Author has written 17 stories for Avatar: Last Airbender, Naruto, Bleach, South Park, Digimon, and Natsume Yūjin-Chō.
My hands down, no holds barred, favorite work of literature
"John Williams's Stoner is something rarer than a great novel - it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away." This quote is part of a review written by a New York Times literary critic, whose name I've been unable to find. I'm usually against using quotes to encapsulate anything, whether written work, or a person's view on a topic. The case of Stoner is special, however; every word of the above quote is true, and it's the most succinct and urgent way to convey how finely crafted William's novel is. Yet that quote still falls woefully short. Nothing could have prepared me for Stoner. It's unlike anything I've ever read, or likely ever will read. It's the only piece of literature that's ever moved me to tears.
What is Stoner about? Literally, it's about the life, experiences and eventual death of its titular character, William Stoner. He grows, he goes to university, he works, he marries, he has a child, he works, he dies. That's it. There's no mystery, no lengthy, interconnected plot arcs, no sudden, 'profound' redemption or realizations. But there is strength, endurance, and honest, eventual triumph, though that final moment is totally inaccessible to everyone except Stoner himself. The novel is about perseverance in the face of life itself, to go on, to keep living, to find a quiet contentment in that life, even if at face value, there's no joy to be found. Is Stoner a happy story? No. But there are moments, glimpses, of true elation, moments which are described in such a simple and clean way that they will move you.
I would say that the simplicity, the brutal honesty with which the characters are portrayed, is where the novel draws its greatest strengths. Stoner is neither angel, nor devil, innocent, nor corrupt, brilliant, nor stupid. He's a human, and at no point is he reduced to a symbol, or a martyr to the author's grievances. In today's terms, he would likely be painted as a loser, someone who's wasted potential, or never had any to begin with, someone to be forgotten. And indeed he is. The novel's opening page damns Stoner to obscurity. And yet, by my reading, Stoner is the farthest thing from being a loser. He lives his life. He pursues what he loves most. He accomplishes, in slow, ponderous steps, the task of making peace with that life and love. I hate to use this analogy, but William Stoner could well be regarded as the anti Walter White, someone who is content with his obscurity and apparent inability to rise to some preconceived position of glory and power, yet still manages to live life on his own terms. To call on one last quote, from Beckett: "I can't go on, I'll go on."
And finally, and simply: read Stoner. No quote, from the novel, or from any other author, can do it justice.
The Epic of Gilgamesh-This is probably my favorite work of epic poetry. It was originally written around 3000 years ago in Akkadian, and details the life and death of its title character, a legendary king of Uruk. Its main theme centers around the notion of man wishing to gain immortality, first in a literal and then in an ideological sense. Gilgamesh is forced to come to terms with the fact that even though he can never avoid corporeal decay, he can transcend his mortal existence through his achievements. The fact that the poem is still being read so long after its initial conception is a testament to this fact. It seems almost self-referential, when examined from that light. Quite honestly, there's very little in modern Western literature that isn't addressed in this poem. To me, it's a testament to the fact that human ideals and motives remain basically static across the centuries, regardless of strides in technology and culture. Gilgamesh's reaction to the death of his friend is for me one of the more moving scenes in the poem.
The Inferno- I include this as opposed to the entire Divine Comedy because I think it gets to the core of Dante's work most quickly. There's a great deal of history and allegory crammed into this work, ranging from Greek and Roman mythology to the state of the Church during Dante's time. A good edition will include extensive notes and explanations; unless you're in the business of studying Medieval Italian and Christian history, you're going to need those notes. Also, there are innumerable translations. I'd recommend the one by John Ciardi, if it's still available, or the one by New York Review Books Classics. As with Gilgamesh, reading this opens your eyes to the fact that humanity is wrestling with basically the same moral questions even in the present day. It should also be noted that Dante wrote this while he was in exile from Florence, in a kind of revenge expose against those people whom he viewed as being corrupt. Quite a few Popes are languishing in Dante's Hell.
