
Palmer took every opportunity to satirise every single one of his characters, in what basically amounted to satire for the sake of satire, which, if you ask me, fell flat as it had nothing smart to say. I’m not sure at what point exactly I became aware of it but Palmer clearly loves taking the piss out of millennials. And he does it in a way that brought to mind those segments on Ellen where she makes fun of millennials because they don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone (quality humor, not).
At first the dialogue in this novel rang true to life. There were tense or awkward pauses, character misunderstanding someone else’s choice of words, conversations could lead to nothing or suddenly escalate into arguments. But then I couldn’t help but to notice how frequently characters would just have these very long monologues in which they ranted about everything and nothing. Which, yeah, some people do go on (I am doing so right now), or end up having longwinded and heated rants…but every-single character? And that’s when I realised that the characters in this novels were like the characters in a film by Woody Allen (they all speak like Woody Allen regardless of their age/gender/personality). And that kind of killed any enjoyment I had left for this book.
The rant-y to of my review reflects the many rants that are in this book.

The Story
Even if the premise for Version Control reminded me of What If, a novel I didn’t particularly care for, I was intrigued by it. The story is set in the near-future (more on that later) and follows five main characters: we have Rebecca Wright, a recovering alcoholic who is now in her late thirties and works “part-time as a customer service representative for Lovability, the online dating service where, eleven years ago, she’d actually met the man who was now her husband”; Philip, said husband, who is a brilliant scientist devoted to his work on the ‘causality violation device’ (which, in a running gag, and much to the scientists’ annoyance, gets called ‘time machine’); there is Rebecca’s BFF from college, Kate, who is a superficial bimbo (more on that later); Carson, a scientist who works under Philip and is on-and-off again dating Kate; and Alicia, “the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab” who is Not Like Other Women. There are some minor recurring characters, most of whom we get to see only in certain environments (like the two security men working in the lab) so that we never really learn about them.
Rebecca and Philip have lost their son, but they don’t speak of him or how he died. Philip spends most of his time working or talking about the ‘causality violation device’ (CVD) while Rebecca mopes a lot around the house thinking of how much she wants to drink. I was expecting this to be a story that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, one that would make you question whether the ‘strange’ sensation felt by Rebecca was a sign of her spiraling mental health or something of a more fantastical nature. But this wasn’t that kind of novel. And, as I previously mentioned, at first I didn’t mind. The story was more intent on creating some realistically awkward or fraught encounters between the various characters. Rebecca’s marriage is in trouble and her relationship with Philip isn’t great. She doesn’t get particularly along with Alicia while Philip gets into a heated argument with Rebecca’s dad (who is a Unitarian minister). Kate’s derisive comments about ribs and watermelons force Carson, who is black, to question whether she’s racist. Carson is also getting pretty pissed off at one of the security guards, who keeps calling him Carlton (“acting white”). No one gets along with anyone, and the story is very much about that. Palmer seems to delight in putting his characters in the most uncomfortable situations possible. Philip’s work is repeatedly made fun by the media and one snooty potential investor, Rebecca’s knows very little about anything so is frequently made to appear dumb, Kate acts like the Basic White Chick, and Alicia is openly rude to others, especially other women (but it’s okay, cause she’s driven and Not Like Other Girls). Now and again Palmer remembers to mention that some people feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with their reality, but this is a minor thread in a story that is much more concerned with ridiculing its characters and with giving really detailed descriptions or explanations about minor aspects of this ‘near future’. The main ingredients of Palmer’s story are 1) useless millenials 2) women who don’t care or don’t have what it takes to have a career 3) unfunny caricatures.
He had a lot to say on a myriad of other topics, but this often came about when two characters were having a discussion or argument about this (sexism, racism, conflict between religion and science). He dedicates many passages to modern dating, seeming to lose himself in his own ‘hilarious’ vision of the future of dating (which isn’t as original as he seems to be suggesting: “the whole idea of meeting someone in a physical place, to talk to them in real time, was so twentieth century”) or in unnecessarily long digressions about automated ‘autonomous cars’ or of how in schools kids no longer need to interact with teachers but they get taught via tablet (and Palmer spends a chapter on the “Daily Pre-School-Day Diagnostic” kids have to complete each morning).
We are only given a flashback into Rebecac’s life, and rather than reading about her childhood or learning more of her relationship with her parents, we read of a period in her twenties which she aptly describes as ‘Blackout Season’. We never get why she chose to study English or what future she envisioned after her completing degree, what we get instead are scenes featuring Rebecca and her college ‘friends’, all of whom are jobless or doing temporary or part-time jobs they don’t care for, and they spend their time going to bars and clubs, getting drunk and loud, flirting and sleeping with guys that are ‘no good’. After a few years one of them meets the ‘right’ kind of man and soon the girls disband their friendship group (because if a woman is ‘seriously’ dating someone she can’t keep her friends, duh). Rebecca has a few mishaps on online dating sites, meets Philip, and the two get married even if they have nothing in common or no chemistry. Their son dies, and things start going a bit sour between the two of them. And of course, eventually, the CVD does play a role in the story.
As I said, or wrote, Palmer mostly writes scenes in which his characters have awkward encounters and exchanges with each other. And, while I initially liked this aspect of his narrative as I am a fan of hysterical realism, by the halfway mark I was no longer impressed by them, in fact, they struck me as forced and unfunny. Sometimes I like reading scenes that verge on the surreal (I’m very basic, I like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers) but there were moments in Version Control that were just jarring and poorly written (I’m talking about that scene with Alicia and the magazine…it wasn’t funny, it didn’t make sense, it was out-of-character, the tone was just off).
The second half was very much a rehash of similar scenarios and exchanges, and the ‘wrongness’ felt by Rebecca never amounted to anything substantial. I was expecting a twist at some point or some reveal a la Black Mirror but nada. The story remains concerned with exploring boring and tired dynamics between characters that were little other than dull caricatures.
What was the point in the story? An excuse for Palmer to write about ‘what ifs’ or detail minor aspects of everyday life in a future America ? Did this story require 500+ pages?
Time travelling is picked up now again, but for all Philip’s & co talk about the CVD, they spent far too little time talking concretely about what would happen if their machine were to work. Instead they use a lot of scientific language that seemed more intent on confusing non-sciencey readers.
Maybe I could have overlooked plot-holes and never-ending diversions if Palmer’s narrative had offered us some character interiority, but this third pov remains never delves into character motivations. Giving us a glimpse into Rebecca’s mind would have made her into a far less one-dimensional and incomprehensible character (it was frustrating not knowing why she acted the way she did).
As stories about time travel go, Version Control offers nothing new.

