Monday, 2 March 2015

Book of the Month: Barracuda (Christos Tsiolkas)

Barracuda is Greek-Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel. His fourth was the brilliant The Slap, which deservingly sold multimillion copies in many countries, and was nominated for several prestigious literary awards (including The Man Booker Prize, if I remember correctly).

Barracuda tells the story of an underdog. Danny Kelly, of Greek-Scottish heritage, comes from a working class family. His father is a long-distance lorry driver (whose antidote to the bitter disillusionment of not having achieved much in his life is to rail against those who have made something of their lives and accuse them of enjoying those privilege by dint of birth than talent; that is when he is not fulminating against the Australian government for supporting the Iraq war), while his mother works in a hair-dressing saloon. Not the sort of family background that is conducive to academic high achievement. Yet Danny Kelly is a prodigy. The word prodigy is not to be used lightly. You can’t be a prodigy in just anything. Have you heard of a prodigy long-distance lorry driver? Or a prodigy hair-dresser? I didn’t think so. In order to be considered a prodigy you are required to display talent in subjects and areas in which not everyone excels. The word prodigy suggests an inherent talent, God’s gift if you happen to believe in an all-powerful omnipotent entity which, in a manner that is difficult to grasp by humans, decides to shower some blessed individuals with its blessings. Anyone can be a long-distance lorry driver or a hair-dresser. How much talent is required to drive a vehicle or cut hair? The fields in which you can prove to be a prodigy are, sadly, restricted. It’s either academics or sport, I am afraid. And not all academic subjects are thought worthy of requiring their practitioners being prodigies, either. You don’t have to be a prodigy to be a social worker.

Danny Kelly, the protagonist of Barracuda, is not a prodigy in any of the academic subjects. He is not expected to and does not aspire to find solutions to questions that win you the Nobel. Danny is a prodigy in sport. No, not chess. Danny is a prodigy swimmer. Such is Danny’s prodigious talent for swimming that he manages to get scholarship to a very posh school in Melbourne, the yearly tuition fees of which exceed the GDP of a Third World country. There is no way Danny’s parents are going to afford the fees of this school; not when there are Danny’s younger siblings to think of. And neither his younger brother (Theo) nor sister (Regan) is a prodigy in anything, which means they are going to have to go to some shitty school in the low-life area of Melbourne. (This causes some angst to Danny’s father, who labours under the logic that since his two younger children are not particularly good in anything and therefore fated to lead a life of mediocrity (long-distance lorry driver, hair-dresser, social worker at tops), the eldest boy, who actually has talent for something, should sacrifice the one opportunity that could give him a smidgen of a chance of breaking out of the working class rut, and spend the remainder of his life in the same prison of disillusionment as his father.) The father thinks of various ruses why Danny could not, should not, ought not, surely durst not, go for his morning swimming practice, certainly not on weekends, early in the morning—and, if he must, he can use the f**king public transport without dragging his mother out of the warm bed—and goes spare when Danny is having none of it. Danny, it has to be said, is a driven boy. He is utterly convinced that he is the best; that he has got what it takes; he can cut the mustard. He is the best swimmer of his generation; he is going to represent Australia at Commonwealth and he is going to win medals for his country in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  He will show all the posh c**ts in the posh school (which he labels as Cunts College in his mind) that he is better than them. (The posh c**ts, in their turn despise Danny because he does not belong there (which, if you think of it unemotionally, he doesn't.) And he is better than all of them, when it comes to swimming and winning races. The school’s Hungarian swimming coach, Mr Torma, does what he can to feed into Danny’s belief (which does not require feeding) that he, Danny, is the best. Except that it turns out that he isn’t. When it comes to the crunch Danny can’t cut the mustard. In the under 16 championship in Japan Danny fails to win any medals. He does not even come in the top three. He comes fifth. How can this be? He cannot lose. But that’s what happens. What is worse, a posh Golden Boy from Danny’s school whom Danny heartily despises wins the title in Japan. It is clear that the posh boy would get to represent Australia at the Sydney Olympics, even though even he probably knows that he wouldn’t win anything for the country. The place in the Olympic squad is Danny’s, by right. Except that he is not going to get it because, against all predictions and despite being a certified prodigy, Danny is not good enough to make it to the top.

Barracuda is the story of what happens when you fail to achieve what you were convinced you were destined to achieve. It is a story of what happens when your dreams fail you, or (if you want to look  at it another way), you fail to achieve your dreams and fail everyone including yourself.

Daniel Kelly has to come to terms with the knowledge that he is not going to make it as a champion swimmer. He is a loser. How does Danny deal with it? Not very well, I am afraid. Not good academically he performs poorly at the exit exams and ends up doing a semiskilled job in a supermarket. Then comes another life-changing moment in Danny’s life which his school tutor would have had no hesitation in describing as chequered. On the day of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics Danny gate-crashes into the party of one of the posh pupils in the swimming squad of his school with whom he has formed a sort of friendship in school. In the party Danny manages to achieve the levels of intoxication that would have had Micky Rourke shaking his head in disapproval and attacks his erstwhile friend, who (not unsurprisingly) wants Danny out of his house, with a broken bottle. The former prodigy is now required to spend a few months in prison. In prison Danny, thanks to another male prisoner, discovers the joys of sodomy and his sexual orientation. Upon his release from prison Danny meets a Scotsman who is of similar, homoerotic, orientation, and goes with him to Scotland, where he meets his great-aunt. Danny, incidentally, has, since his release from prison, taken a violent dislike of water and concocts all sorts of reason to avoid swimming, which irritates his lover no ends, although that is not the reason why the two split up. Upon his return to Australia, Danny does what he can—you suspect, by now, that he is a natural at this—to irritate and insult his family, in particular his father whom, in a weird twist of logic which is beyond the likes of you and me, Danny blames for his failure as a swimmer. Then Danny’s old coach, Mr Torma, kicks the bucket and it turns out that the coach was blaming himself all these years for Danny’s failure to succeed at the highest level as a swimmer (but not only Danny’s; the coach coached a couple of other losers who didn’t make it either, although one of them had the decency to off himself), and the coach’s way of atonement was to leave Danny a third of his estate. What will Danny do with his wealth? You will not be surprised to know that the novel ends predictably.

Barracuda is a novel that appears to go in various directions. The reader gets the feeling that the central theme of the novel is how one deals with the crushing knowledge that one is not good enough to achieve one’s ambition. However Tsiolkas decides to take the story in different directions, before returning in the closing stages on the novel, to the theme, which is of redemption.

Danny Kelly is a not a protagonist one easily takes to. That in itself is not a problem; Humbert Humbert of Lolita is a repulsive character. But he is interesting. The trouble, here, is that the character of Danny Keely does not have many layers to it. He is just not that interesting. As you read the novel you get used to him. He is like an impacted wisdom tooth (without wisdom). Danny Kelly is an outsider. He is the poor kid in a posh school where he does not belong, and has an ambition to excel at a game children from his background are not supposed to even think of. However, when he fails to achieve the grade Danny does not seem to glean any insight from it. The theme kind of peters off. The same happens with Danny’s same-sex relationship with Scotsman Clyde. This strand of the novel, which occupies the middle of the novel, does not lead anywhere. Danny's visit to her great-aunt seems promising: is Danny going to discover his roots? But it, too, is abandoned half-way through. Danny visits his great aunt, admires her Scottish accent and the tat with which she has cluttered her house, and . . . err, that's it. 

