Friday, August 31, 2007

Ho Hum

Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl

[some spoilers]

Given the hype and prestige surrounding the Booker Prize, I suppose it's only inevitable that we should see the advent of the Booker Prize Book. Not a book that wins the prize, you understand, but a book that seems to have been written for the prize, just as some movies seem made for the Oscars. You know the type - usually set in or around World War II and featuring a bleak countryside, a family (often missing at least one parent) scratching out a barren existence on a farm, a general air of sexual frustration, a main protagonist dreaming of escape from his / her small town existence, a colorful cast of villagers, some form of sexual assault or entanglement, guilt, shame, nationalism and / or faith, an unlikely friendship / love affair, partial redemption, epiphany, a sense of loss.

Don't get me wrong. Some of the finest novels of the last fifty years have been written around precisely these themes. Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl, however, reads like nothing so much as a haphazard amalgam of these stock elements, welded together with considerable skill but very little inspiration, to create a novel that is not so much bad as plain dull. It feels unfair to use the word formulaic for a book so painstakingly written, so rich in prose, but it's the word that, reading the novel, comes most often to mind.

Set around the time of the Normandy invasion, The Welsh Girl weaves together three different stories (it would, wouldn't it), each with its central protagonist. There's Esther, the girl of the title, a nineteen year old growing up on her father's sheep farm in a remote part of Wales, who is raped by an English serviceman, gets pregnant (surprise! surprise!) and spends the bulk of the novel not so much suffering as just being generally confused. There's Karsten, a German soldier captured on D-Day and held captive in a POW camp next door to Esther's farm, who not only speaks fluent English, but is also generous, good-hearted, noble, sensitive, skilled with his hands, kind to children, tall and very blonde - the perfect candidate, in short, to provide a love interest for Esther. Karsten's great torment is that he surrendered to the Allies when he saw that he had no chance against them, a fact that causes the other POWs to deride him, and leaves him with an abiding sense of inadequacy and guilt. This, conveniently enough, provides the perfect dramatic opening for some transparent meditations on the code of male honor (a theme that blends nicely with the subtext of Welsh nationalism that runs through the book).

Finally, there's Rotherham, an expatriate German now serving with British Intelligence, who has never considered himself a Jew (his mother is not Jewish), but is forced to flee Germany because he is branded one by the Nazis. When the book opens, Rotherham is ostensibly interrogating Rudolph Hess to ascertain whether the former Nazi second in command is indeed sane - a task for which his only qualification seems to be that he speaks German. In fact, however, he spends his time snapping at anyone who calls him a Jew and then falling into a spiral of misery and self-doubt. The man's a walking identity crisis. And his entire story is easily the worst part of the book, a pointless, ridiculous addition that serves little purpose except to allow Davies to put in the obligatory Holocaust references and add more pathos to what is already a cliched and overdone book.

In fairness, Davies does have talent - the secondary characters, sketched for us in a page or two, have a warmth and a solidity that his main protagonists never achieve, and the writing throughout is extremely good, with the atmosphere of the Welsh countryside in those troubled, war-ravaged days evoked with great skill. It's just that the plot of the book is bathetic and predictable, rife with illogic and easy coincidence, and the main characters never really win our sympathy because their trite lives seem to come straight from a story by Daphne du Maurier or Colleen McCullough. The end result is something that reads like an edgier, angrier adaptation of Mrs. Minniver. To Davies' credit, he does try to compensate for the soppy excesses of the novel by throwing in a few surprises at the end, but the stern, aching realism of the last chapter can't compensate for all the stock sentimentality that precedes it, and only serves to underline the futility and ordinariness of the book as a whole.

Overall, The Welsh Girl is a tedious, plodding book, more sentimental than moving,
that you should read only if you're deeply passionate about Wales, or if you're trying to wean yourself off Danielle Steele and read more 'literature'.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-posted on Momus]

P.S. I'm off on another of my long weekend road trips today - this time to the deserts of New Mexico. Will be back in 5 days or so. Regular blogging resumes Thursday, September 6th.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Problem with Woody Allen

Just discovered this one, and couldn't resist posting it. Enjoy:

The Problem with Woody Allen

(even before Soon Yi)
is that he breaks up with people
like Mariel Hemingway (in Manhattan)
and Diane Keaton (in Annie Hall)
without so much a joke about his scrawny body,
those parody glasses, his sallow skin.
My friend Rhonda said (about Deconstructing Harry)
"Elisabeth Shue should get an Oscar
for making out with Woody Allen
and not throwing up!" At least
Elisabeth gets to dump him, but still -
why does Woody Allen's character cheat
on Judy Davis? I see what he was trying to do
in Celebrity, projecting his male fantasies
through Kenneth Branagh, who's a little easier
to look at. But would Melanie Griffith really give
Kenneth Branagh / Woody Allen a blow job?
I understand if she wants to get a part in the movie
Celebrity, but she's already in it, playing a famous actress,
and Kenneth Branagh is supposed to be
a lowly journalist, so, frankly, it doesn't make sense.
Even Winona Ryder, playing a struggling actress,
falling for Branagh is a stretch.
Wasn't she just going out with Matt Damon
in real life?

So when I stumble upon
Allen's latest film treatment - he's starring in his films again
he just can't help it - I feel compelled to write to him
about my concerns:

Dear Mr. Allen, I'm afraid
this time you're really going to embarrass yourself.
A nursing home patient (you) getting sexual gratification
from a student nurse (Gwyneth Paltrow)? I admit
the premise sounds fun, even madcap - Gwyneth
loves you so much that when you beg her
she sneaks you out of Palm Springs's Golden Gables
and takes you cross-country, popping open your cans
of Ensure and playing her "young people" music
while you kvetch and cover your ears.
The fish-out-of-water element is intriguing -
you hyperventilating as Gwyneth forces you to peer
over the Grand Canyon. You reading the ingredients
of Gwyneth's Pepsi One can with a magnifying glass.
But would you really leave Gwyneth
when you meet up with neurotic Drew Barrymore,
a displaced New Yorker teaching philosophy
in North Dakota? Would Drew really be visiting
the Lawrence Welk Museum when you walk in
(because Gwyneth drops you off there
so she can go mall shopping in peace)?
Would Drew really let you move in
immediately, after that first kiss
behind Welk's favorite accordion? Would you really
leave your oxygen tank behind in Gwyneth's trunk?
Would Gwyneth in a rage really flush all your prescriptions?
Would Drew risk everything for you, even her tenure?
Would you (as a runaway nursing home patient) really
be able to balance on the back of Drew's Harley
all the way from Grand Forks to the Upper East Side?

- Denise Duhamel

Note Autobiographical

Every time he speaks of himself you sense something missing, something not quite true. It's not that you doubt his sincerity - on the contrary, you know he's making every effort to be entirely forthright - it's just that you recognize that the self looks different viewed from inside. It's as though by putting himself in the spotlight he had blinded himself to his own shadow, to the audience of alternate personae watching from the wings. He tells you, honestly and in great detail, what he sees, but all the while what you really want to know is what's lurking there, behind his mind.

It's like the difference between the image of yourself you carry with you and your face in a photograph.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Letter*

She couldn't believe it. For the third time since she'd opened it she stared at the blank sheet of paper in her hand, confirming once again that there was nothing written on it. Not even a watermark when you held it up to the light. And nothing else inside the envelope either. And this was what she was supposed to have waited two days to open?

What was it supposed to mean? Was it a mistake? Had he put a blank sheet of paper into the envelope by accident? Or was it some kind of schoolboy trick - a puzzle of some sort? Or did he mean it, was he trying to tell her something? Was he trying to say that he had no feelings for her, that she'd meant nothing to him at all - a void, a blank page? Or was it supposed to mean the opposite - that some feelings were too precious, too paper-thin to be put into words. "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence." That kind of thing. Or maybe that his going away meant that they were turning over a new leaf, starting anew?

No. Too simple, too obvious. Knowing him it probably meant something more complicated, more symbolic. Like giving her a letter was a gesture it was important to make, but leaving it blank represented the inevitable emptiness of all gestures. Something like that.

God! it was so annoying! He was always doing this, always intellectualizing the simplest things way out of proportion. He was going away, she wasn't going to see him for at least a year, if not longer. Would it have killed him to write a proper, ordinary letter, with ordinary words like love and parting and "I'll miss you". Even something as cheesy as "We'll always have Hyderabad" would have done. But no, he had to be a smart alec about it.

