Thursday, 25 December 2014

A Christmas unsuitable for kids

Full title: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas
Author: John Updike (Drawings by Edward Gorey)
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 32 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Pomegranate Communications (2006)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In the month of compulsory gratification all responsibilities are heavy. We live on the dividing line between giving and taking, precariously playing both roles with affliction, buying more than we can carry and seeing/witnessing/watching more than it's humanly acceptable to the ocular apparatus and the mind that comes with it.
With the corporatized, profit-driven Christmas growing around us like the dark force in some B-class horror movie, we hope for a breath of fresh air, which would shake the hell out of this too-familiar spectacle and bring to light something we can learn to appreciate with joy.
What would do? A book, perhaps; a booklet, a series of sentences, a package of quotable quotes. Anything, no matter how small, only bring us something able to spell out the very thoughts we've never given ourselves enough courage to utter.
That book, that booklet, that series of sentences  could be, why not, John Updike's tiny little The Twelve Terrors of Christmas.
To make things clear from the get-go, Updike doesn't dismiss the fiction in the picture. He wouldn't. Why would he, since the fiction is good, the fiction is heart-warming? If he has something to say against anything, it's not the story that takes the brunt of his satire. He deals with the other fictions, the ones we find on the other side of celebration: the wrongly understood idea of merry-making, the mercantilism vows of ever-buying, the programmed blindness to the ideology of mirth.
The text of The Twelve Terrors of Christmas is already over two decades old. It was first published in The New Yorker, in 1992. Its structure poses no problem. Twelve vignette-sized pieces of satire, all easy to swallow, like pills prescribed against seasonal nausea, after having binged on everything that's bad for you. Every one of these tiny writings asks one rhetorical question or more, and with them Updike seems to instate something I'd happily call the Season of Rhetorical Questions. It's a season in which we are invited to bring out some of our best hidden doubts: the doubts we have learnt to overcome, in the name of the consumerist glory rolling like a tsunami over us every year. Some of these questions are funny, asked for the sake of a joke. In the case of "Santa: The Man" (the first vignette in the booklet), Updike has this to say/ask/interrogate:
"Loose-fitting nylon beard, fake optical twinkle, cheap red suit, funny rummy smell when you sit on his lap. If he's such a big shot, why is he drawing unemployment for eleven months of the year?"
Remark the double-adjectives in the first sentence. Then, once you've swallowed them whole, you can ask the relevant question. How often have you inserted the word "unemployment" in a sentence about Christmas? How many times have you doubted the beauty of the season in order to make light around its shoddy premises?
So you're getting the point.
These funny rhetorical questions are at their funniest and most rhetorical in the next text, the one entitled (with so much more promise, I would say), "Santa: The Concept." Once again, the point is apparent from the very title. And if it wasn't (damn the abstraction!), then here are the questions, rhetorical as ever, calling for the recognition of what has always been lurking in the back of your mind, only, perhaps, less jokingly:
"Why would anybody halfway normal want to live at the North Pole on a bunch of shifting ice floes? Or stay up all night flying around the sky distributing presents to children of doubtful deservingness?"
These are, obviously, questions best kept out of reach of your children, if what you're after is the preservation of an essentially beautiful fiction. But better be ready for the time, not too far away from the present moment, when you will have to give them this book and tell them, 'Read on, my darling victim of the grown-up lore, and laugh at your happy moments of yesteryear.' BTY, this ain't an Updike line, but how I wish I'd find it in his booklet! At least for the balancing effect of its tragic tone.

Source: From Shopping to Saving
But do not think the aim has gone amiss. Updike too wants to make apparent the tragic twist of the event of Christmas. In order to do so, he goes for our emotional jugular: our memories. And there he comes across carols. "The Carols," the booklet's vignette number seven, makes sad appeal to the withered power of those seasonal songs we used to sing in angelic voices, but which we're now sending toward different skies: the heights of shopping-mall ceilings. The statements and the questions on this page go as follows (in full quotation):
"They boom and chime from the vaulted ceilings of supermarkets and discount malls - and yet the spirits keep sinking. Have our hearts grown so terribly heavy, since childhood? What has happened to us? Why don't they ever play our favorites? What were our favorites? Tum-de-tum-tum, angels on high, something, something, sky."
And with the pondering of Christmas's grey area comes the confidence to dive into the darker matters, the real worries, the truly ridiculous anxieties, the awful truths of our Christmas debilitation. They grow out of the latter half of the dozen texts, as in "The Specials" ("Isn't there something else on, like wrestling or Easter Parade?"), in "Fear of Not Giving Enough," in "Fear of Not Receiving Enough" ("Three dull neckties and a pair of flannel-lined work gloves - is this really how they see you?"), in "Fear of Returns" ("The humiliating descent into mercantilism's boiler room"), and culminating with the most tenebrous of all Christmas moments, the moment when it is all over, when all lights are off, when everything has turned, indeed, pitch black, and when the mercantile world appears scary in its offensive nudity: "Is this Hell, or just an upturn in consumer confidence?"
Here it is, dear former boys and girls, dear current ladies and gentlemen: the drama of our having grown out of childhood. One strong-enough reason I have, like Updike, to say, again: 'Don't allow your kids to read this book.' Not yet...

