Sunday, July 29, 2012


Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Book reviewers tend to employ the same adjectives over and over again. Novels are ‘evocative’, 'epic' or 'esoteric'; prose can be 'lyrical', 'luminous' or 'lilting'.  There’s another series of adjectives often used, which describe the novel under review in terms of the style of another author. (Among other things, this has the advantage of making the reviewer appear well-read.) Here, for the rest of us, is a description of what actually goes through reviewers’ minds when they resort to this ploy.

Kafkaesque: Hold on, what’s happening in this novel? Why is that character spending his life trying to get somewhere else? What was he accused of? Am I really expected to read the work of a guy who uses capital letters instead of names? Maybe I dreamt this, but I’m sure one of the characters also turned into an insect. What was he smoking?

Joycean: This was taxing. There were so many words that I hadn’t come across before – and they weren’t in the dictionary either. The publishers said it was an English novel but maybe they sent me the foreign language translation by mistake. And they’d better talk to the typesetter – he seems to have eliminated all the quotation marks. The author must be really angry. Tee-hee.

Dickensian: Where is this writer getting the names of his characters from? Not the phone directory, that’s for sure.  And he seems to be on a social crusade by depicting the lives of those with horrible childhoods and others who are caught up in jails, factories and law courts. Never happened to me, thank goodness. There’s also a pickpocket, I think. And lots of fog.

Dosteovskian: The problem with authors is that they don’t get out much. That’s why they’re so grim, so morose. Take this chap. He makes his characters go underground, suffer theological qualms, and generally mutter to themselves like misfits. How is a publisher ever going to get a film studio interested in this?

Tolstoyan: So many pages, so many people! Hard to keep track of them all. Many go off to war. Others enter into adulterous relationships. A few start farming. One of them will probably open an organic food store and start wearing woven sandals. I’m sure they all meet and reconcile at the end, but I can’t be bothered to finish the book. Holding it up is giving me carpal tunnel syndrome.

 Beckettian: People hang about in homes and street corners throughout the book. I couldn't understand much of it, but I think they're waiting for someone. The conversation is pointless and there's very little of it. I wanted to use the word "existential" but didn't have the patience to look up what it means.

Proustian: What a long, self-absorbed book, full of endless sentences that circle continuously between past and present and examine the effect of one on the other almost as though the writer’s suffered a fit of indigestion by overeating a childhood treat and is now trying to get it out of his system once and for all.

 Carveresque: At least these stories are short. How many hours can a chap waste reading? I actually managed to finish the collection, so it must be good. But his characters….they sit around drinking and thinking suicidal thoughts all day long. I could do with a drink myself, come to think of it. Better finish this review first. 

Murakamiesque: This one was full of cats. And descriptions of women’s ears. And jazz. And lonely men and women in subways nursing broken, or dented, hearts. Not sure how it all adds up, but I guess it does in some alternative realm. I’m tempted to call it “Kafkaesque”. Or do I mean “Carveresque”?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Killing Us Softly

This appeared in today's edition of Mint Lounge.

I AM AN EXECUTIONER Rajesh Parameswaran

Reading Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut short story collection is like watching a skilled young Indian-American writer trying on various hats to ascertain which one fits best. There are a variety of styles on display in I Am an Executioner, matched with a variety of voices, each one crafted to make a distinct impression.

It’s initially tempting to play a game of spot-the-influence with this collection. Is that Kafka lurking behind the story of the secret agent stalking an unknown quarry? Is Robert Heinlein the animating force in the saga of an insect-like being on another planet observing the activity of human beings? Does Borges figure in the DNA of the tale in which a railway clerk from an earlier generation intrudes into the writing of his history? Is that Nabokov in the shadows of the annotated story about the elephant on a rampage? It’s tempting, yes, but self-defeating, too: this is a collection that demands to be judged on its own terms.

A more relevant measure would be to look at Parameswaran’s feat in terms of breaking out of what Korean-American writer Don Lee recently called “the ethnic literature box”. In an interview with Guernica magazine, Lee wondered when Asian American writers would “feel freer to slip away from writing about identity and ethnicity moving to whatever captures our fancy.” Examined through this lens, one sees that -- despite surface differences and whether intentional or not -- many of Parameswaran’s stories are about questioning identities and surviving in alien environments, in a manner far removed from those who have earlier written about ethnic dilemmas.

