Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reading Thomas Pynchon - Against The Day

I initially thought of writing about 'Against The Day', but put if off for 2 reasons. One being that it requires a hell a lot of preparatory work and I didn't when I would get around to do that. The second being that I personally feel that a Pynchon novel is best experienced by the reader solely on his own experience of reading it, without any pre-defined notions on the story etc. As Pynchon himself states in the synopsis about this novel
If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.
Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

To tell something briefly about the novel, it spans a period of 25 odd years and in Pynchon's own words

moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York City, to London and Göttingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

So I thought of writing a post with some pointers on the novel which I hope will act as faciliating factors for readers still trying to get into Pynchon and are apprehensive about it. The good news on this novel is that, of all the Pynchon novels I have read, this seems the most accessible and the not so good news is that it is the lengthiest of all his novels at over 1000 pages. 

Any Pynchon work is going to dazzle you with it's narrative style, imagination, that's a given. So looking at this work from that point of view, the main USP of this novel is that it is  composed of several genres of fiction. You  get the boys adventure genre (something like say the Willard Price novels), the genre of explorers stumbling upon long lost secrets (H.G Wells), the spy genre, the western and the genre of general fiction too. So what's so big about it, one may ask, you just write multiple narrative threads in various genre and put them as one single novel right? But it's not as easy as it seems. Each genre has the capacity for invoking different emotions in us and it is indeed a tough ask to get all these emotions in a single novel and that too when each narrative genre is fragmented, when you get 50 pages of one genre and another 50 pages of another. For e.g. when you read the boys adventure genre part, you feel sub-consiously happy, you somehow seem to know that nothing bad is going to happen and that things are going to turn out well at the end. The explorer genre thrills you more, for instance the part about the slab brought from the Artic and the ancient evil that seems to be present in it are truly chilling. During these two narrative types, you are always aware of a disassociation from reality while reading them. The spy genre is semi-realistic in that, it gives an idea of the paranoia prevalent in the spy circles, but Pynchon overlaps it with his brand of quirky scenarios which make it seem almost like a parody.  The western genre and the general fiction part are more realistic and accordingly more worse things happen in these narratives. Just think about this, every 50 odd pages, the narrative tone, style changes and you get a subtle shift in your emotional mood, imagine how difficult it is to achieve this over a period of 1000 pages. The best part about it is that these shifts are not in your face. It is something that does not jump at you, but is so subtly weaved into the fabric of the novel that you get a sense of what Pynchon is doing only after the 100 pages or so. Before that you could get confused about the various shifts in tone. Do not give up, it does make sense and all the narratives are connected as much it is possible in a Pynchon novel :)

One main critisicm of Pynchon is that there is no coherent plot, characters are not well developed etc. The thing to remember while reading a pynchon novel is that it is not going to be plot or character driven. It is going to be driven by events and imagination of the author. There is not going to be any main character, rather the novel is going to encompass many characters each of whom could be seen as equally important to the overall narrative, the objective of which is give an insight, feel of the locations, time period covered in the novel and let the reader reach his own conclusion about the underlying concept of the novel. This is going to vary from reader to reader. For me, 'Against The Day' speaks about the the rise of capitalism and is at the same time the tragic story of a family (The 'Traverse' family). This could be completely different for someone else. Modernist writing does not give so much amount of leeway, even if there are multiple interpretations of a modernist text they are bound to be part of a closed loop, as the characters are more or less well defined and as a reader you would need to fill in the blanks. In the case of Pynchon, it is a case of actually constructing the character from the scratch to a flesh and bones one.This freedom given to the user is to be remembered when you read Pynchon. Actually this is not specific to Pynchon when you think of it, lets take Murakami the other modern master. What would be the unforgettable, well defined character in his novels. The talking cat or the old man in 'Kafka on the Shore', is it Noboru or Toru or Kumiko? Aren't they all like half finished paintings splattered with multiple colours. Do any of them make complete sense, inspite of that don't the readers get the thread of Murakami's concerns (lifein modern urban Japan, the lonlineness and stress). Now, one could very well dislike these sort of narratives and he is perfectly right to feel so. But I just hope that this pointer may make someone look at these narratives in a slightly different light and make them more accessible. You may still dislike them fine, but then your critisicm should be based on the failings in what the author tried to do and not in what he did not attempt at all. Expecting a Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg when you read Pynchon is not going to help the reader.

