Friday, December 28, 2012

A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley - King Lear Revisited

An ageing person decides to split his possessions among his 3 daughters. Two of them agree to it,  but one seems against it. Wait a second here. Does this sound familiar. Even those who haven't read the unabridged versions of the bard (like me) would have probably heard/read in some form the story of King Lear, the poor man who split his kingdom among his daughters and then suffered at their ungratefulness.  Jane Smiley takes the story of King Lear and provides us a revisionist version of the work from the perspective of the 2 daughters in 'A Thousand Acres'. 

In place of Lear we have 'Larry Cook'. He is not a king sure, but is a farmer who owns about 1000 acres. Two daughters Ginny, the eldest and Rose the middle one are married and live with their husbands on the farm helping their father. The third daughter Caroline is a lawyer working elsewhere. When Larry decides, seemingly on a whim to split his farm among his daughters at a family get together, Ginny and Rose agree but Caroline voices her concern at such a  move. This results in Larry cutting her off from the inheritance. What follows is a family tragedy as the lives of everyone involved, Larry, Ginny/Rose and their husbands unravels and the entire family spirals towards destruction. With the story told from the point of view of Ginny/Rose and narrated only by Ginny, Smiley brings about a paradigm shift in the way we look at the characters and their motivations. It's necessary to have read the original/abridged 'King Lear' to get the shifts she brings in, but even otherwise this could be read as an independent story. Telling anymore about what happens would be a spoiler and I will desist from it.

There is a sense of uneasiness pervading the entire novel right from the beginning, a feeling that there is being something left unsaid, a feeling that not everything is as normal/fine as it seems. It's not as if Smiley only implies that there is something huge secret hidden, yes there is that too, but what we get is a sense of claustrophobia among the characters which is ironical considering they story takes place in 1000 odd acres of huge space. For instance, early in the novel there is a scene where Ginny and her husband are having dinner, undressing and going to bed. They have a conversation during dinner, in their bed and Ginny's husband goes to sleep. It seems normal expect for the fact is that their conversation seems more like between 2 persons in an inn who have been put together by chance and are pleasant to each other, that's all. The conversations are perfunctory and there is no sign of intimacy that we expect from a couple married for more than 15 years. Here again, Smiley doesn't indicate that the couple hate each other or have problems but there is an implicit suggestion that their relationship has become one of routine more than anything else. When we come to know a bit later in the novel that Ginny has had many miscarriages, her husband deciding not to have kids after that (resulting in protected or no sex at all), Ginny still wants to have kids, then the earlier moments make sense. Similarly there is moment when another farm lady in their area sees Ginny and mentions in passing about something that Ginny's mother had said to her before she passed away. It's something that Ginny doesn't think about much and we as a reader too could miss it. But even that passing statement has an ominous ring to it. Smiley makes sure that these incidents are subtle enough to be glossed over in a quick reading (unlike in some other works where paradoxically, the novel/story cries out aloud that it being subtle, thus defeating the entire purpose of subtlety) . She perfectly sets up the atmosphere for the revelation that lies at the core of the novel. Smiley makes sure that there is no emotional manipulation of the readers based on it, but doesn't shy away from telling the bestiality that happened, succinctly in a few paragraphs sprinkled over several pages/chapters so there is a progression from when we get the initial sense of the issue, the doubt as to whether it actually happened, the impending realization that it could  have happened and the confirmation from Ginny that our worst fears have come true. 

Even after the revelation and the downward spiral of the characters, at the end of the novel we still feel that there is one more door to be opened, one more page to be turned in the lives of the characters. We feel that there is something left unsaid, maybe there are things that could be seen in a different light by us if they are told in someone else's perspective other than Ginny's (like Caroline's actions). Isn't that the whole idea of writing or any art, to show us there could be multiple perspectives to anything and that there is no ultimate single truth. This multiple perspective doesn't mean that one sits in the middle and says that every POV is correct and that we condone anything that anyone does. No, this is to take a definite steady stand on one side, while making sure that the other side is heard even though we may hate it. Like we do not know Larry's motivations and definitely do not agree with his actions, his arrogance, his need to dominate others always. But we never get to know what drives him and while it is not something that will absolve him of everything he did, it could at least make us understand why he did them. Smiley gives this leeway to all the characters in the novel, not offering a hope of redemption but one of understanding. And considering the family tragedy, an understanding could be helpful for the characters to live with, not reconcile to it.

I had some issues in the novel. The first one is purely subjective. Any opinion is always subjective, but this one is purely based what sort of writing style I tend to favor. Smiley's writing could be termed as detailed realism, with many introspective moments descriptive of the minute things. This is fine, but I always get the sense that the flow is stagnating and you want to say 'get on with it'. This is not just in this novel, but also in her 'Moo'. I have the same feeling with Updike too, I am fully invested in the story, the characters, the events but seem to get these moments where I just hope for some thing to move forward. This is my reaction to a certain narrative technique which is why I term as a completely subjective opinion. The second issue I had is with what lies at core of the novel. It's something that can be guessed at quite easily. But to be fair to Smiley, I think the reason why we could guess it is also due to the fact that we are now exposed to all sorts of things these days and even inured to it. Nothing really shocks us anymore as it probably would have done say 20-30 years ago and we tend to expect the worst imaginable possibility and not be surprised by it.  The relationship between Jess Clark and the 2 sisters was the only thing in the novel that seemed an explicit set piece, one that sticks out uncomfortably as a forced addition, in contrast to the rest of the novel which follows naturally. This again seems to have been done to get a parallel with King Lear.

None of the above issues make the novel a less engaging or inferior read. Smiley's control over her craft is total and she never lets things to run out of control, if anything she is in a bit too much control for my liking :). In fact the reason I mentioned them was that I liked the novel quite a bit. When you hate a work, you do not even mention about it, just carry on with the next reading. But in a perverse manner, when you read something that is good, very good then even small issues tend to get magnified because without them the work would have been much much greater.That's why for all the issues I have provided a justification, a la devil's advocate. It's like you can be critical and frank with only those people you love and care for, the other's you just leave them to their own devices. Purists may have problem with this retelling of King Lear, but taken as a stand alone novel this should allay your concerns. Even otherwise, isn't it great that we get to see a different perspective on a widely acclaimed work, indeed a holy cow among works. I would highly recommend this and also her  'Moo' a delightful campus novel.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Celebrating Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace - 1 - Obsessions and Compulsions

Last year I had written a post about 'Infinite Jest' which didn't do justice to the book. I had even then wanted to write a series about the novel, but as usual left it at that. Rereading Don DeLillo has made me revisit DFW again and spurred me into action. This too would mostly probably end up midway like 'The Illiad' series, but I am going to give it a try anyway. I have no major ideas, am not going to analyze the novel, just trying to share the joy and wonders of DFW's writing, in terms of what's written, it's context and how it is done.


This chapter starts with Erdedy waiting for a woman who has promised to bring him dope. We get an idea of Erdedy's neurosis at the very beginning 

There was an insect on one of the steel shelves that held his audio equipment. The insect kept going in and out of one of the holes on the girders that the shelves fit into. The insect was dark and had a shiny case. He kept looking over at it. Once or twice he started to get up to go over closer to look at it, but he was afraid that if he came closer and saw it closer he would kill it, and he was afraid to kill it. He did not use the phone to call the woman who'd promised to come because if he tied up the line and if it happened to be the time when maybe she was trying to call him he was afraid she would hear the busy signal and think him disinterested and get angry and maybe take what she'd promised him somewhere else.

The contradictory emotions about wanting to kill/not kill the insect, wanting to use the phone/afraid to use it tells us instantly that Erdedy is under great anxiety. The part about fearing that the line could tied up when he tries to call the lady and leading her getting angry shows his paranoia. Now, a thing we would all have noticed about junkies, alcoholics or anyone with any addiction/problem it is that the person tries to pass it off as someone else's. Take the help columns in papers or phone in programs (assuming that they are real issues), where in most cases people call in for the problems of people they know. Very few people call in/write saying that they have an issue. Likewise Erdedy also procures dope as if it were for his friends. This time though he can't do that as he has not paid money for the dope and hence feels that he has lost grip on the lady because if he had told her that the dope was for her friends, then he could call her up, pester her all the while under the cover of doing it for his friends thereby absolving himself of any inconvenience caused to the lady by his pestering. 