The Odyssey-This work has been done to death in high school and college class rooms, but there's a reason for that. When properly taught, it's a work which has themes ranging from the follies of hubris to the interplay between hospitality and xenophobia. Improperly done, it's just a story about a guy taking the long way home after a bad night on the battlefield. While it's impossible to escape the themes of the warrior and death in this book (see the Iliad for an entire mediation on that) what really makes the Odyssey stand out is Homer's portrayal of the gods as a group of petty, squabbling narcissists. It's possible to view the Odyssey as one of the earliest works of atheist sentiment, with Homer openly mocking the established divine canon. As in Gilgamesh, Homer is taught that as a man he can't make the world bend to his will, and in the process learns humility. Interestingly, one can also argue that even after all of Odysseus' strife, he doesn't really change, as everything returns to the status quo by the end of the poem. There's a mountain of critical analysis on all these fronts.
The Iliad-Personally, I prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey. It's kind of fun to read the whole section on the description of ships and compare it to Melville's interlude on whaling. Anyway, I'd say the main theme of this book is the value of the soldier's life. What I mean by this is that Achilles isn't in this for Agamemnon, or for Helen, or Greek honor. He's in it for his own pride as a warrior. He eventually reaches the conclusion that his life is worth more than the success of the campaign. This is the worst possible sentiment for a soldier to have, and I think it's this theme that keeps the Iliad from really being extensively taught in high school and even college course work. It's kind of hard talking to a 17 year old about the value of life, especially their own life, when most 17 year olds operate under the notion that each day will be followed by another, and the topic of war is even more poorly explored in the classroom. As with its twin the Odyssey, the gods are present here as well. We have the famous jealousy of the goddess, culminating in Paris awarding the golden apple to Aphrodite.
The Grapes of Wrath-Steinbeck is one of the best, if not the best, American author of the last century. His books depict in plain language the ambitions and dashed hopes of people from all walks of life. The Pearl alone distills the evils of greed and the sometimes detrimental effects of ambition far better than novels many times its length. In the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck details the disintegration of the farming community in Oklahoma in what would famously become known as the Dust Bowl, and would lead to the even more notorious migration to California along Route 66. What makes the narrative stand out is that not only does Steinbeck let us see through the eyes of the Joad family as they embark on their trek, he juxtaposes this with a sometimes disturbingly detached account of California's history, and the larger scale consequences of the Dust Bowl. Why is this novel still relevant today? Because the Dust Bowl is basically the early 20th century American equivalent of the banking crisis. People living beyond their means, allowed to do so by a system which was driven and governed by individuals who didn't care about the consequences of their actions. Steinbeck depicts the "villains" of the opening chapters of the book, the banks as a kind of amorphous, inhuman entity that can't be contended with by normal humans. In this sense, it's possible to read the book as a critique on capitalism gone awry: the current system can't be understood or distilled even by those who supposedly control it. This argument gains further credence later in the book, where the migrants find far better conditions in communal living areas where everyone has a more or less equal share of wealth and the system in uncompromisingly transparent. But this reading misses the whole point of the book, I think. The villains of the book are far more mundane: the grocers who raise their prices specifically to take advantage of desperate migrants, the police officers who treat people with less respect than dogs, the children of California natives who engage in petty cruelties towards those they view as foreign and lower than them. Even from this point, there really aren't any antagonists, so to speak. The conflict is simply that of people trying to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. One can in a sense sympathize with the Californians to the extent that they don't want to deal with the increased burden of people who will want the same care as they do, while simultaneously demanding jobs which, in their situation, they will inevitably be willing to do for less money. The book ends on a positive, if ambiguous note.
