Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mohawk -Richard Russo

Harry who runs the 'Mohawk Grill' restaurant has a calender which is out of date by a year.This is because "... whoever gave the calendar the year before didn't give him a new one this year. The months are the same and Harry doesn't mind being a few days off".  This in a nutshell symbolizes the characters in Richard Russo's debut novel 'Mohawk', a slice of small town America. In fact this mentality is symptomatic of many characters in Russo's works, a mindset where people are just waiting for something to happen instead of initiating it. They may dislike the life in their town, feel suffocated by it, but they would rather suffer silently or crib about it rather than doing something about it. 

Mohawk a fictional town is decaying, it's not yet a ghost town (like the one's in Juan Rulfo's works) but it will soon get there. The tannery industry that provided jobs to the townsmen is dying out and with it the entire town economy and indeed the town itself. The basic theme of the novel is one which is explored in his later works too, but in this debut work Russo has tried a more sprawling canvas. If he has concentrated on a few characters in his later works, here he has tried to cram in many characters, attempting to give each one them their own individuality. There is 'Anne' a divorced mother who is living with her parents in what can only politely be termed as a claustrophobic atmosphere. Oh, she is and has been in love with her cousin's husband 'Dan' for many years now, who also reciprocates it. It is a largely unconsummated affair (with rare sexual trysts). 'Dallas Younger' Anne's ex-husband is going through life as in a pot induced daze, bumping into the myriad issues that life brings up from time to time, not knowing why such things keep happening to him. For instance, when he goes to the laundry he most often misplaces his shirts and comes back with shirts of another person, the result being that he is mostly wearing another' shirts. There is also 'Randall' their son, 'Wild Bill' a mentally challenged young man, Anne's sick father, her cribbing mother. 

With such a motley crew of characters one would expect the novel of very engaging and indeed it starts off in such a manner, but sadly soon degenerates into a show-off, manipulative one. Now, all art is in some way manipulative in that the artist tries to make the reader/viewer/listener get into a mindset that he has planned. The issue arises when it becomes too obvious and the flow of the novel seems to be forced. That's what happens here and you can sense Russo trying very hard to impress us. In an attempt to define his characters clearly he overdoes it, the result being that most characters are almost saying to you "look at me, I am not a fictional character, I am a blood and flesh one, so I am a great character". After sometime you get tired of all the (un)subtle hints dropped in passing about the characters which are probably meant to add layers to them.  Like Russo tries so hard to impress upon us the gravity of  the hidden affair between Anne and Dan, their frustration at being apart even though they love each other, but it doesn't impact us much. To digress a bit, a similar theme of is handled much better by Russo himself in his Bridge Of Sighs, where he gives us so many subtle layers which are open to our interpretation. What we feel here though is that Anne and Dan better stop cribbing, grow up and get on with their lives. Actually this is a cruel feeling given what they have gone through, but Russo is to be blamed for making us unsympathetic towards these characters which surely deserve our sympathy. There is also a supposedly mysterious sub-plot involving Anne's father which promises much but doesn't result in anything other than a convoluted trigger to the events that happen before the end. Oh yes, I should also mention the events that happen on a stormy night before the end. Of course there is no rule that a character shouldn't have his/her epiphanies or that things shouldn't come to a head on a stormy night, but when you see multiple strands coming to head on single night, it just seems to be convenient way for the author to tie up every thing.

