Sunday, 23 April 2017

Book of the Month: Bringing Nothing to the Party (Paul Carr)




Paul Carr was a bright boy. His parents hoped that he would one day become a lawyer. After A levels he enrolled into Nottingham University and studied law. While at University Paul, whose love affair with technology had begun at the age of seven when his parents bought him a second hand ZX spectrum, discovered that he had a flair for writing. From his first year digs he created a web-site called Zingin.com which was a sarcastic version of the then powerful Yahoo directory of useful and entertaining websites. Carr kept these activities a secret. Difficult as it is to believe these days, Internet was not cool in 1997, and Carr had ambitions of making a transition to the respectable mainstream publishing. Which happened sooner than he expected when he was commissioned by the publishers ‘Prentice Hall’ to convert his ‘web material’ into a book format. This necessitated frequent trips to London, and, since the young Carr still could not bring himself to reveal what he got up to in his room late at nights (writing for and on his website), he became a source of much speculation amongst his peers, who began to suspect that he was a closet homosexual and his lover was dying of AIDS in London.

After getting his law degree despite attending a total of three lectures in three years, Carr headed straight to London. He had a clear goal: he wanted to be famous; and successful; and rich. And he wanted to be all these very quickly. He was a published author—Prentice had brought out his books—and he was publishing a regular column in the Guardian, writing mainly on the dot com industry. He was also sleeping his way through as many women as possible between the ages of twenty to forty. He was invited for the innumerable dos and networking events, arranged by the uber-networkers to break down ‘social inefficiencies’, where he enjoyed the free booze and meals, and partied late into the night, waking up the next day wherever he did, remembering neither how he ended up there nor how his trousers came to be back to front. So successful were these events, in which tycoons, who had not yet begun to shave, gave one minute tips to the throngs of wannabes, on how to reach the promised land of unreasonable wealth, that soon a whole industry was created around them by men who called themselves web-entrepreneurs, worth millions of dollars. Carr also rubbed shoulders with men— most of these dot com entrepreneurs were men, outnumbering women by a ratio of twenty to one (Carr charmingly describes these networking events as sausage fests), who were all young—some of them were probably not eligible to vote in an election or take a driving test when they made their first million. These boys/men had struck gold by launching websites, which were essentially different versions based on the theme of social networking, targeted at different groups defined by age, sex, interests, and geography; or by starting websites bringing together all the porn websites (and dividing them in various categories  that defied ordinary imaginations); or by starting Net-based businesses—say, starting a company which allowed you to prepare your own business cards on the Net; or one that helped you to draw your very own signature cartoons; or selling chess boards where the chess pieces were replaced by vodka glasses (every time you took a piece, you also took a vodka shot)—; or by coming up with breathtakingly original ideas such as setting up a website of 10,000 tiny squares, each square consisting of ten pixels. All the ‘businesses’—yes even the one which had nothing but empty squares—were then sold for sums (to companies which had made their fortunes with similar strategies) most of us would have difficulty in deciding how many zeros they contained after the first number, which could be anything from 1 to 9. In just a few years impecunious nerds in crummy digs, wearing baggy jeans and dirty T-shirts (who wouldn’t have had girl-friends unless they invented them), were transformed into incredibly wealthy nerds wearing designer baggy jeans and horrendously expensive trainers, on whose every word hung implausibly hot women in clothes worn either by supermodels or high class hookers, who learnt not to mind either the flush of acne or the slime on the buck teeth of these teenage millionaires.

It did not take Carr Long to realise that he was not going to realise his dream of becoming rich beyond imagination by hacking out columns for the Guardian. He might be rubbing shoulders with the internet tycoons, but he was not on their radars—he was one of the hangers-on who was a sometime-amusing-most-of-the-time-irritating company, and who needed to be tolerated, humoured even, for a few minutes so that he would not bitch about them, may even put in a flattering word, in his column. He might freeload on their drinks and stuff his face with the canapés as much as he liked, but he would be as much away from their league as Comrade Corbyn is from Auntie May. Carr smelt the sweet smell of success, but it was not coming from his kitchen. He craved the glamour, the success, the wealth. And he wanted it quickly. There was only one thing to do. He had to become an entrepreneur himself.

Bringing Nothing to the Party is Paul Carr’s highly entertaining account of his disastrous attempt to become a web entrepreneur (and a millionaire). When Carr decided to take the plunge into the whirlpool of Web businesses, he had managed to bring a degree of stability to his life. In addition to contributing columns to broadsheets, he had, in partnership with a woman who had approached him all those years ago to write satirical books on Web, started a publishing company called ‘Fridaynight Project’, and had successfully published books which were essentially compendiums of articles uploaded on some or more of the websites. Carr decided to risk all this—nothing ventured nothing gained—and took on the ‘online’ aspect of the ‘Fridaynight Project’, giving up his share in the parent company. He was confident (probably not without reason) that he had inside knowledge of the industry. He had also convinced himself that he had developed useful contacts in the previous 3-4 years, having impressed some or more of the entrepreneurs by his charm, witticism, and the force of his personality. All he needed was a ‘brilliant idea’ that would capture the attention of those who had so much money it was burning holes in their trouser pockets and were looking for ways to spend it on fledgling ventures (and obtain large shares) which, if they became successful, would rake in more money, which they could invest in some more ventures (and so it would go on; it’s a vicious cycle).

