Thursday, May 17, 2012

Drop City - T.C Boyle - A glimpse of a lost generation

Hippie - The word brings to mind a lot of images, many of them not flattering. In India too the word has mostly a negative meaning, even though India was one of the major points of the East meets West scenario that was happening in those days (for e.g. Beatles interacting with Ravishankar, their spiritual journeys through India etc). I daresay, R.D. Burman's excellent 'Dum Maro Dum' and it's picturization has had a great impact on the general mindset. The common opinion one has of this culture is of free love, promiscuity, drugs, some new age spiritual mumbo-jumbo, in short a bunch of layabouts doing nothing except enjoying themselves. On the other side, the hippies  saw themselves as some kind of counter revolutionaries, rebelling against the oppressive/consumerist society and the wars that were raging during that period. What is the truth actually? As in all cases, it would like somewhere in between. This hippie period and it's culture is the focus of T.C Boyle's novel 'Drop City'.

The story revolves mostly around the inhabitants of  Hippie commune 'Drop City' in California. They try to keep themselves out of the 'straight' society as they call those who are integrated into the normal social fabric, but are forced to leave the commune as the Government takes over it. Meanwhile parallel to this narrative is another one where a young woman wanting to live as close to nature as possible marries a person in remote Alaska who himself is living in the mountains. In a way both the hippies and the young couple are similar in that both shun the modern life and want to back to their roots as it were. The head of the commune has inherited a land in Alaska (close to where the couple live) from his uncle and so the commune heads off to Alaska to make a new start. The rest of the novel is about happens there, their integration in a new place and the disruption it causes.

Boyle has made sure that the hippies are not caricatures and gives a balanced view of things. Yes, there are deadbeats, bums who just want to get high and be stoned always. But what were they before that? Boyle shows just a glimpse here through 'Star', a (so-called)normal middle class person, a teacher no less, living with her parents, whom one just cannot associate with the hippies, but one who was actually bottling up her feeling to such an extent that it had burst out one day and she gave up everything. In a few strokes, Boyle passes on to us the claustrophobia that a lot of us feel in our daily lives, just that most don't act on it, but some like Star do. The following paragraph shows us how Star felt hemmed in her home.
"When she got home at night she balled up her pantyhose in her own petite-sized pantsuits, flung them on the floor in her room and lay stretched out on the floor with a speaker pressed to each ear, staring at the flecks and whorls of the thrice-painted ceiling while Janis Joplin flapped and soared over the thunderous changes of 'Ball and China' "
Boyle has always been great in capturing the 'everyman' a person who is neither well integrated into society and nor given it up fully, always caught between the pull of the social normal and of the dangerous but more exciting counter culture. Sadly though, this strokes of characterization are few (which I will come to a bit later). Another thing to be noted here is that while the characters may be slackers for working in the society, they are ready to contribute their bit to the commune, whether it is cooking food,  getting stashes of pot, building cabins etc. 

Free love is one of the most quoted aspects of this culture, but Boyle shows that even here women were the ones who were victimized. In the guise of free love, men took advantage of women wherein a man could cohabit with multiple women, even forcing them sometimes for sex, in the name of love, making sure that he got what he wanted irrespective of the woman's choice. There is even a hint of jealousy (in Ronnie's character) when the woman he hooked up with, goes with another man. But again as in the case of characterization, this done in an almost off hand manner, somewhat diluting the impact it could have had.

This is event driven novel than a character driven one. The prose has a kind of somnambulistic quality to it which one could boring at times, but which is perfect when you think of the fact that most of the characters are stoned out of their minds most of the time and you are viewing the events through their eyes, in a glazed manner mostly in slow motion. Boyle has got the tone of the narrative pitch perfect. You always have a sense of foreboding while reading, a disaster just waiting to happen, a darkness hanging over the entire novel, whether it be for the inhabitants of the commune or the young couple at Alaska. In case of the commune it's a feeling that they will self-destruct, whereas in the case of the young couple it is a feeling that nature will finally get the better of them. That's another thing to be mentioned, the prose of the narrative arc of the couple is more clear without none of the hazy feeling. This is again in tune with their living in the wilderness where they have to be up on their toes always and cannot afford to lounge around hazily. Boyle works have always been environmentally conscious  and here also this shows through in the loving way he describes the wilderness, the beauty and treachery it hides and the eternal fight of man to survive in it.

