Saturday, July 30, 2011

It's The End Of The Book As We Know It, And I Feel Fine

A lightly edited version of this appeared in today's The Hindustan Times.

THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE BOOK Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere

THE LATE AMERICAN NOVEL: Writers on the Future of Books 

If you read books on a Kindle, British novelist Penelope Lively recently said, you’re nothing but “a bloodless nerd”. Many of those devoted to the printed word share the same sentiment. For them, the impending demise of the book as we know it is cause for alarm, if not lamentation. What’s often ignored is the distinction between form and content: while we’re attached to the shape, size, feel and aroma of books, what we read are words. The medium, of course, alters the message as well as our experience of receiving it, and this, then, should really be at the heart of any such discussion.

Among the many elegies to Gutenberg, we now have two more volumes: the first, a curated conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere; and the second, a medley of contemporary American writers offering views on their future. The verbose and opinionated Eco and Carriere, however, prove to be somewhat backward looking. Much of the content of This is Not the End of the Book turns out to be ruminations on the books they own, the joys of collecting, the pains of the accelerating speed of change and digressive anecdotes on reading and bibliomania drawn from the world of European letters.

Their pontifications – and ‘pontifications’ is the exact word – can be tedious, sometimes even nonsensical, such as when Eco declaims that “the computer cannot be read in the bath or even lying on your side in bed”. There’s much anachronistic tut-tutting over the changing pace of data storage and accessibility, with a holier-than-thou tone throughout:  “The book is like the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be bettered”. Again, the same confusion between form and content.

In the preface, moderator Jean-Philippe de Tonnac at least asks the right questions:  “What is a book? And what will change if we read onscreen rather than by turning the pages of a physical object?” He goes on to muse: is it a sense of the sacred? An intimacy between reader and author? The feeling of existing in a self-contained world? Such subjects, indeed, are what the Italian semiologist and French screenwriter ought to have spent more time discussing. At one point, Eco even derides the photocopier, and later, Carriere makes awkward philosophical generalisations such as: “Every Hindu has his personal deities. And yet Hindus share a community of belief.” If this is how “two great men discuss our digital future”, as the volume’s subtitle has it, one feels sorry for the digital future.

In comparison, The Late American Novel is a breath of fresh air. This comprises several short pieces by contemporary American authors on their current predicament: some insightful, some uneasily tongue-in-cheek and some simply unsure. Editors Jeff Martin and T. Max Magee point out in their introduction that “the written word’s last big format change turned out to be a pretty big deal, fomenting revolutions and laying the groundwork for modern civil society, the scientific revolution, and modernity itself”. Now, therefore, “we wanted to hear from some of today’s most promising literary voices, to find out if they are optimistic, apathetic, or just scared shitless.” As Rivka Galchen ironically points out in her piece, if people just aren’t reading anymore, there’s a pretty big noise being made about the book’s impending demise.
There’s much ground covered here, from nostalgic memoirs dealing with the pleasures of the book’s physical form to the changing modes of consumption, creation and distribution of narratives. In one of the most insightful pieces, Benjamin Kunkel – founder-editor of the literary magazine n+1– updates Regis Debray’s theory of society moving through the stages of the “logosphere, graphosphere and videosphere” -- that is, the spoken and heard, the written and read and the audio-visual. Kunkel ponders on the coming “digitosphere” and whether the always-on stream of bits and bytes will make literature a subculture, “or, even better, a counter-culture”. (Publishers, of course, share this concern: a recent session at the World E-Reading Congress in London sought to answer the question: Can e-reading win the war against Angry Birds?)

In another piece, though Joe Meno confesses to “moments of wonder” while reading printed books, he asserts, rightly, that  “…throughout the history of narrative arts, storytelling has always adapted to changing forms and technologies, and has managed to not only survive but begin anew each time, introducing a whole other generation to the possibilities of reading.”  Kyle Beachy makes much the same point: “Clearly, the novel is built around the mechanics of the book. But to conflate the two is a mistake both easy and terrible”.

Anders Morton, too, offers a nuanced, hopeful view. We all desire narratives and create stories, he says  (“as opposed to the actual lived experience of unsatisfying fragments, random encounters, and passing glances” ) even it’s just on Twitter. And “if this means we need to redefine the definition of ‘writer’, that’s okay with me”. In a similar vein, there’s a probing, open-minded exchange of e-mails between Jonathan Lethem and David Gates on the appeal of fiction in the age of Facebook.

Nevertheless, one can empathise with Nancy Jo Sales when she points out: “Would my life in books have been the same if they had been coming to me via Kindle or iPad? I don’t think so. There’s something about the physicality of a book, the way it looks and feels and even smells…that makes it a living, breathing companion.” The printed book is a living thing, echoes Joshua Gaylord: “It has a spine”.  For those who fetishize the book as object, Victor LaValle has the right words: “The greatest gift the electronic age could bestow upon the novel is to keep it sacred, not sacrosanct.”