Ironically, the novel is saved from being a disaster by the very characters on which Russo doesn't spend too much time, a clear indication that the adages 'less is more' and 'don't tell but show' do work. There are a lot of small moments which lift the novel from the morass of forced sentimentality it is mired in. There is a mention in passing (a couple of paragraphs) about Dallas's younger brother 'Dan' who passed away of cancer when he was just 30 and his daughter was one. When he came to know about his terminal illness, Dan got a big loan and bought purchases for nearly 20 years for his daughter. Consider this, a young father in the prime of his life suddenly comes to know that he has very little time to live. What else can we expect in such a situation. That's why buys presents for all the birthdays, Christmases, thanksgiving on which he would not be present. This in itself could be developed into an excellent short story. There is also the moment at the end where Dallas meets his brother's wife 'Lorraine' at the hospital. What happens then is one of the truly goosebumps raising moments that I have read in recent years. I am not one given to easy sentimentality and what Dallas does could be seen as selfish/idiotic/crazy and also as a manifestation of the hidden human spirit at the same time. It's an ambiguous moment, but one which affects us in a way that the other forced moments in the novel do not.
I have mentioned Dallas multiple times now and it is for a reason. He is the character with whom we empathize the most. He is a cad, compulsive drinker, gambler, a person who tries to do the correct thing but most often ends up totally screwing it up, even if he didn't want too. Like he could start for a lunch with his ex-wife and son, but end up in a gambling den or he could remember his niece's birthday in the middle of the night and go to wish her.He is like a kid in many ways, looking wide eyed at the things that happened, not understanding how they happened and that he actually had a part to play in them. But with all this, he comes across as the most honestly crafted character in the entire novel. Russo doesn't try to impose him on his and due to that he is the one we can relate to most. The things that Russo keeps in shadows are ultimately the one that capture our attention. His friendship with Benny is one such. Friends from youth, Benny now owns a automobile workshop where Dallas works. It's difficult to pin down what works between the two. Both of them have been in a terrible fight when young, but never seem to bring it up now. Benny puts with Dallas carousing around without coming to work. Of course Dallas is skilled worker and Benny also likes to join Dallas in raising hell in the bars and gambling dens. But is that the only reason why he puts up with Dallas? The refreshing thing is that there is no declaration of undying friendship or any such thing. It's just 2 guys who are very comfortable with each other, enjoying each other's company and friendship. I would personally love to know more about Dallas and his life. And of course, as in his other works Russo captures perfectly the rhythms of small town life, the bar where people gather to gossip as much as to eat, the aspirations of the characters, their stoic acceptance of their lot in life etc. 

Those these things salvage the novel to a great extent ultimately it remains only a fair enough read, a novel which suffers from the author's over enthusiasm in impressing his readers, maybe due to the fact that it was his first novel. Whatever the reason, it is definitively not a patch on his later works. Read it if you have read his other works and want to complete his oeuvre. Others read the other novels/short stories. This one can wait.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Talk Talk - T.C Boyle

Impersonation/Identity theft are themes that have been mostly used in crime/spy fiction. The reason could be that in earlier days it happened only when serious crime and a lot of planning was involved and hence it was something that seemed to happen only in novels and very rarely did we get to hear about it happening in real life to someone we knew. So we never got to know the actual ramifications of the identity theft other than that the affected person caught the perpetrator and brought him before justice. The only related point to this in 'general' fiction has been the concept of identity/doppelganger used for philosophical musings as in for instance 'The Double' or 'The White Castle'. But in our digital age, identity theft is not something that is so difficult to do. Just leave your credit card unattended for some time and some one can take up your identity at least for the duration of a single transaction. T.C Boyle takes up this concept and has tried to give us an insight on the people affected and the  perpetrator of the Identify theft, traversing a different path from the thriller genre, a path that is relevant for our age.

'Dana' a 30 something hearing impaired woman leaps a signal and is stopped by the police. And this is where her life turns completely around and becomes a never ending nightmare. A routine check on her reveals crimes like non-payment of days, jumping of bail etc and she is jailed. She manages to prove that it's a case of identity theft and is released but her problems are just beginning with creditors showing up everywhere. The rest of the novel is about Dana and 'Bridger' her boyfriend trying to find the person behind this identity theft.

The first portion of the novel is the best part of the book. The impact that the sudden collapse of one's carefully constructed world has on a person is brought out in a frightening manner. Have you ever faced a situation where you have faced unforeseen trouble or any other situation which is completely unexpected? How do we react or handle it. First the incredulity that that something like it can happen to us, the refusal of the mind to believe what has happened, then the optimism that things will soon be alright, then the sneaking suspicion that the issue may not be solved as soon as we initially thought and finally getting to a state where we are almost numb and end up accepting what has happened. Dana goes through all these emotions when she is jailed. Being jailed on a Friday afternoon, she has to spend the weekend too at the Jail without bail till Monday. It may not be something out of 'The Trial', but Dana's internment is also horrific. Dana is not even then sure why she has been jailed and with communication problems, the general apathy of the police to convey what exactly has happened or to even listen to Dana complicates matters and it's 2 days of hell for her in the jail.

