Thursday, 29 January 2015

A Kureishi catastrophe?

Full title: The Last Word
Author: Hanif Kureishi
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Attributes: 304 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Faber & Faber (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

If you leave aside all the polite circumventions and the condescending tone of the reviews that came before and after the publication of Hanif Kureishi's 2014 novel (his first in six years), the diagnosis imposes itself unanimously: The Last Word is a catastrophe. First of all it is (although the author doesn’t quite accept the idea) a roman à clef. The fact is painted all over the façades of these reviews: with this last one of his novels, Kureishi added his name to the detractors of V S Naipaul. The characters in The Last Word resemble almost bone for bone the author of A House for Mr Biswas and The Middle Passage. So the gossip goes. But roman à clef or no roman à clef, the novel must have some other attributes to look at. Well, of course it does, but that's exactly where things go sour. Kureishi, who, ever since his The Buddha of Suburbia, has set up a pretty high standard for his own talent, has been keeping reviewers on the lookout. And looking out they've been doing alright, but not, unfortunately, to the author's benefit.
Frankly speaking, though, this time they might be onto something, these cohorts of critics. To say it only by way of an introduction, The Last Word has a very heavy tone about itself, one that makes you feel like dragging through the text at points.
There's also this thing about characters, and especially about the secondary ones. I know Kureishi has a penchant for the people in the background, but in this novel he leaves some of them mightily unattended, or just incompletely crayoned (see especially the numerous lovers – destined to fade out almost unnoticed). But this aspect should not surprise, since even around the protagonist, Mamoon, the Indian-born writer who used to have the whole of Britain under his post-colonial spell, there are sometimes thick patches of darkness, which leave the reader with some unresolved questions as to his former (and highly significant) life as a famous man of letters.
Could these be purposeful gaps (one might ask), considering the novel's plot line? An old master of explosive temperament, Mamoon, hires a seemingly (at least in the beginning, because things change almost without a proper explanation) timid biographer, Harry. In the process of writing up the monograph of Mamoon's life (or “extreme biography,” as Rob, the editor, calls the thing he has been employed to do), Harry discovers uncomfortable truths, which he diligently slips into the final version of the biography. So, with a biography in the viewfinder, there should be no reason to panic if not everything is up to date and detailed insofar as the life of Mamoon is concerned.
But still, people talk. Readers moan. Critics pull their noses. The story would have been more appealing without these gaps; they would have tasted better with more of the ketchup-and-mustard of what incendiary biographers usually spice up their work with.

Hanif Kureishi. Source: The Telegraph
To make amends, it seems, Kureishi did create room for some spiced-up spectacle, although it looks like there's more in the intention than in the execution. I'm talking about sex, of course. There is a lot of it in the novel. And when you use the modifier "a lot" in relation to sex you somehow expect lust to come your way with obsessional intensity. In The Last Word, it’s precisely how this most universal of themes appears. There are so many references to sex, you don't need to be a puritan to say enough is enough. Not that sex in literature doesn't matter, or that it should be kept out of the reach of readers, but some of the mentions are beyond good taste, or even beyond necessity. You wonder sometimes, indeed, if the book wouldn't have been better without them.
“The intellect and the libido have to be linked, otherwise there’s no life in the work.  Any artist has to work with their prick or cunt. Any person has to work with their desire, to defeat boredom, to keep everything alive. Anything good has to be a little pornographic, if not perverse.”
This is, obviously, not the worst of them. But neither was I trying to point out the monster. There’s a lot more where this has come from; a lot more, and a lot less interesting.
Yet the novel is not awful. There are moments when one is left thinking, and, given a good topic, the outcomes are precious (in the good, Gollum-like, sense of the word). It happens when the narration isn’t exactly ambitious, when it doesn’t want to discover dazzling features for the sake of dazzling features. It happens, for instance, when the narrative voice takes a turn towards the central point of the book itself: the play with other’s lives (in essence, the definition of biography):
“Harry was in [Mamoon’s] house; he was walking and discussing seriously with him; he would write his life. Their names would be linked for ever; he would have a small share in the old man’s power.  But biography had learned a lot from the scandal sheets; if had been sucked towards the dirty stuff, a process of disillusionment. Unmasking was the thing, leaving just bleached bones. You think you like this writer? See how badly he treated his wife, children and mistresses. He even loved men! Hate him, hate his work – whichever way you looked at it, the game was up. The question had become: what can we forgive in others?  How far do they have to go before we lose faith in them?”
It is around this idea of invasion, of editorial curiosity, of intrusion for the sake of a headline, that the novel becomes most truthful. After passages like this one feels like all is not lost. At the end of the day, let us not forget, Hanif Kureishi is not a writer devoid of talent.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Memories of things that matter

