Thursday, 26 March 2015

Life and other debaucheries

Full title: Eustace
Author: S.J. Harris
Genre: Graphic novel
Attributes: 280 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Random House (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Eustace is a young boy with a face so pale it can only be imagined in black and white. He spends most of the time lying in bed, incarcerated by an undisclosed illness, and having to put up with things. Things like the relatives, for instance, who come into the viewfinder with exaggerated features, caricatures that beg to be drawn in a graphic novel: aunts faking love, cousins so mean they could be classed in the taxonomy of human creatures under the rubric ‘Annoying. Do not approach.” Then there’s the issue of the immediate family, addressed in the most Freudian of ways: missing brother (enlisted in the army, fulfilling, therefore, a man’s duty), ineffectual father (popping in only to upset the idea of patriarchal order), distant mother (depressed, with ruffled hair and complete lack of attention), lone child longing for the attention of both parents and getting little in return. 
So Eustace spends his days lying on his back, looked after by the typical surrogate of parental care: a housemaid of rough features but general good intentions, by the name of Mrs Perichief, who enters almost all the shots with a cigarette hanging in the corner of her mouth. 
But Eustace not only lies on his back; he also watches. He is, indeed, primarily a watcher. His thoughts are visions; and his visions are stories. Endowed as he is with the reader’s eyes, Eustace is on a narratorial mission: he has to write a report of the things seen, experienced, and analyzed. One would be tempted to call him an autoethnographer, a self-writer who eats a lot of soup and is terrorized by a lot of external stimuli.

A typical Eustace, caughing his lungs off. Source: Broken Frontier
A large aristocratic house with large undivided spaces, this is the place where Eustace leads his life, feeling poorly by default. The immensity of the domestic space causes him to think of threats impossible to pin-point: the kinds of threats that feature in the makeup of any childhood: shadows, spiders, relatives (again), ghosts that aren’t quite there but could have been. 
These uncertainties lurking in the darkness of the house end up inhabiting the boy’s soul too. His own father believes, at one point, that Eustace is a creature from in-between the realms of life and death: 
G’Lord, boy looks just like a wraith.” 
Eustace’s sickness is not a thing easy to put up with. Of all the things he witnesses, this illness is his most personal experience. Something, it seems, worth fantasizing about: 
“During the night I had one of my coughing fits where I cough and cough... and I cough up such great strings of stuff that sometimes I think there’s going to be a set of magician’s hankies on the end.” 
This air of fantasy is all around the boy. However, it becomes a solid thing once Eustace’s uncle comes up on stage. Unlike Eustace, who is bound to his bed and has known nothing but what’s come into his field of vision, Uncle Lucien (or Lucy, for short) is distractingly knowledgeable about things of the world. He even knows how to play the magic tricks the boy has been imagining. 
Not sure if this is wrong, but, to me, Uncle Lucien looks very much like Borges (the glasses, the hairdo, the suit, the stare). In any case, he materializes in a quite Borgesian fashion: coming from under the boy’s bed, covered in cigarette smoke and treating life from the criminal side of things. Wanted for fraud and embezzlement, he hides in the boy’s room, hatching a plan that could be the envy of all criminals: 
“Oh, I’ve a little pad down at Cape Fondu. I shall bugger off there with the riches I’ve bilked and blow the lot in squalid excess, I’m very much afraid. Every businessman’s dream, really.” 
The uncle does his best to introduce the boy to things usually kept under signs of interdiction. Cocktails, for instance (well, more like the olives from a Martini, but still...), brandy (and that’s for real), juicy dinners (to replace the omnipresent tasteless soup), games of cards, the touch of women and many other such amenities of a life without restrictions. They even have a damn picnic in the room. In. The. Room. Unheard of before. Utterly foreign to the boy or to anyone else in his immediate entourage. 
Yes, Uncle Lucy introduces Eustace to women: Madame de Rigible and her maid, Oubliette (real name, Veronique), as well as a cohort of other prostitutes. They teach Eustace affection, they show him the non-maternal side of motherhood, they look at him as though he were himself a girl. 
So much, and in so short a time... Eustace is rapidly drawn into these outrageous pleasures. He learns to smoke, to drink his brandy, to womanize and to parrot the language of the underworld. He lives the dream at full speed. Because this is a dream, right? The dream of all boys who imagine life to be a hedonistic undertaking. But the maximum, as always, is too much. It’s too much to stay on the side of continuous pleasure and be pleased with it. And so Eustace, like all boys, finds his way back into the actual life. Mission accomplished: the lost soul returned, scars and awakenings included. So goes life, so goes it all. 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Teju Cole like an alien in Lagos

