I find it intriguing that my first real entry is to be about a character who also finds himself at the tragic end of one journey and at the intimidating beginning of another—a journey in strange new lands that promises, if he can survive and keep his wits—to be the greatest journey of his life.
I am speaking of John Blackthorne, the English pilot of the doomed Dutch ship, Erasmus, in the 1975 novel Shogun by James Clavell. Blackthorne’s ship– and what’s left of his world-crossing crew– find themselves shipwrecked in Japan circa 1600. Blackthorne is weak with the scurvy and general malnutrition. He is disoriented by the completely foreign culture he finds himself in. And to top it off, the Catholic Portuguese—the bitter enemy of both the Protestant Dutch and the English—are already established on the island, personified by the Portuguese Priest, Father Sebastio.
I’m about 150 pages into the book and still interested—which these days is a rarity with me. I find myself growing more and more impatient with long fiction. There is so much out in the real world I want to experience ere the end that it must be something exceedingly worthy to pull me out of the stream of opportunities coursing through time and set me upon the quiet bank for hours on end with a book in my lap. Don’t get me wrong—when it works, when it’s a book I can really sink fang and claw into– it is a rapturous, transportive, and enlightening experience. But yo, that’s rare.
I’m the guy who skipped the entire middle third of Girl With A Dragon Tattoo and felt like the only thing I missed was whether the main dude served his prison sentence or not during the course of the novel (he did).
There’s lots of action in Shogun to keep me interested and turning the page. It is a book largely about the culture of the samurai after all. But there is also a tremendous amount of education going on here—as we, the reader, learn with Blackthorne about the world around us. Clavell does a pretty good job relaying a ton of information—though sometimes, this leads to stilted, unrealistic swaths of explanatory dialogue.
Clavell is good about showing the relationships between the males in the book, and about explaining the complex political calculations continuously going on inside their heads, and how that conniving leads even in the most honor-obsessed man to actions hypocritical to his inner convictions and contrary, in the short term only he hopes, to his own desires.
Clavell—so far, at least– does less well with the female characters, with their relationships either with each other or with the males. I feel his dealings with sexual attraction and the sex act, itself, leaves something to be, uhm, desired.
Writing badly about sexual relationships is a common failing for male writers. Male novelists writing about sex often come off sounding like fawning teenagers, a little too focused on specific parts of the human anatomy and a little too in awe of the mythic female, which they simultaneously objectify and worship as a goddess.
I, myself, am horrible at writing about sex and try to work around the sex stuff whenever I can… just have the characters turn off the bedroom light and skip to the next scene, ya know.
So far in Clavell, I’ve had to suffer through a passage about women giggling over (and, oh my, greatly desiring) a man’s large penis as they bath him, and another passage about a man bedding both a courtesan AND a young boy. Meh.
Hmm… my first entry, and sex is already the main topic. I’ll try elevate to other topics in the future. My next entry, I want to focus on the philosophy and edifying aspects of Shogun, which are impressive.
I’m still not exactly sure why I’m writing this blog or what I want it to be. It has something to do with the fact that I’m embarking upon what is expected to be the last intensively educational leg of my own life’s voyage. I have a three year list of great works to read. Yep. And I want study these works deeper, harder, and more passionately than I’ve ever studied before. Wow, I guess I just described myself rough-sexing my way through the world’s great thinkers. I’m not normally this bad. Really.
Like Blackthorne, one journey for me is ending—a difficult journey, though it had its pleasures. And also like Blackthorne, I find myself at the beginning of a new journey—both more daunting and more promising than any journey that I’ve taken before. But both of us take up the challenge with a renewing vigor, each of us accepting the responsibility of being the Pilot of our own voyage.