Carr was joined by two others—an American woman from his University, called Savannah, and an aspiring novelist called Karl Webster—and he launched ‘Fridaycities.Com’, which was a networking site where, if I have understood it correctly (which I may not have), people exchanged titbits and information about the cities they lived in. The subscribers were also awarded points, or kudos, depending on the quality of their inputs. Cunningly, so Carr thought, he also wanted the website to be a quasi-dating website. So, the users were encouraged to use tic boxes in front of the pre-prepared statements (‘I find him sexy’ etc.) which were attached to the profiles of each subscriber. The use of the website was free; however, if you wanted to get to know other subscribers, for example, if you had a burning desire to know who found your profile sexy and your contribution witty, you could do it only by subscribing to a premium service which charged you annually £10. (If, like me, you are wondering why anyone would become a regular subscriber to such websites, you are obviously an anachronism and ought to be sent to live with the Pennsylvania Amish.) As for Carr’s confidence that he would be able to get funding from entrepreneurs and VCs (Venture Capitalists) for his ‘business’, you can’t really fault the poor lad. Remember, this is an industry where a website full of empty squares was hailed as a breakthrough and sold for a million dollars. Carr managed to get Angus Bankes, who had raked in millions developing and selling Web business, as the non-executive chairman of their company; he managed to convince his parents and uncle to part with 50 grands of their hard-earned cash; and, with the zeal of a Born Again Christian, he began to woo ‘the angels’—these are the aforementioned multimillionaires who are prepared to part with their easily-won cash—so that they would invest in his business venture. And failed every time. Every e-tycoon he met was interested in the idea, saw the potential in the idea, agreed that it was a damn good concept, and predicted that it would be the next big thing in the dot com business; but did not actually invest money in it. Carr tried every trick in the book—he even learnt the Powerpoint presentation and changed the name of his web-business from ‘Fridaycities.com’ (‘crap’) to ‘Kudocities.com’ (so much better)—and sucked up to these men like a vacuum cleaner; however, at the end of one year he was forced to admit that he had reached the end of the road. No one was willing to invest in his company. The idea may have the potential, but the business had no future. Carr accepted defeat; accepted that he was not cut out to be a web-entrepreneur; made the (inevitable) discovery that he was much happier when he was a two-penny hack (the free booze and dinners might also have gone some way towards maintaining his felicitous state); and decided that there was something in the notion that on the whole it was a sound plan to stick with what you were good at rather than attempt something (you were not good at) only because you saw others doing it and some succeeding. ‘Fridaycities (or ‘Kudocities). com joined thousands of other similar web-business ventures that do not make it, and disappeared into ether forever.

Bringing Nothing to the Party is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the over-hyped world of dot com industry at the turn of the century, where one swallow often made a summer. Carr successfully enlivens the Sybaritic world which appears to be unending successions of decadent gatherings. It is also an honest (and often hilarious) account of Carr’s own alcohol-fuelled capers, which, more than once, end up in him pissing off the very people he needs to schmoose with. Running in parallel with Carr’s attempt to secure a funding for his business venture is the story of the love triangle involving him and two American women, one (called Savannah) who is his business partner, and the other (called Kate), one of the subscribers to the test-site of his business. With self-deprecating humour and candidness Carr tells how he achieves the difficult feat—he invites both of them at the same pub when he is rip-roaringly drunk and afterwards has the mother of all blackouts—of upsetting and losing both the women.

Carr has the gift of a raconteur. The book which, at times, has the feel of a shaggy-dog story, and is full of comical anecdotes—the one involving Carr hiring a singing and swearing gynaecologist, who specialises in parody songs that border on misogyny, for the launch of his business, is toe-curlingly funny— crackles throughout with his humour and wit.

Towards the end of this very engaging and entertaining memoir (if that is what it is), Carr recounts how Kate, his jilted ex, started a blog dedicated to dissing him. On the blog the ex told the story, warts and all, of her one year on and off relationship with Carr, which portrayed him as a commitment-phobic sociopath who had an unusual relationship with truth. Kate, Carr informs us, went to great lengths to get in touch with everyone, of either sex, whom Carr had crossed swords with—and there were many—in the previous few years, and invited them to add their stories to the blog. Worse, she encouraged them to dish the dirt on the failed internet entrepreneur on their websites, which were then linked to her own blog. The result? If you typed ‘Paul Carr’ in the Google search box, the Jezebel’s blog site was the first one to pop up on the search engine for reasons that are too technical and beyond my comprehension. What the woman did, was apparently worse than a ‘Google Bomb’. And please don’t ask me what a ‘Google Bomb’ is. It is what, Carr informs us, Zoe-the Girl-with-a-One-Track-Mind- Margolis  did to Nicholas Hellen, the Sunday Times Acting News Editor, who ‘outed’ her as the woman writing salacious stories on her blog, describing in detail her bedroom adventures, and is not very nice, although, obviously, not as malicious as Kate did to Paul Carr. Carr’s name was mud. I wouldn’t have known any of this had I not read Carr’s book. Perhaps there is a lesson in this.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Abortion and Masturbation: are they Comparable?


A Democratic representative in Texas, called Jessica Farrar, has filed a bill to regulate masturbatory emissions in men. The bill proposes that men be fined $ 100 if they ejaculate outside of an appropriate receptacle. The appropriate receptacle, you might have guessed, is a vagina (you’d hope, with a real woman attached to it) or, if it can’t be a vagina, then any receptacle approved by a medical facility. Any emission that does not end in either (or any) of the certified receptacles will be considered an act against an unborn child and the man will be charged with the failure to preserve the sanctity of life.

Jessica Farrar introduced this satirical bill to highlight her opposition to the anti-abortion measures advocated by the Republican politicians.

I must confess that I don’t get the anti-abortion stance of some sections of the societies all over the world. I mean, I get it that Catholic Church opposes all forms of abortion, because the Church holds the sanctity of life so dear. So, in vulgate, the Church is saying that if you f**k and the woman gets pregnant, then that’s it. Whether the woman can afford it or not, whether she likes children or not, whether the f**ker (in the strict technical sense of the word) wants to stick around or not, she has to give birth to the child. (There are other ways of getting pregnant without actual f**king, such as artificial insemination; but I should guess that if you have gone all the way to the IVF to have a baby, and it works, you would not want to abort the foetus.) That is OK. It’s OK in the sense that it is, like, the opinion of the Church. Those who are Catholics and think that it is OK for the Church to be so prescriptive about their personal lives, are welcome to follow it. But what about those who are not Catholics, or, who are Catholics but want to have the right to abort? If you are in Texas, you are f**ked (figuratively, this time, although, if you have become pregnant, you have also been literally f**ked), as, it looks like, the only way to get an abortion if you live in Texas (and are a woman, a pregnant woman, it goes without saying) is a twisted hanger in a dodgy back-street.

I therefore am in fully empathy (you should try it, empathy; I have been giving it a go for a while, and I am slowly getting better at it; I allow myself only a smirk these days—and do not guffaw—when a confused geriatric runs over a toddler in ASDA with his trolley and the toddler’s mother eloquently brings to the geriatric’s notice his many character-flaws (and to everyone else’s, within the hearing distance, that she learnt her eloquence in the gutter) with the women in Texas, not because they live in Texas which, I am sure, is a fine state in America, and certainly not because they are women, but because they can’t get an abortion which I think should be their right, irrespective of their motivations for abortion.

Abortion, let me make it clear hear and now, is a boon to the society, like Salvation Army, Amnesty International, and PoundLand. It is a bringer of inestimable, indescribable good and happiness.

