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 na├»ve 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.