This is a short novel translated to English from Japanese, so this review is of the original story, as much as it’s still present, and the translation. I think stories like this are difficult to translate because they are a mixture of stream-of-consciousness and standard narrative, with subtle variations in the narrator’s mood. In this case the story is told in the first person by the central character, examining his life and what brought him to his current situation. An interesting style which the translator did a good job of capturing (as far as I can tell).
I only found a half-dozen grammatical errors, mostly missing words. It was easy to read, but a little on the stilted side, which was probably intentional. The translator knew the author well and spent a great deal of time studying the locations described and talking with Yu Miri, so they probably got it right.
The central story is sprinkled with rather long and confusing segments of historical background. I had to go to Wikipedia to get some of this straight. I’m sure it’s technically accurate, but was oversimplified either by the author or translator; after all, this isn’t a historical novel. These soliloquies are thinly disguised as the words of characters sometimes but also are introduced by the narrator.
Otherwise, the writing style is terse, like the simple thoughts of the narrator. Very short paragraphs indicating someone who doesn’t have deep thoughts. Very evocative of their state of mind. However, a major decision that created the situation described in the book is utterly without explanation. Not a single word of justification. Nothing. If this behavior is common for people like the narrator, that could have been at least referred to. It’s like the author took a break at that critical juncture and, when they continued writing, forgot about the reason. There is an explanation of why some men do as the narrator, but no evidence at all that he would have made this decision. It left me confused.
This is a short review because this is a short book, even with all of the historical material, not much more than a short story. I would have preferred it without the extra material myself because it detracts from the real story. I would recommend it if you like to read about human experiences that are all too common, and very unpleasant, and learn a little Japanese history in the process.
I stumbled into this book. I don’t usually read science fiction because that was my favorite genre for more than 10 years when I was young, but what the hell. It was available, so here’s what I think about it.
First, the overview. This is an old story in the SF genre; a cop (FBI in this case) gets a robot partner to evaluate, then all hell breaks loose and they save the city/nation/world from a scheme devised by either anarchists or the wealthy elite. I’m not saying. The central character is the robot but they’re not cute or anything. The character develops realistically, using its deep-learning capability to grasp insight from the behavior of the real central character, Agent Lara Keegan. A human story is introduced through her life, which is falling apart even as Washington DC is assaulted. This is an interesting part of the story because the robot (TAMS) becomes a part of her private life, even though it’s only a robot, Well done.
The second thread of the book is the thriller plot. It’s run of the mill. Not even that big a deal and unlikely to work, even if hugely successful. Pretty much every SF gadgetry you’ve heard about is integrated into the story, which is set in the not-too-distant future. Several unrealistic scenes are set up to take the story forward, which makes Keegan look either stupid or naive, to be an decorated ex-Marine and FBI agent. These kind of inconsistencies are why I don’t read SF anymore, and also avoid international conspiracy novels. I’m not referring to the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy SF, but rather the integration of personal stories (like Keegan’s) into a SF theme.
The authors’ use a lot of footnotes, with a long list of references at the end. This is confusing because, rather than explain the footnoted text, there are references to books, magazine articles, on-line blogs and new stories, reports, etc, all with internet addresses. This might be okay if I’d read the book digitally and could click on the links, but I read a hardback copy. It doesn’t make sense. Instead, I Iooked up some of the high-tech references on a computer. This was annoying.
The handprint of two authors is visible in the two threads. I’m guessing that one author wrote the personal story and the other focused on the action. They are written in different styles, both wordy and ponderous. This is a typical style for first-drafts that I’m familiar with.
This draft was not ready for publication. It is wordy (to say the least), has too many examples of bad grammar to count, and is full of cut-and-paste errors. Sentences that change meaning in the middle are more than annoying. I don’t like to read paragraphs over and over, not in a novel, to guess at their meaning. The authors were either in a hurry or are simply sloppy–I don’t care which.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book because, despite Keegan’s personal problems, it’s not that good a story. If it had been cleaned up, I would recommend it. It’s close enough to the thumbs-down line that the bad punctuation and clumsy writing killed it for me.
