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.


Anonymous said...

The review has made me want to read the book already.

And playing detectives? Et tu?! :)
It has to be something to do with Enid Blyton and her ilk.


Space Bar said...

All of us, I think (both the tec play and the wanting to read the book). So, looking forward now.

The Booker list this year has not induced me to even remember any of the titles of books I haven't already read.

??! said...

so you actually go through the whole list, just because they make the list?

Anonymous said...

"If you've visited one of the new malls in Gurgaon recently you know exactly what this feels like."

Reminds me of a visit I made in Delhi to a mall (forgiveness - I forget the name) where a group of brightly-clothed, giggling young women were afraid to step onto the escalator at first -- but after discovering how much fun it could be, proceeded to approach it as a roller-coaster ride... :)

Great review. Will definitely check out the book. :)


Anita =)

Neha said...

lol, i was part of a detective team too. our first case was investigating an empty shell ... we never found the snail, and the enterprise was abandoned after few more failed projects. Will look out for the book.

Anonymous said...

oh dear! Ms. Blyton!!

Does anybody remember Fatty tying a towel on his head to disguise himself as an Indian?

Yes yes, we had a club too with batches made from cardboard and safety pins - we were usually too embarrassed to wear them tho. We also had speeches, and i think that was the downfall of the club - kids with stage fear being made to give speeches in english during play time.

Falstaff said...

N: Good. That was the idea.

space bar / N / nehas 1 & 2: You mean I and my friends weren't the only people who thought of this. Aarggh! my childhood memories are shattered. Horrors! Can it be that I'm actually NORMAL.

space bar: Ya, I know. I suspect part of my enthusiasm for What Was Lost stems from it being the first book on that long list I've read that I've actually enjoyed.

??!: Sort of. I find that reading the Booker long list is a great way to discover new writers. People I'd either never have heard of otherwise, or would have heard of but not got around to reading. This means wading through a certain amount of indifferent writing, but to the prize committee's credit, very few of the books they select are really bad. And just reading the winner, or even just the shortlist, doesn't help, because they invariably end up picking the wrong books.

anita: I think having at least one group of clueless people per functioning escalator is actually a statutory requirement for malls in Delhi. The thing that really amuses me is the uncomprehending look on people's faces when I ask them where the stairs are because I don't feel like waiting around for the elevator.

Anonymous said...

I am SO reading the book.

Nath said...

Just passing by -- and yes, I did start a detective agency when I was a kid. We solved a murder in a haunted construction site near our school.

OK, there was no murder, but we did find an oddly coloured slug in a puddle behind the house. It was poisoned -- poisoned, I tell you! And those construction workers seemed mighty suspicious of us; I could have sworn they were hiding something...