Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why Penguin Random House Should Merge With Me

Dear Messrs Pearson and Bertelsmann,

Congratulations on the creation of Ranguin. I know you’ve decided to go with another name, but I like this one better so I’m going to stick with it.

When I read your statement that this company can “be more adventurous in trying new models”, I realized I have to present this opportunity to you without delay. It’s big, bold and, most importantly, will make lots of money for us. Pull your chairs closer.

I offer myself as an entity for Ranguin to merge with.

The three of us together will bravely face and profit from the new world of print and digital, with the option to venture into the fast-growing fields of home d├ęcor and Chinese food.

What books have you published, I hear you say. The answer: None, if you define publishing in that fuddy-duddy manner of mass-producing print editions. (That’s so 2009.) Look, instead, at the vast number of blog posts, tweets, comments and graffiti I’ve been responsible for over the years, you’ll know that I am, in my own way, a publishing powerhouse.

For a start, I’ve already thought of a multi-media project that is sure to be next year’s blockbuster. It’s titled 50 Shades of the Grey Album and brings together the talents of the Beatles, Jay-Z, Danger Mouse and E.L. James.

Combining our complementary skills and strengths is a move that can only be described as synergistic, not to mention evangelistic and realistic. (I would prefer an all-cash settlement, in small and unmarked bills.)

Looking forward to a favourable response. Oh, I think that’s Rupert on the line.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Not Brought To Book

My Sunday Guardian column. Because soon, we may encounter bookstores only in works of fiction.

Anyone who likes reading probably has, at one time or another, dreamt of setting up a bookstore. As Orwell wrote in a typically clear-sighted essay on his employment in a London bookstore, it's "easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios". In reality, the experience made him lose his love for books: "Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening". Looking back, "It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles".

What we dreamers are left with is the consolation of reading books set in bookstores, most of them written by those without fear of Orwellian paranoiacs. There have been many such over the years: novels by Carlos Luis Zafon, Christopher Morley and Penelope Fitzgerald and memoirs by Helen Hanff and Lewis Buzbee, to name just a few.

At first glance, Robin Sloan’s just-published debut novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, seems to be just this sort of book. As one reads on, however, one realises that it uses the state of print books and bookstores as a metaphor for changing times and largely as a hangar for a fantasy escapade.

Set primarily in San Francisco, it’s the story of Clay Jannon, who’s lost his job as a designer with the new-age firm of New Bagel, and jumps at the opportunity to work as a night clerk at the eponymous bookstore: “The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could.”

The store turns out to be a place stocked by mysterious volumes that Clay is instructed by the owner not to delve into, volumes that he starts referring to as "the Waybacklist". These are checked out by oddball characters who walk into the store at night and seem to be using them to solve a long-standing puzzle.

Of course, Clay is unable to resist peeking into the books and finds them consisting of long rows of numbers, "an undifferentiated jumble". Like a good fictional protagonist he determines to solve the mystery, with the help of others such as his childhood friend Neel Shah and newly-acquired girlfriend Kat, a Google employee. Without giving too much away, the plot quickly involves itself with the machinations of a secret society known as the Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine and its efforts to crack a code handed down by a Gutenberg-era publisher, involving the typeface designed by his colleague.

Much of this is fun to read at the level of a light-hearted thriller -- despite the prose being occasionally sophomoric, such as when it comes to the narrator’s feelings for Kat. There are fascinating descriptions of what it’s like to work at Google, fictional or otherwise, especially the efforts to scan every book in existence. It’s also very much a novel of its time, with allusions to Kindles, venture capitalists and the digitization of everything on earth.

One wishes, though, that Sloan -- a former Twitter employee -- hadn’t over-reached himself by including so many heavy-handed episodes to remind us of the contrasts between reality and simulation. In the first half, these come thick and fast: webcam appearances, a model of a cityscape, a logbook replica and, for good measure, even an allusion to Walter Benjamin's concept of the aura. The problem is that these don’t go anywhere: as the book progresses, it concerns itself even more frantically with the mystery’s unravelling, setting aside questions of the future of books and data.

