Thursday, September 10, 2015

Grant Buday's Stranger on a Strange Island

(This review was first published in subTerrain #60.)

The front cover picture of Grant Buday’s 2011 Mayne Island memoir, Stranger on a Strange Island, announces the tone of its innards unambiguously: a metallic light grey Airstream trailer, detached, foregrounds a patch of island forest. The Gulf Islands have long been associated with romantic getaways, spiritual transformations, and pulchritudinous seascapes, but just months into an ongoing eight-year stay on tiny Mayne, those visions have closed like eyes poked by Moe the head Stooge: “November arrived. The clocks were rolled back and the rain began to fall – and fall ... What with black clouds overhead, tall trees all around, and no street lights, it felt positively medieval. By three in the afternoon it was twilight, by four dark, by five so cave-black I needed a flashlight to venture out the door. What was all that about a third less rain?” To be clear, the Buday family’s move from Vancouver to Mayne was undertaken more out of economic pressure than idealistic stance, but an intriguing pull in Buday’s rumination is one between mundane necessity and spiritual hope. An initial job of helping an employer relocate an illegally moored boat involves this non-postcard entry: “My wet denim stuck to me like depression, my pale and frozen hands resembled bled pork, my back was in spasm. As for my teeth, I was clenching them so tightly against the cold that I feared for my dental work.” Yet the book’s last chapter, of the author’s whale watching excursion with his eight-year-old son, culminates in grace: “she jumped high, surging out of the water with no warning, right up into the air, that bus-sized beast performing a pirouette in the bright sunshine ... The entire ship seemed to stagger. But there she was, twenty tonnes of mammal only twenty metres away, suspended in one glittering airborne moment, a greeting from another world.”

It’s not all angst and wonder. Humour, wit, irony, and satire abound, and are incorporated into the anecdotes with the natural aplomb of a head cook festooning a three-tiered cake with baroque curlicues. Buday is a terrifically funny writer. Past efforts in short stories, novels, and travel essays have shown his gift for uproarious yet accurate simile, believable punch-line dialogue, coarse slapstick, and situational disjunction, all of it delivered in unassuming voice and smooth transition. Here, Buday is able to display a more relaxed tone, a conversational wisdom for his deprecatory, occasionally caustic, humour. The mood is at times melancholic, yet the language is spry and engaging; the autobiographical persona is a maladroit foil to Mr. Handyman, yet there’s satisfaction and even defiance in a low-tech pullback. Buday seamlessly weaves personal interaction with natural description, fascinating allusion with fictive hijinks (the chapter on Mayne Island’s founding), and biographical excavation with incisive psychological speculation. Some may not take to Buday’s penchant for balloon puncturing, but it’s a necessary universal endeavour, and one that yields its own occasional epiphanies, all the more earned for being honest and tenaciously pursued: “The tree hesitated, creaked slowly, creaked loudly, and began to tilt. With the solemn grandeur unique to the enormous, the cedar began to splinter and groan as it gained momentum. The whole world seemed to be toppling. The tree pitched forward then struck the ground with a whamp! And lo, light did flood through the newly opened gap in the forest.”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Carmelo Militano's Sebastiano's Vine

A family saga, coming-of-age narrative, historical consideration, urban adventure, fabular comedy, and cordiform philosophy, Carmelo Militano’s 2013 novella, Sebastiano’s Vine, compresses those various elements within a shifting chronology and, with a lightly poetic touch, captures a wide range of feelings, the more impressive for acing nuances in its frequent, mere two-to-five page scenic fragments. Understated yet colourful natural description dots many pages in a breadth of detail spanning “a blue strip of water, the Gulf of Corinth, mist floating above it like a white muslin veil” to “the remains of last month’s Saturday comic pages bled pink and blue against a corner fencepost”. Canvasses of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, World War II wounded, and the 1783 earthquake in Calabria are painted with bold surface colour, but also with a merging depth as seen through the experiences of the actors involved. Throughout, the reader is hit with weather, not reports or scene-setting abstractions, but in-your-bones transmissions, whether a Winnipeg winter or Calabrian summer. Geographical description aside, historical focus set back, it’s the characters that linger. Militano has infused his dramatis personae with a lively suggestiveness, a suggestiveness that generously (and hopefully) includes the reader at the novella’s close, where “[T]he complex silence that comes after death is what remains, like the silence at the end of a story before one returns to the dream of life”.

