Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Review: "The Golden Lotus (Jin Ping Mei)"

The Golden Lotus (Jin Ping Mei) (~1600)
Attributed to Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng (pseudonym)
Translated by Clement Egerton

1280 pages in 2 volumes

Considered one of the earliest Chinese novels, The Golden Lotus (in Chinese Jin Ping Mei) tells the story of the rise and fall of a “dissolute young man whose name was Ximen Qing.” Master of an estate in provincial China in the early 1100’s, Ximen is in his late 20’s and has inherited substantial wealth, which he spends freely to pursue a life of easy pleasure.

At its heart this is a morality tale: from the beginning the author makes clear that Ximen will squander his wealth and his life on sexual escapades with any number of beautiful women, and on wine and food that he enjoys with the many false friends who surround him in hopes of benefiting from his free spending ways. Through Ximen and his interactions with those around him, the author describes a deeply corrupt society, with few citizens of honor; those who do try to live a moral life in this story find themselves at the very least undermined by the corrupt citizens and officials with whom they must interact, and at worst taken advantage of in their naiveté. The author often calls out the corrupt nature of a newly introduced character hundreds of pages before that character’s true colors show.

The introduction of the book opens with the comment that “for centuries now, the novel in your hands has been denigrated as a ‘dirty book’.” Certainly the author most graphically lays plain Ximen’s corrupt lifestyle through the description of his many sexual exploits, though, as mentioned in the introduction, these scenes make up only “a fraction of one percent of the total text.” Unable to resist the charms of beautiful women, Ximen brings one after another of them into his household, opening the novel with three wives, and gradually adding three more as the story develops. Beyond his ‘official’ wives, he has all manner of dalliances with female servants, wives of the men working for him and “singing girls,” who do indeed sing, but also provide other types of pleasures for their clients. The scenes of lovemaking are explicitly described, but the use of many metaphors for both the anatomy involved and the sexual acts Ximen and his lovers perform softens what would otherwise be pornographic passages into colorful, erotic scenes. (See, for example, a poem from the story.) For the author, particularly with the sexual activities involved becoming more extreme and unnatural as the story develops, these scenes seem to provide a dual purpose of entertaining the reader, while at the same time displaying the corruption and baseness of Ximen’s life.

In his business dealings as well, Ximen takes advantage of the rampant corruption around him, his money buying all manner of favors: the reduction of taxes owed; the ability to obtain goods more cheaply; and the biasing of the law in his favor. Ximen plays the system to the hilt, benefiting repeatedly from the access his wealth gives him, eventually ‘earning’ a government position form which he enriches himself with bribes in exchange for favors from those who come before him. That he takes these bribes is only natural for him; as a minor official he is now simply on the other end of the same types of dealings he has long participated in to receive favors himself. The theme that the ‘rich get richer’ is indeed timeless.

The complex system of unwritten rules that govern the exchange of gifts form an important part of the corruption described in the story. At nearly every type of encounter, one must be sure to present an appropriate set of gifts; and, when receiving gifts, show the appropriate mixture of gratitude to having been offered them and reluctance to having to accept them. Seldom, however, is a gift actually rejected --- at most the giver deems it, “only a trifle, which you many well pass on to your maids,” in order to both downplay his own generosity and help the receiver to overcome his ‘guilt’ at accepting what is offered. Of course, receiving a gift immediately places the recipient in a kind of debt to the giver that requires some future favor or gift in return.

The descriptions of the interactions between the characters, such as the exchange of gifts described above, are one of the more interesting parts of the novel, though it is often difficult as a westerner to fully appreciate the cultural details. Each visit between characters in the novel, for example, leads to a detailed description of the greetings between the guests and the hosts, the carefully arranged seating at the table and the types of food and wine provided. And a further level of complexity is added as the author describes occasional, almost ritualized, disputes over what level of greeting should be exchanged, who should sit where, or whether the guests have eaten and drank well enough.

The version of the novel reviewed here was translated into English in the 1930’s by Clement Egerton. It comes in at 1280 pages (in two volumes), though according to the introduction the source material is much longer, and Egerton deleted many (though not all) of the poems that appeared in the original, but that he felt were not central to the story. Although the plot develops around Ximen’s exploits with his lovers and friends, and the harsh payment he must eventually make for his debauched life, much of the narrative focuses on the day-to-day lives and interactions of the characters, the rituals that structure their world. By the middle of the second volume I was left with mixed feelings --- the account of the lives of these people of another culture, centuries old, was fascinating to read, but at the same time, the repetition gradually had me ready to reach the end.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: "Give Me Your Heart" by Joyce Carol Oates

Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2010)
Joyce Carol Oates (1938-)

260 pages

Stands of lilac growing wild. That rich smothering smell, there’s a kind of madness in it.

These lines from the story “Smoother,” one of ten in Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense, a recent collection from Joyce Carol Oates, could serve as an epigraph to the book. In each of the stories a slow but inexorable madness grows to overwhelm a character: for some, transgressions thought to be firmly buried in the past re-surface suddenly, shattering their veneer of normalcy; for others a pitiless life and hopeless future weighs on their sanity, stripping them of the strength to avoid on-coming disaster. Oates paints dark visions of grim lives in these stories, the main characters fighting losing battles against their inner demons as they try to maintain the charade of a stable life for the family, friends, neighbors and themselves.

In the title story of the collection, a psychiatrist receives a letter from a past patient with whom he had become far too close, and who now demands a part of him that she feels to be her just due. The girl at the center of the story ‘Strip Poker’ joins some older boys for a boat ride across a lake, trying to escape the frustrations of her young teenage life and her scolding mother, only to find events reeling out of her control in a secluded beach house. In ‘The Spill,’ the second wife of a taciturn husband struggles to care for a houseful of children, including a young nephew of her husband whose ‘mental age … seemed to oscillate wildly;’ when she becomes pregnant again, the weight of her responsibilities finally becomes too much for her to contain.

For the most part in these stores the physical violence is only implied, anticipated, or at most described at some distance of time and place from its actual occurrence. Oates instead confronts us with more of a psychological violence, trading the temporary shock of gore for a disquiet of the mind that can haunt the reader even after the book is finished and set aside. We inhabit the minds of the characters, squirming ourselves as we watch them twist and bend in the face of situations that spiral out of their control --- that, often, they allow to spiral out of their control --- as they stagger forward, powerless to escape the seductive pull of the abyss they long for even as they may dimly recognize its danger. The suspense in these stories often builds slowly, but gradually reaches a frantic sprint that will have you pushing to reach the climax even as you try to slow down and savor Oates’ beautiful writing.

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