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The freedom and the pain

Full title: Broken Nest and Other Stories
Author: Rabindranath Tagore (Translated by Sharmistha Mohanti)
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 129 pages, paperback
Publisher: Westland (2009)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The four stories in the volume have many things in common. They are stories about women, but not just that. They are stories about women caught in the whirlwind of a fundamental change. They are stories about women gaining access. Not to social or political recognition, but to a special kind of spiritual enlightenment, an awakening that puts their former subjecthood into sharp perspective.
The rise to spiritual freedom is always celebrated in Tagore's bucolic way: the characters are inscribed in a circuit of natural happiness, a sort of poetic ecology where the human being finds a gentler, more manageable form of the Sublime than the one that overwhelmed European readers in the nineteenth century.
"Every day, while listening to his voice the sky on the east became blood- red, next to the clouds there appeared streaks of sunlight, the darkness would fall away like the burst calyx of a blossoming bud, and the red flower of the morning would bloom little by little in the lake of the sky."
So goes a description in "The Ghat's Tale." But this is only one example. Hundreds of others can be found throughout the texts. One needs to read them to see.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Source: Voices, Compassion, Education
What's also common in all four stories is the significance of writing. When the rise of the heroines is measured, their progress takes the shape of the distinction between orality and literacy. The written form seems to always win. When looked at with a cold, critical eye, this may seem to be akin to playing the winning card of the empire. At the end of the day, the entire ideology of expansion has been built on this promise of acculturation, where writing was equated with enlightenment. But Tagore doesn't speak of English literacy. By writing he means Bengali writing. And by it he means a system of inscription that brings the spiritual out of its hiding place, into a world where it has to antagonise the transitory standards of public discourse.
When he does make reference to English, as, for instance, in the title story, Tagore does it in the tone of satire. Bhupati, the Chekhovian tragic character who sees in the Empire an unfulfillable (for him) promise, fails precisely there: in replicating the very writing standards he's decided to emulate.
"Ever since childhood he had liked writing and delivering speeches in English. Even when there was no need, he would write letters to English language newspapers, and even if he had nothing to express he would always say a word or two at formal gatherings."
The fact that Bhupati has trained himself in the journalistic discipline is significant: he deals in politics, where the Empire dominates with vindictiveness, as all empires do. In such a context, there's little room for him to grow. His wife, however, Charu, is of a different cut. Living in the shadow of her husband's poorly understood patriarchalism, she finds escape (Bovaric creature that she is) in literature. Her pleasures may be simple; at the end of the day, the literature she reads is hopelessly pathetic, lachrymose, melodramatic. But what she gets from the books she reads is precisely this respite from the political illusions of Bhupati. Out of an illusion and into another  this is how Tagore traces the trajectory of Charu's liberation-cum-tragedy. She learns the craft of writing from a man (her brother-in-law) who seems different but proves otherwise.
The story of Charu's education is complex. It is not a mere impregnation with knowledge, but rather a form of exchange. Charu and Amal learn from each other; or rather, they push each other into the world of writing. But the woman is bound to find the limits of her destiny. The bliss of writing is short-lived. While Amal rises to prominence as a consequence of his mastering of writing (a crooked public recognition for a talent that consists of mere reproductions of traditional models), Charu remains a domestic miracle. Her work, published in a prominent periodical, is innovative. It receives recognition from a critic who has a knack for originality. But this is not what she's after: not public recognition (which had defeated her husband and had driven Amal away from India, into the heart of the Empire), but private, spiritual growth. This growth means pain (not unlike, perhaps, the maturation of a body that grows unnaturally), and Tagore takes the opportunity to elaborate a lot on the subject.
The same growth is apparent in "The Ghat's Tale." In this story, where the narrative voice belongs, very peculiarly, to that most Indian of aquatic edifices, the ghat, a widowed woman finds spiritual rebirth when she meets a sannyasi. Here too, departure is necessary. Like Amal in "Broken Nest," the stronger male character is obliged to leave (in a way European readers might find, again, melodramatic) because their grander projects make a mundane relationship impossible.
And again, in "The Postmaster," an illiterate girl who learns writing from her master, has to part with the object of her adoration as soon as her enlightenment is accomplished. As observed by the editor/translator of the volume, Sharmistha Mohanty, water is an element of separation in Tagore's stories. In "Broken Nest," Amal leaves for England, travelling by a cruise ship. In "The Ghat's Tale," the widowed Kusum ends up offering herself as a sacrifice to the river Ganga. In "The Postmaster," the master becomes conscious of this separation while the boat he has boarded is slowly departing, leaving the recently enlightened girl to cry silently her disappointment.
So it can be agreed that, in each of these stories, enlightenment comes at a cost. It is the price of liberation that these characters are paying. And because of that, the human element is mostly sad, despondent. Hope and celebration only come about in the passages where Tagore goes about describing nature. Nature which, to him, appears to be the truly luminous face of the world.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Fast prose, prompt delivery