Consider the stories that feature Indians in America, to begin with. They stay clear of the usual stereotypes and clichés that such characters are prone to. (Look elsewhere for love affairs with ripe mangoes and homesickness for the lush monsoon season.) In one of the stories, a woman whose husband has collapsed and died in their living room tries to continue with her normal activities, unwilling to reject the speculation that it’s her own unworthy thoughts that have killed him. In another, a laid-off CompUSA employee sets up a private medical practice without prior experience, a move that will have chilling consequences. And in a third, an art director involved in an affair with the wife of an acclaimed Bengali film director attempts to direct his own movie for an American producer to find that he has a lot to learn about love and art.

It’s appropriate that the first story here is ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, not only because it is the most striking, but also because many of its concerns resonate throughout the stories that follow. This takes us into the consciousness of a tiger who, escaping from a zoo, roams the city to discover that the only way he has to express love is by staying true to his instinct to maul. What we’d call victims are, for him, objects of affection. Here, then, is the collection’s keynote tenderness and savagery in equal measure, along with the writer’s unnerving ability to enter into the mind of a being quite unlike others.

All of these are love stories, proclaims the book’s subtitle, and that emotion is certainly present in these pages. But – in the same way that tropes of Indian-American writing are overturned – it’s a love that’s misshapen, demonstrating itself in acts that stray towards the macabre. The actions of the Bengal tiger apart, there’s also the many paragraphs devoted to the insect-like aliens in a remote outpost of the Andromeda Galaxy trying to devour each other after consummating their affair, an act that, we’re told and then shown, is necessary to provide sustenance for their larvae.

It must also be said that sometimes, Parameswaran’s talent with voices can be overdone to the point of archness. The narrator of the title story, for example, an executioner of an unnamed city-state grappling between the demands of his job and his wife, speaks in overstated Indian-English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanours and positive outlooks”. (This manner of speech is handled in a more nuanced manner in the story about the art director-turned-film-director referred to earlier: “Our hair is less and our backs give enormous pain”.) Such excess is also to be seen in the tale of the elephant, in which the footnotes become overpowering – this is partly the point of the story, of course, but it does come across as heavy-handed.

Leaving aside these quibbles, all the stories in I Am an Executioner have a cracking and satisfying pace that bespeaks careful composition and saves them from becoming mere character sketches or solipsistic ruminations. This, combined with Parameswaran’s flair of looking at the world aslant, ensures that with I Am an Executioner he sets about killing us softly with his skill.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Laureate Of Old New York

Yesterday's Sunday Guardian column.

From 1964 till his death in 1996, staff writer Joseph Mitchell came to his office at the New Yorker day after day without filing a single word for publication. His 32-year-long writer’s block is now the stuff of legend. However, his profiles and character sketches before that, from 1938 onwards, are no less legendary.

E.B. White, Mitchell’s colleague, once wrote that New York City was “a single compact arena [for] the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant”. Mitchell’s arena was the Lower East Side of the 1940s and 50s; his subjects were the area’s panhandlers, Bowery bums, saloon owners, anti-profanity crusaders, street preachers and other eccentrics. It was with uncommon candour and gracefulness that he rendered their words and lives on the page. Most of his pieces were collected in his Up in the Old Hotel, first published 20 years ago, and the recent Vintage re-issue is another reminder of his achievement in memorializing these unconventional lives.

The openings of many of his profiles are noteworthy, simultaneously introducing the subjects as well as piquing interest. Take this one: “Commodore Dutch is a brassy little man who has made a living for the last forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself.” Or: “A tough Scotch-Irishman I know, Mr Hugh G. Flood, a retired house-wrecking contractor, aged ninety-three, often tells people that he is dead set and determined to live until the afternoon of July 27, 1965, when he will be a hundred and fifteen years old”.

Mitchell’s prose is plain and declarative, yet has a hypnotic cadence. (One of his favourite books was, unusually, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.) For him, details were divine; there’s not a counter, shelf, room or wall mentioned without also a precise and particular description: “Coins are dropped in soup bowls – one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves – and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox”. In a bar, he notices that “the three clocks on the wall have not been in agreement for many years”. He is also marvellous at conveying atmosphere by invoking all the senses -- here he is on one of his favourite spots, the Bronx’s Fulton Fish Market: “The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fish-mongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me.”