So is this novel vacuous, does it try to exist solely on the basis of it's narrative strength? Not really, there are several characters who could have become unforgettable ones, but lose out in the flow of the overall narrative. Lets take the family  of 'Frank Traverse' a anarchist/communist at the turn of the 20th century fighting a losing battle against the corporations. He is killed by 2 men hired by the corporations. In a twist of fate his daughter 'Lake' ends up marrying one of them (Deuce). Lake knows that Duece murdered her father and Duece knows that Lake knows. So why did she marry him, what made her do so? The unspoken issue of her father's death keeps hanging like a sword over both, both of them not wanting to talk about it to the other, till little by little they try to come to terms with it. This has all the trappings of a Greek tragedy, but Pynchon does not milk it to the maximum extent possible. He just gives a peek into their life, their circling each other like vary animals waiting for the other to make a slip, but that's all we get.  All other things are left completely to our interpretation. It is the same with several other characters too. As I mentioned earlier, yes, Pynchon characters are not clearly delineated, but just remember that it's not the objective of the novel in any case.

The other thing that could be off putting about Pynchon is the usage of scientific/mathematical concepts in his novel. Reading about vectors etc in his novels are the only occasions that make me feel that I could have paid as much attention to Science as I did to History :). Does it interrupt the main thread of the novels. Not much as far as I can tell (agreed that my grasp of these concepts are basic), other than that you don't get to understand how much the scientific concepts are appropriate to the novel. But for me it's not a bother, as his novels are always about the Journey for me where I reach the destination I want.

So, is this a difficult book? I would say it is a demanding book, demanding of your patience, perseverance and concentration, not to mention the strength in your wrists to keep carrying around a 1000 page book for long periods. :)  If not for it's length, I would suggest this as the best place to start Pynchon. If anything, I just hope that this post clears some misapprehensions about Pynchon and someone gets started on any work of Pynchon.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Secret History - Donna Tart

A little heads up at the beginning. 'The Secret History' Donna Tart's debut novel is not a murder mystery or thriller, as the name and blurbs about it which mention 'Dionysian rites',  etc, suggest. Yes, a murder does occur at the very beginning of the novel itself, but the murderers are known immediately and the novel is basically a coming of age novel which traces in reverse order the events that led to a murder and it's aftermath. So do not be disappointed after reading this expecting a mystery.

The novel is set in an elite college. Richard, one of the main protagonists joins the college on a scholarship.  Coming from a  middle class background, he is at unease there and tries to fit in by lying about his background. He is particularly fascinated by a group of 5 students who are studying Ancient Greek which is taught by an enigmatic professor Julian Morrow. Richard manages to get into the course and becomes friends with the group. As he gets closer to them, the aura of confidence, well-settledness that the group projected comes across as a facade. Each one of them seems to be battling a personal issue. Though Richard becomes a part of their group, he is still unsure about several things for e.g. about the way Bunny manages to manipulate the other members of the group to do his bidding (settling his bills, taking him on a holiday etc). Richard gets drawn into the vortex and becomes a participant as well as being an observer of it. Things come to a head which result in the events at the beginning of the novel. The aftermath of the murder where the group slowly disintegrates is heartrending. They try to come to terms with the murder and mostly fail. It is the end of a significant chapter of their life and each one grows into adulthood in a tortured way, living a life (sometimes forced) they had not even imaginged as college students. It is the usual tragic story of unfulfilled and broken dreams. Telling more would be basically giving out the entire story and so I will stop here.

The main thing that struck me while reading the novel is that, for a first time novelist Donna Tart has complete emotional control over the work (i.e) the characters may get emotional, they may rant and rave, they may do unreasonable things, but you never get the feeling that the author has just let go of herself while writing it. (reminded me a bit of Alice Munro in this aspect of ). The unraveling of each character as the novel progresses is done like peeling the layers of an onion, only in this case there is always something underneath. Bunny who initially comes across as a slob, a parasite living on the bigheartedness of his friends becomes a more tormented, sinister character as we get to know his family background and the events that happened earlier. This also changes our view of the group who put up with his antics. Though initially they seem to be putting up with him for the sake of friendship, we get to know that self preservation could have motivated them to do it.  She also nails cleanly the the insecurities of adolescence, confusions about one's sexuality, the urge to belong, which makes one project a different and false image of oneself to the world than the actual one. 