He was caught in the middle, is how he would represent it. He could say his friends had given him their money and were now anxious and exerting pressure, calling and bothering him. This tactic was not possible with this woman who'd said she'd come with it because he hadn't yet given her the $1250.
This arrangement, very casual, made him anxious, so he'd been even more casual and said sure, fine, whatever. Thinking back, he was sure he'd said whatever, which in retrospect worried him because it might have sounded as if he didn't care at all, not at all, so little that it wouldn't matter if she forgot to get it or call, and once he'd made the decision to have marijuana in his home one more time it mattered a lot. It mattered a lot. He'd been too casual with the woman, he should have made her take $1250 from him up front, claiming politeness, claiming he didn't want to inconvenience her financially over something so trivial and casual. Money created a sense of obligation, and he should have wanted the woman to feel obliged to do what she'd said, once what she'd said she'd do had set him off inside.

DFW shows a fractured mind with all these internal arguments, counter arguments, the shift in his mind from having been casual to have appeared as not caring, the 'what if I had done that' scenarios that are playing around in Erdedy's head.  One can visualize him restless in his room, hands/lips starting to tremble, legs becoming unsteady, a adrenaline rush running through his body in view of the impending pleasure which is tempered by the notion that the lady may not come and the whole plan would come to naught. Even for people who are not addicted to any particular thing, the period where they await the result of anything can be nerve-wracking, more than the actual result itself. So one can imagine the plight Erdedy is under not knowing if he would get his dope.

Next DFW describes the routine that Erdedy undergoes before he gets ready for a bout of doping. Only someone like DFW could have given such a painstaking account of the preparations done and made it readable instead of making it seem a bore.

Once he'd decided to own marijuana one more last time, he was committed to several courses of action. He had to modem in to the agency and say that there was an emergency and that he was posting an e-note on a colleague's TP asking her to cover his calls for the rest of the week because he'd be out of contact for several days due to this emergency. He had to put an audio message on his answering device saying that starting that afternoon he was going to be unreachable for several days. He had to clean his bedroom, because once he had dope he would not leave his bedroom except to go to the refrigerator and the bathroom, and even then the trips would be very quick. He had to throw out all his beer and liquor, because if he drank alcohol and smoked dope at the same time he would get dizzy and ill, and if he had alcohol in the house he could not be relied on not to drink it once he started smoking dope. He'd had to do some shopping. He'd had to lay in supplies. Now just one of the insect's antennae was protruding from the hole in the girder. It protruded, but it did not move. He had had to buy soda, Oreos, bread, sandwich meat, mayonnaise, tomatoes, M&M's, Almost Home cookies, ice cream, a Pepperidge Farm frozen chocolate cake, and four cans of canned chocolate frosting to be eaten with a large spoon. He'd had to log an order to rent film cartridges from the Inter-Lace entertainment outlet. He'd had to buy antacids for the discomfort that eating all he would eat would cause him late at night. He'd had to buy a new bong, because each time he finished what simply had to be his last bulk-quantity of marijuana he decided that that was it, he was through, he didn't even like it anymore, this was it, no more hiding, no more imposing on his colleagues and putting different messages on his answering device and moving his car away from his condominium and closing his windows and curtains and blinds and living in quick vectors between his bedroom's InterLace teleputer's films and his refrigerator and his toilet, and he would take the bong he'd used and throw it away wrapped in several plastic shopping bags. His refrigerator made its own ice in little cloudy crescent blocks and he loved it, when he had dope in his home he always drank a great deal of cold soda and ice water. His tongue almost swelled at just the thought.

Jeez, right from informing the company about the leave to setting up the answering machine, to the organization of food, throwing out of alcohol as it would ruin the experience of marijuana and getting ready, cartridges for entertainment, this is not the mind of your normal junkie. This is a mind that obsesses over the minute details, wants the experience of getting high to be just perfect with no distractions. Reading the last line we feel the same swelling in our mouth, the sensation we get when we yearn so much for something that even the memory of it can make us practically salivate. 

Now DFW brings out the pseudo remorse/decision that we feel/take when we do something that we know is bad, but are unable to stop from doing so. Erdedy rationalizes that he would hurt himself so much in this current bout of doping, that he himself would stop doping again seeing the consequences of his behavior  But then, we know that these remorse's/decisions are only fleeting and the next time too he would not be able to resist the lure of the temptation. That is the implied sadness in the below paragraph, the knowledge that all the discipline and persistence that Erdedy mentions would only fail and the vicious circle would start again for him.

He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would be henceforward modified, he'd never even want to do it again because the memory of the insane four days to come would be so firmly, terribly emblazoned in his memory. He'd cure himself by excess. 

The chapter ends with

his telephone and his intercom to the front door's buzzer both sounded at the same time, both loud and tortured and so abrupt they sounded yanked through a very small hole into the great balloon of colored silence he sat in, waiting, and he moved first toward the telephone console, then over toward his intercom module, then convulsively back toward the sounding phone, and then tried somehow to move toward both at once, finally, so that he stood splay-legged, arms wildly out as if something's been flung, splayed, entombed between the two sounds, without a thought in his head.

I wonder at the line 'entombed between two sounds', which provides an apt end to the chapter in the context of what all happened before in it. How does a writer choose to link 'entombed' and 'sounds', two words linked by 2 other words to form a line that the reader can't get past easily. Why didn't he say 'caught between two sounds'? It would have been easy to do that, but it wouldn't create the same impact and it wouldn't be DFW then. 'Caught' refers to something from which you can extricate yourself. But 'Entombed' implies a finality, a permanence,  a prison from which there is no escape. And that's what is happening to Erdedy here, not just this particular situation where he is waiting for the lady, but his life in general where he is entombed in his addiction to dope. 

What special gift does a writer need to have to create such prose or does he just keep agonizing over the right words until they fall in place. Is DFW playing to the gallery here, wanting to dazzle the reader, maybe stretching things a bit too far, yes he is. And DFW has been often accused of showing off. But so what, I see it as the exuberance of a highly intelligent kid who cannot stop his intelligence from seeping through, he is not a bully or a jerk but he can't help outshining others in his class. I always get the same sense of a purity of talent oozing out from DFW's works, unfettered by malice or a need to look down upon others. Of course, playing to a gallery can hurt if you are limited in our capacity, but when you seem to have boundless capability like DFW to back you up, you just do what you want, conventions be damned. Can every one regularly play a between the legs tennis shot, a ferocious upper cut to a 150 kph delivery, that's just the preserve of a few isn't it. Maybe it's just us lesser mortals who see it as playing to the gallery, for the individuals themselves it would be just another thing. One can't also brush off DFW as another writer who puts form over content, no way. Anyone who reads the chapter 'YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT', whether he be a teetotaler or a junkie of the highest kind is going to empathize with Erdedy and the situation he is in (even if it's own making), and that is DFW's victory, marrying the most intense, subtle, simple of emotions and actions to a spellbinding prose that at first glance seems to be overpowering. It's an unusual marriage in the sense that we have not seen much like it before (there are precedents before DFW too, but sadly they too are tagged as just show offs), but that's no reason for the marriage to fail is it?