Throughout, Mitchell refers to himself sparely, if at all, a welcome change from today’s essayists who insert themselves into every other paragraph. He lets his characters speak without interjection or judgment – indeed, one of his strengths is the art of stitching together distinctive dialogue, which often continues for page after page. (It’s a technique that V.S. Naipaul also used, particularly in India: A Million Mutinies Now.) What comes through time and again is Mitchell’s courtliness towards and respect for his subjects, however down-at-heel they may be. As he once said, there were no “little people” in his work: "They are as big as you are, whoever you are”.

One of most notable characters Mitchell wrote about was Joe Gould, first in 1942 and then a longer piece entitled Joe Gould’s Secret in 1964.  This “blithe and emaciated little man”, known as Professor Sea Gull for his self-professed ability to translate English into the language of birds, spent years living in Greenwich Village flophouses, cadging money and meals from friends and strangers, and working on a mysterious, lengthy book that he called “an Oral History of our Time”.

Mitchell was clearly obsessed with Gould – perhaps finding common concerns between their lives – and spent much time in his company, as well as in trying to track down his family, friends and the hundreds of notebooks containing drafts of the oral history. In this latter task he was unsuccessful; it turned out that Gould was faking it, suffering from writer’s block himself. A sad and terrible irony, then, that Gould’s chronicler, who came to be known as the laureate of old New York, was to meet the same fate.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Power Of A Sense Of Place

Today's column for the Sunday Guardian

If you were to ask readers about their favourite books, the answers would almost always be those set against a backdrop vividly brought to life.  That is what Margaret Mitchell’s Atlanta, Harper Lee’s Maycomb or even the sleepy English village of Richmal Crompton’s William Brown have in common. Such is the power of a strong sense of place, an art that the best novelists use not just to serve as a background for their characters, but also to establish a living, breathing presence that stalks through the pages.

You’ll find this in Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, with his evocation of the wide-horizoned prairie across the American border. Arriving in Saskatchewan in the second half of the book, the narrator finds no hills, no landmarks and few trees:  “The course of the sun would be what told you where you were — that and whatever you personally knew about: a road, a fence line, the regular direction the wind came from”. Clearly, it’s an environment that shapes the lives of those in it.

Another recent example is Rahul Bhattacharya’s debut novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care. Here, the narrator, an Indian journalist, goes on a slow ramble through the forests and cities of Guyana, in the process evoking its rhythms, landscapes, patois and colonial legacy. Little wonder that it was awarded the Ondaatje Award for the book that best captures “the spirit of a place”.

Saskatchewan and Guyana are, of course, all too real, but some of the most resonant locations in novels have been invented.  Take R.K. Narayan’s sleepy South Indian town of Malgudi, Thomas Hardy’s destiny-laden Wessex and William Faulkner’s race-divided Yoknapatawpha County – each one made-up, although a composite of real places. These writers returned to these sites time and again in their work: establishing a suitable backdrop was vital in foregrounding themes close to their hearts.

James Joyce, on the other hand, was too busy inventing language and form to invent a place as well. In the process, he memorialized the city of his birth by trying to encompass all of “dear, dirty Dublin” in Dubliners and then in Ulysses. As he famously boasted, if the city was ever to be destroyed, it could be recreated again from the pages of the latter work. (Perhaps not in real life, but certainly in memory.)

The stories in Dubliners are linked by their location as well as the working out of common themes. For other short story collections, authors sometimes find it useful to establish a place – usually drawn from their childhoods – that serves as a setting for colourful characters who step forward with their stories. This was V.S. Naipaul’s technique in Miguel Street, as well as that of Rohinton Mistry in Tales from Firozeshah Bagh.

Often, places that are compelling on the page aren’t all that dramatic in real life – it’s the writer’s art that makes them so. Consider the humdrum, conventional nature of the American suburbs, and look at the use the trio of Yates, Cheever and Updike made of them.

Film and TV directors have long known of the hypnotic power of an appropriate sense of place. Take Woody Allen’s New York, for example – or even the manner in which he creates the ill-lit squares, streets and parlours of a murky and altogether Kafkaesque East European town in Shadows and Fog (shot, naturally, in black-and-white).  In recent TV shows, the rain-sodden Seattle of The Killing or the forbidding icy wastes and power-thirsty imperial cities of Game of Thrones are so integral to the plots that the shows would be inconceivable without them.