Full title: Every Day Is for the Thief
Author: Teju Cole
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 164 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Random House (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

There's no beating around the bush in Teju Cole's narrative of return. Every Day is for the Thief is a work with straightforwardness written all over. After fifteen or so years, the narrator returns to the Lagos of his adolescence. Fifteen years. That's a long time. Enough to find a place that has evolved in its own ways, turning into a creature that needs to be learned from scratch.
Teju Cole does a lot of learning in the book. Knocking his head around Nigeria's most recent problems, his narrator reenacts, to a considerable extent, the well-known paradigm of the paradise lost. Read the following, for instance: the view of a valley from a backside porch, once a familiar sight, now a drastically changed setting:
"The gorge is now far from pristine. Trees have been cut down, and tracts of land have been carved out for houses. Ugly buildings in various stages of completion now loom out of it. Clinging to the houses like barnacles are white satellite television dishes. [...] [But] viewed from a certain angle, the gorge can still look primeval, can still conform to a certain idea of Africa: no gasoline fumes, no gleaming skyscrapers, no six-lane highways. Africa as bush and thicket."
Africa as paradise…
Because of this loss, there’s a sense that the narrator is seeing these places with the eye of a complete stranger, one who has come as an alien and behaves like an alien. His alterity is apparent in the way he gets surprised by things, but also in the nature of the things he is surprised by. The Lagos he sees now reads like a hopeless locality where souls have been spoiled by the poverty (physical as well as moral) of the bodies that encase them.
Put simply, Lagos is a list of bad things. Illiteracy, bribery and corruption, home invasions, senseless crime, the infamous "419" (also known as the "Nigerian email scheme"), all of this makes an appearance in the book. All of it, and almost all recounted with the dry, distant tone of a tourist who is somewhat disappointed by the unsatisfactory return-on-investment. But this is only one aspect of the book. The factuality of the account (a taking-into-account, a series of inspired snapshots) is, in fact, riddled with holes in many places. There, the fabric of the “objective” film gives in to internal pressure. And so, a different kind of urbanity rises to light through these holes. It reminds the reader (and perhaps the author too) that games of life and death do get played there, on the streets of Lagos; and, most importantly, that these games don't follow the rules of matter-of-factness.
Through these ruptures, Lagos emerges like a castle built on even more horrible stories; horrible like the one about the child thief lynched by a completely desensitized mob, for the simple guilt of having snatched a lady's purse. A moment like this, described with refined economy of means, marks holes not only in the factual screen but also in the reader's progression into the text. When one reads these mini stories, one stops. One needs to stop, because one is likely not to believe one's eyes. One needs to rub one's eyes before proceeding again. Hold on. Did that just happen? Did flames just consume the fragile body of that child? Did I just read this?
These questions are real. They aren't made up, I promise. What's more, this under-layer of stories makes sense. It makes a lot of sense: a sense of fiction in the making. Nigeria, the land of schemers, the land of people who find original, if crude, ways of circumventing legality, is also (and precisely because of the above) a land of fiction. Here, events are no longer facts; they are narratives. Corrupt policemen who fight over the privilege of extortion are, just like the laborious authors of fake online personae, nothing but fiction mongers. They sell stories and get a very good price for them. It's why Nigeria, according to Cole, is an unsurpassable source of inspiration for literature:
"I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago. I feel sure that his material hobbled him. Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts. And sadder yet are those who haven't even a fraction of Updike's talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories. No such aridity here..."
Lagos is certainly made from a different fabric. Bricks are not as solid as stories. Concrete blocks have poor life expectancy compared to the solidity of the events that circulate and, by circulating, create tight networks.

Teju Cole. Source: CBC
What's really interesting in this order of un-bottled, un-canned fiction is the way official discourse becomes irrelevant: a fiction in itself. Most of the crimes mentioned in the book happen in the shadows of official texts: embassy staff taking undeclared taxes under a sign reading, false-promisingly, "Help us fight corruption"; policemen demanding bribes in full daylight, barely covered by the shadow of a billboard boasting: "Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes"; schemers laboring over deceiving email messages ("yahoo yahoos," they're called, and yes, with a Swiftian intention) in an internet cafe, right under a poster warning: "Any customer caught with 419 job will be handed over to the police." The insistence on these texts that loom over bald-shaven citizens like some ineffectual deities of legality, is transparent. The message is clear. Here is a land where pretense is the currency of social cohesion. The law so pathetically turned into strings of words devoid of any power: this, in itself, is the symbol of absolute depravity. To a Western eye, these empty texts, mere urban decorations (if even that), would be a reason to fall into panic attacks. The details are so numerous, the place seems to beg for the gift of obliteration. And that's what brings the end. With the next departure, which seems more definitive than the initial one, the narrator leaves Lagos behind like a distant image cropped out of Google Earth:
"The plane sheds ballast and rises above the city, rises above the countless small dots of light that are scattered like stars across the landscape, rises slowly into the cloudless harmattan night, easing the compression, rises deep into the ether, until there is nothing visible in the darkness below except for the earth's dark curve."
This distant land where stories are no longer perceptible retires into its thousand and one nights almost like a relief. How good it feels to take oneself out of this place; how unbearable it would have been to stay!