The Road-Cormac McCarthy has never been one of my favorite authors. It's not that I dislike his writing, but I've just never had the desire to get into it. The Road is a very prominent exception to this rule. It's a simple story: in the future, an unidentified natural disaster triggers a global apocalypse, effectively ending human civilization as we know it and leaving only a few scattered survivors. The protagonists of the book are a father and son. They are never named, and are only referenced by improper nouns. McCarthy uses no quotation marks, no semicolons, and only gives terse, sharp descriptions of people and environments. His prose is beautiful. If I were to have to give as brief a description of the book as possible, I would say only this:survival. But it is a special kind of survival. In the world where resources are scarce, and civilization has been shattered, many people have resorted to cannibalism. They survive, but their survival is an inhuman one. They've degenerated to the lowest possible level: they use slaves, keep half-eaten prisoners alive in constant agony, and have no compunctions about roasting infants on skewers. At the barest level, the father and son are differentiating themselves and the rest of the world into the camps of "us" and "them." The price for this differentiation is that they cling to the edge of existence. They are constantly hungry, and their only defense is a gun with two bullets, and in reality, this purpose is a prop. The gun's true purpose is to allow the son to take his own life, rather than live through the horror of being taken alive by the cannibals. Their attempt to define themselves as human is not cleanly cut. At one point, the father tells his son "I'll kill anyone who touches you. That's my job." Lines like this, delivered with no embellishment and given against such a bleak background, that make the novel so unsettling. McCarthy himself has stated that he doesn't consider novels which don't deal with life or death as being art, that he can't understand them, and this novel seems to hold truer to that sentiment than any of his other work.
American Rust-Few novels written in the last five years have been as worthwhile as this one. It's the story of people struggling with the aftermath of the collapse of the steel industry in Pennsylvania, a generation after it happened. One could call it a modern day version of the Grapes of Wrath, looked at with a microscope instead of from an airplane. There are multiple perspectives, and the style of prose is a mesh of Steinbeck's directness, McCarthy's penchant for bleak description, and Faulkner's stream of consciousness. We have Issac English, an intelligent but stifled high school graduate who gave up the chance of studying at college to stay home with his disabled father. His best friend, Bill Poe, is a former football star who also could have escaped his decaying hometown, but chose not to. In his attempt to leave, Issac unwittingly draws himself and Poe into an act of violence that will force both of them to reexamine the decisions they've made in their lives up to that point. An interesting aspect of this book is its perspective; the author attempts to articulate thought with the written word. At times, flashes of perception which would only take seconds for a person's mind to process take up more than a page of text. Issac, being physically weak in comparison to Poe, invents an alter ego known only as the Kid, who is decisive, fearless, and sometimes bordering on sociopathic, to compensate for his physical short comings. Poe, on other hand, though he is at the peak of physical fitness, is fundamentally indecisive, something which has lead to his present position as being an unemployed freeloader living in his mother's trailer. In a sense, this book is like The Road on a smaller scale. Survival is possible, a better life is possible, if only certain sets of morals are set aside for long enough.
The Tin Drum-The Germans are always brooding. Beethoven. Schopenhauer. Goethe. The list goes on and on, each man's output of work more morose than the last. Leave it to a German author to tell his country's history during the first half of the Twentieth Century through the eyes of a physically and mentally stunted dwarf locked in a mental institution. That isn't to say the book is to be taken lightly. It's just as epic in scope and theme as every other piece of work mentioned. The author simply goes about things in a different manner. What we have, in a certain sense, is a meditation on evil from the perspective of someone who at first glance seems to be incapable of evil. This is a false impression. Oskar Matzerath, though he has the apparent mentality and appearance of a child, is at heart the incarnation of selfishness and a vicious anarchy. I can't help but think of Augustine's assertion in his Confessions that not even children are free of some form of primal sin, for all they do is think of their own needs without any notion that others have to toil for them. Oskar constantly demands things of those around him, including the reader. In particular, it is expected that the reader still have some grain of common understanding with him, despite the fact that he willfully stunted his growth at the age of 3 simply so he could do nothing more than rattle his drum. In another scene, he convinces a group of teenagers that he's Jesus and that they must do his bidding. The work is in the same vein as that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the sense that it portrays extraordinary events in mundane terms. This perspective alone is enough to convey the kind of numbing effect that the War had on Germany and Europe as a whole.