In her classic 1956 essay on the subject, Eudora Welty called a sense of place “one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction”. That’s a memorable way of drawing attention to it, but, as these examples and more go on to show, it’s an angel that’s at least the equivalent of all the others that preside over the writer’s desk.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Out Of Focus

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai

THE VILLAGE Nikita Lalwani

Nikita Lalwani’s second novel, The Village, comes five years after her debut, the Booker-longlisted Gifted. Unfortunately, it’s as charmless as the first one was engaging. The novel’s premise is uncommon enough, but the characters and their predicaments remain fuzzy and underdeveloped throughout.

The village in question is the fictional hamlet of Ashwer, five hours’ drive from New Delhi. This happens to be an ‘open prison’ where those convicted of murder, along with their families, are encouraged to lead productive lives. In this location arrives a small BBC crew intending to film a documentary. Lalwani’s narrative hews close to the point of view of the crew’s young director, Ray Bhuller, a woman of Indian-origin whose past we are told little about. Much is made of Ray’s fractious relationship with Serena, the film’s producer, and Nathan, the presenter – who, somewhat improbably, is a former armed robber from London’s East End.

Though we’re introduced to some of the inmates and their backgrounds, their lives and the daily rhythm of the village never quite spring into focus. Space, however, is given over to portraying the country’s heat, dust, hues and clothes. There are other clunky choices, too, such as Hindi dialogue being followed by an English translation. (At one point, “thakur sahib” is transcribed, without irony, as “sir lord”.)

One also reads with incredulity of Ray’s reasons to film the documentary, revealed in a conversation with Nathan: she wants to portray the “beauty, honesty, trust, dignity and inspiration” of the country, going on to talk of dismantling colonial prejudices. All the more strange then, that she allows herself to be a part of the manipulation that follows in getting the inmates to reveal more of themselves than they’d like.

 Halfway through the novel, Ray’s boss e-mails her from London to ask for the specific storylines and conflict that she plans to feature in her documentary. It’s a pity the novel itself doesn’t make more effective use of such elements.

Growing Up At The New Yorker

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian

Whether you think of it as the urbane centre of American letters or a magazine designed to make suburban women feel superior to the Joneses, the New Yorker has always attracted more than its fair share of interest. For years, those associated with the publication have written books on their time there. Some have been vituperative, such as Renata Adler’s Gone: the Last Days of the New Yorker, which followed in the footsteps of Tom Wolfe’s infamous 1965 takedown in New York magazine. Others are affectionate and commemorative, especially about the magazine’s first few decades, such as Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker, Ved Mehta’s Remembering Mr Shawn’s New Yorker or Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made.

In these pages, affairs have been discussed or denied, dirt has been slung or vacuumed up, and personal quirks have been criticized or celebrated. Their lure is irresistible, as they promise to shine a light on the activities of editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, writers such as Thurber, Salinger and Updike, and all the other allegedly neurotic, talented, egoistic, sensitive souls who contributed to the magazine.

The latest addition, published last week, is Janet Groth’s memoir, The Receptionist: an Education at the New Yorker. From 1957, Groth worked for more than two decades at the magazine, answering phones, taking messages and lending a helping hand and sympathetic ear to the magazine’s writers, editors and cartoonists. Lest you jump to the conclusion that this was the sum of her ambitions, it ought to be pointed out that she earned a PhD while at the magazine, left to teach at the University of Cincinnati, and has since published four scholarly books on Edmund Wilson.

The tone of voice she adopts for much of The Receptionist, however, is that of an ingénue, a wide-eyed girl from the sticks arriving in glamorous New York City. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that it’s more a coming-of-age tale than an inside look at the workings of the New Yorker. In a sense, the cover, with the distinctive Irwin typeface of the magazine’s masthead, is deceptive.

It starts with Groth being interviewed by the notoriously shy E.B. White and then assigned to the reception desk on the “writers’ floor”.  The chapters that follow aren’t strictly chronological, but deal with aspects of Groth’s tenure at the magazine – being proposed to by John Berryman, a suicide attempt following an affair with a caddish cartoonist, flirtatious lunches with Joseph Mitchell and assisting Muriel Spark. It’s also a record of her alliances with unsuitable men, and Groth is candid about her personal and sexual awakening, fuelled by lessons from the therapist’s couch.

