Sunday, September 30, 2012

Steven Millhauser's Grains Of Sand

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

When you spend much of your free time reviewing books, you realize very soon that most of them are graduates from the school of Dreary Realism. Characters are rooted in the real world, facing issues that they need to overcome, with details of interiors, clothes, food, appearances and the weather tossed into every page. And at the end, as someone said, if characters are happy and successful, it’s a potboiler; if they’re not, it’s literary fiction.

Of course there are a few who turn to end-of-the-century Modernism, with its splintered structure, polyphonic narrative and stream-of-consciousness style. Which is well and good, but all too often, this is done as a stance, a pose to adopt, and not a form organic to the novel in question.

This is why it’s such a pleasure to read Steven Millhauser, whose work takes another approach, combining realism with the fantastical. Though he won a Pulitzer for his novel, Martin Dressler – which one critic called “a conjuring trick” of a novel, the American Dream recast as fairy tale – it’s in Millhauser’s short stories and novellas that his art is most readily apparent.

His recent We Others, comprising new and selected stories is the perfect introduction to his work. Here, one finds all the well-chosen detail and character revelations expected from better writers of realism. Allied to this is, more often than not, a central image or action not necessarily drawn from the world of the real, but one that sheds light upon it.

In one of the new stories, a miscreant appears to slap random people in a town in upstate New York, compelling the townspeople to reflect on their attitudes toward each other. In another, a teenager drawn to a classmate is mystified and frustrated when she starts to wear a single white glove to cover a mysterious deformity. The title story itself is a study of a man who may have become a ghost, finding himself drawn to and repelled by the world of the living.

The earlier stories echo these new ones in many ways. A snow-clad town takes to building innovative snowmen, and then other objects, from furniture to gargoyles. The residents of another town, excited about an upcoming alien invasion, deal with their emotions when it takes the form of yellow dust. A new superstore on the outskirts of a city slowly takes over its way of life. A failure of collective memory causes a woman to vanish. And there’s a Borgesian description of a museum of marvels with a hypnotic power to attract. These are metaphorical mirrors, and Millhauser is accomplished enough not to spell out what they reflect; that job is left to the reader.

The longer stories here are no less fascinating, all dealing with the world and its simulacra. There’s a tale of the eighth voyage of Sinbad, which is also a gloss on the ways in which all his other voyages have been translated. There’s a saga of a creator of automatons in the 19th century, having to deal with changes in public taste. There’s the famous tale of an illusionist who goes too far. In this theatre of chimeras, reality and its reflection interrogate each other to uncover deeper layers of meaning.

Many stories are narrated, in whole or in part, in the first person plural, a device that allows Millhauser to generate irony in the telling. (In passing, this also brings to mind Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.) At other times, Millhauser comes across as almost Kafkaesque, but nevertheless firmly rooted in modern-day America.

In a passionate defence of the short story form, Millhauser once wrote of the world in a grain of sand: “every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely… if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself.” Millhauser’s own grains of sand admirably live up to this premise.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Songs From Shillong

A slightly-edited version of this appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

BOATS ON LAND Janice Pariat

With her debut short story collection, Boats on Land, Janice Pariat joins the company of those such as Anjum Hasan and Siddhartha Deb, Indian writers who have written evocatively about Shillong in English. From colonial times to recent past to present, the so-called Scotland of the East and its environs are a significant presence in these pages. Where Pariat differs from her forebears is in her folkloric style that depicts “the marvellous real”, in the words of the apt epigraph by Alejo Carpentier.

Pariat’s stories are suffused by legends, spells, charms and winds blowing over barren hills like restless spirits. Messily and uneasily, the old gives way to the new as her characters navigate walkways pitted by ghosts of the past. Here, retribution is visited upon boorish British overseers of a tea plantation; a doctor attends to a teenager who dreams of firebirds; water fairies are believed to make people disappear; a schoolgirl and her classmates hunt for a secret passage; and tales are told at funerals of the hunter who killed a shape-shifting tiger.

