Thursday, August 28, 2008

New Feature: Optional Reading

As some of you may have noticed, blogging at 2x3x7 has been kind of slow lately (I'm down to just about 3 posts a week, imagine that!) and I might as well say right now that it's likely to continue that way for a while to come; if anything, it's likely to get worse.

To make this up to you, I thought I'd add a few links to the sidebar, just a random list of online lit journals that I read if not regularly than at least occasionally, and that you might enjoy as well. That way, every time you come to this blog and find I haven't put up a new post you can do something useful with your time instead of muttering under your breath about people who don't update their blogs. I realize, of course, that 20 journals featuring considerable bodies of work by some of the more interesting poets and writers working today is poor compensation for a daily dose of my inimitable genius, but hopefully it'll tide you over for a bit.

And just to get you started (if on a somewhat morbid note), I recommend, if you haven't read it yet, Fady Joudah's tribute to Darwish over at KR Online and a tribute to Lynda Hull over at Blackbird. Happy reading.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Down Under and Over the Top

Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole

I blame Rushdie. It's been nearly thirty years since Midnight's Children was first published, but the specter of the capacious, gravity-defying, say-it-all novel is still with us, and continues to lure unsuspecting young novelists to their doom. Its latest victim, it seems to me, is Steve Toltz, whose debut novel A Fraction of the Whole, tells the story of the All-Australian Dean family - brothers Martin and Terry (the former a champion misanthrope, the latter a legendary outlaw) and Martin's son Jasper - in "fist-eating, gut-wrenching, seat-edging, nail-biting, lip-pulling, chain-smoking, teeth-clenching detail". A Fraction of the Whole is in many ways a splendid and exhilarating work, but one so overwrought with cleverness, so fraught with baroque contrivances, that it fails to establish an emotional connection with the reader. James Wood would call this hysterical realism; and he would be right.

This is not, by itself, a criticism. Unlike Wood, I don't believe that every novel has to conform to some form of 'lifeness'. I'm quite willing to trade cleverness for authenticity, inventiveness for depth. Done properly, there are few things more mesmerising than truly larger-than-life fiction.

And mesmerising, for the first 200 pages or so, is exactly what Steve Toltz is. That long first section of A Fraction of the Whole is a comic tour de force: vigorous, imaginative, witty, pugnacious and bristling with kind of manic energy that keeps you glued to the page with a big grin plastered all over your face. Judged by the first 200 pages alone, A Fraction of the Whole may be one of the finest books published this year, and certainly one of the funniest.

Which is why it's a pity that Toltz doesn't stop there, but keeps going for another 330 pages, in the course of which the momentum of that glorious opening is allowed to dissipate. Oh, Toltz tries all right, and the book is still funny - there are some electrifying one-liners, some hilarious diatribes and every now and then a genuinely comic situation. But nothing that quite matches the full-throttle brilliance of those early pages. Having started off at an almost Pynchon-ian pitch, Toltz slips into a mode that is half Martin Amis and half Peter Carey - without either the former's sharpness or the latter's gift for character development.

Much of the problem, I suspect, is that having told us all there really is to know about Martin Dean (who is the book's undeniable epicenter) in the first section, Toltz is left with very little to add; so that the rest of the novel becomes a set of repetitive variations on a familiar and, by the end, hackneyed theme. So successfully has Toltz brought Martin Dean to life, so swiftly has he added nuance and depth to this unforgettable character, that we come to know him a little too well, and when no further revelations are forthcoming, Dean Sr., whose only real charm is his ability to shock, quickly turns into something of a boor. And because no other character in the book is half as fascinating as Martin Dean is, he takes the rest of the book down with him.

In part, this is deliberate: the central point of Toltz's novel is that for all his smarter-than-thou intellectualizing Martin will end up a bitter, frightened and deeply frustrated man. But because Martin Dean is too outrageous a figure to merit any emotional investment on our part, his eventual fall from grace inspires not sympathy but disappointment. And the fact that Toltz keeps the story going long after it has lost all dramatic interest - the last section in particular is a terrible miscalculation - only makes this worse. By the time the book finally ends that brilliant starting seems a distant memory, as though from a different book.

