In my continuing effort to read all the best novels of the 2010s, I sat down yesterday to read Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams. I read it in one gulp — in the time it took to do the laundry, and for the Seahawks to lose to the Cardinals — and wished it would never end.
This is a masterpiece of storytelling in which we follow the life of Robert Grainger, a woodman in the first half of the twentieth-century. In simple direct prose, in paragraphs that could be poetry, we see his tough upbringing, the loss of the family he makes, the daily trauma of life as a lumberman, and the extraordinary changes that were transforming the west in those decades. Without the slightest sentimentality, we are touched deeply by his tragedies and his ability to continue against awful odds.
This is work of genius, reminding me of Richard Brautigan but without the comic surreality. I was certain it was the best book I had read in 2019; but then ….
I turned to The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka which covers much of the same period, I gulped this exquisite gem in just two bites, almost not breathing throughout because I was so entranced by its magic.
In a marvelous and innovative way, Otsuka recreates the lives of a group of Japanese women shipped to San Francisco as mail order brides at the beginning of the century. Each chapter describes in vivid and intimate detail a portion of their lives: the trip across the Pacific; the first night with their new husbands; learning about how to deal with white folks and the hard work they were forced to endure; having babies; raising children who often reject their history; the shock of internment, and life after.
Her method — a sequence of linked narratives, often of a sentence only, which works throughout the novel — is hard to describe. I hope this small excerpt does it justice:
“We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 115-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the years. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin. We gave birth on remote farms in the Imperial Valley with the help of only our husbands … we gave birth in Rialto by the light of kerosene lantern on top of an old silk quilt we had brought over with us in our trunk from Japan …”
I feel privileged to have read this.