Sunday, March 22, 2015

Aravind Adiga's Last Man In Tower & Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games


A more mature novel from Aravind Adiga than his previous The White Tiger, Last Man In Tower  drills into the personalities and introspections of each resident of Tower A in the district of Vakola in Mumbai as they wrestle with the option of receiving (each) 150 lakhs  ($330,000) as the offer from a hard-line developer intent on building one of the many posh condos sprouting in the city like cement dreams. Now a third of a million might sound like a nice spread of cash, but not a necessity from which to retire. Not so in India, where, as Adiga points out, the average per capita annual income is $800. So, where and when can I sign, and when do you tear down this creaky old rat-trap?

Adiga takes great care in detailing the back stories and presenting travails of his characters, and the result is a sometimes bewildering exploration of depth and ambiguity, interfamilial drama and isolation. The residents here are middle class, but Mumbai’s rapidly upward mobile construction hopes are ahead of the economic realities by a generation or two. Deepak Vij, Ramesh Ajwani, Ms. Meenakshi and others still harden themselves to the long, filthy work commute while existing in a dilapidated building. So when the offer comes to take the money and resettle, it’s not a dilemma for most of the residents.

Except one. Yogesh Murthy (Masterji), a retired schoolteacher, stubborn, not influenced by wealth or comfort, rejects the offer, and the remainder of the novel accelerates into a dramatic and heartbreaking series of events between him, his ambiguously loyal friend, and the rest of his neighbours trying to convince him of his “error”.

It’s a terrific set-up, and Adiga delivers. Gone is much of the sarcastic humour of The White Tower, replaced by the ironic, shaded humour in this more accomplished novel. But the biggest difference between the two books is in Adiga’s astonishing growth in how he sees his characters. The ridiculous terms some insist on – “good” and “bad” – to describe these people, vanish. And Mumbai is the greatest character of all, a sprawling, noisy, corrupt juggernaut nevertheless inflected with nooks of beauty and colour.  



Another novel set in Mumbai rolled out in 2007, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, at 900 densely-packed pages a structural paean to the city’s excess. At first take, an epic would seem to be a faulty tactic for the usually terse detective thriller, but Chandra uses the genre as a dramatic ploy to play off contemporary and historical problems, while subverting expectations. The good police inspector, Sikh Sartaj Singh, is set against the bad Hindu criminal don, Ganesh Gaitonde, but the reader knows the outcome on page 45 or so, the two meet only twice in the novel (a total of about 15 pages), morals are presented as circumstantial necessities rather than religious absolutes, and the climax is the most banal conclusion to the weight of a  frozen zinc block of a book you’d never predict. (One reviewer, the usually astute Jonathan Yardley, went so far as to complain about the main plot final tie-up, as if Chandra didn’t know what he was doing).

Not many serious novels, never mind epics, have the dramatic insistence ordered here. Chandra’s pace is masterful, scenes of brutal violence interspersed with interior and spiritual anguish. The architecture of juggling so many plots is handled with amazing selection and transition. Characters, all of them, are lively and striking, both in personality and unexpected action. The many scenes of detailed description are meshed with action and character analysis (self- and other-directed). The many dialects are frequently rendered in the original, and it’s entertaining to read a crime book filled with repetitive swearing, casual or angry, that dares the reader to either guess or peek at the partial glossary at the novel’s addenda. The emotional scale one endures is both exhausting and worthwhile. The tone is magnificent – there’s just the right amount of self-irony (the many references to writing and filmmaking make intelligent and humorous points without rubbing the reader’s face in dull games).