So did Erdedy get his dope finally? You'll have to read the book to find out, which I am hoping you will do.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mao II - Don DeLillo

Images, both static and moving have been a recurrent motif with Don DeLillo. (In many of his works you have a character seeing the grainy images on TV with the volume turned down in a dark room) .In 'Mao II', he combines them with the themes of cults, crowds and creates a disturbing and unsettling work. Bill Gray, author of 2 acclaimed books has been living as a recluse for the last 20 odd years. Working on a uncompleted novel the whole time, never satisfied with his output, living in a secluded place in anonymity, a place haunted by words, Bill himself is possessed by words that occupy his entire existence but seem to elude him the more he tries to grasp them to make sense of his novel and indeed his life. One of his pet peeves about the position of novelists in society is
There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists.Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.
Living with him are Scott his assistant who was a restless wanderer until he read Bill's works and managed to track him down and Karen, a former member of a religious cult, now deprogrammed. All 3 of them are restless in their own way and have formed a curious bond that enables them to live together in anonymity. This spell is broken when Brita a photographer whose mission to photograph as much writers as possible, is allowed to take photos of Bill. During the photo session she passes on a message from Bill's old friend which sets of a train of events which results in the unraveling of their lives, including Brita.

DeLillo's works are as much about ideas as they are about the characters and their motivations, indeed in some cases the ideas are what drive the novel. Here he brings together visuals, crowds and cults which may seem disparate at first glance but  are actually linked closely together. When one talks of cult whether it is religious, terrorists, or sports based, they are all recognized by a leader. What better way to imprint the leader into the consciousnesses of the cult members other than photos or television images. Once the images are imprinted, the cult swells and becomes a crowd and there is a loss of individualism. 

DeLillo shows us searing images of huge crowds, whether it be in the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, or at Tienanmen square, the mass wedding in the prologue or the thousands of homeless at a park that Karen sees each of them has the power to shift our perspectives. An to prove the power of visuals, the crowds at the Khomeini funeral and Tienanmen square are see in the television, but they still have the power to move you and as Karen wonders

..if millions watched, if these millions matched the number on the Iranian plain, doesn't it mean we share something with the mourners, know an anguish, feel something pass between us, hear the sigh of some historic grief?"
These words published in 1992, makes even more sense now when we feel a pain shared with the mourners of school shooting thousands of miles away from where we are. 

In novels like these where ideas play a predominant role, it is easy for the novelist to go overboard and the entire book and it's characters to become a playground for his rants and pet peeves, but Delillo avoids these pitfalls. Make no mistake, you can sense his voice throughout his novel, but not in a way that puts you off the book and that's because he gives his characters enough emotional heft to be visible to us and make us feel for them as much as we feel for their (Delillo) ideas. Whether it be the restlessness of Bill, his anger at the downgrading of the importance of novelists (as he sees it), his doubts about own work, afraid where the work is leading him to are all as important as his ideas. Like when Bill feels
"He had a foreboding, the little clinging tightness in the throat that he knew so well from his work, the times he was afraid and hemmed in by doubt, knowing there was something up ahead he didn't want to face, a character, a life he thought he could not handle."
we get an idea of  the fear that a writer feels when he thinks that the book or a character is getting away from his control and  taking a life of it's own, wanting to live on it's own terms rather than that of the creator. And when Bill goes off on a dangerous attempt into a hostage situation it makes sense in view of his earlier comparison about novelists and terrorists and hence it doesn't come across as something that has been put in the book just for effect. Similarly  we empathize and understand (or try to) Scott binding himself with Bill, his obsession with organizing everything to make Bill's work as easy as possible so that he can concentrate on his writing alone. That's why when Scott stays alone in their house after Bill and Karen leave, working on meaningless organization of the house and papers is as poignant as the experiences of  Karen where there is a whole chapter devoted to the homeless community living in a New York park, a multitude of crowds living in destitute, an old lady even living under plastic covers.  

DeLillo's writing is nuanced and it's not just the imagery that he conjures that takes our breath. He can also take a mostly ignored fleeting moment and give it a concrete form, like when Bill is waiting for Brita and Scott to come, the house is completely silent and
"When they got out and walked to the porch steps he went to the door of his workroom and listened to them stamp their feet on the mat and come in downstairs, mingled voices, the ruffle of people entering a house, shaking of coats, making all the incidental noises of transition, the sigh of the full body, homeyness and deep relief, the way it seemed a danger and a lie."
All of us have experienced this moment, when we open the door and enter a silent house, the murmur of voices and the manner in which the house seems to wake up after a deep slumber. But it takes a DeLillo to point it out to us. A line or a phrase to elevate a thought and realms that we never thought was possible or even existed. Take what Britta says about New York
"Sick and dying people with nowhere to live and there are bigger and bigger towers all the time, fantastic buildings with miles of rentable space."
Now this is a standard line where one points out the inequality in society. I am not disputing the validity of the statement but it's something most people could write. Now read the same paragraph with the line that follows.

Sick and dying people with nowhere to live and there are bigger and bigger towers all the time, fantastic buildings with miles of rentable space. All the space is inside

The last line throws a googly at a us and creates a seeming paradox. Theoretically there is space everywhere, it is infinite and we occupy space, but DeLillo says that all the space is inside. Which is true when we take space to only refer to a standard human habitat suitable for living and not 'space' as a concept. From that point of view, we see that millions are homeless (i.e) without space while the space for living is all inside the homes.

The novel ends with Brita travelling to Beirut to take picture of Rashid, a revolutionary leader there, but it's like the novel is starting again. Rashid a leader of people (cult, crowds) is to be photographed (maybe after a long time just like Bill) and this photo would perpetuate and imprint his memory into the minds of his followers  (cult, crowds), even if he is no more. This novel requires your patience, to make sense of the imagery, the characters, the prose which is subtle enough to be ignored if we are distracted for even a bit. At no point does the novel opens up to us from the readability point of view, there is no concession given to us and we have to be relentless in forging ahead keeping our eyes (and ears) open for what DeLillo will tell us next. This is not your ideal first DeLillo book, that would be Americana. This book is to read when you have an idea of his works and motifs so you have an idea of what to expect. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

Slackers in fiction are a much loved lot, though the general perception they give is one of a life of laziness. The main reason is that slackers offer a vision of a lifestyle of general lazing around without doing any work but somehow managing to get by and indeed seemingly having a lot fun.(though it's obvious that in real life a slacker life would be one of difficulty rather than fun).  This (fictional) lifestyle is something that most of us can only dream of but do not have the guts to follow up on. In a way we live our lives as we want to through the slackers in fiction.  Even India, where we are supposed to treat work as worship has it's own lovable slacker AugustHowever slackers need not always be about fun alone, in some cases they are a reactionary force to the times in which we live, for instance one of the greatest slackers 'Yossarian' in 'Catch 22' is a hyper hysterical reaction to the times of World war II,a symbol of opposition to the destruction of war which is couched in the slacker mode  and that's what makes him so enduring even today. One such beloved slacker is 'Ignatius J. Reilly' in 'A Confederacy of Dunces' written by 'John Kennedy Toole'.

Ignatius is 30, unmarried (probably a virgin too),unemployed , living with his mother (Irene Reilly) and needless to say sponging of her. He is a modern day Don Quixote in that like Quixote he is tilting at imaginary enemies while his mother tries to make ends meet. If Quixote saw false nights in windmills, Ignatius has decided to wage war on the entire cultural scene of America. Wherever he sees, there is only depravity and decadence and it's up to Ignatius to set things right. However there is a major difference between Quixote and Ignatius. While the former genuinely believed in his ideas and was almost delusional, the latter is shrewd and cunning enough to know when he is in trouble and has no qualms about making another person suffer for his activities, like how at the beginning of the novel he makes poor old 'Claude' suffer for his altercation with a police man. And he is hypocritical enough to even justify it and also enjoy the same movies, actress while decrying them as being depraved. 

Irene is the typical mother proud of her son's supposedly great intellect (he is the apple of her eye), but who is realistic enough to know that intellect alone will not feed people and that he has to go out and work. Torn between admiration for her son's intellect and reality, she puts up with him until an incident happens and she has no other option but to force her son to work.  Ignatius's lazy lifestyle is shattered  and his worst nightmares come true as he now has to work. The rest of the novel is about Ignatius working in some places and the various characters that he comes in contact with disastrous consequences for both Ignatius and the characters. 