I wonder, though, whether introducing the anti-masturbatory bill, however satirical, is the right way of going about it. It can’t be that everyone who supports the anti-abortion bill dangles a penis between his thighs. It seems statistical improbability to me that not a single woman supports the anti-abortion bill. The bill does an injustice to all those lonely men who sit in front of their computer (a sock in one hand) staring intensely (and empathically) at women with fat breasts breastfeeding their two-year olds on YouTube videos (uploaded strictly  for educational purpose), who might be wholeheartedly in support of women’s right to abort. These men might be creepy (you might die of fright) but their hearts are in the right place.

What can, then, be done? Stopping men from tossing off will, I am sorry to say, not work. The women could leave Texas. That is no doubt a cop-out option, but, in its support, it could be argued that sometimes retreat is the wisest, if not the bravest, decision. My suggestion is that all these Republican politicians bringing anti-abortion measures (or, even better, the Pope) should be made to read David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go. If Lodge’s wise and humane musings on the Catholic Church, the pill, and the rhythm method fail to change the hearts of Republican Politicians (and the Pope), I don’t know what will.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Trans and Cis




The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently had a spot of bother after she suggested that the experiences of transgender women were different from the cisgender women (I believe this is the term for those individuals who are born women, and either are happy to live as women, or, if they aren’t, don’t make a fuss about it—so we don’t know).

You might argue that it is impossible for Adichie, or any other cisgender woman, to talk with authority about the experiences of trans-gender women, because Adichie was not born a man, and therefore cannot possibly know what it is like to be a man, and, by extension, what it is like to be convinced that one would be better off as a woman, because in spite of one’s chromosome and anatomy one is convinced in one’s mind that one ought to be a woman.

Adichie’s explanation as to why she is reluctant to consider trans-gender women as—for the want of better phrase—real women was neither medical nor psychological; it was socio-political. Adichie said in her interview that if you lived in this world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switched gender, it was difficult for Adichie to accept that you (a transgender woman) could equate your experience with the experience of a woman who had always lived as a woman, and not enjoyed the privileges as a man.

Adichie’s answer to this dilemma? Trans-women are trans-women, and cis-women are cis-women.

Adichie’s argument risks attracting the accusation, among other things, of making sweeping judgments about the privileges the men supposedly enjoy, and women don’t. She tries to link it to this peculiar condition, which, I believe, is recognised as some sort of psychiatric condition—although I’d wager a hundred pounds that such individuals, while they may experience a variety of emotional distress, do not consider the core issue, that they are born in the wrong body, as a psychiatric condition.

Going by Adichie’s argument, a man, who wants to be a woman for reasons best known to him, is, therefore, willing to give up the privileges of men. Why might he do that? I read that the Indian leader of the twentieth century, Gandhi, who led his country to freedom from British Imperialism, gave up on the Western attire and went through his life wearing a loin cloth. Gandhi took this step because he felt uneasy about wearing Western (or, for that matter, Eastern) dress that would cover his spindly legs and chest hair, when he saw that his countrymen were going around semi-naked because they were so impoverished under the British Raj that they could not clothe themselves adequately. Gandhi, who was a Western-educated barrister, and, at one stage, had a flourishing practice, decided that he too was going to live like his poor countrymen: if they could not afford to wear clothes and went around half-naked, so would he. You might say that Gandhi was displaying an extreme form of empathy. I should doubt very much that the men who choose to be women, and go all the way to have reconstructive surgery, do this because they want to experience, in a Gandhiesque manner, the disadvantages of womanhood. These men want their penises chopped off because they don’t like their penises; they want to have vaginas, instead.

And what about women who want to be men? This trans-business, surely, is not confined only to men who are desperate to be women. Adichie makes no comments about women who have had reconstructive surgeries, and, with hormonal treatment, boast cobwebs on their chins. One would, going by Adichie’s argument, suppose, that these trans-men can’t be real men because they have not enjoyed the privileges of being men right from birth.

Not surprisingly, many trans-women (if that is the correct term to describe these individuals) were unhappy at not being considered for the privileges of being full-women (or cis-women), although Adichie seems to think that it is no picnic going through life as a woman, and you’d be better off as men if you love the privileges (what might these be?). You can understand the dismay of the trans-women. They have gone to get lengths to achieve the appearance of what they always believed themselves to be in their minds, only to be told by some uppity novelist, who does not look like she has lacked privileges any time, that sorry, you are not a real woman because you lived as a man. It’s a bit like telling Nigel Farage that after all he is not going to be the British ambassador to the USA, when in his mind (and in the mind of, or, what passes for the mind of Donald Trump), he is the most suitable chap for the job, and, moreover, has gone to great lengths to improve the relationship between the UK and the USA now that we shall crash out of the Euro. Life is a bitch (or a trans-bitch).

I have not personally known any trans-gender individuals. Years ago I vaguely knew a woman who was married to an IT specialist. I had met her husband in a social do. He was a pot-bellied man with an Arafat-style beard and thick glasses. He had a square face, rubbery lips, and kept one hand in the pocket of his trousers, twiddling, I hoped, loose change. He looked rather dull and did not speak much. The woman, on the other hand, was physically attractive, if slightly on the bigger side (nothing wrong with being a full breasted woman who likes chocolate gateaux) and had an air about her, the way she looked at you, which suggested that she had just finished a marathon sex session. She also had opinions on most matters which she did not hesitate to express. I had also heard that a few years earlier the woman had had an affair with one of our colleagues in the company. In the course of the evening the main topic of the woman’s conversation was how she was going to have children, and how a year-long maternity leave (even on full pay) was not enough. The husband sat listening unenthusiastically to all this. I asked the woman how long the two had been married for. They had been married for almost ten years. I asked her whether they had now decided to have children. This turned out to be a mistake. The woman became tearful, and I was subjected to a tedious account of the unsuccessful efforts the couple had had over the years to have children. I wanted to tell her, “Look woman, I am just trying to make small talk, seeing as you have been rabbiting on about maternity leave for the past half an hour.” But I didn’t, because that would have been rude. “We even had David’s sperm count done,” the woman announced at a volume that could have been heard in the next restaurant. We all waited to hear what she was going to say. “He is OK,” the woman revealed after a dramatic pause. My only thought was that the talk of maternity leave was a bit premature seeing as the woman had trouble conceiving. The couple, I learned later (by this time the woman had left the company), did not have children. In fact the marriage broke down, after the woman found the husband dressed in women’s underclothes late one night in the garden shade. (Poor woman. She thought that all the lingerie he bought was for her). The man with the beard is now a woman (probably as photogenic as psoriasis). He provides support to trans-gender individuals, and is also writing a novel (what a surprise!).  

