Books - Ed Power pits a novel against a non-fiction
Novel: Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami, published by Harvill Secker. Non-fiction: The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein, published by Simon and Schuster
One of only a handful of literary superstars with a truly global reach, Haruki Murakami walks a delicate path between magic realism and self-help mysticism. His best novels glean real world lessons from esoteric scenarios - where he comes unstuck is in mistaking narrative gloopiness for Joycean freewheeling. His novels glimmer but they do not twinkle: a crucial distinction to which he can appear oblivious.
For his latest work, the Japanese author mostly writes within himself - there are few forays into high-soaring streams of consciousness; even those with a low tolerance for the plotless fatuousness that mars much literary fiction will likely stay riveted all the way through.
Colourless Tsukuru is about a lot of things, but at its most elemental, it is about self-worth: where it comes from, what we do when it vanishes. At college in his 20s, the protagonist forms an intense friendship with four fellow students. Then, without explanation, they cut him out of their lives: "It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation."
Years later, Tsukuru, now an engineer working on train stations, is still haunted by the rejection: what did he say or do to be spurned so publicly and so emphatically? Murakami isn't interested in the answer as much as in the journey that Tsukuru is required to embark on to make sense of the question. Unmoored, deeply despairing, he sets off on a 'pilgrimage', visiting each of his former friends in turn, in an attempt to rationalise the rejection that has shaped his life.
One surprise is the occasionally creakiness of the prose: Murakami weaves beautiful imagery and yet the unimaginative deployment of language sometimes pulls the rug away. How much of that is owed to the author, and how much to his translation from Japanese, is, of course, hard to say. Ultimately, it is a side issue: Colourless Tsukuru is a fascinating exploration of who we are, the delusions necessary to negotiate the world around us.
Non-fiction: The Invisible Bridge
Simon and Schuster
On paper, the third volume of Rick Perlstein's epic chronicling of the rise of modern conservatism in America ought be deathly dull, a senses-numbing orgy of wonkishness. After all, who in this part of the world cares about the minutiae of the American right-wing movement as nowadays manifested by the deeply eccentric likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh? To liberal Europeans, they seem to speak a different language.
Then, The Invisible Bridge is more than political rumination. It embraces a wider canvas, painting a gritty picture of post-Watergate America, specifically the ruination of Richard Nixon and the rise of Ronald Reagan.
This being the 70s, there's a lot of grit to go around. Perlstein captures the sense of historic waywardness in America as it came to terms with Watergate and the humiliations of Vietnam: for the first time in its history, the US was genuinely riven with self-doubt, wrestling with the suspicion that it might not be the "greatest country in the world" after all.
Interwoven with this snapshot of a nation facing existential confusion, race riots and a backlash against the permissive 60s is a biography of Reagan. Here, Perlstein challenges the caricature of Reagan as unthinking ham always with ready with a quip, but little real comprehension of the forces ranged against him. Perlstein portrays Reagan as someone of immense emotional intelligence, capable of reading a crowd, divining their hopes and fears, and of adjusting his message for maximum impact.
In the 80s, he would deploy the full force of his genius and, by Perlstein's telling, remake the world in his image, warring against unions, dismantling the welfare state, loosening financial regulations. The book's chilling message is that it's a world we continue to inhabit.
DVD by Ben Keenan
Locke - 15A
Tom Hardy is captivating in this tense, bottled-up scenario as Ivan Locke, a foreman who's abandoning his post on the eve of a colossal project to attend to a messy personal matter. Set entirely in his car at night as he drives to London, he's the only person on screen, talking to people on the phone and trying to keep it all together.
Controlled and calm, speaking with a lilting welsh accent, Locke tries to soothe and placate, but as things spiral out of control, Hardy's nuanced performance opens up and draws us in.
The Amazing Spiderman 2 - 12A
Andrew Garfield is back as the nerdy webslinger, joined by the ever-adorable Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. While this new iteration flirts with darkness, it just can't resist being big, loud and fun, almost never taking itself too seriously.
The big baddie this time around is Jamie Foxx's preposterous Electro, a character who doesn't make much sense pre- or post-transformation as a gawky nobody filled with rage (and later, electricity). Setting up the origin story for another comic-book villain and tying into hooks left in the previous film, the plot moves in clever ways to keep the franchise going.