Dana is a feisty, spunky character and Boyle has made sure that she is neither someone who needs others help for everything nor some kind of superwoman  who can take on the world on her own. She lives life on her terms yes, (even teaching at a non-hearing impaired school which she has wanted all her life), but she is not beneath calling Bridges to help her out. The details of her everyday life may seem a bit extraneous, but give us an idea of how challenging is their everyday life and how they take head on things that we take for granted. For e.g. the light that goes on in her room when someone rings the door bell, the answering machine which gets cut off automatically after the recorded voice of Dana asks the person calling to send an email instead of leaving a message. These little things build up a fleshed out picture of Dana which in turn makes the reader relate to her better.

The relationship between Dana and  Bridger too is handled well. Yes, they seem to love each other, but it doesn't mean that they are all lovey-dovey always. There is also a bit of practicality involved in it. When Bridger first goes to the police station after learning about Dana's imprisonment, he has to wait there for a long time without anyone telling him what's going on (the 'State' seems to behave the same way in all countries doesn't it). During the whole time, a part of his mind is on his office and the work he has left hanging, thinking how he can convince his boss. Later he tries to get a lawyer and when learns of the cost involved, he doesn't proceed further as he cannot afford it and decides to wait till Monday. No selling of whatever he has for the beloved like a 'true' lover should do. The friction in their relationship due to this is actually the main thread of this novel, even supplanting their search for the person behind the identity theft. The first hints of the friction comes when Dana rants and even kind of assaults Bridger at his office, where she has come after knowing that she has been terminated from her dream job. So what does Bridger do? Is he the concerned lover understanding what Dana is going through, consoling her and taking her losing her cool in his stride. No, he too snaps at her and calls her crazy. So when the two set of on a road trip to find the person behind all this, you are actually thing whether their relationship would survive at the end of all this instead of thinking about whether they will achieve what they are setting out for.

Boyle now shifts his focus to 'Peck Wilson' the man who has stolen Dana's identity. It's interesting for a bit to see Wilson, as we try to understand his motives, the person behind the facade Wilson is showing to the world. There are some genuinely thrilling moments when Wilson becomes aware that Dana/Bridger have come to know about him and he starts taking counter measures. At this points, you are fully rooting for Dana/Bridger and hoping that whatever Wilson is attempting now ends up as a failure.  But unfortunately, the novel starts going downhill from this point on. Wilson ends as some kind of borderline psychopath, not the kind that would go around killing people, but a kind where the person is at war with the whole world, a person who thinks that the world owes him everything and when things go wrong starting blaming everything and everyone else except himself. Now, it's not bad if you have a villain who is the embodiment of all evil as in crime fiction. But Wilson ends up being neither an arch villain nor a well formed character. As I said above the only thing we can take from the novel about him is that he seems a bit psychotic. The to and fro moves between Dana/Bridger and Wilson too end up not amounting to much. I didn't expect highly thought out actions by the characters, as in a crime fiction (indeed I would have been disappointed if it had been like that) as the clash is between 2 normal people and a person who though is a con man is clearly not in the league of the professional criminals. So you wouldn't/shouldn't expect a page turner kind of intensity in this chase, but even considering that Dana and Bridger's road trip seem to be a journey to nowhere and you just want it to end. The end just before the epilogue was too cheesy. It's like Boyle wanted Dana to have a epiphanic moment where she confronts her own fears and put it in the ending. It is so unlike Boyle to cater to such soppy moments, but maybe he wanted to give the readers a boost at the end. I think the moment may actually be liked by many and I am be a minority in not liking it, but it left me cold.

Boyle is back to form though, immediately in the epilogue. As a contrast to the event before it, I think the epilogue may actually be hated by many, but I dug it. It's typical Boyle and long time readers would relate to this more. One can talk a lot about selfishness, self-preservation, ingratitude, but that's the way life works out a lot of times and anyway one cannot judge another, without going through what the other has and even then every one reacts differently isn't it?