Full title: Tenth of December
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 288 pages, paperback
Publisher: Random House (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

As usual, George Saunders' talent for writing rapid, concise, essentialised prose doesn't take long to shine bright. Sentences run like this:
"I flew down the hill, pushed Ma inside, sat her on the stairs, grabbed Harris by the shirt, put my foot behind him, dropped him to the floor. Then held a match to the carpet on the stairs and, once it started burning, raised a finger, like, Quiet, through me runs the power of recent dark experience." (“Home”)
A lot is happening in this one swipe, let's admit it. To cut to the chase, the chief technique here is the list: narrative bits get strung together in the fashion of bullet points. But there is also this unique ability of Saunders' to work out his sentences so as to communicate maximum of information by minimum of means. He drops adjectives (99% of the possible ones, I would guess – a true Hemingwayan that he is), avoids exaggerations, and bets everything on montage. Montage, of course, wins. Every time.
Saunders is also very good at capturing the false quips of Americana – that spirit, that mixture of heroism and dull indifference, of exaltation mixed implacably with ignorance. Take for example the dialogue (or should we call it trialogue, judging from the number of characters involved in this discussion?) in the same story, “Home,” about the American foreign wars: a casual conversation that raises one the essential questions of military bravery: Whose heroism? Or even more brutally: Who cares about it?
“I've been away a long time,” I said.
“Welcome back,” the first kid said.
“Where were you?” the second one said.
“At the war?” I said, in the most insulting voice I could muster.
“Maybe you've heard of it?”
“I have,” the first one said respectfully.
“Thank you for your service.”
“Which one?” the second one said.
“Aren't there two?”
“Didn't they just call one off?” the first one said.
“My cousin’s there,” the second said.
“At one of them. At least I think he is. I know he was supposed to go. We were never that close."
“Anyway, thanks,” the first one said, and put out his hand, and I shook it.
“I wasn't for it,” the second one said.
“But I know it wasn't your deal.” “Well,” I said.
“It kind of was.”
“You weren’t for it or aren’t for it?” the first said to the second.
“Both,” the second one said.
“Although is it still going?”
“Which one?” the first one said.
“Is the one you were at still going?” the second one asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Better or worse, do you think?” the first one said. “Like, in your view, are we winning? Oh, what am I doing? I don’t actually care, that’s what’s so funny about it!”
Saunders being Saunders, there's no shortage of characterisation in the volume. As per usual script, everything consists of brevity and efficiency. Characters are nothing if they don't behave as if some cataclysm was threatening the world and they had this single shot at telling everyone, with breathless haste, the story of their lives. As per the same script, there are often two or more characters in the same tableau, every one of them having their entire life summed up in a phrase or even (true narrative valor!) crammed into a word.
"I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him."
Not to understand from this that characters are built hastily, though. Not at all. In fact, many of them are capable of incredible complexities, as is the case, for instance, with the young characters in the opening story, “Victory Lap,” who reach maturity in the most tragic of ways: after killing and narrowly escaping rape, respectively.
Saunders' big advantage is that he knows the environments of his character very, very well. He uses this talent to build environments, so that the people he describes make sense because of the places they inhabit, whether these are a testing lab in a futuristic correction facility, the backyard of a house owned by a pair of obsessive-compulsive parents, a suburban setting where high social-capital needs fly dangerously low, etc. No matter what environment he chooses, Saunders shines in the art of describing the most trivial of details in terms that could be likened to field notes: scribbling down aspects of the quotidian and making it the play field of his characters. Then, based on these series of crude observations, truths come to the surface like water squirted out of a wet towel when you squeeze it like you mean it.

Source: Wicked Web
As already said in the beginning, from an ideological perspective, Saunders is very much invested in a critique of the American Illusion. He operates in an area for which there seems to be little precedent, and which I would call Institutional Realism. There is almost always an institution behind the scene of his short stories (if not a corporation, then the Army; if not the Army, then School). Following a trend he established as early as his first collection, back in 1996, Saunders takes a swipe at hierarchies, policies, corporate slavery, corporate bullying, high and/or middle-class consumerist tantrums, and things of similar import. Pharmaceutical companies are treated in the same ways as small family businesses. Never mind the differences in scale. What matters is the critique. What bothers is the logic of gain. What hurts is the cheap narcissism of the upstart. What's pitiful is the wasting of so many destinies. The list comprises the usual tropes of critical action. So Saunders is, after all, a proud member of the American satirists' elite of the Philip Roth kind, somewhere in the same boat with Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart, Ben Marcus, and a host of others – writers who can't help it when it comes to taking the piss, but at the same time take a deep breath to sigh with disappointment.