There are some parallels with The Slap, which made Tsiolaks’s international reputation, in that one seminal event—in this case Danny’s failure at a crucial tournament— sets the trajectory of the rest of Danny’s life (and rest of the novel), except that it seems a tad unconvincing. Danny, the driven child who is determined to make it at the highest level, just lies over and dies with one failure at a tournament.

Barracuda is an easy novel to read, and, despite its five hundred plus pages, can be finished in one or two sittings. At times, especially when he is describing Danny’s exploits in swimming, Tsiolaks is inspired. At other times (many other times) the prose is too stylistic and seems contrived. Danny, the protagonist, is supposed to be an admirer of Graham Greene; but the prose style of his creator is nothing like Greene’s. The frequent changes from third person to first person are unnecessary, as are the changes in the tense of the narrative (sometimes in a single paragraph).

Like its protagonist Barracuda is not a complete failure, but neither is it riveting like its predecessor, the supremely entertaining The Slap. It’s a good novel to take on a holiday (if you can stomach the brutal descriptions of homosexual sex; so probably not for tense housewives and do-gooder fusspot nuns), but that’s about it.

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Indian clerk in American writer David Leavitt’s ambitious, dense and expansive novel of the same name is the celebrated mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. The novel traces the last five years of Ramanujan’s life during which he collaborated with the British mathematician G.H. Hardy—a body of work that would ensure that Ramanujan would be remembered by posterity— before he died at the age of thirty-two.

There are not many fields in which it is possible to be a prodigy. Music is one; mathematics is another; maybe chess. You never hear of a prodigy nurse, or a prodigy civil servant. Ramanujan chose his field well. He would have struggled to become a prodigy had he trained as a social worker. But he chose to be a mathematician; rather mathematics chose him. He could no more have stayed away from playing with numbers than he could have lived without breathing.

Born into a poor but cultured Brahmin family to an overbearing and ambitious mother and ineffective father in the present day Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Ramanujan was an autodidact. He probably was also an idiot savant. Having little aptitude for, and less interest in, subjects other than mathematics, Ramanujan struggled through school, and did not achieve qualifications. Languishing in a dead-end clerical job in what was, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Madras, the self-taught maverick worked on mathematical formulae, trying to find answers to unsolved riddles. He then proceeded to send his intriguing theorems, unsupported by proofs—partly because he did not want to give away too much lest the recipients pass off his discoveries as their own, but also because, having received no formal training in the subject, he was indifferent to the need of backing up his postulates –to a number of British mathematicians. Most of them did not take the trouble to reply. Then Ramanujan wrote to the Cambridge-based mathematician G.H. Hardy. Hardy—a forgotten name these days, but, in the years before the First World War, one of the leading mathematicians in England— detected, in the pages crammed with wild theorems and quaintly ornate English, the extraordinary intellect that was at work. After discussing with his Cambridge colleague Littlewood—the two were working diligently on the number theory and felt Ramanujan’s genius would be of valuable assistance—Hardy came to the conclusion that he had to get Ramanujan to Trinity.  

It is G.H. Hardy who is the narrator of The Indian Clerk; he is the protagonist, not Ramanujan. The story of Ramanujan, rather the five years he spent—years that coincided with the First World War—in England, unfolds for the reader through the eyes of Hardy. And it is not the story just of Ramanujan. Leavitt, through his protagonist, provides an arresting description of the prevailing ambiance at the Trinity around the time of the Great War. Hardy is a droll, temperate, unaffected observer and chronicler of what goes around him. In an earlier, non-fiction, account of Ramanujan’s life, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Hardy is depicted as cold and aloof. Leavitt chooses to describe his fictional Hardy as a man possessing—despite his outwardly sceptical and cold manner—of great warmth and loyalty. He is not so much haughty and aloof as shy, reticent and private. Indeed, as the novel progresses, you feel that you know Hardy a lot better than Ramanujan. It is Hardy’s life—the experiences that shaped him, his uneasy relationship with his mother and sister—that is described with great depth and seems flavoursomely imagined. Leavitt makes full use of the poetic license while exploring Hardy’s sexuality. G.H. Hardy of The Indian Clerk is a practising homosexual, albeit closet. Leavitt describes with obvious relish the private shenanigans of luminaries such as John Maynard Keynes and other Cambridge homosexuals, outwardly wedded to the manners and etiquettes of the Edwardian and Georgian England, and gently pokes fun at the two-faced approach of the British society—at least of the privileged class— towards sexual mores. However, the sexual life of Hardy, for whom Leavitt reserves a great deal of affection, is laced with pathos. The fictional Hardy is haunted by the suicide of his lover, Russell Gaye (a real life person, one of the many who appear in the novel, who shot himself in 1909). Gaye is always on Hardy’s mind, and his ghost frequently visits Hardy. It is a testimony to Leavitt’s great narrative skill that the encounters between Hardy and Gaye’s ghost, which would have run the risk of becoming overly theatrical and tawdry, instead, leave the reader with a sense of deep sorrow and loss. The secret meetings of the Cambridge fellows, who, in the great tradition of academic snobbery, belong to a centuries-old secret club entitled the Apostles, are described with great verve. Some of the characters peripheral to the story, such as the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, Hardy’s colleague at Cambridge, are hilarious (and uproariously believable). Since Ramanujan’s years in Cambridge were also the years when the Great War was raging in Europe—Ramanujan arrived in Cambridge a few months before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, and returned to India a year after the war ended—it was inconceivable that the war would not have an impact on the intellectual world of Trinity. Russell was a pacifist; so was Hardy. The difference between the two, if you believe Leavitt’s ‘fiction’, was: while Russell was publicly mutinous about it and even contrived to get himself expelled first from Trinity and then be sent to gaol for inflammatory pamphleteering, Hardy kept his view to himself and quietly left Cambridge for Oxford at the end of the war.

