Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Past ("Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami; Philip Gabriel, trans.)

2014 marked ten years since I graduated from high school--a small, some would say meaningless milestone that is typically accompanied by a reunion of some sort. In my case, the invitation arrived a few weeks into August, after some dedicated outreach on the part of a former classmate. She organized a modest get-together in a community park less than a mile from our old high school, nothing too demanding, and attending would have been easy--after all, I only live 90 minutes away and have weekends free. Nevertheless, I didn't go, and I don't plan on attending any reunions in the future, either. This decision had nothing to do with the quality of my high school, which I enjoyed overall, nor an attitude about my former classmates; instead, my decision has everything to do with the person I used to be and how that version of myself doesn't exist anymore.

Yes, we all change after high school, but most people change linearly:  they become the person they were already becoming, moving every further down a straight line while leaving behind those aspects of themselves that they outgrow. There are those rare few, however, who change in substance rather than style or amplitude. (To be more metaphorical about it, most of us change the hues of their self-portrait, deepening some colors and lightening others, while a few simply paint over the entire canvass with something completely new. I would fall into this latter category.) The high-school version of myself was a different creature altogether, a character constructed Frankenstein-like to mask--or personify, I've never been sure which--the toxic punch of sadness, self-loathing, anger, confusion, and desperate clawing jealousy that fueled my teenage years. Not that I was miserable by any stretch of the imagination, or that the tempestuous emotions raging inside of me were any worse than those experienced by my classmates, but the relationships I built were always shallow and one-sided, and to this day I'm only in regular contact with two or three people from that time in my life. This was not an instance of people "drifting apart," as the cliche goes; this was an example of people leaving the theatre after a four-year performance unaware that one of the actors had joined them in the streets, having been too consumed by himself to care about anyone sitting in the audience beyond their occasional applause.

While every teenager is different, I was different in more than just the usual ways--permanently, undeniably different--and it would take me another few years to fully understand and accept those differences...and only then, in my early 20s, could I actually begin to work on myself in the same way most of my classmates had years before. They'd had guides to help them, people who had been through many of the same experiences and could lend their wisdom or point my classmates in the right directions. And while I was blessed with fantastic parents and excellent teachers, none of them could offer me a guiding hand because none of them had faced down the long stretch of asphalt that had been steamrolled out in front of me. And I was too afraid--too ashamed, too mistrusting--to ask for a pair of shoes before setting my feet on the boiling tar and beginning my walk. Looking back, and knowing what I know now, it's easy to blame myself for being fearful of something that was terrifying only because I decided that it was, because I didn't think I was strong enough or mature enough to handle it. In the moment, however, life's obstacles can seem insurmountable.

And so, to hide the fact that I was different--an appalling possibility in such a small, conservative, rural town--I both embraced and denied my otherness in the same breath, transforming me into a walking Jekyll forever caught in mid-transformation. It was a strange identity to embrace, one I still don't fully understand, but the distance I gained after graduation--from my small town, my peers, the public image I'd manufactured for myself--allowed me to step away and become a better, more self-aware person. It also allowed me to see just how vacuous and unappealing my former self had been; even though I can claim to have been liked, it was for the wrong reasons. My friendships only existed for my own benefit, and when they couldn't offer me anything else, the friendships faded into nonexistence. Other friendships were nurtured on negativity and gossip, which was less about friendship and more about making ourselves feel better by criticizing others. And the sarcastic sense of humor I developed early on was deployed to defuse any serious situation or push away those who might disrupt the character I'd made for myself. To meet up again with anyone who knew me back then would have forced me to resurrect that character in memory, if only briefly, which would mean having to reconcile the two all over again--an activity I have no interest in repeating, even to explain away my past or the person I now am. I'm more comfortable letting that past identity continue fading into history, kept alive by little more than yearbook notes to my classmates that, ten years later, mean very little out of context.

At the same time I was sending contact information to the president of my graduating class, all for an invitation I had no intention of opening, Haruki Murakami's awkwardly-named Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage found its way into my hands. I read the entire book in two days, devouring a story that seemed destined for intrigue and suspense--an unexplained death from the past, former friends who suddenly abandoned the protagonist and, years later, are just as shadowy and evasive as before--but ended somewhere nuanced and profound, far from the choking cityscapes of Murakami's native Japan and his penchant for unique and bizarre situations. The novel's closing chapter, where our protagonist finally gets a sense of closure over his past, is tender and moving, filled with supporting characters who defy every cliche you expect Murakami to throw our way. Compared to the novel's opening pages, which are clunky and seem to embody the author's need for professional direction--an awkwardness that seems to embody what it's like to be actually be a teenager--the closing moments leave you with a sense of understanding, something you very rarely have when you look back on your past in search of clarity.

