Slim Pickings

Sonia Faleiro’s The Girl, a book I’d briefly mentioned in this post at Sepia Mutiny, is a melancholy novel set in Goa about two men and The Girl they both loved. The book begins with the young woman’s suicide – yet another tragedy in cursed Azul – and the two men are “achingly curious” to find out why. And when one of them stumbles upon her journal, they use it to reconstruct her life leading up to the suicide – the death of an unhappy woman whose last big hope had vanished.

Just a few pages into the novel, and it is obvious that it is as much about showcasing the writing as it is about the actual plot. The Girl is a carefully crafted book: every sentence is meticulously assembled from deliberately chosen words, each page is filled with precise paragraphs construced from meticulously assembled sentences.

There is plenty of wordplay, and large doses of descriptive detail. Nothing is too insignificant to be let off without a metaphor or two, ranging from the inventive to the cliched.

Thus we have the earth “encrusting the casket like pastry bubbling into hardness,” a bar and its location as mismatched as “vegetarianism and a Goan” and as “profoundly antipodean” as the “Rua’s many little old ladies and the one young lady who lived opposite Breto’s in a stone mansion, and many years later flung herself into the well in the corner of her garden.”

Continue reading “Slim Pickings”

Raining Sardines, Talking Cats

KafkaTo call Kafka On The Shore an imaginative book would be gross understatement. It is wildly, feverishly, outrageously imaginative; a book where bizarre ideas share space with profound thoughts and sublime writing coexists with cheesy humor that this blog wouldn’t publish. (Yes, I can think of at least seven really funny things I’ve rejected – I’ll write a post about it soon. Plus I am disappointed you guys don’t know the difference between reviewer’s license and hyperbole.)

“Well, tell me then , Toro, is there some reason you’re here?”

“There is,” the black cat said. “I thought you might be having a hard time dealing with that stone all alone.”

“You got that right. Definitely. I’m in kind of a fix here.”

“I thought I’d lend you a hand.”

“That would be great,” Hoshino said. “Take a paws in your schedule, eh?”

In other words, Kafka on the Shore is just another Haruki Murakami book. Murakami is a delightfully inventive writer, and Kafka On The Shore brings together all the qualities that’ve made him so popular with audiences the world over. After his “discovery” in the mid-nineties with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami, with his distinctive brand of writing that blurs the boundary between what is real and what is not, has acquired almost cult status in the West. On one level, his books are dense, broody musings on loneliness and love; on another they are racily narrated fantasies laced with generous (tongue-in-cheek) references to pop culture. The dichotomy intrigues, drawing readers into the books. And the books never disappoint: they are dreamy fantasies set in the present, and the author’s overactive imagination ensures that there is never a dull moment, if you’ll pardon the cliche.

Kafka on the Shore is a book about a young boy who calls himself Kakfa (Duh!) (which means crow in Czech, apparently)(Clarification: Kafka means Crow, not Duh!). Kafka, whose mom and sister had abandoned him early on, runs away from home at fifteen to get away from his dad. Kafka is also running away from a prophecy of his dad. (The parallels with Murukami’s short story in the New Yorker are obvious:

“Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three who have real meaning for him. No more, no less,” his father said–or, rather, declared. He spoke coolly but with utter certainty, as he might have in noting that the earth takes a year to revolve around the sun.

) (etcetera: We close parantheses.())

Johnnie WalkerIn another thread in the book, Nakata, a lovable old man who lost his mind in a bizarre World War II incident leaves Tokyo for “somewhere west.” Nakata, who can talk to cats, hitchhikes his way (rather eventfully) to where Kafka is now, propelled by mysterious forces within his mind. He is running towards something, but he is also running away from a gruesome murder that he committed. Or did he?

Kafka ends up at a quaint little family library in a quaint little town. On the way though, he meets a girl who he thinks could be his sister. And at the library, he runs into the following people.

  1. Oshima, the uber-smart library assistant who says mysterious, metaphysical, profound, philosophical things with a straight face. Like so:

“Speaking of contradictions,” Oshima suddenly says, “when I first met you I felt a kind of contradiction in you. You’re seeking something, but at the same time you’re running away for all you’re worth.” [Please nod sagely. There you go, that’s it.]

Oshima is uber-smart, so quoting Yeats ( “In dreams begin responsibility”) and Aristophanes or drawing on Greek Philosophy ( “Cassandra’s curse”) to explain everyday predicaments comes easily to him. As does having a lot of fun at the expense of a couple of poor feminists:

“Yes, may I help you?” Oshima asks her amiably.

