Monday, May 29, 2017

King Rat by James Clavell

Title: King Rat
Author: James Clavell
Publisher: Nelson Doubleday, Inc. (1962) 

I was delighted when Michael sent an email my way asking if I'd be interested in a reprise of the joint post series for a book that harkens back to a past pick of ours. I think he picked an evocative novel to revisit as we remember the sacrifices of American soldiers who have died in service to their country.

For those that are new to what was once a monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of King Rat 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

King Rat is set in 1945 in the WWII Japanese POW camp of Changi.The King is the operator around whom this novel revolves. He is variously seen as a thief, liar, oppressor, caretaker, and friend. Despite being in a POW camp I don't think anyone ever sees him as a victim, he certainly doesn't. Nor would he think of himself as any of the adjectives I used above.

Peter Marlowe meets the King by chance and they strike up an unlikely friendship. Unlikely not just as regards personality or class, but unlikely in that Marlowe might be the only person to know the King and still think he can have friends. The King is clearly portrayed as having come from a lower class background (though he is American, not British so his views on this would be different than Marlowe's) and his entire world is centered on camp business opportunities. Marlowe is descended from several generations of highly regarded British soldiers.

"Well, I couldn't go into business. Marlowes aren't tradesmen..."

While the King absolutely does not understand non-transactional interactions, Marlowe is bound to a personal honor code that he brings to any friendship. It is against this relationship that we see the last months of the Changi POW camp before liberation.

I wouldn't say I'm an extensive reader of WWII POW camp books but what strikes me every time I encounter one is the absurd normal that evolves for the prisoners. Much of it is easy to see as microcosms of a prisoner's home culture: Factions and alliances form, secret economies are maintained, debts and favors are scrupulously guarded. As a reader, it's easy to fall into these familiar rhythms and, despite it being the daily norm for the prisoners, be genuinely shocked when they don't have food or clothes or medicine. It's the familiar routines of life overlaid on a horrific existence that can take chapters to assimilate. (However, on the one hand, I don't want to assimilate it. I don't want to forget the horror of war simply because people are resilient enough to survive it.)

James Clavell himself was from a British military family and was imprisoned in Changi. This story and its characters are supposed to be fiction but it's hard not try overlay Clavell onto Marlowe and he was inspired by an actual American prisoner for the King's character. Regardless of how autobiographical the novel is, it's undeniable that his experience in the prison camp brings this book to life in a way that is at once searing and disturbing. Even in its touching or lighter moments one can't escape the underlying tension and fear carried by everyone in the camp. It's a gift to readers that those who had these experiences are able (and willing!) to so eloquently share them.

**Note: the rest of this review is spoiler-ish

The King and his entourage (for lack of a better word) - and his enemies - play several cat and mouse games in attempts to maintain power, either through control of resources or control of behavior. This includes the guards (the officer-prisoners) setting up various spying plans to the King's rat breeding program (yeah, that's real!). But what has lingered in my mind far past reading the last page is how in the midst of, again, this horrific experience some people were able to be themselves for the first time.

The King was a fairly obvious one to me. It was pretty clear that he was not going to be happy when the prison camp was liberated. I know how bizarre that sounds but it was certainly where his character was going. Clavell brilliantly reveals this in the juxtaposition of Marlowe and the King's response to the American soldiers who come to extract the prisoners.

The sea welcomed her and made her sleep easy, and then, in the course of time, devoured the clothes and body and the time of her.

It's not heavily explored but often hinted at that several of the prisoners find intimacy with each other who may not necessarily be gay. Also, though, I speculate that many soldiers who were gay but unable to be open about it could explore it here. I'll make no comment on whether that was a positive or a negative considering the prison camp backdrop but Clavell makes a very compelling case that one of the soldiers was transgender and might never have been able to fully accept that outside of the prison camp. This is not exactly a happy book with happy endings but I found it especially heartbreaking that Betty didn't survive liberation.

And that is something that will be on my mind today. So many do not survive. Let's honor them by getting it right next time.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


I was recently reading a book that was somewhere in the vicinity of 500 pages. It was holding my attention well at first but eventually those few things that weren’t connecting with me as a reader (mostly craft but a little bit characterization as well) kept pushing me further and further from the story until I got to around page 400 and abandoned the whole endeavor (possibly temporarily, possibly forever, who knows). However, I remain fascinated by the book being a perfect example of what I don’t like about my own writing.
My own writing, I must say, is a meager and not oft seen thing. I enjoy writing and have outlined dozens (hundreds?) of stories but I seem way too easily distracted by “research.” Reading is my favorite brand of research but I can be distracted for weeks on random scientific or historical topics in the internet rabbit hole. Despite that, I have a distinct aspect of craft that never changes no matter what writing challenges I might otherwise explore. I like using the fewest words possible and I like writing built as much around what is not said as what is.
So, back to this book I was reading. Scenes were constructed and dialogue used in eerily similar ways to my own writing. But to my own writing that I discarded or re-wrote because I wasn’t quite hitting the right balance. The exact right balance is a thing nebulously defined in my own head and constantly refined as I write (seriously, I’ll go back and revise something I wrote 10 years ago just because I think I’ve finally found the exact right turn of phrase). But, whatever it is, this book was not hitting it. I was constantly editing it in my mind and rearranging scenes or dialogue to tell the story better. It was like I was revising a first draft and who wants that in a reading experience? I might have got over it but I was also finding the main relationship between two brothers increasingly tedious (turns out there is a finite number of fist fights I can tolerate between two people before I’m over it) so it was time to set the book aside. But, but, but! I’m glad to have come by it as I thought long and hard as to why someone who employs my own darling craft preference could be so majorly striking out with me. And now I have words! Words!
There was no emotional resonance.
The thing about saying less and using what is not said as a way to communicate with your reader is that, if done incorrectly, connections can feel abrupt and flat.  An emotional connection with the characters or situation becomes a lot more difficult. Obscure dialogue or interactions can result in an inquisitive reader avidly turning pages or to a confused, disinterested reader not much bothered at giving up 4/5s of the way through the book.
What I want is the balance of less leading to that tug in my chest that means I can’t imagine not staying with a story on its emotional path.

Friday, March 10, 2017

When will we get off this merry-go-round?

One hopes that with each successive year we move to new and more interesting places but, alas, we are still having the same conversations our foremothers had 100 years ago. Will today's vigorous conversations mean that in another 100 years this will finally be history?

Friday, January 13, 2017


Andrew rattles off information about the music playing in the pizza to his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Sebastian, of course, plays for Mia and teaches her to appreciate jazz. Music, then, effectively serves as both an emotional conduit and a subtle affirmation of power: where Fletcher uses his status as Andrew’s teacher as a cudgel to assert his dominance, Guy and Sebastian — and, indeed, Andrew — maintain their status as the more worldly, dominant partner in a subtler way, through the assertion of their artistic skill and cultural knowledge. With the exception of Mia, the women on the receiving end of this treatment are directionless and therefore ideal counterparts: Madeline’s field in graduate school is never specified, Nicole doesn’t even know her major, and all we know about Elena is that she is so incompetent that she has to have a man show her how to boil water. (That is the stuff of fantasy.)

Full article here. Warning: spoilers for all the films in the article.