These stories are also about relationships and oppositions: between lovers, between families, between friends, between impressionable girls and blue-grey-eyed boys who play the guitar like Slash -- and, significantly, between outsiders and locals. As such, they’re peopled by an eclectic lot, drawn from various communities and professions.

Many stories are narrated not by their protagonists but by young observers or those looking back at their youth: vignettes of a time when innocence yields to a more nuanced understanding. Pariat’s prose is lapidary, and this rescues some of the tales from flimsiness. One story begins with a “corpse-cold” December evening with skies “the colour of razor blades”; elsewhere, chicken momos sit on a plate “like fat, happy priests”.

“I don’t know if Shillong has caught up with the world or the world has caught up with Shillong,” muses one of Pariat’s characters. The fifteen stories here are an elegant record of interactions between Shillong and the outside world.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Portnoy's Defence

Today's column for the Sunday Guardian.

I remember laughing out loud when first reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, about "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor", and wondering at the same time: “How can he write like that? Is that even allowed?” In this, I wasn’t alone, as pointed out by Bernard Avishai in his new book, Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness. Roth’s funny, salacious novel was an immediate bestseller in 1969 but its content also meant that it was dismissed by many as a masturbatory fantasy, a work of no worth by a “self-hating Jew”. The author was pilloried and hounded -- in ways that were ultimately to shape his future fiction.

Much water has flowed under the Brooklyn Bridge since then and the book has survived and thrived, listed in more than one best-of-century list. It was followed by a body of work that, in a just world, ought to have won Roth the Nobel by now.

This is why one initially wonders what the point of Promiscuous is. Surely Portnoy needs no further defence? However, the merit of Avishai’s book is that it puts Portnoy in a social and literary context, offers interesting ways of reading it and contrasts it with the work of other writers accused of subversion, such as Joyce and Lawrence.

Avishai is a friend of Roth’s, and he says the author helped “to test ideas, telling stories”, although “he did not endorse the result or interfere in any way with the composition”. One of the more interesting things in Promiscuous is the inclusion of Roth’s own teaching notes on the novel, for a class he took in Bard College in 1999. Roth mentions that “the grotesque conception of [Portnoy’s] life and of the lives around him” is what’s being dramatized; this grotesqueness permeates “the satiric conception of a Jewish family, the son included”. Those last three words are crucial: the object of satire was not simply other Jews but also Portnoy himself, a nuance lost on those who savaged the book.

Related to this is the novel’s form, that of rambles in a psychiatrist’s office. This gave Roth the freedom to write his sustained rant: “the rule here is no restraint, the rule here is no decorum”. On the couch, Portnoy mocks his family, his relationships, his heritage –all the while mocking himself too. Here, Avishai makes another important distinction: “A novel in the form of a confession is for God’s sake not a confession in the form of a novel”.

He doesn’t shy away from discussing charges of misogyny against Roth, at that time and ever since. Vivian Gornick wrote that Roth, along with Bellow and Mailer, “hated women”, and Hermoine Lee, during a Paris Review interview, observed that “nearly all the women in the books are there to obstruct, to or help, or to console the male characters”. There is some truth to this, but in defence, Avishai says that Portnoy does not “objectify women until after he has objectified himself…misanthropy is not misogyny, except by implication”. He adds for good measure: “Grace Paley once told me that she didn’t trust women who refused to read Roth”.

The novel is also discussed in terms of being a satire of psychoanalysis; here, one feels Avishai goes a bit too far. Dr Spielvogel’s neutrality is seen as a “frightened holding back”, a comment on the entire profession, when it could well be that Roth simply uses it as a container for Portnoy’s diatribe. This also makes Portnoy’s Complaint very much a book of its time; as Adam Gopnik says, “Nowadays, Portnoy would go to Spielvogel and the doctor would… give him Prozac and Viagra and send him home”.