What about Ramanujan, the Indian clerk fetched by Hardy from his Indian obscurity to the rarefied corridors of Trinity? Ramanujan remains an enigma for the reader. When you reach the end of the  477th and the last page of the novel, you still do not think that you really know the man. He is like the blurred outline of a face you glimpse outside your window on a rainy day—you can just about make out the features but can’t see how the blurred features go on to make the whole face. Ramanujan’s life in Cambridge is recounted to the reader by Leavitt’s proxy, G.H. Hardy, the narrator. And Hardy, perhaps in keeping with the reserve of the Englishman of his generation, is either not curious about Ramanujan’s background or else thinks it is impolite to inquire too much. Such information as is provided about Ramanujan’s life in India is sketchy and remains encased in the stereotype of Ramanujan’s puritanical Brahmin background. The five years of collaboration throw scarcely brighter light on Ramanujan. Hardy scrupulously avoids getting to know Ramanujan, no doubt following the sound English policy that it is better to have cordial, if distant, relations with the ‘Hindu Calculator’ than trying to get to know him really well and discover that they actually dislike each other. And Ramanujan does not seem to do much in Trinity outside of his meetings with Hardy and Littlewood: other than lamenting the lack of choices for vegetarians, boiling rasam—a kind of spicy, vegetarian soup; he is ecstatic when he receives tamarind, an essential ingredient for the rasam, apparently, brought from India by an Indian student—, and goes to London from time to time in the company of a couple of Indian friends to visit a woman who, appropriately enough, has learnt to cook Indian-style. Hardy, the narrator, seems to remember, every now and then, in the midst of his reminiscences about Trinity, that there was this young Indian genius who lived there for five years, and provides the reader with a snippet of, for all outward appearances, banal incident involving Ramanujan: he (Hardy) might have seen Ramanujan on the streets of Cambridge talking with other Indian students; or he might have noticed Ramanujan coming in the opposite direction and the two might have waved at each other. This is because, you suspect, Hardy, for the most part, remains a slightly bemused onlooker with regard to Ramanujan’s life. He, an ill-at-ease-atheist, is sceptical of Ramanujan’s claim that an Indian goddess visits him in his dreams and reveals mathematical formulae. When Hardy arranges for Ramanujan to come to Trinity, Ramanujan is initially reluctant—or says he is reluctant—to cross the seas because he is not sure whether the Goddess would deign to visit him if he were away from India. The matter is resolved after Ramanujan spends an entire day in the Goddess’s temple and she visits him in his dreams that night to assure that she would not desert him even if he crosses the sea. Hardy’s response to the resolution of Ramanujan’s dilemma and the manner in which it is resolved is: ‘very convenient’. Ramanujan’s ‘arranged marriage’ to a nine-year-old girl (he was 21 at the time, although the girl continued to live with her parents until she was 15) is dismissed as one of those things Hindus do. When Ramanujan is in England, he is, insofar as Hardy can make out, concerned—in the same way you would get concerned if caught short with an unseasonal downpour—that his wife, Janki, does not write to him even though he has been writing to her once a month. (Janki, who was 20 when Ramanujan died in 1920, survived her famous husband by 74 years, leading a life of quiet anonymity.)  It is suggested, later in the novel, that Janki and Ramnujan’s mother did not get on, and the mother intercepted his letters to Janki. All of this is recounted without any comment by the narrator who obviously considers himself ill equipped to fathom a culture and religion that are alien to him and the intrigues of Indian families. The result is: Ramanujan does not really come alive to the reader. He comes up with complex mathematical formulae and theorems; he performs amazing feats of mental arithmetic (earning the sobriquet ‘the Hindu Calculator’); he boils rasam; and speaks in excessively formal and stultified English: he eats, breathes and lives, but where is the life in him?  When Alice Neville, the wife of Cambridge mathematician, Eric Neville, who was tasked with the responsibility of bringing Ramanujan to England and at whose house Ramanujan stayed for the first few weeks after his arrival, develops a crush on Ramanujan (another occasion in the novel, as acknowledged by the author at the end, where a poetic license is taken; while Alice Neville did exist, there is no evidence that she fell in love with Ramanujan), it is described entirely from the point of view of Alice; the reader knows nothing of what Ramanujan feels about it. For the most part Ramanujan is a passive recipient of whatever the fate dishes out to him. And what the fate has in store for Ramanujan is not very nice. He becomes ill with mysterious illness in his third year in Cambridge. Hardy arranges for him to be seen by a number of specialists. No one can really reach to the bottom of what is wrong with Ramanujan, although several diagnoses are bandied about. Tuberculosis seems to find favour with most specialists although they all agree that Ramanujan is showing none of the characteristic signs of the disease. Nevertheless he is wheeled out to different sanatoria which seem to have in common desolate atmosphere and esoteric medical practices. Hardy visits the whippet thin Ramanujan in a particularly vicious sanatorium in Wales. Here, for the only time in the novel, Hardy’s taciturn prose steps up to the task of conveying the pathos of Ramanujan’s life; the only time Ramanujan—miserable and depressed—comes alive.

The Indian Clerk is a slightly misleading title. The novel is more about Hardy than about Ramanujan; and, when you finish reading the novel, it is Hardy, and not Ramanujan, who lingers in your mind. I do not know whether it is intentional. If it is, one wonders why. Maybe Leavitt was more at ease imagining the world of Hardy, the atheist English mathematician (also a competent writer), who, although from a different era, still came from a culture and held beliefs that were Western. Either that, or Leavitt, during his extensive research (catalogued at the end of the novel), realised that apart from his prodigious mathematical gifts, there wasn’t a great deal of interest happening in Ramanujan’s life. (I find this difficult to believe.) That Ramanujan left little by way of personal memoirs probably did not help. However, you feel that Leavitt made Hardy the protagonist of The Indian Clerk, rather than Ramanujan who was the Indian clerk, because Leavitt, an American writer in the 21st century, found the task of putting himself in the mind of a late nineteenth century Indian almost too daunting.

The Indian Clerk is a work of great depth. Leavitt’s prose achieves the seemingly impossible effect of appearing dense and lucid at the same time. It is a beautifully written, wonderfully underplayed novel of great merit, a worthy addition to what D.J. Taylor, in his review in the Guardian, described as an increasingly popular genre of fiction involving real life historical figures. 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Book of the Month: Sunnyside (Glen David Gold)

Glen David Gold’s hugely successful debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, regaled the readers with the exploits of a popular American magician of the 1920s, named Charles Carter. Although few outside of America (and I suspect even in America) would have heard of the long-since-forgotten magician, it detracted not a jot from the inventive and highly entertaining novel.  The critical acclaim and commercial success of Carter Beats the Devil catapulted Gold to the A list of writers.

Therefore, when, a full eight years after Carter Beats the Devil, came Sunnyside, Gold’s extensively researched second novel, expectations were high. And the advertisement and promos proclaimed that at the centre of Gold’s new novel was another hugely popular entertainer from the early twentieth century America, one whose fame, unlike that of Charles Carter, went beyond the shores of the United States, one who was a truly international star in his time who is considered one of the greatest entertainers of the last century: the British born comedian Charlie Chaplin. 

If you start reading this behemoth of a book (560 pages, each one crammed from top to bottom with words in small type) with the expectation that Charlie Chaplin would really be at the centre of it, you would be disappointed. Chaplin forms one of the three strands of the story. The Chaplin story (which I found the most interesting) focuses on the three crucial years in Chaplin’s career which saw him forming the distribution company United Artists along with arch rival Mary Pickford (at least that is how the relationship between the two is depicted in the novel) and other leading names of Hollywood such as Douglas Fairbanks, ostensibly to protect the creative independence of the artists, as the leading Hollywood producers and distributors joined hands to control the rocketing star-salaries and have the decisive say in the production of films. The novel also recreates the events leading to Chaplin’s disastrous first marriage to the actress Mildred Harris, and the rapid disintegration of the relationship, which would end soon after the death of their son—born with severe congenital defects—three days after his birth.

