The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa
rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have been dying for some more Ogawa ever since I read two of her short stories in The New Yorker over two years ago and instantly fell for her prose. A novel that was supposed to come out last year never arrived, and it's been one long tease.
Ogawa writes with unfettered, graceful prose that is seductive in its softness and simplicity, lending even more shock value to her dark subjects. In the title story, a young girl who grew up in the orphanage run by her parents has grown obsessed with the only boy to ever live there long enough to reach high-school age, and her unfulfilled passions start to emerge in acts of cruelty directed at the home's newest and youngest member. It's disturbing without being exploitative and grotesque.
Amidst the calm writing are often wonderful images, such as a snow storm inside the house or lines like "He reappears out of the foam, the rippling surface of the water gathering up like a veil around his shoulders...." Ahhhhh.
The second story, "The Pregnancy Diaries," tackles a somewhat commonplace subject in a unique way. A woman keeps a journal chronicling her sister's pregnancy, writing about it in terms evocative of science fiction and horror. Yet, Ogawa does so without straining the metaphor or using obvious language.
The final story, "Dormitory," details a woman's return to the spartan housing that was her college apartment, and the strange triple-amputee landlord that lives there. It's a mystery tale, a gothic horror story, and yet also a personal soliloquy. The final image shows her reaching directly in the complex patterns that connect all life.
Wonderful stuff. Deep, yet reads like a breeze. Loved it.
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I wrote the above a while ago, but realized I had never posted it here.
The Bottomless Bellybutton by Dash Shaw
rating: 2 of 5 stars
This review is kind of like an "it's not you, it's me" break-up, because I should really acknowledge that Dash Shaw's The Bottomless Bellybutton represents a certain side of art-house indie cartooning that just doesn't resonate with me. There is a scene late in the comic when the grandmother is at the grocery store, and the man in line in front of her gives her an angry look for not putting a divider between their items. It seemed like an outrageous response to a fairly common situation, and I realized that most of the world is angry or annoyed at the family that is at the center of The Bottomless Bellybutton. As a reader, I should be sympathetic to their plight in the face of hostility, but truth is, I was angry and annoyed with them, as well. I didn't care at all if they got where they were going, and the book is way too long to put up with a group of people who the author seems to be telling us are really the source of their own problems. It's like watching a remake of Little Miss Sunshine by Todd Solondz.
There was one nice moment I really liked, where Peter, a boy portrayed with a frog's head, reverts back to his real face for a moment, when he realizes his new girlfriend doesn't see him as a freak. It's very subtle, revealing that the reason Dash Shaw has chosen to draw Peter as a weird frogboy is because that is how he sees himself, but he's really as normal as the rest of them. The book has multiple instances of characters having warped self-images, but this is the one place where it really comes through as something special.
Overall, the cartooning is about as unappealing to me as the writing. It has a rushed, unfinished quality that grows tedious in the book's first couple of hundred pages. Given that the whole novel is 720 pages, that's a lot of unattractive comics to plow through. I suppose Shaw could be trying for what Douglas Wolk calls a "beautiful ugly" aesthetic, but for me he's way too heavy on the second half of that equation.
Again, I'm more than willing to concede that all of this criticism stems from my personal tastes and is not necessarily reflective of the quality of Shaw's work. There are actually some very good, emotionally heavy moments in Bottomless Bellybutton that struck me despite my struggles to connect with the overall product. Likewise, though I was originally going to complain about an ongoing annoyance with indie cartoonists being overly obsessed with urine, semen, and boogers, as I read, I saw that this was the low-end of a sophisticated thematic metaphor about the way the transmogrification of water is similar to changes humans go through over their life.
In other words, despite myself, I get it; it's just that "it" is not for me.
For an alternative viewpoint, Tom Spurgeon's well-written assessment of the book is what convinced me to read it in the first place.
Current Soundtrack: Brett Anderson, Wilderness
Current Mood: nervous
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All text (c) 2008 Jamie S. Rich