Humor in a book can be either in  the characters in it, or the crazy situations in which the characters find themselves in or in the writing itself. This is a book where there is mix of all there. The characters are weird enough like the Levy couple, with Mrs.Levy in particular who experiments her psychology studies on poor old Miss.Trixie. There is the inept policeman 'Angelo Mancuso' who though is conscientious, is bullied by his superiors because he avoids any confrontation and is always wanting to please others. He is the antithesis of Ingatius. There is also Lana lee, owner of a bar and involved in shady deals,  janitor of the bar 'Burma Jones' who seems stoned most of the time and 'Darlene' the stripper there, both of whom are being exploited by Lana.  Each one is distinct in his/her craziness. Incidents like Ignatius trying to take over the factory, him trying to sell Hot dogs propel the story along. The best part however is the humor in the writing. Even normal conversations are given a funny spin by Toole's deft touch, like the sarcastic back and forth and one-upmanship  between Lana and Jones. Though under the thumb of Lana, Jones gets his own though his repartees and even has the final laugh. You can have incredibly crazy characters or incidents in your book, but if the writing doesn't back them up all the jokes are going to fall flat. This is where the novel rises a few notch above most other novels in this genre. That's why even 'Myrna Minkoff whom we get to know only through her letters until the end becomes such an engaging character. Amidst all the fun though, Toole takes a stab at the pseudo-intellectual posturings of people through characters like Mrs.Levy's false kindness towards Miss.Trixie which is but a front for her treating Miss.Trixie as guinea pig, Myrna's radical orientations which are only a mask for the tendency of youth to be an iconoclast and finally even Ingatius himself whose rants against modern society is not a reactionary one like 'Yossarian' or completely delusional like 'Don Quixote' and is probably only the escapism of a lazy slug. That makes him even more enduring to us. 

Any mention of this novel will not be complete without mention of it's sad publishing history. Rejected by many publishers it was published in 1980, 11 years after the author's untimely demise (suicide at 31) which was no doubt precipitated by the rejection of his work from all quarters. It's surprising, even shocking that it didn't find any publishers given the fact that it is a very engaging work and better than the innumerable crap that gets published every year. And though this is a zany work it's in no way a groundbreaking having several precursors,  so one cannot assume that it was ahead of it's times and hence people failed to recognize the potential in it. I guess it's one of those inexplicably cruel and sad situations that people have to go through in their life. I just wonder what other works would Toole have produced if only his work had been published during his lifetime, if nothing else surely he would have lived longer.  Toole's life is also a reminder of how failure and rejection can haunt a person ultimately resulting in self-destruction and how art can be a dangerous thing in that it can consume the artist himself. To add insult to injury, the book was awarded the 'Pulitzer' on publication. The hilarity of the novel becomes poignant when contrasted with what happened in Toole's real life and it has always bothered me even during re-reads. Even without considering the publishing history and becoming emotional about wanting to like the book (which can happen), this remains a genuinely hilarious work.  A final mention should be made of Toole's mother 'Thelma' whose steadfast belief in her son's work and determination made it possible for the book to be published. Toole would have been another forgotten wannabe writer but for her quest to accomplish her son's dream. The best tribute one can pay to Toole (and indeed his mother too) is to give this book a try, not just for him but for all such authors who due to the vagaries of life haven't got their recognition or did get it belatedly.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sabbath's Theater- Philp Roth

"Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over",
Roth's 'Sabbath's Theater' begins with the above line. Mickey Sabbath a 64 year old washed out puppeteer,  serial adulterer,  high priest of debauchery   is having a conversation with  'Drenka' the woman with whom he has been having an affair for the past 13 years.  She wants monogamy in adultery and Sabbath obviously doesn't want to have anything to do with it and tries to dissuade her.  Soon after the conversation 'Drenka' dies of cancer (the reason for her wanting monogamy) and Sabbath whose whole life has been one big orgy with obscenity trials, multiple affairs, seductions and who has seen his brother die young, his mother becoming an near invalid due to that, who has been dismissed from the college where he was teaching due to his alleged misconduct with a student, who at age 64 doesn't think twice about bedding a 20 year old girl,  is aroused at that age by a pregnant woman, he of the unlimited libido and mental fortitude, his life now spirals out of control the rest of the book is about his tragicomic unraveling and snapshots from his past life.

As with all Roth books there is a vitality coursing through the entire novel. This energy is not a life affirming one,  it is the energy caused by anxiety of the characters which borders on the hysterical. The energy too is more mental than physical.  An offspring of the union of anxiety and energy is that many scenarios are king sized and could seem exaggerated. Like how Sabbath goes to the grave of Drenka and jacks off over it. A lover would indeed go to his beloved's grave, but jacking off and that too braving blizzards and extreme cold? And to add to this, Drenka's another lover too comes and jacks off there!!!. It's Roth's writing, a lush, voluptuous prose that is appropriate for a book dealing mainly in carnal pursuit that  makes us overlook and indeed enjoy such exaggerations.  It is in the dialogues that Roth's greatness comes to the fore.  Whether it be a discussion of the pitfalls of monogamy, Sabbath's recalling of an old obscenity trial that he had to face, the recalling of which which he subverts by knowingly replacing a female witness's name by the name of his host's daughter the writing crackles with verve, the chutzpah and the high pitched tone that fits perfectly with the libido driven character of Sabbath and indeed the theme of the book. And Roth can change the tone too if needed, as in the case of the letters written by his father-in-law to Sabbath's wife, Sabbath's brother's letter to his family which are not testosterone driving writing.

Roth has been accused of being a 'misogynist' and one can see in this novel why this tag is attached to him. To say that the female characters are not treated well would be an understatement. Sabbath's first wife is a neurotic who is  more at home on a theater stage enacting different characters than confronting her true self. His second wife is a recovering alcoholic and in therapy. Drenka for her part is sex crazed, a fine match to Sabbath in this regard and probably the only one who gets a bit of detailing from Roth.  In fact other than Sabbath there are no other characters (even male) worth speaking about and that's probably the way Roth wants it too (again a typical Roth template). Sabbath is a gargantuan sexual behemoth who towers over everyone else. Gargantuan not just in size, (at 64 he is but a withered old man) but in his mentality. Whether it be lusting after other women, (as young as 20), indulging in all sorts of sexual debasement, abusing his host's trust or generally being a prick to everyone else whatever he does is king sized in the great Roth tradition of male characters.  Yes, the whole book is indeed Sabbath's theater of indecency and and immorality and Sabbath is the lead actor, director and lord of all that he surveys from the stage.

To be fair to Roth though, he doesn't shy away from indicting Sabbath for all his indiscretions.  Yes, Sabbath abuses his host Norman who puts him up in his daughter's room by jacking off his her underclothes, even makes a pass at Norman's wife but it is never justified.  He agrees that that he is purveyor of immorality.  So while the misogynist tag may be a bit unfair, the fact is that this is a text written by a male with a predominantly male perspective and considering this with the general treatment of female characters in his other works, one does have to say that he maybe does have a deep rooted bias against women. 

As loathsome as Sabbath may be, as depraved are his actions are, when someone writes his own epitaph as Sabbath does
"Beloved Whoremonger, Seducer, Sodomist, Abuser of Women, Destroyer of Morals, Ensnarer of Youth, Uxoricide, Suicide"
it is difficult not to like at least a little bit about the unapologetically antagonistic old man who at the age of 64 is still capable of becoming indignant when monogamy is suggested and who is refreshingly honest about his predilections.  It doesn't make him a paragon of virtues, but neither does it make him a completely hateful character, which would result in the entire book collapsing. The key in books like these where the main character is a voice against conventional morality is that while there should be no disingenuous justification for his acts,  the reader should not be completely repulsed by him and Roth achieves it here. You feel that all the carousing, antagonizing others is just a sham, a play that Sabbath is enacting for him and himself alone and that at the heart of the matter, there is a young kid who never got over his brother being killed in war and his mother losing it completely after that. But then you also feel that maybe even that is put on and Sabbath could be using the events of the past to somehow make sense of his debauched lifestyle. At the end when Sabbath is left at non-man's land (a mental purgatory for him) in the pursuit of his own suicide that he had started off soon after the death of Drenka, you do not know whether to feel happy that he is alive or to kill him and put him out of his misery. 