The ‘Future’
Palmer’s near future is really unconvincing. He refers to things that in ten and twenty years will be outdated, he sticks to this running gag of the president interrupting people’s TV viewing or phone calls but we don’t know when he was elected, what kind of president he is, what America’s political landscape looks like. And Palmer seems wholly disinterred in anything remotely non-America (as in we have more or less no clue on what is going on in the rest of the world).
The story takes place in ten or possibly even twenty years and yet his future feels very ‘2010’. Yes, he imagines what shopping for clothes will be like, but what he envisions has already kind of been predicted (having one’s body scanned and being given an item of clothing that will fit you without needing to step in a fitting room). But what about other things? Rebecca is an alcoholic, will the future be able to provide more effective and long-term treatments ? What about cancer? Climate change? Wait, how come Palmer totally skims over climate change?
Palmer’s future offers nothing new. Futurama was far more innovative that this. And I couldn’t help but to notice that in this future one of the security guards who works at the lab was worried that he had to teach his daughter what same-sex love was….which, how likely is that? Unsurprisingly Palmer’s future struck me as very straight and gender normative.
Although Palmer has no qualms about using scientific language at length, I think he glosses over his CVD machine (which is funny considering how often this machine gets mentioned) as he’s more worried with detailing all the ways in which advancements in technology will strip erode any remaining notions of privacy (but millennials being dumb aren’t concerned by that).

