Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bridge Of Sighs - Richard Russo - Portrait of an (ordinary?) life

What constitutes an ordinary life and what a special one, how does one make the distinction? Lets say we pick out a random person among the teeming populace that we get to see every day and get to know his story, would we like it?  I have always felt this while travelling or even when I am just looking out of my window, especially at elder people. I feel that each one of them would have story unique to them to tell. Yes, most of our lives would not even find a footnote in history, but each one of us would have lived a life that is important to someone else, all of us would have had our share of joys and sorrows that may have been relevant to some people, maybe it still is. Ok, so a broad idea of the details of any life would be interesting, but would we be willing to know the finer, minute details of a normal everyday life. That's what Richard Russo has tried in 'Bridge Of Sighs' where he tells about 'Louis Charles Lych' (call Lucy because of the initial of his middle name), covering majorly the period between the ages 10 to 18 of Lou's life. This is also the story of his parents, Sarah his wife, Bobby his friend, about the 3 families struggling to survive in a small town. As usual, Russo who is the master in depicting small-town life gives us a peek into the working of one such such town.
As the novel begins Lou (or Lucy) aged sixty has been married for 40 years to Sarah and has led a seemingly harmless, well satisified life with no unsatisifed desires. His friend Bobby had left their town about 40 years ago and has never returned. Lou and Sarah are planning to make a trip to Venice and also meet Bobby who is now a famous painter and residing in Venice. Lou, at this stage of life has also taken up the task of writing a memoir. As the novel unfolds the narrative is in various strands, one is the memoir that Lou is writing which gives us details on his childhood, friendship with Bobby and Sarah, his relationship with his parents, his father whom he literally worships and his mother whom he likes but a bit intimimidated by her. Big Lou, Lucy
father is an interesting character, his unwavering belief and devotion to his son, his (almost) adamant view that there is nothing wrong with Lucy (who suffers from spells during which he is mentally absent) are things that are portrayed without any cloying. The other strand is the present. The third strand(s) are about  things from Sarah's and Bobby's view point which is narrated by the author(?). From this tangled web of narratives a more complex picture emerges about each character. Lou, who comes across as a doofus may actually be hiding something, he may have been an emotionally needy person, who willfully supresses any information that he feels may harm the view he has formed of the world in general. In several ways Lou seems to be the splitting image of his father, not just in appearance, but in his behaviour too. Sarah and Lou's mother, both of whom come across initially as the most stable among the lot actually have their own inner conflicts. Infact Lou and Sarah could be seen as doppelgangers of Lou's parents as far as their characters are concerned. The great man Marquez said in 'Living To Tell The Tale', 'Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers in order to recount it'. So it is with the memoir written by Lou which is the main part of the novel. When compared to the other narrative strands, it shows some subtle discrepancies that may be more than just the normal clouding of memory that happens when we look at things that happened long ago. It could be an almost consious attempt by the outwardly happy, fully satisfied Lou to subvert and change what actually happened. Russo does this subtly so that the reader could actually miss the differences if he is paying enough attention. In any case the format of the memoir is a very good trope to use the concept of unreliable narrator and confusing the reader. The story starting from Lou stretches across multiple characters. It's like the characters are like molecules roaming around, colliding at some point, feeling the consequences, moving away, colliding again with other molecules, resulting in the energy that drives their entire lives. Consequently what each person thinks about the other depends on wholly his interaction with the other person and based on that he forms his opinions.  The novel is also about the 3 families trying to survive, in the face of the onslaught of modern business taking over the small town shops(Lucy) , surviving the split ups (Sarah's mother has left her father, who has been writing a 1000 page plus novel which he feels will be a masterpiece and bring his wife back to him), surviving physical abuse (Bobby's father abuses his mother, who tries running away several times and is caught always). Bobby's relationship with his father is the counterpoint of Lucy's with his father. Bobby's father comes across as a total prick initally, but later even Bobby seems to thaw a bit towards him. However, deep rooted anger and resentment from childhood cannot be fully erased isn't it. The pent up feeling get a release at a point and results in the events that lead to Bobby leaving their town for good.