If you are able to look past the hysterical exaggeration, the high pitched narrative that is present for most of the novel, if you can put up with the sexual deviancy, the treatment of the female characters, then this novel is for you and the glory of Roth's writing is for you to savor.  This is not applicable for just this novel but to all his works.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Two and a half men

After plowing through 8 seasons of 'Two and a half men'  on dvd, till Charlie (the real one) got kicked out, two major things remain with me. One, the series is not as funny as it seemed when viewing isolated episodes on tv with a time gap. This is probably applicable to any comedy series like say 'Friends'. After a point, the cues and gags become predictable, we know when the background laughter is going to come. Some gags don't bring out even a smile. So while the series is indeed damn funny, it isn't the laughathon one might expect after viewing a few episodes. Secondly, I had a sneaking thought that the series was homophobic even when watching episodes on tv. It seems to be valid. Granted that this is a comedy series and I not expecting a 'Brokeback mountain' but some basic sensitivity please. There is thin line between being irreverent and being insensitive and the gay jokes mostly border on the latter.  Irreverence is good in the sense that it helps one take down the holy cows and their holier than thou attitude, but insensitivity is just being callous. All through the series, there are jokes on Alan's (and in some cases Charlie) suppressed homosexuality, jokes on Alan coming out, Alan saying that he is happy that 'Jake at-least isn't gay' and what not. Even the story about 'Chlsea's' father turning out to be gay and hooking up with his old friend seems like a bad parody of 'Brokeback mountain'. 

The actors mostly salvage the series when the writing lets it down. Cryer (Alan) is probably the best of them. It's easy for the viewers to like Charlie as most of us probably want to be like him, but do not dare so :). On the other hand Alan is probably closest to a lot of us in real life, in the sense that like Alan we want to do a lot of things but are afraid to do so and to add to it are jealous of others who do exactly what they want. And Alan as a character is a wimp, leech,  whiner, sponging of others, to put in a single word loser. It's easy to lose interest in him. But Cryer ensures that this is not so, it is not that we like 'Alan' but rather like to hate him and somehow are drawn to his antics even if there is a sadistic pleasure in seeing Alan get into trouble. Angus as Jake probably had an easy time in the earlier seasons as a little kid where he just had to act his age and be suitably dumb. But in the later seasons he comes on to his own. Of course the post wouldn't be complete without 'Berta' who has the most acidic lines in the entire series. Her repartees are damn funny, but only if you are not in her firing line. Holland Taylor is suitable self-absorbed and narcissistic as the character of Evelyn harper demands. 
A quick browsing of YouTube yielded some funny scenes.

1. Alan Playing with himselfAlan getting caught jacking off because the miser couldn't bear to see the pills he had bought earlier expire.

2. Charlie Harper sucks. Charlie's expression on seeing a website devoted solely to trashing him is excellent.

3.Satan. Charlie's greeting to his mother.

5. Alan's Christmas poem(?). Check out Charlie's addendum to the poem at the end :)

I couldn't find the clip where charlie goes to a store with jake to help jake buy a gift and where jake messes up with charlie's head, referring to charlie's funeral. It's Jake's scene but Charlie's reactions are priceless and reminds us once again that the success of the series is mainly due to the actors.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Killing Frost - R.D Wingfield

It is said that the first impression is the best one, and it was the same with 'A killing Frost' the first novel I read of R.D Wingfield (but which is sadly the last in the series). The first time I met detective inspector 'Frost' in the novel was when Frost was fudging his expense accounts!!. I was hooked on to the character right then. Imagine your main cop protagonist cooking up his accounts rather than being haunted by the crimes of the world. 

Frost, a widower is juggling multiple cases at a time there seems to be sudden spike in crime in Denton. Meanwhile he is also facing attempts by his superiors who want to drive him away from Denton and so are pressurizing him to take a transfer. From a purely crime point of view, the novel isn't too great. It does not have a well constructed plot, too many things are happening which can become convoluted, some issues too easily resolved. Twice in the novel Frost breaks into a suspects house in search of evidence, finds it, gets out without anyone noticing him, gets a warrant and does the rest. 

But you know what, in spite of all that I had a ball reading this book which is one of the zaniest crime fiction I have read in recent times. The book does not thrive so much on a plot as it does on the writing and the characters. And what a writing it is too, the height of gallows humor. (It is surprising to know that Wingfield didn't want to write novels, but preferred to write radio plays) Now, gallows humor is used in a lot of crime fiction, but Wingfield seems to have been the high priest of it. (You can see the influence of Wingfield on Stuart Mcbride's writing especially in the black humor part and in the main characters, Frost/Logan). Mind you, it can have the reverse effect too, putting you off the novel as one could feel that it borders on insensitivity in dealing with crime. However, what has to be kept in mind is that the cops are not heartless brutes, but they use this kind of humor as one way of maintaining their sanity amid all the brutality they have to see everyday.

Frost himself is a refreshingly different cross between a character in a 'slacker' novel and the world weary cynical detectives of Scandinavian crime fiction. He is not addicted to his work, tries to get out of his overloaded tasks, but somehow finds himself sucked into it again and again. It's not as if he doesn't want to work at all, but just that he craves some amount of normalcy in his life, like to sleep at least 4-5 hours per day which itself is not possible as the cases pile up. However once he is gets started on his job, he generally gives his full to it. His way of dealing with his superiors who keep haranguing him is to 
"Always agree: that was his motto. You could always say you didn't understand afterwards".

Along with the above logic, he cheerfully lies to his superiors (Skinner/Mullet) without batting an eyelid, overrides their harebrained schemes to implement his own at ground level and is generally a pest to them. His superiors cannot figure him out. He is a bit like the court jester about whom the king is not sure whether the jester is agreeing with him or actually mocking him. And he does sometimes get the results too, so Skinner/Mullet are not able to do much about him. It is a very thin line that Frost walks,  just enough that he irritates them, but not too much that they take drastic measures. For e.g. in a crazy moment he abuses Skinner 
"And good morning to you too, you fat sod" (and showing him the finger to boot)
who is unnecessarily rude to him first thing in the morning and nearly does get caught. And the time when he says
"Comprende, signora"  to Skinner, who is not sure whether Frost knows the meaning of the word and hence has to let it go. But alas, there is a slip up by Frost which gives them the leverage they need over him. 

It is not just all fun in the novel though. Frost for all his outward boorishness does have a kernel of kindness, honesty and fair play. Even the fudging of accounts is his way of getting back at the system which doesn't pay anything for the policemen who put in innumerable hours of over time. He is also protective of Kate a new recruit, who is put through very unreasonable tasks by Skinner because he has a beef with Kate's father. Since it's the only book I have read in this series, I do not know much of the back story, but there are glimpses of Frost's early life, his marriage and the dreams he had then, the way in which they slowly petered out to nothing. All these give a gravitas to the novel. Whether it be the irreverent humor at one end or the more emotional moments, none of them seem forced or put on, they just flow naturally. There is a general tendency to look at humor some kind of escapism, but the fact remains that humor can also be a powerful tool to convey something of importance, without diluting the core of the matter. 

And the core and the choicest part in the novel is how the bureaucracy and the officials in it are portrayed and deservedly so.  These are people who do not want to get their hands dirty, do not want to take any decisions that may backfire later, but at the same time are the first to grab the limelight if things go right. And to top that they are abusive towards their sub-ordinates, bullying and humiliating them. But the other personnel too get their own back at them at times or at least get their satisfaction by using the choicest abuses in their mind. When Skinner first comes to Denton he is asked by the driver who has come to pick up whether he is indeed Skinner, which is a normal enough question. What happens next is

'Who the hell do you think I am? snarled Skinner.
A big, fat, pig-headed bastard, thought Jordan, but he kept the idea to himself. 'You could be someone who thought this was a taxi and just climbed in sir. It has happened before, so I always like to check who my passenger is."

