Saturday, January 30, 2010

If You Really Want To Hear About It

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.

How many Zen Buddhist monks does it take to change a lightbulb, asks the old joke. The answer: none, because real change only comes from within. There were many who felt that J.D. Salinger – who died on Wednesday at 91 and was profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism -- simply refused to change, immersed in the adolescent world of his characters and shutting himself off from society in the decades before his death.

In Holden Caulfield, though, Salinger created a character that generations of disaffected teenagers saw when they looked in the mirror. The alienated 16-year-old protagonist of 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye and his laconic pronouncements had a profound effect, traces of which are to be found till today in estranged anti-heroes on screen, embittered song lyrics and fictional heirs from Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood to Russell Banks’ Chappie.

Such passion leads to extremes: the book was banned several times across high schools in the US; Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s assassin, quoted from it during his trial; and it was rumoured that Kurt Cobain was re-reading passages some days before his suicide.

Salinger’s other major fictional creation – and obsession – was the Glass family. Short stories featuring its members were collected in Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. (There were other uncollected appearances in The New Yorker, notably Hapsworth 16, 1924.) These are tales of seven precociously talented siblings -- professors, soldiers, homemakers, students – who are round pegs in square holes. If Salinger’s teenage years informed almost everything he wrote, here we also find him mining his traumatic World War II service memories.

It was the buzz around The Catcher in the Rye, though, that the author found unbearable. Fleeing the “goddamn phonies”, he retreated to the hamlet of Cornish in New Hampshire to remain diagonally parked in a parallel universe for the rest of his life. Perhaps all he wanted was to stay submerged in his beloved Glass family without the world butting in.

Salinger-spotting soon became the outdoor equivalent of a literary parlour game, even though the author stubbornly turned down almost all requests for meetings or interviews, blocking the publication of British journalist Ian Hamilton’s book on his writing career (a version of which appeared as In Search of J.D. Salinger). Over time, unflattering memoirs appeared, notably those of young ex-lover Joyce Maynard and daughter Margaret.

Throughout his seclusion, Salinger was said to be writing obsessively. Now that he’s no more, there’s sure to be pressure on his family to release all or some of those manuscripts for scrutiny. It’s a difficult decision: to go the way of Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, and Dmitri, Nabokov’s son; or respect the fact that Salinger himself displayed no desire to share his prose. For now, we’re left with Holden’s words: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Love One Another And Die

A slightly shorter version of this appeared in today's The Hindustan Times

IF I COULD TELL YOU Soumya Bhattacharya

The narrator of Saumya Bhattacharya’s If I Could Tell You dotes on his daughter, is a cricket enthusiast, has lived in Bombay and London, and is set on becoming a writer. Clearly, Bhattacharya is keen to create a teasing interplay between his life and his fiction, evident from the very first word of the book: Oishi, the name of both the narrator and novelist’s daughter.

Speaking of his work-in-progress, the unnamed narrator quotes Bellow – “fiction is the higher autobiography” – and clarifies that, in the words of Roth, this is a confession in the guise of a novel, not the other way around. The differences between reality and the novel become clear as the book’s tragic dimension unfolds; one should heed Lawrence and trust the tale, not the teller.

Love and frustration encircle the narrative like strands of a double helix. This is the tale of a character drawing from his life to write “a novel of unfulfilled ambition and hope, about fatherhood and wanting to be a writer”. It’s in the form of letters to his daughter, a structure that allows for reflection and digression; to Bhattacharya’s credit, such meditations are part of the overall flow rather than detracting from it.

The novel opens with Oishi’s birth on a Calcutta evening in 2001, and circles between past and present – the death of the narrator’s parents when he was three; his years in Calcutta and Bombay; his invested nest-egg; his time studying in London; meetings with his to-be wife; and their lives in Bombay. It’s when an act of na├»ve unfaithfulness comes to light that relationships are wrecked, a situation further complicated by the slackening of India’s much-touted growth by the recent recession.

The prose is compressed and lucid in portraying events and emotions, yet lyrical in description and detail, be that of monsoon skies, sunlight on a London park, a torn rejection letter or rain-soiled umbrellas. (Because of this display of control, the inebriated, Joycean ending comes as a surprising affectation.)

This is a narrator for whom literature has replaced religion – witness the frequent allusions to other writers -- and who exists at an angle to the universe. Of his time in London, he says, “It seemed to me that I wasn’t a real person in a real world but inhabiting the world of books that I carried around in my head”.

Such solipsism unfortunately creates the effect of events happening in a bubble, unshackled from surroundings and social moorings -- even though the gentrification of Mumbai’s suburbs, crumbling infrastructure and noxious traffic are often mentioned. This inwardness also weakens the portrayal of other characters: the wife, for example, appears only when she has a specific role to play, not being woven into the novel’s texture. The narrator refers to himself as unreliable, yet this unreliability – and his awareness of it – appears underdone.