I didn’t know this was a play when I bought it. It’s the original version, with stage notes throughout and even a list of characters and the actors who played them at the beginning. It also turned out that two-thirds of the book consists of analyses of the original play by a number of literary critics, including the playwright himself. I’m writing my review before reading any of that so that I can compare my comments to theirs. Should be fun.
The play was written in 1949. The vocabulary is awkward even for that era. I’m not sure why Miller wrote it this way, but I guess he wanted to convey the image of the Loman family without a narrator. He had to use dialogue. Thus, my review will focus on the dialogue.
A lot of the dialogue is clumsy, I guess because the actors are supposed to say the words, rather than a reader using them to get the gist of the conversation. This is pretty realistic, with sentence fragments and misspeaking throughout. I got a good sense of these people, what motivates them, etcetera. The Loman family is not well educated and it comes across clearly. I didn’t like any of them, but I guess that was Miller’s purpose. The play reveals the inner workings of a dysfunctional American family and its patriarchal basis. As the title suggests, Willy Loman is going to die. The story is a series of flashbacks of his life, his two boys (both of whom are having trouble getting ahead or being honest) who are in their thirties. The flashbacks are all completed on a set that doesn’t change, so it was a little confusing when movements on the stage were described.
There isn’t a whole lot to say since the story consists of dialogue only. The characters are simple people without depth, no growth being revealed in the flashbacks. A bunch of one-dimensional people who ended the same as they began, except for Willy’s oldest son, Bif, who realizes what he is and insists on being honest at the end of the story. I guess one could argue that the story is really about him, if one assumed it had a plot, which it doesn’t. This is a character study.
The best aspect of this story is how Willy is showing signs of dementia and begins thinking about suicide. Very well done. The flashbacks slide in whenever he’s having a fugue episode. When the story ended, I had a pretty good idea of what made this family tick. I guess that was Miller’s objective, so he succeeded.
I don’t recommend it as a reading exercise but I’ll bet the play was good because there are a lot of emotional scenes, which always look good on stage.
I watched the 1951 film production. Fredric March deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The movie followed the play to the word except for several missing scenes, those where his sons were too young to use the adult actors to play them. It was fine without them. One problem I had was that the movie didn’t improve on the confusion created by the frequent flashbacks. The movie was black and white and the actors’ makeup wasn’t different enough for the memory scenes to be easily identified. Willy was shown over a fifteen-year period and there was no noticeable increase in gray hair (he was 63 in real time). This may have been a problem with the time transitions, which were smooth in the play, too smooth for the production techniques of the time. It left me a little disoriented, my confusion reduced because I’d just read the play.
The film gave me a greater appreciation of the play however. The director was also nominated for an Oscar and it was well deserved. He turned a confusing play script into a coherent story, which I’m sure the original play director did as well. I would love to see this on stage. The problem was the swiftness of emotional scenes, brought on by mental illness, turning into memories. This is a very difficult transition to do under any circumstances.
So, whereas I can’t recommend reading the play, I give the 1951 film a very positive review as an accurate and excellent presentation of the original play. My only regret is that Lee J. Cobb, who played Willy Loman in the original Broadway production, didn’t play the role in the film; however, he reprised the role in a 1967 made-for-TV film production.
I’m also going to comment on the literary analyses that made up the bulk of the book. Several essays by Arthur Miller (the author) and an interview give some insight into how he perceived the story. What is most telling about these commentaries is how they reflect societal views of cognitive degeneration (e.g., Alzheimers Disease). The author’s view is evident in the play itself; Willy’s sons comment that people think he’s crazy because of his increasingly eccentric behavior. In one commentary, Miller refers to Willy Loman as being the kind of person who would speak to himself on the subway. Maybe, but that’s not what he did in the play or the movie.
Here’s a quote from a 1957 commentary by Miller: “He [Loman] is literally at that terrible moment when the voice of the past is no longer distant but quite as loud as the voice of the present.”
