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.