Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Favourite Unread Books Of The Year

This appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

What a year it's been for not reading. From translated novels to Indian debuts to American bestsellers to British award-winners, they skulk on my Kindle and lurk on my shelves, each one a priceless memory of time spent doing anything other than reading. Few pleasures come close. Here, then, are my favourite unread books of the year, in no particular order of merit.

To begin with, there were the big novels -- big in terms of size, big in terms of accolades. The sheer heft of these volumes, containing intricate interactions between characters spread all over the globe, was so impressive that I had to spend a whole morning squeezing out space on the shelves to accommodate them. This is why, alas, I only had time to read the just the first few pages of one of them before being pulled away to save the brave explorer in a new version of Temple Run. (Priorities, people, priorities. Not to mention marauding monkeys.)

Then, there were the works of non-fiction that spoke of the rise of India, the decline of the West, the resurgence of China and the diversity of Bora-Bora. What insights, what analyses, what weaving together of personal anecdotes and public observations! I put one of them down for a minute to ponder over the writer’s interpretations, only to find a little later that as I had lightly dozed off, I was unable to pick it up again. I will soon, of course.

From Europe came the novellas, little existential depth charges that spoke of mankind’s helplessness in the face of a malign universe as well as in the plate of stale croissants for breakfast. These were beautifully translated and packaged; I could look at the cover art for hours. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve done so far. Each one is etched into my brain.

Next, the novel from America that everyone was talking about, the one that was ecstatically seized upon by the cognoscenti, the one that you simply had to have an opinion on if you were to be Among Those Who Count, the one that spoke of high philosophical ideas in the guise of an unvarnished tale about the pleasures of obtaining fresh croissants for breakfast. Immediately after purchasing this, I came across so many perceptive Facebook posts touting its charms that I felt I knew it intimately without having to read a word of it.

History and biography, too, played a large role in my year of not reading. After all, who wouldn’t want to enrich one’s knowledge of the present by learning about the long shadow of past events and the deeds of men who define our age? I do need a few uninterrupted hours to really get into these books, however: I wouldn’t want to do the authors’ labours a disservice by simply skimming. Until I find such time, though, I’ll just have to make do with checking out the Wikipedia entries on their subjects. They’re quite informative, too.

As always, Indian writers didn’t disappoint this year. In particular, there was the much-heralded debut about love in a small town that was called “lyrical”, “incisive” and even “luminous” by the reviewers. I must confess that I read so many of the reviews that all the details of plot and characters were revealed to me. I spent time sending congratulatory tweets to all the critics instead, and am now eagerly awaiting the author’s follow-up.

Books aside, there was also the joy of collecting the year-end issues of magazines, with their lyrical, incisive and luminous articles on the highlights of the year gone by, not to mention the lists of the year’s favourites. I have a shiny stack of them next to my bed, which I’m going to turn to as soon as I clear the backlog of other such issues. Right now, I’ve reached 1977, and Saturday Night Fever is sweeping the nation. I can’t wait to find out whether they made a sequel.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Defence Of Eloquence

This appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

Apart from the larger issues that have come to the fore during the Tehelka imbroglio, the many e-mails in public have thrown light on our reactions to the way words are used. Tejpal's style in these exchanges – “penance that lacerates”, “adamantine feminist-principle insistence”, “light-hearted banter” -- has been much mocked and seen as an attempt to obfuscate, not illuminate. In contrast, the woman journalist's responses have been clear and consistent, not to mention courageous.

Such suspicion of high-flown language isn't new. Plato was famously skeptical of sophistry and rhetoric, with Aristotle defining the latter as a set of skills that would enable one to persuade people of a given argument. From the Puritans on, the land of the free and home of the brave has favoured a plain style with succinct, declarative sentences, something upheld and championed by the influential Strunk and White. In England, George Orwell was one of many over the years who called for short words and unadorned diction; as he put it, “good prose is like a window pane”. Many contemporary writers, from Naipaul to Hemingway to Carver have followed suit, though in their own distinctive manner. (This is not to suggest that writing clear prose is a simple matter; arranging words to make them mean exactly what you want them to mean can be fiendishly difficult, whatever the style.)

In e-mails, official correspondence and other such communication, it's unarguable that the simpler the better, without the pollution of jargon and unnecessary legalese. With other forms of writing -- fiction and verse, for example -- it's not as obvious. While one clearly isn't advocating mendacity, if we all switch to such straightforwardness, we lose much of the beauty that language is capable of.

In his recent The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth joins those who have pointed out how Shakespeare used the art of rhetoric to give his plays so much of their power. Calling him “the master of the memorable line” Forsyth goes on to demonstrate this by many examples. To mention just a few, there’s alliteration (“Full fathom five thy father lies”), pleonasm (“To be or not to be, that is the question”) and aposiopesis ("No, you unnatural hags/I will have such revenge on you both/That all the world shall…”).

Forsyth also illustrates how “the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the wording” have helped many other writers (not to mention songwriters and copywriters). Oscar Wilde was a master of antitheses, for example: “The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves”. P.G. Wodehouse was known for his transferred epithets: “His eyes widened and an astonished piece of toast fell from his grasp”. T.S. Eliot did the same thing: “In a mere three lines of ‘Prufrock’ retreats mutter, nights are restless, hotels are one-night”. Moreover, “in Dickens' strange mind, mists were lazy, houses crazy, and snowflakes went into mourning and wore black".

