Sunday, September 18, 2011

Diners' Club

This appeared in today's DNA.


What if a stranger comes to dinner and turns the lives of the hosts upside down? That was the premise of Ali Smith’s last novel, The Accidental. What if an acquaintance comes to dinner and refuses to leave? That’s the premise of her new novel, There But For The.

The plot, such as it is, is pithily summed up right at the start: “There was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.” It’s a sentence that encompasses as well as sets off the events of book, in somewhat the same manner as the first page of Toni Morrisson’s Jazz provides the plot in a nutshell, leaving the author free to riff on it thereafter.

The setting is a tony neighbourhood in Greenwich, and Smith makes use of all the metaphorical associations of the area, from the implications of time’s passage to the underground foot tunnel. The novel comprise discrete episodes that range over past and present, delving into the lives and thoughts of those known to Miles, the intractable guest. There’s Anna, who met him during a European holiday many years ago; Mark, the acquaintance who brought Miles to the dinner in the first place; May, the elderly relative; and most of all the precocious ten-year-old Brooke, daughter of the neighbours  (reminiscent of the intelligent 12-year-old in The Accidental).  As the days pass and Miles refuses to emerge or communicate, barring through handwritten slips of paper pushed under the door, he becomes a minor celebrity in the area, with people believing that his actions mirror their individual concerns.

Smith’s style, as with her previous work, resembles nothing so much as an intelligent, loquacious conversationalist, albeit one who looks at you sideways. Truman Capote’s early novels were recently termed “the literature of the backward glance”; Smith’s writing can be said to deal with the glance that is oblique. The indirectness can prove to be a frustration on occasion, but there’s a probing intelligence and questioning of established verities that rise off almost every page. There is also much wordplay and punning, as well as some execrable ‘knock-knock’ jokes. All of this, however, indicates a concern with the way language is used to communicate as well as obfuscate. As one character says: “I only joke about really serious things”.

Smith’s targets range from the way technology shapes experience to the way we fetishize the actions of those who, in however small a way, stand out or go against the grain. A comment on Brooke’s report card, in fact, could well be a summing up of the author’s particular talents: “Her verbal dexterity is notable and she is wonderfully imaginative and of course we do not have a problem with that or with either of these things. But sometimes her infectious imagination can be vertiginous for her peers”.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Misspeak, Memory

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


The nature and length of the novella as a form compel writers to pay close attention to matters of prose and craft. This is why the best of them have a hand-cut, gem-like quality, with ruminative — although patterned — first-person musings on a given theme. Such, certainly, is the case with Julian Barnes’ elegant, incisive The Sense of an Ending.

On the first page itself, the narrator affirms that “...what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed”. This, then, is an impressionistic record, one that's hedged by constant -- and sometimes overdone -- reminders that what we're reading is the narrator's self-serving memories of earlier times. It’s not just that he’s unreliable: he’s also all too aware of his unreliability.

This is a story is told by Tony Webster, now in his sixties. He recollects, first of all, his time in school and friendship with the charismatic, precocious new boy, Adrian Finn. Almost from the start, Tony and his circle seek out Adrian’s attention and approval, and then keep in touch after they go their separate ways. Inevitably, Tony’s pronouncements on the people in his life tell us more about him than about them. Time and again, he reminds us that this record of the past isn't what it appears to be on the surface: “You can infer past actions from current mental states”.

Tony continues with his account of his life: education in Bristol, his wooing of and short-lived relationship with girlfriend Veronica; and then, in brisk, economical paragraphs, his marriage, job in “arts administration”, children, divorce, and retirement. In sum, “some achievements and some disappointments”.

This is when, pulling off an audacious structural move, Barnes segues into another section, dealing with the narrator’s days in the evening of his life. Circumstances bring him together again with Veronica, who had taken up with Adrian after their break-up, and he’s compelled to examine and re-examine his past assumptions, step by step. He now has to make sense of an almost Wittgensteinian fragment from Adrian’s diary, as well as mull over his interactions with the older Veronica, to solve a mystery springing from his past. As she tells him more than once, he is someone who just “doesn’t get it.”

Tony’s self-deluded, emotionally repressed ways bring to mind other fictional characters with the same traits, notably John Dowell from Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, as well as Stevens from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It's also not by coincidence that one of the characters is portrayed as reading a work by Viennese author Stefan Zweig, for this, too, is a book about a person who obsesses over yesterday’s actions and omissions, often rewriting events in his mind.

There’s an aphoristic, crafted quality to much of the book. At one point, for example, the narrator quotes Adrian in a phrase reflective of its theme: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”.  Elsewhere, in a passage reminiscent of Nothing to be Frightened of, Barnes’ earlier non-fiction deliberation on death and dying, Tony says, “…the longer life goes on, the fewer are those to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life”.

At barely 150 pages, The Sense of an Ending is a resonant reminder that one can be succinct, not sprawling, when it comes to creating a compelling fictional world. As a tightly wound meditation on the unreliability of memory and the ways in which we mislead ourselves, Barnes’ work shows that in the right hands, brevity is still a virtue. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Back To The Navel

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka.

NOON  Aatish Taseer

The great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “In all my writing, I tell the story of my life over and over again”.  It’s a statement that comes to mind when reading AatishTaseer’s third book, Noon. Following on the heels of a travelogue and a debut novel, this is another tale in which clear autobiographical currents can be discerned, many of them already covered in his two earlier books.

Planned as an episodic sequence rather than a conventional narrative, Noon plunges us from the start into the world of its protagonist Rehan Tabassum, son of an intrepid Delhi journalist and a businessman-politician from a neighbouring land, evidently Pakistan. (Although the country is referred to in the book by the names of two cities, the first, Port bin Qasim and the second – oddly and obviously enough – La Mirage.) The forlorn Rehan strikes alliances with both families: as a child, with his devout grandmother in Delhi, and later, with his step-brother, Isphandiyar, from across the border.

The novel also delves into the lives of others in Rehan’s orbit: notably, his mother, who re-starts her life in New Delhi after her return from London at the end of her association with Rehan’s father; and Amit Sethia, a rapacious industrialist with whom she subsequently has a long-lived liaison. The account of the latter’s motivations and rise to wealth seems to have been included as a way of making the novel encompass and understand recent changes in India and Indians, and this Naipaulian device doesn’t quite work, as the account lacks the personal texture of the rest of the book. Naipaul is a presence in other ways, too: sometimes stylistically, sometimes as a direct quotation from An Area of Darkness, and sometimes as unprocessed attempts to make sense of the plight of the individual against a historical backdrop.

In one lengthy chapter, Taseer employs an interesting and apt device to explore contrasting attitudes and beliefs between higher and lower social strata, namely, a theft at the Delhi farmhouse where Rehan is ensconced after his return from a US college. Domestic help – some new, some of long standing – is suspected, and varieties of police officials are called in. Unfortunately, the ramifications of this drag on for far too long; after a while, no new perspectives emerge.

The next section, describing Rehan’s time in his father’s land, is more evocative and insightful. He travels here, wanting “to enjoy my strange patrimony, with its many players and new country, to feel it more as an opportunity than an obligation”, and Taseer is candid about his protagonist’s need for parental approval as well as his life’s many absences. The register changes with the introduction of political machinations and blackmail, with some of it being reminiscent of Invitation, Shahryar Fazli’s recent Karachi-based novel.

Noon, then, emerges as a bit of a hodge-podge: a little insight and sensitivity blended with a lot of solipsism and self-indulgence. At one point, the narrator asserts, "The gaps in my life were too many, the threads too few". It shows.