Monday, July 6, 2015

When Shunning Is No Fun

I begin this meditation with a heavy heart. No, I’m not talking about cardiomegaly. Rather, it’s ... it’s that under this grease-stained wife-beater T-shirt lurks a sensitive thumper, one given to fluttering like a nun’s uvula during the elongated high note in “Amazing Grace” when, with friends at the local gaslamp bar,  spontaneous outbursts of Shelley recitation overtake me in the middle of  convivial belching contests, mooning displays (of the anterior variety), and pitching peanuts into the stagnant pool of  ale belonging to the effete college kids slumming it before their bedtimes. Thing is, my colleagues in spirit, I’ve sometimes ... not always ... detected a faint whiff of superiority in the grizzled countenances of my social set. How so? The blue-skinned galvanizer, neck a block of pounded dough cut like compressed switchbacks, raises a Vincent Price brow as if he wanted to try out a newly-purchased pendulum on my nutsack. I stew and fret that it’s not all in my head, that these social faux pas (paes?, pae? et I’m not so comfortable avec les Canadiens qui se présentent au bar aprés minuit, soit) are causes for shunning, or perhaps I’ve just got a bad case of confessionalitis, the condition, as the term makes plain, an efflorescence of talking about oneself that would be OH (not the state abbr., Ms. or Mr. Editor, please)-so much more easeful if my compatriots, brothers, workmates, satsang, horizontally-structured aides-de-camp (Thackeray would scoff) just let their feelings be made plain, and in soothing tones.

But that’s not the half of it. No. Because I hide my closet literary preoccupations from the rough-and-tumble of the not infrequent social rites of log-burling (the winner is always an André the Giant lookalike with the feet of a hampster) and gas-siphoning the foreman’s nephew’s Prius with a party straw during company picnics, it sometimes emerges as a strangled blurt during those poetry open-mics when I profess my love of Pennzoil, wood alcohol, (briefly) cohabiting divorcées from (and to) Prince George, and cheroots. The mildly sleepy or mildly astonished faces of the candlelit crowd hide oceanic vagaries when I try to placate by fusing (scribbled notes on podium at wood and at that sheet of  foolish secrets near the screaming cars on Dundas) backloaded theories with honouring our shared space. In short, I get it both ways. And as a white male of ancient (second gen) residency with the manners of a turbojägered rhino at a tea party, I realize the preconceptions I face going into these literary soirées, when a blank slate is a ridiculous Rousseauean fantasy, are a fait accompli. Nevertheless, I mean to navigate somehow, through Parnassian decree (or perhaps just a more amenable bureaucratic community ... or gig! can’t we dream) a more sympathetic space for those minority headscapes to exist in, and thrive.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Jason Guriel's Satisfying Clicking Sound

“Where there are many beauties in a poem,
A few blots won’t offend, those carelessly split,
Or that human frailty can scarcely help. So what?”

-- Horace, “Ars Poetica”

Horace stuffed his instruction in one long breezy poem. Jason Guriel, in last year’s Satisfying Clicking Sound, believes in the verse equivalent of a Tim Vine joke – enter straightaway, set up smartly, don’t leave them hanging – but he otherwise approximates the seminal Latin work in focus, the meta- and meta-meta-brevity of most every poem in the volume scored with the what-it’s-for and how-to administration. Of course, other poets have treated readers as students – less artfully, to be sure (and more on Guriel’s craft later, though here’s a hint, it differs from the epigraph-leader) – but though that usually humourless didactic strategy sees off more than a few “experimental” poetics-as-poetry productions, there’s not much difference in the constant  backgrounding of subject matter, in the service of poetics, between Guriel’s in-poem foes or foils, and the author himself.

Guriel’s ostensible subjects include painters, speed bumps, leaves, straw, airport bookstores, and signatures, but especially poets, musicians or songwriters, and geometry. Even when Guriel forgets to organize his poetics mission for a page in “My Father’s Stamps” – an anecdote about a dying father that necessarily shelves the constant, bludgeoned-by-wit lit-crit allegory for a time-fading concentration of emotion – the unwelcome switch is thrown back to an electrifying summation of father-as-artist, in “this is the work of one/of the great surrealists”. 