In a 1983 interview, Herman Roth, the author’s father, touchingly said: “It was a story about a boy and his conscience. They blew it out of all proportion”. Blowing things out of all proportion can also lead to fates worse Roth’s, as is evident from the former predicament of another allegedly satanic writer whose memoirs were published this week.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Immigrant Song

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge

THE NEWLYWEDS Nell Freudenberger

Details, dilemmas and domestic discord have been at the core of so-called novels of realism almost from the beginning. Despite huge shifts in the way we see the world, they keep coming, these everyday sagas of characters facing ups and downs and undergoing changes in their efforts to win through. In a 2008 essay, Zadie Smith had written that if the genre was to survive, lyrical realists would have to push a little harder and try and discover new ways of representation. Nevertheless, such explorations are few and far between, and Nell Freudenberger’s new novel can’t be counted as being among them.

Within her chosen genre, however, Freudenberger has proved herself to be an accomplished practitioner, as her debut short story collection, Lucky Girls, and subsequent novel, The Dissident, amply demonstrate. As with those books, The Newlyweds takes as its theme the predicament of a stranger in a strange land, of the cultural shifts and changing attitudes that immigrants have to undergo.

This is the story of Amina, a 24-year-old woman from Bangladesh, who comes to the United States to marry George, a “34-year-old SWM”, the two having developed an online relationship after George responded to Amina’s post on a matrimonial site. Far from home, ensconced in Rochester, Amina learns to navigate the contours of a new relationship and country. She meets George’s family, including his adopted free-spirited cousin, Kim, takes classes at a local college as well as a succession of jobs, including those of a shop assistant, yoga school receptionist and coffee shop barista. George turns out to be a conservative, Casaubon-like creature and her relationship with him, while not wildly exciting or disappointing, proceeds much of the time on an even keel as they discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

By providing particulars of Amina’s reactions to the food, surroundings, weather and her various adjustments and discoveries, Freudenberger thickens the narrative and adds verisimilitude. Inevitably, these put one in mind of other such fiction, notably by Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali -- in whose accounts of displaced lives, it must be said, one finds more intimacy and granularity.

George and Amina’s conflicting points of view on living with family versus living alone provide one of the novel’s main pivots, allowing Freudenberger to explore differences in Western and Eastern attitudes. Finally, after three years in the United States, Amina returns to Bangladesh to bring her parents back with her. (The gifts she takes for her family and friends show Freudenberger’s eye for detail at its most acute.)  Back in her own country, Amina is immediately plunged into extended family squabbles and less-than-ideal living conditions. Here, she once again meets and is attracted to Nasir, a childhood friend – in fact, there’s a too-neat complementarity between this relationship and between that of George and Kim. Conflicts, though, are handled in an unvaryingly low-key and leisurely manner, as equations between Amina, George and her parents are played out.

One of the strengths of The Newlyweds is its nuanced rendering of cultural displacement; another is that Freudenberger sticks close to her characters without feeling the need to make overarching pronouncements. The Newlyweds checks all the right boxes, then, but in doing so it also emerges as a story that’s all too familiar. “It is only by sharing our stories that we become one community,” writes Amina in the novel’s closing lines, and while there’s no denying this sentiment, it’s also true that the tales that make the most impression are those that throw fresh light, or are rendered in fresh ways.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Experience of Reading Zadie Smith

Today's column for the Sunday Guardian


Here it is, at last. A Zadie Smith novel after seven years.  I’m sure NW isn’t going to be inspired by E.M. Forster the way her earlier On Beauty was – at least not given the evidence of her 2008 essay, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. There, she contrasted Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, coming down in favour of the latter. “To read [Netherland] is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition”, she wrote, referring to a “breed of lyrical realism [which] has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked." So, is NW is going to be her riposte to such realism, pointing a way ahead? Let’s start. Okay, the first bit is fascinating. We’re in the mind of Leah, married, in her mid-30s, living in a run-down council estate in north-west London. But it isn’t in the first person: rather, as Smith’s written of a David Foster Wallace story, it’s third person as first person, a little bit Joyce and a little bit Woolf. Leah’s life unfurls: her marriage, her work, and her circumambulations around London where Smith reveals a great ear for mimicking the speech of those on the street. So far, so splendid .