She could see it all so clearly now. It was a trap. He was expecting her to react this way - to be puzzled, frustrated, indignant. He wanted her to call him and ask what the hell it was supposed to mean. That way she would be the one reaching out. And then, when she did confront him, he would probably turn it back on her. Say "What do you think it means?" in that infuriating way of his. Say "It's not important what I meant, it's supposed to mean whatever you think it means. It's like a mirror, only for thought." And then he'd grin at her and listen with amusement as she proceeded to get mad.

Well, fuck him. She wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. Not this time. No sir. This time she was going to damn well hold her own. Let him wait for her to ask him. She wouldn't say anything. She would show no curiosity about it all. She wouldn't even mention it. If he asked her what she thought of the letter she would tell him she agreed. That'd fix him.

But wait. What if it really was a mistake? What if he'd really written her a moving, heartfelt letter (he was capable of that, she knew, he could write beautifully when he wanted to) and then put in a blank sheet of paper by mistake? What if he'd written her a poem? He'd think she'd read it and chosen to ignore it. He'd be heartbroken. He'd hate her. Or what if she said she agreed and he'd said something, proposed something. No, no, he wouldn't do that. But still, she couldn't take the risk, could she?

Shit. What to do now? Confronting him with the blank page while he was still here was impossible. She wasn't supposed to have opened the letter for two days yet. She couldn't afford to give him that kind of moral high ground. Why did she open the letter early anyway? If only she'd waited.

But wait, wait. What if she'd lost the letter? Without reading it? It could happen, couldn't it? But wouldn't that make it seem like she was treating the whole thing casually, that she hadn't cared about what he had to say? Hmmm. Okay, but what if, what if, her purse had got stolen on the way back from the cafe? That would be okay, wouldn't it? I mean, it wouldn't be like she was being careless with the letter per se. She'd have to get rid of the purse, of course, but... no wait, she wouldn't even have to do that. He was going away in two days, after all. She could just use her other purse till then. And besides, he was a guy. All purses look the same to them.

Okay, good. So she'd tell him her purse had got stolen and that she'd lost the letter. And she'd ask him for a copy. Or to tell her what it said. That way if he was trying to play a trick on her she'd turn the tables on him, and if it really was a mistake then she'd find out what the real letter was supposed to say. What a brainwave! She reached for the phone.

"Hi! It's me...Listen, you won't believe what happened to me on the way back home....My purse got stolen...No, really...I was just walking along and this guy came out of nowhere and just snatched it and ran...Yes, of course I reported it to the police. I've just got back from there. They don't think there's any hope of recovering it though...What?...No, no, not much money. My credit cards though, but I canceled those....What's that?...My cell phone? Oh,, no I still have was in my hand when the guy snatched my purse... Ya, I was trying to call my sister... Ya, I know, lucky huh? Ha! Ha!, so anyway, the reason I'm calling is that my purse also had the letter you gave me. You know, the one I wasn't supposed to open till you left.... Well, it's gone now... Ya, I know... I don't suppose you have a copy?... No, I thought not. listen, why don't you just tell me what it said? On the phone. I mean why wait, right. What's with all the secrecy? We're friends aren't we?...What?... No, but it's important to me... It does matter...No, come on, you wrote a letter about it, it must have been something. Why not just tell me?...No, that's okay... What's that?... Oh, oh, yes, of course...No, no, I understand. You must be really busy packing and all....I can imagine...So okay then... Do I get to see you again before you leave?... Oh, okay.... No, that's fine, let me know.... Have fun packing. Take care. And listen, stay in touch won't you?... Ya, okay....Oh, no big deal, I have too many of the damn things anyway...Ya, totally....Okay then....Bye."

Shit! He sounded so upset about it. Like he'd actually said something important in the letter. And he's not going to tell her what it was. He's going to go away in two days and never tell her what it was. Oh shit! shit! shit!

*In response to this.

Philosophers of the Imagination

Shelley was wrong though. Poets aren't the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They are its unacknowledged philosophers. For if philosophy is the pursuit of truth, then it must be said that there are two kinds of truth - the truth of reason and the truth of imagination. And who pursues that latter truth more avidly than the poets?

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" Wittgenstein tells us. But how do we know what we can speak of until we try? Language is not a container, it is a possibility - a possibility bounded by silence - and poetry helps us to push the envelope of that possibility a little further, helps us to claim more of the unspoken for our own. If we cannot speak of something the answer is not silence, but a search for the right words to say it.

A great poem may not always be logical, but it is always wise, if only with the wisdom of beauty. And isn't wisdom, and not logic, what Philosophy is really after?

Besides, poetry is so much more fun.


Meanwhile, the New York Times informs me that mtvU has signed up John Ashbery to be their poet laureate, in a bid to popularize poetry among college students. Imagine that - Ashbery on MTV! And this so soon after Faulkner and McCarthy have become staples of the Oprah Book Club. Can it be that mainstream culture is actually developing taste? Does this mean I have to revisit all my assumptions about popular entertainment? Can I no longer define myself in terms of my snobbish contempt for all things bestselling? Aargh! Severe identity meltdown approaching!

Seriously, though, while I totally applaud the idea of trying to get more people into poetry, and can think of few people who deserve the honor of representing the form more than Ashbery, I can't help wondering if he was the best pick for the job. Don't get me wrong - I really like the man - but isn't he a tad inaccessible to serve as an introduction to poetry for newcomers? I'm having a hard time imagining that some clueless undergrad will read, say, 'Daffy Duck in Hollywood' or 'For John Clare' and suddenly burn with enthusiasm for modern poetry. Ah, well. Just as long as they don't start a trend for Poem Videos. I have a vision of a model in an impracticably short skirt wandering dreamily about a New England landscape, while Mary Oliver reads in the background. Shudder!

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Was reading Adam Kirsch's piece on Shelley in the New Yorker the other day, and figured I would add my two-cents worth.

It's not that I disagree with Kirsch exactly. It's just that trying to apprehend so passionate, so instinctive, so almost visceral a poet as Shelley through the lens of reason strikes me as somewhat wrong-headed. It's like criticizing the rationality of Jimi Hendrix songs. Shelley is not, no matter what he himself may claim, a great thinker. He is a creature of urge and will, a poet of unpremeditated imagination, and his poems are valuable because they represent, like no others, the glory of pure force. We do not expect the powers of nature to answer to calculation or consequence, and we must not demand this of Shelley, if we are to appreciate his gift.

Kirsch calls Shelley a Manichaeist, but to my mind he is something finer, more innocent - it is not so much that he considers himself above consequence as that he accepts consequence unconsidered. It is instructive, I think, to remember (as Kirsch reminds us) that Shelley dreams of being incarnate as the "wild west wind", a wind that is both "Destroyer and Preserver". We do not ask that the wind be just, or claim that its actions are right, but we recognize that for the wind to show more discernment would compromise forever its essential force, and we bow to the necessity of the destruction this implies. "How couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes" Nietzsche writes, describing the way of the 'creating one'. More than half a century before Also Sprach Zarathustra, Shelley already understood, and lived, its ideal.

You can argue, of course, that this is not how Shelley saw himself ("poets are the unacknowledged legislators", etc. etc.), but just because he took himself seriously as a political thinker and philosopher is no reason for us to do so. Since when do we allow our literary heroes the luxury of defining the terms on which we engage them? And is a writer as instinctive as Shelley likely to be a reliable guide to his own meaning, his own value? Can the Superman ever be conscious of being the Superman?

Kirsch cites Matthew Arnold as criticizing Shelley for his "utter deficiency in humor" (a criticism, by the way, which seems hilarious coming from Arnold) and goes on to say that Shelley "could not step outside himself and look impartially at his own weaknesses, limitations and failures". This is true, but isn't a lack of self awareness, a fundamental inability to see oneself as ridiculous, the very essence of the Romantic? Could Shelley really have been half the poet he is if he had allowed himself to see the absurdity of his position, the impracticability of his dreams? "Lift not the painted veil that those who live call life" Shelley admonishes us, and can we fault him for this creed even as we admire the majesty and vision of the work it made possible?