For all the things going for it, the novel ultimately remains an engaging one and does not take the next step where it consumes the reader. I am not saying that it's a bad thing to be only engaging, but there seems to be a lot of potential wasted or rather ignored here. For instance the part of the young couple is hanging outside the main core of the novel. Now, I try to follow Updike's tenet where he said the one should not criticize what the author didn't attempt at all, but only what he has done, but here I think I am justified in doing so. When a narrative arc takes up 30% of the novel and finally does not mesh with the overall structure you get the feeling that it's a wasted part of the novel. When the commune finally makes it way to Alaska, you expect a clash of cultures/ideals between the couple and the commune, one working hard to make a living, the other just wanting to take it easy. Because one thinks that was the point of having the 2 different narrative arcs. But beyond a few sporadic interactions (with an eye on plugging in the novel's end logically) it doesn't happen. You could have taken the part about the couple out and got a separate novella. The part about the hippies alone could have been enough, but I think Boyle wanted a counterpoint to their ideals in the form of the hard working couple, but somehow didn't go through it fully. 

Another peeve I have about the novel is the characterization and I am going to play devil's advocate here. I do not feel that well rounded characters or coherent narratives are an absolute must for great fiction. Great fiction can have well defined plots/characters driving or it can be a narrative tour de force, heck it can just about be anything, how can one quantify it, I can just say what I felt was lacking here. One can read an entire Pynchon novel, come out of it not fully understanding what novel was about and still be consumed by it, one can read 1000 pages of 'Infinite Jest' on just ennui and happiness, with innumerable characters and burn in it's fever. Let's take 2666. Is it a complete novel, can't we treat the 5 parts as separate novellas, doesn't it just have a very thin thread(Archimboldi) running it's entire length and nothing much to link it. But can one come out of 'The part about crimes' without wanting to puke, your senses numbed by the violence after a descent through hell. How does that happen, can we just say that violence in that part was gratuitous and somehow it affected. Noway, this is where the narrative strength plays a part in either totally embracing the reader or just end up giving a hug (as in the case of 'Drop City'). The narrative hums along nicely, but never seems to reach the destination of total gratification. We enjoy the journey but at the end are left a bit dissatisfied. The major outcome of the lack of characterization is that the novel at 440 odd pages seems long at times and becomes sluggish. Because when you do not know about the characters and it's nearly 250 odd pages before the commune starts to Alaska you start to feel the length of the novel. There are not even small hints about the characters (like the para about 'Star' I have given earlier in the post) which the reader can fill in with his imagination. Its not like Boyle can't do it, but I think he has not wanted to do it. There is a 2-3 page portion when the commune is on their road trip to Alaska, where all the women are having a chat. In those pages, Boyle shows a side of them that was not revealed earlier and makes see them in a different light. Alas, this too is too short to make a lasting impact and that's what kills me about the novel. It promises much at several points but always ends up short. So what happens is whatever is mentioned about the characters, is too hazy for the reader to fill up and after a point he just gives up. When 'Pamela' the young lady who chose a husband to live in the wilderness says she is pregnant, you don't fell like 'how is she going to survive in this condition, how will this affect the dynamics of the couple's relationships, will she go back to her place leaving her husband' etc. It just doesn't hit you at all. 

The lack of clarity on the characters does not have a totally negative impact, but indeed has a rather curious one. When certain events happen one does not think about why a character did that, his motives and how another character will be affected by it. Rather we think about it in generic terms. For example if X commits adultery, we do not think about why X did it or how Y is affected by it, rather our thoughts go to the general idea of adultery, it's prevalence in society, the reasons for it etc. This is not a bad thing at all, but in the context of the novel it doesn't help much, especially when your narrative is not strong enough to overcome the lack of characterization. Somehow this has been the case with the works of Boyle that I have read so far in the past 3-4 years. I have enjoyed all his works, but that's it, I have not been driven to read the next Boyle book after completing one. Whenever I come across a Boyle book I pick it up, but there has been no urgency from my end to read his works. Yes, it's a subjective opinion but the peeves I have put forth about this novel may be the reason for it.