The novel does not speak to us of anything new, but reiterates the fact that ultimately, at some level all of us are alone. All of us have a place deep down within us, an island which no one else knows about and which no one can access. It is quite possible that even the concerned person does not know about it and even if so, he unconsiously tries to suppress it's existence. Lucy has some fears of his own, Sarah the most stable of them has some things which she has kept to herself (which Lucy has an inkling of, but Sarah is not aware of this). Even Bobby who seems to have made it, in terms of both money and fame has some thing gnawing at him deep down.
The book does have some issues which may come in the way of reading it. For one it's length, at around 700 pages it could have been about 100 pages shorter. And much like any ordinary life it is trying to potray, the book is exciting at times, boring at other, at some point you feel an ennui slogging through it, you want to even give up the book at times, but as in life if one manages to stumble through to the end, I suspect you would feel a sense of fulfillment. I did not particularly enjoy reading the book (like I did Russo's other works), at times I just wished it would end. Ultimately it made me introspect a bit, which I think is not a bad thing at all and not a big price to pay for your patience with this book. Having said this, if you are a new reader to Russo, I would suggest that you try his earlier works like 'Empire Falls' ( or 'Straight Man'. If you have read some of his works earlier, I would recommend this novel, just be patient with it (as we have to with life itself).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Twilight of the Superheroes - Deborah Eisenberg

'Twilight of the Superheroes' is the Eisenberg's fourth collection (of 7 stories) of short stories. This is the latest collection that has been published so far. All the four collections are available in a single volume 'The Collected Stories Of Deborah Eisenberg'. Some pointers on her style before you start reading her works. The stories do not always have things tied up neatly at the end, there is no progression from point A to B to C. In several cases there are several strands shown to the reader, different snapshots from which the reader has to be construct the bigger picture himself. Even with the disparate threads the reader soon gets to feel a certain intimacy with the characters, like seeing your neighbour or the people opposite to your house through the window. You know at a basic level those people, but if asked to give details on them it would be mostly conjecture, right? Similarly when we finish her stories we would have got to know the characters as broad strokes, but much is left to our mulling over them and to our own imagination. In that sense, it is difficult to read her works in one sitting. I had to read her full set of stories, one set at a time and in some cases one story at a time. I am always surprised by how she is equally at ease in painting imageries/nuances in her descriptions as she is in constructing dialogues. In fact, I would say that she has one the best ears for dialogue, dialogues that are not pretentious, but more close to life, more real and not affected in any way. For instance the gaps between dialogues, the way in which her characters leave their statements half finished when they are unsure of how to proceed further. How many times have we stopped halfway what we were saying because we ourselves are not sure of it. In a subtle way her stories are political too more so in her earlier collections than in this one.

The best story of the collection would be 'Some Other, Better Otto'. In typical 
Eisenberg style the story shows us vignettes from the life of Otto a gay who has been living with his partner for the last 25-30 years and so there is no cogent story that can be mentioned. Otto is part of a large family with many brothers and sisters. It is also the peripheral story of one of his sisters Sharon, who has been a victim of her own intelligence and have been leading an almost reclusive life for a long time. Ironically, Otto's brother who has been married thrice (an still counting) seems to be looked up as more or less conforming to normal societal standards than Otto who has been monogamous with his partner his whole life or Sharon whose only fault (if it could be called that) is her own overburdening intelligence. Just shows that it is dangerous to be in the periphery and not go with the flow of the majority. Never mind that you are not doing anything wrong, you would be ostracized and in some cases like Otto's family condescendingly patronized. The story also shows a glimpse of Otto's everyday life with William with the normal squabbles you would expect in a heterosexual relationship making one wonder what the fuss is about a gay relationship. Other than the gender and the attendant social problems a couple faces in such a relationship, most other things could be applied to a heterosexual couple too. This is one of her best works and I am sure will go into any collection of Eisenberg's best works.