I wonder what the square faced man with rubbery lips would have made of Adichie’s comments about the male privileges. To me, Adichie’s comments do not ring true. If she were to say that she did not consider a trans-woman a woman because, let’s face it, no amount of cosmetic surgery is going to change your chromosomal make-up; you may shave off your chest hair and have false breasts hoisted on your chest, and pay (or, if you are in the UK, get the tax-payers to pay) to create a vagina that is literally and figuratively going nowhere, you will never have other female internal organs such as the uterus and ovaries, you are never going to menstruate, you will never have children, and, most importantly, you are never going to be as good as the real women at being upset, that would have been accurate. I should hazard a guess (and it will be a guess) that most men would not be interested in a facsimile when they can get the real version, if you get my drift. Would you go on a vacation to Slough when you can go to London? (Even the tourist office in Slough probably advises the tourists that they should get the f**k out of Slough on the first available train, and go to London).

That’s what Germaine Greer—bless her!—the old battle-axe did a couple of years ago. Greer said: “Just because you lop off your d**k and then wear a dress doesn't make you a ******* woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a ******* cocker spaniel. . . I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his d**k chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.”

There was a predictable furore over Greer’s comments, and I think some lecture of hers arranged at Cardiff University was cancelled, because some student body with the collective maturity of minus 250, and outraged members of Idiots’ Anonymous were threatening to throw tomatoes at her.

Greer does have a point, it could be argued, which she expressed in her customary forthright manner (she is Australian, so she hasn’t got the British talent, despite living in Britain for decades, of saying unpalatable truth without sounding offensive).

If you ask me, the issue is the sense of entitlement. Not happy that you are going bald? Have a hair-transplant. Unhappy that your tits are too small? Insert breast implants. Ashamed of your chipolata, and want a big fat sausage?  Go under the surgeon’s knife. Not prepared to age gracefully? Have a botox. Not happy that you are a man (or a woman), and would rather be a woman (or a man)? No worries; the medical science will make it possible for you. Except that it won’t. You can inject yourself with a bathful of hormones and chop off as many body parts as you want, the reality of your chromosomes will not change. Psychiatrists and psychologists may disagree. They will lecture you on the intolerable inner turmoil these individuals face because of their conviction that they are born in the wrong body, and the only way to bring some sort of inner peace is for them to be allowed to have series of medical and surgical procedures so that they can go through rest of their lives as parodies of sex they can never genuinely be. OK, being eaten up by misery usually does not improve things, but, surely, there must be other ways to deal with this self-pity (preferably those which do not put extra burden on the cash-strapped NHS). You could try Stoicism, or Mindfulness . . . whatever. Somehow train your mind to accept that you can’t get everything in life you want. You were born a man (or a woman). Deal with it. If you are not able to crow that is probably because you are not a rooster. You are a hen. Learn to live with it.

There are some barriers between men and women which simply can’t be breached: men can go to great lengths to look and live like women, they can’t be women. Women, similarly, can never be men. That is the biological reality.



Saturday, 25 March 2017

Book of the Month: NW (Zadie Smith)




British writer Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW (for North West London in which the novel is set) is the state of London novel.

The novel, set broadly in three sections (there are five parts), tells the story of the lives of the three main protagonists of the novel: Leah Hanwell, Felix, and Keisha (or Natalie). A peripheral character, Nathan makes intermittent appearances.

In the first section we meet Leah Hanwell, a thirty something woman of Irish descent. As the novel opens Leah is fleeced by a drug-addict, whom Leah has known over the years. The drug-addled woman, who goes by the name of Shar, enters Leah’s flat one afternoon and manages to relieve Leah of thirty pounds by telling her the faintly possible (but mostly improbable) story of her child having been taken to a hospital (she can’t tell Leah the name of the hospital, which, you would have thought, should have made most people a tiny bit suspicious). Afterwards Leah is suitably berated by her French-African husband (Michel) and her mother for her gullibility. Shar, as it happens, went to the same state school Leah went to and lives in the nearby poor estate where Leah grew up. However, when Leah (and on one occasion, Michel) unwisely try to confront her, Shar’s companion gives them the message to leave Shar alone. Leah has a school friend Keisha who lives in a nearby, very posh area with her successful husband. Keisha is of Caribbean descent. Her family lived next door to Leah’s, and the two girls have been close friends since their school days. Keisha has left her council house life behind her and has become a successful barrister. She has also changed her name to Natalie. Natalie Blake lives with her husband, Francesco—the product of a brief liaison between a rich Italian countess and a Caribbean train driver—works in the city. Leah herself has a university degree in History but works in a council-run office for black teenagers. Leah and Michel have managed to move out of Caldwell, the run-down council estate in Willesden, of her childhood, and move into a nearby and marginally better (but still working class) area. Michel, in his quest to become rich, has taken to online investing. Leah and Michel meet regularly with Natalie and Frank, and are frequently invited to their dinner parties. Such invitations are a source of great pride for Michel (who runs a hairdressing saloon) although Leah suspects that her childhood friend is bored by the association and continues to invite them to the parties only out of an old sense of loyalty even though these meetings are beginning to irritate her. As the first section ends Lea and Michel are meeting with Natalie and Frank at the house of one of Frank’s rich friends to watch the Notting Hill carnival from a vantage point and safe distance. It is while they are at the friend’s house that they hear on the television that there has been a stabbing in their area, of a man called Felix.

In the brief second part / section of the novel we meet the murdered Felix, in the days leading to his pointless and senseless murder. Felix, a young black man, is a recovering drug addict (I think that is the phrase). He used to deal in and supply drugs, too. But Felix has turned the corner. He no longer takes drugs, he has got a steady job in a garage, and he is in a relationship with a woman with whom he hopes to settle down. He has taken to visiting his Rastafarian father, Lloyd, perpetually high on the cannabis airplane (and in urgent need of a shower).  Indeed so suffused is Felix with the zeal to inform other drug addicts, including his former customers, about his path to recovery that on the day of his murder he visits an aristocratic white woman, now a junkie, with whom he has slept in the past. Felix informs the junkie that he has moved to the next level; he would no longer be sampling her wares, as he has a girl-friend of his own who is prepared to sleep with him and without demanding drugs in return. The next level Felix is talking about turns out regrettably to be the next world as he is knifed in the streets of Caldwell who have taken offence to his suggestion to them in a packed London underground train that one of them should consider taking his feet off the opposite seat so that a pregnant white woman could sit there.