Hold on, what’s this? We’ve segued into another section, and this one deals with the life of another Londoner, Felix, from the same area as Leah. This character is a recovering alcoholic trying to make good. The style is more familiar here, more realistic (whatever that means). But why are we following Felix around as he tries to profit from buying used cars, hangs around with his father and visits an old lover? What happened to Leah? What happened to Leah’s childhood friend, Natalie? Though the Felix section is great in its rendering of the section of London that the book deals with. People flicker brightly across the pages: higher-ups falling on hard times, street thugs, those trying to escape the noose of class. Still. Is Felix Smith’s version of Septimus Smith? Not sure. And has she left behind that stream-of-consciousness style she started off with?

The next section. Again, this one is completely different from what’s come earlier. These are short vignettes about Natalie, also known as Keisha (and her one-time crush, Nathan). There’s some doggerel, there’s a menu, there’s chatroom-speak, there’s aphorisms, there’s Natalie’s dealings with her husband, with the Internet, with her profession (she’s a lawyer with a chequered career, but doing way better than Leah). Confusing. Also fascinating. Maybe I’m reading too fast – these short passages lend themselves to such haste. Slow down. Accept this on its own terms, she’s trying something different. It’s like entering a fictional machine with different parts working in different ways; the occasional self-consciousness of the narrative means that the joints and gears sometimes stand exposed. It’s very clear, though, that Smith is more than living up to the implicit promise of her 2008 essay. Note to Ian McEwan: You can take what you called the “dead hand of Modernism” and suck its thumb.

Yes, it’s too cleverly self-reflexive. Yes, some of the satire is clunky (“Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates”.) Yes, there are too many styles crammed together. But at a time when other novelists are churning out works in the same tried and tested mode, Smith’s gone ahead and tried to show other ways of representation. She takes a patch of London and gives us its characters, their voices, their dreams and their downfall, and in a way that’s new. (Of course, the “new” part is relative; given that there’s much channeling of Woolf and Joyce.) So how do these parts mesh, now that I’ve completed it? There’s only one way to find out. Read it again.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

American Destinies

This appeared in today's Indian Express.


There aren’t any live tigers in Liza Klaussmann’s debut novel, Tigers in Red Weather, which comes as something of a relief given the number of such creatures popping up in fiction of late. The title instead is a line from a Wallace Stevens poem, one that privileges a life of the imagination over the mundane. Mundane is a word that can’t be applied to the lives of Klaussmann’s characters as she follows them over the decades, from bright, shining promise to coming-to-terms with what remains.

The novel opens in the wake of World War II, as cousins Nick and Helena spend a hot September in their family house in New England, a location that they and their future families will return to over the decades. Helena’s first husband was one of the war’s early victims, and she’s getting married for a second time, to an aspiring Hollywood director. Nick, on the other hand, will soon travel to meet her own husband, a naval officer returning home from England, and they will start their married lives in a poky cottage in Florida. With the optimism of the young, both look forward to “houses, husbands and midnight gin parties”.

The novel follows their destinies over the decades, from 1945 to 1969, shifting between five points of view: those of Nick and Helena; of Daisy, Nick’s impetuous daughter, and Ed, Helena’s secretive, spooky son; and of Hughes, Nick’s husband. While Nick and Helena struggle with the roles that society and their marriages demand of them, a young Daisy tries to balance needs and desires; Hughes, meanwhile, comes to terms with an earlier affair while Ed’s early life moulds his nature into strange shapes. 

