Books, Reviews

Through the Arc of the Rainforest

Hello! I am still on vacation, and thus I still can’t be bothered to come up with anything other than book recommendations. So, for the third week in a row, here is one of my favorite books:

Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita.

This was one of those rare books I first read via assigned reading in school, and didn’t find hateful and boring. It’s kind of sad how rarely that happens (I can think of three or four other examples, and I’m an English major, so I read literally hundreds of books in school). It’s almost like assigned reading in school is designed to make you not like books or something.

Anyway, Through the Arc of the Rainforest has the fortunate distinction of being classified as magical realism, which means that its fantasy elements don’t preclude it from being Literature, as happens far too often to fantasy novels. I’m a huge fan of magical realism, by the way, and think it is an intensely under-utilized genre, but I don’t think it’s any more Literary with a capital L than fantasy. Some people will argue that they’re the same genre, though, which I vehemently disagree with; magical realism and fantasy treat magic in very different ways. Magical realism uses it as a way of illuminating character and plot elements, and the magic is almost never acknowledged as being magic (if ever—I can’t think of any examples of that from what I’ve read), whereas in fantasy the magic is fully acknowledged, and its users are specifically recognized as being magic users.

Through the Arc of the Rainforest is a particularly good example of what I’m talking about when I say “illuminating character and plot elements.” Each major character in the story has one magical element, which reflects their personality and their role in the story. There’s the Japanese immigrant who’s literally orbited by a plastic ball, similar to how the story orbits him, through no fault of his (also the ball is the narrator); the Brazilian peasant who discovers a way to heal illnesses by tickling ears with a plastic feather; the American CEO who capitalizes on this phenomenal plastic, whose third arm stands as a literally heavy-handed symbol of his excessive need for productivity; the CEO’s trophy wife, who has a third boob, because impossible beauty standards; etc., etc. None of these things are ever considered weird; they’re simply accepted as fact, and the story just sort of moves past them even as they’re doing the majority of the thematic work. Which is not to say that they aren’t weird, because everything about this book is weird as shit.

The book is set in Brazil, and built around the aforementioned magical plastic, which occurs naturally in the earth. Because Through the Arc of the Rainforest is, at its heart, an environmental morality tale, you can probably guess how that particular plot thread progresses, but the value of the book isn’t in its morals. Oddly enough, it’s in the humor. This book is super funny, despite being dark as shit, which appeals to my weird sensibilities. Yamashita has that whole not-so-subtle situational irony thing going on, and you often find yourself laughing and then feeling like a pretentious twit for having laughed. It’s great. You should read it.

Unsubtly yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Realism can break a writer’s heart.” -Salman Rushdie

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