It’s Sonya Chung, though, who strives to look at the present in just the right manner. The pendulum will swing back one day, she writes, but meanwhile, “…whether you are optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or dispirited, it is clear that our needs, desires, fears, and values are at stake; and what could be more exciting for literature?”  A new age of Modernism could be around the corner, in other words. As that quartet from Athens, Georgia, might well have sung: It’s the end of the book as we know it, and I feel fine.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amazon Grace

This appeared in yesterday's The Indian Express.


“If I want a plot,” American litterateur Elizabeth Hardwick once sneered, “I’ll watch Dallas”. Her disdain is shared by many novelists, especially of the so-called literary variety, who feel that novels have a higher purpose than that of the mere narration of events. There’s merit in such an argument; yet, all one needs to turn it on its head is to come across a writer who uses plot to reveal character and not subsume it; to illustrate theme, not be diverted from it. Take the case of Ann Patchett, who demonstrated this most notably in her Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto – and now does it again with State of Wonder.

This plunges us from the start into the predicament of the 42-year-old pharmacologist Marina Singh, half-Indian and half-American researcher with a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. Her colleague has been sent to report on the progress of the company’s fertility treatment research in a remote location off Brazil’s Rio Negro, an Amazonian tributary. Now comes the shocking news that he’s died of a mysterious fever, something mentioned almost off-handedly in a letter from Dr Annick Swenson, who’s been heading the study and from whom there’s been no proper information or progress report for ages. It now falls to Marina to travel to Brazil and find Dr Swenson, report on her progress as well as try and discover the circumstances surrounding her colleague’s death.

Unsure of exactly how to proceed and beset by sweat-drenched nightmares of being parted from her father in Calcutta  – a side-effect of an anti-malarial drug – Marina flies to Manaus, a city on the Rio Negro, from where she must travel upriver to confront Dr Swenson and the little-known Lakashi tribe. This, of course, has all the hallmarks of a distaff Heart of Darkness, with Dr Swenson making for a compelling Kurtz. (Another resonance is that of the fable of Eurydice and Orpheus, specifically mentioned during an episode when some of the characters attend an operatic performance based on this myth.) The intelligent but pliant Marina must fight demons within and without to achieve her objectives, and while the format may be Conrad’s, the updated concerns here are to do with the ways of pharmaceutical companies, the ways of ‘modern’ and ‘unspoiled’ worlds, and the ways in which we uncover what matters to us.

Compelling characters apart, one of the many charms of this novel is the way Patchett creates a sense of place for them to inhabit. The icy-cold, open spaces of Minnesota; the tropical dilapidation of Manaus; and the lush, unpredictable rainforest: such are the contrasting backdrops of State of Wonder that come alive through telling detail.

It must be admitted that it’s not smooth sailing all the way. There are stretches in the middle where the narrative tends to turn sluggish, like the Rio Negro itself, and some incidents towards the end do strain credulity. Overall, though, Patchett’s pacing serves her well as she stretches the elastic tension between action and revelation without letting it snap.

State of Wonder, then, is a highly readable as well as unusual work. If this is what paying close attention of the mechanics of plot can produce, by all means let us have more of it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Readable, Not Towering

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian.


Avarice runs through the pages of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower the way local trains criss-cross the city of Mumbai. In a plot that’s drawn from local headlines, the novel deals with the rapaciousness of realtors and the amorality of the self-interested middle class. The eponymous last man is one Yogesh Murthy, known to all as Masterji, an upright former teacher now in his 60s whose moralistic stance is the motor that drives the action to a gruesome finish.

Last Man in Tower’s events are largely set in one Vishram Society, comprising the dilapidated Tower A, built in the 1950s, and the smarter, relatively newer Tower B. This corner of an eastern suburb of Mumbai, surrounded by slums and next to the domestic airport, is, we’re ironically informed from the start, very “pucca”, being “middle class to the core”. Comprising retirees, cyber-cafe owners, real estate brokers and more, “the men have modest paunches, wear checked polyester shirts over white baniyans, and keep their hair oiled and short. The older women wear saris, salwaar kameez or skirts, and the younger ones wear jeans. All of them pay taxes, support charities, and vote in local and general elections”.

Adiga spends time and effort in delineating the lives and circumstances of the residents of this building; unfortunately, however, there’s little that’s unusual in this portrayal. The husbands and wives are uni-dimensional in their desire to keep up with the Jains, protect and care for their offspring and desire to forge better lives. All of these seem to be within their grasp when self-made real-estate mogul Dharmen Shah makes them a takeover offer that’s several times more than the market rate, in order for him to demolish Vishram Society and erect a multi-storeyed monstrosity in its stead.

