Sunday, April 29, 2007

Post-apocalypse Now

THE ROAD Cormac McCarthy

(A longer version of this appeared in yesterday's Sunday Times of India.)

Winter in America. The land has been devastated and people are on the move, alone or in packs. Food is scarce; death, ubiquitous; cannibalism, common. Through this terrain trudge a man and his young son, pushing a ramshackle cart containing food and other essentials, heading towards the sea.

This is the setting of Cormac McCarthy’s chilling new novel, which intermittently brings to mind Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ – if that can be seen as a response to the horrors of World War I, this is equally a response to our age’s globalisation of terror.

As before, McCarthy’s prose is Faulknerian in quirkiness, yet Hemingwayesque in rhythm. His stomach-churning scenes are undercut by moments of tenderness between father and his son -- he seems to imply that the best place to look for redemption is in the bonds between people; but when it comes to his characters, there is only a hopeless vigilance.

McCarthy’s landscapes are always evocative: here, the land is “barren, silent, godless”, and “ash” is a funereal incantation, on almost every page. Yes, one can quibble about the puzzling indications that the son will become the conscience-keeper of a new generation, and the coincidence in the conclusion. Yet, in its entirety, The Road is a powerful testament with the hypnotic power of a Biblical passage.

Worth your while? Yes, but may require some hours of mindless TV soap viewing to get over its impact.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It's All In The Details


Coming across a debut novel with a unique style is always a pleasure, and such was the case with Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. His follow-up is a lot more ambitious -- with mixed results.

McGregor tempers his charged, poetic prose to tell the story of David Carter who, because of an aunt’s slip of the tongue, realises he’s an adopted child. David’s life so far has been unexceptional though not always pleasant – his wife, Eleanor, is prone to fits of depression, and this also affects the couple’s relationship with their daughter.

David is a Coventry museum curator and, fittingly, his search for fulfillment over the years is told though the artifacts that fill his life – each section begins with memories related to identity badges, cinema tickets, catalogues, birth certificates, wine corks and the like.

The structure is ingenious, the prose skilled and the characters’ lives attended to with care. However, such total immersion in the minutiae of middle-class British life makes the novel more dreary than delightful. As Andrea del Sarto said of his work: “A common greyness silvers everything”.

Worth your while? Certainly not to be discarded outright, but too long and cheerless, alas.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Young Einstein

TANGLEWRECK Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson’s first novel for so-called “young adults”, Tanglewreck is a fast-paced, imaginative tale involving travel through time and space and an attempt at world domination foiled by Silver, the 11-year-old heroine.

It all revolves around the secrets of Tanglewreck, an old mansion inhabited by Silver and her conniving guardian, and attempts by sundry sinister characters to unearth the Timekeeper, a clock that gives the owner control of the universe. There’s enough material to keep you wholly absorbed: clever applications of Quantum Theory (earlier explored in Winterson’s somewhat affected Gut Symmetries); a Dickensian cast (Thugger, Fisty, Mrs Rokabye and Abel Darkwater, not to mention Bigamist, the evil rabbit.); and a plot that, despite getting a bit too, well, tangled, isn’t wrecked by any means. (Devout Catholics beware: along the way, uncomplimentary things are said about Popes)

The prose is free of pretension and Winterson doesn’t let ingenuity get in the way of warmth – though some may balk at the novel’s overriding sentiment that the only thing faster than the speed of light is “the speed of love”.

Worth your while? Yes, even if you don’t have an intelligent pre-teen at home.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Town And Country

A FAR COUNTRY Daniel Mason

A quaint, old-fashioned word comes to mind while reading Daniel Mason’s second novel, and that word is “integrity”. Though it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the book, the country of the title is clearly Brazil, and, with his heart in the right place, Mason speaks to us of the age-old opposition between the city and the village.