Life all Boyle novels, this too left me in two minds, neither liking it very much nor hating it. One thing however is sure. You can rant about his works, hate them, but one can never accuse Boyle of repeating himself. Every book of his is a different journey, a canvas which you have not seen in his earlier works. he can just about take you anywhere. Now you may hate the journey, never even reach the end or could love the whole thing, but the freshness of it all cannot be denied. I guess that's what keeps me going back to Boyle's works, especially his novels which I haven't like as much as his short stories.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Lucky Girls -Nell Freudenberger

"... people were all different things at the same time. They were like onions under fine layers of skin; you didn't ever peel away a last layer, because the layers were what they were"

So thinks a character in the short story 'The Tutor'. This in a nut shell is what  'Nell Freudenberger's debut collection 'Lucky Girls' is all about. The blurbs about the book place much emphasis on the fact that the stories are set mostly in Southeast Asia and particularly India, but the backdrop for these stories are not not as important as the blurbs may indicate (more on that later). 

The book starts off with the title story 'Lucky Girls', which is about the narrator an American woman meeting Mrs.Chawla, the mother of a deceased Indian (married) man Arun, with whom she had an affair. The story is mostly about the interactions between the two. The tentativeness  present in the narrator during the first meeting contrasting with the confident demeanor of Mrs.Chawla who does not make her disapproval known explicitly or in anger, but just states things in a matter of fact manner have been brought out with precise clarity.  When the narrator says that she should have been present when Arun passed away Mrs.Chawla says
"You didn't belong there, she said. Nobody would have known what you were".
There is no anger or recrimination in it, just a statement as to what she thinks.

Though the events and actions of the characters are brought out clearly, the actual intent behind them is always behind a fog as it were, with us not being entirely sure of their motives, lending credence to the lines given in the beginning of the post. For e.g. when the narrator thanks Laxmi, Arun's wife, for helping here out, Laxmi says 
"I have my sons", she said casually. "And you have no one."
Here one is not sure where she is taunting the narrator or just stating a fact, as there is not outward indication of Laxmi being a vindictive person. It is these moments of uncertainty in human relations that is the focus of the entire book. This story has been included in the 'Granta Book Of American' Short story' edited by Richard Ford which was my first introduction to Freudenberger.

'The Orphan' is probably the most puzzling story of the collection. Alice and Jeff a middle aged couple have divorced and go to Thailand on a trip to visit their son and daughter who are living there to inform them about the divorce. It's clear from the first time when we see the 4 get together that there is something gone irreversibly bent in the family. The four of them are completely awkward with the meeting, the awkwardness giving way sometimes to sniping at each  other. This is where Freudenberger is at her best, bring out the manner in which the four of them circle each other, treading on tip toe as if to avoid breaking anything more, but never giving us the reason why this family has grown so apart. In fact Mandy at a point thinks
"She laughs, but she's glad that she's not the only one who can't talk to their children" 
Is this the natural progression of any family, one that we do not wish to acknowledge, wanting to be safe and secure in the knowledge that families are forever. It's not that the 4 members hate each other, it's just they have all gone so far apart, that each one could be a stranger to the other. One doesn't know why Mandy Alice's daughter puts with a man who she says sexually assaulted her (in the beginning of the story). When Alice meets her in Thailand, Mandy is still with him, she neither denies the sexual assault incident nor does give any reason for staying with him, going so far as to say that maybe she liked it rough.  Finally as the story ends, one wonders whether the title 'The Orphan' in a way refers to each individual family member given that they seem to be so alone (even Jeff who has since taken up with another woman). There is a piece of conversation at the beginning of the story which subtly shows the absurdity of the way in which the human mind functions and how it comes out as conversation. Mandy Alice's daughter calls up and says that she has been sexually assaulted, at a particular point the conversation takes a turn, when Alice says
".... You have to go to the hospital. Is there a hospital there?"
"Is there a hospital? Mom, I'm in Bangkok - maybe you've heard of it? Is there a hospital?"
"Then you can go there. Get in a cab and go there".  She refrains from asking whether they have cabs.
"I don't usually take cabs here, Mom"

One can see that the conversation has completely turned on it's head with both of them disassociating from the actual incident and almost quibbling over minor things when something more important has happened. Given the context of their conversation the above exchange may stick out like a sore thumb, but when you factor in the capacity of the human mind to somehow flush of things it does not want to discuss and the manner it can get numbed in many cases, it does make perfect sense. It's one of the many subtle nuances that Freudenberger applies in all the stories, an eye for detail while describing the events and an ear for dialogue when recording the conversations. 