“Just to let you know, we are investigating public cultural facilities in the entire country from a woamn’s point of view, looking at ease of use, fair access and other issues,” she says. “Our group is doing a year-long investigation and plans to publish a report on our findings. A large number of women are involved in this project, and the two of us happen to be in charge of this region.”

[…]

“What we’ve concluded is that, unfortunately, this library has several issues which need to be addressed.”

“From the viewpoint of women, is what you’re saying,” Oshima commented.

“Correct, from the viewpoint of women,” the woman answers. She clears her throat.

[…]

“Well, first of all you have no toilet set aside for women. That’s correct, isn’t it?”

‘Yes, that’s right. There’s no women’s toilet in this library. We have one toilet for the use of both men and women.”

“Even if you are a private institution, since you’re open to the public don’t you think – in principle – that you should provide separate toilets for women and men?”

“In principle?” Oshima says.

“Correct. Shared facilities give rise to all sorts of harassment. According to our survey, the majority of women are reluctant to use shared toilets. This is a clear cae of neglect of your female patrons.”

“Neglect…” Oshima says, and makes a face as though he’s swallowed something bitter by mistake He doesn’t much like the sound of the word, it would seem.

“An intentional oversight.”

“Intentional oversight,” he repeats, and gives some thought to this clumsy phrase.

“So what is your reaction to all this?” the woman asks, barely containing her irritation.

“As you can see,” Oshima says, “we’re a very small library. And unfortunately we don’t have the sapce for separate toilets. Naturally it would be better to have separate toilets, but none of our patrons has ever complained. For better or for worse, our library doesn’t get very crowded. If you’d like to pursue this issue of separate toilets further, I suggest you got to the Boeing headquartes inSeattle and addreess the issue of toilets on 747s. A 747’s much bigger than our little library, and much more crowded. As far as I’m aware, all toilets on passenger aircraft are shared by men and women.”

“The tall woman frowns at him severely, her cheekbones jjutting forward and her glasses riding up her nose. “We are not investigating aeroplanes. 747s are beside the point.”

“Wouldn’t toilets in both jets and in our library – in principle – give rise to the same sorts of problems?”

“We are investigating, one by one, public facilities. We’re not here to argue over principles.

“Oshmias’s supple smile never fades during this exchange. “Is that so?” I could have sworn that principles were exactly what we were discussing.”

And so it goes. An exchange that later veers towards a discussion of red herrings, shifting analogies, Aristotle and phallocentric logicical fallacies before it ends with a revelation that would’ve been explosive in any other book. Here, coming after sardines raining and a dog interrupting Nakata’s conversation with a cat to lead him to a man dressed like Johnny Walker (whisky mogul, evil cat eater) who proceeds to eat live cat hearts, it is just another event. Murakami’s world is full of them.

Oshima is the reader’s muse in the book – erudite and unruffled, he “explains” (if you can call bits of tangential loud thinking that) what is going on to both Kafka and us.

2. (etcetera:we get our numbering right).

3. On the bus out of Tokyo, Oshima also meets Sakura, a hot young girl who he thinks could be his sister.Naturally. Kafka and Sakura form a bond on the bus, and later on, Kafka rapes her in his dream. But dreams blur into reality in this book, so one can’t really be sure. Sakura and Kafka carry on a conversation that might explain the preponderance of alarming coincidences in the book.

“Even chance meetings… Are the result of Karma.”

“Right, right,” she says. “But what does it mean?”

“That things in life are fated by our previous lives. That even the in the smallest events there’s no such thing as coincidence.”

4. And finally, Miss Saeki. She is the stately woman with a sad past she won’t discuss, who runs the library that Oshima works in. Kafka, naturally, thinks she could be his mom. There are tantalizing clues that seem to point to the theory – Miss Saeki was a lightning researcher and Kafka’s dad was once struck by lightning. But when Kafka asks her the question, all he gets is something to the effect of “You already know the answer to that.” And he accepts the answer and moves on. Occasionally, Miss Saeki becomes a fifteen year old girl and dons shiny white costumes and goes to Kafka’s room. This confuses Kafka no end, and his discussions with Oshima about Miss Saeki lead to the conclusion that this is probably a “living ghost.” The title of the book – Kafka on the Shore, is also the title of the hit single that Miss Saeki composed when she was young. The lyrics of the song are riddled with symbolism, and Kafka’s sees a lot of parallels between his life and the lyrics. And so on it goes…

Meahwhile, hitchhiking old man Nakata, after causing leeches to fall from the sky, ends up at the same town as Kafka, by sheer chance. Nakata has forgotten first person usage, so conversations with him remind you of conversations between Elaine and Jimmy.

Nakata is sleepy.

Colonel SandersA truck driver who picks him up on the way is intrigued by Nakata and decides to accompany him on his quest for something that also happens to be – by chance – mentioned in Miss Saeki’s hit single.