Groth name-checks many others, but it’s clear that her interactions were limited: “When J.D. Salinger needed to find the office Coke machine (there wasn’t one), I was the girl he asked. When Woody Allen got off the elevator on the wrong floor – about every other time – I was the girl who steered him up two floors where he needed to be.”

Though she remained at her receptionist’s desk throughout – barring an ill-fated stint in the art department – without advancing to fact-checker or contributor, she never felt hard done by. Her several trips to Europe and “invitations to share the cultural, social, and literary life of the city” made her feel neither a victim nor beneficiary: “It seems to me a two-way street”. She also disingenuously glosses over casual sexism: “In those days, men who came up to meet New Yorker writers for lunch…often passed the time chatting with me at the reception desk. Sometimes they even convinced me to go out with them.” Or, speaking of a colleague: “These men had a good eye for beauty and they eyed Andy with evident pleasure”.

There is thus an awkward though endearing sincerity that pervades these pages. Groth’s memoir doesn’t quite belong on the same shelf as other books on the New Yorker, but acolytes of the magazine will probably give The Receptionist a warm reception.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Second Novel Blues

This appeared in yesterday's Sunday Guardian.

One of the characters in Rupa Bajwa’s second novel happens to be a novelist unable to make progress with her second novel. Any resemblance to the author is, one supposes, purely co-incidental. As Taylor Antrim wrote in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, “Is there anything worse than writing a second novel?...It's a standoff between creative depletion and rising ambition, the desire to attain more combined with the creeping fear that everything you had went into that first book”.

Moreover, if the debut novel is acclaimed, the burden of expectations can make the second one even harder to finish. It was nine years after The Virgin Suicides that Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex appeared; it was ten years after The Secret History that Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend was published.

Sometimes, though, getting a first novel out of the way can allow the author to discover a subject and style that sets him or her off on a new direction. Such was the case, for example, with Salman Rushdie, who went from the unheralded Grimus to the celebrated Midnight’s Children.

Then, there’s England’s Encore Award, which acknowledges the often-neglected achievement of impressive second novels. Presenting the inaugural award in 1990, Stephen Fry said that a first novel “contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair” of the author’s life until then. However, “the second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult”. Among the notable winners since then have been Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, Ali Smith’s Hotel World, Amit Chaudhuri’s Afternoon Raag and Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing.

Two second novels published this year won’t, one fears, be on the Encore Award list. Nikita Lalwani and Rupa Bajwa’s first novels were well-received, and rightly so; their second efforts, however, are a let-down

Lalwani’s The Village is entirely set in an ‘open prison’ in north India – a community of convicted murderers and their families. The central character, Ray Bhullar, a fledgling BBC documentary director of Indian origin, arrives here with a crew to film their lives of the village’s inhabitants. An interesting set-up, but what comes in the way of its development are woolly characterization and awkward dialogue.

The lives of those in the village remain out-of-focus, and the motivations of others who influence the plot, such as Ray’s producer and presenter, remain unclear. There’s also much about India through a visitor’s eyes, which means heat, dust, colours, food and, inevitably, a bumpy camel ride.

Bajwa’s Tell Me a Story is bumpy, too, for different reasons. As with her first book, the protagonist is from the lower middle class: Rani, a beautician in an Amritsar salon living with a quarrelsome family struggling to make ends meet. There is empathy in Bajwa’s portrayal of her limited horizons, and the prose, though occasionally clumsy, comes across as sincere.

Halfway through, though, the scene shifts to Delhi and we’re introduced to Sadhna, a blocked novelist. This is when the enterprise begins to flounder. The shifts in the points of view between Sadhna and Rani are imbalanced, and the conflation of the storytelling skills of the two is uneasy, at best.

Both novels demonstrate what authors attempt to do with sophomore novels:  Lalwani tries to get away from the subject and situation of her first, while Bajwa tries to extend and deepen them. The reach of both exceeds their grasp.

None of this is to suggest that the first novels of these two authors were flashes in the pan. It’s clear that, despite the many weaknesses, there’s enough in their follow-ups to demonstrate talent. The jacket copy of Bajwa’s novel mentions that she’s at work on her next novel; one presumes that this is the case with Lalwani, too. And when it comes to third novels, it was after Dangling Man and The Victim that Saul Bellow wrote the classic The Adventures of Augie March.