Full title: I Remember Nothing, and Other Stories
Author: Nora Ephron
Genre: Nonfiction, Essays
Attributes: 138 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

I remember nothing, the title of a book that promises household satisfaction. A book to be liked. Quite a lot. The easy tone of it, sometimes veering into colloquial witticisms, the mix of confidentiality and honest, unrestrained testimony. The essays read lime lunch-break wisdom: a smile in the corner of the mouth, a wink of recognition, a flicker of consent, a raised eyebrow when the text hits an uncommon but clever-as-hell point and the eyes stop blinking for a second or two.
I think I know where the appeal comes from. The texts start off from seemingly domestic viewpoints, easy to recognize and identify with. And then there's a lot of battling against misconceptions, done in the voice of confident authority; which is exactly the tone of voice in which you've been told a lot of the (excuse my French) BS you've been hearing from day one of your life. Like, for instance, the BS about egg-white omelette being healthier than the full version. Ephron's at it under the pretext of giving some friends a good piece of advice. But it doesn't take very long till she turns the whole matter from gastronomy to straight-up politics (under the same pretext, it seems, only much harder to avoid):
"So this is my moment to say what's been in my heart for years: it's time to put a halt to the egg-white omelette. I don't want to confuse this with something actually important, like the war in Afghanistan, which it's also time to put a halt to, but I don't seem to be able to do anything about the war, whereas I have a shot at cutting down consumption of egg-white omelettes."
At another point, in a different essay, she finds something to say about the Internet. Unavoidable topic. So many things to say about it, so many complaints to file.

Nora Ephron (1941-2012). Source: Salon
But most importantly, one finds this claim about the value of truth in the age of virtual reality:
"It's not easy to be wrong about the Internet - the Internet consists of pretty much everything in the universe. So pretty much anything you say about it is going to turn out to be partly true in some way or other."
The same topic offers, at a different point, the chance of another revelation. It happened, if we take the word of the essay for granted, at a conference (one of the very many) about the Internet's ability to make people rich beyond belief. Out of it comes the following thought, which may be classed as depression, as Ephron herself suggests in the end:
"It had suddenly become clear that there was a lot of advertising money out there, and all you had to do was provide content so that the ads had something to run alongside of. It crossed my mind that the actual definition of 'content' for an Internet company was 'something you can run an ad alongside of.' I found this a depressing insight."
At times, you find statements made with an air of unrelenting particularity, as if the words just said could be said only in this and this very case alone, in this very situation. But not after long, you realise that the same statement is capable of remarkable permutations. It can, in other words, be applied to a multitude of other instances, given the right circumstances. For clarification, take a look at the thought about restaurants, in "My Life as a Meat Loaf":
"[I]t's my theory that owning a restaurant is the kind of universal fantasy everyone ought to grow out of, sooner rather than later, or else you will be stuck  with the restaurant. There are many problems that come with owning a restaurant, not the least of which is that you have to eat there all the time. Giving up the fantasy that you want to own a restaurant is probably the last Piaget stage."
There isn't much to say about this statement, apart from, perhaps, something to the effect of 'ah, those restaurants.' But then it turns out to be so easy to change the topic, by merely mentioning (magically, as one might find the right trick) the word that defines it. It must be in this interchangeability that Nora Ephron's texts find their charm. You gotta like a writer who is making it so easy for you to participate in a game you thought was yours. Of course it cannot be just that. The success must also be due to her easing our access to the seemingly inaccessible: the famous, the rich, the contentious.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A storm like a party

Full title: Storm
Author: Tim Minchin
Genre: Graphic novel
Attributes: 112 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Orion (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Storm, a mix of radically-worded histrionics (gotta call them that, since they’re such a show) and cleverly manipulated drawings (suggestive as hell, capable of carrying the story along at full speed), is a high-quality comics book, and one to bear the name with pride, especially as the offspring of a slightly older, similarly popular animation short film. At the centre of it stands Tim Minchin at his usual, happy to go against things called, by a wrong name, ‘spiritual.’