Yes, Shelley is naive [1]. Yes, his fanciful flights in the face of the impossible represent a kind of arrogance. But what poet, in his most secret heart, does not share this dream of power, this dream that, despite what Auden has told us and what we know ourselves to be true, our words will make something happen, will be "to the unawakened earth, the trumpet of a prophecy"? Is it even possible to write without such belief? And if believing this, and having the audacity to say it out aloud, makes Shelley arrogant and naive then it is an arrogance and a naivete we all share.
Kirsch's argument, it seems to me, is based on a misapprehension that is perhaps best captured in his describing Shelley as "a man who believes he is an angel". But it is not clear to me that Shelley did believe that he was an angel, at least not in anything other than a Blake-ian sense. The right word, I suspect, would be spirit, or, to borrow from Milosz, daimonion. In 'Ars Poetica?', Milosz writes:

"...poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it's an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It's hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they're put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons"
This is the essence of Shelley's 'psychic' nature, his unreasonableness, his connection to primeval sources of energy and imagination that are neither angelic nor demonic, but simply a kind of life force. Graves, in the White Goddess, argues that a true poem is an invocation of "the ancient power of fright and lust", and it is surely these very powers that Shelley senses speaking through him [2].

It is time, I think, that we put to rest the name of Ariel, so often invoked when we speak of Shelley. The fault for this is chiefly Shelley's own, since it is a nickname he used in speaking of himself in his poems to Jane Williams, though the fact that it was also the name of the boat he drowned in, and its use by Maurois as the title of his quasi-biography may have cemented the damage.

I say damage because it's always seemed to me that the more apt figure for Shelley is his beloved Prometheus. Because Shelley is, truly, a rebel, a bringer of fire, a poet of "sparks and ashes": you have only to read his poetry to feel the passion blazing from every page. Sometimes it flickers, sometimes it burns with a melancholy glow, sometimes it rages out of control and makes us blanch, and sometimes - at its very best- it roars clear and triumphant in the magnificence of its tongues. But however it burns, it is the raw material of poetry at its most unadulterated, and if we continue to be both embarrassed and astounded by Shelley's gift, it is in the hope that some spark of that true fire may find its way into the dry kindling of our own words.


[1] Actually, I'm not so sure of this - his poems project a naive idealism, but how much of this is genuine misguidedness and how much of it is a willing suspension of knowledge in the interest of the message? Certainly there is enough melancholy in Shelley's poems to suggest that he didn't see the world as being particularly rosy. Couldn't one argue that the very high-handedness with which Shelley repeatedly evokes the triumph of life and liberty is proof of his knowledge that these visions of his were mere fantasy, impossible to achieve in the real world, and therefore all the more important to cling to in poetry, with the stubbornness of an adolescent who denies his own disillusion?

[2] Speaking of the Romantics, Graves writes: "The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny".

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Get a Life

A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon a couple of articles (via e-mail from N.) about a bunch of scientists who are apparently trying to recreate life from scratch. Why anyone would want to restart a process that's already been running for millions of years and has so far given us Dick Cheney and Britney Spears I don't know, but there it is. Apparently they hope to be done with the project in about 10 years, after which they plan to rediscover fire and, if all goes well, reinvent the wheel.

The big problem, it seems, is defining what exactly constitutes life. Think about it. Are computers alive? Are robots? Are the hills really alive with the sound of music? Is Nicole Kidman alive? These are tough questions, and I empathize. I face a similar existential dilemma every time I try cooking chinese food (I mean, really, when is it chow mein and when is it just noodles?). And yet obviously it's critical to get this right. You wouldn't want to go around claiming you'd invented life when all you'd really invented was leftovers.

The other issue, of course, is whether all this Frankensteinian meddling isn't eventually going to get us all in trouble. Not to worry, says Mark Bedau:

“When these things are created, they’re going to be so weak, it’ll be a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab,” he said. “But them getting out and taking over, never in our imagination could this happen.”
Somehow I don't find this particularly comforting. First, this is the imagination of a bunch of microbiologists we're talking about - not people known for their ability to see the big picture. Second, I can't help feeling that Dr. Bedau is exaggerating the amount of intelligence required to 'take over'. I mean, we live in a world where George W. Bush is the most powerful man on Earth. How hard could it be to develop a basic unicellular organism that could be the Republican Presidential Candidate in, say, 2016? Third, I'm not sure why their ability to 'take over' matters - surely it's enough if they get out, wipe out the human race, and then die. I don't see the fact that the post-human world will be ruled by dolphins and not by some artificially engineered killer virus being of much solace to anyone.

Mostly though, it's just that that line is such a classic 'Famous Last Words' statement. If you've ever seen any sci-fi horror film you know that this is exactly the kind of thing that a gray-haired but otherwise unnaturally good-looking guy in a white coat says, just before he gets eaten by spiders / bitten in two by a T. Rex / absorbed by a green sludge like substance / left writhing on the floor with foam coming from his mouth and his face breaking out in bad makeup. If Dr. Bedau hadn't made that statement there was still a chance that the project would have turned out okay. Now it's just a matter of time before the entire human race is reduced to an African-American rap artist, a geek from MIT, a stripper with one-leg and a heart of gold, a snooty investment banker and his hysterical wife, and five random extras who won't last the night, all trapped in a shopping complex, trying to fight off the Evil Thing with bic lighters and a fire extinguisher. So it goes.

P.S. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for scientific research. I'm just jealous. The most damage I could ever hope to do with my research is cause a couple of companies to go under because they believed me. Nowhere near as satisfying as knowing that you could wipe out life on the planet.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Off the shore at Bhimli
the water is bluer than sobbed electricity

and the wind turns, startled,
smoothing its seagull skirts.

Sitting on the beach, the fishermen
untangle the nets of their stories,

speak of lovers drowned, long ago,
in a storm - their bodies,

when they were found, folded together,
like a seashell embracing

its own private death.
Someone has set his ruined bed

afloat on the sea,
made loneliness an offering,

set white sheets swelling
on a dark unrest.

As the sun goes down, I linger
in a cemetery of Dutch sailors

their graves like upturned hulls
waiting for the tide.

Note: The fishing village of Bhimli is located about 20 kms North of Vizag along the Andhra coast.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Report

Sometimes I feel as though I spend all my time writing a report on something I have no knowledge of.

To be honest, I don't even know what the report is about. Or what it's supposed to be about. Or who's supposed to read it.

I only know that it needs to be written, so I keep turning it in, a page a day, each typed sheet added to the earlier ones, filed away in a three-ring folder that I still haven't found a label for. I've been doing this for as long as I remember.

The pages have continuity from day to day, I think, and each individual page seems coherent, but over time the structure breaks down. It's hard keeping a report of this magnitude on track when you're putting it together over a long period of time and you keep finding new things to write about. So chapters overlap, themes peter out, the style changes, the facts contradict each other. The whole thing's a mess. Some days I think I'm making progress. Other days I'm not sure what progress would look like.

When I was younger, when I'd just started, I used to think: just wait. In a little while the whole thing will become clear. I had dreams of writing a proper executive summary, parsing the report down to its essence, lucidly stating the key message, the two or three important ideas, so that people would want to read on.

This seems unlikely now. How can I summarize something when I don't understand it myself? When I can barely remember what it says a hundred pages ago? Sometimes I flip through the report at random, opening this page or that, trying to find a theme, a central thesis. But there's nothing.

I can't reread the whole thing now - it would take too long. And besides, I have to keep writing.

I suppose in the end I will write some kind of summary. Even if the report isn't quite finished. Even if I never find out what it was meant to say. I'll write down something - whatever I remember, whatever comes into my head, whatever I'm focussed on then - and it'll have to do.

Or maybe they'll get someone else to write it, someone with more aptitude, and he or she will read a bit here, a bit there, and make of it what he or she can.

(And who's to say he or she will be wrong?)

Because it doesn't really matter, does it? No one's going to read this report. It's just going to be put away on a high shelf and left there to gather dust. Even if someone does take it down all they're going to read is the executive summary; they'll form their opinion of the report and learn what there is to learn from those few paragraphs. They certainly won't bother to read the rest, won't check whether it's an accurate summary. They'll take it at face value. They'll be satisfied.

And they'll never know, anymore than I do now, what it was really about.

P.S. Yes, I'm working on my dissertation. How can you tell?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

David Lehman

Feeling a little too lazy to write a proper post, so here are a couple of delightful poems by David Lehman instead - both taken from his 2005 collection When a Woman Loves a Man. Not the most sublime poems, perhaps, but delightful, truly delightful:

The Party of Ideas

Existentialism was there, smoking on the balcony.
Inside, Descartes' Cogito held a volume of Spinoza's Ethics
in one hand and a glass of port in the other as if the difference
between them were either self-evident or non-existent.
The dictatorship of the proletariat had made eye contact
with the theory of infantile sexuality. Cardinal Newman
(The Idea of a University) chatted amiably if a bit stuffily with
the Sublime, who kept looking over his shoulder in the approved
manner of New Yorkers at parties on the lookout for someone
more important than the person they are speaking to,
only this was the party of ideas, where the idea of a republic, a democracy,
and the idea of the self-determination of nations could mingle
at the end of the day, satisfied. The idea that history repeats
itself was there. The idea that history repeats itself was there.
Logical Positivism was there, a kindly old pipe-smoking don who
asked to his rooms for sherry and said he was cautiously optimistic.
The buzz in the room was that the first refuge of the scoundrel
had begun an affair with the last infirmity of the noble mind,
which explained why neither of them was present. Art for
art's sake was there, nursing a vodka gimlet. It was clear
from a look at Utopia's face that she'd had one brandy Alexander
too many, but British empiricism looked none the worse for wear.
Everyone said so, especially American pragmatism, savoring
a new wrinkle. The Noble Savage tended bar.
The Categorical Imperative wouldn't take no for an answer.
I thought of "The Idea of Order at Key West" and took a leap of faith
opening a door hoping it led to the men's room.