Forsyth’s engaging examples to do with rhetoric apart, the firmament of contemporary fiction -- as I've written earlier -- is studded with literary stars for whom plain and simple just wasn’t enough. Nabokov is one of the more distinctive prose stylists, and his heirs are many, from Martin Amis to Will Self. Most Irish writers are possessed of the same sensibility: John Banville for one. Another John, John Updike, once described his style as "an attempt to give the mundane its beautiful due".

 As Forsyth says towards the end of his book, by using more than one rhetorical figure: “I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.” That may be carrying things too far, but the writers who view the elements of language as musical notes that make sentences dance are well worth paying attention to. On that point, I'm adamantine.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Portuguese Sends A Postcard Home

My Sunday Guardian column.

Those who continually claim that the novel is dead are simply those who have closed their eyes to its potential. It remains unmatched as a form to, among other things, ask questions that have no neat answers and explore how we react to changes. Importantly it’s also a vessel for linguistic experiment. Alas, too few novelists nowadays attempt to take advantage of these possibilities.

The Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares isn't among them, as his four-novel Kingdom cycle amply reveals. These novels are loosely linked by overlapping characters, themes and a prose style that depends on defamiliarisation – almost as though a Martian was sending a postcard home from Earth, to borrow from Craig Raine. Such boldness and versatility has earned the young writer a clutch of awards as well as encomiums from other novelists. After he won the Jose Saramago Prize for writers under 35, the author after whom the prize is named commented, “In thirty years’ time, if not before, Tavares will win the Nobel Prize, and I’m sure my prediction will come true... Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him.”

The punch delivered by one of the novels in the Kingdom series, Joseph Walser’s Machine, is a good example of Tavares’s style, which has been called that of "alienated recognition" by one critic. Set in an unnamed European city, the novel follows the fortunes of Joseph Walser, an unassuming factory worker. Tavares delves into the symbiotic relationship between Walser and his shopfloor machine, riffing on the differences between the human and the mechanical and “the swiftness with which [machines] transform causes and necessities into beneficial effects”. Chaplin’s Modern Times was a comment on the mechanization of labour; Tavares takes this a step further to expose our double-edged dependence on means of production, making a distinction between things crafted by the hand and those created by the mind.

The novel now starts to fill in more details of its protagonist’s life and world. His wife is having an affair with his philosophical and garrulous factory overseer, and this personal invasion is matched by an invasion of the city itself: a war is underway and citizens live under occupation. These events too, as translator Rhett McNeill points out in his introduction, are described “as if they were occurring for the first time, divorced from both their historical resonances and their usual linguistic milieus”. This leads to several penetrating observations. “To be a patriot in peacetime is to be a coward, because it’s too easy,” writes Tavares, and then again, in a statement that echoes the rhythms of his prose: “Every man in time of war, individually, on his own, founded, as it were, a Ministry of Normality, which established, essentially, repetitions. Because only repetitions…allowed each individual to wake up to find themselves human the next day.” People make history, but history also makes people.

For a novel that’s so short, there’s a lot that Tavares manages to pack in, and this without making the whole appear inordinately rushed.  Allied to the Janus-faced nature of machines and the citizen’s experience in times of war is the role and nature of unpredictability and choice. This is brought out in scenes where Walser engages in games of dice with his friends who are later to rage against the war machine. “There were six numbers stuck to the die and they weren’t going anywhere,” Walser thinks. “It was this precision that excited him, this precision that was well-defined by immutable limits that, nonetheless, allowed room for his peculiar decisions.”

 History and morality, unpredictability and determinism, people and objects: these, then, are the axes around which Joseph Walser’s Machine swiftly rotates. Large themes indeed, but Tavares demonstrates the skill and insight to do justice to them. One of his earlier novels is entitled Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique – and that’s not a bad way to think of this one, too.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Novels, Screens And Reality

This fortnight's Sunday Guardian column.

In an interview some years ago, Zadie Smith remarked that one of the challenges facing a novelist today was that of how to capture the reality of a person’s life at a time when he or she spent hours daily gazing into computer or phone screens and communicating via e-mail and text messages. In a hard-hitting piece in Slate this week, Daniel Sarewitz called this dependence “a problem we are powerless to resolve”; it’s time to acknowledge that “the moment you and your date finish ordering dinner you pull out your smartphones and start texting so you don’t have to face the possibility of silence; that you have come to believe that you more-or-less actually have read War and Peace because you read the plot summary on Wikipedia; that you find out what your kid is up to not by talking to her but by monitoring her Facebook page; that at work you simply cannot go more than 10 minutes without surreptitiously checking email no matter how much else you have to do”. Quite so.

Given that fiction is supposed to have the advantage of being able to create and map interiority -- our mental lives -- how does it do so convincingly at a time when so much of this interiority is informed and shaped by digital communication?

Some writers, mirroring the epistolary novels of the past, have simply incorporated e-mails wholesale – such as Matthew Beaumont’s e. Others have inserted e-mail messages into their narratives, as with David Gilbert’s recent & Sons. Such efforts seem forced – too obvious attempts to mirror new ways of communication. The problem is that such forms are so rooted in their own contexts that it’s hard, if not impossible, to knit them seamlessly into longer narratives. This is especially marked when you look at instances when text messages appear in novels – Gilbert’s & Sons again being one such. Then again, a new story by Jeffrey Eugenides in the latest New Yorker has a character playing Words with Friends on his phone, and this is more efficiently done, possibly because describing it is like recounting a game of Scrabble.  

One way out would be to take a leaf from the way we write reported speech – to write, for example, that a text message informed a character that he would be late, or that her Facebook status indicated that she was depressed -- instead of actually replicating content. But this, obviously, would create distance and lack the immediacy of direct dialogue.  Perhaps someone needs to come up with the equivalent of quotation marks for all digital communication.