The truck driver, Hoshino, later encounters a spirit dressed up as Colonel Sanders. Colonel Sanders has a slightly differerent job description here: he is a supernatural pimp, who gets Hoshino a girl that is very adept at quoting Henri Bergson and Hegel. Together, Hoshino and the prostitute find the perfect use for philosopy.

“See, you’re ready to go again,” the girl remarked, slowly seguing into her next set of motions. “Any special reqeusts? Something you’d like me to do? Mr. Sanders asked me to make sure you got everything you wanted.”

“I can’t think of anything special, but could you quote some more of that philosophy stuff? I don’t know why, but it might keep me from coming so quickly. Otherwise, I’ll lose it pretty fast.”

“Let’s see . . . This is fairly old, but how about some Hegel?”

“Whatever.”

[…]

“‘At the same time that “I” am the content of a relation, “I” am also that which does the relating.'”

The hilarious encounters between Sanders and Hoshino are the funniest parts of the book, with Murakami at his biting best.

“Listen – God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan God’s always been a kind of flexible concept. Look at what happened after the war. Dougnal MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person. So after 1946 he wasn’t God anymore. That’s what Japanese gods are like – they can be tweaked and adjusted. Some American chomping on a cheap pipe gives the order and presto change-o – God’s no longer God. A very postmodern kind of thing. if you think God’s there, He is. If you don’t, He isn’t. And if that’s what God’s like I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Typical of Murakami, when the denoument comes (and goes), it leaves you with more questions than answers. Some philosophical, some practical. (“Was there a message in all this?” “What is he trying to say?” “Was Miss Saeki Kafka’s mom?”). What is the point, the overarching explanation that ties it all up? How could Hoshino start talking to cats? Was the stone the entrance to heaven? What is the significance of the paradise like land suspended between two worlds? Is this a fable? Or like a reviewer claims, is the whole book about giving shape to internal thoughts of the characters?

But then, a little bit of thought provides the answer: It doesn’t matter. There is so much fun to be had when reading the book, and some more fun thinking about all the questions, and that could very well be the whole point.

New York Times Featured Author Profile.

Let’s talk about Neal

“And so,” the snotty bunch of hazers asked him, “do you read?”

“Yes sirs,” he said. Knighthood by coercion.

“What’s your favorite genre?” I asked, gazing at the immense forehead. “I was born with a large forehead, and no, that is not a receding hairline, you jerk” he would tell me later, when we had become friends.

But going back to now, his answer was “Science fiction. Asimov. Long pause. Sirs.”

We groaned.

Science fiction, in that little clique, was passe. It was boring and juvenile, a resort of failed fantasy writers (it was either that or . Worlds with scary green faced aliens and half baked scientific theories on time travel weren’t gonna cut it, not for hard nosed young men who could smoke a whole Benson & Hedges without coughing. By the way, we are a socially responsible blog and would like inform you that smoking in Bhutan can land you in jail, unless you are the king.

“Yes,” we said, “Foundation was good. Dick was good too.” Stifled laughter. “But that’s it. No new ideas anymore, and how many variations on time travel can you read ?”

“No, but …”

“Why do we get the sense you are trying to contradict us?”

“I mean yes… sirs. SF is not a happening field. I agree wholeheartedly.”


It has been a few years since the conversation happened, and I wish I could go back in time and take the side of the young man with a receding hairline and tell the others to go read Cyberpunk. That’ll only happen in bad science fiction, so I’ll have to make do with a tribute to Neal Stephenson.

The problem with sci-fi (we all thought) was that it took itself too seriously. ‘Twas a genre lost in its gadgets, a genre enamored with its clairvoyance, a genre filled with stuffy geek-writers who believed that mediocre plots could be transformed into classics when set in the future in imaginary planets. Margaret Atwood helped weaken the impression (you can’t really call her works science fiction, so scratch that) and William Gibson broke its resolve, but Neal Stephenson shattered it, burnt the remnants and shot the ashes up in the air with the weapons that he invented in Snow Crash. He did this by adding one ingredient to his books: irreverent satire. A self deprecating tone. Scathing social commentary. Intriguing new social orders, a healthy interest in the flow of money, an awareness of the impact of technology on people. Ok, I was off by a few ingredients. Big deal.

His books are elaborately plotted and incredibly detailed ( and very long), drawing on ideas from several sources: Snow Crash blends in virtual reality with notions of a libertarian future, The Diamond Age is about society’s response to nanotechnology. The complexity of the ideas is balanced by the irreverent, satirical tone of the narrative – Stephenson’s books never take themselves too seriously. And that endears them to you – a self deprecating geek discussing his ideas with passion is much more likable than someone earnestly trying to sell stories about plants that grow on Mars. This excerpt from Snow Crash is typical of how Stephenson treats conventional science fiction , turning hackneyed ideas into fun.