Guriel expresses often his exasperation with the poetic process, and to a contemporary working poet, this must strike a lot of anvil iron. But, as noted, the result is usually (always?) a foot or ten yards short of ringing the bell. Should non-poets care, let alone sympathize? And if one can enter the narrator’s anguished soul to commiserate with that failure during one poem, does the next poem’s identical topic garner the same consideration? Of course, Guriel would argue it’s all about craft. But aesthetic accomplishment straightjacketted by its own abstract commentary can’t even be considered stifling (another reviewer called this “claustrophobic”, and Guriel responds to it in a clever but silly poem wherein the conceit has the unfortunate critic shut up in an air-tight cartoon) because there isn’t much – and in many poems, no – force to stifle. Subjects are hauled into Guriel’s ideé fixe by music biography so that the epigraph (in part, “ “The hands playing haunting chords turned into clenched fists pounding the ivories” “, from Ben Edmonds) serves as the (by now) obvious spur to another link to the poetic process. And what does Guriel do with this unexciting material?

“Hands playing haunting chords
cannot help the soul
that’s up the sleeves,
and cannot help
but fall as fists – off
and on and off
the beat – upon the ivories.”

Guriel adheres, in the following, however, to more of Horace’s advice, knowingly or no: “You who write, choose a subject that’s matched by/Your powers, consider deeply what your shoulders/Can and cannot bear.” But that’s selling oneself very short here. The subject, dear reader, is Dennis Wilson’s creative angst. Now, I confess I haven’t read the bio this is taken from. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for buried genius in the failures of the drummer. But, really, who cares other than diehard Beach Boys fans or Dennis Wilson groupies? If Dennis wasn’t related to Brian, the only audience for his mediocre drumming would have been several other drunks in a seaside bar, and he would have been surfing to the welfare depot every month after hosing crabs out of his trunks. Remember, this is a poem about the frustrations of creativity.

Good, then, that Guriel concentrates his idea on others more worthy of incorporating it, as well as shedding light on the process. “Poetry Is Barbarous” takes off from a letter from mentor Samuel Menashe, in which the poet writes of erasing lines that’s he’s just sent. Guriel turns this into an arresting image of two rakes covered by snow. I wonder if he meant for the rakes, originally, to be thought of as clearance devices. Not a happy thought, that, to be sure, when considering the religious or primordial aspects of creation. A pun (surprise!) appears with the expected short development, though it works on two levels (at least), and the scene ends with “the rakes are primered-over lines/that lie below like old designs.” A satisfying click? Or piling on with unnecessary metaphor? To get to that click ...

The book’s titular poem uses an epigraph from a Steve Jobs bio wherein engineers were asked to “stay up all night fiddling with the headphone jack so that it made a more satisfying clicking sound”. Guriel then, in the poem proper, compares this to Yeats’ well-known quote on “the click/of a well-made box”. As is Guriel’s frequent procedure, the reader is led to consider possible sonic metaphors. The cricket’s “field/of creaks” is an excellent sonic choice and lexical melisma (and the obligatory pun is enjoyable, probably because here it’s buried – many of the other puns in the book should have been read their last rites). I admit my own obtuseness with the poem’s own final click. Actually, for Guriel, an extended one that I can’t decipher. Images of death are introduced early on, and the abstract summation uses them organically, but I don’t get the connection to Yeats or, indeed, to the headphones’ click. A well-made ending is a definite death? The poem’s “click” has to be finite in what way? Aesthetically? Dialectically? Logically? “What’s grating/is the indefinitiveness/of the death rattle-/ragged, the way/we have to guess/which one’s the last/gasp by waiting/out the sequence.”

The three strongest poems in Satisfying Clicking Sound are “The Washbasin”, “A Moving Picture”, and “Looking at People While Listening to Nico”. In the former, the father is recently deceased, and the narrator stares at his murky, shifting reflection in a washbasin of water that his father hadn’t emptied. The subject, and its metaphorical support, is finally intriguing. And Guriel delivers. Though Tom Vine’s “quantity over quality” philosophy of punning allows no poem to go unpunished, the main one here – “The reflection of my face/takes it on the chin” – is legitimately startling. Even here, though, one wonders if the joke was too irresistable, that another more emotionally affecting and logical choice would have been better. Say, “in the heart” instead of “on the chin”. No pun there, though. Better tamp down the emotion. Still, the poem recovers, and really kicks off a wake with its concluding, “I mean to stand for one/more moment in the five/o’clock shadow of/my father, a brave face/I pretend is mine.”