The only flip side I felt about the book was that it becomes a bit of a slog at times, particularly the period where the characters go on a winter break. This part is not germane to the plot. Also a minor quibble. 'Julian Morrow' the Greek professor comes across as an enigmatic character intially but nearly drops out of the novel as it progresses. It's logically correct as he is not the focus of the novel but the initial setting up of the character results in the reader feeling (from a purely emotional standpoint) that Morrow has been shortchanged by the writer. 

This is good old fashioned writing (not for Donna Tart the tricks and styles of post modernism), with a solid plot and well fleshed out characters. A word of caution however, this is not by any means an enjoyable work, rather it is disturbing and unsettling. The attempt of the author to get at the dark side lurking in each of us could be unnerving.  It is the sort of work that affects you, but makes you wary of going back and re-reading it again. If you are okay with it give it a try. Highly recommended in that case.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mrityunjay - Shivaji Samant - The Story Of Karna

If one took a poll on the popularity of the various characters of the Mahabharata, Karna would rank amongst the top. His is the legend of a tragic hero. 'Mrityunjay' written by Shivaji Samant is the re-relling of Karna's story. Written originally in Marathi, the English translation of the novel is from the Hindi version of the original. This work reputed to be among the best of contemporary Marathi literature, has an interesting narrative technique. The novel is split into 9 books, each of then narrated as a monologue by Karna and other characters like Kunti, Krishna, (each of the 3 have 2 books of monologue), Duryodhana, Vrishali (Karna's wife) and Shom (Karna's step-brother).

The monologues of Karna are the best of the lot. Though the book is a sort of paean to Karna, it never goes overboard with it and tries to show his flaws as well. For all his poweress, Karna comes across as internally turmoiled, insecure man, insecure due to his origins about his place in society and obsessed about being recognized as the best archer of all.  But sadly he was never given the oppurtunity of a level playing field to prove it. If he was denied by Drona during the archery competition at the beginning,  then the curses that are heaped on him at the later stage also play a part in ensuring that he remains a tragic hero. It is a matter of conjecture as to what would have happened, if Drona had allowed Karna to compete with Arjuna. Maybe he would have won, he may have indeed lost, but either way, he would have been a more peaceful man, contended with himself and not obsessed with being the best archer which drives almost all his actions resulting in tragic consequences. But it was to not be.  Another feeling that he tries to reconcile with vainly till the very end is his origin. Karna is shown in a subtle way as being unable to accept fully his origins. Though he loves his parents, proclaims that he is proud to a charioteer's son, some parts of his monologue subtly let it slip that maybe he is not as confident and secure about his origins as he shows. Maybe he craved that he were born elsewhere, or to put it clearly he may have desired that his parents had been the same but of a higher standing in society. It is borne out by his reactions to the relevation that he is Kunti's son. It's not any great happiness (or anger) that he feels towards Kunti. What comes through mainly is the relief that he is Kshatriya after all, that he cannot be insulted for his birth. It implies that he accepts the social order for all his posturing and that instead of trying to remove it, he is more than happy to know that he has actually jumped up in the order. Interestingly, Samant brings a twist to Karna's much lauded generosity using this turmoil. It is mentioned that his generosity is due to his craving for recognition. This does not reduce the value of his generosity, but only serves to enhance to the reader, the pain that a person must feel on being insulted repeatedly by society for no fault of his own, other than being born in a particular caste and the extreme lengths that he can go to overcome it. This obsession results in giving his body armour to Indra, therby divesting himself of his greatest protection. 

