Tag Archives: surreal

Daydreams of Angels: Stories by Heather O’Neill

Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill Title: Daydreams of Angels: Stories Author: Heather O’Neill
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374280420
Genre: Short Stories, Literary
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Stories, stories and more stories is what should also majorly be a part of life. What else is there to life but that? “Daydreams of Angels” was my seventh read this year and as the other reads, this one also did not disappoint. Keeping my tradition of fairy tales and the surreal and sublime, this one followed close on the heels of “A Wild Swan and other tales”.

This is a weird bunch of short stories – of angels, monsters, of animals and children – just that they aren’t set in the age old world but in the world where we live and are a part of us all. The stories are brilliantly thought of and written. I remember talking about “Sting like a bee” which was extremely surreal and hit the spot.

Most stories are just like that – they manage to engulf you and take you to another world. The other thing that I felt or did not feel was that these stories were too childish or whimsical for me as an adult. In fact, most of them make a lot of pertinent points under the layers of being just stories. O’Neill’s strength is in her declarative sentences – she just announces what is happening and is not afraid of showing all her cards to the readers. To a very large extent, this kind of writing always works with me.

There is a story of Pooh Bear writing an apology letter to Piglet, who has been kidnapped. Then there is the tale of Violet who escapes her stepfather who lusts after her in “The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World” and she also thinks it is sad when you fall in love with someone. This is so much like Great Expectations minus the stepfather.

Some of the metaphors and images in this book are completely heartbreaking. As a reader, I could not get more of them and just wanted to re-read some of the stories. In my opinion, if a book manages to do that, then the author has just hit the nail on the head with her narrative and style.

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Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Reading a Paul Auster novel is something like listening to a well-orchestrated, multi-layered musical composition where certain melodies and motifs recur with substantial elaboration and variation. He is one of our very best writers and his newest, Sunset Park, like many of his books, reflects back to us a great deal about how we live today. It is “up-to-the-moment” current, the protagonist, Miles Heller, being employed by a South Florida realty company (for part of the novel) as a “trash-out” worker who cleans out repossessed homes that are usually left in awful shape by their former inhabitants. Miles has a somewhat fetishistic compulsion to photograph the forgotten possessions, the abandoned things that have been left behind, and his large collection of digital photos of these objects comprise one of the many lists of contemporary artifacts that Auster constructs throughout the book. It includes pictures of “books, shoes, and oil paintings, pianos and toasters, dolls, tea sets and dirty socks, televisions and board games, party dresses and tennis racquets, sofas, silk lingerie, caulking guns, thumbtacks, plastic action figures, tubes of lipstick, rifles, discolored mattresses, knives and forks, poker chips, a stamp collection, and a dead canary lying at the bottom of its cage.”

Sunset Park is a different type of story, and in some ways it felt more like an intense character study. Its central character is Miles Heller, age 28, an intelligent, but directionless, Brown University dropout, who has been estranged from his family for a number of years. Miles has been harboring guilt over his part in an accident which took the life of his step-brother, Bobby, and which has torn his family apart. Miles father owns a struggling book publishing company in New York, his step-mother is an English professor, and his mother, an actress in the city. In Florida, Miles has been getting by odd jobs in Florida cleaning up foreclosed homes during the housing crisis, while trying to keep his relationship with Pilar, a quiet under-aged teenager.


Soon after tempers flare with the family of his girlfriend, Miles hears from his old friend, Bing Nathan in New York. Miles boards a bus and heads back to Brooklyn. Bing is a man who detests technology and runs a shop called “The Hospital of Broken Things”, where forgotten things of the past, like broken manual typewriters, old radios etc. get repaired. When Bing invites Miles to become a squatter in an empty apartment in the Sunset park section of Brooklyn, he joins him along with two women: Alice Bergstrom, who works part-time while working on her dissertation, and Ellen Brice, a unsuccessful real-estate agent, obsessed with the human body, who wants to be an artist.

Art and Literature bind Auster’s characters into a subset of Americana adrift and in search of moorings. As each character — mother, father, son, underage lover, coconspirator, childhood paramour — moves through dilemmas and confrontations — questions of self worth, gender, sexuality, ambition, procreation, death, global politics, and so on — to arrive at moments of clarity, compassion, self awareness and self liberation, armed for the good fight in the face of whatever the future might deliver next.

Auster loosely integrates these individual narratives into a fluid mythic context: Hollywood, in the form of William Wyler’s sentimental 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives” which follows three World War II veterans return home to discover that they and their families (not to mention their nation 60 years later) have been irreparably changed. (Jung’s myth of the returning hero gone awry.) Auster’s contemporary characters engage the film and live out post-war angst, and post-cold war decline, into a state of lingering ennui at the end of empire today.

There’s a deeper mythology at work in Sunset Park, the exhausted spiritual state of existential reality as Samuel Beckett explored it, before the rest of us were even “born into it”. Auster’s lead character’s estranged mother, for example, is a successful aging film actress returned to the city to appear in the role of her career as Winnie in a new production of Beckett’s stark and challenging “Happy Days.” Sunset Park’s mythic context sifts through the last half century from the failed returning hero, into Beckett’s post-apocalyptic landscape of endless contemplation and anxiety, armed with nothing but logic, cunning, and language. Another contextual level is the everyday mythology of baseball heroes, discussed endlessly between generations, as well as food and popular celebrity which provide connective tissue to hold contemporary culture at least conversationally in place.