It’s the story of Isabel, from a sugarcane cropping family that has, for ages, been a victim of the region’s cycle of droughts. Isabel’s musically-inclined brother Isaias leaves for the city (Rio de Janeiro) hoping for a better livelihood like many before him. When he vanishes, the preternaturally sensitive Isabel sets out in search, taking her chances among the impoverished in the city’s slums.

Though Mason’s writing is knowledgeable and descriptive, the narrative meanders and strikes the same note time and again, contrasting urban and rural ways of life with a clear bias towards the latter. It’s as though he started out with a premise and then peopled it with characters, rather than the other way around. Very well-intentioned, but also very lethargic.

Worth your while? Not as evocative and accomplished as Mason’s debut, The Piano Tuner, which you ought to pick up if you haven’t done so already.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nine Reasons To Read This One


Because it’s short, yet evocative: a relief at a time when authors needlessly pile on the pages.

Because it’s hard enough to sustain a distinctive voice for a dramatic monologue in a poem (ask Robert Browning), leave alone an entire novel.

Because the voice is just right – formal without being sombre; precise without being stiff.

Because, unlike in John Updike’s Terrorist, you can empathise with and understand Changez, the fundamentalist.

Because of the delicious ironies, among them the fact that Changez works in a US firm that evaluates companies ripe for takeover; virtually the first piece of advice he receives is to stick to the fundamentals.

Because Changez’s disillusionment comes about in a nuanced, progressive manner and as such is completely believable.

Because there’s ample evidence of the author’s craft, especially in Changez’s many responses and descriptions while narrating his tale in a Lahore bazaar.

Because yet another example of such craft is that Changez’s ill-fated relationship with the USA is matched by his ill-fated relationship with Erica – without being heavy-handed about it.

Because in less than 200 pages, Hamid creates both a compelling protagonist and a compelling argument.

Worth your while? Should be obvious by now.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Disunited States


In the past, Jim Crace has shown a penchant for unconventional novelistic subjects: Stone Age man or Jesus in the wilderness, for example. Now, he envisions an America of the future, which has regressed to a medieval time. Bands of survivors travel down highways -- stopping at remaining towns and villages -- en route to the east from where they hope to set sail to other lands for a better life.

It’s an ironic inversion: America, in Crace’s book, is a society of emigrants, not immigrants, not a land of opportunity, but one of lost causes. Across this blighted landscape trudge Margaret, newly recovered from the plague, and Franklin, her would-be beau, who has encountered her in a ‘pesthouse’, a room of quarantine.

The narrative is taut and accomplished, and Crace takes pains to mythologise his invented land – with, for example, a Dreaming Highway, an Ark and Finger Baptists. Yet, the novel lacks resonance, and this is because the central conceit of a future America as a large pesthouse is hijacked by the desire of main characters to seek a one-dimensional love that overcomes all else.

Worth your while? If you’re a Jim Crace fan, certainly. Otherwise, turn to Cormac McCarthy’s own chilling take on post-apocalyptic America, The Road.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Drawing A Blank


Paul Auster’s new novel is an unsatisfying metaphysical conundrum that leaves one wishing he hadn’t veered away from the more conventional form of The Brooklyn Follies.

A man referred to as Mr Blank awakens in a room that may (or may not) be locked. He has no memory of who he is and how he came to be here. He sees labels affixed to the table, lamp and the wall, spelling out what they are and, on the table, a sheaf of photographs and piles of pages.

The pages turn out to be the unfinished narrative of a person caught in a war instigated by “the Confederacy” in an alternative-universe America. One by one, people begin to visit Mr Blank; these, we realise, are characters from Auster’s earlier fictions. Ah, so this is a postmodern report on creativity and the writer’s condition.

It’s all very clever and tautly-written, as though Robbe-Grillet had decided to get inside a writer’s head with the same cool precision he brought to his description of surfaces. But it’s also rather dry and bleak -- leaving one perplexed rather than provoked.

