Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy Poetry

All of the words in this poem are drawn, in chronological order, from the quotes in Lizzie Widdicombe's Talk of the Town piece on the Occupy Wall Street protestors in The New Yorker of October 24, 2011

Something good will come out of it
Don’t get me wrong
But it’s not good for business.

(We would like to find
A sign language interpreter
Available in the here and now.)

Honestly, it’s great here
We’re well-fed
Warm at night.
I’ve made more friends here
Than I did in college.

Here we are in Liberty Plaza
And we’re trying to keep liberty going on this planet
And, actually,
This planet is in dire jeopardy.

(Think of all the reasons 
you didn’t want to be doing this!)

You have a right to protest
Brookfield, they have some rights too.

Fuck that.

I’m excited to be defending this space
We never knew
How publicly accessible
This kind of park would be
And now we’re testing it

It’s kind of fun.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lovers' Discourse

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT Jeffrey Eugenides

One doesn’t expect the conventional from a writer whose debut novel was a first-person plural account of teenage boys’ fascination with the suicides of five virgin sisters, and whose second was a coming-of-age chronicle of a hermaphrodite of Greek descent. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, however, turns out to be a tender love story that draws inspiration from the novelists of the 19th century.  Earlier evidence that matters of the heart were on his mind came in 2008, with his anthology, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great love stories from Chekhov to Munro.

There’s no denying that Victorian sagas of men and women heading towards marriage -- with concomitant courtship rituals -- have had far-reaching influence. (Where, for example, would the Bollywood movie be without it?) Here, Eugenides seems to be making the point that most contemporary fiction that aims at modernity misses a trick or two when it comes to fulfilling the pleasures of reading. As one of the character’s professors asserts, “the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance”.

The Marriage Plot concerns itself with the lives of three individuals: the caring, bibliophilic Madeleine; the charismatic, bipolar Leonard; and the sensitive, confused Mitchell. It is the early Eighties, and, to begin with, all of them are students at Brown University. The first part of the book is virtually a campus novel, charting Madeleine’s interest in Victorian romance plots, Leonard’s firecracker brilliance and Mitchell’s obsession with theological questions, as well as their interactions with each other. An infatuated Madeleine begins an affair with Leonard while Mitchell, who’s in a “long, aspirational, sporadically promising, yet frustrating relationship” with her, decides to remove himself from the scene by travelling to India.

A love triangle, then. How quaint. It must be said, though, that much of The Marriage Plot is gratifying to read, given its immersion in the lives of its characters, notably the heroine. She’s a modern-day combination of Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooke, whose ambivalence towards those close to her is metaphorically represented by the scratched, ill-fitting glasses she periodically dons.

Eugenides brings alive the dilemmas of Madeleine as she careens between a committed relationship and independence, as well as the travails of Mitchell as he journeys to Calcutta to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute and dying in Kalighat. (This being a time without text or e-mail, both also write letters to each other: a reminder of the importance of such epistles in 19th century novels.)

As for Leonard, his tobacco-chewing and bandanna-wearing habits, not to mention depressive tendencies, are pointers that, in part at least, he’s drawn from David Foster Wallace. A trifle cheeky, given that Wallace’s own fiction relentlessly veered towards the hyper-modern.

The novel can also be said to be about another sort of love affair, that with books and reading. More specifically, it involves itself with the influence of books upon malleable minds. Almost from the start, there’s a spate of titles mentioned, from Madeleine’s beloved Eliot and Austen, to Mitchell’s search for succour in texts such as James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Elsewhere, Eugenides is droll about American academe’s initial obsession with structuralism, when you weren't cool if you weren't carrying around a copy of Derrida's On Grammatology. Later on, Madeleine also finds unexpected comfort in the pages of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse.

There are many well-done passages, such as the accounts of Leonard’s bouts of mania and depression, “his laziness, his over-achieving, his tendency to isolate, his tendency to seduce, his hypochondria, his sense of invulnerability, his self-loathing, his narcissism”.  Such interiority is matched by attention to detail, for example during Leonard’s lab work with paired and unpaired yeast chromosomes, or Mitchell’s stint at the Calcutta hospice. (One wishes, though, that the tendency to “explain” India had been toned down: at one point, the “real” India is described as “the ancient country of Rajputs, nawabs and Mughals”. Fancy that.)

At a time when the novel is in search of new models and forms, making a point of returning to its traditional verities signals a disappointing retreat from this necessary quest. Despite its many virtues, that’s the niggling thought The Marriage Plot leaves one with.

The Shipping News

This appeared in today's The Hindustan Times.

THE CAT'S TABLE Michael Ondaatje

An 11-year-old boy named Michael, “green as he could be about the world“, climbs aboard “the first and only ship of his life”. Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical The Cat’s Table starts with this embarkation, and though one is tempted to think of the novel as a personal account, the author takes pains to point out in an afterword that though it “sometimes uses the colouring and location of memoir and autobiography”, it is indeed a work of fiction.  (Bear in mind, though, that the narrator’s nickname is Mynah: “an unofficial bird, and unreliable, its voice not fully trustworthy in spite of the range”.)

It’s a 21-day journey, from Colombo to London in the 1950s, undertaken by the protagonist to meet his mother. The cat’s table of the title is the least privileged place on board – as opposed to the captain’s table – and it is here that Michael strikes up a relationship with two other boys, the quiet Ramadhin and the studious Cassius.