“A Moving Picture” is the volume’s highlight, and a terrific meditation on perspective, yes, but there’s also and finally a correspondingly light and weighty metaphysical element to the poem top to bottom. “Once when I was one/year old and on my back,/I noticed the sun/seemed skewered on a lance.” There’s no borrowed preface, here. No straining for extended metaphor. The one is no longer the other. The one is both the one and the other. (Most metaphors, no matter how craftily drawn, fall down metaphysically, not structurally.) There’s a wonderfully appropriate simile involving Icarus here that hovers successfully in the pre- and post-period, both in mythological implication and in the autobiographical timeline. I usually hesitate in quoting too much of a very good poem because lines, out of context, can seem haphazard or confusing meshed with surrounding exegesis. The rhymes here are frequently full, and all follow a sing-songy ABAB, a fantastic and deceptive contrast to the perfectly orchestrated and thoughtful material.

“Looking at People while Listening to Nico” sees Guriel in the heads of actual people, not abstract props that can more easily be shifted about a geometrical board, as in “Problems of Design”. Here, “[T]he face across the aisle/yawns – but Nico stops/the hole with a moan/of a voice the face,/a middle-aged man’s,/doesn’t know it makes.” Similar in imaginary conception to the static “Claustrophobic”, the transformation here is complicated by shifting emotions, in both the sender and receiver. Guriel then ups the ante further down the typically quick-running lines when, “[B]ut then/you’re not yourself/either in the eyes/of those whose ears/are also spoken for.”

A poet who writes criticism should be given even less leeway for compositions about composition. After all, we’ve heard it before. And the prose, elsewhere, is good enough, sometimes more than good enough.. There’s an enjoyable interview of guitarist Rory Gallagher up on yootoob in which he answers questions on the technical detail of playing any of various of his  instruments. Gallagher circles his hands artfully around the frets, the resonator, demonstrates with a few phrases, holds up a brass slide, and casually throws off allusions and category shifts. But I’ve only seen that ten or fifteen minute interview once. Mostly I’d rather listen to any one of hundreds of his versions of “Tattooed Lady”.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Shoshanna Wingate's Radio Weather

Great poets knew (and know) they only need one idea. They’re obsessed, and write on the same idea or theme (with minor keys, and secondary concerns) incessantly, including variations in assessment and tone. Wallace Stevens’ imagination over reality, Whitman’s big-gulp democratic effusions, Irving Layton’s castigation of man as coldblooded violent anti-messiah triggered by knowledge of his (and her) own insignificance, Ralph Gustafson’s secular psalms on grandeur through art history or sensuous epiphany, Philip Larkin’s brief light overwhelmed by mortality, poems from each have the unmistakable visionary imprimatur of their creator.

But that insistent and idiosyncratic, personal and depth-seeking (and sounding) concentration can also be found in overlooked or relatively unknown poets, as well, even though the force of the associations may be tamer or less convincing. Contemporary poets have had a memory obsession for quite a while. Don Coles is always concerned with the traffic between memory and the truth/semi-truth/untruths those memories engender. C.K. Williams, at his best, imagines past events as more troubling than they might initially have seemed, certainly a valuable corrective to “the good ole days”. And David O’Meara’s concerns with memory have more to do with how they act in the present, as emotional generator more than history.

Shoshanna Wingate’s first book of poetry, Radio Weather, (2014), explores memory as an unruly, organic, slow-pulse movement, more powerful than the lies we pluck to order meaning in pat abstractions. The best evidence for this is in her titular opener, which ruminates on the various meanings that past storms have for those who’ve experienced them, even though the initial spur (the radio call-in show) concerns future issues, which is a clever narrative manoeuvre in showing how past associations hard-pack into present conclusions which will be even more ineffective in years ahead. But Wingate complicates the process further: “Weather serves up/ memory better than any book.” Dramatic day-to-day events give exclamatory assurance for conclusions, yet Wingate immediately disagrees with that easy take based on personal chance encounters with nasty weather by an equally personal suggestion of what it means to be altered by slow accretion, by the spiritual transformation of reading, certainly a daring and unusual association: “Our stories, though,/tell us who we are.” This is the rare poem that earns its first-person plural claims.