To make a short story shorter, here’s the essence of the gist of the nub: London top-floor flat. Group of friends. Drinking party. Enter beautiful yet seemingly simple (in the mind) extra guest. Name’s Storm. You’ve guessed it – she’s the umbilicus of the book, so keep an eye on her. The narrator (Tim Minchin-looking, crazy-haired, blond, suspicious, sceptical, impossible-to-restrain) takes aim at the girl-from-nowhere (a narrative type – you’ve guessed it again), who’s been regurgitating clichés all night. So slowly, slowly, the girl is pushed into a corner and beaten the crap out of – in a metaphorical way, of course, because there’s no physical violence in the book, only the violent blow of the wind of discontent. As a consequence, she’s no longer the umbilicus, because the Tim Minchin-looking narrator has become it. End of story.
On a different level, though, there’s the anti-crap philosophy the narrator (like we didn’t know who he was!) mixes with the event like you mix butter with toast.
“Look, Storm, sorry, I don’t mean to bore ya’
but there’s no such thing as an aura
reading auras is like reading minds
or tea leaves or star signs or meridian lines.
These people aren’t plying a skill,
they’re either lying or mentally ill.
Same goes for people who claim they can hear God’s demands
or spiritual healers who think they’ve got magical hands.”
Just to make a note here, quickly, of the fact that it’s sort of interesting for a nonbeliever to spell the word God with a capital G. But that’s a minor thing. I won’t dwell on it. There’s bigger fish to fry. Bigger because, right as it is in most of its arguments, the book leaves some things unattended to.
Read Storm to the end (which isn’t very far away from its beginning), and you’ll discover that it’s nothing but a rant. Played and organized according to the best rules of rants: take the piss out of someone, demolish them, rock the boat of their words, fuck the Pope, fuck Deepak Chopra, fuck everything that’s conventionally destined to be fucked in this second decade of the third millennium, and at the end of it all you’ve got what you knew you were going to get all the way. You’ve got a list of thoroughly discarded myths, you’ve ploughed the field of disbelieving, you’ve trenched the hell out of everything that sounded sooo last century, sooo last decade, sooo yesterday.
Minchin is a clever guy. He’s got the talent, he’s got his special way with words:
“I’m like a rabbit suddenly trapped
in the blinding headlights of a vacuous crap.”
He is also a showman. He is also a celebrity. Which means, he runs on fan power; he is idolized by many. He is worshiped, adulated, adored by individuals trapped in his own headlights. So there.
It’s not that his revolutionary demeanour might be the cause of some problem here. At the end of the day anyone would be perfectly entitled, like Minchin, to go nuts when it comes to bigots, to the conventionally-clever, to the cliché-vomiting individuals who take everything down with a good glass of wine and a bite from a pink-salmoned canapé. But there’s one more thought to have a go at before zipping it all up. There’s one reality Minchin appears to ignore with flare: that of radicalism being itself a matter of fashion. Multi-award-winning radicalism, which stands crassly misrepresented, if I'm permitted the word. Misrepresented as in try to take away the multi-award-winning part (don’t see it, don’t touch it, don’t make a fuss about it) and see what happens. See how many hits your rant is getting now. We, the Unfollowed, the poorly befriended, the seldomly Liked, understand this well. We know it's not exactly the message that travels along but the face. We also know that radicalism is not the right word when you're not exactly the only one ranting about the topic. To be radical you need to be somewhat - how should I put it - unique. Id est, not a celebrity. The truly radical are always hated. Even when they think they're loved.
Plus let me say this. It’s so easy to cook up a revolt, to let the water boil over, to sprawl about the wings of scepticism, when you live in a time and space, but mostly under a regime that doesn't behead you for it.

