“Behind my closed eyes, all turned lemon-yellow…bright with lemon-yellow, luminous with the light reflected…”

Nemuro Hiroshi has been missing for six months. His wife, who has since become an alcoholic and no longer leaves her apartment, has hired a private detective.

A matchbox.
A phone number.
A newspaper and a raincoat.
A simple hand-drawn map of a train station.

The detective has few clues with which to start his investigation. The wife’s brother has been investigating since the disappearance, but refuses to offer the detective anything he’s discovered.

Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (燃え尽きた地図) starts as a fairly standard mystery novel, with all the usual film-noir trappings – the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale wife, the seedy criminal overtones. As the book (and the investigation) develop, however, the detective finds himself descending deeper into existential and psychological torment, as his sense of his own identity starts to blur with that of the man he is searching for.

She seated herself on the same chair as last night, although it was now in a somewhat different position, and the line of demarcation between the bookshelves and the lemon-yellow curtains now fell to the level of her right ear, as fragile as china, ruined with rough handling.  I suppose some men would feel protective toward it, while others might be carried away by the desire to break it into pieces. Which type was the husband? I wondered.
(p.  127)

The missing husband, the catalyst of the investigation, remains an ephemeral character throughout the book; never becoming much clearer than a shadow.

“He was fond of licenses. He had a kind of license mania, I guess. He even carried two driver’s licenses – one for second-class trucks. And besides that, he was a radio operator, and electric welder, and a handler of explosives…. He also had a movie projectionist’s license and a secondary teacher’s license…”
“If I could read the [husband’s] dairy, perhaps I can get some general idea of what sort of dreams your husband had.”
“Dreams?”
“For instance, did he dream of the sea, or something like that?”
“My husband is a very matter-of-fact man. When he became section head he was very happy because he had somehow stopped sliding down the slope of life.”
“But he did leave you, didn’t he.”
“It wasn’t because of his dreams. He used to say licenses were the anchor of human life.”
“Using so many anchors for such a small boat certainly puts him in the category of dreamers, doesn’t it? If he didn’t use them he’d float away.”
She slowly returned the glass, which she had raised to her lips, to the table and fell into silence as if her thoughts were someplace else.
(p. 134-137)

Like Abe’s other books, The Ruined Map is slow; fever-like and unsettling. I found myself doubling back, doubting my own understanding (perhaps Abe should be read with a clear mind, rather than over a few beers, but I certainly enjoyed prefer my way of reading!)

Abe’s books may not always be easy or comfortable reading, and will leave you with more questions than are answered. I’ve read three or four of Abe’s books so far, and none of them have had straightforward narratives, or neatly concluded endings – which I don’t consider a negative, but it can be quite unsettling if you’re expecting tidy answers. What Abe does incredibly well is unreliable narration, nightmare-ish urban landscapes, truth, the experience of time, and questions of identity – particularly the tenuous grip most of us have on our own.

The client is always right. Even if he tells a lie, for instance, if he says it’s the truth the truth it is.  But the facts were no longer necessary, it was even unreasonable to demand only motives and omit the facts….I keep circling at a distance round senseless facts, trying to explain the unexplainable.
(p.138)

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“I shall not begin at the beginning since there is no beginning, only a middle into which you, fortunate reader, have just strayed…”

I’ve always loved satire, and I’d like to think that I’m far more subversive than conservative, but my self-image as a camp, tongue-in-cheek, irreverent has been somewhat shaken by Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge.

Set in the 1960s, Myra makes her way to Hollywood to seek the inheritance she’s owed by her dead husband’s Uncle Buck. Attractive, intellectual, and sexually complex, Myra is convinced that the golden days of the US came and went with the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I am seated in front of a French cafe in a Montmartre street on the back lot at Metro. … Over a metal framework, cheap wood has been arranged and painted as to suggest with astonishing accuracy a Paris bistro. … From the angle where I sit I can see part of the street in Carvel where Andy Hardy lived. The street is beautifully kept up as the shrine it is, a last memorial to all that was touching and – yes – good in the American past, an era whose end was marked by two mushroom shapes set like terminal punctuation marks against the Asian sky. (p. 30-31)

The book is written largely as a memoir – Myra’s confessional with a preening eye always to her audience; with snippets of Uncle Buck’s suspicion-filled memos. In his 1995 autobiography Palimpsest, Vidal said that he found inspiration for Myra’s lofty tone in the “megalomania” of Anaïs Nin’s diaries – which I’m not sure is quite fair, but certainly did give me a giggle to discover. I can’t say I found Anaïs Nin’s short stories or diaries particularly enjoyable to read, but that opinion doesn’t seem to be particularly popular.