And with that last word, “games”, it’s worth a mention that the novel’s title refers to “leela”, the Hindu concept of divine play, an infinite cosmic dance without purpose. It supersedes the Western notion of fixed moral assessment, and it’s here that Chandra takes the biggest risk in an already ambitious novel, since about half the text is a first-person memoir of the gangster, and it’s a tribute to the author that Gaitonde – multiple murderer (including faithful employees), thief, defiler of a young boy, serial user of randis (whores), egomaniac – is given lots of space to wrestle with his demons, and to come out, occasionally, on top. There’s lots of detail here, but to say more would kill the surprise. I’ll just say that Chandra’s bold step of having Gaitonde challenge his guru’s ultimate game, after all we already know of the warlord, is surprising and affecting.

Like Adiga’s Last Man In Tower, Sacred Games jumps into teeming Mumbai with both feet and all senses.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger


Aravind Adiga’s 2008 debut novel, The White Tiger, has garnered outrageously ecstatic reviews as well as harsh dismissals, which is not surprising considering its situation as a Booker-winning entry which covers the son of a rickshaw-puller, the father dying in an untended hospital, the son eventually “besting” the upper class at their own game: violence, corruption, hypocrisy, and smug self-regard. My own appraisal leans more toward the grousing reviewers, even while granting the first-person Balram his due as an interesting narrator.

Let’s start with those props. The underdog isn’t your typical fictional victim who gathers easy sympathy as he suffers through circumstantial and psychic pain. Balram, sly and duplicitious almost from the outset, manages to work himself up from unemployed (and seemingly unemployable) penury to a situation as chauffeur to the dominant family in his region, while eavesdropping on, and getting clues from, his politically-connected and knee-capping bosses (the father, the often-absent hard-line son, and Balram’s direct boss, the weak-willed other son, Mr. Ashok). A delightful base from which to investigate many social angles: the caste system as its presently experienced; the flux of India’s modernism, with attendant confusion vis-a-vis the West and Indian tradition; and, as Adiga’s mixed, titular metaphor plays out, the nature of the downtrodden, which is to default to the “rooster coop of Indian society”, since any servant who tries to buck the vertical alignment invariably has violence and death meted out to his or her extended family.

Balram is a curious mix of obsequiousness and cunning, and the novel is a great ride, till the half-way point, with tense relationships and uncertainty (even though Adiga tips off the climax, in a postmodern declaration, early on). Unfortunately, those same relationships solidify into a cartoonish force of (to use Adiga’s relentless, stated opposition) Light and Darkness. Balram’s specific masters become caricatures, and their political friends – though described in biting physical detail reminiscent of some of Saul Bellow’s damning character portraits – are likewise too broad, too outlined with doctrinaire faults, to become invested in seriously.

There are other problems. The novel is structured as a vocal musing to a soon-to-be-visiting Chinese premier, which, though it allows for some humorous ruminations on the ideology of developing nations overturning their also-ran status (while noting the very different political histories of, and cultural responses to, modernity in each country), also highlights a not-infrequent (and major) fault of novels which use a first-person narrator. Like Jonathan Franzen’s ponderous and overrated Freedom, I don’t believe the speaker’s lexical and grammatical proficiency. (In Franzen’s novel, the co-protagonist, Patty Berglund, is a sagacious and meticulous self-examiner of vice and folly who can spin serpentine sentences, though she’s depicted in the greater narrative as a jock with limited education and educational desire.) Balram tells premier Jiabao that his English is poor, and the novel certainly corroborates this, as the protagonist learns the language through lurid headlines and newspaper shockers. When his masters really want to speak privately in front of him, they speak in direct English (which Balram then relates faithfully), but more importantly, and with more skill than Patty Berglund, Balram creates some finely-turned poetic descriptions of Delhi street life, cockroach movement, and character idiosyncrasies.

Adiga gets to have and eat his cake. The bosses are overthrown, but the new boss just becomes a slightly more just oppressor, or, even worse, though I could be misreading Adiga, a hopeful precursor to a cutthroat entrepreneurial future that has as its political calling a consumerist corruption rather than caste-entrenched corruption. As an upper-middle-class Indian himself, Adiga is to be applauded for dumping on his own in this fashion, but as the novel plays out, it’s hard not to see the entire enterprise as an assuagement of class guilt. At the novel’s close, in the reversal of fortune, Balram’s new chauffeurs may be treated with more compassion, but the reader still doesn’t hear them in their own words. And of course, we don’t know what happens to Balram’s invisible family after his crime.