The title story 'Twilight of the Superheroes' tells about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the impact it has on the characters in the story and on New York in general. Nathaniel ironically came to New York on the eve of the millinieum as he wanted to see what would happened because of the catastrophe forecast by the Y2K (God that period seems so long ago) and finding that nothing happened had settled into a routine life in a plush apartment (courtesy his uncle) with his friends, near the twin towers ("with the best view in the world"). All their lives have been affected by the events of that day and he is unable to fathom why such a thing should happen. Delphine, his acquaintance from Armenia gives counter point to this when she says during a conversation "... Do you know what they're saying about you over there", which provides an indication of how much a lot of Americans (mostly apolitical) were cut off from the outside world, what their country was doing in other countries, how they were being regarded by others. Most of them would have been living the American dream as it were or busy in trying to achieve it (As in the case of Nathaniel parents itself who immigrated to America in the 50's and never fully settled there though they made their life. Nathaniel himself would not have had an inkling about his country was being regarded elsewhere). The story's title is an explicit metaphor of the crumbling of the old ideas, the decline America as a superhero (considering the events that have happened in the years following 911 and are still happening it seems a bit premature to see the attack as the Twilight of the American superhero, maybe as Churchil said it could be looked at as the end of the beginning albeit in a different context).

'The Flaw In the Design' offers an oddly disturbing potrait of domestic life during the course of an evening. The story mostly moves through a dinner conversation the unnamed protagonist has with her husband and teenaged son after arriving from work. Her son seems to be suffering from a guilt complex about having more affluence,comforts than many others but is unable to give them up. Typical teenage angst you could say. A picture of normal domestic household (with it's attendant problems) is given, but the thing is the woman has returned after having a one-day stand with a stranger that day. The way she compartmentalizes that with her every day life is striking, makes one wonder why she did that, was that the first she did so. Beneath the mundane of daily life lurks something more sinister validating the title of the story.

'Window' is about  Kristina in her early twenties and her relationship with a slightly older man Eli who has a kid. There are 2 strands in the story, one is the relationship between Eli who come across as a control freak and Kristina and the one between Kristina and Eli's kid. The story ends with us thinking once again about the unfathamoble ways the human mind operates and the futility in trying to decipher it's actions.

'Like it Or Not' and 'Revenge Of the Dinosaurs' are probably the weaker stories in the collection. I was particularly bit disappointed with the later which involves Lucille who goes to her invalid grandmother and her brother Bill. There are no multiple strokes of characterization that Eisenberg generally employs. The picture we get of Bill and his wife is of a gold digger. We never see him as a three dimensional entity as in most of her works. Well, a collection with 1 excellent story, 3-4 really goods ones and probably 1 middlingly disappointing one is not a bad one is it?. Eisenberg is a writer not be missed. 

P.S: While on the subject to 9/11 literature here's a short story by Don  on it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Annie Proulx - A Journey Through Rural America

As a kid, the mental picture I had of America was completely uni-dimensional and came from the movies that I saw and the books I read. The country seemed to be one big mass of rich landscape, cities which seemed to be teeming with all the riches in the world, where people were super rich, oversexed, ambitious, built/ran huge corporations, indulged in corporate/mafia wars. And then, there were the other group who were trying to save the world from the bad Russians. The people seemed to be split into 2 groups only, the whites and the African-Americans. I didn't know much about the various immigrant and ethnic groups like Hispanics etc and the problems they faced. The problems the people in the books I read faced all seemed very distanced from the problems that one got to face in life and in that sense I probably had a distorted picture of reality. Of course, all this is in hindsight only and at that time I was oblivious to these things. Thinking about it now, there seems to have been a complete lack of sense of time, location and the people of the country in the works to which I had exposure too. There seemed to be only cities in America, not even towns leave alone villages in the rural areas. Obviously there were works being written even then that touched these areas, but I was not aware of them. Then as I started reading other authors a more clear and different picture emerged. For instance Raymond carver gave an insight into the American middle/lower middle class, Updike on the suburban/small town American life with the problems of a family. Annie Proulx on the other hand was the one who gave me an insight into the rural American life, the ranches, cowboys running them, the deserts/prairies etc. Right from the first book of her that I read, I have been hooked to her. I don't know if this is the right way to put it, but she is one of those writer who I feel a connect to as a reader. It's like you like a lot of writers, but only some do you feel such a personal connection. For instance, I like Alice Munro, but probably do not feel this. I have read only a couple of books of 'Pedro Juan Guttirez', but he is one writer who I feel extremely close to, as if he is writing for me specifically. This is not anything related to merits or demerits of a writer, but just the way the heart reacts to something. 