It's an issue that can't be side-stepped, because it's going to come across as increasingly quaint to have novels of contemporary life peopled by characters who aren't engaged in periodic bouts of exchanging notes and gleaning information via screens. (Those writing historical novels must be heaving sighs of relief.) Movies, of course, face the same issue, and they're also going to have to deal with it in ways that fit into that medium -- one can't have, for example, a modern-day romantic comedy in which the protagonists don't exchange text messages or check Facebook pages obsessively. The next Richard Curtis film could well be titled Four Weddings, a Funeral and Several Tweets.

As for an allied issue, that of being unable to sustain attention because of digital distraction, there seems to be a mystifying rearguard action by novelists of simply writing longer works. After Richard House’s The Kills, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, to mention just three, comes the news that Knopf has paid close to $2 million for City on Fire, a debut novel by Garth Risk Hallberg that’s 900 pages long. One hopes it’s a worthwhile investment. As for me, I’ve found succour from such distractions in the pages of crime novels. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to return to the squares of Venice and the continuing exploits of the valiant Commissario Brunetti.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Meditation And Narration

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

In a blog post for the New York Review of Books last week, Tim Parks voiced a concern that many, in various ways, have recently expressed. Speaking of conventional, character-driven novels, he asks whether “the whole exercise has become largely irrelevant”.  “More and more,” he goes on, “I wonder if it is possible for a novel not to give me the immediate impression of being manipulated toward goals that are predictable and unquestioned”, referring to the typical structure and intent of such works, with their dilemmas, crises and portrayals of overcoming suffering. Despite digital distractions however, as he writes, such novels are clearly still preferred by many, perhaps because they create the illusion that life can be given a definite and reassuring shape.

Dissatisfied with such “reinforcement of a fictional selfhood”, he holds up the work of Bernhard, Beckett and even Lydia Davis as an astringent counterpoint. For his own part, he’s tried to express a different vision of self and narrative in his new novel, Sex is Forbidden. (That, at least is the title of the paperback; originally, it was the rather more sedate and appropriate The Server.) So, how well does Parks succeed in his aim?

The novel, written in the first person, deals with ten days in the life of Beth Marriot, a young woman at the Dasgupta Institute, a mindfulness meditation centre. (Much of the observed detail seems to be drawn from Parks’s own experiences, written about earlier in his memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still.) “Most people’s worries are about the future,” feels Beth, “but the longer I stay at the Dasgupta Institute the less certain I am about what happened before.” Parks makes her feel this way because, of course, the point of such vipassana practice is to stay focused on and aware of the present moment’s thoughts, sensations and emotions. And because human beings are story-telling machines – our minds join the dots and create causation – to lift ourselves out of such habituated ways is easier said than done. (One could almost say that the Buddha taught that one must transcend stories by becoming aware of them.)

This, then, is a disingenuous stream of consciousness narrative in which the present is continually being interrupted by the past and future. Beth has spent close to ten months at the retreat as “a server”, one who attends to cooking, cleaning and other chores, trying to forget her past life as a singer in a band, her devoted band-mate and her affair with an older painter, ending in a tragic accident. As she puts it, “I gave up everything for the band and I gave up the band for nothing”. Such thoughts continue to intrude no matter how much she tries to stay present: “The breath crossing the lip. The in-breath. The out-breath. Right effort. Right concentration. Right understanding.”

She finds further distraction when she appropriates and reads the diary of a fellow meditator; both of them are bending the rules, which do not allow reading and writing during the retreat. (“One thing leads to another when you think and write your thoughts down. False empty fantasies, painful formations of the mind, sankharas.”) The diarist, a publisher with a troubled personal and professional life, sometimes seems to echo Parks’s own thoughts: “What do stories do but glamorize pain?...all the pretentious sagas…They glamorize suffering.”  

In various ways, we see how Beth’s relationships with those at the institute mirror those that she’s left behind. She hasn’t escaped her stories, just changed the context. Parks’s narrative, then, doesn’t become an anti-novel or anything like it, being constrained by the strictures of the form. This is something he himself ruefully confesses in his NYRB piece: “the tale’s literary nature, its very presentation of itself as a novel…inevitably dragged it back toward the old familiar ploys, the little climaxes, the obligatory ironies.” For a novel that resists narrative, we’ll have to turn again to Beckett and a different sort of meditation, that of Murphy in his armchair.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Father, Sons And Everything In Between

My Sunday Guardian column.

“Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons.” That’s a sentiment explored in many works of fiction, from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons to Hemingway’s short story of the same title down to Siddhartha Deb’s The Point of Return – to mention just a handful from an ocean of stories. This is the theme that David Gilbert also takes up in & Sons, his ingenious new novel from which the quotation at the start of this paragraph is taken.

The father in question is A.N. Dyer, a Salinger-like novelist who, now that he’s approaching 80, calls his sons home for a reunion. There’s Richard, a drug counsellor and aspiring scriptwriter in Los Angeles; Jamie, a maverick filmmaker in Vermont; and Andy, who’s much the youngest at 17, being born when his father was in his early sixties. A.N. Dyer’s first novel, Ampersand (yes, Gilbert’s title is very clever), was a critical and commercial success: “It seems to me,” a character says,  “you have Catcher in the Rye people and you have Ampersand people…To me Salinger is a stray dog you want to adopt, but A.N. Dyer is a different beast altogether”. The beast in question went on to write more than a dozen other novels, the last published ten years ago; now, shaken by the death of his childhood friend Charles Henry Topping, he tells his sons: “You should know my goal as a father – and I swear this is true – my goal was positively Hippocratic, to do no harm, and look where that got me. You could sue for malpractice. I am a reckless scalpel.”