Wystan Hugh Auden: A Villanelle

Why shun a nude tag?
Why stun a huge hand?
Hug a shady wet nun.

Why stand a huge Hun?
Why gash a dune nut?
Why shun a nude tag?

Guy hands u new hat,
Haw, the Sunday gun.
Hug a shady wet nun.

Why aghast, unnude?
What a gash untuned?
Why shun a nude tag?

Ashen guy dun what?
Why? Nag a shut nude.
Hug a shady wet nun.

Why daunt a snug he?
Why dun a gaunt she?
Why shade a nude tag?
Hug a shady wet nun.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Real Find

Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost

When I was nine years old a couple of friends and I formed our own detective agency and set out to solve crime. The fact that we didn't actually have a crime to solve didn't deter us; the way we saw it, there were thousands of crimes that went undetected everyday, so all we had to do was find one. That way, not only would we get the glory from actually solving the mystery, we would also get the credit for discovering the crime in the first place.

Armed with this philosophy and nurtured on a steady diet of Enid Blyton's and Three Investigators, we proceeded to scour our neighborhood for 'clues'. We searched systematically through the local rubbish dump, and were genuinely surprised to find no severed body parts. We spent hours tailing unsuspecting strangers, right up to the point when they turned suspicious. We climbed over a neighbor's wall into the one vacant house on the street, convinced that it was a den for drug-runners and / or smugglers, and proceeded to dust the windows with talcum powder in search of fingerprints. Our adventures lasted three months - by the end of which time our locality's obstinate law-abidingness coupled with growing parental concerns about what we were up to put an end to our sleuthing. In the years since, I've lost touch with my fellow detectives (to the point where I don't even remember their names) and had almost forgotten about the whole project.

Until, that is, I was reminded of it by Catherine O'Flynn's marvellous debut novel What Was Lost. Here at last is the kind of book that makes reading through the Booker long list worth it - a novel that is at once heartbreaking and hilarious, a scathing critique of our consumer society married to a bittersweet meditation on loss and regret. Part Office Space, part To Kill a Mockingbird, What Was Lost is a delicious treat of a book; one that suggests that O'Flynn is someone we're going to be reading for a long time to come.

The book opens in 1984, where ten year old Kate Meaney is busy casing the Green Oaks shopping center in search of crime. Abandoned by her mother, and with her father recently dead, Kate is an intelligent, hyper-imaginative and precocious child, who has chosen to deal with the fact of her father's death by throwing herself whole-heartedly into Falcon Investigations - a gumshoe operation in which she is aided by her loyal side-kick Mickey the Monkey. Glorious as the rest of this novel is, these first 60 pages are easily the finest part of the book, combining vast quantities of both charm and warmth. O'Flynn's description of the world as seen by Kate, and of the girl's entirely sincere yet touchingly childish attempts to be a serious detective, is rich, vibrant and delightful, effortlessly blending the innocence and insight of the ten year old mind. Consider this description of the time when Kate gets a new swivel chair for her 'office':

"It was hard to resist flying across the lino on her wheeled swivel chair, but after one afternoon spend doing little else, Kate now tried to keep a tight rein on this habit. She allowed herself ten scheduled minutes a day of chair fun, but beyond that all movement in the chair had to be purely functional. Sometimes she'd turn to get a pen from a drawer and she'd pretend not to notice that she had let the chair swing around too far - it was hard not to cheat a little like this - but in general no flagrant swivels or spins occurred outside the prescribed slot."

Anyone who's ever got a new swivel chair will recognize the guilty pleasure of wheeling and spinning about in it. And anyone who's ever been a child (and who hasn't?) can identify with the seriousness of purpose that seemed so grown-up at the time but seems comic in hindsight. So wonderful is O'Flynn's evocation of Kate here, that it may well be impossible not to love this child; even so double-dyed a curmudgeon as I could not manage it.

Yet all is not well in Meaney-ville. Under the liveliness and good humor of Kate's apparent existence lies the frightening and lonely reality that Kate's role-playing is an escape from. And the emotional power of O'Flynn's book comes from her ability to show us what lies behind the veil, to evoke both the dance of childish fantasy and the abyss that lies just beneath it. We feel for Kate not only because she is charming and intelligent, but because, adults ourselves, we can see the hurt and disillusion that lie in store for Kate, can sense the shades of the prison house closing upon her, and that knowledge fosters a deep need to protect and defend. Let this child come to no harm, we think. Please. Let this child come to no harm.

But of course she does. The second (and main) section of the book takes us to 2003, where we are devastated to learn that Kate has been missing for the last 20 years - she has been lost, and no one knows what became of her. From here onwards the action focuses on the Green Oaks shopping center, seen chiefly through the eyes of two main protagonists: Kurt, a security guard at the center who sees Kate's ghost on his video monitoring system; and Lisa, a deputy manager at a music store in the center who will become his partner in the search for this lost little girl. Yet it is really the shopping center itself that is the central character of O'Flynn's story - the shopping center and the lifestyle it represents.

Because in addition to being a touching story about a lost girl, What Was Lost is a biting critique of what I can only describe as "mall culture". Of the narrowness of horizons and choices, the suffocation of potential that modern consumer society represents. Of the way the shopping center becomes a kind of moral and intellectual sickness, sapping us of our motivation, our strength, making us dependent on a mass-market existence that we pretend to enjoy, pretend to find satisfaction in, but that is really little more than a form of stasis. George Ritzer, over at Maryland, calls this process McDonaldization [1], and it is represented here not only by the two central characters - both stuck in frustrating, dead-end jobs they find no satisfaction in but cannot find the energy to break out of - but also by a host of secondary characters, as well as anonymous voices whose testimony, interspersed with the main story, serves as a series of vignettes into the emptiness of modern suburban life. Here, then, reincarnated in the era of large-format retail, is the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote about. What has really been lost is not a ten year old girl, it is our zest for life, the wonder and vibrancy we all knew as children, the ability to imagine, to be different, the courage to dream. Kate's apparition may be a ghost, but it is what is most alive in this book. Shelley, in Adonais, writes: "Peace! Peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep / He hath awakend from the dream of life / 'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep / with phantoms an unprofitable strife....He hath outsoared the shadow of our night / Envy and calumny and hate and pain / and that unrest which men miscall delight / can touch him not and torture not again". Replace he with she, and you have the essence of this novel.

All this sounds dreadfully pedantic, I know, but the book itself is anything but. O'Flynn is never preachy, never critical. She operates through empathy, painting a flawless portrait of everyday frustration, rich with details that we can all relate to, and using this to show us the meanness and pettiness of the world that so many of us inhabit. Her gift is for veracity born out of observation. It's not only that she draws on her own experiences of working in a music store and elsewhere to give this book a note of authenticity. It's also that she has a knack for describing experiences we have all had, emotions we have all felt, situations of rage and / or anxiety that we have all been through. Here's a rant from one disgruntled employee:

"Dan burst into the staff room.

Fucking hell. It took ten fucking minutes to get down in the fucking lift because the fucking chimpy customers pressed every button and then cooed like imbeciles every time the lift stopped and - hey - wonder of wonders the door opened on yet another - yes, you guessed it - floor of the fucking shop they were in. You'd think the doors were opening onto views from the Hubble telescope.

"'Where are we?" "Is this the games floor?" "I don't know. It says four." "What's four?"

Jesus Christ! How do these people get out of their front doors?"