All of that said, A Fraction of the Whole is a rambunctious, scathingly funny book that, despite its considerable length, is well worth the read. Even at his most uninspired Toltz is never really dull, and the sheer ambition of what he sets out to do here is admirable, even if his achievement falls a little short of his aspiration. If this book is anything to go by we're going to be hearing more about Toltz in the years to come, and I, for one, look forward to that.

[Part of the 2008 Booker Mela]

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No man is an almost

The new issue of Almost Island is out, and features, among other things, this lovely piece by Forrest Gander, some delightful new poems by W.N. Herbert and translations of Joy Goswami's work along with the originals. Go read.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Window Dressing

Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs

Many years ago, as an impressionable young boy just discovering Oscar Wilde, I went through a phase of trying to come up with bon mots - witty yet wise one-liners that I fondly imagined future generations would quote at each other. The fruits of this Rochefoucaldian labor, needless to say, were uniformally ghastly, and included, among other horrors, the following observation: "All clothes are revealing; they reveal who we are". Even to my relatively uncritical twelve year old mind this was a cliche, so much so that I mercifully decided not to share it with another living soul (well, until now).

Linda Grant, it seems, has no such compunctions. Not only does she seem to feel that the idea that the clothes we wear express and shape our identity is a startling new insight (imagine that! the clothes you wear are reflective of who you are! who would have thought it?), but so enamored is she by the thought that she makes it the central motif of her new novel, repeatedly hammering home the point with an avidity that would cut through the thickest of crania. The result is a banal, pointless book that takes a set of stock characters, clothes them in the flimsiest of plots and then pretends that the result is haute couture, when it's really little more than drab pret-a-porter.

Set in London in the 70's (amid the growing popularity of the right-wing National Front) with sidetrips to Nazi Europe, The Clothes on Their Backs is the story, told in flashback (isn't everything these days?) of Vivien Kovaks, a young girl born to immigrant parents, who finds herself caught between the cloistered life of her parents, who fled to England from Hungary just before World War II and have lived fearfully in their adopted country ever since, and the larger-than-life presence of her Uncle Sandor, a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to England in the mid-50s only to become a slumlord and a pimp, and whose flamboyance Vivien finds herself drawn to both because it represents a way of being acutely alive and because it gives her the chance to connect to her family history, a history her parents have kept assiduously hidden from her.

By itself, this is a not unpromising if somewhat hackneyed plot (I found myself thinking, for instance, in my long stretches of being bored by the book, what a fine job someone like Roth would have done with a character like Sandor Kovacs). The trouble is, that's pretty much all there is to the book. That little one paragraph outline is more or less the sum of what the book has to offer. Oh, there are a few additional details of course, a handful of perfunctory characters, a few dabs at plot development, if an accumulation of wildly improbable and arbitrary coincidences can be given that name, but on the whole Grant doesn't so much deepen the story as extend it. True to her central idea of surface appearance being all, Grant's characters never take on the authentic feel of flesh and blood and remain mere mannequins, artfully arranged in deliberate poses to represent the different attitudes and idealogies she wants them to. Indeed, there are points in the story when Grant almost seems to rely on the generic nature of her plot. Rather than describe Sandor's experiences during the War in any real detail, for instance, she gives us only a sketchy outline and falls back on the easy shorthand of tagging him a Holocaust survivor. The result is an underdeveloped book that has virtually no emotional impact and that feels, if not quite formulaic than at least mathematical - a sort of writing by numbers, all the pieces fitting together in a neat but uninspired way.

To be fair, every now and then Grant does exert herself a little, adding a handful of colorful scenes and side stories (a dance lesson, a side-character's half gypsy parentage) to make the novel a little more interesting. These interjections seem unmotivated and unnecessary, though, and while they do little to relieve the tedium of the main story, they make the plot seem even more bizarre by adding a number of peculiar side-stories to a narrative already too weighed down by improbable coincidence. There are moments when The Clothes on Their Backs is genuinely engaging - most notably, to my mind, when Grant describes the sub-culture of 'vintage' clothing and the rituals involved in searching for it - but these are mere flickers in an otherwise stale and unoriginal book.