The print edition of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is supposed to have a glow-it-the-dark cover, something I wasn't able to experience myself, having read the e-book. Despite the luminescence, it isn’t quite going to light up the worlds of those seeking the satisfactions of a book about books, being more of an enjoyable caper than anything else.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Perils Of Writing When Online

My column for The Sunday Guardian

Is that the time? I’d better start writing this column: if I don’t get it done soon, I’m going to miss the deadline. Let’s see now, what's been happening in the world of letters last week? I know: what about some incisive comments on the politics behind the…

Beep! A text message from a restaurant breathlessly informing me of a never-before unlimited brunch offer. Haven't been there yet. But that means dragging myself out of the house on a Sunday morning. Delete.

…Nobel Prize that seems to throw up an unexpected surprise every year. When it comes to Literature, it leaves people scratching their heads and then remarking angrily that it’s high time Roth won it. Although, come to think of it, the same people nod their heads gravely, sometimes with a vacant look in their eyes, when it comes to other disciplines such as…

I’ll just take a second to check my Twitter timeline. Has anyone retweeted me yet? Not yet? Rats. This is like dropping a pebble into a deep well and waiting for a splash that never comes.

… Economics or Chemistry. Maybe it's just that those prizes attract less controversy because the disciplines are more arcane, so fewer people feel enabled to critique them. Surely then, there ought to be the same rigour…

Twitter once again. No RTs yet but what an interesting bunch of links to click on. There’s one that promises to be the funniest viral of all time, and how can I pass up the one that claims to cut through the malarkey surrounding the U.S.Presidential debates?

…when it comes to supposedly ’softer’ disciplines such as Peace and Literature? The fact is, everyone and his neighbour feels they can weigh in with opinions on the Peace Prize, and many point out, year after year, that Gandhi…

Thirteen unread mails nestling in my inbox. I’d better check: what if there’s something important? If you’re not prompt in replying, you’re behind the curve. Ten are spam, two are bills and one is from my bank offering me an interest-free loan. I’m tempted to reply with my name, address and bank details to the kindly gent from Nigeria who’s promised me an inheritance. This could be my lucky day.

…never received the Peace Prize and then nod sagely as if that tells you everything you need to know about the shenanigans of the Academy in Oslo. (But really, Academy members: the European Union?) Yet others will point out that in 1953, Churchill won the Nobel Literature award, but those such as Graham Greene or Jorge Luis Borges were ignored. Come to think of it…

Just one quick round of Angry Birds. I’ve been stuck at this level for a week now, and it’s just because of that one pesky piggie hiding behind a stack of boulders. What if I can manouevre the yellow bird to make that wooden edifice collapse and, oops, no, that didn’t work.

…giving Churchill the Literature Nobel may have been inspired because in years to come, he’ll probably be even more denounced as a thoroughgoing imperialist, but the quality of his prose, at least, isn't in doubt. No such discussions, however, cloud the minds of those who talk about the other winners. Not many, for example, stand up and proclaim that Keynes ought to be rolling in his grave because the award, in past years, has gone to those such as Hayek and Friedman. Then again, Amartya Sen's won it too, which just goes to show that …

I’ll just do a quick Google search on exactly how many disciplines the Nobel is awarded in, so I can take this argument forward. Oh, look: here’s a link to that YouTube cat video everyone was talking about last week. Amazing. How did they make the cat do that? Now, what was I supposed to be searching for? Oh, no: the broadband connection’s on the blink again. How am I supposed to get any work done?

Many More Ramayanas

This appeared in today's DNA


Shortly after the last episode of Ramanand Sagar’s televised version of the Ramayana, Romila Thapar wondered whether the series was “an attempt to project what the new culture should be, an attempt to expunge diversities and present a homogenised view of what the Ramayana was and is”. Such a uniform culture, she went on, “would be simple to identify and easy to control”.

Attempts at control have manifested themselves in various ways since then, from the brouhaha over the birthplace to the dropping of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay from the syllabus of Delhi University. Despite such attempts, as Ramanujan and others over the years have pointed out, the Ramayana is protean, with innumerable versions in India and South East Asia, each one reflecting different ideological and social perspectives. Authorship has changed hands, in Thapar’s words, from “bards to brahmans to monks to local storytellers”, and this is entirely how it ought to be.

Most retellings have taken place in the vernacular; in English, it’s in the genre of science fiction and fantasy that experimentation has occurred, two examples being the embellished recreation of Ashok Banker, and Ramayana 3392 AD, the comic book series produced by Deepak Chopra and Shekhar Kapur.