A large canvas, then, and Klaussman does it justice with, among other things, an artful cross-hatching of the same incidents witnessed by different characters so that the full picture emerges only gradually. On one too many occasions, however, her characters learn about secrets by simply happening to be in the right time and place to conveniently eavesdrop. The dialogue, too, can veer towards the lush: “I feel like a stranger in a house of the good and the golden and the heavenly. Which makes me the devil, I suppose”.

One of the considerable strengths of Tigers in Red Weather is that the characters are portrayed warts and all, with their conflicting desires and aversions on display, which makes them realistic and convincing. Then again, the discovery of a body by Daisy and Ed halfway through seems to pull the narrative into the grid of plot, and away from character development and exposition.

A clear influence is the work of Scott Fitzgerald, but despite one character being called Nick and another Daisy, Klaussmann’s prose and treatment aren’t up to Gatsbyesque standards. Throughout, clothes, perfumes, cuisine and music are carefully described, being markers of changing tastes as well as of status over the years – but other historical signposts are simply tacked on, such as a token mention of the Kennedys or of Alabama civil rights activists.

At one point in the novel, Nick tells an aggrieved Daisy: “It’s so hard to be young and have all this wanting”. Young or old, it’s their wants that drive the characters of Tigers in Red Weather to make the choices that determine their lives, and Klaussmann – who, by the way, happens to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville -- delineates these in a smooth, polished manner familiar to adherents of conventional narrative fiction.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

My Candidate For The Literature Nobel

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Feverish speculation has broken out over the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature and Ladbrokes have already set the odds, listing the usual and unusual suspects. Well, to the Roths, Murakamis and Cetebooms of this world, I say: pooh, pfft and pshaw. My nomination for the laurel is one that few have heard of and yet is the most deserving of the lot. On the appointed date in Stockholm, the person who steps up to the podium ought to be none other than Hansel Hochstapler.

Born in the Mitteleuropean state of Behroopia, which vanished after the convulsions of the Great War, Hochstapler began writing as a child, drawing up shopping lists for his parents. After these were proclaimed to be masterpieces of the genre, he moved on to other forms, especially corporate mission statements and, spectacularly, the minutes of an all-day meeting of the marketing department of the Behroopia Iron & Steel Company in which it was revealed for the first time that the state had no reserves of iron, not to mention steel.

Hochstapler was hounded out of his motherland when still in his twenties by angry shopkeepers demanding payment for provisions based on his shopping lists. Alone and destitute, he wandered all over Europe surveying the cataclysmic after-effects of a world at war, never ceasing to write about the dark side of humankind and the difficulty of finding a cappuccino with the right amount of foam. It was at this time that his sonnets devoted to deep-fried chicken caught the attention of an independent publisher on the Left Bank and first editions of these, in pale green binding covered by grease stains, are much sought after by bibliophiles.

He lives today in a room filled with recyclable fast-food wrappers off a dusty lane in a corner of a Parisian arrondisement, emerging from the back entrance on Sunday mornings to avoid the creditors who knock on the front door. What is thought of as his best work, a collection of short stories titled Why Whither Whence, was published in 2001; he writes in an obscure Pyrenean dialect, and none of his poems and tales has so far been translated into English. This, though, seems set to change: his old publisher, having moved from the Left Bank to the Right, has recently employed the services of a translator who has been endorsed by Hochstapler himself after he taught him to yodel.

About the influences on his writing, Hochstapler is reticent. He has sworn off interviews, as his last one two decades ago was a fractious encounter with a callow reporter that ended in Hochstapler tossing the contents of his coffee cup into the journalist’s face. “It is lucky that the cup contained nothing more than watered-down slivovitz,” the correspondent was to recall in his write-up of the meeting. “It was when I asked Hochstapler about the origins of some of his stories that he began to get aggressive,” the report continued, “especially his tale about a man being transformed into a beetle one morning after uneasy dreams, or the one about a character who sets out on horseback to tilt at windmills, imagining himself to be a knight-errant.”