The rest of the sections of the novel tell the story of Natalie Blake, Leah Hanwell’s friend, the reader. The third part, which is the longest, traces Natalie’s life from her impoverished working class childhood in the 1980s to her present day opulence. (It is never really explained why she changes her name from Keisha to Natalie). Along the way the reader meets a host of secondary characters such as Rodney—Natalie’s first lover and a failed lawyer—and Frank whom she ends up marrying and having two kids with, and whom, as the years go by, she falls out of love with. Natalie takes to moonlighting as a prostitute, indulging in gleesome threesomes with folks who have a thing for what is acronymically described on the website on which Natalie has opened an account as BF.  It is inevitable that Frank will stumble on to what Natalie is getting up to (or down to depending on what her customers wish). This leads to a confrontation of sorts between Natalie and Frank with Natalie (briefly) walking out on her family. In the brief fourth part Natalie runs into Nathan, a bright boy from their school who has now become a homeless junkie. In the company of Nathan Natalie takes a detour of the area, from Willesden across Hampstead Heath to Hornsey lane. In the (even briefer) final part of the novel Natalie has returned to the loveless marriage and is impervious to her husband’s suggestion that she should find another place for herself. She then visits her childhood friend Leah where she remembers an incident from her (you hope) brief career as a prostitute which she is convinced will throw light on the unfortunate murder of the unfortunate Felix.

NW, Smith’s fourth novel, was published after a gap of almost six years after the 2006 Orange Prize winner On Beauty. It has flashes of brilliance but ultimately fails to enthuse. The plot, such as it is, is vapour thin. The novel is more like a hotchpotch of novellas which are loosely linked, as the same characters appear in them. You might say that the same underlying theme binds the different sections of the novel: the life in the twenty-first century London. 

There is no settled feel to the narrative style. The first section is narrated in a James Joyce-stream-of-consciousness style. While there may be fans of this style I am not one of them. Stream-of-consciousness is not my—what’s the term stronger than ‘not my cup of tea’? In keeping with the Joycean influence Smith has done away with speech marks in this section, replacing them with dashes to indicate spoken speech. (She is not the first modern author to do this. Nadine Gordimer prefers this style, first used by Joyce, apparently, in all of her novels.) At times, the use of dashes makes things more confusing than they are already, as the characters change contexts mid-sentences. And since what they are saying is most of the time utterly banal, it is difficult to see what purpose it has other than testing the reader’s patience. Mercifully Smith jettisons the stream-of-consciousness style and returns to the more traditional territory (with punctuation marks) in the second part (involving Felix), which—peppered with astute observations of London life—is the most engaging part of the novel; also the funniest, until the reader is stunned into silence by Felix’s sudden and tragic death. The third, and the longest, part of the novel which tells the story of Natalie Blake is uneven. It consists of 185 chapters, many of which a paragraph long, sometimes comprising only a single sentence. Perhaps Smith is trying to give an idea of Natalie Blake’s life in a series of snapshots. You might not find it to your taste as you are jerked from one chapter to the next; reading this section is a bit like riding in a car on a road full of potholes. The chapters have got titles, some of which, if you have the interest and the aptitude (I don’t) to decipher their links to cultural phenomena, you might find interesting. The narrative style is detached—the protagonist is frequently referred to as Natalie Blake or Ms Blake. Keisha Blake changes her name to Natalie, probably to distance herself from her working class black Kilburn background; but she finds herself returning, time and again, to her parents’ flat rather like a murderer returning to the scene of crime. Natalie also has a secret life; that of a prostitute. Smith leaves it to the reader to figure out why this highly successful barrister, married to a rich socialite, feels the need to visit strangers in their apartments and have torrid sex, and walk the streets wearing skimpy skirts under which, as Felix observes, minutes before his death, the muscles of her buttocks ripple. You struggle to make any sense of it; it is unconvincing to say the least. In the final part of the novel it is linked to the murder of Felix in a very contrived manner.

Zadie Smith once wrote (while responding to James Wood’s criticism of White Teeth, Smith’s debut, and most famous, novel) that writers do not write what they want; they write what they can.

Zadie Smith (real name Sadie Smith) is generally recognized to be a prodigious talent, ever since she burst on the British literary scene in 2000 with White Teeth, her brilliant (if flawed) debut novel.  She has been selected twice in the Granta list of the best young British writers in 2003 and 2013.  I have read all of Smith’s subsequent novels up to NW, of which I liked The Autograph Man, perhaps her least successful novel, the most. On Beuty, which fetched Smith the prestigious Orange Prize is beautifully written, but is so heavily inspired by E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (without any official acknowledgement, if I remember correctly), you could almost call it derivative. NW, Smith’s fourth is, for me the most disappointing; but she remains one of my favourite writers.



Monday, 27 February 2017

Book of the Month: Lights Out in Wonderland (DBC Pierre)




DBC (Dirty But Clean) Pierre (real name Peter Finley) won several literary awards with his debut novel, Vernon God Little, The Booker Prize being one of them. He also won the Whitbread (as it was called then) First Novel award. The novel had attracted mixed reviews, if I recall correctly. I don’t remember much of the novel, which read once it became available in paperback other than that it took me a while to get into it, but, once I did, I enjoyed it thoroughly; I thought the novel was very funny.

What I also recall about Vernon God Little is was an easy enough novel to read. Which, Pierre’s third novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, isn’t.