This makes the novel sound like a study of writing and the family – but it’s a lot more. Too much more, in fact.  It begins and ends with a funeral, and is narrated by one of Topping’s sons, a character who, we soon realise, is making up much of the actions and thoughts of the rest. Throughout, first person swoops into third and then back again, in a wily feat of legerdemain. Gilbert's capacious act of imagination, then, is itself structured as an act of imagination. "I have always had an unfortunate tendency to spin myself into alternate universes," the narrator says, later spelling it out: “Maybe I was imagining myself as a ghost, invisible in this world, trying to understand the family I would haunt for the rest of my life.”

Then, there’s much space devoted to sending up different cultures – aspiring moviemakers on the West Coast and the shenanigans of high society in NYC's Upper East Side, for example, or the glittering set piece revolving around a high-profile book launch party, peppered with metaphors drawn from the solar system. (There’s an abundance of metaphors in the book, some delightfully apt, others stretched too far.) Further, Dyer’s revelation about the birth of his youngest son halfway through the novel is quite at odds with the rest: “How could anyone believe this nonsense?” the narrator confesses. “It seemed something concocted by Pynchon doing his best impersonation of Barthelme.”

To further gild the lily, Gilbert includes text messages, extracts from novels, e-mails and letters. Various tonalities blend together, sometimes uneasily, to create a work that sprawls more than it should.

Fortunately, there are rewards for persevering with & Sons. Gilbert’s prose is, for the most part, a worthy handmaid of his ambition, and can be supple and sinuous, mimicking the registers of thought. It can also sometimes capture characters in a sentence; here, for example, is Topping on his father: "He grew up shy, then aloof, then distant, his feelings best relinquished from the palm of his hand – a firm grope, a pat on the back, a semi-ironic salute."

Inside every fat person, it's nastily been said, is a thin one struggling to get out. You could say the same of many novels, and Gilbert's & Sons, with all its meretricious charms, would have been the better for being slimmer.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Maps Of Nepal

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Read some of the more acclaimed short story collections of recent times, and you’d be tempted to think that the influence of Chekhov is on the wane, despite Alice Munro’s recent Nobel win.The gothic, comic sagas of Karen Russell, the revealing bravado of Junot Diaz, the black humour of Sam Lipsyte and the sardonic vision of George Saunders, to name a few: none of them can be described as belonging to the camp of quiet realism. Others such as Deborah Levy stray even further, with surreal vignettes and ice-cold prose. Even the recently-announced winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Sarah Hall, tells the story of a woman who turns into a fox during a woodland walk with her husband.

Perhaps a reason for this is that the world they write about has already been mapped so closely by those who came before that a startling new vision is necessary. Other parts of the world, though, remain comparatively undescribed, and it is here that the lessons of the Russian writer make themselves apparent.

It’s in this context that Prajwal Parajuly’s The Gurkha’s Daughter ought to be seen. This collection of eight stories was earlier long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (along with Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land) – and was also shortlisted this week for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the titles on which were described by Peter Stead, chair of the prize, as “young writers going for the big themes”.

Almost all of these stories are set in Nepal and its environs, and are marked by character-driven, open-ended plots delineated in simple but never simplistic prose. This is not to say that Parajuly doesn’t display ambition. To begin with, he explores the consciousness of a wide variety of people, from a Kathmandu servant girl to an unemployed Darjeeling graduate to a Bhutanese refugee to an IT professional in New York and more. (Chekhov: "It's easier to write about Socrates than about a young woman or a cook.") There’s ambition also to be found in stories such as ‘A Father’s Journey’, which sums up the shifting, decades-long relationship between father and daughter. Further, there’s deft use of craft in ‘The Cleft’, with intercuts between past promises made to a set-upon domestic worker and her present predicament. Clearly, then, these aren’t tales of the aroma of Darjeeling tea or glimpses of Mount Everest – as one of the New York-based characters wryly states, these are the things that people ask him about when he tells them where he’s from.

Many of the stories deal with the gulf between the disadvantaged and the better-off, contrasting the dreams of the underprivileged with those “uncomfortable with the vast gulf separating one’s silver-spoon upbringing from another’s fast-improving but modest existence.” It’s a gulf of both class and wealth. An unemployed, impoverished engineer resents having to put up more well-to-do members of his extended family; a Muslim grocer holds his tongue rather than complain about shoplifting by the daughter of a well-heeled customer; and Bhutanese refugees in Nepal scheme to find a better life overseas. Politics enters some stories as an influence on private lives, be it the cause of economic hardship because of demands for a separate state or ambitions of making a living as a politician representing those without a voice.

The later stories are among the more moving, whether exploring the day-to-day existence of an ageing couple whose children have settled overseas, or the plight of a Gurkha family after the British have left. ‘The Immigrants’, set in New York, has a pleasing, gradual inversion of roles between an employer and his maid but is alas a bit too predictable, employing familiar tropes in the telling.

In an essay titled 'Learning from Chekhov', Francine Prose writes: “Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world.” Parajuly, who has a debut novel out soon, seems to be doing just that.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Love (And Murder) In Tokyo

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

I’d heard much about Keigo Higashino’s murder mystery, The Devotion of Suspect X, but I read it only last week, my interest being piqued by the news that Sujoy Ghosh was to direct a Bollywood version. The Japanese film based on the book had earlier done well in its home country but is little known outside it; there’s a Korean remake too, as well as reports that Hollywood has evinced interest.  Inevitable, I suppose that Bollywood would raise its hand, too. To be fair, it’s exactly the sort of plot that would appeal to the person who’s made Kahaani.