The novel’s title, and one of its epigraphs, is from the Auden poem of the same name. The blend of tenderness and tragedy in this tale “of hopes thwarted, of promises broken” reminds one of another famously-amended line by the same poet: “We must love one another,” he wrote, “and die”.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sex And Death

A slightly edited version of this appeared in today's Mint Lounge


Given that there’s usually been a hallway of mirrors between Philip Roth’s life and his fiction, it’s hard not to think of this, his 30th novel, as an allegory for his own situation. “He’d lost his magic,” is how The Humbling begins, and though at 76, Roth’s output remains undimmed, his books have of late verged on the stark and the melancholy, dealing with loss of powers and imminent mortality.

This, of course, wasn’t always the case. The best of Roth’s novels feature characters who erupt with vitality, be it Alexander Portnoy or Mickey Sabbath. Even American Pastoral’s tragic, conflicted Swede Levov is tireless in his attempts to unravel the mystery of his daughter’s whereabouts. All that changed from 2006, with the elegiac Everyman – though glimmerings emerged in 2001’s The Dying Animal – and continued with Nathan Zuckerman’s swan song, Exit Ghost. Though Indignation’s innocent, hard-working Marcus Messner appeared to buck the trend, we now have the slim The Humbling.

Unfolding in three acts, the novel introduces us without any ado to the predicament of Simon Axler, “the last of the best of the classic American stage actors”. Now in his sixties, and facing the aftermath of a string of disastrous performances, Axler finds himself bereft of self-confidence and talent. His wife leaves him to stay with their son and, alone in his isolated dwelling in rural New York, Axler contemplates suicide with the aid of a shotgun he keeps in the attic. (At which point it would be wise to keep Chekhov’s admonition in mind: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”)

Pooh-poohing his agent’s plea that he sign on for a production of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Axler spends 26 days in a psychiatric facility bonding with the other inmates and attending art therapy sessions. Though the predicament of the others makes him realize that he is not alone in his helplessness, the retreat does little to restore his self-belief.

Much of this first section carries a convincing, compelling charge, but it's when Pegeen enters Axler's life that the narrative’s waters become muddied. She's the 40-year-old daughter of Axler's former theatre friends, has been in lesbian relationships from the time she was 23, and is just recovering from a messy break-up when she takes up with the aging actor.

Axler goes about remaking her, at least in externals, buying her clothes, lingerie, jewellery and shoes in “an orgy of spending and spoiling that suited them both just fine”. After a stylish, expensive haircut, there’s something of an epiphany: “Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other than who she was? Wasn’t he dressing her up in costume as though a costly skirt could dispose of nearly two decades of lived experience?” Ignoring this still, small voice, he convinces himself of the validity and longevity of the relationship, speaking to her parents and listening patiently to her accounts of what they have to say to her.

Here, the compressed, terse, almost sketchy, prose style that made the first part forceful isn't up to the job of delineating their affair. In particular, given the context, the sex scenes are blatant and verge on the ludicrous, involving a dildo, a cat-o-nine tails and, on one occasion, a threesome. (Not for nothing was a passage nominated for the Bad Sex award). It's not that Roth hasn't been transgressive about sex before -- that’s an understatement -- but here, there’s a grim almost voyeuristic tone completely lacking his earlier sauciness.

In addition, there’s the problematic portrayal of Pegeen as stereotypically butch, especially during the episode when the two pick up a woman at a bar. The stage now is set for the final act -- compelling again -- in which we witness the fallout of the liaison and the effects on Axler’s life, readying him for a last private performance.

Woody Allen, that other eminent chronicler of the Jewish American psyche, once typically remarked that the difference between sex and death is that with death, you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you. In taking sex and death as the themes of his late-stage novels, Roth shows that he’s better at the latter than the former.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Home Run

This appeared in yesterday's The Indian Express.


Voice. Often, it’s the attribute that sets the talented novelist apart from the merely competent: the ability to communicate in a style that's distinctive and wholly of a piece with the material. From the opening paragraph of debutant H.M. Naqvi's Home Boy, you know that this is an author who has it in spades. This is the story of Ali Chaudhry, Jamshed Khan and Shehzad – “AC, Jimbo and me” - three young men of Pakistani origin adrift in the United States after 9/11.

Shehzad, the narrator, known as Chuck, is an NYU literature student-turned-investment banker-turned rookie cab driver; Jimbo is a DJ; and AC is a PhD student on a sabbatical. The plot is set in motion when they set out in Chuck’s taxi from New York City to the Connecticut home of a missing associate, Mohammed Shah, a.k.a. the Shaman, described as “a Pakistani Gatsby” (the reference to Fitzgerald's hero is entirely intentional). This triggers off a chain of events that leads to the trio’s incarceration for “terrorist leanings”. Very quickly, the paranoid mood of New York City after that fateful September morning transforms them from “boulevardiers, raconteurs, renaissance men” into “Japs, Jews, Niggers”. Upon his release, Chuck -- all messed up with no place to go – is forced to re-evaluate his life in the United States and forge new relationships.