'Outside the Eastern Gate' is somewhat similar in mood to 'The Orphans', where the narrator goes to meet her father in India who may be suffering from the beginning stages of alzheimer's. Through narrative snapshots of events from the past and in the present, we get a glimpse of another family life in the 60's, a family where everything seems perfect outwardly, but there is a sense of something less appealing just beneath surface. This air of disquiet hangs over most of the other stories too, where the reader's mind either goes back to the past to think about what could have happened and to the future thinking about how things could go wrong. Freudenberger with her back and forth narrative, allowing us one glimpse at a time of the past and present but never giving us the full picture always keeps us on tenterhooks. Here, in this story we do not know what the narrator is after, what is it that keeps haunting her from the past. The narrator's mother obviously plays a central role in this, but this is again left to us to interpret in whatever way we want. There is a hint that the mother could have been suffering from depression, but never mentioned explicitly. There is poignant moment in the story, when the narrator as a kid feels sad and starts crying. Her mother sees this and asks her what's wrong.

"I don't know what it is," I sobbed. I can't stop."
"Oh God", my mother said.........................."
"You too", she said."Not you too"

The last line tells more more than what could be said in an entire chapter about the mother. (Many characters are unnamed in the stories, leading to curious mix of alienation and at the same time having an affinity with the reader at the end of the stories). More than anything, what struck me here was the mother could have been aware of her own depression and her failing battle against it, that seemed more heartbreaking than her sorrow for her child. I was reminded of 'The Bell Jar when I read this particular conversation, the hopeless battle against one's own mind.

In "The Tutor"  an young American girl living with her father in India takes tuition with an Indian tutor (Zubin), who has returned from America. Through a series of snapshots of the past, we get to know the reason for the girl's turmoil and also the inner conflicts of the Tutor, why he returned from America. In a kind of reversal of the themes in the other stories, this story shows how an Indian adjusts in America (no there is no major homesickness or a love for the homeland). There is no mention about the time when this story is set, but from the manner in which people react to  Zubin, one can imagine that it would have been up to the early to mid 90's when going to the US was still a huge thing and an American desi a prize catch in the marriage market. ('Hyderabad blues' anyone?). This story again has a non-ending, but fits in with the overall style of the book, where we are only allowed to view a part of the characters lives and even then there is no final resolution to the part that we view.

"Letter from the Last Bastion", has a different narrative format. An unnamed girl writes a letter to a university as part of her interview process to it. In the letter she describes some events from the life of Henry, a reputed writer and contrasts it with the events that are described in his novels. The story starts of as an exploration into the ages old discussion of reality in fiction, how much of an author is actually present in his works. We see how some events in Henry's life have been transported into his works as it is, some events which have been changed to a great extent and we think about how/when does an author decide when/how much of what actually happened should go into his works. The story then diverges into focusing on the girl. Who is she, how does she know so much about Henry, what is their relationship are some questions that come to our mind as we read it. It's not as if the author shifts the focus into the girl, but it's a natural progression as we read some events Harry's life which could not be known to just about anyone. The only issue I had with this story was the ending, which seemed to conform to an "ending", when the other stories didn't seem to have an ending as such, but just the drawing down of the curtain of a particular act in the characters lives. The ending in this story didn't seem forced anyway, in fact it's quite logical too, but compared to the other stories it didn't seem to fit in with the overall pattern of the collection. 