The Characters
It’s kind of ironic that although Palmer writes about sexism (by having Alicia point out how hard it is to be treated like her other male colleagues rather than an ‘oddity’) his portrayal of female characters is kind of questionable (and in poor taste).
Rebecca: she’s our main character and is defined by three things. 1) she’s Philip’s wife 2) she was mother 3) she’s an alcoholic. While Philip is allowed to have a personality (not a nice one but still) and goals, Rebecca is made into this pathetic cliché of a woman, who isn’t intelligent or empathetic, she’s isn’t a great mother nor a great daughter not even a great wife or friend. She has 0 drive and 0 interests outside of alcohol and Philip. She doesn’t confront Katy when she notices that she’s being racist, even when Katy later on asks her whether she thought that she’d said anything offensive, she’s jealous of Alicia because women can’t like other women, she doesn’t care for her job (cause married women don’t really want to work and would rather be housewives who spend their time shopping, drinking wine, and trying to stay a size S. Which..yep, Palmer has given us some great representation here.
I didn’t care for Rebecca. We never know why she does the shit she does, she has no concrete history other than her ‘Blackout Season’ and her feelings for Philip just were largely MIA from the page.
Katy: she’s awful. She’s dumb and superficial, is a crappy friend and person, spouts racist shit and is obsessed by the fact that she’s dating a black guy. Why waste any time on her? I really got the feeling that Palmer wanted to show how insincere female friendships were (especially if one of these friends has blonde hair). Katy is just as passionless as Rebecca. She has no interest outside of men, gossip, and alcohol.
Alicia: she’s the kind of character that some (I said some not all) male authors believe to be ’empowering’. She loves what she does, she’s smart, straight-talking, tough. She takes no shit from anyone and most men in this novel are attracter to her. Women, on the other hand, hate her because they are clearly ‘intimidated’ by her. Rather than making Alicia into a likeable or sympathetic character Palmer decides to make her into a truly awful bitch who behaves appallingly and doesn’t understand why other women are not like her. She’s also reduced to who she sleeps with, rather than being allowed to be a character in her own right.
Philip and Carson: these two were stereotypes of the scientific guy who doesn’t understand social etiquette. Philip spoke in this really donnish way that just never rang true (and I happen to know quite a few pedantic men). But the things Philip talks about where just…really? And why did he have to be so socially inept ? Just because you are a scientistic doesn’t mean that you could never speak of something without using scientific jargon.
Other characters: caricatures. They had a static role, perhaps played a part in a running joke or something.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a story with more speculative elements but dio mio! The whole dynamic between Rebecca and her genius scientist husband was so cliched and boring. And Palmer’s future would have been passable if it had been rendered in more detail or if it hadn’t been so intent on making fun of millennials. And 500 pages of this? I get it women who are not like Alicia (who of course posses traditionally ‘male’ personality traits) are bimbos who are incapable of forming meaningful relationships or saying meaningful things or having interests outside of men, diets, and gossip. Ah ah. So funny.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas — book reviews

7190.jpgWhile I understand historical context and I am quite able to appreciate classics without wanting them to reflect ‘modern’ sensibilities, I have 0 patience for books that glorify rapists.

SPOILERS BELOW

I don’t mind reading books about terrible people. I read Nabokov’s infamous Lolita and Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I enjoy books by Agatha Christie and Shirley Jackson, which are often populated by entirely by horrible people. Unlike those authors, however, Alexandre Dumas goes to great lengths in order to establish that his musketeers are the ‘good guys’. Their only flaw is that of being too daring. The omniscient narrator is rooting hard for these guys and most of what they say or do is cast in a favourable light and we are repeatedly reminded of their many positive or admirable character traits. If this book had been narrated by D’Artagnan himself, I could have sort of ‘accepted’ that he wouldn’t think badly of himself or his actions…as things stand, it isn’t. Not only does the omniscient narrator condone and heroicizes his behaviour, but the storyline too reinforces this view of D’Artagnan as honourable hero.