Like, “The Hospital for Broken Things”, the characters in Sunset Part are a collection of “broken souls” struggling to find a place in this world, haunted in some way by their damaged past. At times the story seemed conveniently, contrived, and the narrative without direction, yet the characters and their issues seemed very genuine. I thought the contemporary post-recession time frame was perfect as well. In the end, some things were left unresolved, leaving me with unanswered questions, and curious as to whether this was unintentional or whether Auster has a sequel in the works.

Sunset Park is a coming-of-age story. It shows young men and women struggling to cope with and grow up from the wounds of early life, to take a hint from one of the novel’s early passages. For though Miles is its main protagonist, the story revolves from one of the squat’s inhabitants to another and, skipping a difficult-to-bridge gap, to the generation above. But Auster’s latest novel also is about recession America. Waste and reclamation are everywhere present, from Miles’s job at the beginning of the story, to Bing’s store for repairing broken typewriters and record-players, to the house in Sunset Park itself. The constant need for money, the need to deal with bare essentials, are of course favourite Auster tricks to highlight, by contrast, his characters’ dilemmas.

But this novel is also the closest Auster has come to making a statement about America in the present, rather than in the abstract sense. Sunset Park is an American novel as well as the more typical metaphysical rumination. And this makes it something new to the Auster collection. Even if old themes such as homelessness (Moon Palace, City of Glass, The Music of Chance) remain present in Sunset Park, its cautious optimism, its preparedness to see light as well as dark, its greater realism make it something different. This is both a classic Auster novel and a new, intriguing departure.

Sunset Park; Auster, Paul; Henry Holt and Co; $25.00

The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe

Fractal designs, such as used to be popular twenty years ago, have the property that any part of them replicates the whole in miniature. If you zoom in on even the tiniest detail, you can reach an understanding of the entire shape. This analogy occurs to me after reading THE CHANGELING by Kenzaburo Oe, a late work by the Japanese Nobel Laureate, and so far the only thing by him that I have read. Where most novels have a linear narrative behind them, this one reads as a series of one-sided conversations, thoughts about literature and other arts, buried memories, and some bizarre incidents — all generally minor in themselves, but each seemingly endowed with immense hidden significance, each a clue to some overall design that only gradually emerges as the various details replicate and mirror one another.

Despite its abstract content, the book is easy to read and its framework simple. Kogito Choko, a celebrated writer, is listening to some tapes sent him by his brother-in-law Goro Hanawa, once his childhood friend and now a famous film director. At the end of one of the cassettes, Goro remarks “So anyway, that’s it for today — I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Immediately after, Goro throws himself out of the window of his high building. Kogito (an obsessive thinker, aptly named by his father from the phrase “cogito ergo sum”) engages in months of conversation with the dead Goro, playing snatches of the tapes, stopping them for his own response, and then continuing to hear his friend’s answer. When his wife suggests he needs to get away, he accepts a guest professorship in Berlin, where Goro had himself lived a few years back.


As an example of Oe’s method, take the chapter in which Kogito is being interviewed on television in connection with the Berlin Film Festival. There is a long section about how he gets to the interview, or almost doesn’t get to it: crossed wires with the person picking him up, confusion at the hotel where this is taking place, description of the technicians setting up the equipment in the hotel ballroom, the physical arrangement of the chairs, backdrop, camera, monitors, all in obsessive detail. And then, without further preamble, Kogito is shown a number of film clips on the monitor: samurai fighting off a peasant army, and a modern game of rugby football. He recognizes it as scenes from a book he had written, entitled RUGBY MATCH 1860. In the novel, he had used the battle and the game as metaphors, but he intrigued by the decision of these filmmakers to film them literally, with an acute feeling for the Japanese atmosphere. He is told that what he has just seen is the only footage from the project so far shot, but the young filmmakers have run out of money; would he be willing to concede them the rights for free? Kogito’s translator warns him that he is being ambushed, but he agrees, and the chapter ends.

The core of this chapter, I believe, lies in one of its smallest details, the samurai film clip. Certain aspects of it reflect other images we encounter involving Kogito’s father, who appears to have been something of a philosophical leader of an ultra-right-wing movement opposing the Japanese surrender to the US. Kogito’s own politics, on the other hand, are liberal, so perhaps he is the Changeling of the title? (Or one of them, along with Goro.) One begins to see that the whole novel is about change. In the background, there is the reconstruction of Japanese society after defeat. But this is worked out in terms of ideas — translation between languages, translation of one medium into another (writing into film or opera), and perhaps (as the example above would suggest) the handing over of ideas from one generation to another.

The fractal metaphor works on the personal level as well. From what I can gather, this novel reflects themes from every other book that Oe has written, and these in turn reflect the author’s life. His brother-in-law was indeed a famous film director, Juzo Itami, who committed suicide in a similar way. Like the fictional Kogito, Kenzaburo Oe has a son who was born brain-damaged, barely able to communicate in words, but who eventually found success as a composer. All Oe’s novels contain such a character, and the writer has spoken of his aim to give his son a voice denied to him in life. While the composer-son plays a relatively small role here, Oe shifts the relationship back a generation, as Kogito tries to understand the legacy of his own father and the huge changes between the Japan of his time and that of the present. The themes of rebirth and the passing of the torch between generations become clear only at the very end, but after so much mind-play they bring a lovely touch of simple human emotion.

Changeling, The; Oe, Kenzaburo; Atlantic Books; Penguin Group; Rs. 999