Borges-I refer to the author, first because all his most famous works are short stories and essays, but also because he really is in a class of his own. It's been said by Umberto Eco (also an excellent writer) that "Borges and Joyce provided us with the one, the only, the World Wide Web, Joyce using words, Borges using ideas." I think this is a statement about just how far-reaching Borges' imagination is. His work will take you the mythical library of Bablyon, which is so vast and so tall that when its caretakers die, their bodies are simply ejected and decompose as they fall, to the the last few days of Fuentes, a man cursed with the ability to absorb every detail of everything that has ever happened to him. The stories are laden with mythology, symbolism, history and magic. In short, classic South American literature. Every story is unbelievable when contrasted against what we know and experience in our day to day lives, but as Eco said, it's the ideas which shine through. How does our mythology shape our existence? Is it possible to interpret history as one never-ending myth? Is memory simply an imprint, like something encoded on hard disk drive, or does it require emotional recall to function properly in humans? Are heroes all they're made out to be? And the questions go on. His writing is dense in the sense that while you can easily read two or three of his stories in an hour, you won't get anything out of any of them unless you sit, read and re-read and think about them. It's the density of ideas, not words, which is important in his work.
Machado de Assis-Also in a category of his own, and also South American, through and through. His writing is the prototype of the likes of Marquez and Vargas. He grew up in Brazil during a time when the country was being heavily influenced by Portugal, even if the Brazilian people didn't fully understand the culture and outlooks they tried to imitate. One of his stories "Education of a Stuffed Shirt" presents us with a soldier who becomes so dependent on the image created by his rank and office that he can only function properly and be recognized by his friends and family while he is wearing his uniform. Another, "The Psychiatrist", mocks the poor understanding that many of the upper class Brazilains had of the sciences by detailing the life of a psychiatrist who, working in complete isolation from any professional peers, develops a theory of neurosis which leads him to label everyone in his village insane. The story ends with the psychiatrist reaching the conclusion that he himself is insane. Assis' critique of Brazilian life aside, what strikes me most about his writing is the implicit assertion in almost all his major novels that the narrator, and in turn the author, are not to be fully trusted by the reader. Most of his novels are written in a first person, autobiographical style, the most prominent example being "The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas." The novel starts with the premise that since he is now dead, Cubas is free to write whatever he wishes without fear of repercussions. Yet going into the novel with the attitude that the protagonist is being totally honest is a grave mistake on the reader's part. Cubas withholds information, about his love life, about his relationship with his parents, and about his outlook on life. He attempts to portray himself in a positive light, but there are times when he contradicts himself, and other times where it seems as though he is flat out lying. Getting the most out of this and other novels by Assis requires the reader to be astute and never take anything any of the narrators say at face value.
A Song of Ice and Fire-Hands down the best work of epic fantasy out there. If you only ever read one work of fantasy, this should be the one. In fact, it can't be properly compared to other mainstream works in this genre because in a sense there's nothing else like it in the genre. If I had to choose a work to compare it to, it would be The Once and Future King, though that's more for the Medieval setting and the characterization. The setting itself is more like a historical fantasy, with the main characters being from several noble houses, some prominent, other disgraced, all ambitious. What makes these books so refreshing is that there's no central character and no clean lines between good and evil. The story is told from multiple perspectives, each given more or less equal weight in terms of importance to the story. For instance, there's one character who at first glance appears to serve only a background role, observing but not really participating in the action of the plot, but as time goes on, her observations and reactions to them provide key insights into how the story in progressing and how the world is changing as a result of the actions of apparently more relevant characters. To drive the point of the multiple characters home again, this series is into its fifth, massive tome, and there are people who were introduced in the first book who still haven't met each other, though if you were to extrapolate the plot forward, the meeting seems inevitable. The character perspectives tie in well to the second point regarding the absence of distinct good and evil. Yes, there are immoral characters, killers, rapists, thugs, people who you will want to see die, (and many will, liked and disliked, because no character is safe in this world), but mostly, the world is full of gray. Every character has their own motivations, their own sense of how the world should work, and they try to satisfy those motivations, some with a stricter sense of morals than others. There's no dark lord, no evil, secret organization that's trying to take over the world and can only be stopped by some wide-eyed, naive protagonist. Instead, there are simply men and women who are trying to survive and come out ahead in a harsh and dangerous world, many while playing, to quote the book "the most dangerous game of all. The Game of Thrones."