The protagonist of Lights Out in Wonderland is twenty-five-year old Gabriel Brockwell, the only child of middle-class, divorced, British parents. His father, before he took to Capitalism ‘like a paedophile’,  had travelled to Germany after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and, in the company of an East German, had run a club called Pego in the former East Berlin. When the novel opens we meet Gabriel in a private rehab, where he is admitted with his father’s money, determined to take his discharge so that he can commit suicide. Why does Gabriel want to kill himself? Gabriel wants to kill himself because he is disillusioned. Gabriel is anti-Capitalist, and is heavily involved in anti-Capitalist activism in the company of others who purport to loathe Capitalism with the same fervour as he. Except that they don’t, really, and are treating this enterprise as a way to earn money; which, to Gabriel’s horror, it does. So Gabriel is going to kill himself; but not just yet. He wants to have one last hurrah, the mother of all bacchanals (a word that gets repeated in the novel several times), before he removes himself from the human pool. He then flies to Japan, having siphoned off money from the account of his anti-capitalist organization—much to the disgust of his colleagues, all of whom, as we have seen, Gabriel regards as fraud, for they have accumulated money for the anti-Capitalist organization, using capitalist methods. Why Japan? Because Japan is where Gabriel’s childhood friend, a South African called Nelson Smuts, who has become a genius chef, a hybrid of Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, works as a chef in the kind of restaurant where the likes of me would have to take out a second mortgage for an evening’s meal. Smuts, if it is possible, is even wackier than Gabriel. The hoity-toity Japanese restaurant Smuts works in specialises in barely legal (probably illegal) haute cuisine such as poisonous offal and ovaries of blowfish which, if you miscalculate the proportions (as Smuts does), and serve the wrong organ, can kill the diners instead of imparting delicious tingling to their lips. When the two rabble-rousers meet they waste little time in getting wasted on industrial quantities of cocaine and alcohol. The inevitable happens. Smuts serves the wrong fish or the wrong organ of the fish to one of the customers—a gangster, no less—who dies. This lands Smuts in prison facing charges of first degree murder, and Gabriel on his way to Berlin where he once lived as a child, in search of his father’s former business partner when the two of them ran Pego. Gabriel has been led to believe by his father that he did not cash in his part of the business when he returned to England from Berlin, and, technically, the German partner, Gerd, owes him money. Gabriel believes that through his contact with the partner, he would be able to host another bacchanal for the mysterious Frenchman Didier Le Basque, who specialises in arranging decadent parties for the uber-rich (read bankers and financiers) of such uber-decadence the likes of which are beyond the imaginations of you and me who think eating in Michele Rouex Junior is the height of sophistication. (How would arranging a decadent party at his father’s former club save Smuts? Don’t ask me. We are invited to consider that Le Basque is the provider of the illegal fish to the Japanese restaurant and, since the man has acquired outlandish wealth by arranging outlandish bacchanals with outlandish gastronomic themes for outlandishly rich clients at outlandish venues, he would be loath to part with the services of the outlandishly talented Nelson Smuts.)  

In the Berlin section, the novel becomes less surreal than—though as absurd as—the Tokyo section. Gabriel manages to locate Gerd in the about-to-be-closed Tempelhof airport. It turns out that Gerd owes Gabriel’s father nothing; it was, in fact, Gabriel’s father who fleeced Gerd off money and then legged it to England. Gabriel, despite hiccoughs (such as the disastrous night out with a German aristocrat—Le Basque’s middle man in German—, a couple of whores, and a basinful of illicit drugs), is, nevertheless, able to arrange the greatest bacchanal ‘since the fall of Rome’ with Le Basque’s money and contacts, which includes delicacies (the novel gives recipes, so the interested readers, if they have the means, could try them out) such as ‘caramelised milk-fed tiger cub’, ‘confit of Koala leg with lemon saffron chutney’, or ‘golden lion tamarin brain with blue cheese ravioli’; and the piece de resisatnce, ‘olive ridley turtle necks in parmesan and brioche crumbs’, the turtles, whose necks go into the delicious, mouth-watering recipe, being more than hundred year old protected species from Madagascar, from where Le Basque has smuggled them.

Lights Out in Wonderland, if it is a proof of anything, is the proof of how outrageously imaginative DBC Pierre is. The blurb on the hardback edition I read described the novel as ‘a sly commentary on these End Times and the entropic march towards insensate banality’. That’s about right, I think, even though I do not fully understand what it means. As you read the novel you can’t make up your mind whether the prose reflects the entropic banality (the words ‘nimbus’, ‘limbo’ and bacchanal’ appear on every other page) or is brilliant. I voted, in the end in favour of brilliance. The sentence structures are unusual, the choice of words interesting—all of which go on to give a kind of surreal feel to the narrative, which, I think, was the author’s intention. At times Pierre overdoes it (there is a section of the novel where the word nimbus appears in every second line), but, on the whole, it works. Just about.


Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Donald




The Donald has had hectic few weeks since he entered the White House. (His Slovenian wife will join him in the White House in summer). The Donald has been busy and he has kept everyone busy.

Let me see. The Donald has quit the Trans-Pacific partnership (Ok, in reality it was mostly a symbolic gesture, as the Republicans were blocking it even before The Donald launched his assault on the White House). He is demanding a radical renegotiation of the North Atlantic Fair Trade Treaty (NAFTA), and, if his demands and authority are not respected, will pull out of that treaty, too, faster than a sailor out of prostitute. He is trying to impose a travel-ban on seven countries (not exactly beacons of democracy, it has to be said), the citizens of which, he is insisting, are waiting to enter America, explosives tied to their genitals, with the sole aim of wreaking havoc. The Donald was not pleased when a ‘so called judge’ had the temerity to put a halt to The Donald’s attempts to make America safe.

What else? Oh the wall. Let’s not forget The Wall. The Donald was not speaking metaphorically when he promised to build the wall between America and Mexico during his election campaign. He was as concrete as the wall he is going to build. Rather the Mexicans are going to build. The Mexicans are certainly going to pay for it. They think they won’t, but The Donald knows better. He will make the Mexicans pay for the wall. (He will probably also need Mexican labourers to build it.)

The Donald may or may not start trade-wars against an indeterminate number of countries (which may or may not include China). He has successfully bullied a handful of organisations from taking jobs out of America. Jolly good.

The Donald slammed the phone down (allegedly) on the Australian Prime-minister (not before shouting at the Aussie, allegedly) during a courtesy call, when the Australian Prime-minister had the temerity to suggest that The Donald honour an agreement about taking into America Muslim refugees (whom no one wants, least of all their home countries, it would appear) agreed by The Donald’s predecessor, Obama Barak. I should hazard a guess that interpersonal sensitivity is not a signature trait of The Donald.

I have a feeling that I am forgetting something. I know: global warming and climate change. The Donald, I can inform you, does not believe in man-made global warming; nor is he worried about climate change. That is not quite correct. The Donald is concerned about climate change only to the extent that it might make the American businesses uncompetitive. What has climate change got to do with the competitiveness of American business? The Donald can explain. Climate change, The Donald twitted back in 2012, is a conspiracy created by and for the Chinese to make American businesses weak and uncompetitive.