If you've visited one of the new malls in Gurgaon recently you know exactly what this feels like. And it's not just rants against consumers that O'Flynn provides. The book is rich in scenarios from everyday working life. There's the flurry before an inspection from headquarters, an awkward interview with an employee who's been demoted and sent to the back office, a hilarious conversation with an HR manager who discusses ladders and helicopters, and much, much more. It's rare enough for a novel to spend time describing office life. To read it rendered so accurately is a rare treat indeed. I'll give you one last extract, that brings together the acuteness of observation, the sharpness of humor and the depth of despair that run seamlessly through this book:

"She'd been staring at the words for so long, they were bled of meaning. Hobbies and Interests. What did it mean? Technically it wasn't actually a question, and it was only the two inches of white space below that would clue you into fact that the words were supposed to elicit a response. Maybe she could just write something equally ambiguous as a response: 'Good', or 'Hello', or 'Yes'. It was a conundrum. Obviously she had no hobbies and interests, she was a duty manager...and yet there were those blank two inches, as if they wanted or expected you to have a life outside of work. It was a trap, but the thing with these traps was to act as if you didn't realize it was a trap. Lisa knew that writing, for example, 'I find hobbies and interests take up valuable time that could be better spent developing top-notch merchandising skills in store' would be too obvious. She also knew that even if she had any interests, to list them honestly would be disastrous, a clear compromise of her commitment.

After twenty-three minutes of staring at the three words, she had a flash of inspiration and wrote: 'Shopping and reading magazines.' So simple. And true! They would be delighted that her life truly was that small."

I'm obviously not going to tell you how the book ends - suffice it to say that much will be found, and the discoveries (or rediscoveries) made will be both exquisite and harrowing, making for a finale that is at once triumphant and tearful. The overall plot of the novel is a little contrived, and some of the plot-twists at the end seem fairly implausible, but chances are you'll be too emotionally caught up in the story to care. That O'Flynn can put so much into a 240 page book, and not only make it all work brilliantly by itself, but also balance it, make it fit together, is a great testament to her talent. What Was Lost is a splendid, singing book because it combines hope with regret, joy with sorrow, the comic with the tragic, clever social critique with moving personal story. Never mind whether it wins the Prize or not - this is a book you simply have to read.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-Posted at Momus]

[1] I have my own issues with Ritzer's arguments, but that's a whole other post.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


You probably don't know this about me, but I suffer from an extremely rare condition I like to call psychochondria. I cannot read / learn about any form of depression, mania or other mental illness, without being convinced, from reading the symptoms, that I have it too.

For two weeks after I first read The Bell Jar I went around convinced that my natural summer holiday laziness was the first sign of an overwhelming depression that would end in my killing myself (not that I would have minded, if it had meant that I also had a third of Plath's talent). I've watched As Good As It Gets three times, and each time the similarities between me and the character played by Jack Nicholson just seem to get more uncanny (I wasn't the only person who thought this by the way - the year the film came out practically all of my friends came back and said how much that Melvin Udall guy reminded them of me). When the New York Times ran an article about Seasonal Affective Disorder I was convinced I suffered from it, until I realized that I'm depressed through most of the summer too. I suspect the truth is that I've always suspected, deep down, that there's something wrong with me, so every time I see an explanation I just naturally latch on to it.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I started to read Tim Page's piece about growing up with Asperger's Syndrome in last week's New Yorker (not, alas, available online). For a while the evidence was equivocal. Okay, so I get obsessed about things. Okay, so I tend to compensate for my complete lack of athletic ability by developing obscure interests and amassing vast amounts of arcane knowledge [1]. Okay, so I'm socially clueless and inept. But I've never had trouble concentrating on anything, even if I wasn't in the least interested in it. And I was always good at school.

Then I got to this line and experienced that terrible deja vu like feeling of having your own life described by a total stranger:

"I suffer little stage fright when it comes to public speaking or appearances on radio and television, but I continue to find unstructured participation in small social gatherings agonizing. It would be easier for me to improvise an epic poem at a sold-out Yankee Stadium than to approach an attractive stranger across the room and strike up a conversation."

Yes, exactly. Ah, well. At least now I know what's wrong with me. At least until something more plausible comes along.

UPDATE: The article's now available.

[1] In the article, Page remembers reacting to a muffed attempt at playing kickball thus:

"So?" I wanted to scream. "There are things I know; things that I can do. Can you name the duet from La Boheme that Antonio Scotti and Geraldine Farrar recorded in Camden, New Jersey, on October 6, 1909? What was the New York address of D.W. Griffith's first studio? How many books by David Graham Phillips have you read? Who was Adelaide Crapsey? I learned to play the entire Chopin Prelude in E minor in a single night!"

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Snake-Charmer Effect

What is it about the NY Times that makes perfectly rational, intelligent people produce little more than misrepresentations and grotesque caricatures when they write about India?

I've always had a reasonable amount of respect for Ramachandra Guha. I read India After Gandhi a couple of months back and thought it was interesting and insightful; not quite as objective a historical account as I might have hoped for (and to his credit, Guha acknowledges this in his introduction), but a book I would recommend to a friend.

Except then he goes and produces this piece of blithering idiocy for the NYT. Never mind the stereotyping (all Punjabi landlords are crooks who steal electricity from their tenants in order to fill their Swiss bank accounts), or the exaggeration (you have to go to America and hang out with Pakistanis if you want to meet a Muslim), and let's not even start on how Guha's idiotic paranoia, or his dreams about his Pakistani friend, are at all relevant here. What makes this piece ridiculous is the implication that the BJP and the forces of communalism get their primary support from rich Punjabi immigrants looking to overcome their insecurities about the future. Ya, right. Because Delhi has always been a stronghold of the BJP. Because all the people attacking the Babri Masjid or rioting in Gujarat were clearly fat Punjabi landlords. Because unemployment, lack of economic opportunity for young people and the feelings of insecurity and emasculation those produce are not what Hindutva is designed to channel, directing the frustration and inadequacy of upper class youth against a convenient Other - no, no, not at all! it's successful landlords with Swiss bank accounts who are really frustrated and insecure. Sheesh.

If an American journalist had lived in India for 6 months and written this I would have considered it sloppy. Coming from Guha, it is criminally obtuse. He might as well have added a paragraph about how the VHP is actually a group of unemployed fakirs who've forgotten how to do the rope trick and are taking their frustration out on innocent Muslims. Oh, wait, that must be next year's August 15th 'thought piece'.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A life in fragments

Anne Enright's The Gathering

"This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family - a whole fucking country - drowning in shame."

- Anne Enright, The Gathering

Another day, another Booker prize long list book, another novel about a family mourning for the loss of a loved one. Sigh.

This time around the deceased is one Liam Hegarty, and the person mourning him, or at least the person whose mourning we are witness to, is his younger sister Veronica. Liam, a long time alcoholic and quintessential black sheep, has drowned himself in the sea off Brighton, and his death shatters his younger sister, who has always been close to him (they are less than a year apart in age). What follows is 250 pages of fractured, hysterical narrative as Veronica tries to make sense of Liam's death and the life that preceded it. There are many things to confront here: a murky secret from their childhood together, from a time when, abandoned by their parents, they lived for a while in their grandmother's house; the myriad jealousies and rivalries of a family of twelve children; Veronica's growing recognition that her own life, though perfectly pleasant and successful by every conventional standard, has somehow turned out to be unsatisfying and false. As she puts it:

"I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go 'home' where I could 'have sex' with my 'husband' just like lots of other people did. This is what I have been doing for years. And I didn't seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died"

Veronica's real problem, of course, is guilt. Guilt and shame. She clearly feels that she did not do enough for her brother, let him down, did not try hard enough to save him from his demons; and in order to avoid feeling this she needs to find a way to establish where things really went wrong, and, if it all possible, to pin the blame on someone else - her grandmother, her mother, her father - anyone at all except she herself, or her beloved Liam.

This quest for closure soon becomes the ruling force of Veronica's life. She stops sleeping with her husband, is negligent towards her daughters, stays up all night and goes for long drunken drives to nowhere. And she thinks back over the past, trying to remember, trying to imagine what must have happened, what she must have missed. Where did we drift apart? How did I betray him? What were the best times? The worst times? These are questions that haunt Veronica, and Enright does an excellent job of bringing this manic depression of hers to life, telling the story of Veronica's life (and consequently of Liam's) in a haphazard back and forth of fragment and memory.

The trouble with The Gathering, I think, is that Enright succeeds in bringing Veronica's state of mind to life a little too well. Veronica's hysteria comes across loud and clear, but the result is a novel's worth of prose that is self-indulgent and whiny and annoyingly incoherent. Any sympathy you might have had for Veronica evaporates by around page 100 (if not earlier) and by the time you get to the end of the book you're heartily sick of her going on and on about the whole thing and want to slap her in the face and tell her to get a grip. Enright calls her book The Gathering, but Veronica is not picking up the pieces of her life, not trying to put them back together - she is simply toying with them, holding them up to the light now and then, showing them off. There is a great deal of atmosphere here - an entire weather system of gloom and guilt and sexual malice - but you have only to step back a little and sniff it with a clear head to know that what you're smelling is just a lot of stuffy, stagnant air.

