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Monday, June 28, 2010

Seven For The Summer

It's been a long lazy summer as usual, and the reasons I've been away from the keyboard are simple: First, there were too many great books left unread, and long overdue.... well, summer's sweet that way. Second, I seem to have shifted my loyalties to the old-school methods: namely, those consisting of a largeish diary, and a really fast ballpoint pen. (The latter have yielded half-a-dozen stories over the past two months or so, let's see how soon I overcome my inertia and type them down...) Managed to finish about two dozen books which had been staring at me guiltily over the bookshelf.... and believe it or not, I still have about a dozen unread! (I do have about two weeks left before college starts again... ah well...) Following are some of the highlights of the summer, in all matters literary:

1. Oblivion- David Foster Wallace - Where does one begin to describe a man like David Foster Wallace? Perhaps the most succinct description came from an NYTimes article somewhere in the eary 90's, when Wallace, not yet 30, was already the toast of the literary world, following the release of "Infinite Jest" , his massive 1079 page postmodernist tome, which apart from many other oddities, was about a film so entertaining that anyone who saw it lost interest for everything else, literally being entertained to death. The article said that "Wallace is a genius who happened to be a writer, not the other way around..."

Drawing from the tradition of the spiralling, metafictional , sprawling narratives of Thomas Pynchon(he'll make an appearance very soon in this article), John Barth(whose "Lost In The Funhouse" is as entertaining a collection of shorts as you'll ever come across) and William Gaddis, DFW captured the imagination of critics and readers across America, with his cruelly accurate insights into pop cultural cliches, and the little tyrannies of our everyday lives. Having made his mark with his Big Novel, he began to redefine the way the shorter format is perceived with his stunning collection "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men". I read the book this January, and watched the excellent John Krasinski adaptation, and was sufficiently moved to concentrate my energies over the next month to bring forth a stage adaptation, which was a tremendous high for me, acting in and directing something my hero wrote.

Oblivion, Wallace's last completed book (before he hung himself in 2008) is destined to be a future classic, and Wallace's inimitable style is on ample display here: the ferocious intellect, the deadpan humour, the juxtaposition of pop cultural elements, both high and low, and of course, his signature serial digresser tendencies, choc-a-bloc with footnotes, which are sometimes more extensive than the main text itself. One story "Good Old Neon" (which I believe is available online) in particular is an eerie, yet darkly funny account of a suicidal man and his own stock-taking of his life.

2. A Suitable Boy- Vikram Seth - This book and I have had a tedious, sometimes edgy relationship even before I read it. When I was sixteen, I had first thought I was ready for Seth's best known work, having enjoyed "The Golden Gate" his virtuoso verse-novel, and his various travel writings. That was five years ago. But everytime the sixteen-year old me stepped into a bookshop, I found myself troubled by two observations: One, operating on a limited budget, I could buy two, sometime three novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a writer I had just discovered then (I was tremendously enamoured then, as I am today, only thing is, I've read most of his stuff now ), at the same price. And second, yes at times I was overawed by the sheer size of it, 1349 pages daring me to take the challenge. In my defence, I was preparing myself for a gruelling two years then, trying to get into IIT.

So, for these somewhat farcical reasons, I'd steered clear of Seth's whopper of a book so far. This time though, it was the first book with which I kicked off the summer( and what a summer it has been!). I suppose the best compliment one can give to A Suitable Boy is quite simply, that it is massively entertaining. It does not comprise of a single uninteresting sentence. And that, in itself, is no mean feat, across 1300 odd pages, and topics ranging from the Partition of India, the controversial land reforms in the 1950s, the decline of the erstwhile princely states of the country, Hindu-Muslim conflicts, the relative merits of the English and the traditional methods of shoemaking(this has actually been given quite an extended run in the book!) and the proper way to maintain a good garden in an Indian summer.

A Suitable Boy deserves all the hype, and enthusiasm it received, both in India, and in the West, when it was first published, nearly two decades ago. It was said about Joyce's Ulysses( a book Seth criticized in an interview for being overblown and unreadable, by the way) that one could recreate Dublin from scratch, just by reading it. Well, the same thing can be said of A Suitable Boy, and the unforgettable portrait of 1950's India it paints.(not just Purva Pradesh, Seth's literary alter for Uttar Pradesh, but also Calcutta) Seth channelizes the spirit of Tolstoy, Austen and Dickens, to name but a few masters of yore, with not just his purity of style, but the shining sincerity of his ruminations. Think Rushdie's scope and vision, but stripped away of the excesses he's often guilty of, and filled instead with the gentle humour of R.K. Narayan; the polished erudition of a Milan Kundera or an Umberto Eco married with the easy likeability of a Wodehouse. This is the kind of book which has the depth and the comprehensiveness of a whole, magnificent body of work. I began to read it, thinking I'd give it as much time as it demands, but ended up limiting myself to 100 pages a day max, for fear of finishing it too quickly! P.S. Seth has a sequel, "A Suitable Girl" lined up for 2013!