The story is a semi-diverting peg on which to clip (and display to the masses) the oft-rewashed bloomers of sympathy for the oppressed. The ideology becomes overbearing and simplistic. Though the ambition is noted, I prefer messages or ideas to have slightly sexier undergarments.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Catherine Bush's Accusation


Novels and non-fictive explorations about Western professionals challenged by shifting their work overseas have a long and (in tone) varied history. John Hersey’s Hiroshima is a dispassionate recording of a horrific event; Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost is a semi-hallucinatory novel about an archaeologist’s efforts at exhuming a victim of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war; and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is a hilarious account of a journalist’s misadventures which proves the Peter Principle. In these, and other, novels, the exotic locale acts as metaphysical challenge to the protagonist (the challenge in the first book above is specifically for the reader).

Like Scoop, Catherine Bush’s 2013 Accusation is a novel about a journalist at sea in an alien world of fact or fiction. Though Waugh’s novel’s protagonist was also based on a reporter in Addis Ababa (Bush’s protagonist travels to that city, as well), the similarities between the two books end there.

Bush’s narrator comes in contact with a charismatic and forceful black man who founded and managed a boys’ and girls’ circus company. Sara is drawn into sympathetic curiosity with this man (Raymond) when she finds out he’s been accused of abusing his young charges. The impetus, the reason for the sympathy? Sara, herself, had once been falsely accused, and charged (the case was dropped for lack of evidence), with stealing a woman’s wallet and running up some purchases, so she understands that the accusation will never be fully expunged in the minds of many, whatever the outcome of any trial.

This is a fine working plot for all kinds of reasons and avenues: the reactions and withdrawal of friends and lovers (Bush handles this with intelligence and conviction); the mining for clues and objective detail (Bush is exhaustive in the book’s best scenes, the middle-section questioning in Addis Ababa); and the acceptance or difficulty that one will never know the full details (Bush explores this from different angles, and though it ties in well with the Sara-David sub-plot, the grim persistence of the psychological reorientation overwhelms other possible moods and viewpoints).

It’s on this latter tendency, the main theme obsession, that the novel falters. Like her novel Claire’s Head, Bush is excellent at getting inside the ... er, head of the protagonist. But, though that metaphor is somewhat different in Accusation (the different locations, the many characters, the competing viewpoints and desires), Sara still suffocates the reader by not only appearing in most every scene, but by being every scene’s overwhelming conscience. A counter argument would consider that getting into others’ heads could have destroyed the factual mystery (Raymond – did he or didn’t he?), but the Canadian characters also in the dark (friend Juliet, lover David, as well as Sara’s newspaper boss) could have been offered sole-viewpoint scenes, and some of the Ethiopian characters, and Australian Sem Le, could have added layers to the confusion and emotion by offering us their unfiltered thoughts. The first-person voice could have been a better way to deal with the dominant perspective.

That major complaint aside, Accusation is narratively interesting, even thrilling in some places, especially in its final two-thirds, as well as patiently wise in its assessments.

As an addendum, the missing dialogue tags sometimes hindered my reading experience. I always understood who was speaking, it’s just that I had to halt on more than one occasion, which is fine if that’s part of the intent –  William Gaddis comes to mind – but not so fine if it detracts from the narrative pace.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Alexander Kuprin's The Duel



The title gives away the inevitable climax, but Alexander Kuprin’s concern in The Duel is to hook a common Russian melodramatic trope with his own spin, in this novel the absurdity of initial event and build-up, before the set-to itself. Military life, of which Kuprin got a taste, is skewered with existentialist mockery, realism’s magnifying glass, and a lacerating Romantic irony. Reminiscent of any Dostoyevsky femme fatale, Kuprin’s Shurochka, by theatrical and duplicitous direction, adds gasoline to the fire of Romashov’s ridiculous, impetuous pride.

