Why Continue [BTBA 2018]
“Why am I reading this?” I ask myself this almost constantly. Sometimes the answer is obvious: when the book is a masterpiece, when the pleasure is so deep or constant that there’s little else I want. I treasure those books, but if it was the only reason I read a book, I wouldn’t read much. There are novels where the concept is grand and exciting, so I want to follow it through to the end, generous with my judgment of the execution. There’s the craft option: Jean Echenoz is going to be worth reading for the quality of his finely crafted sentences. In last week’s post, Adam Hetherington pointed out how pace can dominate a book, and that too can be the single reason to stick with a novel. Sometimes it’s that the novel is the single best work focused on a slice of life or culture, the best baseball novel, the best restaurant novel, etc.
Reading for BTBA, it becomes an even more important question, because I need a damn good answer to keep on reading. So why the hell did I keep on reading Wu He’s Remains of Life? The jacket copy opens with
On October 27, 1930, at a sports meet on an aboriginal reservation in the mountains of Taiwan, the Atayal tribe rose up against the Japanese colonial regime, slaying one hundred and thirty-four people in a headhunting ritual.
Am I reading to educate myself about this event? I didn’t even realize that Taiwan was one of the places Japan had a colony. No, fuck no. If that’s the answer, I’m putting that book down. Besides, this would be the wrong damn book for that. As that same copy says later, “Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, it contains no paragraph breaks and only a handful of sentences.” Not the type of style that lends itself to historical or cultural edification, though one I’m a sucker for. I love Bernhard and By Night in Chile may be my favorite Bolaño. So stick with Remains of Life because its stylistic prose is compelling and unrelenting? Well, no.
I’ll stop being coy and cut to the end. I don’t know why I stuck with this book. I don’t know why I’m still thinking about it. So, that’s the reason why? Because even though I wasn’t in love, even though the answer to each reason to stay was “No, not that,” I still didn’t want to walk away, and that confusion itself fascinates me. I have no idea the last time I was so uncertain in my response, so willing to continue to work and engage and struggle, hoping to crack through to deep pleasure. There have been times I’ve done that work for pages upon pages and realized no breakthrough would come, so I dropped the book. There’ve been times it did happen, suddenly and intensely: Shishkin’s Maidenhair comes to mind.
I want to talk about that prose style. However difficult Bernhard’s prose can be, and his mood so fiercely off-putting, it’s hypnotic, and that takes readers in. There’s repetition, there are base phrases and the sentences use them like breathing, a way for the reader to fall as with a tide. Remains of Life gives you no such thing. The narrator is not the madmen so common to Bernhard’s works but he is a man adrift in his thoughts and in his pursuits, and sees no distinguishing one avenue from another. Commas are a brief break, and may come when you need them, or take you by surprise. At other times, you need one and there’s nothing there.
He’s a man living in a reservation village, fascinated by the way contemporary history views the tribal uprising and subsequent slaughter by Japanese troops. His neighbor identifies herself as the granddaughter of the leader of the headhunt and from there his unbroken narrative begins. In Wu He’s afterward he identifies three topics, which I’ll rewrite to my own understanding as: the historical investigation, and the possible interpretations of that history; the lives of the people, their connections to and dissociations from both past and the contemporary; and the life of that neighbor, known as the Girl, and without quite recognizing it, coming to fall in love with her. He can write about any one or all three at any given moment, and a subtle switch from one to another can occur across the space of a comma. The scarce periods are his way of resetting completely. Of finally shutting down a stream, needing to switch from one of these topics to another. Even when he is focused, thought carries on from thought. Prior to this is dense and intricate political, ideological, and moral thinking about his research and the headhunt, then the period to clear his mind:
By the time I wrote down the words A Politicized Headhunt I prepared a hodgepodge hotpot with sardines and flowering cabbage and hastily ate before crawling into bed and passing out into a deep sleep, after I woke up I sat down in the living room, the mountain mist felt like it was right on my front doorstep, in my daze I seemed to still be stuck on those “two questions,” I already forgot if there was anything I had written that could destroy one’s dignity, but I know that strong white spirits can destroy one’s awareness, I paced back and forth in front of the kitchen cabinet, rummaging through all the items inside, until I actually did get my hands on a bottle of some kind of hard liquor, it took only one look to see that it was 66 proof, probably one of the Ancestral Spirits secretly stashed it there before going home, after all there is nothing wrong with preparing for an emergency, I’ll be sure to give it back to him a little later once it is dark when he comes back with his bag full of white spirits, I took a sip and the primitive flavor wasn’t bad, by the time I took my second sip a well-dressed woman with long black hair and a cool gaze had suddenly appeared outside my screen door, I waited for her to say something but after three seconds she was still dead silent, I had no choice but to sip my way over to the screen door, the woman with the long hair grinned and I immediately recognized that it was the Girl and she was wearing a tight dark-green dress, she was so well dressed, all so that her breasts would really stand out, I raised my cup to her but she shook her head, “I came over to invite you to observe the ceremony the day after tomorrow,” her breasts were pressed right up against the screen door, I told her to be careful not to get her shirt dirty, “It’s okay these are my pajamas,” I almost wanted to tell her that it was no big deal, my birthday suit is my pajamas, “I’m going to Christmas morning prayer and joining the church, you wanna come,” wearing your birthday suit to bed is much more convenient as you can wear it both summer and winter
Like Girl, most characters don’t have names, instead an identity the narrator gives to them, based one something about their life, their physicality, their personality, and this can shift, without warning, as his conception of them does. It both distances him from them, and creates intimacy, in line with his role in the village. He’s an outsider, but he’s the most honest outsider they’ve encountered, because he knows that’s his role. He lives alone, he wanders, he visits people and they visit him. It’s an independent pattern of life that they all recognize and respect. He pressures no one. Many have come to research the Musha Incident, but he may be the first to simply live there.
The narrator himself may explain my uncertainty about Remains of Life. He is unsettled: in his own identity, in his role in the village, in the village’s role in his life, in what his future will hold, in his understanding of the past, in culture’s understanding of the past, and on and on. He may not have many answers, and answers he finds are slipping away, to be replaced. In a book as complex as this, with a narrator so willing to confront uncertainties, maybe it’s not surprising that’s mostly what I’m left with. Throughout the novel, he talks to as many people as he can, in conversations both long and short, about whatever the other person wants. In that spirit, I want others to read this, so conversations can come, and maybe I’ll figure out what I make of it all.