Overall, The Clothes on Their Backs is not so much a bad book as a trivial one - a novel with so little to offer the reader that it doesn't justify even the three to four hours it takes to read.

[Part of the 2008 Booker Prize Mela]

Sunday afternoon, 4 pm

At the statue opposite the library the line of people waiting for a photograph is four families deep. Cameras are exchanged with a minimum of solicitude, 'just press this button' being the order of the day. Reluctant teenagers are prodded into posing on the steps of the statue by their proud parents; they stand there self-conscious, afraid of being seen. Sometimes their parents join them, which makes them relax a little, perhaps because they feel camouflaged in the midst of their family, perhaps because the presence of their parents in the photograph means that posterity will know this was not their idea.

After the families leave, a squirrel climbs up to the top of the base, crouches at the statue's feet and nibbles away at a morsel, supremely unaware of being watched. Above it, Ben Franklin clutches the arms of his chair, trying to decide whether to scowl or look aloof.

Long lozenges of light melt on the summer lawn. A church bell intones the hour, a baritone rehearsing his notes. In the silence that follows, the rustling of leaves in the wind sounds like distant applause, as though the trees were praising the sky for its blue.

By the flight of steps that lead out of the park, a trio of long-haired teenagers is clattering back and forth on skateboards, practicing the geometry of defiance. They are ignored by the great halls of the University, which have learned to hold their peace.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Shelf Life

So it's been exactly one year since I started putting the books I read up on Shelfari, and it seems that in that time I've read 166 books. Which works out to almost a book every two days. And that's not counting books I've started to read but given up on, lit journals, old favorites I've reread, the books I've forgotten to add to Shelfari, and the books I'm currently reading (there are six of them - including The Lost Dog and The Clothes on their Backs from the Booker longlist, Stanley Plumly's Posthumous Keats, Roberto Bolano's incredible Nazi Literature in the Americas, Marjorie Welish's delightful Isle of the Signatories and Raymond Queneau's Between Blue and Blue). And obviously it's not counting books I've read for my research.

And here I was thinking I don't read enough any more.

Of course, keep in mind that the vast majority of these books are slim 60-70 page volumes of poetry, so 166 books isn't as much as it sounds. Still, I have to admit I'm surprised the number is that high.

On the flip side, I was trying to go over the list of books I'd read and realized that there are about a third that I already have no memory of reading. Sigh.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Two minutes with Joyce and Dostoevsky

Via the New Yorker's Book Bench, I came across this article on a San Fran writer's conference by someone called BS Prakash (the initials are prophetic) who claims to be India's ambassador to Brazil - an article so cringe-inducing it makes you wonder what the good folks at the Book Bench were doing surfing Rediff, of all godforsaken corners of the Internet.

I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Prakash's excessive use of cultural stereotypes (xenophobia is the term the Book Bench uses, which is harsh, but not inaccurate), the quaintness of his 'discoveries' (they actually try to teach writing! imagine that!) or just the overall fuddy-duddiness of his point of view. Nor am I going to comment on the irony of bemoaning the 'American' obsession with publication when the last decade has seen a virtually unchecked proliferation of writers on the Indian publishing scene, the vast majority of whom could frankly do with some lessons in basic writing. And as for Mr. Prakash's chances of ever producing great literature - let's not even go there.

No, what I'm going to focus on, for the moment is the following claim:

You are told that your first chapter, first page, first sentence should be such so as to captivate the reader in two minutes. That is the test. It is another matter that Dostoevsky or James Joyce would have flunked this test and would never have got published
Would Joyce and / or Dostoevsky really have failed this test? I don't know about you, but I would certainly want to keep reading a book if it opened like this:

"Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face."

or like this:

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

or this, for that matter:

"I am a sick man...I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man."

and if you think about it, it's hard to imagine a book more amenable to a two-minute pitch than Ulysses:

Q: So, young man, what's your book about?