Is it possible to describe anything accurately? That is the problem set to us by the French New Novelists. The answer is, like so many answers to important questions, neither yet nor no. The treachery of words is notorious. I write that I ‘care for’ Mary-Ann. But what does that mean? Nothing at all because I do not care for her at all times or at any time in all ways. To be precise (the task set us in the age of science), as I sit here…I can say that I like her eyes and voice but not her mouth (too small) or hands (too blunt). I could fill many pages of yes-no and still not bring the reader to any deep knowledge of what it is I feel at 7.10pm, March 12. It is impossible to sort out all one’s feelings at any given moment on any given subject, and so perhaps it is wise never to take on any subject other than one’s own protean but still manageable self. (p. 116)

I appreciate the topics that Vidal broaches in Myra Breckinridge, and the panache with which Vidal broaches them – generational attitude changes in America, masculinity, feminism, transsexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality, pornography, intellectualism, hypocrisy. There’s still truth to be found in plenty of Vidal’s barbs, but the language used is certainly (and thankfully!) far outdated.

Most human beings, however, prefer the short duet, lasting anywhere from five minutes with a stranger to five months with a lover. Certainly the supreme moments occur only in those brief exchanges when each party, absorbed by private fantasy, believes he is achieving mastery over the other. The sailor who stands against the wall, looking down at the bobbing head of the gobbling queen, regards himself as master of the situation; yet it is the queen (does not that derisive epithet suggest primacy and dominion?) who has won the day, extracting from the flesh of the sailor his posterity, the one element in every man which is eternal and (a scientific fact) cellularly resembles not at all the elixir of victory, that which was not meant for him but for the sailor’s wife or girl or simply Woman. (p. 80)

Even though my love for Gore Vidal knows no bounds, and there was plenty I enjoyed about Myra Breckinridge, I can’t fully enjoy (or really recommend) any book that uses rape as a key plot point. That’s not to say Vidal didn’t write it well – it’s deeply disturbing, a severe counterpoint to the frippery of much of the book – but I still feel like rape is rarely more than a cheap narrative device.

Myra Breckinridge is dated, nearly entirely silly, and certainly has issues. It may not be quite what it was 40 years ago but it’s certainly a good snapshot of a particular American era, with a few eternal truths thrown in for good measure.

But then it is out peculiar fate to destroy or change all things we touch since (and let us never forget it) we are the constant and compulsive killers of life, the mad dogs of creation… Death and destruction, hate and rage, these are the most characteristic of human attributes… (p. 122)

 

“The way she looked at me set the glasses of grenadine rattling and the first one slipped to the edge of the tray, slowly tipped over, and spilled into her lap…. She took a glass of grenadine and poured it over her head and into her hair, and then another glass, and she was covered with raspberry syrup and soda-water bubbles. The last glass of raspberry grenadine she poured down the inside of her dress, then she asked for the bill. She walked out with the aroma of raspberries trailing behind her, out onto the street in that silk dress covered with peonies, and the bees were already circling her…
I found her standing in the square surrounded by wasps and bees like a booth selling Turkish honey at a village fair, but she made no effort to brush them away as they ate the sugary juice that coated her like an extra skin… I saw how the sun had dried the raspberry grenadine in her hair and made it stiff and hard, like a paintbrush when you don’t put it in turpentine, like gum arabic when it spills, like shellac, and I saw that the sweet grenadine had stuck her dress so tightly to her body that she’d have to tear it off like an old poster, like old wallpaper. But all that was nothing to the shock I felt when she spoke to me.”

p. 18-9, I Served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal