Saturday, April 24, 2010

Satyrs Of Suburbia

This appeared in today's Indian Express


In his introduction to The Second Plane, Martin Amis writes, “Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is”. It’s a statement that comes to mind when reading Hanif Kureishi’s collected short stories. To be sure, many of these tales get their charge from a blending of the political with the personal, but questions of virility and potency, specifically in post-Thatcher Britain, animate most of them.

At one point in the title story from Love in a Blue Time, a character considers how “he'd longed for the uncontrolled life, seeking only pleasure and avoiding the ponderous difficulties of keeping everything together”. The bulk of the stories in this volume could be said to be about the unraveling of this emotion. There are many satyrs of suburbia here: no-longer-young men who have fraught relationships with their wives and offspring, puzzling over past successes and failures, taking their measure by changes in old friends and recalling a time of “lies, deceit and alienation”.

In addition, quite a few of those who inhabit Kureishi's world are from the writing or performing arts -- London's playwrights, directors, actors and agents -- which means that many stories, though forceful on their own, create something of a circumscribed air when taken together.

Collected here are the stories from Love in a Blue Time, Midnight All Day and The Body, as well as eight more recent ones, some of which appeared in publications such as The New Yorker and Zoetrope. To be frank, these new stories – which, naturally, one turns to first -- are a bit of a let-down. ‘Weddings and Beheadings’, for example, has an interesting and provocative premise – the ambitions of a cameraman who films beheadings by terrorists – but isn’t sufficiently fleshed out. Others, such as ‘A Terrible Story’ have stilted and overblown dialogue, while ‘Phillip’, dealing with an old friendship recalled in the present, manages to be moving despite the awkward structure.

There is much pleasure to be had in re-reading the rest, not least of which is the desire they provoke to return to Kureishi’s novels. The affecting ‘Nightlight’, from Love in a Blue Time, has affinities with Intimacy; and the remarkable ‘My Son the Fanatic’ springs from the same urge that would make Kureishi write The Black Album. (As he has said elsewhere, both came from his reactions to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.) Other subjects written about that seem to have arisen from a wellspring of personal experience are those dealing with racism (‘We’re Not Jews’) as well as tales of relationships between parents and children (‘Goodbye, Mother’).

Two formidable stories could well vie for the distinction of being the most impressive ones here: ‘With Your Tongue in My Mouth’, dealing with the lives of two half-sisters, one from Pakistan and the other from Britain, and the novella-length ‘The Body’, which takes to a long-drawn conclusion the premise of an older man reborn in a younger body, with its associated meditations on ageing and Cartesian duality.

Throughout, the prose is unadorned and straightforward, largely comprising simple, declarative sentences with an air of bluntness and Roth-like lack of inhibition. There are many penises in these pages, for instance, even a tepid Gogol-inspired tale revolving around the same organ. Of course, one of the enjoyments of reading Kureishi’s work has always been his sardonic asides, such as when one of the characters is moved to observe: “I imagine that to participate in the world with curiosity and pleasure, to see the point of what is going on, you have to be young and uninformed”.

At another point, in another story, one of his characters muses, “It has, at least, become clear that it is our pleasures, rather than our addictions or vices, which are our greatest problems”. In these collected stories, Kureishi ably takes us on a tour of the pitfalls of our pleasures.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Little Light, More Heat

This appeared in today's DNA.

SOLAR Ian McEwan

You can’t scan the newspaper these days without spotting headlines dealing with the failure or otherwise of the Copenhagen summit, the success of the so-called Earth Hour, the actions of the UN climate change panel and more. Global warming and sources of renewable energy are, well, hot topics and certainly a fitting subject for the contemporary novel. When the novelist in question is of the stature of Ian McEwan, there’s a buoyancy of expectations.

Solar, however, turns out to be a victim of the greenhouse effect – an over-heated creation that, while not without a certain appeal, also possesses an unevenness of shape. This is the tale of Michael Beard, now in his fifth decade, who’s been “sprinkled by Stockholm’s magic dust” when he was younger, having been awarded the physics Nobel for his conflation of an Einsteinian hypothesis. Many particles have accelerated since then and it’s been over two decades since Beard did anything original, content to live off sinecures and speaking engagements.

As the novel opens, we meet Beard trying to balance the elegance and simplicity of the world of physics with the messiness of his domestic life. He isn’t an especially likeable chap: he cheats on his wife, eats and drinks to excess, dissembles and isn’t above stealing the work of a post-doctorate student and passing it off as his own.

Solar unfolds in three parts, relating episodes from Beard’s life during the years 2000, 2005 and 2009. The prevailing mood of the novel is that of farce, be it when detailing the fortunes of Beard’s frozen penis during an expedition to the Arctic, or the manner in which his wife’s young lover meets an untimely end. At other times, McEwan takes aim at other irritants of modern life, from media sensationalism to well-meaning but ineffectual liberal post-modernists unpacking every phrase for meaning in context.

McEwan’s prose is rich and accomplished throughout – no surprises there – and in addition, he’s clearly steeped himself in the lore of modern physics in order to create verisimilitude for Beard and his world. (“Dimensions tightly wrapped in six circles, the rediscovery of Kalusa and Klein from the nineteen-twenties, the delightful intricacies of the Calabi-Yau manifolds and orbifolds!”). This manner of writing also puts one in mind of the medical knowledge that the author presented us with in the case of Perowne, the neuroscientist from his earlier Saturday.

Beard careens from one lover and one engagement to another, progressing from heading a British government centre for renewable energy to becoming an “energy consultant” to setting up a site in New Mexico to create clean energy through artificial photosynthesis. His excesses over the years, however, finally catch up with him, in a manner that brings to mind a saying by Einstein: “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once”. The accumulation of bad karma spills over to create a conjoined nemesis that arrives all of a sudden in Beard’s life in the form of unexpected phone calls, e-mails and personal visits. It must be said that, in terms of plot, this sudden downfall smacks too heavily of contrivance -- the sudden gathering together of strings to enmesh Beard isn’t McEwan at his most elegant.

Solar, then, aims to be a mordantly comic work, revealing the pettiness and fads of civilisation as we know it through the actions of a character who often approaches the grotesque. At one point, the gluttonous, philandering Beard, in an uncharacteristically quiet moment, muses that “the pressure of numbers, the abundance of inventions, the blind forces of desires and needs looked unstoppable and were generating a heat, a modern kind of heat that had become, by clever shifts, his subject, his profession.” It’s the same subject, in fact, that is Solar’s guiding light.