Certainty – Madeleine Thien

Mesmerized with Madeleine Thien’s collection of short stories, “Simple recipes”, I couldn’t wait to start reading “Certainty”, her debut novel.  She is one of those rare writers who write because of the language, the art, and not because of the ‘plot’, the fast-moving storyline.

 

Her storyline melts into her silky language, so it’s not as though you’re reading a ‘story’, it’s more like you’re reading literature. This is one those novels that I wish I could write; I covet to possess the ability to intrigue readers from the simplest and plainest stories out there by mesmerizing them with the “clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity.” ( – Alice Munro) It feels like reading someone’s thoughts on a Sunday afternoon when there’s nothing to do and words just come naturally and easily as though she didn’t even try at all. It feels like walking along a breezy seashore and let it come to me instead of sitting down and trying to finish a book.

 

A flash of envy passed me when Thien captured Vancouver rain in a paragraph, the kind of rain I tried so hard to describe on my blogs but failed, the kind of rain that’s redolent of feelings and emotions: “Today, the rain is steady, clinging to the buildings, tipping down the leaves of the trees. In Vancouver, there are many varieties of rain, but the most common, he believes, is the kind that tries to convince you it isn’t there, the kind that is so thin it makes the windshield wipers squeak.” It’s thin and subtle because of the soft, dainty, stingy droplets that covers the city in grey and darkness; it’s thin and unnoticeable because the people walking in that rain are busy thinking of something else, somewhere else and forget all about the rain. Suddenly through her words, rain comes alive, sad, lonely and somehow like a place of privacy deep in my heart.

 

I adore Thien’s writing not just because she brought the rain I know and love closer to my heart, but also because the way she creeps inside my mind without me even noticing. Other writers throw an anecdote or a quote at me and I know right then he’s trying to make a point. But Thien does it magically and quietly, hiding those thoughts behind the scenery, behind the character’s stories and thoughts. It’s like lying on the grass one warm day and drift away in thoughts while watching those clouds pass by, like dreaming but thinking clearly. “When he awoke, he wondered whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly. Or if, perhaps, he was a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.” Within her writing, scenes and snapshots merge into one big picture. People and stories come together under the same name, be it “Vancouver” or “Sandakan” or “Ysbrechtum”. And all these different places, even those I have never heard of before and cannot imagine what they are like, dissolve into just one strip of time and flow of feelings. Pictures alone can’t answer anything, “people look at that picture now, in magazines and books, and they speculate about it. They don’t know what happened before or after. All they see is this one moment, disconnected from the past or the future. It feeds their imagination, but it doesn’t give them knowledge.” But Thien makes everything clearer and purer without giving into to dry, plain narration. I was not surprised about this when I read “Certainty”; she mastered this ability since “Simple Recipes”.

 

Sometimes I think of the novel as a photograph, with the main subject focused and sharp in the center, and the background vivid but toned down, like stepping down to shine the spotlight on the main subject. Then suddenly the lens changes direction and focuses on something far far behind, and who seemed like the protagonist, the main player, becomes secondary and complementary. Thien does this nine times, focusing on nine stories or characters at different times and spaces, jumping back and forth to capture a panorama like no other. Ansel’s longing of Gail after her death, Matthew’s grief when his father died,  Ani’s love, Clary’s brave decision to let Ansel return to Sandakan, Sipke’s passions and empathy to war, and so on, all came together in a complex net of human relationships. The big picture is just simply a family tree or connections, “from far away, I can accept everything.” But Thien’s sensitivity and understandings brought about different perspective so brilliantly it became more than just a photograph or story. “Up close, right here, is where you feel pain, grief. Right here, there are some things that [people] can never be at peace with.

 

By doing that, Thien also sacrificed some of her “wholesome-ness” , the right “ending” or “note” to encapsulate everything into one. In her short stories in “Simple recipes”, the last detail is often the longest and most glowing image. The stories are not exactly ‘finished’, but always complete. The characters may still be lost, but they are done and fulfilled. But in “Certainty”, I still feel a bit of “uncertainty”, like something’s missing; a bit more sorrow or guilt, resent or bitter, a bit of flavour and attention-grabbing moment; perhaps an epiphany or enlightenment, or a point of realization. Something in “Simple Recipes” is missing in “Certainty”, something special and memorable. She just missed the spotlight somewhere, because the photos are no longer sharp and focused at one point, but scattered, undefined.