Wow! The author didn’t even realize that he had to create a terminally ill man to create the kind of emotional violence he desired, so that he didn’t have to have a plot but only reveal the elements of Loman’s destruction. He refers to Loman as “Mad” at one point. That is how these people were treated when the play was written. In his essays and interview (included in the copy I have), he makes vague references to integrated or disintegrating personality, popular terms from psychology in that era.
Other reviewers seem unaware of Willy’s cognitive decline. His bizarre behavior is referred to as “fatigue” of his mind by one, written in 1950. Another reviewer refers to Willy “losing his mind.” I have no idea what one reviewer means when she says that “…most of us have experienced delusions wilder…than this.” Is she kidding? He’s in the front yard yelling, planting seeds at midnight…I’ve never had a delusion like that, or met anyone who did.
There’s even a review by a psychoanalyst who wrote popular books. This guy’s gotta nail it. He refers to “insanity” and a “disintegrating mind.” Getting close. He refers to Willy’s hallucinations in psychological jargon, even referring to the “Oedipus complex.” He drops the biggie (for the era): Willy is “Mad.” He never gets past “Exhausted” in recognizing what’s wrong with Willy Loman. Not even a practicing mental health professional recognized cognitive deterioration in 1950. One analysis, from 1958, actually refers to the “advance of modern psychology” and then talks about Freudian concepts which the author (Arthur Miller) explicitly denies in his essays. Go figure.
A critical essay written in 1962 by Joseph A. Hynes refers to Willy’s “Dementia.” Finally, someone at least acknowledges a neurological illness, rather than just “madness.” But even here, it is treated as being nothing more than a point of view, which Willy can change at will.
Some excerpts of stories about salesmen were appended as part of the literary context of Death of a Salesman. One was from 1915, a lot of anecdotal comments suggesting that a salesman has to be more committed to his work than himself. The author felt that too many salesmen were blow hards and mediocre at selling things.
There was a short story written in 1941 about a salesman who gets lost on a country road in Mississippi and is helped by a couple subsisting in the woods. He’s been sick with the flu for a month and is still tired. The author spends a lot of time discussing his heartbeat, using metaphors. He feels strange and decides to leave in the middle of the night, despite being given dinner and a place to sleep. It turns out that he has a heart attack and probably dies in the dark. Nice lead-up to the tragedy.
There’s a one-act play about a 78-year old traveling shoe salesman (same as in the previous story) who has heart problems (another curious similarity). It was written in 1945 by Tennessee Williams. He’s complaining about changing times but doesn’t die in the play.
The last, analogous story (published in 1941), is the best because it focuses on a man in his thirties who had reached the pinnacle of his life in college, as an athlete. Willy Loman’s son, Bif, had been a football star in high school.
These stories/plays are all older than Death of a Salesman. It is very likely that Arthur Miller had read them because they were by popular writers. The common theme between them and DOAS is the past that led to the present, which in every case was not where the protagonist had expected to be. Overall, they are a bleak collection of rusty lives with very little to show for them.
The play script is confusing because of the flashbacks, which are presented in continuous dialogue, and movements on a stage set that isn’t available to help. To be newer than the examples, I find the language of Salesman clumsy and incomplete, not even up to the standards of the 1915 story. Maybe Miller was trying to show how illiterate and ignorant the Loman’s are. Maybe. The reviews varied from adoring to bored. Remembering that the reviews are based on viewing the play performed by actors, the range of responses makes perfect sense. The positive critiques focused on the innovative stream-of-consciousness approach used, which was easier to see in the movie. The negative reviewers acknowledged this clever technique, but pointed out all the inconsistencies and irregularities in the play.
I guess I’m on the fence.
I wrote my review of “El obsceno pájaro de la noche” before reading several essays by the author (added as appendices), written year later. I nailed it. José Donoso had a reaction to morphine given to him for pain after surgery for a serious stomach ulcer, and became schizophrenic. The book had been imagined based on several experiences of the author, but it was written when he was literally “out of his mind.”
I added this post because it’s rare to find someone suffering mental health issues capable of writing anything. I respect his decision to leave it in its original form when published.
I am speechless…