The other problem with The Gathering is that it's too, well, literary. James Wood [1] famously coined the term 'hysterical realism' to describe a tendency in modern writing, and I think it's safe to say it applies here. Consider this description of one of the central characters of the story, Lambert Nugent:

"He must be reassembled; click clack; his muscles hooked to bone and wrapped with fat, the whole skinned over and dressed in a suit of navy or brown - something about the cut of the lapels, maybe, that is a little too sharp, and the smell of his hands would be already a little finer than carbolic. He had it down, even then, the dour narcissism of the ordinary man, and all his acts of self-love were both subtle and exact. He did not preen. Lamb Nugent watched. Or he did not watch so much as let it enter into him - the world, in all its nuance of who owed what to whom".

It's not just that this is a lot of fine words thrown impeccably together to say very little. That, in a way, is a motif of the entire book - what does its story amount to, after all, but a woman going into a tail-spin of despair because her brother has killed himself? It's also that these are supposed to be the thoughts of a woman guilt-ridden and grief-stricken to the point of dysfunction by her brother's death. If this were a writer, a story-teller of some sort, giving us a rollicking, high-handed description of a man in the middle of some yarn he was spinning it would be one thing, but put in the mouth of a grieving sister, and so at odds with the general tone of depression that pervades the book, it seems like a definite false note. Yet it is a false note that Enright strikes again and again, indulging in little flights of imagination, constantly blurring the line between writer as character and writer as narrator. Writing like this feels contrived in context, and undermines the genuineness of Veronica's grief for her brother, making her even harder to sympathize with than she already is.

Mind you, Enright can write. There are some fine sounding and lyrical passages here, and every now and then a sparkling little insight will jump out at you. But it is a scattered, patchy effect, like shards gleaming off the floor where a glass has been broken, and it does not compensate for the larger pointlessness of the book as a whole.

There is a point in the book when Veronica, driving to the airport to go collect her brother's body, starts to cry. Enright writes:

"At Collins Avenue, a man stuck in the oncoming traffic looks across at me, sobbing and gagging in my posh tin box. He is two feet away from me. He is just there. He gives me a look of complete sympathy, and then he eases past. It has happened to us all."

And that, in a nutshell, is the response that this book deserves. A quick skim, a moment of sympathy while you're stuck with it, and then you shrug your shoulders and move on, secure in the knowledge that in a little while you will have forgotten all about it. It's not that you're callous or uncaring. You just don't want to get involved because for all the sobbing and the blubbering and the tears there's nothing really wrong here, no big tragedy, just a fairly ordinary person getting needlessly hysterical about a fairly ordinary event. She's entitled to her grief, of course, but there's no reason why you should get dragged into it.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-posted on Momus]

[1] Who's joining the New Yorker, yaay!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Speech! Speech!

Have I ever told you about my career as a speaker at political rallies? No? I know you think I'm just another hapless grad student with literary pretensions who sits around all day in his Hindu deity underwear writing morbid stories about people contemplating suicide, but it wasn't always so. Once, long ago, I too made a tryst with destiny.

What happened was this. In the July of 1997, when yours truly was still a gawky undergrad, messing about in the dusty by-lanes of North Campus, word came to my ears of someone who was looking for "Delhi University's best young public speakers" to come address some sort of rally on the 14th of August. Now ordinarily, this would have been of no interest to me, since I'm terminally unpatriotic, but it seemed the man was actually willing to pay cash for someone to come make a speech, and being perpetually skint (as any self-respecting college student must be) I decided that further inquiry was called for.

It turned out that the man was the President of the National Coalition of Something-or-the-Other and was organizing a Peace Rally of some sort in the Central Park in CP on the eve of Independence Day, to commemorate 50 years of India's independence (yes, this was THAT year). I never really managed to figure out what the point of the rally was: I gathered it had something to do with progress and unity and secularism and social justice and a handful of other platitudes, but beyond that I still can't tell you what he hoped to achieve. The whole thing seemed fairly shady, to be honest, but I was 18 and naive and figured I could take care of myself. Besides, there were three of us and he was offering to pay us what, in those days and by our standards, was a small fortune.

Planning for the rally went smoothly enough. It consisted of the three of us speakers meeting with the Old Man and some factotum of his (this group was called, if memory serves, 'the Think-Tank') to 'strategize' about the meet. In practice, strategizing meant that the Old Man waffled on about the evils of corruption and the need for communal harmony and other such chestnuts while we stuffed our faces with free food and nodded along politely, adding the occasional word of agreement in between bites. The speakers at the rally, it turned out, were to include the Vice-President of India, along with a whole bunch of noted academics, social activists and the like - none of whom, needless to say, we'd ever heard of. Our role was to represent (and I swear he managed to pronounce the capital letters) the Voice of the Future and the Youth of India. What the Voice of the Future was supposed to say was left entirely up to us. We did ask once or twice if there was any particular message he wanted us to pass on to the listening masses. The Old Man brushed this suggestion aside, saying he didn't need to tell three bright young men like us what to say. My friend R., in an uncharacteristic and momentary attack of conscience actually suggested that we could write out our speeches and show them to the Old Man beforehand. No. The Old Man wanted us to be spontaneous, wanted us to speak straight from the heart. I had a momentary vision of standing up on stage telling the audience that these Romans were crazy. Then I thought - what's the big deal - it's just a ten minute speech. I practically do this for a living [1]. I can handle it.

Eventually the great day dawned. Or rather, in this case, dusked. The three of us showed up, dressed in appropriately activist khaadi kurte (mine, if I remember correctly, was a gentle saffron), ready to exhort the nation (or the infinitesimal fraction of it that would show up in the center of CP that night) towards a brighter tomorrow. The mikes were tested, the lighting proven to work, and little by little a small but appropriately serious looking crowd strolled in. We were ready to go.

And then calamity struck. It transpired that, in all the weeks of preparing us for the event, in all those endless teatime meetings where he discussed strategy and ethics and ideals with us, our patron had forgotten to mention one small fact. That the speeches that night were to be made in Hindi. He probably saw it as a niggling little detail, not worth worrying over. And so it might well have been, provided any of us had had the slightest proficiency in the language. Except we didn't. We hadn't been lying to him when we told him we were the best public speakers in DU. We may have been exaggerating a little bit (though I'm not even sure of that) but we certainly weren't lying. But he'd never said anything about having to speak Hindi.

It was an utter, unmitigated debacle. A. went up first, and gave a three minute speech that mingled accented English with phrases of broken Hindi. It sounded like one of those speeches the evil Angrez major gives to the natives in Bollywood films about the Independence struggle. You could almost see the crowd rising up against him, led by a chest-thumping Sunny Deol, pulling him off his horse and beating him to pulp. R. went next and delivered a five minute address that was a seamless collage of every corny Independence Day speech he'd ever heard in school. The word aazaadi came up a lot, as did the words pragati and sangharsh. And that was about it. I went last, and deciding to be brave, started saying what I'd (vaguely) planned to say before the fiasco, only translating it into Hindi as I said it. This lasted for about 30 seconds, at which point I realized I had no idea what the Hindi word for pluralism was and decided to lapse into cliche, salvaging what little dignity I could by quoting every scrap of Ghalib or Faiz I could remember. If the people sitting there were judging the future of the country by what we said that night, then they must have gone home with a dismal picture indeed.

No, actually, they wouldn't. Because to complete our humiliation for the evening, the Old Man had also invited along a group of students from (I think it was) the Department of Social Work. These folks were the real thing. I mean, from what I could tell, organizing demonstrations and staging street plays was about 40% of their entire curriculum, and boy, were they good at it. When their turn came, they harangued the crowd with the kind of firebrand oratory that brought tears to your eyes and made you want to get up and start opening the odd vein or two. It was strong, heady stuff. Completely ridiculous and entirely impractical if you stopped to think about it for a minute, but they said it so eloquently that I doubt anyone did. It made us feel very small.