As the vessel embarks upon a “slow waltz” to its destination, Ondaatje gives us pen portraits of the others on board, seen through the eyes of the fascinated, wide-eyed Michael:  gentle bridge players, intense musicians, energetic roller-skating Australians, knowledgeable botanists, rich entrepreneurs and suave thieves, among others. As we’re told: “...we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”

There’s also a prisoner on board, and his actions and relationships – echoing into later years -- provide a skein of plot to a novel that is otherwise an evocatory record of a voyage that leaves an indelible mark on Michael’s mind.

The three boys get to know every inch of the ship, “bursting all over the place like freed mercury”.  Much of the novel progresses via effective set pieces, such as the passengers’ attempts to watch a movie on board as the storm progresses, or Michael and his cohorts lashing themselves onto the deck to face the onslaught of the storm itself, or a vivid account of a night journey through the Suez Canal. Ondaatje frequently makes use of telling detail, especially when it comes to the differences in social class or living conditions of those on board; this both tempers his lyricism and prevents the nostalgic journey from foundering on the reefs of the maudlin.

Some of Ondaatje’s earlier works, poetic though they may have been, have been marred by obliqueness and too-frequent spatial and temporal shifts. In The Cat’s Table, too, there are detours into the lives of the protagonists in later years: in particular, describing the fate of the weak-hearted Ramadhin and his life as a tutor in London, as well as the narrator's relationship with his sister. However, the overall tone of wistful remembrance and clear focus on the antics of those on board, holds the novel together, giving the whole an elegiac glow.

Towards the end, however, Ondaatje delves into fragments of other lives, such as that of a mysterious circus girl, detailing her background and relationship with the ship’s prisoner. This weakens the narrative, for what makes the book magical -- the boy's mediating consciousness -- is lost.

At one point in the novel, the narrator, as a grown-up, visits an art exhibition by Cassius, who has gone on to become a well-regarded artist. Here, he sees a painterly record of Cassius’s memories of that earlier journey along the Suez Canal. The Cat’s Table is the novelistic equivalent of those canvases, a sequence of impressionistic vignettes of a voyage enlivened by a capacity for wonder.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Not Child's Play

This appeared in today's DNA.


What is it about child narrators that Man Booker Prize judges can’t resist? Off the top of one’s head, one can recall Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (winner, 1993), DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little (winner, 2003), Emma Donoghue’s Room (shortlisted, 2010) David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (longlisted, 2006) and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (longlisted, 2003). Now, there’s Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, Pigeon English, on this year’s shortlist at the time of writing.

The 11-year-old protagonist of this novel is portrayed as endearingly innocent; indeed, there’s little that is arch and precocious in his utterances. An example of the sort of style that Kelman adopts for his narrator’s consciousness comes early on: "My jumper's blue. My uniform's better. The only bad thing about it is the tie, it's too scratchy. I hate it when they're scratchy like that”. This is the sort of thing it’s very easy to like; equally, it can annoy with its faux-naif posturing. And there’s a lot of this in Pigeon English.

It’s the voice of Harrison Okupu, recently re-located from Ghana with his mother and elder sister to one of London’s poorer housing estates. (His father and infant sister remain in Africa, planning to join the rest of the family as soon as they can.) Harrison is a quick study, picking up the ways and language of his schoolmates easily enough. We hear much of their schoolyard games – in a sign of the times, one of their pastimes is called “suicide bomber”. Casual delinquencies, with knives, gang initiations and petty theft, are very much a part of the daily routines of some of those in his ken. 

With wide-eyed naiveté, Harrison also conveys his impressions of new experiences such as travelling on the tube. When he isn’t obsessing over whether he’s wearing the right kind of sneakers, he muses on the differences between his homeland and England, from the way barbers behave to the way traffic does. His Ghanaian backdrop, then, serves the important function of establishing him as a stranger in a strange land. This is a report from the inner city by an insider with an outsider’s point of view.

When a boy is stabbed to death outside a fast-food restaurant, Harrison, with some of his mates, decides to play amateur detective to bring the miscreant to book. With this as the plot device, Kelman has him keeping tabs on other boys, as well as sparring with his sister and her mates, acquiring a girlfriend of sorts and gradually becoming more attuned to the ways of the world in which he finds himself. Death and dying are very much on his mind, serving both as a foreshadowing of the future as well as a reflection of his environment.

Harrison’s predicament is one that elicits affection, not to mention compassion. However, the tone of voice employed has many repetitive simplicities and overstated pieties, and these can grate after a while. “I saw a bird nest in the tree,” he informs us. “It was very sad. The birds all fell out when the tree came down.” Then again: “Do you know what's a superhero? They're special people who protect you. They have magic powers. They use them to fight the bad men. They're very great”. The use of schoolboy argot, too, is overdone, with words such as “hutious”, “bo-styles” and “dope-fine” appearing on almost every page.

Curiously enough, there’s also the voice of a pigeon that butts in from time to time. This winged creature, roosting on the balcony of Harrison’s house, is given to gnomic, mock-prophetic pronouncements such as “I do know the shape of a mother's grief”.  As a device to incorporate another minority voice, this comes across as unnecessary.

Immersing oneself in a child’s point of view can be a rewarding experience for the way in which it brings to life the gap between what is seen and what is understood. Despite being affecting in parts, and revelatory of the lives of children in violence-prone neighbourhoods, Pigeon English is only partially successful in this regard.