Not sure if Minchin knows, but there’s a point where brandishing the flag of freedom is injurious to those who can’t afford it. Anything from the Inquisition, to the religious states, to racial fundamentalism, to North Korea, to terrorism, is predicated on this kind of intolerance in which many of the so-called revolutionaries of the Western world would think twice, at least, before even opening their mouth.
A rant at a drinking party is good. For a party. But drenching your spirit in spirits? There are many who would find this simple task impossible. I'm talking about those who live in the warehouses of ideology, in their concentration camps, where even the idea of having a party is radical enough to warrant their fear of being arrested, interrogated, etc.
The issues raised by Tim Minchin sound okay to a Westerner's ears. Not to all of them, but to many. Every era has its demons and its angels, some to be cut open and revealed in their full deceitfulness, others to be hailed and sung as hymns in the churches of the new-believers.
But one must have something else in the back of one's mind when it comes to drinking-party revelations. From Plato onwards (oh, wait a minute – is that what Minchin was trying to emulate?), we've certainly figured that drinking, thinking and speaking seem wonderful together. Yes, but. While they increase desire, they also diminish performance. In other words, they blow up big fireworks but do it as a form of entertainment. Whereas, let's face it, there's nothing funny in being a radical, sometimes not even when you're a stand-up comedian. Let us not forget the slogan of the French: Every revolution devours its children. That, at least, should ring some serious bells. Especially in the minds of the famous.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A father from a different continent

Full title: The African
Author: J.M.G. Le Clézio (Translated by C. Dickson)
Genre: Non Fiction, Biography
Attributes: 181 pages, hardcover
Publisher: David R. Godine (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In this minimally memorialistic book, where memory is busier to rebuild the stories of others than the author's own story, people grow out of seclusions like geographical outlines based on a purposefully inaccurate cartography.

Geography features large and prominent here. Really large. Really prominent. Telling a lot of the author's father's story as he lived and professed in the vastness of a wild, immaculate Africa, the book makes references to unfixed coordinates. If a mental map were to be created after the reading of the book, it would be something akin to those strategy video games where one of the tasks is to find the visible within the greatness of an overwhelmingly dark surface that hides everything from the viewer. The African is a cartographic exercise for non-citizens: for those who look at a city from without its walls.
"On the map he drew himself, my father noted the distances, not in kilometres, but in hours and days of walking time. The details noted down on the map reveal the true dimensions of that country, the reason he loved it: the river fords, the deep or tumultuous rivers, the mountainsides to be climbed, the bends in the paths, the descents into valleys that cannot be tackled on horseback, the impassable cliffs. On the maps he drew, the names make up a litany, they speak of walking in the hot sun, through the grassy plains or scaling laboriously up mountains amidst the clouds."

Le Clézio is after this type of geography because it represents a territory not his own. He had lived, along with his family, amidst the terrors, scarcities, and claustrophobies of the German occupation of France. His memories of the times and spaces before Africa are mostly of food shortages and fears of being arrested. In contrast, his father, who had spent the better part of his life working as a doctor in that carelessly open territory of colonial Africa, far from the obvious sights of the Empire and representing the same Empire only by virtue of his profession, his father, "the true African," was never in need for conventional measurements. He experienced the African world through and for its vastness. This is why his geography was truly psychogeography: an experience tied to individual, personal processes.

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. Source: Radio Mondiale
When, later in life, the former doctor was forced to return to France for retirement, he found himself ill adapted to the exactitudes of institutions, to the aseptic whiteness of hospitals, to the straight lines of urban architectures, to the names of streets and places, to the proximity of habitations, to the requirement of measuring distances in kilometres. Nothing like ‘the other country,’ "a country of distant horizons, with vaster skies, with lands stretching out as far as the eye could see." This country, indeed this multifaceted continent, is, to Le Clézio, one without mythic or fictional roots, although he finds the best description of it in literary references (even when those are used only in order to be denied):

"[This] was neither the Africa of Tartarin, nor even that of John Huston. It was rather the Africa depicted in African Farm, a real Africa, densely populated, wracked with disease and tribal wars. But powerful and exhilarating as well, with its countless children, its dances, the good humour and cheerfulness of the shepherds met along the paths."

It's because of these contradictions and exaltations that Le Clézio's book is so full of descriptions. The African is, for its greatest part, a verbose atlas, a recreation, a redrawing of lines and outlines of territories that could not be represented otherwise than through words. Through imperfect, treacherous, insufficient words.
The abundant descriptions that populate The African make it look like a rhapsody of sorts, a dangerously bucolic approach to a mentality that was far from bucolic. But there's more light brought into the text, with the recognition, very common in J.M.G Le Clézio’s oeuvre, of the event of a European's presence in Africa:
"Then my father discovered – after all those years of having felt close to the Africans, like a relative, like a friend – that the doctor was just another instrument of colonial power, no different from the policeman, the judge, or the soldier. How could it have been otherwise? Exercising medicine also meant having power over people, and medical supervision also meant political supervision."