Our not so chivalrous heroes
What soon became apparent (to me) was that the narrator was totally off-the-mark when it came to describing what kind of qualities the musketeers demonstrate in their various adventures. For instance, early on in the narrative we are informed that D’Artagnan “was a very prudent youth”. Prudent? This is the same guy who picks a fight with every person who gives him a ‘bad’ look? And no, he doesn’t back down, even when he knows that his opponent is more experienced than he is.
D’Artagnan is not only a hothead but a dickhead. The guy is aggressive, impetuous, rude to his elders and superiors, and cares nothing for his country. Yet, he’s described as being devout to his King, a true gentleman, a good friend, a great fighter, basically an all-rounder!
I was willing to give D’Artagnan the benefit of the doubt. The story begins with him picking up fights left and right, for the flimsiest reasons. The perceived insults that drive him to ‘duel’ brought to mind
Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, so I was temporarily amused. When I saw that his attitude did not change, he started to get on my nerves. Especially when the narrative kept insisting that he was a ‘prudent’ and ‘smart’ young man.
D’Artagnan’s been in Paris for 5 minutes and he already struts around like the place as if he owned the streets. He hires a servant and soon decides “to thrash Planchet provisionally; which he did with the conscientiousness that D’Artagnan carried into everything. After having well beaten him, he forbade him to leave his service without his permission”. Soon after D’Artagnan is approached by his landlord who asks his help in finding his wife, Constance Bonacieux, who has been kidnapped…and D’Artagnan ends up falling in love at first sight with Constance (way to help your landlord!).
While Constance never gives any clear indication that she might reciprocate his feelings or attraction, as she is embroiled in some subterfuge and has little time for love, D’Artagnan speaks of her as his ‘mistress’. Even when he becomes aware that Constance may be up to no good, as she repeatedly lies to him about her whereabouts and motives, D’Artagnan decides to help her because he has the hots for her. Our ‘loyal’ hero goes behind his King’s back and helps Constance, who is the Queen’s seamstress and confidante, hide the Queen’s liaison with the Duke of Buckingham. Let me recap: D’Artagnan, our hero, who hates the Cardinal and his guards because they are rivals to the King and his musketeers, decides to help the Queen deceive their King and in doing so ends up helping an English Duke. Do I detect a hint of treachery? And make no mistake. D’Artagnan doesn’t help the Queen because he’s worried that knowledge of her disloyalty might ‘hurt’ the King’s feelings nor is he doing this because of compassion for the Queen. He decides to betray his country because he’s lusting after a woman he’s met once or twice. Like, wtf man?
Anyway, he recruits his new friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, to help him him out. Their plan involves travelling to England so the Duke can give to D’Artagnan the Queen’s necklace (given to him as a token of her affection). Along the way the musketeers are intercepted by the Cardinal’s minions (the Cardinal wants to expose the Queen’s affair) and Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are either wounded or incapacitated. D’Artagnan completes his mission, he returns to Paris, caring little for his friends’ whereabouts, and becomes once again obsessed by Constance. The Queen shows her gratitude by giving him a flashy ring.
Constance is kidnapped (again) and D’Artagnan remembers that his friends are MIA. He buys them some horses (what a great friend, right?) and rounds them up. He then forgets all about Constance and falls in love with Milady de Winter. He knows that Milady is in cahoots with the Cardinal but he’s willing to ignore this. In order to learn Milady’s secrets, D’Artagnan recruits her maid who—for reasons unknown to me—is in love with him. Our hero forces himself on the maid, and manipulates her into helping him trick Milady. He pretends to be Milady’s lover and visits her room at night, breaking the maid’s heart and putting her life at risk. He later on convinces Milady that her lover has renounced her and visits her once more at night and rapes Milady. D’Artagnan knows that Milady is in love with another man, but idiotically believes that forcing himself on her will have magically changed her feelings. When he reveals that her lover never called things off with her, and it was him who visited her room a few nights prior, well…she obviously goes ballistic. And D’Artagnan, who until that moment was happy to forget that she is a ‘demon’ and ‘evil’, discovers her secret identity.
D’Artagnan remembers that he’s in love with Constance who is then killed off by Milady, just in case we needed to remember that Milady is diabolical…more stuff happens, D’Artagnan wants to save the Duke’s live, just because it is the Cardinal who wants him dead. D’Artagnan, alongside his bros, plays judge, jury, and executioner and corners and condemns to death Milady.
In spite of our hero’s stupidity (he goes to dubious meeting points, ignores other people’s warnings, wears his new ring in front of the Cardinal) he wins. Hurray! Except…that he isn’t a fucking hero. This guy is a menace. He abuses women, emotionally and physically, manipulates them into sleeping with him, forces himself on them, or makes them agree to do his bidding. Women are disposable for D’Artagnan. He uses them and throws them to the side.
But, you might say, the story is set in the 17th century. Things were different then. Women weren’t people. Okay, sure. So let’s have a look at the way in which our young D’Artagnan treats other men. He beats and verbally abuses his servant, he goes behind the King’s back and commits treason, he forgets all about his friends unless he needs help in getting ‘his’ women.
The other musketeers are just as bad. Athos is a psychopath. At the age of 25 he forces himself on a 16-year-old girl, and then marries her because “he was an honorable man”. He later discovers that she has a fleur-de-lis branded on her shoulder, meaning that she was a criminal. Rather than having a conversation with her, asking what her crime was, he decides to hang her himself. Because he’s the master of the land. Athos also treats men rather poorly as he forbids his servant from speaking (not kidding, his servant isn’t allowed to talk). Porthos gaslights an older married woman, forcing her to give him money otherwise he will start seeing other women. Aramis also speaks poorly of women (but at least he isn’t a rapist, so I guess we have a golden boy after all).
The so-called friendship between the musketeers was one of the novel’s most disappointing aspects. These dicks don’t give two shits about each other. D’Artagnan forgets all about his friends, and when he then decides to gift them horses as a ‘sorry I left you for dead’ present, Aramis, Athos, and Porthos end up gambling them or selling them away. What unites them is their idiocy, their arrogance, and their misogyny.