Do not be put off by my cribbing about this novel. At the end it made me think of a couple of things. Once was about the hippies in general. Most of them would be in their mid 60's by now. So what happened to them after the party got over in the 70's, did they get assimilated into the 'straight' society that they hated so much, did they get jobs, got married and are now leading a leisurely pensioner's life. Or couldn't they let go of it and remained on the edges of society, a mostly forgotten lot now. Another thought was trying to place the hippie culture in current times in relation to our current lifestyle. The hippie culture being reactionary to wars, pressure of modern life etc would fit in perfectly with our times where in addition to wars, we have 'genocides'(several in the last decade itself) the pressure of modern life has increased manifold from the 60's, but why is there no revival of the movement or any other major counter culture movement.  Maybe the hippies were misguided, slackers but they seem to have some vague concept of peace and love, however misplaced it may have been. But a generation later we seem to be beyond all that, the corporate gurus/swamis of today are playing a major here emphasising on the individual being happy, not feeling bad about whatever happens outside, just remove all traces of guilt about what you do. So people today still use drugs, but do it in the weekend rave party, have fun and on Monday get ready for another round of corporate warfare. The gurus do not solve anything, they just put off the bursting point for some more time but for now all are happy. And if any movement does start, the corporate-media coalition makes sure to block it out, like the 'Occupy' movements. Any book that gives you food for thought and raises uncomfortable questions about yourself is not to be ignored. So if you come across this book give it a try.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A list of drab, dreary and desultory reads

I enjoy reading genre fiction, whether it be crime fiction, the family novel, campus novel or any other sub-genre. Over the month or so, however I have had some terrible luck in genre fiction resulting in a whole lot of crap being read by me. . Anyway so, here's a list of the works that I slogged through, in the hope that it may help other unsuspecting prospective readers from getting stuck. However it must be said the works I read were of pretty famous authors with lots of following, so bear in mind this is only a subjective opinion. These books were my first introductions to these authors and most probably the final ones too. The books are in the order of increasingly disastrous works according to me. 

Zero Day/True Blue - David Baldacci: David has seemingly got millions of readers and a huge oeuvre with multiple series running. These 2 books were stand alone and since they seemed to imply a kind of mystery I read them. Both have some commonalities, a crime occurs in the beginning (or has occurred) and the protagonists attempt to solve them. The crimes and settings initially seem ingenious, but as the novels progress settle down into a mundane rhythm, of action every few pages, a breather and then action again and so on till the end. But nothing really nail biting or even remotely exciting happens. I did however like the geographical settings of these novels and their description, one set in Washington with the wheeling and dealings going on in the corridors of power and the other set in the American South (Virginia). 

The ancient mystery/conspiracy sub-genre has gained a huge following after the success of Dan Brown. Thanks to him, there is a glut of novels coming out in this genre. In other genres there is always a mix of excellent, good, middling and poor works, but this genre seems to be stuck in rut in the last 8-9 years the 'Da Vinci Code' was published. I can recall javier sierra's 'The Secret Supper', 'The Rule Of Four' (Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason), 'Labyrinth' (Kate Mosse), ' The Dante Club' (Mathew Pearl), which were erudite thrillers.  I had earlier posted on this here. Some of these were published bit earlier than the 'Da Vinci Code'. The rule in these genre seems to be either to pick up a ancient mystery or a famous character from the past (Leonardo Da Vinci, Freud, Dante) and hope that the resulting book would sell well. The remaining books in this list all belong to this genre.