The backdrop to Chaplin’s story is America’s entry into the inferno of the First World War. The war takes the centre-stage in the other two strands of the novel, which have fictional protagonists: Leyland Wheeler, who fights the war in France, and Hugo Black who finds himself stranded in the forgotten campaign of the allies in Russia long after the war comes to an end.  Wheeler, the result of a brief liaison between a lighthouse-keeper and a variety entertainer—a cheap imitator of the Buffalo Bill who heads the world’s worst Wild West entertainment group and gives a dreadful performance in front of Kaiser Wilhelm—, has an ambition to become a movie-star himself. However, he gets entangled unwittingly in the scam of a family—one of the several supporting characters, historical as well as fictional, pullulating in the novel—and finds himself in the trenches in France. There, he rescues two puppies from a bombed out winery and trains them. The female shows great promise but dies on the return voyage to America at the end of the war. Leyland decides to train the not-so-bright dog, and it is suggested that this is the same dog which later finds fame in the 1920s in the Hollywood films under the name Rin Tin Tin. Hugo Black, the solitary, priggish and bookish son of an engineer of engineers ends up in Archangel, Russia, and fights under the (real life) British general Edmund Ironside in what is now a largely forgotten half-hearted campaign the allies fought against the Bolsheviks.

Sunnyside is a hugely ambitious novel. As in Carter Beats the Devil, Gold gives a panoramic view of America, Hollywood (on the cusp of becoming a global merchandise), and America’s role in the First World War. The novel is the literary equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. And, like in a Hollywood Blockbuster, there are some tremendous set-pieces. The novel has one of the most breathtaking openings I have read in recent times. Leyland Wheeler, working in a lighthouse off the Pacific coast, spots a sinking skiff in the stormy weather, the skiff’s only passenger being Charlie Chaplin, who drowns. At the same time, in Beaumont, Texas, crowds gather to see Chaplin who is coming into town on a train; however, when the train arrives, there is no Chaplin on it, and the crowd gives vent to its frustration by setting fire to the train and knocking the daylights out of its snooty engineer (Hugo Black). Afterwards no one can quite recollect why they were expecting Chaplin to be on the train. The bravura opening sequence is based on a true historical event: on a day in 1916, Charlie Chaplin, then the biggest star in America, was a subject of mass hysteria and was allegedly simultaneously spotted in several places set apart by thousands of miles. (He was, in fact, in the Los Angeles Athletic Club.)  There are more such dramatic highpoints in the story—for example, the culmination of the aggressive Liberty Loan campaign run by the then Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo (another real-life character who makes periodic appearances in the novel) in Los Angeles, or the grand and bizarre ballroom dancing of Hugo Black with the three princesses of the defunct Russian aristocracy in a crumbling palace in the middle of a forest to in Russia in freezing winter, to name just two—which Gold describes with great relish, and which, on their own are highly entertaining.

However, as the novel progresses, the reader begins to suspect that Gold has been perhaps too ambitious, as he (the reader) struggles to appreciate a sense of continuity, a sense of coherence, to the narration. Putting it bluntly, Gold has bitten more than he can chew and the reader can’t swallow. Each of the three strands of Sunnyside is a novel by itself and, they do not gel. The story of Hugo Black and the American Campaign in Russia, supremely entertaining as it is, sits particularly awkwardly in the narrative.  Matters are not helped by Gold’s uncontrollable eye for detail. Each and everything—be it the countryside Ironside happens to glance at while travelling in his sleigh in the wintry wilderness of Russia, or the interior decoration of Chaplin’s sets, or the three course meal eaten in a banquet—is described with the ruminative delight of an obsessive. Even the simple act of listening to violin is described in a manner that leaves the reader reeling under the twin assault of Gold’s towering imagination and masterful prose. (“As he listened to the single violin, whose tremulous notes spoke of failed crops, loneliness, wide autumn winter skies with no sign of rain, Alf understood he was unable to write a memo to Accounting that explained how the set had become in his absence.”) Here is another randomly selected sentence:

“A newsreel photographer was there to capture it, a vision too broad for that camera’s small, dull eye: a sea of black wool, upon which seemed to bob many bright faces, the uniform of straw boater or tweed cap making it seem like a shoreline upon which shivered an infinite rockery of seagulls and terns.”

This is one of the easier, shorter sentences in the novel. Add to this the torrent of technical information Gold unleashes. A chapter begins in the following way:

“Lee Dunacn’s job was to maintain the machine guns for a DH4 airplane called Lenore. The observer seat had a pair of Lewises mounted on a Scarff ring that allowed them to swing up, down and approximately 270 degrees. Unfortunately the arc of fire included the empennage, the plane’s own tailpiece. For the pilot there was a pair of Marlin .30 calibres which fired through the arc of the propeller via the amazing precise harmonics of Constantinesco synchronizing hydraulic gear.”

If the idea was to convey to the reader that the aeroplanes were a bit dodgy, it has been done more than adequately. I have no idea what ‘a pair of Lewises’ or ‘Scarff ring’ or ‘Marlin’ or for that matter ‘Constantinesco’ is; however, this chapter began on page 284 of the paperback edition I was reading. By that time it was only a sense of grim determination that was propelling me on; I still had more than 250 pages to plough through, and had neither the inclination nor the energy to find out more about these terms. (Earlier in the novel when I had a bit more vigour I did make an effort to google diegesis on which Gold waxes eloquent without actually explaining what it is). 

Sunnyside is a very clever novel, but reading it can be very fatiguing. (I had to take a two week break after reading the first three-fifty pages before I picked up the novel again.) Mind you, the prose is excellent and crackles with wit and erudition on every page. Gold has a great feel for language, and the novel overflows with sentences like ‘Democracy bloomed, as it always blooms when forcibly planted in a kakitocracy [that was a new word to learn] of worst possible men.’

Sunnyside is a rich elixir containing minced, half-dissolved, and macerated ingredients of historical facts, biographical speculations and unrestrained imagination that makes the period tangible for the reader. The trouble is that amongst the giddy mélange of momentous events and an army-load of characters, the novel has lost its soul. You admire the rich tapestry Gold has woven; you are full of awe of the huge canvas against which the dramatic events unfold; yet you either don’t care or feel you don’t really know the main characters. Reams and reams of pages are spent describing Chaplin’s romance with Mildred Harris and the rapid falling out of love (on Chaplin’s part) soon after they are married. All of which, however, remains at the outer, superficial level. It is like reading a food-review that describes in excruciating detail how the food looks but remains silent on how it tastes. Surely, Gold, who has very cleverly mixed facts and fiction at other places in the novel, could have given us a glimpse—albeit speculative— into Chaplin’s inner world. Similarly when Hugo Black meets his strange fate on the Russian prairie, it fails to move you.

The title of the novel is taken from one of Chaplin’s less successful films. It is a shame that the novel, just like Chaplin’s film, despite the grand vision of its creator, is not a resounding success. However, just as no film of Chaplin was a total disaster, you will find plenty to enjoy in Sunnyside


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Books Read in 2014

Below is a list of the books I managed to read in 2014.