Thursday, 12 March 2015

George Saunders puts kindness into students' minds

Full title: Congratulations, By The Way. Some Thoughts on Kindness
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Nonfiction
Attributes: 64 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Random House (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Speaking of high principles of morality these days – even trying to think of it without falling into the trap of pathetic clichés – is, let's face it, a helluva job. You need to forecast the yawns and counteract the sarcastic half-smiles before they have a chance to take shape. And that's a serious task. Put this predicament into an environment given to excesses in clichéism, like the Academia, and wait for the disaster to come.
In most of the cases, it will be there. You can count on it.
And yet the art of speaking well (i.e. interestingly, inspiringly, yawn-killingly) of such principles doesn't seem to have become extinct. A genre in their own right, convocation addresses have, in George Saunders or others like him, examples of resilience.
In the speech given at the opening of the year 2013 at Syracuse, where he teaches Creative Writing, Saunders appears to have set up a challenge for himself, one of the kind that writers are well used to: how to speak of the unspeakable, of something said so many times before that even a whisper of its presence is able to cause lesions to the inner ear?
There's one big point George Saunders makes in his lecture. And that point is: get the hell out of your high horses and remember to show traces of humanity. When put into these less inspired words of mine, this sounds a little patronizing, seemingly harmful to the seemingly unripe minds of the seemingly uneducated beginners. But Saunders is gentler in his approach, although he cannot be accused of beating around the bush to fill the time with the usual usuals of inaugural lectures.
At the end of the day this is a call to attention. Hey, you young minds, he says, you, the presumably uneducated but unfortunately well-trained in the business of academic submission, wake up before you fall asleep. This journey of yours, this fabulous thing you're about to witness, the event for which your parents have been depriving you of the felicities of young age in order to save the money you're about to spend without knowing; this thing – take good note! – is a dangerous thing. It's dangerous because it will keep depriving you of the same things your parents have been keeping you away from. (Once again, Saunders is gentler, but I took the liberty of – what should I call it – improvise!)
The thing under scrutiny, the one of whose absence we suffer the most, the one that stands uprfront in the title of the address, is Kindness.

Hands up those who don't know what kindness means!
See? The easiest thing in the world. It takes no brain to recognize it. But that's exactly where Saunders is going with his demonstration. Easy as it may be to spot, we're all deprived of kindness to an embarrassing extent. To see this embarrassment at its most horrible manifestation, all you need to do is go scan your past. Things will become apparent.
"I can look back and see that I've spent  much of my life in a cloud of things that have tended to push 'being kind' to the periphery. Things like: Anxiety. Fear. Insecurity. Ambition. The mistaken belief that enough accomplishment will rid me of all that anxiety, fear, insecurity, and ambition. The belief that if I can only accrue enough - enough accomplishment, money, fame - my neuroses will disappear. I've been in this fog certainly since, at least, my own graduation day. Over the years I've felt: Kindness, sure - but first let me finish this semester, this degree, this book; let me succeed at this job, and afford this house, and raise these kids, and then, finally, when all is accomplished, I'll get started on the kindness. Except it never all gets accomplished. It's a cycle that can go on... well, forever."
Okay, the one who's looking back is older than the great majority of those who attended the event of Saunders' speech. So, one would imagine, they don't have much to reminisce. They need more life to teach them better, while the age of wisdom is still far away. But that's not it. One doesn't need to have attained the age of Methuselah to be kind. Kindness requires people to do it and people to receive its benefits. So humans all over. Insofar as we're animals that require society to flourish, the primary condition is already fulfilled: everything around us is made of and by people. So take your pick. Choose the person you like best (or if you like real challenges, chose the one you think you hate) and exercise your kindness on them. It's how things in general get done: by doing. There will be results. Guaranteed – by George Saunders himself.
"Do those things that incline you towards the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality - your soul, if you will - is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare's, bright as Gandhi's, bright as Mother Theresa's. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly."
So don't just moan that Shakespeare is too high. That's the kind of admonition you would expect from an academic, right? And yet. The easiest excuse (also the most detrimental) consists of saying "I'm not worthy." But do you know what's needed to overcome the fear? Eliminate the negation in the sentence! That’s all it takes. Hocus-pocus and it's done.
Be kind to one another!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Roman Muradov's tintinnabulating story of innocence lost