The books of Kunti and Krishna (more than one for each) are middlingly good, but rarely offer any great insight into either Karna or themselves. Kunti's monologue is the usual one we have seen/read earlier of a woman torn between Karna and her other sons. The initial parts of her monologue are her reminiscences about her childhood, her being gifted by her father Surasena to Kunti Bhoja, her marriage to Pandu, in both cases without anyone asking her preference or her feelings are the best of the lot. Krishna's monologue too is pretty much the usual one you come to expect. The monologue of Duryodhana is different in that he is shown as a scheming character who treats Karna as more of his personal employee, a weapon to counteract the Pandavas than as his friend. Yes, I agree that their relationship need not have been as close a friendship as is known generally, but a complete flip around of it results in the  relationship becoming completely one-dimensional, with no layers to it. Looks like the author decided to do a paradigm shift of popular perception, but in doing that he actually does Duryodhana an injustice. It cannot have been only personal benefit that made him ally with Karna, as it cannot have been only the goodness of his heart. (If he had been so devious, he could very well have forced Karna to fight under Bheeshma during the first 10 days of the war, instead of agreeing with his decision).  Interestingly Aswaththama seems to have a more deeper friendship with Karna than Duryodhana. But ironically, even he abuses Karna in a fit of anger as a charioter's son during a tense moment in the war. This in a way exemplifies Karna's relationship with most people. However close he gets to them, how much ever he feels respected  by them, at some point his origins are used by the same people to taunt him. That brings us to the other 2 books, that of his wife Vrishali and Shom his step-brother. It is with them that he does not feel the insecurity of being insulted at any time. But he rarely opens up his innermost feelings to even them. The two monologues are basically adulations of Karna by the two, who literally worship the ground he treads on. I had read  somewhere else that Karna did not have a happy marital life as his wife who supposedly was royalty, was contempous of his origins and was insulting to him, but here Samant gives us a different version. Maybe one of the above books could have been done away with for a monologue of Arjuna, it sure would have been interesting to get know his views on his arch rival. 

Karna's worship of the Sun-god, the unexplainable (to him, but not to the reader) connect that he feels towards the Sun god are very evocative, as is the part where the Sun god teaches him about the astras. (Yes, it is Surya devta who is mentioned as Karna's teacher in the book, because Drona is pre-occupied with teaching the Pandavas and Kshatriyas.). Some other parts too stand out, one being the killing of Sisupala where Karna's eyewitness account of it is almost psychedelic. The other being Karna's turmoil when Draupathi is being insulted after the game of dice. Torn between wanting to stop Duryodhana and held back by Draupathi's earlier insult of him during her Swayamvar he finally makes the fatal decision of joining Duryodhana. The tipping point for this is rooted in the human ego as Samant slips in a subtle variation of the events. As Draupathi asks everyone in the royal assembly for help, she sees Karna, meets his eye and then moves away without asking him anything. This spurs Karna to insult her. (Ironically it is revealed later that Draupathi did not ask for his help since she was already regretting her insult of Karna at her Swayamvar and did not feel worthy of his assistance). The part where Karna cuts off his armor to give to Indra and the subsequent description of his skinless body which is translucent is bound to shock you.   But alongside such parts, others like the description of the events of the war  get monotonous at places as do Shon's and Vrishali's monologues in their adulation of Karna. 

This is a good, but at times uneven read. Personally for me, the best take on the Mahabharata still remains Bhyrappa's Parva. If you have not read Parva and are interested in reading variations on the epic, the first option should be Parva. 

A digression from the novel. At the end of the novel, I found myself thinking about another character in parallel to Karna. If Karna can be said the victim of injustice throughout his life, then what of Eklavya. Probably he was the one who was subjected to the most cruel injustice of them all. Why is he not mentioned as reacting the way that Karna did, why for instance did he not join Duryodhana, (Parva mentions Eklavya as joining Duryodhana ) what happens to him after he gives his guru-dakshina to Drona? Why is  he not spoken  about more like Karna, why is he not so much entrenched in the general consciousness like Karna. Is there any contemporary work that shows Eklavya in a different light than the obedient, almost naive character that he is portrayed as generally. At the beginning of the book, Karna tells that he wants to tell his story because the truth has to be known, so why is the truth about Eklavya not told. Is it because that Karna was a Kshatriya after all and so had to get his share of fame, albeit posthumously while Eklavya is always in the lower echelon of the social order and hence need not betaken seriously? These thoughts do not have anything to do with this particular novel yes, but it seemed pertinent to discuss and compare both Karna and Ekalyva together.