The 2005 novel was published in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith in 2011 after it went on to sell a staggering 2 million copies in Japan. It’s the third of Higashino’s “Detective Galileo” books, the detective in question being one Manabu Yukawa, a brilliant, eccentric physics professor who aids the Tokyo police force and whose character traits clearly owe a little something to Sherlock Holmes. He isn’t centrestage during the entire book, however. The plot concerns itself with the predicament of Yasuko, a divorced single mother, and her neighbour and not-so-secret admirer, Tetsuya Ishigami. In a heated moment during an altercation with her bullying former husband, Yasuko finds that she’s strangled him with an electrical cord; the ever-watchful Ishigami then steps in and asks mother and daughter to let him handle the fall-out. No, that isn’t a spoiler: this occurs near the start of the book, with the rest being given over to the intricate web that Ishigami spins to keep the truth from coming out.

The police identify the mutilated body found on a riverbank as that of Yasuko’s husband, and the two detectives on the case piece together evidence that seems to point the needle of suspicion to Yasuko. One of the detectives contacts Yukawa, known as Detective Galileo, who takes a keen interest in the case because he finds that the neighbour, Ishigami, was a former classmate of his with the reputation of being an ingenious mathematician. (“It was odd to hear Yukawa talk about someone even more brilliant than himself.”) Now begins a cat and mouse game between the physicist and the mathematician -- and this, with its twists, turns and mathematical analogies, is one of the chief pleasures of reading the book. There are scarlet herrings, contested alibis and a surprising and innovative twist as Galileo uncovers the lengths to which Ishigami will go to protect those he cares about.

A poster for a 1966
 Bollywood film
Higashino’s prose – or the English version of it – is crisp and clear, gliding along effortlessly from event to event. There’s a great deal of attention paid to pacing and revelation of information in the form of well-structured scenes, and he also shows us the differing points of view of the main characters. (An exception to this is Yasuko’s daughter, who remains something of an enigma.) As such, it’s easy to see why a film-maker would be interested in the material. The transposition of locale is another matter, however. Higashino doesn’t exactly fill his novel with atmospheric Tokyo detail, but there are still several references to low kotatsu tables, bento-box lunches, bars and squatters along the Sumida River, to take just a few examples, and part of the fun of reading the novel is the evocation of Japanese life. (You can't take the Swedish out of Swedish noir, for example, which is why David Fincher set the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Stockholm.) Still, the plot of Higashino's novel isn't culture-specific, which means a change of mise-en-scene isn't unsurmountable. Other details that will probably be changed for Bollywood include Yasuko working as a waitress in a takeaway lunchbox restaurant to which she bicycles daily.

Ingenious and absorbing as The Devotion of Suspect X is, it does dip into sentiment at the very end, to do with unrequited love and sacrifice. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Hindi version was titled Balidaan.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why 2013 Will Be The Year Of The Woman Writer

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

There are still some months to go before the end of the year, but one thing seems certain: when it comes to English-language fiction, 2013 belongs to the woman writer.

Take the Man Booker shortlist. Four of the six titles are by women: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Eleanor Katton’s The Luminaries, Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. It’s not that Booker shortlists haven’t featured the same number of women before, but it’s significant at a time when they’ve written so many notable novels.

Arguably one of the most talked about titles of the year is by another woman: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. This novel of motorbikes, art and terrorism in the 1970s was rapturously received, even hailed as “the Great American Novel for the 21st century”. At the Edinburgh Book Festival in April, Colm Toibin, tongue somewhere near cheek, said that it was as if the author had announced, "if anyone thinks there is a 'male novel', and anyone thinks that women should write a different kind of novel, I've just arrived on a motorbike covered in leather and I am ready to eat you all".

The Flamethrowers was one of those on the National Book Awards Fiction longlist announced this month. Here, too, half of the ten titles are by women -- last year there was only one, by Louise Erdrich. This year, Kushner and Lahiri apart, there’s Alice McDermott, Elizabeth Graver and Joan Silber.

Silber’s Fools is a collection of six intricately linked short stories; in this genre too, one finds women at the fore. Karen Russell, for example, whose Swamplandia was a Pulitzer finalist last year and who’s just received a MacArthur ‘genius grant’, published Vampires in the Lemon Grove, a collection of stories that’s gothic, mythic and comic, sometimes all at the same time.  On the other side of the Atlantic, every single writer on the shortlist for the BBC Short Story Award is female, among them Sarah Hall and Lionel Shriver. 

To return to the novel, 12 of the 20 in Granta’s new ‘Best Under 40’ British novelists are women -- the first time since the inaugural list in 1983 that they're in the majority. Their backgrounds reflect the country’s diversity: from Kamila Shamsie and Tahmima Anam to Taiye Selasi and Helen Oyeyemi to Xiaolu Guo. The American National Book Foundation went one better in this year’s ‘5 Under 35’ awards: for the first time, all the five were women.

It’s heartening that in India, too, four of the six titles shortlisted for this year’s Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize are by women:  Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land, Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, Sonora Jha’s Foreign and Aranyani’s A Pleasant Kind of Heavy

Leave aside shortlists and awards as a yardstick, and you’ll still find riches. There’s Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which, like The Flamethrowers, starts in the 1970s and follows a group of teenagers into adulthood. There’s Charlotte Mendelsohn’s Almost English, with its engaging, quirky voice. There’s Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, about love and race in the 21st century. (And there are follow-ups by Donna Tartt, Curtis Sittenfield and Marisha Pessl which, though many felt didn’t match their previous work, displayed more virtuosity than most.) In detective fiction, one hears that the bestselling The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith was actually written by a woman.