  1. Canada—Richard Ford
  2. The Observations—Jane Harris
  3. The Blueflower (reread)—Penelope Fitzgerald
  4. The Misfortunates—Dimitri Verhulst
  5. The Girl in Polka Dot Dress—Beryl Bainbridge
  6. Hotel Savoy—Joseph Roth
  7. The Cut—George Pelecanos
  8. May We Be Forgiven—A.M. Homes
  9. The Wasp Factory—Iain Banks
  10. The Painter of Silence—Georgina Harding
  11. Sweet Tooth—Ian McEwan
  12. England’s Lane—Joseph Connolly
  13. The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel—Deborah Moggach
  14. The Last Runaway—Tracy Chevalier
  15. The Temple Goers—Aatish Taseer
  16. A Possible Life—Sebastian Faulks
  17. Two Brothers—Ben Elton
  18. The Catcher in the Rye (re-read)—J.D. Salinger
  19. Never Let Me Go (re-read)—Kazuho Ishiguro
  20. The Mask of Dimitrios—Eric Ambler
  21. Infinite Jest—David Foster Wallace
  22. Gone Girl—Gillian Flynn
  23. Hotel Du Lac (re-read)—Anita Brookner
  24. The People in the Photo—Helene Gestern
  25. The Hundred Year Old Man . . .—Jonas Jonasson
  26. Love (re-read)—Toni Morison
  27. Wolf Hall—Hilary Mantel
  28. Narrow Road to Deep North—Richard Flanagan
  29. L’Mour Actually—Melanie Jones


  1. An Interrupted Life—Etty Hillesum
  2. Me Talk Pretty One Day—David Sedaris
  3. Whatever it is I don’t Like It—Howard Jacobson
  4. The Romantic Economist—William Nicolson
  5. Past It Notes—Maureen Lipmann
  6. Dear Lupin . . . Letter to A Wayward Son—Roger Mortimer
  7. A Dangerous Method—John Kerr
  8. Confessions of A New York Taxi Driver—Eugene Salomon
  9. Shakespeare—Bill Bryson
  10. Red Love: Story of An East German Family—Maxim Leo

I have heard people saying that the world can be divided into those who have read Ulysses and those who haven’t (I come in the second category, although the book is prominently displayed on my bookshelf. It is a modern classic and one of these days I am going to get round to read it.) I have also heard people describing Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest in similar—either or—vein.

The underlying theme about such books, depending on how clever/snooty you are, is that the books are so deep that only someone with an IQ high enough to withstand Stephen Fry’s questions on the QI would understand them (so not many). You might be forgiven for considering such people as a bit narcissistic. They are special; they belong to an elite literary group of people who inhabit a higher plane of existence that involves reading books (in prominent places such as underground tube, parks) most wouldn’t go anywhere near five miles of, snacking in organic cafes, starting book groups, starting book-blogs etcetera). If, on the other hand, you are in the habit of telling it as it is, a habit commonly seen in those who are scarred by the self-realization that they are not clever enough and have spent their entire lives rebelling against things they suspect they are not sophisticated enough to appreciate, you might say that these novels are essentially unreadable totems, which are not worth bothering with. As regards Infinite Jest, I can suggest that a third category be created:  those who started reading the novel with great enthusiasm and determination, but gave up before they completed reading the full novel. I started reading Infinite Jest in the summer of 2014, when I was on a vacation for 3 weeks. My (as it turned out overambitious) plan was to finish reading the novel during the vacation. Keeping aside the advisability of reading a novel like Infinite Jest while on a holiday, the folly of assuming that I could finish reading it in three weeks can only be compared with the disaster that was Operation Barbarossa. I finished roughly 70% of the novel (give credit where it is due), on vacation. I carried on reading the novel in the three weeks after I returned from vacation. By that time I had read nothing but Infinite Jest for 6 weeks and finished about 85% of it. At that stage I decided that I needed a break from the novel if I was to be able to maintain my sanity which would go a long way towards realizing my ambition of finishing it. I thought to myself that I would read a couple of light reads and then return to Infinite Jest. That has not happened. I really am cheating by including Infinite Jest in the list of books I read in 2014; however, I decided to include it because the book is almost read, and, without it, the number of books I read in 2014 comes to 38. That does not feel right. 39 books, while considerably lower than the books I read in previous years, is one more than 38 books, which makes me feel good. Anyway, what did I think of the novel? At the risk of adding nothing new or original to the plethora of reviews and opinions that pullulate the Net, I would say that the book in part is unbearably tedious, but also absolutely brilliant (not at the same time). The late David Foster Wallace had an encyclopaedic knowledge of drugs of recreation. His knowledge of the philosophy of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) is like that of someone who has had first-hand experience of this self-help group which has a lot of takers in America. The novel has three strands, which are very loosely connected. I must confess that I have not been able to figure out what the book is about; but I have read only 85% of it. There is no reason to believe that insight would not be gained when I finish the remainder of the novel. I do plan to finish reading the novel in 2015.

The year started for me (book-reading wise) on a good note. I read Richard Ford's Canada and loved it. In Canada Ford returns to the type of story-telling that marked his earlier novels before he chose to become a literary novelist with Sportswriter. Canada is still a literary novel, I think, but it is very plot-driven, with not much of the meandering musings that characterised Sportswriter and the Pulitzer winning Independence Day. The novel loses its momentum a bit midway, but picks it up again in the last third. A very good read.

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the 2014 Booker, and for that reason I decided to read it. The novel, which Flanagan dedicated to his father, who was the prisoner of war for the Japanese in the Second World War and worked on the dreaded Thailand-Burma railway, reads like a non-fiction memoir at times. Flanagan’s prose style is often described as lyrical. On the evidence of the only book of Flanagan I have read I’d say that the descriptors are referring to his other novels. The prose-style of The Narrow Road to Deep North is direct, matter of fact, unostentatious, and very effective.

Sebastian Faulks’s Possible Lives was (surprisingly) a disappointment. Surprisingly because Faulks is a superb story teller, a weaver of different strands of narrative into a coherent whole. (A week in December is a case in point.) Possible Lives is an unremarkable attempt by Faulks to weave together different stories which, in themselves, are not particularly riveting, and don’t come together to form a whole.

Also disappointing was the late Iain Bank’s cult debut novel, The Wasp Factory. I have had this novel on my shelf for years (because I like to have cult novels on my shelf placed prominently), but got round to read it only last year because it was chosen by the book group I have been trying politely to disengage from for several months. I simply did not get into the novel. Perhaps when it first came out decades ago The Wasp Factory blew the critics’ socks off by the audacity of its story-line; however, the next generation of readers having grown up reading the likes of The Silence of the Lambs earlier, wouldn’t find it as shocking as that.

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth was (surprisingly) a winner. This is the first novel of McEwan in the past ten years that I enjoyed reading. It tells the story of a woman who, when she was a university student in Cambridge, was recruited by the British Intelligence Service. There is the usual McEwan twist at the end (no novel of McEwan is complete without a twist); but on the whole McEwan, to my great relief, concentrated more on the story and less on gimmicks. Sweet Tooth was a very entertaining read.