Unfortunately, Kuprin’s powerful narration is compromised by translator Josh Billings’ repetitive word choices and rhythmic missteps, even though he captures a good deal of Kuprin’s lively characterizations and lyrical transitions. But by far the biggest problem in this English version of The Duel stems from Melville House Publishing’s rotten care in setting the text, which is riddled with typos (at least one per page in a 306 pp outlay). Kuprin deserved much better, and I note in mild horror that the same publisher/translator duo combined for a Pushkin collection.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jim Johnstone’s Dog Ear


With its mix of scientific observation and metaphysical questioning, Jim Johnstone’s latest poetry collection, Dog Ear, recalls similar procedures in the poetry of Leigh Kotsilidis. Whereas Kotsilidis accepts the incompletions inherent in fact and fancy, equably so, Johnstone’s speculative conclusions are anguished, the product of a mind obsessive enough to follow the circuitous and repetitive paths of logic, but intelligent enough to know its not likely to offer more than provisional understanding. The titular opener displays this frustrated investigation:


It was years before I learned to call
this prayer: the right-hand corner
of a page turned down to make another
page. I attempted to escape, then return
to the boneyard where I’d removed
an earring from my wife’s right ear—
diamond, the crux of the universe,
contracting to leave a pin-sized hole
midair. In that margin, my words
remain transfixed until she disappears—
proof that while I swore the world
I’d created would double like a hand
beneath my own, it merely stretches
before me in consolation. There, there.


“Dog Ear” also demonstrates Johnstone’s – I want to call it ‘facility’, but that’s not the right word – strange blend of anecdote, metaphor, and fantasy. In isolation, those components don’t provide a vehicle for even provisional understanding, but a readerly  juggling act conjures an organic unfolding, climax, and denouement, classic structures that, in Johnstone’s effort, muddies and perplexes, while closing on an anti-epiphany, the final two-word repetition either compassionate or maliciously diverting.

The metaphysical questing is a constant throughout the collection, and an obsessive trope that supports it is flying/falling. In “Complementarity” (“All that’s lost is given shape -- /a hand crushed under Boeing/fuselage”), in “Inland” (“our company’s shade/lifts likeness from stands of birch, blots/retreating lanes of wind: our pilot”), in “Evel Knievel Negotiates the Fountain at Caesar’s Palace” (I groped around and found myself/unmoored at latitude”), and in “Ariadne’s Thread” (“Our pact: to climb against  winter’s rush --/mad, uncoupled”), the narrator is caught in a tragic fix: wise enough to know of gravity’s inviolable law, but restless enough to want to transcend it anyway, however knowingly futile the attempt. In this, Johnstone’s dilemma (acceptance of entropy vs  spiritual desire for transcendence mated with its infinitesimally small likelihood of  realization) can only be recorded and aesthetically investigated, if not unified.

The biggest weakness of this volume is Johnstone’s over-reliance on the high-toned, even vatic, register. The poems are good enough – and some of them are more than good – so that the tone doesn’t create an unfortunate parody of itself, and I also realize that  existential burrowing isn’t an avocation, but an occasional self-puncturing (“Evel Knievel” ’s “body tossed ass-first/over the gas tank’s hive” a stick-out exception) would be more than welcome.