In structure, style and subject, women have led the way. Perhaps it’s time to heed the words of novelist Peter Hobbs, one of the judges of the BBC prize: "We've got to the stage where an all-female list is not even worth mentioning. I don't really pay any attention to gender.” This raises a problem for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which did have a strong shortlist this year, comprising Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Zadie Smith’s NW, among others, being won by A.M. Homes’ dark suburban saga, May We Be Forgiven. It’s an award in danger of losing what sets it apart – for all the right reasons.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Margaret Atwood's Brave New World

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

Browse through Flipboard, the tablet and mobile-based social media aggregator, and you’ll come across a section entitled ‘Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam’s World’. This contains “the science, the nature, the gardening, the tech, the outfits” and provides links to articles on the science of storytelling, the progress of genetic engineering, lab-grown food and the ethics and consequences of mixing animal and human DNA, among others. All of these are present in Atwood’s new novel and as such it’s the perfect introduction to the book as well as companion piece for those entranced by it. It’s also a reminder that Maddaddam isn’t science fiction, as the digitally-savvy 73-year-old author has taken pains to point out, but speculative fiction: “it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory”.

The finale of the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood, Madaddam contains most of the central characters of the earlier two books and is set in the same post-apocalyptic world. It certainly helps if you’ve read the first two, but just in case you haven’t, Maddaddam’s opening pages provide a synopsis. Most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus (“the Waterless Flood”) engineered and unleashed by a scientist disappointed by the world’s corporatised, consumerist ways. Survivors wander over a new earth, finding ways to thrive and food to eat, mingling with genetically engineered species – some naïve and childlike (the Crakers), others vicious and brutal (the Painballers).

Maddaddam primarily concerns itself with two characters: the first, Toby, from the “pleeblands”, the plebian hinterland, who has taken refuge in a compound along with other survivors where they mull over their past and future, occasionally praying to new saints (one of them being “Saint Vandana Shiva of Seeds”). The second strand involves the travels of Zeb, brother of AdamOne, who created the environmental community known as God’s Gardeners which Toby was a part of. The events of Toby’s life take the saga forward, while tales of Zeb’s chequered past provide the backstory, both of which meet and then culminate in a final showdown.

The regenerative power of storytelling is one of the themes of Maddaddam, and appropriately enough, the novel is structured around stories: those that Toby narrates to the Crakers, those that Zeb narrates to Toby and ultimately, those that one of the Crakers starts to tell. At times, though, these criss-crossing threads can make Maddaddam somewhat bewildering; in a world where things have fallen apart it's perhaps fitting that the novel's centre doesn't always hold. (Ironically enough, this is again similar to the experience of flicking through Flipboard, with its loosely-themed sections.) As such, it is less compelling than her other dystopian novel, the classic The Handmaid’s Tale, which gained so much of its impact from the focus on the subjugation of women.

What’s evident thoughout Maddaddam, however, is that Atwood is enjoying herself greatly, and that this is a world which is fully-fleshed out in her imagination and on the page. She employs different registers in her telling: to begin with, there is much that is satirical and parodic, with fingerprint detectors called Fickle Fingers of Fake, the AnooYoo Spa, BlyssPlus Pills and even a magician who calls himself Slaight of Hand (after Canadian media baron Allan Slaight) who names his assistant Miss Direction. At other times, there’s a William Gibson-like technocalyptic tinge to the prose, such as when Atwood describes Zeb’s antics as a cyber-hustler in Rio. All of this is interspersed with passages that are haunting, such as when Toby muses on the fates of those no longer present: “The dead bodies evaporating like slow smoke; their loved and carefully tended homes crumbling away like deserted anthills. Their bones reverting to calcium; night predators hunting their dispersed flesh, transformed into grasshoppers and mice.”

In an earlier essay on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood had written that it was a world “of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality, of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration, of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work, and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.” Maddaddam has many if not all of the same elements, yet it is utterly original in the way that Atwood transforms the details and creates new ones to resonate with the way we live and think of science and society today.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Best In The English-speaking World

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Announcing the rule change that would make American novelists, among others, eligible for the Man Booker, Ion Trewin, administrator of the prize, said: "The winner of the 2014 prize will be able to say: 'I am the best in the English-speaking world'.”

As I rise to thank you for this honour, there’s just one thing I want to say to all of you gathered here today. I’m the best in the English-speaking world.

When I say that, I refer to all the various forms of English that are prevalent today, from Singlish to Hinglish to Chinglish to Churlish. I’m the best in all of them. All you millions of people out there who speak English, or some form of it, bow down now. I am the best among you. If you have the equivalent of an Iron Throne, I’m ready to sit on it.

I would also like to take this opportunity to say that I mean no disrespect to those who consider themselves the best in the Urdu-speaking world, the Swahili-speaking world, the Cantonese-speaking world or any other world that speaks. Some of the people from these worlds are sterling chaps, and if you’re watching this on TV tonight, there’s one just thing I want to say: I’m the best in the English-speaking worlde

This, my fellow beings among whom I am the best, is a tremendous responsibility. I was never the best in anything earlier, not counting that memorable moment when, as a schoolboy, I was admonished by the principal for being equal to none in passing notes in class. (Mrs Trevelyan, if you’re still out there in front of a TV screen somewhere, I say to you that I am now the best in the English speaking world. And yes, I admit that I’m the one who poured indelible ink on your cat’s tail. You may still be able to discern the smudges.)