In The Mask of Dimitrios, we find Eric Ambler, the granddad of espionage novels, sadly, largely neglected these days, is in fine form. It is the story of the elusive Dimitrios,who is followed by an amateur British journalist. There are twists galore, and Ambler keeps the reader guessing and interested till the end. In the 1930s Ambler wrote six espionage novels which sealed his reputation as a thriller writer. The Mask of Dimitrios is generally considered to be his best novel. I wouldn’t know that (only because I have not read all of his novels published during this decade).

Like everyone else I read Gone Girl (though I missed watching the film). Entertaining but stretches the limits of your credulity to the length of Siberia as it progresses. The end was a bit unconvincing—a bit of a cop out if you ask me. This book was lent to me by a friend whose usual staple of books comprises misery memoirs (how I overcame my horrendous childhood which I spent eating out of beans and fellating my father etcetera) or stories. She gave me this book threatening that if I did not like it would be an incontrovertible proof that something was wrong with me. I told her that I liked the book. (In the interpersonal context I follow the safe policy of being scrupulously polite on people’s faces, and prefer to bitch on their back.) Gone Girl is not a dreadful book, but I can’t understand the big hoo-ha surrounding it. 

I can’t now remember why or how I came to be reading The Temple Goers by the Indian author Aatish Taseer. I must have picked it up from the library. The novel tells the unlikely and slightly unsettling story of an unlikely and unsettling friendship between a rich, upper class narrator and an ambitious lower or lower-middle class man (who, we are informed, belongs to one of the higher casts; it seems in modern India cast is not to be confused with class; you can be poor but of higher cast, therefore properly classier than some nouveau riche low cast person. Taseer’s novel is not about the Indian cast system; in any case the labyrinthine cast system is so complex, I don’t think even the Indians fully understand it themselves). The Temple Goers is remarkable for the unashamed inspiration its prose style derives from that of V.S. Naipaul: ruthless, cutting and pithy observations, which, with minimum of fuss, go to the core of things. A Naipaul-like character even makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Taseer is obviously a fan of the great author. On the whole The Temple Goers is an uneven effort, but still worth a read.

After reading slightly dystopian vision of modern India in The Temple Goers, I dived into Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac more eagerly than Michael Douglas dived into Catherine Zeta Jones. Hotel du Lac won the 1983 Booker prize, ahead of the critic’s favourite—J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, which puzzled many (J.G. Ballard most of all). Brookner, in a display of self-deprecation worthy of heroines in many of her novels, declared that her novels were not deep and Ballard’s novel ought to have been given the award. More than 30 years later, The Empire of the Sun is considered a modern classic, whereas Hotel du Lac does not get talked about much. I re-read Hotel du Lac after many years. Brookner is one of my favourite authors and Hotel du Lac, which glows with the quiet cadence of Brookner’s measured prose, has everything in it that I like about her novels: not exactly bursting with events, but lots quiet discussions between people in which what is left unsaid gives you a lot of insight into human psych. I would without hesitation have put Hotel du Lac ahead of The Empire of the Sun (which I didn’t like) but (with some hesitation) put it behind Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which was also shortlisted for the Booker that year.

Wolf Hall, for which Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Booker, is an absolutely smashing read, the centre of at which is the shadowy figure of Thomas Cromwell. Even if you (like me) are not a fan of historical novels, I would recommend Wolf Hall, which crackles with wit and intrigue, and keeps you engaged till the end. I shall read Bring Up the Bodies, the next instalment this year.

Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man who Jumped out of the Window . . . (I can’t remember the exact title) was foisted upon me by an acquaintance who would not take a no for an answer. This novel, originally in Swedish, was a surprise hit with the readers, apparently, by word of mouth publicity. Its far-fetched story is told in a flat, matter of fact tone, which is sometimes amusing, sometimes irritating, and mostly not very riveting.

I re-read a few novels this year, The Catcher in the Rye, being one of them, which I read after almost 25 years, and found it as enjoyable a read as I had as a teenager. This is a timeless classic. More than seventy years after it was first published, it remains in circulation.

Another classic (one of the better choices by the book group), though it has not been around for as long as The Catcher in the Rye, was Never Let Me Go. Some of the members pontificated endlessly whether it was a science fiction novel or not, and if it was—which half of them thought it was—whether it was a credible science fiction—which half of them—from the half who agreed it was science fiction—thought it wasn’t. The other half (that is the half that didn’t think it was a science fiction) could not agree what it was that the novel was attempting to convey on the dubious grounds that they didn’t understand it. Of this half, some said that they were additionally disappointed that Ishiguro eschewed the main question which they (the members) eschewed by not clarifying what that question was. I think Never Let Me Go is a great novel. I am not bothered if it is a science fiction, therefore a genre, novel. It is a surreal tale which has melancholy at its heart. I am sure it will be read in hundred years (although I won’t be around to witness it).

When a member of my book group suggested that we should read a novel by Toni Morrison I suggested The Song of Solomon, which I think is Morrison’s best novel. I wouldn’t have minded re-reading Jazz or Beloved, both of which are first rate novels. But the group chose Love (for no reason other than that enough copies were available in the local library). Love is a readable enough novel but not a patch on some Morrison’s earlier great novels. As the title suggests the novel examines different layers of through the eyes of its female protagonists—one just about alive, another almost dead, and the third, dead. I gave the novel seven out of ten. (Yes we mark the novel out of ten; average the scores, and a really sad bloke amongst us updates the ranking. To Kill A Mocking Bird, I think, is at the top for several months, I think.)

I am an admirer of the late Penelope Fitzgerald, and have loved all of her novels bar two, which happen to be her most celebrated novels. Blue Flower, Fitzgerald’s take on the eighteenth century German Romantic novelist Novalis, was the last full length novel published in Fitzgerald’s life, and is considered by many to be her finest novel, including a rather narcissistic and smug chap in my book group, who insisted that this book be chosen by the group (and was terribly put out when a few amongst us had the effrontery to not love it as much as he did. I must say that second time round I was as underwhelmed as I was when I’d first read the novel when it came out in 1995 (I think).

I heard Ben Elton in a literary programme talking about Two Brothers, and decided to read the novel partly because I was intrigued to learn that the main characters were based on Elton’s father and uncle who grew up in the Nazi Germany, but also because the interviewer’s attitude towards Elton—who came across as a likeable geezer—was insufferably condescending (Elton gave back as much as he got). The interviewer clearly thought that Two Brothers was not a literary novel (I am sure he snacks in organic cafes). Two Brother is not a subtle novel. Not having read any of Elton’s other novels, I couldn’t say whether this is a style he feels comfortable with, or whether he chose it to convey to the reader the full horror of Nazi Germany and the apocalypse awaiting the Jews. It hits you with the force of a tornado. At times the novel reads like an elementary history lesson of the Nazi Germany; but I didn’t mind that.

May We Be Forgiven by the American author A.M. Homes was an enjoyable, if slightly meandering tale of redemption. Tracy Chivalier’s The Last Runaway was very disappointing.

Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was one of the light reads I picked up to overcome the exhaustion of Infinite Jest. Words fail me to describe how bad the book was, so I won’t try.