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun. The Deliverator never deals in cash, but someone might come after him anyway — might want his car, or his cargo. The gun is tiny, aero-styled, lightweight, the kind of a gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teensy darts that fly at five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity.

The Deliverator never pulled that gun in anger, or in fear. He pulled it once in Gila Highlands. Some punks in Gila Highlands, a fancy Burbclave, wanted themselves a delivery, and they didn’t want to pay for it. Thought they would impress the Deliverator with a baseball bat. The Deliverator took out his gun, centered its laser doo-hickey on that poised Louisville Slugger, fired it. The recoil was immense, as though the weapon had blown up in his hand. The middle third of the baseball bat turned into a column of burning sawdust accelerating in all directions like a bursting star. Punk ended up holding this bat handle with milky smoke pouring out the end. Stupid look on his face. Didn’t get nothing but trouble from the Deliverator.

The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.

Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model. This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them.

Just when you think “Bond wannabe”, you find out. That the Deliverator delivers pizzas in a world run by corporations. That the deliverator is a software engineer with attitude. And you grin, shake your head and move on to the next chapter about Governmentless worlds.

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator’s report card would say: “Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills.”

After Snowcrash and The Diamond Age – Cyberpunk Classics – Stephenson changed tack. Cryptonomicon, his follow-up book, isn’t really Science Fiction, it is a “historical techno-thriller.” It is an outstanding book that has been has been compared in its breadth and scope to Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s dense World War II classic. But Stephenson won’t mind it being called Science Fiction:

“The science fiction approach doesn’t mean it’s always about the future; it’s an awareness that this is different.” [Link]

The book

follows two parallel sagas: that of cryptographers during World War II attempting to crack Axis codes and that of their descendants attempting to use modern cryptography to build a data haven in the fictitious state of Kinakuta, a small nation […]. It also details the political machinations that follow both efforts. [Link]

A much more confident Stephenson digresses heavily, including a pointless short story written by one of the characters and Perl source code for a cryptographic algorithm he describes in the book. The book is a delightful read, each digression a source of unexpected pleasure. Stephenson blends in his fictional protoganists with real life people: Dr. Waterhouse, his cryptographer hero spends time with Alan Turing, and Einstein and Churchill make cameo appearances as themselves. Cryptonomicon is smart, supremely funny and densely packed with ideas and an acute awareness of the several societies spanned by the plot.

[…]When he does get to the right floor, thought, it is a bit posher than the wrong one was. Of course, the underlying structure of everything in England is post. There is no in between with these people. You have to walk a mile to find a telephone booth, but when you find it, it is built as if the senseless dynamiting of pay phones had been a serious problem at sometime in the past. And a British mailbox can presumably stop a German tank. None of them have cars, but when they do, they are three-ton hand-built beasts. The concept of stamping out a whole lot of cars is unthinkable.

[…]Waterhouse has forgotten all of their names. He always immediately forgets the names. Even if he remembered them, he would not know their significance, as he does not actually have the organization chart of the Foreign Ministry (which runs Intelligence) and the Military laid out in front of him. They keep saying “woe to hice!” but just as he actually begins to feel sorry for this Hice fellow, whoever he is, he figures out that this is how they pronounce “Waterhouse.” Other than that, the one remark that actually penetrates his brain is when one of the Other Guys says something about the Prime Minister that implies considerable familiarity. And he’s not even the Main guy. The Main Guy is much older and more distinguished. So it seems to Waterhouse (though he has completely stopped listening to what all of these people are saying to him) that a good half of the people in the room have recently had conversations with Winston Churchill.

And perhaps in response to criticism that he couldn’t tie up his plots properly, Stephenson ends Cryptonomicon well, tying up most loose ends. An awesome, awesome read.

A review of Cryptonomicon at Slashdot.

Which brings us to the Baroque Cycle, his ambitious trilogy set in the early 18th century. Stephenson insists that the Baroque Cycle is still Science Fiction, because the book mostly focuses on science in the Baroque Era. Hmm. He continues using the technique of blending in fictitious people with real ones – the duel between Newton and Leibniz forms the backdrop for a large part of the cycle.

It is not Cryptonomicon, but it is a fine book nevertheless. Even though it feels a bit like reading a smart schoolboy’s scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from the 17th century, the writing sparkles, and the characters intrigue. (And the second book in the trilogy is set in eighteenth century India, which is another reason to read it).

And the books are also… you know what, this post is way too long. So without much ado, I’ll conclude.