Our diabolical femme fatale and the dignified male villain
Milady is a demon. She’s diabolical. She’s evil. Both the narrative and the various characters corroborate this view of Milady. Much is made of her beauty and her ability to entice men. Sadly, we have very few sections from her perspective, and in those instances she’s made to appear rather pathetic.
Our Cardinal on the other hand appears in a much more forgiving light. He’s the ‘mastermind’, the ‘brains’, and he’s a man, so he gets away with plotting against our heroes.

This book made me mad. I hate it, I hate that people view D’Artagnan & co as ‘heroes’, that the musketeers have become this emblem of friendship, and I absolutely hate the way women are portrayed (victims or vixens). I don’t care if this is considered a classic. Fuck this book.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — book review

The_Labyrinth_of_Spirits_bookcoverFrom the blatant sexism pouring through each page to its bloated plot, The Labyrinth of the Spirits offers an inadequate conclusion to what I considered to be an entertaining series. If anything this disastrous farewell has made me reevaluate the whole Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I vaguely remember finding the female representation in these books to be somewhat questionable. The women are passive, mere love interests. So, initially I was pretty excited to read The Labyrinth of the Spirits given that unlike its predecessors it stars a female protagonist…who sadly turns out to be a walking and talking clichè.

Like its title suggests, and similarly to the previous books, The Labyrinth of the Spirits presents its readers with a labyrinthine storyline. Carlos Ruiz Zafón once again showcases his penchant for melodrama, as well as a fondness for sprinkling Gothic and Romantic elements onto his narrative. There are also many aspects of The Labyrinth of the Spirits suggest that Zafón was also influenced by nineteenth-century Sensation and Detective fiction.
To begin with I appreciated Zafón’s humour, especially since it took the edge off from some of the somber scenes, but by the end I was so irritated by his one-dimensional characters that I was no longer amused by it. That’s when I realised that many of the jokes were made by men at women’s expense. After that things just went downhill. While I may have been intrigued by the baroque structure of his story, amused by some of the more clever pieces of dialogue, and even impressed by certain descriptions, ultimately I just could not stomach the rampant sexism in his novel.