Thoughts on Manga and Anime
Bleach- I'm going to get this out of the way first, since it will be fairly short anyway, and I seem to have an penchant for putting things in some sort of order. I've only spent a few months reading/watching Bleach, and I can say, that's enough for me. Where to begin? It's not a bad manga, in principal. The idea that the there's a separate world populated by beings whose job it is to guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife isn't new, but it's an interesting premise for a manga. The notion of Hollows, entities which suffered a violent or otherwise unpleasant death and roam the spirit and mortal world looking for souls to consume is also rather appealing. So far so good. Let's move on to the characters. Ichigo is a fairly average character, as far as these things go. His personality isn't all that appealing, but that's not actually a requisite for a good protagonist, as far as I'm concerned. Achilles wasn't exactly the nicest guy around, and we're still talking about him. Anyway, the problem with Ichigo's character is that, unlike Achilles, he doesn't have any sort of inner struggle, which is paramount for any heroic character, whether they're from Greek Mythology, or a morally upright person in one of Steinbeck's novels. There's a scene fairly late in Bleach, wherein Aizen, the main antagonist, asks Ichigo why he's even fighting him. As Aizen sees things, Ichigo has no motivation. Yes, Aizen is threatening Ichigo's hometown, but that's purely coincidental. He's used, but hasn't harmed, any of Ichigo's friends, and for the most part, has only expressed a passing interest in Ichigo's life. Aizen's basic statement is this: Ichigo is fighting him out of a sense of classic moral obligation. Aizen=bad, Ichigo=good. Good opposes bad. And Aizen is evil in the most generic sense. He's stolen a powerful object, and hopes to use it to overthrow the current world order. He's Dr. Evil with quaffed hair. Now, it can be argued that pretty much every villain in Shounen manga falls into this category. Bad guy A wants to take over the world, so he does (blank) with (blank) and Hero A tries to stop him. Action ensues. I concede this point, but it's still possible to develop an antagonist's character and motivations to the point where even such a tired plot device can be used to make an interesting story. As for Aizen, he had promise in the beginning. When he initially defected from Soul Society, his betrayal was not only shocking, but also raised questions about whether he was in some way justified in doing so. At that point in time, Ichigo's experience with Soul Society's politics and laws had been unpleasant at best, and it seemed as though Ichigo might even enter a moral quagmire as he came upon the truth of Aizen's actions.
No such conflict ever occurs, or even comes close to occurring. What we get is a villain who's so "evil" it's comical. Aizen doesn't seem to have any sort of underlying philosophy or outlook backing his thought. Why does he want to overthrow the Soul King? What does he know about it that we don't? If the Soul King is some sordid entity, why doesn't he try to solicit Ichigo's help, or the help of any number of other disgruntled residents of Soul Society? Why do all the other captains blindly follow whatever Yamamoto tells them, when his logic and sense of morality are often glaringly flawed or totally lacking? As for Aizen, all we get to back his actions is "because he's evil" Caring about people makes you weak. Of course. We all know that forming no meaningful bonds with anyone around you is the only way you can achieve any sort of success. That's why all those dictators never had friends or spouses or children. Relying on anyone makes you weak, and blah blah. You get the idea. This would be fine, except, as mentioned above, we have no idea why Aizen is doing what he's doing, or why we should care. His plan is evil. That's all we're told, and Ichigo, being good, is duty bound to stop it.