Full title: (In a Sense) Lost & Found
Author: Roman Muradov
Genre: Fiction, Graphic Novella
Attributes: 56 pages, paperback
Publisher: Nobrow Press (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Keyword: innocence. Not an abstract thing, not a concept, but something one might be inclined to call physical, or even better: palpable. So palpable, it’s like an object you can place and misplace. And when misplacing happens you must know you’re in trouble. As is the case with the heroine of this graphic novella, who finds out, one morning, that she has, oh God, lost her – lost her innocence.
The event of the loss is so terrible and so unexpected, it sets off a whole chain of other events, none of which is ever going to ask the essential question: How was it even possible?
Lost just like that, out of the blue, innocence becomes unpronounceable. In a sense, perhaps, but that’s just an attempt. The fuzzy characters who, for want of a good word, make reference to it, find only uncertain words to describe the object, only approximations. And so it becomes "the thingy," "the you-know-what," or it's simply expressed by means of an evasive ellipsis, the three full-stops of imprecise punctuation.
The victim, F. Premise, the young girl who's lost the non-entity formerly known as Innocence, is bound to set out on a journey of discovery. She’ll have to see where her innocence ended up, but she’s up for some surprises. To start with, she’s perhaps the only one baffled by the others' bafflement, since the loss is not as devastating to her as it seems to be to others. She says, in a tone of perfect naiveté:
"I certainly don't remember losing it, and I can't say I felt any different."
And that might be, to a certain extent, a reaction to the whole shebang put up by the father, "a man of harsh words and raw onions," who, as a result of this unpardonable loss, has grounded the girl, sent her back to her room, forced her not to leave the Premises. Typical of fathers, one might say.
But, young that she is, freshly innocence-less, F. (if that's her name) has no intention to obey the fatherly custody. She absconds by way of a surreptitious back window plus the convenient fire escape of their slightly aristocratic house, a building (or should I call it simply space?) shrouded in mystery and real, thick, expressive and obliterating shadows.
Escaped she is but not yet so, because the world, where you are nothing without your innocence (being a girl and all), takes no time to show F. the even darker side of things. Lost in a crowded bus where everyone seems able, with a peculiar exactitude, to see that she's without "the thingy," F. ends up on a couch. A couch in a bookstore. And there, in the grace of a benevolent bookseller who turns out to be a good-willing hoarder who hangs his teabags to dry on a clothes line, F. appears to find a way of being who she is without the ‘benefit’ of an intact "you-know-what." Henceforth, more events – but this would require some spoilers, and that wouldn't be nice of the undersigned.

Roman Muradov. Source: The Shed
But there are other things to say. For instance, that it's quite cute to see Muradov’s way with words. In this little graphic charm of his where he plays the role of a witty language-twister, and where the story in the drawings unfolds in monochromatic tones of scarlets and oranges and deep blacks, even the intercom system has its manner of clicking: it once says "kliek," and then says "cleek," as if the desire to engage in wordplay has affected even objects. Not to mention that a match, when struck to light a pipe, says – could it be by accident? – well, "click." And not to mention (again!) some men, like the father, for instance, whose speech lines are marked by peculiarities of orthography. Nota bene: orthography, and not diction. As when he calls his favorite vegetables “anyons,” or when he admonishes his daughter: “If someone seizure walking down the street like this…” (where the “seizure” is, obviously,  to be read as “sees you”).
It's clear, I hope, that this is meant to be a world on/of paper. There is, indeed, a ‘papery’ distinction to be noted in the way words take up their own shapes, as above. It's why, I guess, the many anonymous urbanites met along the way (i.e. the people in the street, who remain unknown no matter what) communicate with each other in speech bubbles filled with nonsense: nonsense that's really strings of recognizable scribbles, like real words, yet words that remain scribbles; they mean nothing at all.
But paper is important in many other senses. Here’s one: the story unfolds in an environment where a lot of note-writing, newspaper-reading, book-selling, memoir-composing and world-making take place. Not to give anything away, but this is a story where the protagonist herself ends up writing her own story in a cyclical way, taking the reader back where it had all begun:
"F. Premise awoke one morning from troubled dreams to find that her innocence had gone missing."
Add to this the pages upon pages of images without words, where you find yourself caught up in an intense game of clue-searching, scanning the drawings with an eye of someone who's awoken to the reality of a different, visually-enticing literacy: the literacy of cartoon readers. Add this to the mix, and it becomes easier to see how this world of innocence lost and found is a world of paper and pen.  In a sense…