Therefore, I conclude, Neal Stephenson is a good writer who writes elaborately plotted science fiction full of irreverent humor. Hence, I infer, you will all go read his books and write your own reviews. Please wipe your glazed eyes and go back to your own blogs. If you are a came through google, sorry, no naked pictures exist on this blog, except on one post. Continue searching.

The Titular Head

Agatha ChristieWe are just a day or two into the new year. The year that just passed was a year in which Agatha Christie hogged more or less all the limelight, even though she is not that hot. In two separate studies, scientists claim to have unlocked the secret of why her books are so popular, even though they feature protagonists we’d rather not drink tea with.

Scientists at the Universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick “loaded Christie’s novels onto a computer and analyzed her words, phrases and sentences.” The results of the study show that

[S]he peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.

[Another] finding was that she used a very limited vocabulary. “It means that readers aren’t distracted and so they concentrate more on the clues and the plots,” said Dr Pernilla Danielsson from the school of humanities at Birmingham University. [Link]

Here’s Mark Lieberman’s take at the Language Log.

Christie used a limited vocabulary, “pleasing and gentle” language even though the plots were macabre, and repeated certain “mesmerizing” phrases over and over again to stimulate serotonin and other chemicals in the body.

Favourite words or phrases, repeatedly used in a “mesmerising” way, help to stimulate the pleasure-inducing side of the brain. They include she, yes, girl, kind, smiled and suddenly. Common phrases include “can you keep an eye on this”, “more or less”, “a day or two” and “something like that”. [Link]

Let’s summarize the recipe for bestsellers: Repeating the same things over and over again, gentle presentation, familiar phrases, sixth grade vocabulary. And let’s also state our opinion of the whole stylometric study: Duh! Just read any three books by Robert Ludlum, and you’ll know. Familiarity sells. Familiarity and simplicity, we are convinced, are the key ingredients that make popular art so… popular. Actually, duh again. There is a whole industry in India, um.. I mean, South Asia that has been using the formula successfully for ages – Indian movies are all about familiar settings, dumbed down plotting and an insistence on making audiences feel good. The next time someone asks Ram Gopal Varma why he keeps remaking his own movies (and those of others), he should quote Professor Danielsson, stylometry, serotonin, Agatha Christie and Antara Mali. And Anu Malik – what can I say? I respect him a lot more now. Something like that.

The repetitive nature of Bollywood means titling movies is a hard, hard task. How many ways can you headline the same article? Guy beats up Bad Guys, falls in Love with Girl. Girl Falls in Love with Guy who beat up Bad Guys. Bad Guys beaten up by Guy that Fell in Love with Girl. Love fallen into by Girl and Guy who beat up Bad Guys. And so on. Which, by the way, is a great segue into the next Agatha Christie finding.

According to a statistical study commissioned by Lulu.com, Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder is the “perfect title” for a bestselling novel and John Le Carre is the most consistent producer of “good” titles. [Link]

Figurative or abstract titles, such as “Sleeping Murder,” or “Presumed Innocent,” produce more top-sellers than literal ones, such as “The Da Vinci Code.”

A title’s length does not affect sales — contrary to publishingindustry wisdom, which decrees that bestseller titles be short. Another increased respect moment here. Remember all those Hindi movie titles: DDLJ. HAHK. K3G. Damn. These guys knew.

Through the Language Log a link to the statistical analysis tool used for the study. The Lulu Book Title Analyzer. Please don’t forget to leave comments complimenting the intriguing figurative title I chose for this post.

[Previous Post on why Bollywood is high literary art.]

PS: Agatha Christie picture courtesy The Free Library.

Get in line, please – there’s enough prizes for everyone!

A New Yorker review of The Economy of Prestige, a book by James English where he argues that “the threat of scandal” is essential to the viabilty of a literary award, and that it is “at least as important that the prize go to the wrong person as that it go to the right one.” That explains Banville. (sorry Lavanya).

When the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to Sully Prudhomme, in 1901, the choice was regarded as a scandal, since Leo Tolstoy happened to be alive. The Swedish Academy was so unnerved by the public criticism it received that its members made a point of passing over Tolstoy for the rest of his life—just to show, apparently, that they knew what they were doing the first time around—honoring instead such immortals as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Giosuè Carducci, Rudolf Eucken, and Selma Lagerlöf.

English says that for prizes to “matter” they need to be thought of as “fundamentally scandalous” by the public – scandalous in the sense that art should really have nothing to do with winning or losing.