I read only ten non-fiction books in 2014, most of which were memoirs (bought on Kindle for 99 p). One which I did not buy as an e-read, but was worth every penny was Interrupted Life, the diary of Etty Hillesum the Dutch Jewish woman who, as it happened, lived in Amsterdam the same time as Ann Frank, and perished in the Holocaust. The title of the diaries (not of course chosen by Hillesum) is apt. A bit sententious at times, the book is remarkable for the calm and serenity with which Hillesum met her fate, without any rancour for her persecutors.

Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare is a witty, if brief, account of the bard’s life. Bryson makes it clear that he was commissioned to write this book and perhaps it was not a labour of love. Still he makes it very interesting, primarily, I think, because he is incapable of writing a boring word.

Rest of the non-fiction books were not much to write home about. Me Talk Pretty One Day confirmed that its writer knew how to spin an amusing yarn, without really telling much about his life. Maxim Leo’s story of his East German family would have been very riveting had I not read three similar nostalgic memoirs of the long since dead GDR in the past. Past It Notes was too wordy and not very interesting.

2014 was not a very productive year reading-wise. With the exception of Wolf Hall, The Mask of Dimitrios, Canada, and Sweet Tooth, most of the novels which I enjoyed reading were re-reads. I am hoping that 2015 would be different, although it has not started well; I am plodding through David Mitchell’s (the British comedian, not the novelist) whining memoir, The Back Story.

The Top Ten novels (not including re-reads) in 2014:

1  Wolf Hall
  Sweet Tooth
3  The Mask of Dimitrios
4  Canada
5  Observations
6  May we be Forgiven
    The Narrow Road to Deep North
8   Hotel du Lac
  Gone Girl
     Infinite Jest

The best non-fiction was Etty Hillesums’s diary, followed by Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Boy Done Good

I heard the 2014 Booker Prize winner, the Australian novelist, Richard Flanagan, in a literary programme a few years ago. I had heard his name and had even a novel of his in my collection, Gould’s Book of Fish (but only because I had got it for a couple of quid in a second-hand bookshop, and the title and premise had seemed interesting) which I had not got round to read. Indeed the only reason I attended the Richard Flanagan's talk was because I had bought the ticket for the whole programme for a discount.

Flanagan informed the audience with pride he made no attempt to conceal that his people were convict people. They had all been sent out during the famine to the gulag of the British Empire that was Tasmania. The land was originally called Van Demon’s Land, and the name remained until, I guess, it ceased to be a gulag. Flanagan was born in Longford, a village with a population slightly less than that of the backstreets of East End of London. Longford was the place where Flanagan’s great great grandfather was sent for stealing corn worth eight pounds (given what eight pounds at the height of famine would be worth nowadays, it was probably a robbery). Flanagan’s father was a primary school teacher and, when Flanagan was three, was posted to Rosebury, an isolated mining town with a population even less than that of Longford (so not really a town), five miles away from civilization in every direction (imagine Norfolk).

Flanagan went on to inform the audience that, disgracefully, he always wanted to become a writer, which, he acknowledged, made no sense. He even wrote a letter to his sister when he was six, informing her that he wanted to be a writer. The conclusion is ineluctable: Flanagan was a child prodigy. He didn’t inform his parents, however, until he was well into his twenties, about the career he had chosen (probably because he was worried what his mother’s reaction would be, as she had set her heart upon Flanagan becoming a plumber). Be that as it may, once Flanagan decided to become a writer he had to leave Tasmania. “Why?” I hear you asking. I have no idea. If it helps Flanagan couldn’t provide a satisfactory explanation either in the programme, although that was not, going by his facial grimaces when he discussed it, because of want of trying. You just could not do literature in Tasmania, and that is that. You could be a labourer or a goatherd (or a primary school teacher) in Tasmania, but if you wished to become a writer, you had to go to Europe and America. Trying to become a writer in Tasmania was like having your teeth checked by Shane MacGowan. No sane person would do it. So that’s what Flanagan did, or didn’t do. He came to England, Oxford to be exact, on a Rhodes scholarship. It was in Oxford that Flanagan started writing and getting published. He wrote history books, even though what he really wanted to do was to write a novel (which would with the Booker Prize one day), because it was apparently easy (or easier) to publish history books.

After the stint in the grimy, grey and flat England, Flanagan returned to Tasmania and (since the money he earned from the history books would not have bought a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe) he started labouring. Literally. He worked as a labourer through the winter and a river guide through summer. He hadn’t given up on his ambition to become a writer, though, and, through a friend, managed to get paid $ 10,000 to write the story of a Bavarian criminal. The German had defrauded the banks in Europe of hundreds of millions of dollars, and, after escaping to Australia and being subjected to the biggest manhunt in Australian history, was eventually caught and sent to prison, where, entirely expectedly, he was offered a huge contract to write his story, which he had accepted. The slight trouble was the man could not write. That is where Flanagan stepped in and started inventing the criminal’s life story in a Hobart Cafe. Could he not have, like, interviewed the German? Well, no; because the criminals blew his brains out before he was to appear in court, which was within a few weeks of Flanagan trousering his ten thousand dollars.

Flanagan’s first published novel was The Death of a River Guide, which, Flanagan disarmingly informed the audience, did not attract rave reviews from the critics. But, what do the critics know? The readers loved the novel, kept on buying it, which meant that the publishers had no choice but to publish reprints of the novel. Tough, but such is life.

Flanagan’s second published novel was The Sound of One Hand Clapping. (If you want to know how that can be possible, you would need to read the novel.) Flanagan focused on the Eastern European migrant community (Slovanian, in this case) in the novel. Flanagan nearly won a prize for this novel, but was pipped to the post by a novel which was about a Ukranian mass murderer. The novel was written by one Ukrainian writer named Helen Demidenko, except that she was not Ukrainian and was not Helen Demidenko. Her real name was Helen Darville and she was the daughter of an English nurseryman. That Demidenko/Darville cheated him out of a prize obviously rankled with Flanagan after all these years. He described the Demidenko/Darville’s novel as an anti-Semitic work that read like a pornographic comic book, and added, incredulity written all over his face, that the literary establishment loved it. (Maybe the novel indeed was as poor as Flanagan thought it was. Let’s hope that he will be in a more forgiving mood towards Demidenko/Darville’s novel after The Narrow Road to the Deep North was lapped up by the critics.)

Flanagan’s next novel, Gould’s Book of Fish, is the one he was most famous for (until The Narrow Road to the Deep North came along). Flanagan had never heard of either Gould, a convict called William Gould, or his book comprising 28 water colour paintings of fish. The archivist who made Flanagan aware of the existence of the book had hidden the book (also named as Gould’s Book of Fish) in a cupboard. Apparently no pictures of convicts incarcerated on Sarah Island (where William Gould served his sentence) are available and, as Flanagan looked at the paintings of fish, it seemed to him that the convict Gould was trying to smuggle some sort of experience out of the island through the eyes of these fish. The idea of the book came to him instantly. He knew that each chapter of the novel would begin with one of the pictures of the fish. This book took off and—Flanagan had no hesitation in declaring this—became a monster across the globe. This was a fun book for Flanagan, but he did not want to be imprisoned in it. So his next book was the incredibly bleak (by his own admission) novel describing the unsafe paranoid world we have come to inhabit after 9/11 (The Unknown Terrorist). (It always amazes me how many of us in the Western world made the discovery for the first time that the world is paranoid and unsafe after 9/11. If I make so bold as to point out, the world was always paranoid and unsafe; a modicum of research would reveal that people in different parts of the world were always getting massacred and meeting horrific deaths, before 9/11.) This book, too, was a big hit and a best seller in Australia, though it received mixed reception from the critics.