3. A Mercy - Toni Morrison - From the biggest book on the list(indeed, on any list for that matter), we move on to the smallest. This slim volume from Nobel Laureate Morrison (weighing in at a svelte 160 pages) has seventeenth century America as its setting. Slavery, and the crushing of the human spirit, the difficult and sometimes unimaginable choices one has to make in the toughest of situations; these are some of the epic themes Morrison covers, many of which she has dealt with in the past, in a masterly manner, with "Beloved" which is one of the most celebrated American works of the last century.

A Mercy can be called a sequel, or perhaps prequel(a term much in vogue these days, mostly due to Hollywood head honchos short on inspiration but big on enthusiasm) in spirit to Beloved, but it is rather different in tone. I believe Morrison has absolutely no peers when it comes to delivering loaded, crushing one-liners immediately following a pregnant pause or a especially tense or poignant showdown.

In the past, she has been called Shakespearean for the stark emotionality of her plots and her penchant for supremely lyrical dialogue. Here, the lyrical flights of fancy have been toned down somewhat, but the sheer tautness of the book, and its ominous overtones make for a compelling read. Make no mistake, this is the mature work of a master supremely secure of her skill, and on top of her game.

4. Moth Smoke- Mohsin Hamid - I had previously read and enjoyed "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" , Hamid's wickedly clever post 9/11 cautionary tale, which had remarkable restraint over its plot, giving away just the right amounts at every stage, and ended on a thrilling note, all the while exploring the culture of mutual distrust which has taken root in the deeply polarised world we live in today. In the process of reading more about Hamid, I came across Moth Smoke, which was Hamid's debut novel. (At Princeton, he had enrolled in a course taught by Toni Morrison, and apparently she had given her blessings to the first finishded draft of Moth Smoke, writing in the margins her own thoughts and suggestions!) Moth Smoke's protagonist Darashikoh, or Daru, as he is known to his friends, traces a rollercoaster ride, a journey which can only be described as a bildungsroman in reverse, as his decline is brought about by his penchant for heroin and his ill-advised liasion with his best friend's wife.

But this is no blood-and-guts noir gorefest. This is murder with a silk scarf(a phrase I once read in an article about Rahul Dravid scoring a half-century in 20-odd balls in a one-day match), as Hamid dissects the nature of obesession, jealousy and despair. I felt that one problem with Hamid in The Reluctant Fudamentalist was that at times, he took the background and the political aspects of his work a trifle heavy-handedly. In this respect, Moth Smoke scores over its successor, as Hamid's light touch and devastating satire do not desert him anywhere, whether he is talking about the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, or about the disconnect in mindsets between the nascent generation of yuppies in Lahore, as opposes to the fundamentalist youth (called "fundos" in the book). A passage where Daru, at first disdainful about the "fundos" , gradually softens up and says carelessly at the end "they're right of course, in their own way.." is a dark precursor of both Daru's own decline and Hamid's ever-growing concerns in this direction which are explored at length in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. At any rate, Hamid along with Aravind Adiga, signals exciting times ahead for subcontinental literature, despite what naysayers like Hanif Kureishi would have you believe.

5. Collected Stories- Saul Bellow - The enfant terrible of British literature, Martin Amis, commented once that Saul Bellow was "the greatest writer America has ever produced". Now, Amis is quite niggardly with praise at the best of times. So we can safely claim that Amis had been genuinely moved. James Wood , one of the most respected critics in the business, and another lifelong admirer of Bellow, wrote in his foreword to the edition I have, " I compared all modern prose to his, perhaps a tad unfairly. For before him, even the fleet-footed, the Updikes, the Roths, and the DeLillos seemed like monopodes." I had previously read Bellow's novella "Seize The Day" and while impressed with the dazzling prose and the philosophical digressions and arguments put forth, the book seemed a trifle didactic to me at times, and even though it was a slim book, tedious in portions.