This is a frame that Breaking the Bow, a collection of Ramayana-inspired speculative fiction, leaves largely unbroken. Editors Anil Menon and Vandana Singh indicate in their separate introductions that the speculative in speculative fiction has always been a part of India’s storytelling tradition; this is indeed so, but many of the stories here marry the genre’s Western conventions with Indian themes making for an entertaining but sometimes uneasy alliance.

Given that 20 of the 24 contributors are women, there are many instances of Sita singing the blues (with Surpanakha coming second). Swapna Kishore’s satisfying ‘Regressions’, for example, features a “futurist agent” in a splintered Indian state travelling back into the past to redress gender equations, and Lavanya Kartik’s ‘Day of the Deer’ is a cheeky inversion that has Sita as double agent.

Feminism apart, there are environmental and political linkages, too. In the somewhat pedantic ‘Sita to Vaidehi’, Sucharita Dutta-Asane sets up resonances with present-day Naxalites, and in Abirami Velliangiri’s ‘Great Disobedience’, Rama and Lakshman are Valmiki’s pawns in clearing the Dandaka forest.

There’s also much planet-hopping and time-space melding, with middling results. In K. Srilata’s ‘Game of Asylum Seekers’, more energy is spent in defining the game than anything else; Aabha Daweshwar’s ‘The Good King’ features an ultra-modern Lanka, with Ravan juggling hybrid realities; and co-editor Vandana Singh’s apocalyptic ‘Oblivion’ has a sex-changing creature travelling through the universe in search of a demonic nemesis.

In contrast with such overstated sagas, Aishwarya Subramanian’s ‘The Making’ delicately compresses the bulk of the epic into a few pages using recurring motifs, while Sharanya Manivannan’s ‘Petrichor’ is an interesting take on the conversation between Hanuman and Sita in the Ashoka grove. Tabish Khair’s ‘Weak Heart’ is one of the few that delves into the mind of Ram, imagining what it’s like to live as a god.

Other contrasts arise from ways of telling. Pratap Reddy’s postmodern ‘Veidehi and Her Earth Mother’, set in Canada, has an unreliable narrator and a character who flees the manuscript,  while Shweta Narayan’s more realistic ‘Falling into the Earth’, set in California, dwells on the relationship between present-day versions of Sita, Ram and Lakshman.

At times, narratives compete on hallucinogenic ground. Neelanjana Banerjee’s feverish 'Exile’ features a role-playing Surpanakha in a futuristic Vegas club, while Tori Truslow’s hyper-real ’Machanu Visits the Underworld’ is an innovative tale  of Hanuman visiting the Thai version of Hades to bring Ram back.

 Disappointingly, though, it’s the same main characters that appear time and again. Bharat, Kaikeyi, Dashrath, Indrajit and Sugriva, to take just a few, are mentioned in passing, if at all, though one would have imagined that their take would have provided an interesting counterpoint. A sense of playfulness is also infrequent – one thinks, for example, of Google Indonesia’s online version earlier this year in which characters used Google Talk, Maps, Gmail and Search to communicate and plan their journeys. The bravura exception here, though, is Kuzhali Manickavel’s wickedly funny ‘The Ramayana as an American Reality Television Show: Internet Activity Following the Mutilation of Surpanakha’. Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘The Other Woman’ teeters on the brink of the cartoonish, but is at least unusual in featuring Mandodari and specifically mentioning the Ayodhya imbroglio.

Breaking the Bow’s riffs on the Ramayana contain highs and lows, then, but taken as a whole, the collection has enough brio to remind the reader once more that, as John Berger puts it, “never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one”. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

When Fiction Goes Digital

Today's column for the Sunday Guardian.

It’s been said many times that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for TV. Well, if Calvino, Cortazar and B.S. Johnson were here now, they’d be working on apps that redefine narrative. Robert Coover, in fact, wrote perceptively about the implications of hypertext decades ago, speculating on the emergence of “a third voice”, distinct from the priestly and the demotic. It’s just this sort of voice that may be emerging now.

Although they say people are reading less than they used to, it's also true that they're reading more on the Web, even if it's just status updates on Facebook. Publishers have been trying to ride this change, tailoring their offerings to synch with changing reading habits.