As is well known, the reporter did manage to ask him whether there was an underlying theme or message in his work. Hochstapler drew himself up to his full height of 4’11”, and then sank down again on his overstuffed armchair. What he said next has long been debated in literary salons. According to the journalist, his tapes reveal the word, “floss”. Postmodern critics scoff at this, and maintain that what Hochstapler said, in his thick French accent, was: “Loss”. Whether Hochstapler wanted to impart a lesson on oral hygiene or on bereavement will go down as one of the burning literary questions of our age. Either way, it is time that this brave writer, who has fought so tirelessly against the forces of fascism and metabolism, finally gets his due.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Unreal Estate

Today's Sunday Guardian column

Shifty builders, corrupt politicians, and financial institutions ready to raise any amount of money in order to make more of it. All of them prowling about in a city being run into the ground so that a few can profit. That city could well be Mumbai, but in the case of Claire Kilroy’s just-published novel, The Devil I Know, it happens to be Dublin.

Aravind Adiga’s Mumbai-based Last Man in Tower deals with many of the same issues, but in a completely different manner. At times Dickensian, at times satirical, at times clunky, Adiga’s novel focuses on the greed of the middle-class hoping to profit from artificial property prices; Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, on the other hand, is a savagely farcical take on the malfeasance of those responsible for the bubble in the first place.

Set against the backdrop of the recent Irish economy boom-and-bust, this saga of unreal estate takes the form of a testimony given by Tristram Amory St Lawrence, the thirteenth Earl of Howth, who has returned to Ireland after years. The name, by the way, is that of a character in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, as is clear from the novel’s epigraph.

It is March 2016, and Tristram is on the witness stand. Over ten days, he proceeds to tell an enquiry commission of his part in the events that transpired eight years ago. The voice Kilroy gives her character is distinctive, self-aware and self-mocking: this mode of telling, combined with the testimony-like structure, is immediately familiar, being used most notably by Nabokov.

An interpreter for institutions such as the IMF and the EU, Tristram is forced to stop over in Dublin, his ancestral home, because of a plane mishap. Overnight he finds himself entangled in a web of deceit and avarice involving malleable property laws, avaricious real estate brokers and bribable government ministers, which proves to be not just his undoing but also of the others around him. As he puts it, “this is something of a grey area. There are no white areas in my tale”.

Throughout, Tristram asserts, he’s been in thrall to the mysterious, Machiavellian character he calls Monsieur Deauville who’s been pulling the strings behind the scenes. It is because of him that Tristram goes from becoming a translator of languages to one of money. A shell company is set up, of which Tristram is a representative and, and he tells the judge: “It bought nothing, sold nothing, manufactured nothing, did nothing, and yet…it returned a profit of €66 million that first year. Huge sums of untaxed money were channelled through it out to the shareholders of its parent companies, which is perfectly legal under Irish tax law, as you know. I did not make the laws. You made the laws….Me? I was merely the conduit….Who better to direct a shell company than a shell of a human being?”

One of the main strands of the novel, it becomes clear, is that of how much of the character of M. Deauville is real, what he actually stands for, and the nature of the Faustian bargain that Tristram strikes with him. These are aspects juggled by Kilroy till the very end, with some apt foreshadowing.

Tristram’s vibrant voice is a pleasure to read, especially for those on a meagre diet of conventional, realistic fiction. However, Kilroy is not above overstatement, occasionally employing groan-worthy puns to make her point. “We were sole traders. We had traded our souls,” is just one example.

Her skewering of those whose greed for pelf led to Ireland’s contemporary woes, though, is clearly born of deep anger. As Tristram puts it in one of the more resonant passages: “[A]cross the country people were digging themselves into big holes…big holes were spreading across Ireland like the pox, eating away at the heart of the island. Nobody was interested in negative sentiments.” It’s not just in Ireland that those big holes are growing more numerous.