In English’s view, therefore, [Toni] Morrison’s friends and admirers violated the protocols of prize-bashing not because they publicly criticized the choice of the National Book Award judges but because they acknowledged that the award really matters, that it is (in their words) a “keystone honor” that helps to validate a book and establish its author. Their statement pointed out, in the frankest terms, that there is a literary marketplace, and that power and authority–“cultural capital,” to use the term that English borrows from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu–accrue to those who succeed in it. Art does not receive its reward in Heaven; it is one of the things that belong to Caesar.

English speculates that this willingness to speak without embarrassment about the significance of prizes and awards, and about the whole economy of cultural production and consumption, may, paradoxically, signal the demise of the prize system.

The book also sounds a hopeful note for wannabe creators:

There are now more movie awards given out every year–about nine thousand–than there are new movies, and the number of literary prizes is climbing much faster than the number of books published.

Nice. I’ll remember that for the next time I run into an award winning writer.

“Reclusive writer one of the best,” says Blogger

‘Tis the season for the coming out of recluses : First Illayaraja, famously idiosyncratic genius, performs his first live concert in decades, and even manages to enjoy it. Then, an actual, substantive Philip Roth interview appears in the Guardian. And now, Annie Proulx – who equates celebrity to being displayed on a meat rack – reluctantly talks to a few publications before the release of Brokeback Mountain, the movie based on her New Yorker short story from the late nineties.

Proulx started her career writing hunting stories for a men’s magazine, and to avoid the inevitable “What’s a name like Annie doing in a magazine like this?” – the editor wanted her to change her name to something more, well, masculine. Joe or Zack, perhaps? Finally a compromise was arrived at: Proulx added an E to her name and started writing as E.A.Proulx. Even after she became popular, the E persisted. BrokeBack Mountain was her first work as just plain Annie – even the Pulitzer winning Shipping News was credited to E. Annie Proulx. [1]

Most of Proulx’s tales are set in rural America, and her writing is brilliantly evocative (and unconventional and surprisingly humorous), effectively doing what she wants it to do – “make landscapes rise from the page, to appear in the camera lens of the reader’s mind.”

More than her lyrical writing, the allure of Proulx’s work lies in her steadfast refusal to glamorize a landscape that’s often a victim of its own beauty in the hands of lesser writers. Her rivers always run brown, and she’s not afraid of staining the pristine snow of the mountains with a little bit of pee. People treat animals cruelly and handsome, hardy cowboys fall in love with each other. Fly fishing is hard work, rodeo bull riders whimper when they fall and life on the whole is pretty darn hard. It is the average working class world, projected on white snowscreens.

In her own words,

It is not pastoral nostalgia that shakes me but imagined histories built on such slender clues as a rusted tobacco can nailed to a lodgepole pine and containing a miner’s claim from the last century, or an unchecked panhandle windmill boring a mad hole in the sky…

My introduction to Proulx was through The Shipping News, her Pulitzer winning book about a quintessential loser named Quoyle. Saddled with the responsibilty of raising his two daughters when his wife leaves him for another man, Quoyle decides to move his family – the kids and an old aunt – to Newfoundland. Actually, it was the Aunt’s will, and Quoyle complies. He finds a job in a newspaper office, and slowly, the family starts to settle down in the aunt’s ramshackle old home. As the gloom of winter starts to take over, Quoyle starts experiencing something close to hope.. “it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

The Shipping News is a brilliantly written book, and Proulx possesses an acute awareness of her setting and characters. Every character has a backstory, and exhibits the odd quirk or two (but never quirky enough to be caricatures) and when they all come together, it makes for a very satisfying read. Did I say brilliantly written? At unexpected moments, Proulx decides to do away with prepositions and conjunctions in her sentences, adding a wry, darkly funny tone to the writing.

Quoyle, grinning. Expected to hear they were having a kid. Already picked himself for godfather.

Quoyle at the back of the meeting, writing on his pad. Went home, typed and retyped all night at the kitchen table. In the morning, eyes circled by rings, nerved on coffee, he went to the newsroom.

And then there are the gimmicks. Each chapter begins with the description of a knot from The Ashley Book Of Knots, and after a few chapters it is fun to try and figure out what would happen based on the knot described. Here’s the first chapter:

Quoyle: A coil of rope.

A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.

For what’s essentially a catalog of a gloomy life, The Shipping News can also be incredibly funny. Quoyle tends to think in newspaper headlines, and Proulx uses this throughout the book to great effect. Just this one “trick” lightens up the book tremendously, and transforms what could have easily become a laborious literary novel into an accessible classic.

Saw the commonplaces of life as newspaper headlines. Man Walks Across Parking Lot at Moderate Pace. Women Talk of Rain. Phone Rings in Empty Room.

Here’s an excerpt.

Coming back to Brokeback Mountain, Proulx says she spent more time on this short story than she would on a novel and it shows. It is a beautiful short story. (In fact, all the stories in Close Range are great reads).