Thursday, 4 December 2014


Full title: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Short stories and a novella
Attributes: 180 pages, paperback
Publisher: Riverhead (1997)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

I'd hate to be a character in George Saunders' stories, coz he would make me work my butt off and would throw me into the narrative bin as soon as I'm done with the labor.
By saying this I am touching (part of) the essence. The stories in the collection make full use of the characterological component and deal with almost everything through the agency of these poor (I mean mostly minor) characters met along the story line.
Saunders populates his texts with significantly large crowds of characters. Under normal circumstances, that would lead to organizational problems (chaos, to be more precise): how to manage these actors, how to send them off doing things, how to make sure you're not mixing them up, how to handle their crowd without seeming teacherly – that kind of organizational problems. But Saunders is a smart storyteller. He is well organized and he’s got a plan. He revels in the picaresque mode. In the picaresque (take Tom Jones for a good example), characters roam freely. They engage in actions without much interest in the outcome. They walk and drive and ride and hike and when they do so there's hardly ever a destination across the horizon – only the accidents that befall them, and for which they are forever grateful. When they meet other characters they look at them as nothing more than accidental encounters: no sweat, no piss, no hard sentiments.
So these are characters who, as I said, have a helluva lot to do. And they do it all in half a page or less. When they don't have things to do they have things to look at. When there are no things to look at they have a lot to talk about. Oh, yes, they talk. A. Lot. Especially the minor characters, who jump into discussions as if they didn't want to miss their only chance of self-affirmation. Which is very much the only shot they get (so – they’re actually right to be so jumpy after all).
Of course, these (and especially the narrators) are not mad characters. They are just overly perceptive. There's nothing escapes their wandering eyes. Nothing in the landscape, nothing in the demeanor of others. And they pepper their observations with considerable dozes of political analyses (mind you, well veiled behind narrative stunts).

George Saunders. Source: Slow Muse
There's one big thing everyone will tell you, in case I haven't said it already: George Saunders is a goddamn good storyteller. With this volume (his debut, no less, first published in 1996), you can see his favorite tools at work. The disengagement of the narratorial voice is one of them. Saunders builds his narration in such a way that he leaves you wondering if those things you've just seen unfolding on the page are the thoughts of the character, of the author, or (gee, now that's a thought!) perhaps your very own.
And then the way characters speak, as if they were all storytellers. Their ability to make a point in a jiffy is exquisite. Although sometimes they go overboard, saying, perhaps much more than a real person would say, or (if they're on the other side of the dialogue) waiting, patiently like hell, without interrupting, for the vociferous other to finish whatever it is they've got to say.
But this one aspect, about the speaking of Saunders' characters, is easy to justify, since every nut and bolt of his stories is put there with a single purpose in mind: to sing the narrative ode that puts the story together. I believe George Saunders has experimented, here as well as in his other volumes of fiction, with just about everything in his authorial sight that could aid the progression of a story.
So yes again, some of the techniques are easy to spot and they become a kind of trademark. As, for instance, the way new characters are introduced. It goes like this: the narrator bumps into a complete stranger. He knows nothing about the stranger: no name, no place, no space, no anecdotal detail. And with the narrator, we’re in the same blur. But luckily enough, through some kind of lucky coincidence, the narrator hears the stranger's name. And now (almost always starting from the sentence right next to the revelation), the new character is mentioned by the name we have just found out. We become intimate with the complete stranger, and the complete stranger starts telling their own story. With confidence. A very detailed story every time. We find out about their past, their present, their future, a thing or two about the relationships they are entertaining, and so the characters grow to life-size in no time.
But then, just as quickly as they appeared they disappear as well, and we're somehow left with the feeling that we've lost touch with a close acquaintance. We are, in other words, emotionally invested. And damn if we know how it's happened. It was maybe the familiarity of the landscape (names of places poured into the story until you have no choice but believe it's true); maybe the familiarity of the speech lines (they talk like Americans, breathe like Americans, drive cars, use furniture, dream about burgers like Americans – because, well, they are Americans); or maybe the familiarity of many situations (no way you'll find something over-the-top here, not even when you're in a post-apocalyptic setting). With all these options you never know what's hit you. But you're left with a good taste in your mouth after all. The taste of good stories. And that’s fine, because that’s what you've been looking for. So tick.