Now that this august prize is also open to nationals of the great United States, I must confess here and now that in my next work, I am going to take what some may say are liberties -- but what I claim is a tip of the hat to this change in the rules. Let me explain. I plan to drop all unnecessary ‘u’s – yes, I will henceforth be using words such as humor, clamor and enamor. Proofreaders, take note. I will also henceforth be referring to lifts as elevators, footpaths as pavements and hula hoops as – well, as hula hoops. No one dare correct me. I am the best in the English speaking world.

More champagne, please. Ah, thank you. Let me confess another ambition. Now that I am the best in the English speaking world, I plan to set my sights higher. Not failure but low aim is a crime, as the man said. Who was it? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What I was going to say, now that I have consumed a magnum or two of this excellent Bollinger, is that I want to be known as the best in other worlds, too. With this in mind, I shall be enrolling in Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Russian and, for good measure, Latin and Sanskrit language classes. My friends, the day is not far when I will be able to stand here before you (more champagne, please) and claim that I am the best in not just the English-speaking world, but in the language-speaking world – whatever that language may be. Klingon-speakers, beware. To you I say: nIteb SuvnIS DevwI'.

But that is still some time in the future. Meanwhile, those of you in the Anglosphere can gaze upon me and know that of all your tribe, I stand unequalled. The flower of centuries of writing. One final word before I step away from this shaky podium and quaff some more of that bubbly. Make that three final words: Buy my book! After all, it was written by the best – ah, I see you know it already. Thank you for this award, judges. I am humbled, most humbled indeed.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Agatha Christie In Syria

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

“In a few weeks’ time, we are starting for Syria!” That may seem like the optimistic assertion of someone from the US administration, but it’s instead the opening sentence of Come, Tell Me How You Live, a memoir by Agatha Christie about her time on an archaelogical dig in the country with her husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1930s. It’s a good-natured and self-deprecating work – but reading it today reveals much about colonial attitudes towards the Middle East, the legacy of which can still be seen in the region’s current state of unrest.

Christie herself seems to have been curiously self-effacing about the book, perhaps because it’s such a departure from her better-known mysteries. “This meandering chronicle,” she calls it, and then again: “a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings”. (Indeed, the preponderance of exclamation marks and somewhat breathless comments sometimes puts one in mind of Enid Blyton – whose own The River of Adventure was set near the Syrian border.) Christie wrote the book, she says, as “the answer to a question that is asked me very often. ‘So you dig in Syria, do you? Do tell me all about it. How do you live? In a tent?’ ”

Much of her time there was spent at Chagar Bazar, near the city of Al-Hasakah in the country’s north-east. Today, the area is among those witness to aerial bombardment and deadly sectarian clashes. In the Thirties, though, Christie had other problems to contend with: “The arrival of plumbing in the East is full of pitfalls. How often does the cold tap produce hot water, and the hot tap cold!” That’s one among the many breezy generalisations, along with others such as: “No dish that needs to be eaten as soon as it is cooked should ever be attempted in the East”, “The spending of money seems a point of honour with Arabs” and “Servants in the East are rather like Jinns. They appear from nowhere, and are there waiting for you when you arrive.”

The author spent her time there helping her husband and his cohorts; as Mallowan was to tersely note in a later archaelogical publication, “my wife was also present throughout, and assisted in the mending of the pottery and the photography.” Their painstaking labours at the mound revealed that the area was inhabited during the sixth millennium BC, and was finally abandoned over three centuries later.  Christie writes: “It must have been on a much-frequented caravan route, connecting Harran and Tell Halaf and on through the Jebel Sinjar into Iraq and the Tigris, and so to ancient Nineveh. It was one of a network of great trading centres.”

She also found time to write her whodunnits, or as she briefly puts it, “ply my own trade on the typewriter”. In Come Tell Me How You Live, she mentions a vanished time captured in some of her novels: “It was a world where one mounted a Pullman at Victoria in a ‘big snorting, hurrying, companionable train, with its big, puffing engine’, was waved away by crowds of relatives, at Calais caught the Orient Express to Istanbul, and so arrived at last in a Syria where good order, good food and generous permits for digging were provided by the French.”

Unreliable vehicles, flash floods, infestations of mice and lice, dodgy food, seedy accommodation, the caprices of her colleagues: Christie chronicles all of these with unflagging cheerfulness. Space is also devoted to the merits and demerits of domestics, labourers and associates, their varying ethnicities reflecting the Syrian mix. In words that prove ominous in retrospect, she remarks: “Syria is full of fiercely fanatical sects of all kinds, all willing to cut each other’s throats for the good cause!”

Her affection for the place, though, is undeniable: “I love that gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life,” she says, singling out their “dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour”. She would have been horrified at their plight today.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Still In Search Of Salinger

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Even if you aren’t a Salinger fan, you’ve probably heard the news that more of his books are likely to be published soon, some of them dealing with the further exploits of Holden Caulfield and the Glass family, as well as musings on Vedanta. One has mixed feelings about this: elation that there’s going to be more of his work to read as well as misgivings that his last novels, influenced so heavily by his religious views, may not be on a par with the rest.

The information about the forthcoming volumes is contained in a new biography, simply titled Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, a companion piece to the latter’s documentary. Both are to be released next week. Early reports indicate that the book is a montage of interviews, newspaper articles, letters and photographs, with the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani calling it a “loosey-goosey Internet-age narrative”.

