Fiction is fine -- but it is not perfect

Novels Of May

May 05, 2002|By DONNA RIFKIND | DONNA RIFKIND,Special to the Sun

If it's true that Oprah closed down her book club because she couldn't find compelling new fiction, as she claimed, it must then be equally true that her scouts just weren't looking hard enough. Literature around the world has been in an especially fertile period during the last five years or so, and the trend continues this month with some outstanding books from Japan, England, Canada and America.

Though unfamiliar to most American readers, Miri Yu, a young Japanese woman of Korean descent, has for some time enjoyed high-profile status in Japan as a playwright and novelist. Her latest novel, Gold Rush (Welcome Rain Publishers, 288 pages, $25), is her first to be translated into English.

Unlike the more finely wrought fiction of internationally recognized writers like Banana Yoshimoto or Haruki Murakami, Yu's novel about teen-age violence and hopelessness is as subtle as a jackhammer.

Gold Rush is set in the seedy Kogane-cho district of the port city of Yokohama, where 14-year-old Kazuki lives under the thumb of his abusive father, the wealthy owner of a chain of pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a pinball-like game machine. One night, no longer able to withstand his father's brutality, Kazuki kills him and stashes his body in the basement vault of his large house.

Yu devotes equal time both to Kazuki's turbulent internal landscape -- his shameless motives, the desperate rationalizing of his actions -- and to the lurid, near-apocalyptic physical landscape of drug-and-prostitution-ridden Yokohama itself.

Part Telltale Heart, part Day of the Locust, this novel presents a Hobbesian portrait of some aspects of modern Japanese life with a furious graphic energy, borrowing imagery from film, comic books, and animation to add momentum. Enormously successful in its capacity to shock, Gold Rush makes most other novels about alienated teen-agers -- Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, for example -- seem as scandalous as Little House on the Prairie.

Absorbing in an entirely different way, Tessa Hadley's first novel, Accidents in the Home (Henry Holt, 256 pages, $23), is a domestic soap opera of the very best kind. Clare Verey is a devoted mother of three who keeps house in a suburban corner of the English countryside while working on a Ph.D. thesis about George Sand. Her earnest husband, who studies the ecology of local mudflats, completes the blissful family tableau. The snake in this Eden arrives in the form of Clare's best friend's boyfriend, on whom Clare develops an obsessive crush, whereupon her married life falls completely apart.

Around this central story, Hadley weaves the histories of Clare's extended family, including her compulsively remarrying father, an alcoholic stepmother involved in an abusive lesbian relationship, a troubled younger sister and a once-fearsome, now senile grandfather.

What's best about Hadley's novel is her unflinching clarity about the complexities and ambivalences of family life, from the "slack excruciated martyrdom" of motherhood to the unpleasant duty of parenting one's own failing parents.

Madeleine Thien is a young Canadian writer whose fiction is already being compared to that of Canada's most celebrated writer, Alice Munro. Thien's first collection, Simple Recipes (Little, Brown, 230 pages, $22.95), exhibits a very Munro-like combination of delicacy and gravity.

In the title story, a young girl is torn between love for her Malaysian-born father and revulsion at his violent treatment of her brother, while in the story "House," two girls return to their childhood home in Vancouver to mourn the alcoholic mother who abandoned them. The final story, "A Map of the City," is the excellent and wrenching tale of yet another young girl, the daughter of Chinese-Indonesian parents, who watches her father's Vancouver furniture store fall into bankruptcy. In graceful counterbalance to the restraint of her prose, Thien's portraits of these painful, guilt-ridden, love-drenched relationships are remarkably rich.

As short-story writers go, there are few who are more polished than Ron Carlson, the author of two previous collections as well as two novels.

Carlson's new book of stories, At the Jim Bridger (Picador, 208 pages, $23), displays a splendid variety of characters and situations, all built into solidly constructed narratives. In "Towel Season," a theoretical mathematician spends a summer trying to fit into the suburban barbecue circuit, while "The Ordinary Son" follows a family of geniuses around Houston in 1966. "Gary Garrison's Wedding Vows" chronicles the unlikely nuptials of a neurotic, bird-loving young woman in the Utah wetlands.

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