As regards global warming, The Donald says, “Relax!” There is no global warming. It is going to start cooling down any time now. In the 1920s (The Donald educated in an interview in 2015) people were talking about global cooling; they were worried that earth was going to cool down. Now some ninnies are beating their breasts about global warming. You can’t take any of this seriously. Life is too short to worry about this. We are all going to perish anyway, when the sun dies. What is a few millennia here and there?

As for the Europeans, if they thought that they could fool The Donald into supporting their free-loading life-style by namby-pamby notions of defending democracy, free world etcetera, just forget it. Europeans must learn to look after themselves. The Donald is going to make them cough up more money for NATO, if they want Americans’ cooperation. They can no longer expect America to bank-roll their security, that’s not gonna happen. There is an internal logic in The Donald’s thinking (he does that sometimes, the thinking). He thinks NATO is obsolete. He does not think that Russia poses great threat either to America or to the world peace. Putin, The Donald has declared, is a smart guy. So why pour money into NATO? You might as well flush it down the toilet. The shitty Baltic countries can look after themselves. If they can’t, well, that is just too bad. There are bigger enemies The Donald wants to dispose off first. Such as the Jihadists. The Donald is convinced that the Islamists pose the greatest threat to America. And he might need help of the Ex-KGB psychopath in getting rid of them. Together The Donald and Putin are going to smash the Allah brigade. The Europeans had better wake up to this reality, and adjust. If they want to carry on with their silly feuds with Putin, well, don’t expect The Donald to side with them just because all the previous American presidents did. Have they not yet got into their brains? The Donald is anti-establishment. Before he smashes up the camel-jockeys he is going to smash the American establishment and its liberal mentality, which brought nothing but strife to the rednecks. (On the plus side it also brought The Donald to the White House).

It has to be accepted that The Donald has brought with him (at least for the time being) a degree of optimism; and not only amongst the hill-billies, but amongst the American businesses as well. This confidence is reflected in the impressive 6% rise in the S & P 500 index since The Donald stormed into the White House. No doubt the hope is that there would be tax reforms (read: cutting of corporate taxes). The companies would bring home profits stolen in the past few years by the Asian economies because Obama et al did not have the balls to tell these thieves where to get off. Once that happens what is to stop a domestic spending boom? The Donald has already promised investment in the infrastructure. The wages which have been stagnant for years will at last increase.

That is the hope. Let’s see how The Donald executes this. The world will know about it on the twitter before probably the Federal Reserve does.

Where does all this leave Great Britain, heading inexorably towards what Theresa is now calling a ‘clean’ Brexit? The British have decided to leave the Single European Market; and they will have to leave the customs union so that they can negotiate individual treaties with individual nations. (With Dr Liam Fox, the trade secretary, in charge what could possibly go wrong?) We shall see. The Brexiters doled out copious (and inherently contradictory) promises (as opposed to the abundant threats issued by the Remain camp), and now it is May’s job to execute the will of the British public. Call it a wide guess, but I don’t think that the majority of those who voted for Brexit for myriad reasons (including but not limited to their hatred for the foreigners) would accept becoming poorer as a result of their stupid decision. And if they do, May will pay for it. (Except she won’t, as we have a useless crumpled suit as the opposition leader, who has made the Labour unelectable till 2030. He told Jon Snow of Channel 4 in an interview that, of course, he wants to be the prime minister, with all the enthusiasm of a man ordered to approach a poisonous rattle-snake.) On the evidence so far, May will find cards overwhelmingly stacked against her when the negotiations begin. Many in Britain, both who voted for Remain and Brexit, alike, appear to labour under the belief that the UK will be in the driving seat while negotiating Brexit, which, I think, is a bit like hoping that goat sent into the Lion’s cage will have negotiating powers. And I am not sure that issuing crude threats to the EU leaders, as she did in her speech in January 2017, when she at last made her vision for Brexit clear (immigration control and controlling the border were more important than staying in the single market), is likely to yield the desired results.

However, May and her colleagues can take heart from the knowledge that The Donald approves wholeheartedly of Brexit. He predicted it, remember? He can’t wait to sign off a trade-deal with Great Britain, which, the great protectionist The Donald is, would be entirely fair, rest assured. There would be no winners, and the trade agreements would be mutually beneficial to both the countries. I listened to BBC Radio 4, the other day, to the nasal twang of an American dude from the farming industry, a big-shot, apparently, somewhere in the South, assuring Sarah Montague (who refused to be assured) that there was absolutely no problem in eating chickens that had basinful of hormones injected into their asses—he grew up eating the hypertrophied thighs and breasts of these animals, and he turned out all right, didn’t he?—or chomping on pig’s scrotum (or some such body part) bathed in chlorinated water. The American was followed by a British farmer, who, true to form, displayed an impressive talent for moaning. He fretted that the Americans would have undue advantage over the British farmer if the British farmers were not also allowed use hormones in doses high enough to give the chickens tumours. Did he have any evidence to support this? Of course not; he was just concerned. In anticipation. As I listened to the moan-fest, I wondered about the possible difficulties the British farmers were going to face if they were expected to compete with the American farmers for the domestic market, being forced to use the same methods as those of the American farmers (not that the British bloke had any qualms about it) and having to export meat to the EU, with its regulations longer than the treaty of Versailles. (This, of course, assuming the Americans are allowed to export the tortured carcasses of farmyard animals to the UK.)

May was the first world leader to visit after The Donald was ensconced in the White House. She crossed the Atlantic, more needy than a smack-head desperate for a fix, for rendezvous with The Donald.  She tried not to retch as The Donald grabbed her hand (he was going to grab something; we are releived that it was only the hand). The UK was never more in need to be reassured of the special relationship than now. The Donald was as reassuring as his nature would permit. Trade deals? No problem. We will wrap it up in no time. Just as he had promised a hotelier in Scotland that he would lift the ban on Haggis (“Consider it done!”) It is not clear how far up The Donald’s list of priorities Britain is, though, considering less than one sixth of America’s import come from Britain. Britain exports far more to the EU than to America at present. So, when we crash out of the EU we had better hope that The Donald’s attention span will be long enough to remind him that the tiny island has a special relationship with America.

Deciphering The Donald is not easy. Like that intellectual giant, the last Republican president, George W Bush, The Donald deals in absolutes. There are good guys and bad guys. And The Donald is with the angels on every issue. And he is here to stay. At least for the next four years, unless he loses interest and jacks it in (no, he will not be impeached; don’t raise your hopes). As Cassius Clay once said, he ain’t half as dumb as he looks.