Past biographies were hamstrung by the unwillingness of the reclusive novelist – and most of his friends and associates -- to take part in such an enterprise, a stance he stuck to until his death in 2010. This, of course, didn’t stop people from trying.  There was the poorly received attempt by erstwhile Time magazine reporter Paul Alexander, for example, as well as the more exhaustive one by Kenneth Slawenski in 2011 that, among other things, threw light on the writer’s World War II years. (Current speculation is that the horrors Salinger encountered during that time led to a form of PTSD, because of which he turned to Eastern religion and a hermit-like life.) Then, there was the self-centred – some would say self-serving – account by Joyce Maynard, who had a relationship with Salinger when she was 18; in contrast, Margaret Salinger’s Dream Catcher, about life with her father, is more honest and revealing of his eccentricities.

The one book that appeared before all of these, and which created more of a ruckus, was British journalist Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J.D. Salinger, published in 1988. This, however, wasn’t the book that he wanted to write. After Hamilton finished his biography of the writer who was “famous for not wanting to be famous”, Salinger won a copyright infringement suit against the publisher as the book quoted liberally from unpublished letters and short stories. In Search of J.D. Salinger, then, is the book that Hamilton was finally able to publish, more an account of how he went about teasing out information on Salinger than a biography proper. It often reads like a detective story, with visits to Salinger’s old haunts and associates to look for clues.

Fascinating as much of this is to read – it must have been far more so when it first appeared – there’s always an uneasy sense of voyeurism, of invading the space of someone who wants to be left alone. This is exacerbated by Hamilton’s treatment: he sets up a split personality, one of whom “grapples feebly with the moral issues” and the other a “biographizing alter ego” eager to get on with the job. A lot of time is taken up with back-and-forth between the two, a device that soon becomes annoying, if not disingenuous. (“Phony,” one can almost hear Holden say.)

Hamilton uncovers traces of Salinger’s public life: “school records, some telling items of juvenilia, frank testimony from contemporaries, some eyewitness location stuff”, and pieces together an account of Salinger's early years and how it reflected in his work. As he himself acknowledges, however, the heart of his book is without Salinger’s own voice and personality. Later in the book, he writes: “in the case of J. D. Salinger, [when] the inner life becomes virtually indistinguishable from any life that we might sensibly call ‘outer,’ then even the most intrepid chronicler knows himself to be facing an impasse”.

This seems to be the fate of any such chronicle of “the Greta Garbo of American letters”, which is why I’m going to stay away from Shields and Salerno’s biography. As for Salinger’s own posthumous work, that’s a temptation to which I suspect I’ll succumb.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Against Loose, Baggy Monsters

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

One of the books on my tottering unread pile is Shamsher Rahman Faruqi’s The Mirror of Beauty which is, by all accounts, well worth reading – but I quail at committing myself to its over 900 pages.  It’s not the only recent novel longer than the norm. In a piece for the Guardian last week, novelist Kirsty Gunn commented on a recent outcrop of  “big books”, mentioning David Peace's Red or Dead (720 pages), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (832 pages) and Richard House’s The Kills (1002 pages), with the last two longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Reading Gunn’s piece caused dismay: most novels nowadays are too long for their own good, without there being more loose, baggy monsters being unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.

She speculates that economics might have something to do with it. In a recessionary time, such volumes provide heft and spectacle, reassuring us that we’re doing OK. I suspect it also could be something to do with beleaguered novelists being told that reading and fiction don’t matter as much as they used to, and defiantly taking a stand by composing volumes of Victorian length.

Gunn goes on to point out that the three novels she mentions have “a whiff of the avant garde” and aren’t conventional triple-deckers, a welcome relief. The longest, The Kills, comprises four connected narratives each of which earlier appeared separately online, and there’s also a website with hours of video content related to the novel. This approach reminds one of the iOS app The Silent History, which calls itself “a new kind of novel” and consists of a series of linked first-person testimonials. These two, then, could well be canaries in the coalmine of the novel’s future.

To return to the contemporary long novel as we know it, not all of them can be the next Infinite Jest, Underworld or A Suitable Boy. Tedium sets in as the pages accumulate: more and more characters’ lives are delved into, subplots proliferate, details abound and eyelids droop.  As Somak Ghoshal recently wrote in an otherwise appreciative review of Shovon Chowdhury’s The Competent Authority: “Sub-plots seem to spiral out of control, characters get forgotten, and loose ends are tied a little awkwardly.” (Where are editors’ blue pencils when you need them?)

An argument often made for novels of greater length is that their bulk allows for more immersion in a fictional world. While this may be true to some extent of SF and fantasy, such engagement doesn’t necessarily call for a greater number of pages. Take the novels of Franz Kafka. Or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, less than 200 pages.

The impact of a well-crafted novella is another reason to look askance at large novels. As I’ve written before, the best of them emit radiance and sparkle far beyond their size. Look at Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to name a few. The titles from independent publisher Melville House’s ‘Art of the Novella’ series provide more excellent examples. For some time now, ambitious novelists have been using the laser-like focus a novella allows by thematically linking some of them together to create a larger whole. Richard House’s The Kills apart, there’s David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example, as well as Colum McCann’s Transatlantic, another title longlisted for this year’s Booker.

Several estimable European novels, too, are much shorter than their American and British equivalents, while leaving as much if not more of an impression. Swiss writer Peter Stamm recently said that he likes “reduction, concentration, clarity” in writing, and the same can be said of many of his Continental counterparts.

These days, long novels have to earn their stripes, and only a handful do; the vision of a Karl Knausgaard is uncommon. Randall Jarrell is often quoted as saying that “a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”. Well, the longer it is, the more that can go wrong.