Sunday, December 30, 2007

Books 2007

This was written for Mail Today, the India Today group's new New Delhi newspaper. Sadly, an errant sub-editor hacked off the last two paragraphs. Here it is, in full.

To begin with, three memorable books that were published in 2006, but that I read only in 2007. The first, Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a luminous and moving novel which showed us characters caught in the crossfire of the Biafran conflict without being polemical about it. The second, former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, a non-fiction account of American intervention in overseas regimes in the last century, from Hawaii to Iraq, a timely reminder of how the world’s superpower has meddled, often with calamitous results, in the affairs of those that pursue goals not to its liking. Finally, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road rose above the rest for its spare yet Biblical use of language to convey a bleak, austere vision.

The discovery of the year was, of course, Chilean author Roberto Bolano. Natasha Wimmer’s translation of his polyphonic, audacious The Savage Detectives and Chris Andrews’ rendition of some of his earlier short stories, Last Evenings on Earth, were felicitous. (One awaits his to-be-released masterpiece, 2066, in 2008.)

From the sub-continental diaspora, the voices that stood out were Nalini Jones’ sensitive short story debut, What You Call Winter, Mohsin Hamid’s brave and well-structured The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Boston-based surgeon Atul Gawande’s further musings on his profession, Better.

From India, Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi was readable, magisterial and even-handed, and William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal was a poignant retelling of the days of 1857. One hopes that these are harbingers of more such books on Indian history.

To turn to racier subjects, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black produced a fine thriller in Christine Falls, a novel steeped in the atmosphere of 1950s Dublin and swirling with moral ambiguity. Another thriller that made a political point without sacrificing an iota of entertainment was Robert Harris’ The Ghost, clearly born out of the author’s disagreement with Tony Blair over Britain’s support for the Iraq War.

Considering that so many of us spend so much time at work, it’s a wonder there aren’t more novels about office life. Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, Then We Came To The End, filled the gap admirably. Dealing with the goings-on at a beleaguered Chicago-based advertising agency, it was witty and incisive. Ferris makes pitch-perfect use of the first-person plural throughout – the last time I came across this technique was in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.

And in the last month of the year, I spent much time poring over a work devoted to the avant garde movement in the arts, Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. Though not distinguished by bold new pronouncements or radical reassessments, it’s an engaging, broad overview of the artists and works that defined the period, from Baudelaire to Warhol. Very stimulating: a reminder that though we may find many good works of art nowadays, we don’t come across any great ones.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Ford Fiesta

This appeared in the lastest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


Funny things, anthologies. Their titles tend towards the definitive: The Oxford Book of This, The Penguin Book of That, The Vintage Book of Whatever. Yet, inevitably, every anthology exhibits individual tastes; it’s the nature of the beast. So it is with The New Granta Book of the American Short Story edited by Richard Ford, a follow-up to his 1992 The Granta Book of the American Short Story. This volume contains new tales by 14 authors from the former book, as well as those by a later generation. Evidently, then, it isn’t intended to replace, but be a foil for, the earlier compilation.

Some of Ford’s choices are clearly unusual. John Cheever’s ‘Reunion’ and Raymond Carver’s ‘Errand’ – fine-tuned narratives though they may be -- are hardly representative of those authors’ works. The so-called experimental writing of the Seventies is represented by just one story, Donald Barthelme’s ‘Me and Miss Mandible’, with Robert Coover getting the axe. And while it’s gratifying to see Richard Yates included once more, it’s disheartening to note that Bernard Malamud isn’t.

For the rest, Ford’s selection is generous, not favouring modes or movements. There are the formal verities of Eudora Welty; the colloquial corrosiveness of Grace Paley; the loopy poignancy of George Saunders; and the gritty revelations of Z.Z. Packer, among more than 40 others. Interestingly, many of the authors featured here have only one collection of short stories published so far – including Jhumpa Lahiri, Nell Freudenberger, Nathan Englander and Adam Haslett.