Monday, 30 January 2017

Book of the Month: Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie




Ifemelu, the feisty protagonist of Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, has views on most things, and, not having been blessed with much in the way of frontal control, Ifemelu does not shy away from airing her views, which, more often than not, amount to acerbic animadversion: be they her dismissal of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which, apparently, is all about the battered self-image of an Indian man, fatally wounded about not being born a European, or the racism—in particular those of the liberals—in America.

There are lots of characters in Americanah, but at its centre are Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu and Obinze are childhood sweethearts, both belonging to the educated Nigerian middle-class, Obinze, being the child of a university professor, perhaps a few rungs higher than Ifemelu. Obinze and Ifemelu both want to migrate to America. Why? They are not starving or fleeing war or starvation, as Ifemelu admits at one point. They both are “raised well”. Yet they want to immigrate because they are fleeing “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” in Nigeria. Such examples as are given of the lack of choice available to the young and educated protagonists include recurrent strikes in Nigeria and the obligatory corruption scandals (both of which are, of course, unheard of in Europe or America). So Ifemelu and Obinze wish to escape Nigeria and find a haven of satisfaction and fulfilment in America, except that Ifemelu ends up, as planned, in America, while Obinze travels to England. Neither finds the conditions in the countries to which they have immigrated quite up to their satisfaction. Indeed, as their story unfolds—Ifemelu spends many years doing menial jobs as a nanny and au pair; Obinze is a manual labourer. Both do illegal things to make ends meet, Obinze even attempting a sham marriage after his valid visa expires in order to extend his stay in the United Kingdom—you wonder whether the “lethargy of choicelessness” in Nigeria would have been all that worse than the shadowy, humiliating, soul-destroying lives they lead in America and England. Obinze, who is less irritating of the two main protagonists—probably because he does not hold clichéd views about the country to which he has chosen to spend his life in—is caught at the registry office just when he is about to declare his marriage to a woman of Angolan-Portuguese descent, and is deported back to Nigeria. Obinze accepts his fate without protestation. He does not fight the deportation citing human rights abuse; and, upon his return to Nigeria, does that which he could have done without travelling to the United Kingdom to do back-breaking work in a warehouse: he becomes the middle-man of a local big man—a property developer more dodgy than the donor kebab in your local Turkish Takeaway—and becomes filthy rich. He marries a good Nigerian woman who has child-bearing thighs, who goes to the local Church, and responds to Obinze’s every wish as a dictate from the Holy Trinity. What more can a man want? In Obinze’s case, he wants Ifemelu, who, after she went to America, inexplicably (to Obinze) dropped him. Ifemelu, in America, has done somewhat better than Obinze (she does not get deported, for a start): she lands a job with a liberal white family as an au pair (and repays the awkward kindness shown her by her employer by nursing a smouldering resentment); then hooks up with a stinking rich nephew of the mother of the children she is looking after. When the nephew ditches her (because she is unfaithful) Ifemelu gets together with an African-American academic faster than a stripper in Devil’s Advocate gets out of her outfit. All of this leaves Ifemelu with plenty of time and energy to run a blog about race (“Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks”), which is a perfect outlet to give vent to the negative energy—a radioactive fusion of feud and resentment, fostered by Ifemelu’s talent for ferreting out insults and snubs by the whites, when probably none is intended—which Ifemelu possesses in abundance. In this blog—which becomes more popular than that of the woman who wrote Eat Praay and LoveIfemelu writes on topics such as Barak Obama (yawn), her relationship with her white boyfriend (yawn, yawn), the difference between African-American and American-African (honestly, do the majority of the African-Americans or American-Africans care?), and hair of the Africans (rather a lot on this topic: that the majority of African-American (or American-African, for that matter) women do not allow the hair to grow into a natural afro and endure unspeakable miseries and hardship to make them soft and straight, is down to the racism of white folk—don’t ask me how; I didn’t get it either). In the blog, Ifemelu makes profound observations such as she did not realise that she was black in her native Nigeria, and how she fit the description only after she arrived in America (probably because, unlike America, Nigeria is not a multi-racial, multi-cultural society—surely, this would not have escaped Ifemelu’s notice). Finally, Ifemelu, too, returns to Nigeria, where—guess what?—she decides, eventually, to start another blog (an idea that evidently did not occur to her before she went to America and lived illegally). She reignites her relationship with Obinze, who, unsurprisingly and notwithstanding his wife’s child-bearing thighs (perhaps because of them), is still holding out a candle for Ifemelu. As this sprawling novel comes to an end, the reader is reasonably certain that Ifemelu has wrecked Obinze’s marriage.

Ifemelu exists on the most captivating edge of cynicism when it comes to race, although you get the impression that she can’t be truly sardonic: despite her outward scornful and mocking disposition, Ifemelu does seem to be in touch with her emotions, and her various actions throughout the novel suggest that she is also a hard-nosed realist. In other words, in Ifemelu, Adichie has valiantly tried to create a character that is complicated: witty, mordant, intelligent, outspoken, but also with its vulnerable side, all of which ought to make Ifemelu the kind of girl-friend every red-blooded man with higher than average IQ would wish for, the kind of girl-friend who would fulfil all your dirty desires in bed, and, afterwards, hold an intellectually invigorating discussion with you on the race-relations in America, making provocative statements, if you happen to have an interest in the matter.

Americanaha attempts simultaneously to be a love story as well as a commentary on the race relations in America from the eyes of an immigrant (hence the distinction between African-American and American-African), but manages, regrettably, to do neither convincingly. The key event in the novel that makes Ifemelu sever contact with Obinze is unconvincing, not least in light of the trajectory of Ifemelu’s life after this supposedly seminal event. As for the various observations focusing on the attitudes of whites, their hypocrisies and unconscious prejudices, towards blacks, these are, no doubt, intended to be incisive, pithy, trenchant etcetera. To be fair to Adichie, they are all of these at times; however, for the most part they seem just shallow, banal and petulant. It is impossible to draw generalized conclusions based on these observations, which rarely rise above the cliché. Ifemelu, you get the impression, is, forever, like the first year university student who is trying oh-so-hard to be interesting, cool, and different from the rest. She is mildly amusing in the beginning; afterwards she grates on your nerves.

The strength of the novel is Adichie’s prose, which flows smoothly and, and times, manages to be sharp and observant. That, however, is not good enough, I am afraid, to shift the novel out of the second lane. This is not a novel that is generous in its tone. It lacks poignancy. It also lacks drama. It is not a novel that makes you think, something which Sir Vidiya’s novel did with great success.