All of the cliches associated with reunions--with meeting people you knew in your younger and more vulnerable years, as Nick says in the opening lines of The Great Gatsby--assert that we'll revert at once to our past selves. The sarcastic outcast will still be the sarcastic outcast, the star athlete and his girlfriend will have gotten married, the bookworm will be making six figures in an impressive start-up company, and past relationships will be awkwardly rekindled over tasteless drinks and food. That is the nature of cliches, after all. But the reality is different. We come back as changed people, though the degree of our personal transformations are varied, and often we come back because there's something left unanswered, like in Murakami's novel. But rarely does the past hold a key to helping us understand ourselves. We have to find the answers to those questions ourselves, even if it means walking away--and maybe even staying away--from the places where we came from.

Books Read in 2014
  1. Marie Antoinette's Head:  The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution (Will Bashor) [review]
  2. We Learn Nothing (Tim Kreider)
  3. The Best American Travel Writing 2011 (Sloane Crosley and Jason Wilson, ed.; eBook)
  4. Dog Songs (Mary Oliver) [review]
  5. Rising from the Plains (John McPhee)
  6. Clockwork Angel (Cassandra Clare)
  7. The Optimist's Daughter (Eudora Welty)
  8. A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk (Valerie Steele, et al, ed.) [review]
  9. The Old Gringo (Carlos Fuentes; Margaret Sayers Peden, trans.)
  10. American Lion:  Andrew Jackson in the White House (Jon Meacham)
  11. Ramayana: Divine Loophole (Sanjay Patel)
  12. Andrew's Brain (E.L. Doctorow) [review]
  13. Train Dreams (Denis Johnson)
  14. The Impossible Knife of Memory (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  15. The Burglary:  The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI (Betty Medsger) [review]
  16. Incarnadine (Mary Szybist)
  17. Our One Common Country:  Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Road Peace Conference of 1865 (James B. Conroy) [review]
  18. Starting Over (Elizabeth Spencer) [review]
  19. The Race Underground:  Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway (Doug Most)
  20. The Mad Sculptor:  The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (Harold Schechter)
  21. The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald; Michael Hulse, trans.)
  22. Unbroken:  A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Laura Hillenbrand)
  23. Going Clear:  Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Lawrence Wright)
  24. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Nathan Englander)
  25. Tomorrow-Land:  The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America (Joseph Tirella) [review]
  26. Monster (Walter Dean Myers)
  27. The Wherewithal: A Novel in Verse (Philip Schultz) [review]
  28. Notes from the Internet Apocalypse (Wayne Gladstone) [review]
  29. Dog Whistle Politics:  How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Ian Haney Lopez) [review]
  30. The Wives of Los Alamos (Tarashae Nesbit) [review]
  31. The Splendid Things We Planned:  A Family Portrait (Blake Bailey) [review]
  32. Bark: Stories (Lorrie Moore) [review]
  33. *To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  34. Grandma Gatewood's Walk:  The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail (Ben Montgomery) [review]
  35. Encyclopedia of Early Earth (Isabel Greenberg)
  36. Blood Royal:  A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris (Eric Jager)
  37. The Consolations of the Forest:  Alone in a Cabin of the Siberian Taiga (Sylvain Tesson; Linda Coverdale, trans.)
  38. *Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman)
  39. 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative (Paul Kengor) [review]
  40. An Idea Whose Time Has Come:  Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Todd S. Purdum) [review]
  41. High Crime Area (Joyce Carol Oates) [review]
  42. A Window on Eternity:  A Biologist's Walk Through Gorongosa National Park (E.O. Wilson and Piotr Naskrecki)
  43. 50 Children:  One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany (Steven Pressman)
  44. You Are Not Special:...And Other Encouragements (David McCullough, Jr.)
  45. Six Amendments:  How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (John Paul Stevens) [review]
  46. The Fight for the Four Freedoms:  What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Harvey Kaye) [review]
  47. Beyond Magenta:  Transgender Teens Speak Out (Susan Kuklin) [review]
  48. What It Takes:  The Way to the White House (Richard Ben Cramer)
  49. The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons:  The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (Sam Kean) [review]
  50. Birdmen:  The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies (Lawrence Goldstone) [review]
  51. The Eternal Nazi:  From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim (Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet)
  52. The Oldest Living Things in the World (Rachel Sussman) [review]
  53. The Last Kind Words Saloon (Larry McMurtry) [review]
  54. The Cruelest Miles:  The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic (Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury)
  55. I'm a Stranger Here Myself:  Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away (Bill Bryson)
  56. 63, Dream Palace (James Purdy)
  57. Congratulations, By the Way:  Some Thoughts on Kindness (George Saunders)
  58. Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (Geoff Dyer)
  59. The Autumn of the Patriarch (Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Gregory Rabassa, trans.)
  60. The Map Thief:  The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps (Michael Blanding)
  61. This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz)