A: Well, it's an epic of the everyday: a re-imagining of the Odyssey in which I use the central themes and motifs from Homer's work to tell the story of an ordinary Dublin day from a cross-section of perspectives, using internal monologues and stream-of-consciousness techniques to explore the thoughts, perceptions and memories of ordinary people. The overall structure of the book emulates that of the Odyssey, but every chapter is an exercise in a distinctive style or form - so for instance, one chapter parodies romance novels, another uses a question-and-answer form, a third is written as a play.

See what I mean?

Or, for that matter, how's this for an engaging one-line summary:

My novel tells the story of a young man who murders an elderly moneylender and is then terrified that he won't be punished for his crime, because this would imply that there really is no God.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


"You stupid bastard!"

"I know."

"You stupid, stupid bastard!"

"I know."

"Just how drunk were you?"

"I don't know. Enough."


"Look, it was a mistake okay? I didn't mean for it to happen."

"Yes, well that's besides the point now, isn't it?"

"I guess."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I don't know. I was thinking maybe I'd go away for a bit."

"Running away won't solve anything."

"It might."

"It won't."

"Yes, well, at least it's something to do."

"I guess."

"So where are you going to go then?"

"I don't know. Somewhere."

"Got any money?"


"You're sure?"

"Ya, I'm okay."

"Well, goodbye then."

"Look, I just wanted to say..."

"Forget it."

"I just wanted you to know..."

"Forget it. Just go."

"...that I'm sorry"

"Just go."

"Right. Goodbye then."


"I'll be seeing you."

"No, you won't."

"Oh, right. Well, bye then."


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Godawful Poetry # 1

Zigzackly informs me that today marks the beginning of the godawful poetry fortnight, so I thought I'd do my bit:

Night Song

Now the moon, like a smallpox victim,
hides his pitted face,
afraid that the sun may evict him
from his nightly dwelling place.

While the sad and unplucked roses
dream in slow perfumes
and rehearse the unconscious poses
of Death in living rooms.

And a little mouse squeaks like a gate
someone has forgotten to oil;
squeaks of Love and Loss and Fate
and Blood and Sweat and Toil.

P.S. Zigzackly also points to a Flash Fiction contest, one that is, alas, only open to those residing in India.

Friday, August 08, 2008

So much for stereotypes

Over at India Uncut, Amit points to a program that uses your browser cache to assess whether you're male or female.

My score: Probability of being female: 84%. Probability of being male: 16%.


Monday, August 04, 2008

The Last Straw

The pain is excruciating. The muscles in his back ache with exhaustion, his flanks are sore with blisters, and his legs tremble as though about to give way. Bent under the weight of the sacks he cannot lift his hooves, but shuffles forward as though his feet were chained together.

Lord! will this suffering never end?

Yesterday, what a chance! An apprentice was loading him, the new one, and he almost overdid it, almost broke his back. He quivered in anticipation, feeling load pile on load, knowing death was a few handfuls away, craving its release. One more straw would have done it!

Then the foreman came and stopped the boy, cuffed him on the ear, told him to be more careful.

And to think he was so close.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Master of Go

Over at the Guardian, Mark Lawson has a fun, if somewhat rambling article about sport in books. He even manages to include Roth's Great American Novel, which I was hoping he'd miss so I could do my book snob thing and gloat about the omission.

The book he does miss, and which remains one of the most compelling descriptions of sport I've ever read is Kawabata's Master of Go. It's incredible how vividly Kawabata brings the game of Go to life, even to someone who knows nothing about the sport, how he makes you see the different styles of the two players, makes you feel the palpable tension in the room. It is a testament to the exquisite skill of this subtlest of masters that in his hands the game remains a gripping spectacle even as it transcends its board to become a meditation on the face-off between generations and world-views, between grace and energy, tradition and innovation.