The mental retort of Jordan is damn funny and so is the manner in which he replies to Skinner, which confuses Skinner as to whether his leg is being pulled. But more than that doesn't it give a snapshot of how superiors generally deal with their sub-ordinates, treating them as scum. And what can the people like Jordan do, other than to abuse silently and to find whatever ways he can to get his own back. (I was reminded of Joseph's Heller's 'Catch-22' and 'Something Happened', both of which have their own share of bureaucratic insanity).

As I said earlier, the crime in the novel is not important. A separate series could have been spun out having the life of the cops in Denton as the focal point and with Wingfield's writing it would have been great too. (kind of like the 'Police Academy' series, the difference being the novels would be set in police departments themselves). I didn't want this novel to end at all and so I did a re-read immediately and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time.  Highly recommended if you can swallow large doses of irrelevant humor and are on the look out for crime fiction of a different kind. As for me, I am already on the lookout for the other novels in this series.

Friday, October 5, 2012

1Q84 - Haruki Murakami

"Things may look different to you than they did before. I've had that experience myself. But don't let appearances fool you. There's only one reality". I suspect Murakami had a chuckle when he wrote the above lines, especially the last part not only because one of the protagonist's world (or reality) does get (seemingly) altered just after the above lines are spoken but also because it is complete the antithesis of his entire work. That's how it goes with with 1Q84,  a novel about 2 people (Aomame, Tengo) bound together by an everlasting love but who seem to be doomed to not be together, a metaphysical thriller about 2 people who get sucked into events that are beyond their control. It is also is a reflection of the obsession that fiction can create among us, an obsession that can cause fiction to enter our lives or even more dangerously when we enter the world of fiction. Interleaved among these main themes are others on the periphery like domestic abuse, dysfunctional families, cults and the loneliness suffered by people.

So is this novel a vintage Murakami, with whimsical story-lines, surreal imagery and a hint of mystery as the first paragraph suggest?. You would be wrong to think like that and start reading the book expecting a vintage Murakami, because there is a subtle but significant shift in his writing here. In his previous books, the engagement the reader has is mainly with Murakami the author and not the characters. (with maybe the exception of 'Norwegian Wood'). You are not as concerned about what is going to happen to the characters as you are about what Murakami is going to do next, where he is going to take you. The characters in the books are just a means to an end, which is the magic that Murakami works. It's not due to any shortcoming in the books, but a conscious literary device used by him, where the basic theme/canvas itself is surreal and within that framework you try to relate to the characters, but ultimately it is the canvas that interests you more .  But here the roles are reversed, here it is the Murakami magic which is just a means to an end, which is the characters themselves and their journey through the novel.   In 'The Wind up bird chronicle' how many of us would have rooted for 'Toru Okada' and 'Kumiko Okada' to get together again, most of us would have been dazzled by the imagery of the dry well, the travel through walls, Mamiya's harrowing story to think about it. But here we root for 'Aomame' and Tengo to  get together, desperately yearn that nothing bad should happen to them. The reason for this shift in our engagement is because Murakami has well fleshed out the characters, with solid back stories. You can feel the tension and pain of Aomame and Tengo, who remind us of the old myth when human beings had both female and male organs and after it was split each part is is searching for the other to become whole again (which accounts for the attraction between the sexes). Aomame and Tengo come across as a single spirit split into 2 and yearning to be together again. Not just the 2, but even other characters are more real to us here. There is the deliciously(!!) creepy 'Ushikawa' who is a minor character in the first 2 books, but comes into his own in the 3rd. We actually grow a bit fond of him. Others like Fuka-Eri, Dowager, Tomaru, Komatsu Even the very minor characters like Ayumi and Aomame's friend leave a lasting impact.  Here the we have real(!) world, real characters and metaphysics comes later as a layer over them. 

Another major change is the novel's tone. A Murakami novel is generally also a kind of game where you try to figure out his moves, there is even a kind of playfulness, a thrill, a literary gamesmanship between the reader and him. This novel has this all but in addition it is the most unsettling and disquieting of his works. There is an air of malevolence, evil and even terror hanging over the novel. There are moments that chill the reader like the first time 'the little ones' come out, the time when Aomame meets the Leader when she sees only his silhouette or the time when Tengo sees . These are not typical 'Stephen king' kind of terror moments, but a sudden interjection of an visual which throws the ongoing scene out of gear and takes us out of a comfort zone we have settled in reading the novel. Lets take the scene where Aomame meets the Leader. She goes into the hotel room for a purpose. We know it and are settled in our minds for it. But the manner in which the scene plays out jolts us. This is what Aomame sees in the dark

'On the bed was a deep black object, like a small mountain. Still more time had to go by before Aomame could tell that its irregular outline indicated the presence of a human body'.
'Eventually the outline on the bed began to show a degree of motion-"
"Aomame heard the man release a long breath. It was like a heavy sigh slowly rising from the bottom of a deep well. Next came the sound of a large inhalation. It was as wild and unsettling as a gale tearing through a forest."

The scene plays out over a couple of pages, where you can see that nothing has happened other than what (You) Aomame is seeing. You go into a room expecting to see an important person, but You (Aomame) are initially shocked at seeing a black object, then you realize that it is indeed a human, but the person's actions cause some terror in you. Until the penumbra becomes clear, you are not sure about what is happening and what you are seeing. Another terrifying moment is when Tengo suddenly sees an 'Air Chrysalis' materialize in front of him and he slowly opens it. It is full of excruciating tension, terror and yes thrill too. The thrill is more of a Hitchcock kind than of a slam bang variety. In book 3, a character is hiding in an apartment building. Other than 2 other people, no one knows that the person is there and so the person is not expecting anyone. The calling bell can be rung either from outside the building if the building itself is locked or from the apartment door. One day, the calling bell rings. It is rung from outside the apartment building (i.e) whoever is ringing has not yet come inside the building. This is the first shock, but the person in the apartment doesn't respond. There is silence for sometime. The bell rings again, but this time it is the front door bell of the apartment that is ringing. Just visualize it, doesn't it give the reader a jolt, because it means that whoever is ringing has somehow got inside the building and is right outside the door. The danger has come very close, but since we are also inside the room (along with the character), we do not know who is the person outside and how did he come into the building.
The old literary device of having alternate chapters from 2 different characters view point (in the 3rd book a third character also gets a separate chapter)  can be maddeningly frustrating when you see Murakami stretching out a tense situation to the maximum extent possible, you have the impulse to skip a few pages to see what happens, you could even curse him for leaving you stranded  and moving on to another POV, but you would not dare to put down the book. 

Even considering Murakami's prodigious gift for giving us stunning imagery, this has to be his most visually realized novel. But this I don't just mean scenes of sitting in a well, or a gateway opening, but the fact that one can see Aaomame and Tengo, the size of Tengo's head, the different sizes of Aomame's breasts,  can feel pubic hair scraping against a thigh,see the slimy greasiness of Ushikawa, feel the thunder, heavy rain and  darkness that descends on Tokyo on a day when a very important thing happens. Heck, you can even see threads being plucked out of air(!!!) and an (non-existent) 'Air Chrysalis' being created from those threads, you can see the 'Little People' weaving the threads to create it.