The word used by the three musketeers to describe themselves is “metrostani”, and this could well be used to describe Naqvi’s sentences, too. “Metrostani”: the word also echoes the title of another debut novel, Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, with which Home Boy has more of an affinity than with that other 9/11 novel by another writer from Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

This is prose with panache, culturally au courant and with an eye for the absurd - a cross between early Jay McInerney and Gary Shteyngart, with subcontinental seasoning. It incorporates underground music, fashion and intoxication-producing substances as well as an Agha Shahid Ali translation of lines by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and home-cooked dishes of seekh kabab and biryani. At times it’s mordantly witty (“Just as three Jews were a conspiracy, three Muslims were a sleeper cell”); at times it’s part-knowledgeable, part-ironic (“Attempting to hail a cab on Columbus at half past eight in the morning is like trying to get a reservation at that sushi joint in Tribeca at half past eight in the evening”).

None of this should be taken to mean that the book is without a disturbing poignancy. Shadows lengthen as the narrative progresses and Chuck experiences the underside of the immigrant dream: when societies feel threatened, outsiders in their midst are looked upon with exaggerated suspicion and even hostility.

Some of the book's vigour peters out in the second half, when the narrator loses touch with his two friends and is left to his own devices. Then again, every so often there's a touch of polemic that surfaces, sometimes during Chuck’s interrogation and sometimes during dinner discussions on liberty and equality.The craft, however, is sustained throughout: take, for instance, the reverse-flip last chapter written entirely in second person. Home Boy, then, scores a home run, not least for its narrative brio. Please welcome Mr Naqvi to the already-impressive roster of novelists from Pakistan writing in English.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Jet Lag

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka


One of the problems besetting the travel writer must be that of how to organize his or her material, of how to make all those scribbled notes cohere to form a manuscript that holds together from first to last. In many cases, the nature of the voyage itself provides the necessary spine: I. Alan Sealy’s 1995 From Yukon to Yucatan, for instance, was the record of a journey that followed the route of the first Native Americans, from the snowy wastes of Alaska down to the bulk of the continent and ending in Mexico. Then again, there’s the simple, stirring manifesto of William Least-Heat Moon: “I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”

What strikes one overwhelmingly about the bulk of Dilip D’Souza’s Roadrunner is the absence of just such an organizing principle. This is the record of road trips across the United States over a period of 18 months – many undertaken probably during the decade that D’Souza was living and working in that country as a software professional, in the 80s and 90s. The questions that he asks himself during these travels are: “What does the United States look like, through an Indian's eyes? How do Americans see their country, their place in the world? How does patriotism, the idea of a nation, resonate in the two countries? How does a citizen consider her country?”

These large and over-reaching queries, then, could have been the axis of the book; instead, we get what reads like an unexpurgated record of D’Souza’s travels, in Mississippi, Virginia, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and many more locations, including – naturally – the legendary Route 66. Along the way, he witness one of Obama’s campaign speeches, frequents blues bars looking for the spirit of Robert Johnson and walks around Ground Zero in New York City.

Evidently, then, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill wide-eyed tourist’s account: D’Souza does seek out and spend time travelling the back roads and frequenting smaller towns. And to be sure, some of the connections that the author muses on are relevant and interesting, such as the death of an American soldier in Iraq contrasted with those of jawans in Kargil; relief efforts in the wake of the Katrina and Orissa cyclones; war memorials in Shiloh and near the Indo-Pak border; and shades of bigotry, be they in Mumbai or Texas. Another important point he makes – especially when contrasted with India -- relates to the sheer amount of access that Americans have to a range of facilities, be they scientific or sports-related, access that translates into achievement over the years.

Unfortunately, these are almost drowned out by other accounts that read like dressed-up diary entries, such as those of driving a fire truck, flying in a biplane or fresh-off-the-boat tales of his time in university. Such incidents and more, narrated in a breezy style in short chapters -- often with a jittery, quickened pace to many of the recollections -- steer the book away from its central purpose, which is a pity.

Of course, what makes a travel book memorable are the people more than the places. D’Souza gives us a fair share of such characters and his interactions with them: for example, Don, who paints Boeings for a living and succeeds in overcoming his family’s racist prejudices; Carl, a committed ‘biker for Christ’; the pen friend who drifts away to become a born-again Christian; and the frankly bizarre tale of Pete and his succession of wives.

Buried within this overstuffed travelogue, then, are nuggets that, had they been selected and organized, would have made Roadrunner a much more compelling book. As it is, however, it’s a grab-bag of recollections which, like any long road trip itself, consists of the interesting, the inconsequential and the inane.