As I said in the beginning if you expect any expatriate experiences of living in Asia/India you would be disappointed. The canvas of these stories are just that, they do not become characters in themselves as it happens in several novels/stories. This is because the characters in these stories are not suffering from any form of longing for their country and neither do they want to get out of where ever they are living because they hate it.  Their problems stem from the inside, their relationship with their parents, with the other people they meet, problems that do not have a great deal to do with the country to live in, but problems in the dynamics of the human relationship which could probably be the same in any country. As one of the characters in the book says
"Travelling is for people who don't know how to be happy", so setting the book 
outside America could be a result of the characters personal issues more than anything else.

So has Freudenberger just put the canvas as East just because it would be  exotic, not at all?. It's more a reflection of the increased communication between the east and the west in the last 20 years, when the East is looked upon a place with people just like in the West, instead of just just a land of Sadhus, Snakes, Rope climbing, babas sitting on thorns which was the staple image of the East till about the 90's. It's still the same in some cases, but this collection is an indication that things are changing. When any foreigner writes about a country he has only visited, he can either be condescending or downright vicious or be afraid of his own feelings that may hurt the people of the country he is writing and end up not giving an opinion at all. Lets see what Alice ('The Orphans') thinks on seeing a Mercedes in Thailand
"The only other car in the parking lot is a teal Mercedes-Benz, which seems out of place in a Third World Country. She knows better than to comment on this...
In a couple of lines, we not only get to see the typical mindset of a person from a first world country viewing the 3rd world ones, but also the guilt/apprehension he/she feels in feeling these thoughts and his/her reluctance to voice these thoughts. It may seem like a small thing, but when you think about it, it can lead you to a lot of things.  Freudenberger  keeps the canvas understated, but strong enough that we get a sense of the place where the stories are set and do not see that they happen in a vacuum. When Vivian ('Outside the Eastern Gate' ), says on the heavy traffic in India

Vivian slammed on the breaks. "Fucking Biharis"
"It's gotten worse," I said, about the traffic.
"It gets worse every year,", Vivian said. "You have no idea"

you realize that Vivian is as domiciled as anyone in India. That's why she is able to rant at the traffic and abuse without any thought as to how it would look. It's the contrast between what Alice thinks about Thailand but does not say as she has just come there and Vivian who has been living in India for a very long time now. That's why even the abuse on Biharis does not come out as racist, because Vivian is so integrated into the Indian lifestyle (and roads). So people who read this do not start branding Freudenberger as racist. The only observation I found a bit jarring was in 'Outside the Eastern Gate' where the narrator mentions shoe shine boys outside the Delhi international airport. The setting of the story is in the late 90's and I was surprised that shoe shine boys still operated during that period. I would have thought shoe shining would have become less prevalent by then, but maybe the author did indeed experience it. 

I was constantly reminded of Alice Munro and Deborah Eisenberg when I read this book. (Freudenberger states Munro as one of her favorite authors). It's not that they share the same canvas or narrative style or some such external thing. The way in which Freudenberger manages to flesh out the characters , without telling too much, but only showing us (always following the adage don't tell, only show) and leaving a lot for us to think about, it is the result that she achieves that reminds me of Munro and   Eisenberg. Have you ever wondered in the evenings when you return from work or when you are at your window at dusk seeing people pass by, the brightly lit windows in the houses opposite, have you wondered about what takes place within those walls, what sort of domestic/financial problem is the husband/wife/father/mother/son/daughter returning home to? I am not talking about gossip but a state of mind where you feel a curious affinity with all those people who you don't know nothing about, but at that moment feel close too. Well you could get that sort of a feeling in this book where you are transported smack in the middle of domestic turmoil, memories of the past and you can't help but become one of them. For a debut collection, this is of very high quality and one can only hope that better things would be written by her. This was first published in 2004, so I have been pretty late in reading it, but she is one writer I would be on the look out for from now on.

Having said all this, I must also mention that this is a brooding and intense book, one which is relentless in it's evisceration of the upper layer of relationships. One cannot just move on from one story to another, it requires a bit of time to assimilate what one has read before moving to the next. The consequence could be that either you like the book or hate it, particularly it's languid pace, the non-endings etc. I belong to the former category and this is one of the best books I have read this year. Don't miss it.