Monday, January 19, 2015

H. L. Mencken's A Choice of Days


What do H. L. Mencken, Kahlil Gibran, and Thomas Jefferson have in common? Many can ape a starred quote from all three, but few bother to read them extensively. In Mencken’s case, that means an unmeasured adulation for his incisive, provocative, oft-cited epigrams. Mencken plied his chief trade – newspaper opinion pieces – during the beginnings of yellow journalism and working class exposés, so it’s ironic that he succeeded in an era that alternately pandered to, and sympathized with, the semi-literate. (More on that in a bit.) He knew, or wrote at the same time as, Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair. Nathanael West also clicked keys in a newspaper office (and readers are grateful – the excellent Miss Lonelyhearts resulted). Great writing, bold opinion, larger than life personalities. Mencken, like the notables listed above, also applied himself to the creative arts, as they’re more widely pegged, though he shelved stories and poems as inferior testings. That’s an important segue into the review at hand.

I didn’t like Mencken’s A Choice of Words, the abridged book of his three-volume autobiography-in-essays. I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the man. In a creative work, that kind of identification of quality with the person who penned it is inexcusable. In a journalistic piece, much less so. Non-fiction reportage – dispassion, wide-focus assertion, external issues, definition by negative reaction – often runs counter to creative endeavour, so it’s doubly impressive the aforementioned novelists transcended those strictures. I picked up this book to see if Mencken would rip off his starched collar, ply himself with a whiskey or three (a semi-teetotaler, he prided himself on working sober), and get personal. Be personable. Vulnerable. Endearing. Investigative, in the deepest sense of the word. No such luck. Mencken’s views are weightless because I didn’t know what animated them, other than aristocratic derision. Southerners or rednecks (or as Mencken liked to call them, “lintheads”) are despised above all other targets, even politicians and religious figures, because the former created the cynical crusading of the latter two groups. Stupidity is Mencken’s constant subject, either in direct attack or underlying core. Many or most of us remember his awesome epigram, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”, but Mencken’s good times are frequently spurred on by mockery, by reactive self-regard.

A Choice of Words brings that out. Mencken’s style is breezily confident, his diction far-ranging and entertaining, and his sentence structures various and tonally even, though every second explanatory clause begins with the jarringly formal “for”, as in, “[They] appear[ed] to have leaned toward Levirate ideas, for when the cousin dies one of his brothers married his widow”. But the emotion – and in what better an avenue than autobiography to explore it? – is stillborn. Lots of bravado (childhood indiscretions) and faux-wonder (condescending observations of “coloureds”, and rabble-rousing drunks), but all of it viewed through a telescope on a cold and sparse-starred night. Even the most traumatic event – the great Baltimore fire of 1904 – is rendered as hectic report. I half-expected Mencken to sign off for a commercial break during problems with burned-out news offices and shifting locales. No ruminations on lives lost, homes and careers destroyed, specific damage, dynamic images. In fact, no acknowledgement that these were issues at all. But Mencken the hero (getting the “news” out no matter the obstacle) carries the day. After recently reading Orhan Pamuk’s beautifully moving, wise, and multi-angled two essays on living through earthquakes in Istanbul, Mencken’s puny offerings are an offensive wasteland of the imagination, strong on the headlines but flatlined on the heart beneath them.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Juan Goytisolo's Count Julian

Much better than his Marks of Identity (as translated by Rabassa), Juan Goytisolo’s Count Julian, the 1970 middle novel in the trilogy, gains that evaluation in no small part from Helen Lane’s fine, lyrical translation. The rhetoric is rhythmically calibrated for emotional shock, metaphorically daring (repetitive insect predation is handled with skillful variation and merciless scientific observation), and tonally sensitive and various. Most importantly, the voice which seemed, at times in the opening novel, pedantic and general, here is sharper. The reader can hear echoes of a necessary rage and mockery. Relentless in its targetted hits, Goytisolo avoids the flippant drive-by which often marred Marks of Identity to first colour his characters with specific tics and twitches in order to more effectively drive juice through the electric chair’s occupied head-and-hand irons. But, though it’s shorter than its predecessor, the pace also fries the reader’s sensibilities just past the half-way point. I’ll be reporting on the concluding book, Juan the Landless, later this year since it’s also translated by Lane.