  62. Crabwalk (Gunter Grass; Krishna Winston, trans.)
  63. Tenth of December (George Saunders)
  64. *Things You Should Know (A.M. Homes)
  65. Taking on the Trust:  How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil (Steve Weinberg) [review]
  66. Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
  67. Geek Love (Katherine Dunn)
  68. Carsick:  John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (John Waters) [review]
  69. Galapagos (Kurt Vonnegut)
  70. The Most Dangerous Book:  The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses (Kevin Birmingham) [review]
  71. The Zhivago Affair:  The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (Peter Finn) [review]
  72. Ecstatic Cahoots:  Fifty Short Stories (Stuart Dybek)
  73. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness:  Four Short Novels (Kenzaburo Oe)
  74. The Skeleton Crew:  How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases (Deborah Halber)
  75. Fierce Patriot:  The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman (Robert L. O'Connell) [review]
  76. *The Commitment:  Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family (Dan Savage)
  77. The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492-93): And Documents Relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real (Clements Robert Markham, ed.)
  78. Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies (Alastair Bonnett)
  79. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (Deborah Blum)
  80. The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China (David Eimer) [review]
  81. The Northmen: Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503 (Julius Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, editors)
  82. Last Stories and Other Stories (William T. Vollmann) [review]
  83. The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl:  How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis (Arthur Allen) [review]
  84. Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare)
  85. Shocked:  Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead (David Casarett) [review]
  86. The Scorpion's Sting:  Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (James Oakes) [review]
  87. Explaining Hitler:  The Search for the Origins of His Evil, Updated Edition (Ron Rosenbaum)
  88. Gruesome Spectacles:  Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty (Austin Sarat) [review]
  89. The Americans (Robert Frank)
  90. *Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire:  The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 (Rafe Esquith)
  91. *There Are No Shortcuts (Rafe Esquith)
  92. The Outlaw Album: Stories (Daniel Woodrell)
  93. Eleven Years (Jen Davis) [review]
  94. The Explorers:  A Story of Fearless Outcasts, Blundering Geniuses, and Impossible Success (Martin Dugard) [review]
  95. We Were Liars (E. Lockart)
  96. Fun Home:  A Family Tragocomic (Alison Bechdel)
  97. What If?:  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Randall Munroe) [review]
  98. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Haruki Murukami; Philip Gabriel, trans.)
  99. When Paris Went Dark:  The City of Lights Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 (Ronald C. Rosbottom)
  100. Dr. Mutter's Marvels:  A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz) [review]
  101. The Young Man and the Sea (Rodman Philbrick)
  102. Through the Woods (Emily Carroll)
  103. Thoreau at Walden (Henry David Thoreau; John Porcellino, editor and illustrator)
  104. The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell) [review]
  105. How We Got to Now:  The History and Power of Great Ideas (Steve Johnson)
  106. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:  And Other Lessons from the Crematory (Caitlin Doughty)
  107. Leaving the Bench:  Supreme Court Justices at the End (David N. Atkinson)
  108. Belzhar (Meg Wolitzer)
  109. Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer)
  110. Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann; Kerascoett, illus.) [review]
  111. Snowpiercer, Volume 1:  The Escape (Jacques Lob; Jean-Marc Rochette, illus.; Virginie Selavy, trans.)
  112. A Chance Meeting:  Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967 (Rachel Cohen)
  113. Chasing the Falconers (Gordon Korman)
  114. The American Vice Presidency:  From Irrelevance to Power (Jules Witcover) [review]
  115. Shoah:  An Oral History of the Holocaust (Claude Lanzmann)
  116. The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History (Elizabeth Kolbert)
  117. The Best American Infographics 2014 (Gareth Cook, ed.)
  118. America 1844:  Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation (John Bricknell)
  119. The Resistance:  the French Fight Against the Nazis (Matthew Cobb)
  120. Unreasonable Men:  Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics (Michael Wolraich) [review]
  121. Dance of the Reptiles:  Rampaging Tourists, Marauding Pythons, Larcenous Legislators, Crazed Celebrities, and Tar-Balled Beaches:  Selected Columns (Carl Hiaasen; ebook)
  122. Hiroshima Nagasaki:  The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermaths (Paul Ham) [review]
  123. After Lincoln:  How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace (A.J. Langguth) [review]
  124. The City of Ember: the Graphic Novel (Jeanne DuPrau; Dallas Middaugh and Niklas Asker, illus.)
  125. True Grit (Charles Portis)
  126. Among the Hidden (Margaret Peterson Haddix)
  127. Resistance:  France 1940-1945 (Blake Ehrlich)
  128. Hand to Mouth:  Living in Bootstrap America (Linda Tirado) [review]
  129. The Strange Library (Haruki Murakami)
  130. Eleven Days in August:  The Liberation of Paris in 1944 (Matthew Cobb)
  131. Dogfight at the Pentagon:  Sergeant Dogs, Grumpy Cats, Wallflower Wingmen, and Other Lunacy from the Wall Street Journal's A-Hed Column (The Wall Street Journal)
  132. Leni:  The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (Steven Bach)

*A re-reading.