 

But her writing is undeniably spectacular, maybe because she wrote it in a language we could all understand. It’s the language that “never do you forget“, no matter where you travel or work, “the language in which your mother loved you.

 

Babel

 

 

Touring the world, from Japan to America, Mexico and Morocco, Babel captures a universal picture of pain and suffering. Not physically connected, the four groups of people were more or less, intentionally or by chance, directly or indirectly causing each other to suffer and grieve. As unbelievable as it is, these people, who speak different languages, have different family backgrounds and beliefs, totally different culture, are intertwined in this sad fate.

 

Where else can you watch a movie that takes you from the luxurious apartment of a rich Japanese businessman, to the austere sceneries of mountain and small villages in Morocco, then hot and sexy salsa dance of Mexico? Each group of people have their own religion and custom, therefore different ways of dealing with friends, family, strangers, with desires and sorrow, with the sexual changes of growing up, and most importantly, with loss and death of a close one.

 

What remains after all the complex and diverse relationship between these distant characters is that, as humans, we built such barriers and chasm to separate us, that at critical times we are alone left alone to deal with our pain. Everybody had their own physical and mental wounds, but nobody attempted once to try to understand what the other is going through. The tourists are ignorant to Susan Jones’ accident just as much as Richard Jones’ forgets to care about his babysitter’s important event. And the Jones’ would forever just know the pain that they went through in 5 days, but never of the pain that the isolated Moroccan family had to  live with for the rest of their lives. When we lose something close to us, it’s as if nothing else matters. No one can measure and compare the suffering that Susan went through to the sorrow that Amelia experienced at the dessert or at the border waiting to be deported, to the desperation and despondence that Chieko bore within her soul each day. No one can say who suffered more than the other, but it is apparent that they chose to suffer alone rather than try to understand and relief each other.

 

Babel emphasizes greatly how lonely human beings are, with our own thoughts and selfish desires, and our inability to seek beyond ourselves. Perhaps if we were a bit ‘smarter’, a bit more sensible and had psychic powers, we could have saved ourselves and others from all this pain. Each action we take trigger a reaction, and in some cases like those here in Babel, the consequences are worse than our imagination. But as humans, we are unable to see those consequences and therefore keep going on hurting, unknowingly, until we realize “pain is universal”.

 

Grief changes shape, but it does not end.” – The disappeared, Kim Echlin.

 

Oryx and Crake

Both the title and the short summary on the back cover of this book didn’t give me any particular idea of the plot, theme, genre etc. And even when I was half way through, the story didn’t just easily give away the startling and catastrophic ending (even though foreshadowings were planted in almost every line). The world that Margaret Atwood created, even with its acerbic similarity with our world, contains such disasters and awry master-plans that made “nothing ever look the same again”.

 

Reading “Oryx and Crake” reminds me of P. D. James’ “Children of Men”. Both writers explored with the possible extinction of humankind and our reaction to the fictional nearing ending of our species. I found both plots provoking and daring (but if you’re more of a action, fast-moving fan, try “Children of Men” instead).

 

Margaret Atwood’s novel combines the best of romance, desire, obsession, master-mind, cruelty, corruption into one scary tale of human self-destruction. “Men can imagine their own deaths, they can see them coming, and the mere thought of impending death acts like an aphrodisiac. A dog or a rabbit doesn’t behave like that.” She draws pictures of different worlds: the world we  know, the world we don’t want to know about, and the world we not yet come to acknowledge – the world that does not exist but could very possibly arrive. The three main characters, Oryx, Crake and Snowman, have three almost totally different perspectives based on their background and ability, but they all witness the downfall of life as we know it, and have different reactions to the crumbling era of mankind. They are symbols of three different types of people nowadays, watching the world change and choosing their own way of dealing with it.

 

Snowman, or Jimmy, is the heart of the story. The world revolves around him; the changes besiege him and cause confusion, or make him give up with his fate. In him a boy who lost his mom grieves forever, clutching the pain every time he sees her image. In him, an under-achieving student settles for a mediocre university, job and love life and kills time into his adulthood, while trying to keep up with his  (only) friend’s genius mind and plans. He seems like an underdog most of the time: too uncool for the women he loves, too unintelligent for the only friend he has. His innocent dream of a perfect world is laughed at; his concept of world and good endings, like how he plans to kill Crake so he and Oryx could be together for love, no matter how admirable, becomes too naïve in the middle of the dying world.

That everything has a price.”

“Not everything. That can’t be true. You can’t buy time. You can’t buy…” He wanted to say love, but hesitated. It was too soppy.

“You can’t buy it, but it has a price,” said Oryx. “Everything has a price.”

“Not me,” said Jimmy, trying to joke. “I don’t have a price.”

Wrong, as usual.

 Yet in the end, he is the only man standing. Or at least the only man standing that knows what’s going on.

 

Meanwhile, Crake, an alias for the name that even Snowman forgot, could be categorized into the mastermind pragmatic villain. He’s like the nerdy kid in your science class who can understand ideas “sort of like, I can take you out of this world, but the route to it is just a few nanoseconds long, and the way of measuring those nanoseconds doesn’t exist in our space-frame.” His down-to-earth and straightforward logical thinking make him one of the most successful people in the world, comparable to Bill Gates in our world perhaps. Started out as a boy with the brains to take over the world, who beat Jimmy in almost all of their games, Crake soon turns the world into his own game. Changing the history, the future, the present all became steps in his own vision of a game with his own rules. It takes that kind of intelligence to “[eliminate]  one generation, of anything. Beetles, tress, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever.” Crake saw it in his head before anyone else had the time to realize,  “break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.” Even sex became a game, “like an athletic demonstration, a free-spirited romp.” I was mesmerized the entire time by his extraordinary vision on the world, of how he decoded both human physical and psychological mysteries, therefore manipulated the entire species into his own “Crakers” : “at first, we had to alter ordinary human embryos, which we got from – never mind where we got them. They’re reproducing themselves, now.” But most importantly, he understood the core of humans desire to be immortal: “Human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else, some new version of themselves, and live on forever.” Yet, “immortality is a concept. If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear. Babies are immortal. Edit out the fear, and you’ll be…” That is the ultimate rule of Crake’s gigantic game. Sadly, none of his ‘players’ really grasped that concept (except Jimmy probably at the end), not the Crakers, not Oryx, nor his customers, patients, Crake’s uncle, his scientists  and so on. That’s why none of them managed to survive out of the game. After all, even Crake who always takes the lead move couldn’t make it out alive.

 

That leaves us with Oryx, the only feminine character in Atwood’s novel (which is a big difference compared to her other feminist novels, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace or The Handmaid’s Tale). At the beginning it seems like “Oryx and Crake” is an analogy to “Eve and Adam”, especially when all the inhabitants of the world worship that couple as though they were the creator of the creatures. Then Oryx’s story unfolds, the corruption and dirty sex trafficking industry is revealed, and she becomes no Goddess at all, but just a women, sold and abused since childhood, and also the target of Crake’s love. Though not emphasized greatly, Oryx must have been a startling beauty, a hypnotizing figure of  love and attraction. What was truly startling about her, though, was her maturity and calmness towards the chaotic and unfair world. She never blamed her parents for selling her, or her pimp that made her do all the dirty tricks, or the old man who kidnapped and immured her in his basement, nor Crake. She wants to believe in noble values, “every child should have love, every person should have it“, but unlike Snowman who clings onto the false hope that it would prevail, she understands deeply that, “love was undependable, it came and then it went, so it was good to have a money value.” She denies nothing of her gloomy past (“but Jimmy, you should know. All sex is real“) and lives on her life by completing the duties that are expected of her: a teacher (even mother), lover, wife. She neither lies to Snowman nor wants to betray Crake; she is a figure of astonishing patience and stillness.

 

And together, these three contributed in their own way more or less, direct or indirect, unintentionally or intendedly to the destruction of human kind. Is it heroic to save the ones closest to you? Or kill the ones closest to you in revenge for the world? Is it noble to create a ‘better’ generation to save people from suffering our current world? It comes down ultimately to the questions of ethical and moral concepts, questions of the philosophy and psychology of human thinking. Who would you rather be? The cause of change for the entire world? The by-stander who claims he has no power to help the situation? The loyal follower who supports the change while believing she is doing the best for everyone?

 

As a species we’re doomed by hope, then?”

“You could call it hope. That, or desperation”

“But we’re doomed without hope, as well,” said Jimmy.

“Only as individuals,” said Crake cheerfully.

“Jimmy, grow up.”

Crake wasn’t the first person who’d ever said that to Jimmy.”