If I had to nitpick about the book, it would be about the concepts which give a sense of deja vu. 'Maza', 'Dohta', shifting of realities, fiction vs reality, alternate viewpoint chapters are not entirely new and have been used by other writers too. (e.g A very important act in the novel reminds one of 'Mouni' short story). Maybe it is a case of unreasonable expectations, but there is no 'wow' concept like say in 'hard boiled wonderland and the end of the world'. And the writing sometimes does get frustrating in a negative way too. There are whole chapters where basically nothing happens. Now, Murakami has always been self-indulgent in his prose and normally this shouldn't be a problem. But we are not talking about 'normal' here, but a 1300 page tome. When you are at around page 900, at a point where book 2 has ended at a cliffhanger and then when you get 2-3 chapters without the story progressing it becomes a tiny bit tedious. There's a very thin line between drawing out a suspense to it's maximum and overdoing it and sometimes he does cross the line. The beginning of book 3 specifically suffers from this, but thankfully it gets back on track pretty soon. The final chapters are sure to leave one breathless, it is a kind of physical pain that you would feel along with the mental tension as you navigate the final chapters, unable to sit still, your mind wandering everywhere, thinking of all the possibilities that could happen but still forcing yourself to read each line so that you do not miss anything. The relaxation of tension and the peace that the following paragraph gave me near the end is something that I have not experienced recently in any fiction (including the so called thrillers and other novels in crime fiction genre)

"There was just one moon. That familiar, yellow, solitary moon. The same moon that silently floated over fields of pampas grass, the moon that rose--a gleaming, round saucer--over the calm surface of lakes, that tranquilly beamed down on the rooftops of fast-asleep houses. The same moon that brought the high tide to shore, that softly shone on the fur of animals and enveloped and protected travelers at night. The moon that, as a crescent, shaved slivers from the soul--or, as a new moon, silently bathed the earth in its own loneliness. THAT moon"

I was able to breathe easily only after reading the above paragraph, even thought there was still a tiny bit of tension. (This is not a spoiler and only people who have read the novel can understand the significance of this prose).

More surprisingly there were some instances of utterly corny prose that I never would have imagined of Murakami, like the part about the description of a sexual act, penis, which I am pretty sure that Murakami didn't mean to be funny, but is downright hilarious. Generally speaking he is not comfortable writing about sex :). And there are similes like hanging on the ship's mast during a storm, which are so antiquated. But there are instances like the one below (about religion and cult) which make up for it.

"Most people are not looking for provable truths. As you said, truth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning. Which is where religion comes from."

I am not being an Murakami apologist here, but I find many responses to 1Q84 intriguing and coincidentally relative to another recent work of art. To digress a bit, as I was reading this my mind kept going back to this google plus post by Giri.

"முப்பது வருட சாதனைகளைத் தாண்டி இன்று 'நீ தானே என் பொன்வசந்தம்' மூலம் திரையிசைப் பாடல்களில் மீண்டும் ஜெயித்திருக்கிறார் இளையராஜா. இவ்வளவு சாதனைகளைக் கடந்து இந்த வயதில் புது பாணி இசையை கையகப்படுத்தியுள்ளது அவரது திறமைக்குச் சான்று. எண்பதுகளின்  ராஜா இசையை எதிர்பார்க்கும் ரசிகர்களுக்கு இந்தப் பாடல்கள் பிடிக்காமல் போகலாம்."

For those who don't read Tamil, it talks about a great musician 'Illayaraja' who has re-invented himself after all his earlier achievements, without resting on his laurels. I wouldn't say that Murakami has re-invented himself, but he has definitely gone to places where has not been to earlier, changed his narrative tone, become more intricate than ever and all of this without losing or compromising on his original strengths that made him what he is today. He has added new arsenal to his armory of story telling talent.  It does take a lot of confidence to spin out a 1300 page tome on what is basically a love story without caring a hoot for narrative conventions or past glory, having belief in oneself and the reader.  Being from Tamil Nadu myself, I can tell that there is a huge percentage who will just about accept any output from 'Illayaraja'  (not doing so would be sacrilege). But Murakami is on more shaky ground here as the reader is more fickle, he is as apt to drop you as he can embrace you. And the general reactions on '1Q84' seem to bear this out. There have been complaints that it is not like his earlier works (in a parallel the same complaints have been made about the music I have referred to above), it is lengthy etc. Doesn't that the fact this work is unlike the earlier ones is a sign that Murakami is evolving, isn't that a good thing. Now one can say that the book as a standalone is trash which is perfectly fine, but to compare this with earlier works and trashing it just means that we are reviewing the person and what we expect from him and not the work. Coming to length, one thing we can all accept is that all books of Murakami have some content that can be termed as superfluous. As I mentioned earlier, he is and always has been a bit self indulgent about his prose. We were able to accept him in that way in his previous books, so what happened here? The length I agree could be a problem. It's one thing to read a 400 page book with some superfluous content, but reading a 1000 page book can be tiring. So again the problem is not something new to this book (self-indulgence), but is only magnified by it's length. Arguably the book could be reduced by 200 odd pages, but the fact is I would have swallowed up another 300 pages if it had been there, the positives outweighing the other issues.

This is a love me or hate me kind of book with no middle ground.You can trash it but just make sure that you looking at the book as a independent one, not bound to Murakami's earlier works. As for me I recommend this book wholeheartedly, an important work Murakami's oeuvre, a work that seems to signify a shift in his writing. I have mentioned 'seems' because one can never be sure about what he will do next. I for one am eagerly awaiting his next book, to see the direction in which he is going to go. There is so much material for even another 3 book series on 1Q84 (or 1Q85) continuing with Tengo and Aaomame. 

You would want to re-consider looking at the moon from now on after reading the novel. I had a 'Murakaminesque' (it's high time we start using 'Murakaminesque' as an official term) experience during reading it when I woke in the middle of the night and with no conscious thought looked out the window for the moon and saw that it was still single and alone. Beware, the book can get that addictive.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Rings of Saturn - W.G. Sebald - Melancholic Memories

The Oxford dictionary describes the term 'melancholy' as 'deep and long-lasting sadness'. This is the theme of W.G Sebald's 'The Rings of Saturn' which is about the inexorable passage of time, human greed, the changes and destruction both cause and the burden of memories. It's futile to classify this book as it is part memoir, part history, part myths and not the least about travels. Travel here doesn't refer to the normal travelogue which is about the beauty of a place, it's general history, people, cuisine, the author's experiences during the travel etc. It's about physical travels as well as mental travels by the author into the past. The mental travels are as important  with the physical travels being just a starting point. Like a small stone thrown in pond resulting in the ripple effect of concentric circles, a single thought in the author's mind leads to ruminations on a wide variety of things. For e.g. A chance viewing of a BBC documentary about a person (Casement) executed for treason in England leads to a train of thoughts about that Casement's meeting with Conrad, the oppressive lifestyle of Conrad's parents under the Czars, Conrad's travel to Congo, the rape of Congo by Belgium and finds ends with observations on Casement's life, which in a way complete the circle of thoughts. 

During his travel through the coastal regions of England, Sebald goes to places that were once thriving, but are in ruins now. These are places that practically exist only in maps now (in some cases not even in them) and in the memories of a minority. Sample this passage about a manor in Somerleyton on a summer night when

"the incomparable glasshouses, borne on cast iron fillers and braces and seemingly weightless in their  filigree grace,  shed their gleaming radiance on the dark. Countless Argand burners backed with silver-plated reflectors, the white flames consuming the poisonous gas with a low hissing sound, cast an immense  brightness that pulsated like the current of life that runs through the earth"

This was a manor that was once so painstakingly constructed so that the natural and artificial "interacted in such a way that one had the illusion of complete harmony between the natural and the manufactured.". (Much like the palace of Indraprastha built by Mayan?). What is left of all that grandeur now? Little the little the manor has disintegrated, all the servants are gone and what is now left is the carcass of a once great animal which has long since breathed its last. 

The population in these places has dropped hugely and the people remaining are those who haven't moved on to greener pastures, either due to the bond they have with that place which they do not have the strength to break or simply because they lack the will to embrace a new reality. In Lowesoft, the author stays at Ablion described at the beginning of the 20th century as the "hotel on a promenade of a superior description"  but which is now as run down as the Lowesoft itself. The receptionist there is young woman "dressed in the style of the Thirties" and who avoids eye contact with the author. Who is she and why is she dressed in the style of 30's. It's the dressing style that intrigues us. Is she a phantom from the past, haunting a theater which was once hers, a theater whose patrons and other employees have all moved on to other things and where the stage and the auditorium is always empty except for her?