Though the rest are won over by Mammon, it’s Masterji, indulging in memories of his deceased wife and daughter, who alone puts his foot down and refuses to vacate. Unmoved by the entreaties of his neighbours, pleas of his son and hostilities of Shah’s henchmen, Masterji believes he can find refuge in the police, the law and the media. Events, however, spin out of control, leading to a denouement hinted at early on when Adiga specifically mentions an Agatha Christie title on Masterji’s bookshelf, the one dealing with dark deeds on the Orient Express.

While the other characters are somewhat predictable in their actions and stilted dialogue, it’s interesting that Masterji isn’t painted in Mahatma-like shades. His intransigence over the years and habit of “controlling appetites and sorrows” is shown to estrange his former students as well as his son, and one can understand why his upright, rigid stance creates vituperation among others. His novelistic opposite, the gutka-chewing Dharmen Shah, is at least unabashed about his desires and motives, ignoring diseased lungs in his efforts to make his company, and his buildings, soar higher.

Throughout, Adiga deftly contrasts the city’s intersecting ways of life. Slum-dwellers, construction workers and the homeless appear as a counterpoint to the more privileged, oblivious few. At times, though, the broad-brush satire – the dominant mode of Adiga’s earlier The White Tiger – is too heavy-handed. For example, while Shah is at a construction site, we’re told that “a worker’s family was spending the nights on the unfinished fourth floor, which one day a technology executive or businessman would occupy…[their] washing…hung in the alcoves where Versace would soon hang; their little bars of soap and detergent did the work that expensive perfumes would do. And they probably did it better”. Later on, in another pointed comment, random acts of violence are planned on no less an occasion than Gandhi Jayanti. To further belabour the point, every now and again stray dogs chase puppies, cats slash at butterflies, moths get caught in ceiling fans and crows’ nests are demolished

Not for Adiga, then, the more nuanced approach revealed in, for instance, Anjali Joseph’s Saraswati Park or Nalini Jones’ What You Call Winter, two other works of fiction centered on Mumbai suburbs. This take-no-prisoners style serves the author well on the occasions that he employs Dickensian exaggeration bordering on the farcical – notably, when describing the antics of the legal firm that Masterji seeks out.

The prose, though proficient for most of the book, occasionally descends into spiky, strange patches. At one point, describing a dizzy-headed Masterji, we’re told that “explosions of glucose – comets and supernovae – lit up his private darkness; a bacchanalia had begun in his hyper-metabolizing cells”. Quite an affliction. For all that, Adiga does keep the action moving, cutting between disparate characters’ actions and motives with a degree of skill. There’s a compelling quality to the second half, when events move with a quality of grim predetermination. Vivid scenes build to a climax, giving way to a coda in which hypocrisy and conscience are well blended.

One needs voices that run counter to the grand business-page narrative of India’s burgeoning, shining middle class, and Adiga’s book is a necessary one in this context. It’s not exactly towering, but Last Man in Tower does possess the virtues of being readable as well as discomfiting in all the right places. 

My reviews of some other books set in Mumbai: Nalini Jones' What You Call Winter; Anjali Joseph's Saraswati Park; Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing; Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva; Murzban Shroff's Breathless in Bombay; and a round-up of 'Mumbai fiction' from 2008. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Wild West Bank


Beyond the headlines of flotillas, occupied territories and militant attacks are the everyday lives of those in Israel, people living in the cross-hairs of history. Jonathan Papernick’s short story collection, The Ascent of Eli Israel, delves into some of these lives with candour and tough-mindedness, an approach that belies sensitivity towards their predicament.

Each of the seven stories in this volume -- published in 2001 and re-issued early this year – is a stained-glass window offering a view of the shifting locus between identity, insecurity and a search for grace in troubled times. It opens with the dreamlike Makchyk, set at time of Israel's creation, in which a boy coming of age ventures into no-man’s land and then into Jerusalem’s Old City in search of his father, meeting holy fools, strangers and Arab youth on his expedition. In many ways, this prefigures the stories that follow.

In the Malamud-like An Unwelcome Guest, a newlywed awakes in the middle of the night to find an Arab stranger in his house, laying claim to the property. The Art of Correcting combines theology with comedy; The King of the King of Falafel relies more on broad humour for its effects; and the “six million stars” that twinkle at the close of For as Long as the Lamp is Burning up-end the unsentimental tone of the rest of the volume.

The two stories which have the most impact are, first, the one of the title, in which a formerly successful TV show producer walks a solitary and sometimes unhinged path towards personal redemption among the hills of the West Bank; and Lucky Eighteen, in which two friends, one a provocative photographer, goad those around them at a time when provocations aren’t easily understood or tolerated. (Come to think of it, Papernick himself shares something of the spirit of this photographer.)

Throughout, easy stereotypes are eschewed and craft deftly employed to arrive at unexpected endings. With its astringent humour, barbed tone, and compelling sense of place, The Ascent of Eli Israel is a significant debut. As one of Papernick’s characters tells another, “Welcome to the wild, wild West Bank”.