We got out of there pretty fast after that. We collected our money from the Old Man, trying not to meet the disappointment in his eyes, worked our way to the nearest Nirula's where we proceeded to drown our sorrows in very large helpings of Hot Chocolate Fudge, and then, seeing that the night was still young, A. had managed to cadge his parent's car, and it was a historic night after all - 50 years of Independence and all that - we drove down to India Gate (almost getting arrested in the process; the whole area was crawling with cops, of course, and A., our resident genius, could not only barely drive, he also didn't have a license). So when the 15th of August finally arrived and the sound of Bhimsen Joshi singing Vande Mataram came floating over the speakers, we were there, we really were, standing with a thousand others in that grand circle at the heart of the country's capital, watching the stars shine proud in a sky that, just for a minute, seemed to soar.

Now there's a story to tell one's grandchildren. Not that I ever plan to have any.

[1] This was literally true. Debating wasn't a hobby of mine in college, it was an occupation. Any time there was a book or a new CD I wanted to buy, or a movie I wanted to watch, I would find out which college was having a festival, show up for the debate and walk away with a little nest-egg of cash. Oh, there may have been a debate or two where I came away empty handed, (and there was one particularly depressing fest at Hindu College where the prizes turned out to be a bunch of books about India's freedom struggle) but on the whole it was public speaking that funded my book and music collection all through college. It was a really good gig. And it also came in pretty handy when it turned out, at the end of my third year, that my attendance in class was abysmally low. I merely pointed out to the Principal that I hadn't been attending classes because I was out bringing fame and glory to the college, and he not only signed a waiver but actually invited me to stay for tea.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Time it was, oh what a time it was

Michael Redhill's Consolation

They die - the dead return not - Misery
Sits near an open grave and calls them over,
A Youth with hoary hair and haggard eye -
They are the names of kindred, friend and lover
Which he so feebly called - they all are gone!

- Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Preserve your memories", the song says, "they're all that's left you". Michael Redhill's Consolation is about precisely that struggle: the fight to redeem the past, hold on to the dead, keep the image of our loved ones fresh in our minds. It is a novel about the terrible tug-of-war between human memory and the forgetful earth, about the extremes to which our hunger for what has been lost will take us, how it will make us scratch about in the dirt for the smallest crumb of what once was.

At the story's heart is David Hollis - a man who has made delving into the memory of the earth a science. He is the founder of a new field he calls 'forensic geology' and has spent his life unearthing and rediscovering the urban past by digging for it under the cities of today. As the book opens, however, we find him suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, and some four pages later he has killed himself. He leaves behind him, however, a final provocative work - a monograph in which he claims (based on no evidence other than a journal that no one but he has ever seen) that buried in the heart of Toronto lies an old boat, inside which is a collection of old glass negatives that contain a complete photographic record of the city as it was in the mid-1850's. This claim - which made him a laughingstock among his fellow scholars in the last years of his life - can now be put to test, because a new sporting arena is being built on the site where the ship is supposed to lie, and if the ship is, in fact, where Hollis claims it should be, it will appear when the foundation for the new building is dug.

It is at the mouth of this controversy, on the brink of this building-site that is also a kind of open grave, that Hollis's surviving family - his wife Marianne, his daughter Bridget and his son-in-law-to-be John (a mysterious, almost spectral figure, whose haunting presence will become, despite all appearances, the center of the book) - wage the battle of grief, love, betrayal and one-upmanship that is the subject of Redhill's book. Frantic with the loss of the central figure in their lives, the Hollis family turn David's theory into an obsession, until the recovery of those negatives becomes a way of restoring a dead father and husband, a way of bringing him back, however temporarily, from the dead.

Interspersed with this main story is a second one - the story of the man who made the negatives that the Hollis family now seeks. He is Jem Hallam, a young English apothecary, who has been sent to the colonial outpost of Toronto to set up the family business there, and finds himself trapped in a miserable and lonely world, surrounded by the mists of despair and hopelessness. When his pharmacy fails, Hallam will turn, literally, to the light - he will enter the photography business, forming new and unthinkable friendships, and becoming, in his own way, a new man. This narrative, of a man trying desperately to survive in a new and inhospitable world, while continuing to cling to the memory and manners of his old life, runs parallel to the story of the Hollis family; Hallam's dislocation in space and his striving towards the future becoming a counterpoint to the Hollis's displacement in time and mortality, and their yearning for the past.

It's an interesting basis for a novel, and a not unpromising storyline, but it's one that Redhill never quite delivers on. Hallam's life in nineteenth century Toronto is sketched with great care and skill, as is the emotional turmoil of the Hollises in our own time, but the two are patched together sketchily, and neither, in consequence, comes fully to life. It's as if Redhill's prose itself is sluggish with the impossibility of the task his protagonists are taking on, the terrible weight of trying to hold on to something, bring something to life, when it is already lost. We are never really drawn into the feelings of these protagonists, who remain at one remove, intriguing characters in a pleasant story, but very little more. This sense of distance is made worse, I think, by the constant movement back and forth between time periods, which means that barely have we started to gain momentum on one story before we're plunged into the other. It's like watching Terms of Endearment and The Story of Adele H. on two different channels at the same time, and switching every fifteen minutes between the two. The interconnection between the past and the present is interesting, of course, but it's been done before, and to my mind far more effectively: by A.S. Byatt in Possession and Graham Swift in Ever After, to name just two.

Overall, then, too much about this book feels old and a little stale. It's not that it's a bad book - on the contrary, it's written with a great deal of skill - it's just that it's unsurprising. And when Redhill does eventually make a few last minute efforts to pick up the pace and throw in a few tricks, that only makes the pace of the book seem more uneven, and underlines the weakness of Redhill's tone. It's a harsh thing to say, given the yearning to remember and be remembered that is its central theme, but this is a forgettable book - you won't be disappointed if you do read it, but you won't have missed much if you don't.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-Posted on Momus]

Monday, August 13, 2007

Something there is that doesn't love a neighbor

Over at his blog, Amardeep points to an article in the Boston Globe referencing a study by Robert Putnam that finds evidence for a 'hunkering down' effect in civic engagement among people living in more diverse communities - essentially that people who live in more ethnically mixed communities tend to be less trusting of others and less engaged in civic activities. Importantly, and this is Putnam's key point, this mistrust isn't just directed against people from other ethnic groups; people who live in ethnically mixed neighborhoods seem to be less trusting of everyone, including people from their own ethnic group.

First, you really should read the paper. Putnam is a scholar I have a great deal of respect for (I've read Bowling Alone twice) and he combines painstaking research with a genuine gift for communication that makes his arguments a pleasure to read, and renders any attempt I might make to summarize his findings both redundant and misleading. This is a complex, subtle piece of work that demands careful reading, not least because of the potential seriousness of its implications, and you owe it to yourself to really understand what Putnam is saying, instead of relying on whatever cock-eyed interpretation the popular press chooses to come up with.

That said, I have to say that I have some concerns with the validity of what Putnam is finding, or at least, with the validity of the implications he draws from his findings. When I first heard about the study, the first question that popped into my head was - what about sample selection? Obviously people aren't randomly assigned to the neighborhoods they live in, and Putnam is observing a cross-section, so he doesn't know how attitudes evolve as the composition of the neighborhood changes. Isn't it possible then, that the lower civic engagement he finds is a function of the kind of people who choose to live in more diverse neighborhoods, rather than of the neighborhoods themselves?

Not surprisingly, Putnam addresses this concern in his paper, but dismisses it more or less out of hand. He writes:

People mostly choose where to live, and that simple fact opens up a hornets’ nest of methodological problems with correlational analysis since people with a certain characteristic may choose to live in distinctive areas. For example, the fact that people with children live nearer to schools does not mean that proximity to a school caused them to become parents. In our case, however, selection bias is prima facie implausible as an explanation for our results. For selection bias to produce a negative correlation between diversity and sociability, paranoid, television-watching introverts would have to choose disproportionately to live in mixed neighbourhoods. Phrased differently, a self-selection interpretation of our results would require, for example, that when non-whites move into a previously all-white neighbourhood, the first whites to flee (or the most reluctant to move in) would be the most trusting, and the last to flee would be the least trusting; or alternatively, that ethnic minorities and immigrants would selectively choose to move into neighbourhoods in which the majority residents are most irascible and misanthropic. Common sense suggests that the opposite is more likely; if anything, selection bias probably artificially mutes the underlying causal pattern. In short, taking self-selection into account, our findings may underestimate the real effect of diversity on social withdrawal
It's a strong argument, except that it seems to me that in making this argument, and in the study more generally, Putnam is mixing two very different attitudes. An attitude of distrust and an attitude of disinterest. The question that Putnam's runs his regressions on reads: "How much can you trust people in your neighborhood?". What would a low-scoring response on this question mean? It could mean that you actively distrust your neighbors, that you are (to use Putnam's phrase) "irascible and misanthropic". Or it could mean simply that you have no interest in your neighbors, that you are too caught up in your own circle of (non-neighborhood based) social activities, hobbies, interests or personal amusements to have bothered to meet your neighbors or even get to know their names. You're not paranoid or even necessarily an introvert, you're just not interested in your neighbors. Is it really that far-fetched? How many people do you know who live in Manhattan and have ever bothered to meet their next-door neighbors? Does this mean that everyone living in Manhattan is a paranoid introvert? I know I would have responded to that question by saying I trusted my neighbors very little, but it's not because I mistrust them (on the contrary, I'm sure they're really nice people) it's just because they're complete strangers.