The vault of Shiva - Andy McDermott : This is again an example of the thought that an interesting premise alone is enough to rake in the readers. Andy has got a winner of an idea here, with the premise being the weapons that were apparently used in Ancient India, which are attributed to Lord Shiva (The Destroyer God). Being an Indian I could relate to this idea instantly and it got me excited, with obvious relation between Shiva and weapons of destruction. Another interesting thing was that the main antagonist was also an India, a guy who has developed a search engine that rivals Google and uses it to create a war. Wow, an Indian as the main antagonist in a western novel, this must surely be a first. However the novel was let down by casual plotting with a casual disregard for reader sensibilities and with the focus only on thrills, with some tit-bits thrown here and there regarding Ancient India. However among the books in this list, this is comparitively the best. Indian thriller writers wake up, the west is again showing you the mine of information we have that can be used in genre fiction. Amish Tripathi has made a start, but if we do not continue soon the western writers would overtake us.

The Mosaic Crimes -Giulio Leoni: A novel where Dante Alighieri investigates a murder. Very good premise again, what could be better than Dante, himself such a detailed descriptor of the various regions of hell, investigating a gory murder.  With turgid prose, events that actually should have happened at break neck speed appearing to happen in slow motion and an hasty resolution at the end, the novel was a damp squid. The author has tried to evocate an accurate picture of the time/location during which the events happen in Florence, but even that was not fully fleshed out. The inner turmoil of Dante, which could be seen as the precursor of his finally writing the 'Divine Comedy' was also brought out well to an extent, but that's about it. Reading the prose was like wading through a swamp with the sun beating down on you with no escape from either the sun or the swamp.

The Prophecy: Chris Kuzneski - Now we come to the worst of the lot. This novel is part of a series where two protagonists  Jonathon Payne and David Jones, find out the truth ancient mysteries, find out treasures. Payne and Jones seem indestructible with seemingly nothing in the world that can hurt them. They go from one sticky situation to another with a smile on their faces and a joke on their lips. Killing the villains comes naturally to them.The interaction between the two meant to illustrate the bonding between them is painfully forced and the (supposedly!!) lighthearted banter between them makes one want to puke. An oh, there is the mandatory damsel in distress, who gets caught in the events and who is the key to the whole mystery. She too joins the duo with no apparent misgivings, even though deaths are occurring left and right around her. The flirtation between the Payne and her also fall into the want to puke category. In fact this novel has the worst prose I have read in a long time, with lame ass jokes, repetitive phrases and general ineptitude in conveying to the reader any sense of urgency about the events in the novel. I am not being snobbish here when I talk about prose, but even in genre fiction there has to be some basic standard, right. Let me give an example. In the novel, I lost count of the number of times, the characters 'smirked'. Payne and Jones smirk at each other, they smirk at the lady, she smirks back at them, the villain too not wanting to be left behind smirks at them and Payne the near super-hero that he is, smirks back at him even at a time of great peril. There was so much smirking going on that I felt while reading that Kuzneski himself was smirking at all us readers who had been ambushed into reading this book.  What about the supposed prophecy that is said to be a great secret? Well if it had been like Umberto Eco and 'Foucault's Pendulum', I would have been tempted to term the secret and novel itself as a subversive take on the entire genre, but since it isn't and the author has apparently taken it seriously I just take it as an unintentional   joke. 

One could ask why did I go to the trouble to reading all these to the end when the simplest thing would have been chuck them away. Well, call it perverse masochism on my part but I can never leave incomplete the books that I just can't get through. Maybe I get a sense of closure but I just have to read them to the end however I may hate them. Conversely the books that I leave incomplete are the ones that intrigue me, engross me, stimulate me but remain just that bit out of reach to me, books that I want to complete, but whose doors are closed at point of time. These are the books that I give up for some time and pick up later to have another stab at them. A list of such books is here.

BTW,  'Foucault's Pendulum' is still the gold standard for novels in this genre (conspiracy/ancient mysteries) for it's sheer verve, erudition and audacity of thoughts even though Eco himself negates all these at the end in a devilish twist. Fans of this novel do not take is as blasphemy that I seem to term  'Foucault's Pendulum' as genre fiction, am  just pointing of that a novel written with no apparent regard for the boundaries of genre fiction still lords over most of the so called novels in this genre.