Or take the Ashbury's a once very wealthy family now down in the dumps and living in their three-storey house which is probably their only property now. Actually it's even wrong to state that they are living in the three-storey house, because most parts of the house is unused. Much like in the story 'House Taken Over' by Julio Cortazar, "they were first obliged to abandon the rooms on the upper storeys, or even whole wings and retreat to more or less usable quarters on the ground floor",  the only difference being that in this case there is no supernatural phenomena that is driving the family out of their own house. The reason being mainly the unrestrained spending of the rich while never taking into account the changes rushing upon them, the result being that one day they find themselves at a crossroads as to how to proceed further. Unable to make neither a new start nor having the wherewithal to survive in the face of heavy odds, the family is stuck in a limbo, with the daughters of Mrs.Ashbury spending their time weaving. Sebald nails when he says of them
"What work they did always had about it something aimless and meaningless and seemed not so much part of a daily routine as an expression of a deeply engrained distress. The fact is that in the case of the Ashbury's they were as much to be blamed as the changing time, but it doesn't lessen the poignancy of the situation. 

These changes, places falling into ruin are not just a factor of an irreversible process of time, in a lot of cases human greed plays a great role in this. And from say the fifteen to the early twentieth century, imperialism played a great part in it (it does today too albeit with the different name of globalization). Now, when we talk of imperialism we generally associate it with the British and maybe the French. But in the 15th and 16th centuries when England was not the superpower that it was to become later, several European countries jostled with England for world dominion. Sebald tells us of one such instance when Belgium raped Congo of it's natural resources exploiting it to the hilt. In a shocking disclosure of the limits of human cruelty, he tells us about the Belgium king Leopold's explanation for the atrocities committed by the Belgium.

"he considered the work done by the blacks as a perfectly legitimate alternative to the payment of taxes, and if the white supervisory personnel at times went too far, as he did not deny, it was due to the fact that the climate of the Congo triggered a kind of dementia in the brains of some whites, which unfortunately it was not always possible to prevent in time, a fact which was regrettable but could hardly be changed."

Why did the king feel so, did he in the heart of hearts knew that what his country was doing was criminal and tried to justify it with some explanation or did he really feel that he and his country was doing Congo a great service by civilizing them and any harmful side-effects was only an unavoidable collateral damage. The clue to this lies in the declaration by Leopold in the inaugural meeting of the association formed for exploration. He says
"The  aim, said King Leopold, was to breakthrough the darkness in which whole peoples still dwelt, and to mount a crusade in order to bring this glorious century of progress to the point of perfection"

The words 'darkness', 'crusade' are the key here as they indicate the preconception of Leopold of the people in other continents, people who according to him are pagans/heathens living in 'darkness' so need need light (i.e) rescuing by the true followers of God. And what best justification for the rescuing of doomed souls other than the word 'crusade', a word that brings to mind images of centuries of violence over a disputed birth place. Call it Crusade, Jihad or Kar-seva, the words may change, but their connotation never does and neither does the violence implied and caused by them. So one has to conclude that Leopold genuinely believed that the blacks deserved what they were getting.  I have a beef with Sebald here, the only place of dissent I have with his thoughts and ideas in this book. About the above declaration by Leopold, Sebald comments
"In the nature of things, the lofty spirit expressed in this declaration  was later lost from sight."

Yes, at a cursory glance Leopold's proclamation seems genuine and of good intentions. But as always, ideas such as civilizing the 'other' are mainly a euphemism for either self-serving improvement or for mass destruction of a race or at the very least it's culture (which in a way is the same as destroying it's people). The Spaniards would have gone with similar lofty ideals when they reached 'South America' and we all know the result of the Spanish inquisition. And even taking the comment at face value, what gives one person the right to civilize another. Granted that Congo would not have been advanced (from a purely technological point of view) at that time, but when has knowledge equaled civilization. It's like saying that a person who is not aware of the internet today is uncivilized. Yes the net makes all our lives easier, and the person who doesn't use it loses out on a lot of things but who is to say that a person unaware of it is uncivilized? Maybe he is a lot happier than millions of people whose only aim would be to get as many 'likes' as possible in the virtual world. I was surprised at Sebald's comment, but to be fair he completely strips open the lid on the atrocities committed in the name of civilizing and in his own words "in the entire history of colonialism, most of it not yet written, there is scarcely a darker chapter than the one termed The Opening of the Congo". Maybe it's just the natural mindset of a person born in the West looking at things willing to give at least a tiny leeway to Leopold, whereas someone like me from the East is unforgiving. And finally the book is not a political statement by Sebald, just his musings on a lot of things, so maybe I am overreacting here.

It would have been very easy for the book to become a maudlin, sentimental work. But while narrating all these events  from across the globe, Sebald doesn't ever even get nostalgic, there is no longing for the days gone past, painting it be some kind of utopia that was lost forever. In the case where he describes the 'Opium Wars' waged by the British on China, there is an indictment of the Chinese royal family too, their failings and attempts at self-preservation in times of great danger for their country. The 'Dowager' chinese empress is more concerned with the maintenance of the silk worms rather than about the imminent capture of her country by the British. Makes one almost wonder if the Chinese were better off under the British rather than their own royal family, but one is also aware that it is just a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. There is a resigned acceptance of the fact that the natural progress of time and human greed will cause enormous upheavals and the most one can do is remember them in the slim hope that it will not be repeated again in the near future.

Sebald's writing has a timelessness quality about it. By it I don't mean to say that it will last for ever (who can ever say that), but that when we read it there is a suspension of time and place. As his musings move from one continent to another, from one person to another there is no discernible jump in our mindset, its like time has stopped for us too and we move seamlessly from the 20th century to the 15th and from England to Russia to Congo as if it is the most natural thing in the world. It's like 'stream of consciousnesses'  in slow motion. Through all the details of desolation, he never loses sight of the individual, the micro and the macro are always entwined when he describes a place, an event or an era.  Like when he scales the cliffs of a seashore at 'Covehithe', he describes the darkening clouds, the waves crashing against the shore, the weeds and muses
"human reasoning , diseased as it is, needs to seize on some other kind that it can take to be inferior and thus deserving of annihilation" 

In the midst of such thoughts he suddenly gives us a striking visual. In the deserted shore line there is a couple
"a man stretched  full length over another body of which nothing was visible but the legs , spread and angled"

That's it, Sebald leaves the place and nothing else is told about the couple that he glimpsed upon. But it sets our mind running. What was the couple doing in such a desolate place. Well we understand what they were doing and a better query would be why were they in such a place with dusk coming upon them. I imagine Adam and Eve would have been in the same situation, all alone in the world, making love by the shores, listening to the waves crashing and the sky darkening and the creator (Sebald) seeing them and hastily averting his eyes. If this attaches a micro level view to a macro, in a reversal of it comments the following about a group of fishermen, each one alone and fishing
"They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness".
(I have so longed to be in exactly such a state, the difference being I have imagined myself sitting on a vast expanse of land with the sun beating down with just a single tree under which I am in an almost catatonic state of both body and mind.)

This book requires just one thing from the reader. You need to be in a contemplative mindset to read it. Though this is by no means a slow or drab work, it cannot be read hurriedly. It also doesn't take you by force, it is you who has to give yourself to it and let yourself be taken on as Sebald's companion on his travels. I will put it this way, if you are say in the mind to read Pynchon, but come across a Murakami work you should be able to read the Murakami with no major issue. But if you come across Alice Munro when you are in the mood to read Pynchon, you need to tune your mind slightly to it. I haven't mentioned this with respect to Sebald, as he is unique to me, I cannot fit him to anyone I have read which is my limitation. The closest I can come up with is a tenuous link to Milan Kundera's ruminative works like Immortality etc. I had a a couple of false starts with the book due to the same reasons and every time I started from the beginning. But it was all worth it and much more. Don't miss this gem of a book.