Worth your while? Only if you plan on attending a seminar entitled “Postmodernism Isn’t Dead And Never Will Be”.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Siamese Pleasures

SIGHTSEEING Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Yiyun Li’s adept short stories gave us glimpses of a China coming to terms with modernity; now, Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s debut collection brings to our notice the lives of those in Thailand in an age of globalisation. (Both were recently anointed by Granta as among the best young writers in America today.)

Many of the first-person stories here could have a common narrator: a young, alienated Thai attracted to and made guilty by the charms of the West, with a tough-talking mother and absent or deluded father. Such is the case in ‘Farangs’, and ‘At the CafĂ© Lovely’, for example. In ‘Don’t Let Me Die in This Place’, Lapcharoensap delineates with equal felicity the predicament of an ageing American living in Bangkok with his son’s Thai family. The long ‘Cockfighter’ is a tad overstated, yet remains fluidly written and moving.

The prose style is a delight: accomplished and attractive, with a light-heartedness that doesn’t ignore the acute issues beneath -- be they gender differences or the competing attractions of nationalism and the West.

Worth your while? Certainly – and not just because you were planning that next holiday in Patpong

C'est Ne Pas La Vie


Though the end of the Cold War meant a drying up of material for thriller writers, 9/11 had them rushing back to their keyboards. But lo and behold, others jumped on board too, and today you can’t throw a stone in a bookstore without striking a sensitive volume dealing with the aftermath of that day.

With The Good Life, former bratpacker Jay McInerney joins the gang. It deals with well-heeled Manhattan couples Russell and Corrine (first seen in Brightness Falls) and Luke and Sasha. Luke, a former financial whizkid, has taken time off for contemplation; working in a shelter near Ground Zero, he encounters Corrinne. Their affair and its consequences make up the rest.

All McInerney’s trademarks are present: brand, celebrity and restaurant name dropping, satirical small talk, cool prose. Readable enough, though towards the end, a descent into mawkishness and a pastoral idyll make things decidedly syrupy. The terrorist attack fades into the background, becoming no more than a device with which to explore old preoccupations. Which is a bit…tacky.

Worth your while? If reading about Manhattan’s social butterflies pinned down by 9/11 is your bag, you’d be better off with Claire Messud’s elegant The Emperor’s Children.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sex On The Beach


On Chesil beach in Dorset, the sea and wind grade pebbles according to size, smaller yielding to larger. It is this that Ian McEwan’s elegantly-fashioned new novel mirrors, dealing with large consequences of small actions.

It is 1962: a time of Harold Macmillan and disintegrating Empire. Vietnam protests, flower power and bra-burning are still a while away. One July day in this repressive age, newlyweds Edward and Florence, virgins in their early twenties, arrive at an inn on the beach to consummate their marriage. The night will be decisive, marked by Edward’s fear of failure and Florence’s diffident inexperience.

In precise, understated prose, McEwan portrays the restless, self-righteous Edward and the affectionate, straitlaced Florence. His explorations of the workings of their consciousness, especially during their final encounter, are delicate and impressive. In spirit, if not in style, the ending is reminiscent of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing”.

Worth your while? Yes – if only to realise what the banning of sex education across states in India can do to an entire generation.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Too Many Characters, Too Many Doughnuts


So you’re on this long flight and the guy next to you looks interesting and you strike up a conversation. And you were right, he is interesting, he’s erudite and witty and clever, and he can turn a phrase and he starts telling you stories from his home town of Manhattan, stories of men and women (and children) whose lives revolve around a mega TV series in development, an epic miniseries on the history of divining, and of how all the people – production heads, secretaries, actors, bicycle messengers and more – want a piece of the action. And he gets inside all these characters’ heads and makes the whole thing a satire on American pop culture and it’s all very droll, but the thing is, he goes on and on and on, talking of main characters, peripheral characters, relatives of characters and their whims and vices (Krispy Kreme doughnuts, anyone?) so that after a while, your eyes start to glaze over and you start glancing uneasily at your watch and begin to wonder when he’s ever going to stop. That’s what reading Rick Moody’s new book is like.

Worth your while? You’d be better off with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.