A Tale of Two Openings

I’ve been trying to read The Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy, but I’m having trouble working up any enthusiasm for the book. If I could pinpoint the reason, I might feel validated in giving it up, but instead I keep forcing myself to bring it to work with me in case I might feel like reading it during lunch. Finally a friend convinced me that I should not be so slavishly loyal that I don’t read at all, so I picked up some books on a whim and have been alternating between them and The Blue Book. I sped through two mystery novels this way, then started Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.

As soon as I opened A Tale for the Time Being (henceforth, ATftTB), I noticed an eerie coincidence. Both ATftTB and The Blue Book begin in the second person. Seeing the word ‘you’ on a page, absent of dialogue, is a strange enough feeling, but to have both of the novels that I’m reading shock me with that word?

Even though both openings have that particular structural similarity, they are otherwise quite different, at least in how I reacted to them. The Blue Book‘s usage of ‘you’ irritated me a bit, while ATftTB drew me in. What was the difference? Even after rereading the first page of each over and again, I am still unsure.

The Blue Book begins:

But here this is, the book you’re reading.

Obviously.

Although I have no describable reason for assuming this, it strikes me as a literary affectation. The book that tells me about the book that I am reading. Except I have a hunch that this book will not be If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler

Kennedy goes on to describe how I am approaching the book. “…you face it.” So far, yes, I am facing it. Then, “you are so close here that if it were a person you might kiss. That might be unavoidable.” Certainly if a person’s face were nuzzled into my lap as this book is, I would hope they would be someone I would feel comfortable kissing. “You can remember times when kissing has been unavoidable.” Can I? Not really. And even if I could, I certainly wasn’t remembering them until the narrator mentioned it.

This is Kennedy’s tactic; to attempt to put thoughts in my head. It kind of works, in the way not thinking of a pink elephant works. The problem is, I’m not clear why yet I’m being addressed this way, and if it has a point beyond affectation. I am still cautious, suspicious. I have not yet given Kennedy my trust. And here she is, trying to infiltrate my thoughts.

I agree that I did sign up for that when I picked up the novel; such infiltration is the entire purpose of literature. I guess maybe I am just used to books being a bit more circumspect. I would like to get to know someone, after all, before they nuzzle their face into my lap.

ATftTB begins:

Hi!

My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

This book introduced itself, or rather one of its narrators did. I already feel more comfortable with it. Then Nao launches into what a time being is, as promised. Like Kennedy, Ozeki is using a meta book within a book, and drawing attention to her technique, the kind of tricks that tend to make me mutter “MFA” under my breath and sigh. Nao, though, makes it clear to me fairly soon that the technique is not a show, her time being explanations linking the tactic to the works’ themes.

“You wonder about me,” Nao says. I am wondering about her; her observations still align with my thoughts so the fourth wall is reinforced rather than weakened. “I wonder about you.” Nao is suddenly relatable; we are sharing this activity of wondering together. The tiniest emotional connections begin to form (well, strengthen. They formed at that first exclamation point.) I pull back for just a moment before I get sucked in, just long enough to wonder, “how long can Ozeki keep up this conversation before it beings to feel false?” Nao continues, “Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?…Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap? Does her forehead smell like cedar trees and fresh sweet air?”

I’m still not very far into the book, but so I can only give a noncommital answer to my question “how long will this feeling last?” At least 100 pages.

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Tirza

Cover of Tirza

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

Although I read Tirza (Arnon Grunberg) a few months ago, it still sits on my nightstand. It’s such a beautiful physical object, as all Open Letter Books are, that I am hesitant to move it. I appreciate that their graphic design has a timeless quality because there are some books on my shelf that definitely show their vintage. In some ways, this novel is a psychological thriller, but the artwork is not the titillating or grim imagery of a thriller. Instead it is an elegant plane, representing the plane trip that separates the two distinct portions of the novel.

The first portion concerns a party, a going-away party for the titular Tirza, daughter of Jörgen Hofmeester. Jorgen lives for his daughter; she is the center of his life, his “sun queen”. And she is leaving him, going away to travel across Africa with a boyfriend that Jorgen has never even met. Jorgen wants this party to be perfect for her. This is his last chance to attempt to be the perfect father. He deals with every setback as it comes: his estranged wife returning and behaving maudlinly, Tirza’s professor catching him half-dressed, a classmate who refuses to participate in the dancing. Meanwhile, we are in his head, watching his ego crumble under each further challenge and humiliation.

This was hard for me to get through, this being in Jorgen’s head. I become emotionally worn down by books with unpleasant characters. The only Open Letter book that I didn’t enjoy, Rupert: A Confession, had this problem. But this book was different. Jorgen always managed to pull me back in when I was slipping out of the narrative. He just tries so hard, tries, as he reiterates throughout the novel, to be a better person. This is not just 400 pages spent in an unpleasant location. It’s not watching Sisyphus give it one more go. Instead, the narration is dynamic. It constantly shifted my perspective of Jorgen and of Tirza. New elements of their relationship were constantly being revealed. I wanted to hang in there, to give Jorgen one more chance.

The latter half of the novel occurs after Tirza has left her home for her trip. This portion is more fast-paced, although I notice that some reviewers here on Goodreads disagree. Less time is spent in Jorgen’s head; instead he finally begins to reach outside of himself, to make contact with others. Much of this portion is him verbally trying to explain what happened in the first half. We finally see how he rationalizes his behavior and his thoughts. Although the portions seem radically different, they fit together snugly to give us a more complete analysis of Jorgen.

If you’re curious about if you’d enjoy this work, you can always dive right in. There’s an excerpt found on the publisher’s site.