Moving back to my previous point, Aizen's statement is never actually rebuffed to any convincing degree. It's just brushed aside as an attempt to break Ichigo's confidence and inject doubt into him. Aizen's success in doing so means that there's some grain of truth in what he's said, and I'm inclined to agree with him all the more fully. Ichigo's loyalty to his Death God comrades doesn't seem to stem from any sort of mutual respect or a shared outlook on life, but out of the fact that he's been dragged into their conflict, and has no choice but to go along for the ride. This is odd, because when Ichigo is first introduced, he's portrayed as a delinquent, someone who by definition tries not to conform to a set standard. The whole plot of one of the Arcs revolves around Ichigo refusing to accept the fate of one of his friends, and going through great lengths to free her, despite the rules of Soul Society stating that she must die. It might just be me, but it seems odd that he'd so readily rally behind a group of people who blindly follow the law without any sort of guiding moral principles to help them if they err. If nothing else, Aizen can be relied upon to be immoral.
I could have dealt with all this. Character development and depth have never really been the driving force behind this kind of manga. I think Full Metal Alchemist is a fairly good exception, but I won't get into that now. The generic villains with even less depth are still more easily forgiven. The killing blow for Bleach arises from one thing: plot. Or lack of plot. I honestly can't tell what Bleach is really about at this point, because even the creator doesn't seem to know. Things went downhill fast after Soul Society Arc. I mean, exponential decay curve fast. There is literally no plot or character development from the end of Soul Society Arc to the point where Aizen invades Soul Society again, several hundred chapters later. Yes, the Arancar appear, and Ichigo fights them, and pulls his Hollow out of his ass a few times, but it never goes anywhere. Nothing is explained or elaborated upon. Who's Urahara? Why was he banished? Why did he make the Hougyoku? Why should I care? There's an attempt to answer these questions, but it's in the form of a flashback that occurs right before the main action of Aizen's invasion occurs, and even then, it doesn't do a very good job of tying up the loose ends of Urahara's past. Some might call this "mystery" or "suspense." I call it lazy storytelling. Even after Aizen's defeat, and the apparent "revelation" that Ichigo has been watched by Aizen for whatever reason, we're left with nothing. And it's been over 400 chapters. This is not good storytelling. Any medium that spans hundreds of iterations and only just starts to develop its plot line is not worth investing time in. I admit I invested quite a bit of time, but I also skipped about 100 or more chapters worth of pointless fight scenes, most of which involved no strategy except "I have a bigger stick. I win." I'm sorry, Tite Kubo, but your story is nowhere near complex or deep enough to warrant this many chapters. If Yukio Mishima can convey his philosophy of nihilism and examine a friendship that spans a lifetime, both physically and mentally, in the space of four 250-400 page volumes, you can develop and expound your story of whack-a-mole with swords in about half the time it's taken you.
With the above in mind, I'd draw your attention to Naruto, which is probably the manga which can act as a dual to Bleach. It has its flaws. I know this. I'll probably write about them as well. However, there is something which I would argue that Naruto has in spades, and which Bleach only apes at. Mythology. What do I mean by this? I mean, in the world of Naruto, we have multiple nations, each with its ideals, peoples, customs, philosophies and histories. We have clans with unique bloodlines, sordid pasts and questionable means of enforcing their will on their fellow members. We have families with children who strive to become worthy of inheriting their name and birthright. We have the consequences of three wars which have ravaged the nations and their inhabitants' psyches. In short, we have a living, breathing world which the reader can feel a part of. Is it as deep as it could be? No. I think there were plenty opportunities to elaborate upon characters, and the other Hidden Villages were introduced too late. That being said, when I read Naruto, I feel as though I'm experiencing a sliver of this world, even if it's from a limited perspective. I never had that feeling in Bleach. The world felt bland and lifeless. For an afterlife that apparently exists in some image of Feudal Japan, it's pretty vapid. The support characters were a joke, especially the initial ones, and any attempt to expand the story's borders beyond a small section of Soul Society and Ichigo's house and school failed miserably. The filler of this show was more interesting than the main plot. So much for being a short section.
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