The first book of Proulx that I read was 'The Shipping News' and I was immensely captivated by it. I still remember clearly the part where asks his Aunt something about her past life. In such a few short paragraphs and dialogues, I got a clear picture of it. It was the moment that I went 'wow, I have to read whatever she was written', and I have so far not been disappointed by any of her works. I have since then read 2 of her other novels 'Accordion Crimes' and 'The Old Ace In the Hole'. Her characters are not your typical brash, go getting American guys. They are people who go about in life as in a daze, who are frequently dealt bad cards by life and struck down often by misfortune or by their own ineptitude. To be cruel, you could term them as losers. But they somehow manage to get up and get going again. This is not due to some explicit inner strength they have, but because they have no other option. They just have to deal the best with the cards they have been dealt with. Her works are not happy or light hearted ones. For instance the novel 'Accordion Crimes' travels through the length of America across generations as an accordion is being bought and used by several unconnected people of various ethnicity. Most of them suffer a lot, they are trampled upon by life and after all their travails there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Their life ends in darkness as it had been before too. You get an idea of the life in the rural areas from her works. 'The Old Ace In The Hole' is about Bob Dollor who goes around the Texas area, to find locations where his employer can start a hog farming industry. His job is to make the farmers sell their lands. As he travels through the area, he gets to know about the difficulties the farmers face, the challenge of running ranches and forms. They are all down on their luck stories. 'The shipping news' is about Quoyle, a big lumbering hulk of a guy who somehow gets ill treated by almost everyone he comes in contact with. His wife leaves him after selling their kids to a pedophile and dies in a car crash. Quoyle gets his daughters back and shifts to Newfoundland to start a new life. This is just the beginning of the novel and his personal redemption there is at the crux of it. His aunt 'Agnis Hamm' joins him there. She is one of my most favorite characters ever, though she is at best a peripheral one in the novel. She is the antithesis of the normal main Proulx characters. She always finds a way to get things up and running in the worst situations while keeping hidden the pains of her past life.  The bleakness and sadness in Proulx's works could be putting off for some and Proulx herself says in an interview that she consciously made an attempt to correct it with 'The Shipping News'. One could either look at it as Proulx being pessimistic or that she is being realistic about life. 

She is comfortable straddling both the novel and the short story. Her short story collections seem lighter than her novels, but that's only because in a set of say 10 stories if you get a few which are not heavy you tend to feel much better at the end of reading it. Her most famous stories are those set in Wyoming, a rural area. The landscape is desolate, challenging and the characters are grim, eccentric, stubborn, insular and set in their own ways. There is no romanticizing of the rural areas. People are so obstinate and proud that it can lead to tragic consequences like in the story where the main character who is very old sets off on a trip alone, for a wedding which results in an unexpected ending, due to his refusal to ask for help or give up the trip itself. A story that starts on a normal note ends in macabre fashion. Proulx cuts it both ways, she either layers the mundane with dark happenings and sometimes lightens a heavy situation with a bit of dark humor. I am not sure if she has given a fair representation of the Wyoming area, but there have been some complaints about the residents of Wyoming that Proulx has exaggerated things. There are also stories which are not set in Wyoming, but have the usual Proulx standard. The story "Swamp Mischief" about the Devil and how he runs hell is absolutely hilarious. When you think of the American west, you have to consider the native Americans and the pioneers who first settled there displacing them. Her stories touch on these too, the hardships faced by the pioneers who were too stubborn to give up and those who survived did so with luck only. Her stories trace a period from the initial settlements and setting of ranches, the interactions with native Americans to the modern day where ranches and farming is becoming more and more difficult. 

Almost any work of Proulx is a good place to start, but as a novel I would recommend 'The Shipping News'. If it's short story you are specifically looking for any one of her collections would be good enough.  Some 9-10 years ago she had an official website which was functional and had some of her essays, interviews etc, but looks like it has been down for the last 2-3 years. Have read that she is a very private person, so probably the attention she got online must have made here put it down.  

Friday, July 1, 2011

e - Matt Beaumont - Epistolary Novel Rebooted

The Epistolary format has been used as narrative method in many novels. Some others have parts of it written as letters. John Barth went as far as making the characters of his previous novel write letters to each other in his  novel 'Letters'. But times have changed and so the epistolary novel too had to be changed. That's what matt Beaumont has done with his novel 'e', which consists entirely of emails sent by the characters of the novel. Published in 2000, this is said to the first novel to be written entirely as emails.