With this realisation came, of course, the inevitable disenchantment, which dug deep into the father’s other beliefs, into his very profession:
"To him, there was something offensive about disease, once the charm of Africa had worn off."
The book ends with a series of cold reflections, inquisitive what-ifs. The father emerges out of this final section as someone who has distilled both the wilderness of Africa and the orderliness of Europe: someone whose most apparent characteristic ends up being this melange, this personal architecture: "authority and discipline, to the point of brutality." With this, the gradual drawing of the portrait is complete. It had progressed slowly from professional righteousness to hygienic radicalism, and now it's settled somewhere in the vicinity of unforgiveable violence. ‘The African,’ in his slowly evaporating glory, stands vindicated and disambiguated.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Last, but not least

Full title: David Foster Wallace, The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Author: The Last Interview Series
Genre: Interviews
Attributes: 128 pages, paperback
Publisher: Melville House (2012)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

David Foster Wallace was, like many citizens of his generation as well as like many of ours, the child of a society run by media and decorated by pop culture. You cannot overlook that. If you do, he's right up to tell you without the slightest sign of shyness, that his postmodernity was everything you would expect from a twentieth-century American with academic credentials under his belt and a storytelling distinction to boot.

"If there's something that's distinctive about our generation," he said in what appears as the last-but-one interview in the volume,
"it's that we've been steeped in media and marketing since the time we were very, very small. And it's kind of a grand experiment because no other generation in the history of the world has been that mediated. What implications that has, I don't know, but I know it affects what seems urgent and worth writing about and what kind of feels real in my head when I'm working on it."

With this, a point is made about, perhaps, the long-standing battle of genres, where the task is to promote your favorite, while utterly deprecating all the others, especially the ones found guilty of being in vogue. What's worth writing about and what deserves to end in the trash can? This is the most acute question of this battle of genres, one easy to spot among the many questions we have to ask of everything surrounding our cultural awareness. But Wallace didn't seem to have that reductionist approach. He took writing to be a ceaseless occupation, a perpetuum móbile of sorts, in which the mechanisms at work depend on inspiration as well as routine, and where the writer's jobs (i.e. the job of this quasi-professional worker whose world must answer the prerogatives of productivity) is that of someone who juggles between extremes (what Jung would have called, I believe, Syzygia):
"What often happens is that when work goes well all my routines and disciplines go out the window simply because I don't need them, and then when it starts not going well I flounder around trying to reconstruct disciplines I can enforce and habits I can stick to."

One might be ill at ease to see, in the above, a clear distinction between being a writer and being a postmodern citizen. The two seem so intermingled, so not unlike each other, it would be a real relief to find a way of reading them as one and the same thing.

David Foster Wallace. Source: YouTube
To Wallace, as is apparent in these interviews, the problem enunciated above came in the shape of a challenge: how to renounce something you're so deeply part of, and how to, at the same time, be honest enough to admit of its merits?

"I don't have a TV anymore, but when I'm [...] on the road I watch TV in hotels and I'm appalled by how good the commercials have gotten. They're fascinating, they're funny, they're hip, they've got trunk lines into my high-school level anxieties and desires in a way the commercials I grew up with never did."

That's, indeed, the challenge: to read the culture of marketing persuasion using the language of literature. What could be more postmodern than this?
And with these apparent foibles scattered generously throughout the interviews, the image one gains of David Foster Wallace is that of a human being who was capable of reaching out where few others could cope, while at other times sinking into the most mundane of the mundane orders. To offer an example, here's him talking about being an addict, and the peculiar addiction to chewing tobacco:
"I have tried probably ten serious times to quit chewing tobacco in the last decade [this is an interview conducted in 2003, my note]. I've never even made it a year. Besides all the well-documented psychic fallout, the hardest thing about quitting for me is that it makes me stupid. Really stupid. As in walking into rooms and forgetting why I'm there, drifting off in the middle of sentences, feeling coolness on my chin and discovering I've been drooling. Without chew, I have the attention span of a toddler. I giggle and sob inappropriately. And everything seems very, very far away."
When one reads something bearing such honesty badge one finds, perhaps, an easier way toward understanding David Foster Wallace's death: the suicide of someone whose mental complexity could only be managed in terms of quits and relapses. Not that he didn't try. But the resistance was too astute. The jest was too infinite. Too tempting, perhaps.