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

Jack and Ennis end up tending sheep together on Brokeback Mountain, and their friendship turns into a sexual relationship. The change happens without ado – naturally, almost like it was destined to happen. It is cold, come in to the tent, there is enough room on the bed, then it happens. It is clich?d, but Proulx intended it to be clich?d: it is not really that different, she seems to be saying. Their love is forbidden love; Jack wants them living together but Ennis is worried about the consequences. The two of them part ways and try to lead “normal” lives – wives, kids – while pining for each other. And then,… I won’t give it away, just read it if you can get hold of it somewhere.

Update: A Brokeback Mountan FAQ at annieproulx.com.

And a Falstaff review of the movie.

[1]: I got this from the Complete New Yorker, which is my stranded-on-a-desert-book now. Ok, DVD, but still.

Simply Beautiful

Where I'm Calling FromA striking feature of the Lord of the Rings books is the author’s vivid rendering of Middle Earth. J.R.R Tolkien chose an imaginary setting for his books, but he provided his readers so much information about them – maps, historical contexts, evocative descriptions of landscapes – that it was hard to believe that the whole thing was made up. Tolkien filled his books with an overwhelming amount of descriptive detail at every opportunity he could, creating an array of detailed snapshots of the setting for readers. The effect was something unusual – a credible fantasy.

Stylistically, there couldn’t be a writer farther away from Tolkien than Raymond Carver. Where Tolkien would use a hundred words, Carver uses ten; where Tolkien’s characters wax poetic, Carver’s just grunt. Tolkien took pride in the length (and breadth) of his works, Carver was a minimalist from the Hemingway school.

But after reading Where I’m Calling From, Carver’s last collection of short stories before his premature death, one can’t help feeling that Carver did to the human being what Tolkien did to Middle Earth – his stories are a series of silhouettes that spotlight the world of his subjects. Like Tolkien’s verbose snapshots, the silhouettes work rather well. No writer I’ve read comes close to capturing the textured world of the guy next door as well as Carver does here.

Carver’s most remarkable achievement is the genuineness of his characters. A few sentences into every story a familiarity envelops you – you’ve met these people, you know how they talk – followed by awe at how true it all sounds. The dad in Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes could’ve so easily been mine; the odd couple in Put yourself in My Shoes could’ve been the weird people next door that maids hated to work for.

The whole experience of reading a Carver book is mind-blowing – it is like watching events unfold at your neighbor’s house through a skylight. And it is here that the author’s spare style comes in so handy – Carver keeps his descriptions down to a minimum, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the backdrop: these people could be your neighbors as much as they are mine.

A lot has been written about Carver’s minimalist style, but while his writing is spare and stark, he has an amazing eye for just the right details – passing mentions of an odd stray dog, a wet shoe or daddy’s muscles somehow lend a more complete feel to the stories, and the overall effect is that of something way more than the sum of its parts. (I so want to pun on his spare sentence construction and him not sparing a detail, but I’ll pass).

In “What’s in Alaska,” for example, two couples get together for an evening. And as the evening progresses, laced with drinking and drugs, Carver chooses to focus a lot of attention on the brand new shoes of one of the men – his doubts about the shoes seem to somehow mirror how he feels about the changes in his life. It is totally unexpected, and incredibly poignant.

Midway through the book, there seems to be a slight shift in Carver’s style. He’s a little more chatty, and the tales have a sunnier feel to them. You could sense a writer trying to break free from a style that was starting to cramp him, but unfortunately for Carver (and us) his life ended before he could finish his experimentation.

According to this essay by William Stull, professor at the University of Hartford, sometime after the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Carver thought he would hit a dead end if he continued to head down the path of increased minimalism, and

[…]what followed over the next two years was an artistic turnabout, “an opening up” during which he restored and expanded the work he had pared down under the influence of editor Lish, Hemingway’s “theory of omission,” and his own purgative impulses. Two small-press books, Fires and If It Please You, display the outcome of this process. In addition, Carver wrote a dozen new stories in a higher, more hopeful key. The first of them, “Cathedral” (Atlantic Monthly, September 1981), he termed “totally different in conception and execution” from his previous work.

Truth, I’m sure you’ve heard, is stranger than fiction. If you believe that, then Carver’s short stories are the closest fiction can get to the truth.

Update: Here’s Falstaff on Carver. Neat.

Quoigning Words And Digesting Tales

Graham Greene, we hear, sucked at spelling. And so, when playing Scrabble, he resorted to the classic poor speller’s trick: quoigning new words.