The novel is set in a fictional advertising agency 'Miller Shanks London' which is the London branch of an international advertising agency.   It shows the inner workings of an office from the perspectives of various persons, the CEO, creative head, account head, the secretaries etc. It gives a glimpse into the infighting, backbiting, jealously that happens everywhere along with the brighter side like creativity, working as a team, people who still want to main ethics etc.  Every office has some persons whom we try to avoid like poison, we feel better working under/for say X instead of Y. But in case of this agency it's like 'pick your poison'. Why so? Well, you have the CEO, David,  who is dictatorial and more of a tyrant than your normal boss. He bullies, verbally humiliates his sub-ordinates. Would you like to be his secretary or to report to him? There is the creative director Simon , who is high on crack (valium and whatever drugs he can get) or having expensive lunch/dinner at the company's account most of the time. When he is sober enough, he plots to steal the ideas of his creative team and pass it of as his own. His is the classic case of your superior taking credit for all success and passing the failures to you.  Would you be willing to trust your creative hunches with such a guy? Then you have the head of client services, probably the person with least power of the trio, which everyone else except him seems to realize. You are an account manager and manage to bring a difficult client around and suddenly you find your head taking credit for it. What would you do? Basically the top level in the company consists of jerks to put it bluntly. 

The novels begins on the first day of the millennium with miller shanks employees working on that day too. This is because the agency is trying to get a contract for Coca cola which would be their biggest client till data. The employees themselves do not seem very keen on working that day, but the CEO has apparently overridden everyone. This is the main strand of the novel. Along with it there is the sub-plot of an impending advertising shoot in Mauritius for a client who owns a porn channel. (Busty silicon implanted gals are specifically to be taken there for the shoot). Problems crop up as the pitch for coca-cola seems to be going no where, but all the parties concerned trying to pass the buck to someone else. There is also the hilarious CEO of Miller shanks Helinski branch, who keeps sending unsolicited advice to David, who has to bear it. Meanwhile the shoot at Mauritius starts to  go awry. (Breast implants of some of the models explode, the representative from the porn channel who has gone along for the shoot, tries to get fresh with a television anchor who has come there for a holiday and which results in a major publicity scandal). Simon tries to steal the ideas from a couple of fresh graduates and pass them off as his idea for the cola pitch. This is bought to light by the art director, but David still wants to go ahead with the stolen idea. He is ultimately stopped from doing so. However the team manage to give a good pitch to coca cola and it seems like they would get the contract. Meanwhile Simon is caught on video having sex with a transgender and it becomes a viral hit on the internet. This and the act of the client at Mauritius results in the agency losing the contract. At the end, things get resolved and everyone gets their just desserts.

I have just skimmed the surface of this novel, but there is more to it. It has a seemingly endless sequence of funny incidents that narrating them would like telling about the whole novel. This is a very raunchy, lusty novel. (It apparently had a sub-title The Novel of Liars, Lunch and Lost Knickers, it should give an idea of the novel's content). Creative directors shagging she-males, copy writers getting it on with the secretaries in the creative director's room, when a prospective client is shown around the office and sees the duo in action!!!. There is also the peach of a sub-plot of David's mail to his London employees being somehow sent to the Helenski branch also. No one knows why this is happening, David evefires two system administrators because of this. Ultimately it turns out that David is a goof in using his system and the problem is because of his incorrect sending of the mails. In novels with the office as backdrop, you generally tend to see a digression from the main point. For e.g. 'Americana' also deals with existential issues of an employee, 'Then We came to the end' shows the effects of recession while working within the framework of the office novel. In 'e' there is no such digression, in the sense that the narrative never goes away from the office. We never get to know about the personal lives of the characters. The only aim of Matt seems to crunch out one crazy situation after another crazy situation. In that sense, I would say that this is pure office novel. The dialogues are extremely witty too. Matt seems to have had a rip roaring time writing this (he himself worked in advertising prior to this) and the result is a shameless, wickedly funny novel. It once again shows that good writing can be enjoyable too.

You may not remember the characters or even the events, a few months after reading the novel, but you sure will remember the good time you had reading it and would be tempted to re-read this (it happened to me). It would not be much of a miss if you give this book a skip for now, but I would suggest that you add this to your reading list for later. When you get round to it, you sure would enjoy this.