I also like another “reading” association of a storm, in the same poem, which “felled trees older than most houses”. Brilliant! And “older” is the perfect word here.

Organic memory (or action) is not just meaningless flux, though. Wingate makes clear the slow progressions (or in this case, regressions) that occur, in her next poem, “The City Dwellers”, where the intermediary house owners are “our predecessors, the cousin spinsters/who left it wild. They kept a rotting shack//full of dead cats.” Nature, here, isn’t praised for its wild state, and there’s a neatly-fashioned similarity drawn between naive city dwellers who know nothing of gardening, and the equally-destructive country dwellers who let everything go to seed, out of neglect more than lack of skill. Two generations seem like a long enough time to correct past mistakes, but as the book’s opener makes clear, “Who likes to think about means and ends”?, especially when, in the case of “The City Dwellers”, the garden (metaphors are only overworked when they’re rendered poorly) was relatively Edenic.

Section Two begins with a delightful child’s pastoral (“Neighbours”) in crisp tetrameter, and the variations – the three-foot “and bolt around the back”; the first-stressed “No one knows people live down here” – break the rhythm with purpose. Once again, we see Wingate’s relationship with memory not as troubled discrimination of factual, even emotional, truth, but as continuation of character, of slow-moving time as fate. The narrator is confident in relating the action, yet the reader is left with more than a few questions. Where is the mother? Is she the neighbour? Is the neighbour a surrogate mother, the real mother missing (a divorce, real or emotional)? Who is the other of the poem, the “we” of the child’s address? Is it her sister, perhaps? Her neighbour’s daughter? The speaker’s imaginary friend? Perhaps most importantly, does it matter? Well, there are a few other clues that help stir the pot. About the wheat stalks: “We strip them, let the seeds rain down,/ then joust with drooping cattail reeds,/ and pop the heads for ammunition.” Precursors to war on the domestic front, which the missing or unclear relationships suggest? But the poem ends in gleeful reverie: we “fan ourselves with ferns like queens.” If the poem is a snapshot of the “nurture” side of the longstanding debate, it’s a gentle full-circle study (the neighbour or mother “laughs/ and scolds us, pulling silken threads/ of dandelions from our hair.”)

Section Three is a dramatic shift into the poem entitled “Letters from Vietnam” which, in the author’s note, is an “assemblage from letters sent to my father who ... worked as a conscientious objector counselor”. Interesting thoughts here which range from anger to fear to ambiguous resignation, but I’m not sure why they’re included in this otherwise carefully plotted book. Whether, or however much, they’re adapted, the lines are notable in the worst sense of found poetry. That is, the poetry of immediate witness of unfiltered, vivid, colloquial speech. But transcriptions, no mater how intense, honest, bravely vulnerable, can’t substitute for the crafted (and necessary) lies of poetry. “I enlisted about three months ago/ after having become frustrated/ with college. I couldn’t justify/ spending my father’s money/ any longer on the draft” begins the fourth of the eight letters, and the reader can fairly predict the further flat reportage which concludes (in this particular letter) with “I am only interested/ in getting out of the service/ in order to lead a more real/ and meaningful life”, as if Studs Terkel is at hand with a mic and tape recorder, the words on the page a faithful transcript. If there are any (or many) adaptations, it’s not clear the reasons for Wingate’s amendments, nor to what extent, or how, the changes occur.