Ford’s introduction, which is nothing less than a full-blown exaltation of the short story writer’s art – mentioning Chekhov as a prime exemplar, naturellement -- states that one of the fundamental traits of the short story is that of audacity, a bold exercise of the writer’s authority. Well, the narratives in this hefty volume certainly live up to that description. Modesty be damned: the anthologist should have included one of his own stories as well.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Zuckerman Unmanned

Looks like my New Year's resolution has to be to post more regularly. Meanwhile, here's a review that appeared in the December 29th issue of Tehelka.

EXIT GHOST Philip Roth

One of the pleasures of reading Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost is that of elegiac resonance. Roth has stated that this is to be the last book featuring Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego – or “alter brain”, as he once put it – and from its pages arises the whiff of Zuckerman’s past exploits, as well as reverberations of the author’s other work.

Ever since – and perhaps because of -- the conservative Jewish community’s outrage at his short story ‘Defender of the Faith’, which continued with Goodbye Columbus and erupted with Portnoy’s Complaint, one of Roth’s concerns has been to explore the connections between a writer’s work and his life in unshackled prose, leaving behind the Jamesian methods of Letting Go or When She Was Good. And one of the best illustrations of this teasing interplay between fiction and reality is in the character of Nathan Zuckerman.

Though Zuckerman first featured in the early sections of My Life as a Man in 1974, he only appeared as a full-blown character with 1979’s The Ghost Writer. Here, as an apprentice novelist, he sets off to meet his idol, the reclusive E.I. Lonoff (thought to be inspired by Bernard Malamud). In Lonoff’s house, Zuckerman loses himself in fantasies of marrying Amy Bellette, another guest, believing her to be Anne Frank, who has escaped the Nazis to live incognito in the United States. On such audacious conceits has Roth built his career.

Over the years, Zuckerman appeared in seven other novels, sometimes as a protagonist (Zuckerman Unbound, The Counterlife) and sometimes as a receptacle of the tales of others (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist). We last encountered him in 2000’s The Human Stain, when he had become a Lonoff-like recluse himself, an author in his 60s living in New England and recovering from prostate cancer.

In Exit Ghost the 71-year-old Zuckerman leaves his retreat in the Berkshires and travels to New York after 11 years for the treatment of incontinence brought about by prostate surgery. From the beginning, he makes his disruption with the modern world clear: “I don’t go to dinner parties, I don’t go to movies, I don’t watch television, I don’t own a cell phone or a VCR or a DVD player or a computer. I continue to live in the Age of the Typewriter and have no idea what the World Wide Web is”.

In New York, Roth’s Rip Van Winkle encounters a ghost from his past, none other than Amy Bellette, now 75 and recovering from a brain tumor (an echo of The Anatomy Lesson, in which Zuckerman’s mother suffers from a similar ailment). After spotting a classified advertisement issued by a couple on the Upper West Side wanting to exchange residences for a year, he decides to take up their offer: they are Jamie Logan and Billy Davidoff, fledgling writers themselves, who want to leave the city in the aftermath of 9/11. He’s also plagued by freelance journalist Richard Kliman, writing a biography of E.I. Lonoff after supposedly unearthing a dark secret from his past.

In one final attempt to grasp life’s possibilities, Zuckerman finds himself hopelessly drawn to the 30-year-old Jamie; wanting to re-establish contact with Amy; and needing to put a stop to Richard’s investigations. This bleakly comic and painfully tragic tale of Zuckerman unmanned is leavened by extracts from his writing, comprising flirtatious conversations with Jamie. Unfortunately, this merely resembles a watered-down version of Roth’s earlier Deception.

The theme of mortality and waning powers is strong here, as in the spare Everyman; in addition, there are observations on the work of Eliot, Conrad and Hemingway, among others, buttressing the ideas Roth raises about the truth of art versus the intrusiveness of life.

Understandably, Roth’s sentences have lost some of that trademark Celine-like edge, and some sections of the novel are digressive – such as Billy’s account of Jamie’s upbringing or the details of George Plimpton’s career and funeral. But though Exit Ghost doesn’t quite compare with the earlier Zuckerman novels, there’s still enough vigour in this swan song to render it compelling.

Good night, Nathan. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.