Nobel Prize winner Oe's most important novel, A Personal Matter, has been called by The New York Times "close to a perfect novel". In A Personal Matter, Oe has chosen a difficult, complex though universal subject: how does one face and react to the birth of an abnormal child? Bird, the protagonist, is a young man of 27 with antisocial tendencies who, more than once in his life, when confronted with a critical problem, has cast himself adrift on a sea of whisky like a besotted Robinson Crusoe. But he has never faced a crisis as personal or grave as the prospect of life imprisonment in the cage of his newborn infant-monster. Should he keep it? Dare he kill it?
Before he makes his final decision, Bird's entire past seems to rise up before him, revealing itself to be a nightmare of self-deceit. The relentless honesty with which Oe portrays his hero or antihero makes Bird one of the most unforgettable characters in recent fiction.
©1964 Kenzaburo Oe (P)2011 Audible, Inc.
"Oe's themes of abnormality, sexuality, and marginality are outside the tradition of Japanese equipose.... His work has a gritty, grotesque quality, which makes him seem more akin to Mailer, Grass, or Roth than to many Japanese novelists." (The New Yorker)
(Slight spoiler below)
Everything the reviews on the product page say is true, so I won't repeat that the novel has more of an American "feel" than a Japanese one, etc. The key, to me, is in the quote from the New York Times calling this "a close to perfect novel". Why not perfect? Well, most of the book is indeed very good (though it was probably more shocking when first written than it is today). It is the story of a selfish, immature man who can't face the birth of his deformed son and just wants the baby to die. The character is well drawn, and his fear, anxiety and escapism are heart-wrenchingly realistic. But then comes the final chapter which to me felt tacked on. The ending is so optimistic, such a "happy ending" that I found it unbelievable, basically "and then he grew up and did the right thing and everything was Very Good." I felt cheated. That said, cut off this last chapter and I would have given the story five stars. As it is, I don't think I'd recommend it -- it's certainly not bad, but it should have been better.
The narrator, Eric Michael Summerer, does an excellent job.
"big themes treated with a sure touch"
Set in '60s Japan, I found this story of a young father coming to terms with the birth of a disabled child totally involving and believable. I have no way of judging if the translation did the original justice, but it certainly sounded quite natural to me, the jarring bits more due to different attitudes five decades ago, and the brutally honest inner monologue at times. I enjoyed the narrator's delivery, too. Female voices will always be tricky for a male reader, and this one doesn't try to make them too squeaky or breathy, which is a relief.
The book contains some quite explicit passages, but they never feel gratuitous. Rather, like the scenes of heavy drinking and consequent vomiting, they make sense as Bird's escape attempts from reality.
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