The problem, according to Meyer, was that [Graham] Greene’s spelling was “deeply dubious”, and the pair did not have a dictionary. During a stay in Tahiti, Greene produced the words “zeb”, which he claimed was an Elizabethan word for “cock”, and “quoign” which he insisted was Shakespearean, quoting: “Yon castle’s quoign that Duncan’s spirit haunts.”

Meyer thought the line was as dubious as Greene’s spelling and, in the sultry Tahitian nights, tempers frayed. The pair were still arguing when they reached San Francisco, months later. They ran straight from the ship to a second-hand book store and found a dictionary.

The word was in, spelled “quoin”, which satisfied Greene, though as Meyer pointed out, “quoin” would not have landed on a triple letter score.

I don’t feel so bad now for tricking my eleven year old nephew into believing that qyonder was the one of the few words in English where a u didn’t follow the q. Think it meant a problem at a distant place. I hope he mentions me in his autobiography, but given that he hasn’t bothered to look up qyonder yet, that is a very distant possibility. He isn’t that good at cricket either.

Mr Greene and Scrabble (Through Bookslut)

Meanwhile, everyone else in the world seems to have watched the new Potter movie. I want to go watch it tomorrow, so that I can tell people that the book was so much better than the movie. To make that statement with authority, I had to read the book first, so I read it online here – check back next week for the post that tells you the book is so much better than the movie.

The Guardian Digested Read is my (very belated) find of the year.

Why, I even read the entire dirty book that Falstaff talks about so much. In five minutes, no less. Let’s see you beat that buddy.

And before I sign off, check out Gayathri’s crisp little review of Harold Pinter’s A Birthday Party. And wish the soon to be marriajed (damn, that’s better than qyonder) Veena. To balance out the sexes, here’s another bad speller exposed.

Update: Somehow, this post would like to think it spawned this one. It feels rather proud about the fact.

It is as if we are too pug-nosed individually, but together, we create a patrician nose a Roman would be proud of. And from atop that noble proboscis, we gaze down upon the world. For all our toils for the sake of being included, exclusion is the ultimate reward.

A Collection Most Cloying

Inspirations for books can come from the most unexpected of sources – from the obvious in your face incident to tangential, barely related happenings that spark trains of thought that lead to novels. Nabokov’s Lolita apparently “was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

Muses lurk everywhere. In the right hands, apes with charcoal in their hands can become seductresses.

In the case of “Sujatha” Rangarajan, one does not need to look too hard to find out where the muse lurked: His typical middle class Brahmin upbringing – a unique mix of conservative and liberal extremes, a steady diet of Dahl, O.Henry and Carver, an engineering education, and an interest in science fiction.

Drawing themes from the milieu he was most comfortable and using a lot of techniques borrrowed from the masters – mostly Dahl methinks – Sujatha developed a successful formula early in his career. A matter-of-fact prose style with a lot of irony thrown in helped make him immensely popular, and that popularity persists to date.

At seventy, he is prolific as ever – supplementing regular columns in several magazines with the occasional work of fiction. If you allude about his popularity to Sujatha, he will bristle. He is convinced that the whole popular tag is a conspiracy to belittle his literary achievements, and says as much in his introduction to “Sujatha’s Selected Short Stories”, a two-volume collection of a hundred and something of his best short stories.

But the truth is, after the initial creative burst that helped him break into the league of very popular writers, Sujatha stagnated; he was reduced to churning out story after story using the same formula. And I don’t blame him for it – an environment where your name guarantees instant commercial success is not really conducive to self improvement. He also alludes in the introduction to the pressures of working with deadlines affecting the quality of his stories.

The best evidence of this stagnation is this anthology – after the refreshing effect of the first few stories ennui sets in. It is not that the quality of the later works is bad – no matter where you start in the book, the repetitive nature of the stories in the anthology becomes evident after the first few stories. It’s all the same after some time: The wry first person narratives (always male, almost the author), the bold (for those days) descriptions of women, the twists at the end, the slightly macabre plots and the upper middle class setting.

This is not to say I didn’t like the book: taken one at a time, most of the stories in the anthology are competent, and a handful of them are outstanding. Sujatha’s use of irony is especially good – in one my favorite stories, a family discovers a bag filled with money at their doorstep. Scared, they want to go hand the bag over to the cops, but the husband realizes he has no money to hire an autorickshaw to go to the police station. He sends his wife off to borrow some money from the neighbors.

If the books had been whittled down to about twenty of his best stories, this would have been a collection to treasure. As it stands though, the books are a little too long, and a little too repetitive. Do buy them both, but don’t read them in one shot – take your time, and read a lot of other authors in between.

PS: I have to mention this – the production quality of the books is awesome. Uyirmai Padhippagam has done a great job – typo-free hardcovers at this price are very cool.

Cross-posted on teakada.