One could try to lazily justify Zafón’s sexism by arguing that it is ‘historically authentic’….but I’m not sure it is. This novel is hardly realistic or historically accurate. And while the story takes place in 1959, Spain, Zafón uses Victorian ideals of gender in which women fall into either of these categories: they are objects of men’s sexual desire or pure and fragile virgins prone to mysterious maladies. Regardless of the category they fall into—‘whore’ or ‘angel’—their bodies will be objectified.
Alicia, one of the central figures in The Labyrinth of the Spirits is considered ‘different’ because she excels at her job as an investigator for Spain’s secret police. She is brusque and manipulative. She is also emotionally and physically scarred…two things that keep her from being wholly independent. Alicia, unlike her male counterparts, mostly gets things done by using the men around her…and it seems that no man can resist her. She is a ‘damaged’ ‘vixen’ who has no qualms about turning men’s attraction towards her to her own advantage. Yet, she often insists on playing solo, landing herself in dangerous or stupid situations. Time and again a man has to help her when her old injury plays up. She has no agency of her own and relies on male characters to help her (all the while claiming that she is a solitary creature). Men are attracted to her not because she is forthright or intelligent but because they are turned on by her ‘promiscuous’ ways. Not only does she openly flirt with them (oh my!) but she’s also a ‘lush’. Male characters with far worse habits are painted in far less judgemental light. All the male characters (all of whom are able-bodied) are incredibly patronising towards her and her body. Rather than calling them out, the narrative makes their behaviour seem a sign of their ‘fatherly’ love for her (most of these father figures also would like to sleep with her).
Female characters hate Alicia because they see her as a threat. They are jealous because she’s beautiful and sexy, and they worry that she will take their men.
Ultimately, like in the previous books, Alicia becomes a mere object of desire, her whole character reduced to the effect she has on the men around her. While she is presented as ‘subversive’, she is made emotionally and physically ‘unstable’, so that in actuality she can only operate when aided by a man.
The other female characters are just as one-dimensional. They either have ‘loose’ morals, and shake their hips to entice men, or are vulnerable because they are too pure for this world. All of the male characters are horny and find any excuse to talk about women’s breasts and thighs. Fermin, a character I used to find ‘funny’, is constantly talking about his sexual desire towards women, and it is usually made into some big joke. More problematic still is Fermin and another male character’s fixation with ‘mulatto girls’ (when talking about cigars one of them says: “They bring them to me straight from Cuba. Sheer class, the sort the mulatto girls roll between their thighs ”). These are the only instances when ‘mulatto’ girls are mentioned…
The way Zafón portrays his female characters is not ‘historically accurate’, it is just sexist. Why do his male characters, regardless of whether they fall into the good or bad category, are shown more empathy than his female ones? Alicia is constantly objectified and undermined by the narrative, even in those passages that are from her perspective. Why even bother with this pretence at being ‘subversive’ when in reality you are presenting your readers with the classic ‘damaged woman’?
When Zafón’s female characters are able to escape dangerous situations on their own they always suffer in a way male characters do not (view spoiler). Zafón’s women exist merely to be desired….and I’m supposed to believe that in the 1950s women did not have any agency at all? That their personalities were near non-existent? Even a novel dating from the Victorian era would present us with a more complex portrayal of female identity…

I’ve kept the worst thing about this book for last. Something happens towards the end of this novel that made me hate a character I previously liked.
(view spoiler)

A few lines later Bea has forgiven him and tells Daniel that: “I’d like to have another child. A girl. Would you like that?”

This rape is made to seem as a mere emotional outburst on Daniel’s part. There are no repercussions or guilt, and everything goes back to normal…but after this scene I found it impossible to view Daniel as the hero the narrative was making him to be (hide spoiler)].

The story goes on too long, and it ends up being a rather convoluted and overdramatic mess. There are few predictable twists and the ending ruined the whole series: (view spoiler).

While I can recognise that Zafón is both a terrific wordsmith and a marvellous storyteller, I can’t turn a blind eye to how sexist his gargantuan novel is.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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