There’s Faber’s iPad app of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the Penguin app of Kerouac’s On The Road and, more recently, Sourcebooks’s Shakesperience. All of these comprise, apart from the text, a series of video interpretations, readings, interviews and glossaries.  Thus, these interactive encyclopedias, marvellously produced, use a different medium to provide, in marketing jargon, “an immersive experience”-- but they clearly don’t aim to do more than that.

Others are trying to turn low attention spans to their advantage. Last month, Amazon launched Kindle Serials, wherein readers could download and pay for volumes, one episode at a time. There are nine such serials so far, all of them in genres such as murder mysteries, sci-fi and detective novels -- no doubt because of their abilities to end episodes on a high, leaving the reader panting for more. Another digital publisher, Byliner, has also launched similar serials, the first two by Margaret Atwood and Joe McGinniss. (This is the moment to insert the obligatory Charles Dickens reference.)

Such ventures don’t play with established notions of a written text; others, however, are thinking differently. Take Coliloquy, a “technology-based provider of active fiction”, that also serves up episodic content, but makes the story branch out into different directions depending on reader feedback. So far, they deal with young adult, romance, and adventure, and readers can vote for not just future plotlines but also character attributes and locations, among other things. To me, this smacks of pandering to existing tastes, rather than setting out to create something intrinsically new.

What’s of much more interest is The Silent History, an app released this month by a team comprising Eli Horowitz, former managing editor of McSweeneys, as well as other writers and digital publishers, and “a team of contributors on five continents”.

Calling itself “a new kind of novel”, The Silent History sets out to provide the fictional record of a time in the near future when children are afflicted by a mysterious genetic mutation that renders them incapable of speech. (Fans of J.J. Abrams TV shows, take note.)

Within the app, first-person testimonials are released one day at a time, from Monday to Saturday -- among those released so far are one by nanny in New Jersey looking after a boy whose parents are away on cruise, by a diagnostician in Texas examining the pathology of the speechless and by a neurologist in Massachusetts stumped by the silent children but determined to know more.

What makes it even more innovative is a section called field reports: “site specific accounts of the many unexpected ways this silence is colliding with our physical world”. Such reports can only be read as and when you're actually present at the site being written about -- they’re unlocked when your device's location services synchs with the app.

Having read the first few episodes on my iPad, I downloaded the app onto my phone to continue reading, only to find, time and again, the annoying message that a server problem prevented the app from being “populated”.

Though they were prompt, professional and polite when I e-mailed to let them know, I couldn't help but think that there are times when there’s really no substitute for a printed book.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Letters Home

This appeared in today's DNA.


One of the stories in Tania James’ impressive collection, Aerogrammes, is about a chimpanzee from Sierra Leone adopted by an American family who ultimately has to deal with the indignity of being housed in a zoo. This saga of Henry, “the ape who loved blondes over baboons,” as the newspapers put it, reminds one of Rajesh Parameswaran’s ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’ from I Am An Executioner, the story of a tiger who can’t escape his animal nature. Though James’ story is less savage in the telling, and doesn’t delve deep into the creature’s consciousness as Parameswaran does, the same theme of being a fish out of water, of having to adapt to a changed environment, animates both.

The problem of fitting in is an attribute of many of James’ short stories, as it was with her debut novel, An Atlas of Unknowns. In Aerogrammes, an 8-year-old from Trivandrum, now living with her mother in Baltimore, tries to forge a relationship with her wayward father who visits them after spending years in Dubai. A retired Indian-American businessman in an old-age home waits for news and visits from his errant son. A 10-year-old girl in Kentucky deals with her grandfather’s dementia as well as her classmates’ opinions. These, and others, are told with a wryness of tone and lightness of touch that makes them all the more evocative.

‘Lion and Panther in London’, the first story here, is an excellent example of James’ virtuosity. Set in 1910, it deals with Gama, the so-called “champion undefeated wrestler of India”, who travels to London with his brother to fight in challenge matches there. He finds it to be a city “where athletes are actors, where the ring is a stage”. With deft, delicate strokes, James details his predicament, leading to a characteristically bittersweet conclusion. The decision to tell the story through the younger brother’s eyes is especially apt as it’s a point of view that the reader can more readily empathise with.