The final section sees Wingate tackle the ambitious material of murder, disease, death, and the metaphysics of evil, and her reach exceeds her grasp. The last poem in the section (and book) rounds off the bleak subject matter with a run-of-the-mill snapshot of family love and committed protection – “I lift my shirt, eyes closed, and offer her/ my breast as she squirms into me” – but before that, we get “The Murderer”, an autobiographical meditation on a condemned man, a friend of her father’s. “Visits were denied after/ a prison riot and I didn’t see him/ again alive.” So  Wingate’s (or the narrator’s, if you will) imagination must provide further speculation, as well as the filtered (from a lawyer) record of events leading to the unfortunate man’s execution. The poem fails both as an imaginative speculation, and as a close-up events-driven drama, since both are too far removed from their source. (For imagination, the reader gets the sentimental musings of “I wondered on his life./ I put him in a house with a little yard;/ a vegetable patch and wife, a cat, a simple job.” For reality, we get third-hand detail.) This is well enough if the speaker is coming at it from the perspective of the girl in “Neighbours”, but Wingate, it’s clear, is still wrestling with her memories, and with what they mean. The pathos, the grim diurnal events are projected, not realized. “The Poet’s Devil” attempts a cynical,  tough girl voice – “You hear what I’m saying, don’t you./ Implication. Suggestion. Don’t be a dolt.” – but its effects are more nagging than fearful. Thankfully, “Living with the Dead” is a mountain that, by its immediate surroundings, towers over the rest of the section. I really like the tone of the poem – wise, both self-critical and self-forgiving, concerned. Echoing early poems in the volume, Wingate’s benedictory dead “rewrite history, always coming out good in the story.” Here, the unglamorous lines are strung with a various and resilient tug, at once nostalgic and abstract, deeply considered and inevitable, while implying, with a light though frightening touch, the hope we all have of being remembered, with fondness but also honestly. This is the future of “Better/ to live with books and music.”

Monday, May 4, 2015

Will Ferguson's HappinessTM

HappinessTM, Will Ferguson’s first novel, shouldn’t succeed so readily. The writing is, at times, unsubtle (“the significance of that last sentence imploded within him, collapsing inward with a sense of guilt and despair” – ironic in light of the author’s jokey first-page disclaimer of his editor’s knuckle-rapping for redundancies); historically mixed-up (“Soiree was the Stalin of the New Age. He had released a neutron bomb of love upon the world”); grammatically maladroit, with group stereotypes  (“Mr. Mead was a Baby Boomer in the worst sense of the word. He was in his early fifties, but he kept trying to pass himself off as, well, hip. Or something.”); philosophically jejune, another irony in a book trying to satirize the self-help industry (“ ‘Hellraisers destroy only themselves, and they do it because they love life too much to fall asleep’ “); and spiritually incorrect, the following quote actually part of the Japanese Zen tradition: (“ ‘there’s a Hindu proverb that says: The finger that points to the moon is not the moon’ “).

But succeed it does. Because it’s funny, which is kinda the point in a humourous novel. If one can forgive the increasingly (and again, ironically) preachy, broad-based, vapid counters to new-agey blandness and smiley narcissism (I could), the laughs are frequent and variously structured. Ferguson is fond of the Beard and Kenney technique, appearing in that duo’s parodic masterpiece Bored of the Rings, in which narrative hijinks immediately follow the foolishly-timed speaker’s boast. In HappinessTM, it’s used to delightful surprise several times: (“ ‘If your last name is already Serpent, why would you need the nickname Snake? I mean, it’s kind of redundant, don’t you think?’ “.//When Edwin regained consciousness, he was lying on a tabletop, strapped down and looking up into a bright light ...”). He’s also partial to the outlandish reaction of a character to the stupidity or insensitivity of another, which, after the shocker, proves to be a thought instead of a deed (“ ‘So let’s work within those parameters, shall we?’ “//”And what exactly,” said Edwin, “would 0.6 of a word be, you stupid, brain-dead, grey-haired, washed-up, over-the-hill twit?”//But that wasn’t exactly how Edwin phrased his question. What he actually said was, ‘Point six, sir?’ “).

HappinessTM caroms insouciantly chapter to chapter, unapologetic for its tone, and though the wisdom included is often shopworn and too-insistent, there are a few passages of social satire which hold up, one of which occurs near the end of the novel (p. 330 in my edition) in which Ferguson (under the narrator’s guise) mocks the moral hypocrisy of those previously under the spell of What I Learned on the Mountain for the self-help cynic’s apparent turn-about sequel, How to Be Miserable: “Many people condemned the once-loved author for having betrayed the very movement he helped launch. A fatwa was issued against him, a price was put on his head and the bounty brought hundreds of hopeful assassins out from the shadows.”

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.