Now, imagine, for a moment, a world made up of two kinds of people - those who really value interaction with their neighbors and take an active interest in them, and those who don't. Imagine further that homophily holds and people are more trusting of / more comfortable interacting with people of their own ethnic group. Now, when the first people from some other ethnic group start to move into a previously homogeneous neighborhood, who will be the first people to leave? The people who like to spend time with their neighbors, of course - those who've never been interested in their neighbors will probably take longer to notice that a shift in demographics is happening and in any case are unlikely to care. Conversely, among the first people to move in, what kinds of people are more likely to move in? Again, those who don't care about neighborhood interaction. After all, in the presence of a strong in-group bias, it's unlikely that the first out-group entrants will receive a particularly warm welcome. This won't matter to people who have no interest in their neighbors anyway, but would be a serious cost to someone who actually wanted to socialize with the folks next door. So both entry and exit will mean that as the neighborhood becomes more ethnically mixed, the composition of people will switch towards a greater proportion of those who aren't interested in their neighbors. Which, of course, is exactly what Putnam finds.

Understand, I'm not saying this is necessarily what's happening. For all I know, Putnam's explanation - of the change in the ethnic mix causing people to change their behavior - may be the correct one. I'm only saying that the scenario I outline above is a plausible alternate explanation for his findings, and that Putnam can't dismiss a selection bias as easily as he claims to.

Of course, from a cross-sectional social capital perspective, it doesn't matter which explanation you believe. Either way it'll be true that more ethnically diverse neighborhoods will have lower social capital, and all the potential issues associated with that - if you're trying to decide what kind of a neighborhood to live in, the correlation is all that matters. But it does change the policy implications of the findings fairly drastically. If growing ethnic diversity is causing people to cut back on civic engagement, then we need to ask some hard questions on what the costs of immigration / ethnic heterogeneity are [1]. But if it's simply the selection effect at work, then those questions become unimportant - the overall civic engagement of society isn't shrinking, it's simply being redistributed.


[1] Putnam, to his credit, is quick to warn against any such policy stance based on his findings. He argues that the 'hunkering down' is merely a middle-term phenomenon, and that "In the medium to long run, on the other hand, successful immigrant societies create new forms of social solidarity and dampen the negative effects of diversity by constructing new, more encompassing identities. Thus, the central challenge for modern, diversifying societies is to create a new, broader sense of ‘we’." Brave words, those, and full marks to him for saying them, but I can't help thinking that they sound too much like the words of someone who doesn't like the normative implications of his findings. Putnam is making a strong empirical claim and then tacking on what is, in effect, a prayer at the end.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Okay, it's not often that I get excited about an upcoming film. In fact, you could say I've made it something of a hobby of mine to avoid falling prey to hype.

But the fact is that there are few novels I've read in the last five years that cry out to be made into movies as much as No Country for Old Men. And there's no one, just no one making movies today who I think would do a better job of converting McCarthy's book into film than the incredible Coen Brothers. Add to that some pitch perfect casting (Javier Bardem as Chigurh, Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell) and you've got yourself one hell of a movie. This one I'm watching first day first show. Yessir.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


He blames himself. It was his idea to teach the boy to drive. He figured it was time the boy started to help around the garage a little, learn the business. Besides, he was almost of age, almost 16. It would do no harm.

He can't understand where it all went wrong. He taught that boy so carefully, patiently. Taught him everything he knew. And the boy too, always cautious, always listening, never seeming to be in a hurry. And then, the day after he got his license, the first time they let him take the car out alone, the accident. Speeding through a red light at 90, the police told him later. And all he could ask was, "Why?"

What did he do wrong? What did he forget? Was it just the long ago excitement of being behind that wheel, feeling the roar of the engine become a part of you, the power of it yours to command? Or was it something else - some instruction, some caution - that he never gave the boy?

The day of his son's funeral Daedalus stays at home, unable to face his wife's crying or the blank accusations he reads in the faces of his friends. Instead he goes down to the garage, starts to tinker with the wrecked body of the car they have towed back to him. They say it's a write-off, but he, master mechanic, knows better. As they lower his son into the earth, he starts putting it back together, replacing what is broken, trying to determine what has been lost.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Getting Even

By this point you've almost certainly heard about the attack on Taslima Nasrin yesterday.

Let me start by admitting that I've never much cared for Ms. Nasrin's writing. Admittedly, I haven't read that much of her work - just Shame and a collection of poems whose name I no longer recall - but it's always struck me as flat, uninspired and tedious; an exercise in thinly disguised polemic that embodies the perils of mixing art and politics. This could, of course, be the fault of her translators, or the stuff I've read may be unrepresentative of her work. At any rate, if you'd asked me 24 hours ago whether I ever intended to read anything Ms. Nasrin had written again (let alone in the near future), I would have confidently said no.

Enter the ruffians of the MIM. The way I see it, the only way to fight this kind of crass intimidation is to make sure it has exactly the opposite effect from the one intended. So if the folks at MIM want to stop us from reading Ms. Nasrin then never mind that I'm half way through The Red and the Black, and have two novels from the Booker long list waiting at my bedside (Michael Redhill's Consolation and Anne Enright's The Gathering) as well as one on its way (Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl), never mind that I'm on my semi-annual Polish poetry trip and have absolutely no desire to tear myself away from the new Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert, never mind that I have a dissertation to write; I'm issuing Getting Even out of the library and reading it today. Just on general principle. And I suggest you do the same.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


The town is called Truth.

Despite its rather grand sounding name it is a sparse and somewhat dreary place, a collection of small box-like shacks held together by the unproven hypothesis of a station. Trains come and go, maintaining a constant though irregular traffic with the City of What Happens. Nothing takes place here, the town is torpid, fixed in its ways. At a certain hour every evening the synapse of its streets thrill with an electric intelligence, but over the years even the streetlights have grown dim.

People arrive and depart. For those coming in this is a quest, for those leaving it is an escape. No one stays in Truth for long - it's more than they can bear. The climate is harsh, for one thing, and there's really nothing to do. Pamphlets flaunt this place as a tourist destination but there is neither comfort nor beauty to be had here - all is simplicity and starkness. Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, it is easy to get lost. There are no landmarks, no irregularities. There are maps and guidebooks, of course, easily available to the curious traveler, but they are all inaccurate.

Those who live here will tell you that the town is permanent and everlasting - that it does not change - but this is an exaggeration. Time does pass here, and the town is altered in small, imperceptible ways. Old shops and buildings crumble or are torn apart, and in their place new, more vibrant edifices appear, only to fade into obscurity themselves. Compare the town as it is today to the way it looked 50 years ago, and the landscape seems unrecognizable. There is certainly a sense of history in the streets, but it is almost impossible to tell the genuine from the ersatz, the souvenir from the artifact.

Nor is it a particularly safe place. Pieces of shattered glass lie scattered along the sidewalks, bearing witness to the constant threat of things falling from above. Leering strangers ply their trade at street corners, offering you their easy excuses, their belief in a compensatory god. Even to look into a mirror in this place is to risk destruction.

Why the town means so much to so many people is, therefore, a mystery. Perhaps it's just a clever marketing campaign on the part of the town fathers. Perhaps the town once really mattered, a long time ago, and the reverence it received then has become a habit. At any rate, everyone feels the need to come here from time to time - pilgrims looking for something that they cannot name - and millions of people claim it (falsely, in most cases) as their home town, as the place where they belong.

And I, why do I come here? Perhaps it is the splendor of the dawn light, the lucidity of the smokeless air. Perhaps it is the hope that if I spend more time here, learn all the little alleyways and side streets, then something greater will emerge from within the kaleidoscope of these images, like a jigsaw falling into place. Perhaps it is just that sometimes, at night, when the talk and the laughter have died down and the people are mostly asleep, I can hear, beneath the throbbing engines of the town's various certainties, something that sounds like singing.