The programme I attended was really about what at that time was Flanagan’s most recent novel, entitled Wanted, but, by the time Flanagan came round to talk about it, my concentration, which, at the best of times, has a shorter span than that of the fish in one of Flanagan’s novel, was wavering (the interviewer’s proclivity to ask very long-winded questions, matched by Flanagan’s proclivity to give longer winded answers might also have something to do with it, as also the captivating spectacle of the man sitting in the front row showering dandruff on his collar every time he moved his head).

I left the literary programme thinking to myself that I should read Gould’s Book of Fish, which seemed like an intriguing novel. And forgot about it (and its author) until this year when it was announced that Flanagan had won the Man Booker prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North last month. I must confess that I wasn’t swept away by it—and neither did I notice (therefore appreciate) the lyrical quality of Flanagan’s prose (about which the interviewer in the literary programme had talked a lot, making faces as if he was trying desperately not to burp)— but I thought that it brought to the fore the ironies and futilities of life in a manner that made you think. You can’t say that about many books. 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Book of the Month: May We Be Forgiven (A. M. Homes)

May We Be Forgiven, American writer A M Homes’s 2012 novel, starts brilliantly. Harry Silver, a Jewish underachieving academic (there is no cause and effect, here), a Nixon scholar, married to an American-Chinese woman, who is more successful (that is she earns far more money than Harry), is having a Thanksgiving dinner with the family of his younger brother, George. George, of whom Harry is secretly jealous, is a successful executive in a television company and—it is a job requirement, really—is an aggressive psychopath who likes to brag. So that’s what George is doing at the dinner table. Talking about himself while “picking turkey out of his teeth”. Harry is toing and froing between the kitchen and dining room, as Claire, his Chinese-American wife, is sitting at the table listening to George’s self-aggrandizing talk and George’s teenage children are sitting like “lumps” at the table, “as if poured into their chairs”, “truly spineless”, their “eyes focused on the small screens” in front of them. Its Jane, George’s wife, who is helping Harry clean up in the kitchen. Then Jane cosies towards Harry and plants a kiss, “wet, serious and full of desire” on George. Fast forward a few months. George jumps a red traffic signal and rams into another car, killing the couple in the car on the spot though their young son survives. George has what the psychiatrists describe as a breakdown and is wheeled into the local hospital. Harry is dispatched by Claire to help George and Jane. Harry takes his job way to seriously and begins comforting Jane in George and Jane’s marital bed while George is undergoing psychiatric evaluation in the hospital as his lawyer tries to figure out whether the charges against George can be mitigated by a diagnosis of psychiatric illness. One evening, much to Harry’s discomfort, George arrives at the house (it is after all his house), having taken his discharge against medical advice, and finds Jane and Harry in the master bedroom without any clothes on and so close that no light can pass between them. George picks up the heavy bedside lamp and swings in the general direction of the head of his unfaithful wife; then he swings again. The lamp makes contact on both occasions and Jane’s head is a squishy mess of broken chips of bone, hair and grey matter. Now George is in serious trouble, and is wheeled off to the locked loony bin for the criminally insane. Claire discovers Harry’s infidelity and gives him the marching orders. The head of the university where he teaches “Nixon” gives Harry the news that comes as a surprise only to Harry: no one is interested in learning about Nixon, and Harry would not be required from the next semester onwards. Not exactly the circumstances that would put you in the frame of mind to take on the guardianship of your nephews whose mother's speedy dispatch off to the next (not necessarily better) world was substantially assisted by your bedroom callisthenics with her in the moments leading to her death. But that’s what Harry ends up doing. It is a responsibility for which he is ill-prepared, not having any children of his own; and, to be sure, he finds himself in unexpected, not to say tricky, situations, such as advising on telephone his niece who has started menstruating which “hole” to insert the tampon into (she has inserted into the wrong “hole”), and organizing his nephew’s bar mitzvah in a South African village the nephew has “adopted”. Then there is Harry’s mother, stagnating in a nursing home and losing the last of her marbles to the inexorable march of dementia. George, the psychopathic killer, has been shifted from the high secure mental hospital to a scheme that looks more dodgy than the money laundering capers one reads about in the Daily Mail.  In the middle of this hectic itinerary, Harry has to find time to sexually satisfy mentally unstable housewives and random women he meets in local supermarkets, more horny than a rabbit on Viagra. When the novel ends, 365 days (and 500 pages) later, Harry is in charge of a whole gaggle of children (including the hyperactive kid whose parents George killed before he decided to treat his wife’s head as a golf ball), and a village in South Africa that seems to subsist nicely for months on the pocket-money Harry’s nephew sends them by saving on his ice-candies. Does Harry grow up emotionally and is a better person at the end of the year more topsy turvy than the helter skelter in the village fun-fair? You certainly hope so.

May We Be Forgiven is a sprawling, frequently meandering, tale with a large cast of characters. There are several strands to the plot, some of which—for example, Harry’s expertise on Nixon and his involvement with the Nixon’s family who has found a stash of manuscripts of short stories the disgraced former president of America allegedly wrote—sit uneasily in the bigger story, while some others—such as Harry’s dementing mother who is having a nookie with a man of advanced years—much to the disgust of his daughters—probably do not effectively serve their intended purpose, which, I thought, was to depict Harry’s slow maturation as a person and re-establishing dwindling family ties, although they are, undoubtedly, funny.

There are a lot of whacky characters in May We Be Forgiven (rather like Homes’s earlier novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, which was a great commercial success). As a result, the novel has a surreal, almost absurd, feel to it. In an interview Homes commented that she believed that we lived in moment when reality itself was somewhat surreal. What she appears to have tried in May We Be Forgiven, with considerable, if uneven, consistency, is capture the oddity and inexplicability of daily life. The narrative pitch is (deliberately, I think) kept an octave high to arrest the reader’s attention. The novel seems plot-driven at the beginning, but after that the story becomes somewhat picaresque; however, such is Homes’s control over the pace of the narrative that the reader carries on turning the pages, plunging more and more into Harry’s life which seems increasingly adrift.

What also raises May We Be Forgiven above the mundane is Homes’s great feel for dialogue and her black humour.  Some stretches of dialogue are side-splittingly funny; they could easily fit into a comic sketch. Life, Homes once remarked, can be so painful and disturbing that if one has to survive it, one has to find humour in it. The novel is not a satire, but what it manages with appreciable success is to combine the serious with the comic, and in the process tells the story of the redemption of a cold, emotionally distant man.

May We Be Forgiven, despite its flaws, is a gloriously readable, wickedly funny and uplifting read.