The other stand-out story is ‘Light & Luminous’, in which an Indian bharata natyam teacher and convenience store cashier desperately tries to prevail over her dusky complexion and claim her moment in the spotlight at an All-India Talent Showcase, an occasion that’s “thick with Indians and thin on talent”.  Unlike the characters in other immigrant fiction that we’re so used to by now, Minal Aunty isn’t coming to terms with being in America, but with her own internal demons, and James delineates her situation with sympathy and grace.

Not all the stories in Aerogrammes work as well, however. ‘The Scriptological Review’ is cast in the mode of a letter from the editor of “a journal dedicated to the social analysis of handwriting”, and devolves into his memories of his father’s death and relationship with the rest of his family. The form here is at odds with the content, which makes for an unstable whole. Then again, the Louisville-based ‘Girl Marries Ghost’, about the relationship between a woman and a spectre, doesn’t quite come to grips with the material and sometimes reads like a draft of a story by Steven Millhauser.

For all that, Aerogrammes as a whole is a moving collection of missives. With acuity and poise, James records the strategies of those who find themselves emotionally or geographically displaced and their efforts to come to terms with what remains. 

What Happens To The Passages Of Novels That We Skip?

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

I try to leave out the parts that people skip, Elmore Leonard once said, when asked about his rules for writing. Perhaps those who pick up Leonard’s novels read every word; as for the rest, we’re all guilty of skipping lines, sentences, paragraphs, and even pages. So what happens to all these ignored passages of novels?  Which circle of hell are they consigned to? Your intrepid columnist has the low-down.

The Dungeon of Details. You can hear the piteous moans and rattling of chains even before you enter their cell. In this corner, descriptions of bedrooms and living rooms stretch out their hands. On that ledge, the styles of characters’ clothes toss and turn. In the front, plucking at the bars, are the objects people fiddle with, from cigarette lighters to ivory-handled daggers. At the centre, you can see images of city streets, parks and buildings. Up on the rafters, the colours of people’s eyes lie defeated. It’s crowded here, and more details are dragged in every day.

The Maze of Minor Characters. Round and round they roam, ceaselessly searching for a way out, all those people on the periphery and in uninspiring sub-plots. The hero’s brother-in-law, the heroine’s best friend’s best friend, the florist with a ready smile, the ageing in-laws, the ship’s crew members and the former classmates spotted at school reunions. Some are fuzzy to look at; others have a single attribute that they repeat over and over again. Bumping into each other often and then drawing themselves up to their full heights they continue onwards, in search of the recognition and attention that will forever elude them.

The Wilderness of Weather. Upon a remote, blasted heath they swirl and rage. The temperature, the shape of clouds, the pitter-patter of rain on windowpanes, the sun’s blaze, the waxing and waning of the moon, the way the skies darken at night, and all the other descriptions of the changing patterns of climate. A typhoon with the power to capsize ships grumbled about how unfair it was that he was banished, as his actions had a great bearing on the novel’s plot.

The Cave of Connections. Far from civilization, by the side of a rocky outcrop, is where these hapless creations dwell. The doors that characters opened to get from one room to another, the flights taken between cities and countries, the routes followed to get from Point A to Point B, the horse-carriage rides down Central Park.  It’s not fair, they say: it’s because of us that characters were able to move around. We don’t belong in the dreary desert sand of dead habit, they yell, as they trip in the dark. But there it is. The way of the reader, like that of the Bushido blade, is pitiless.

The Labyrinth of Lists. Located next to the Maze of Minor Characters, this is where lists furl and unfurl all day and all night, separated only by the space of a semi-colon. On and on they whirl: the contents of shops and shopping lists; the particulars of  breakfast, lunch and dinner; the sunscreen, hats, towels and balls taken to beaches; the make and mechanism of armaments and explosives. Trees were cut down to make room for us, they proclaim indignantly, and look at our predicament now. That’s the way the biscuit breaks.

The Laboratory of Low Goals. Not a place of banishment per se, but a research centre where characters’ motivations are put to the test. Among those that don’t make the cut are the need to simply achieve happiness, the desire to retire to a beach-front villa, the urge to tell off the annoying co-worker and the necessity of catching the eye of the cute person next door. The technicians in this claustrophobic area work around the clock; the waiting room is always full. Recently, the inclination to clip toenails failed miserably, and was instantly shipped to the Valhalla of Weak Expectations.