No such troubles here. This is the collection of a lifetime, as we are treated to 13 of the best, selected by the master himself. Some of the stories often seem like stillborn novels(this volume does in fact include two of his works which were originally released as novels) , but that is part of their charm as Bellow casts a piercing eye to even the most banal of things and turns it into a mirror, reflecting our most insidious weaknesses, and sometimes our most redeeming qualities. Bellow is a writer capable of laugh-out loud humour and cruelly honest introspection in the twinkle of an eye. His characters are often high intellectuals with hollow inner lives, or down-on-luck losers who have an epiphanic experience, which is not always uplifting or redeeming, but always fascinating in a subtly cerebral way. Jewishness and the American experience, while they do feature prominently in his work, do not quite overwhelm it, like say, Philip Roth. In this, as in many other respects, Bellow is the perfect marriage of the intrinsically local and the obviously universal. Add to this his physical descriptions of his larger-than-life characters and the visual aspect of his writing (sample this: "His baldness was total, like a purge" OR " A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance, when the need for illusion is deep." ) , and he makes for a compelling reading experience.

6. Naked Lunch- William S. Burroughs - Some commentators believe that the origin of postmodernism in literature can be traced back to the exact moment that William S.Burroughs released "Naked Lunch". Such was the impact of this path-breaking novel. Although at first, the term "novel" itself seemed inaccurate, and maybe even inadequate to describe this work. A series of vignettes about the travels of William Lee, junkie, a.k.a The Agent, from U.S. to Morocco, to some places not on the map at all, strictly speaking, like the psychedelic "Interzone" , Burroughs had written these segments separately in a drug-induced haze, and used the now famous "cut-up" technique to assemble the book with the help of his friend, the legendary poet Allen Ginsberg.

A nightmarish journey about the horrors of addiction, the fascism of authority figures and the smothering of personal freedom are some of the major topics Burroughs touches upon. He incorporated elements of pastiche and science fiction, especially, in the otherwise uber-gritty narrative, which alternates between "hard" realism and phantasmagoric imagery, leaving the reader spellbound. One of his unforgettable characters, Dr. Benway, is the most wickedly funny caricature you'll ever see: dripping saccharine, utterly unscrupulous, and charmingly operatic, Benway is the kind of doctor who'll smash your kneecaps with a sledge-hammer and then ask, pearly white teeth shining, "Did that hurt?"

Burroughs enjoyed iconic stature as a counter-culture messiah for several decades (interesting factoid: the band Steely Dan takes its name from a character in Naked Lunch), until his death in 1997. I look forward to reading his other works, especially Cities Of The Red Night.

7. Mason & Dixon- Thomas Pynchon -- Thomas Pynchon, one of the leading lights of American literature, renowned not only for his big, ambitious, jaw-droppingly diverse narratives, like Gravity's Rainbow, or the more recent Against The Day; but also for his famously reclusive nature. I'd earlier read "The Crying Of Lot 49" which is perhaps his most accessible book, and also quite short compared to his other work, including Mason & Dixon.

But after nearly 800 pages, I can tell you that it's well worth the effort, for Pynchon weaves elements of classic adventure stories, the Victorian social novel with his postmodernist sensibilities and his treasure trove of allusions from astronomy, philosophy, literature both popular and obscure, trade practices, little-known dialects, etymology (this seems to be one of his pet peeves, actually), nautical science..... it goes on and on. Critics of Pynchon complain that his novels are way too dense, overwritten, arcane and unreadable. But to them, I say, "You're missing the point". For beneath all this, Pynchon is a terrific humorist, a formidable intellect with an unerring ear for dialogue, and above all, more than capable of spinning a bloody good yarn.

In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon weaves a fable of the two astronomers who met on a scholarly mission to map the transit of Venus, at the Cape Of Good Hope in South Africa, but ended up being the architects of the ubiquitous Mason-Dixon Line in America, which is now a cultural line demarcating the erstwhile slavery states. This is a book which demands a lot from the reader by way of attention to detail, but delivers rich dividends. I have the massive "Against The Day" as well, on my shelf, and I look forward to a new adventure there(although not just now, actually: I finished Mason and Dixon yesterday... and am in no shape to start another 1200 pages of Pynchonalia :P )

Honourable Mention: Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell" , (an unusual, thrilling mix of fantasy and social satire) , Alexander McCall Smith's "2 1/2 Pillars Of Wisdom" trilogy (at his best, Smith manages to evoke memories of both Wodehouse and Narayan), Douglas Adams' "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" (no explanations needed!) Jess Winfield's "My Name Is Will" (a superb coming-of-age tale about "sex, drugs and Shakespeare" as written on the cover), "Yuganta" a book of bold and insightful essays, by Irawati Karve about the Mahabharata , and finally "Seven 6s are 43", the 1974 debut novel of Kiran Nagarkar, who gave us the wonderful "Cuckold", yet remains one of India’s most underrated authors.