Saturday, March 30, 2013

Talking About Online Stalking

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

The Internet doesn't just extend our capabilities, it also amplifies our tendencies, for better or for worse. Trolls spring up at a moment’s notice, and incidents of online stalking are reported daily, as legal enforcement agencies scramble to catch up. 

What does it feel like to be at the receiving end? In his new memoir, Give Me Everything You Have, novelist and poet James Lasdun recounts the anguish he went through when he was targeted online, how it affected his work and how he dealt with “the great fugue of hatred and malice that thundered over my life for the next several years”.

His story begins in 2003, when he was conducting a fiction writing workshop in New York, and was impressed by the work of one of his students, whom he calls Nasreen. “She was in her thirties, quiet and reserved”, working on a novel set in Tehran during the last days of the Shah. Two years later, he receives an e-mail from Nasreen to say that she’s completed a draft of her manuscript. Lasdun enters into a correspondence with her, during which he gives her the contact details of an agent and an editor. The e-mails continue, on both sides: the happily-married Lasdun writes that while hers were occasionally flirtatious, he kept “the playful tone alive without actually rising to the bait”, wanting to be more a mentor than anything else.

They meet once again, for coffee, and continue to e-mail. Given that Nasreen mails him several times a day, demanding more and more intimacy, sometimes incoherently, Lasdun tries to break off the correspondence. But, “though I didn’t quite know it yet, I had entered the realm of stricken enchantment in which technology and psychology overlap”.

In short, over the next few years, Nasreen sends him vicious, threatening e-mails daily, posts vile comments on his novels and behavior on Amazon, GoodReads and Facebook, communicates with the head of Lasdun’s college with wild allegations, and threatens and accuses his agent and editor, among others. Anti-Semitism is a standard feature of these attacks, as are accusations of plagiarism, racism, sleeping with his students and encouraging rape. Lasdun’s life falls apart; as he writes: “out there in cyberspace a larger, more vivid version of myself had been engendered and was rapidly (so I felt) supplanting me in the minds of other people: Nasreen’s version, the thief, the racist, the sexual predator”.

At this point, the memoir takes a series of detours as Lasdun tries to create resonances between his situation and other aspects of his life, including his relationship with his father. There’s an account of a long train journey and later, a trip to Jerusalem, which has the unfortunate effect of making the book devolve into a solipsistic travelogue. More interestingly, he finds parallels in literature: Gawain and the Green Knight, novels by Patricia Highsmith and I.B. Singer, Emily Dickinson’s letters and the New Mexico sojourn of D.H. Lawrence. Circling back to Nasreen, he writes of seeking legal counsel and talking to NYPD detectives, none of which has much effect.

From Lasdun’s account, it seems clear that Nasreen’s mental health is precarious, but this is something he pushes away: “however afflicted Nasreen may have been, she was obviously, calculatingly, tauntingly aware of the possible consequences of her actions, and by her own admission dead set on bringing at least some of them about (‘I will ruin him’).” Moreover, he candidly admits, his vested interest in wanting to think of her as sane lies in holding her responsible for her behaviour and to avoid discomfort in writing about her.

At the end of his book, there’s no closure: five years after they began, the online attacks continue “like fevers of a recurrent illness”. Give Me Everything You Have may be flawed, and of necessity one-sided, but it’s also harrowing. Before you befriend someone new on Facebook, think about Lasdun quoting George Eliot: “The last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people”.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Novels of Asia Redux

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Non-fiction shelves are filled with the work of those who try and interpret the rise of Asia. Now, it’s time for novelists to step in. Unusually, two recent books by writers from this part of the world both take their cues from self-help books.

The first, Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, announces its structure in the title itself, and with chapter headings such as ‘Learn from a Master’ and ‘Work for Yourself’. It’s written in the second person, and the combination of these elements puts one in mind of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s collection, Self Help, especially ’How to Become a Writer’.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is the life story of an individual born to an impoverished family, a “young jaundiced village boy”. However: “Moving to the city is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia. And you have now taken it.” Hamid charts his protagonist’s progress over the decades, from DVD delivery boy to “non-expired-labeled expired-goods salesman” to bottled-water baron. (He starts out in this last endeavor by simply filling old plastic bottles with boiled tap water.) Bribes, bureaucracy and betrayals are, of course, part of this process, played out against the backdrop of urban decay.

It’s also a love story, and Hamid has said in a recent interview that he modeled the book on Sufi poetry: “Islamic mysticism where love is used as the prism for relating to the universe…in the form of love poems, which are second-person addresses”. Thus, the book also follows the fortunes of another individual referred to as “the pretty girl”, who makes her way from small-time model to television chef to upmarket furniture and bric-a-brac retailer. In a series of deft segues, we learn of the couple’s interactions and ultimate fates.

In contrast to Hamid’s coolly ironic tone, Tash Aw’s work is – on the surface, at least – more formally realist. His Five Star Billionaire, at nearly double the number of pages, shares similar themes, yet is a very different kind of work. If you look at the chapter headings alone, you’ll find them almost interchangeable with Hamid’s: ‘Choose the Right Moment to Launch Yourself’ and ‘Anticipate Danger in Times of Peace’, for example. In addition, one of the characters is addicted to self-help books while another claims to have written many of them.

The setting is a brash, modernising Shanghai, a magnet that Aw’s characters are drawn to from the Malaysian countryside. Many of the characters in Yiyun Li’s short stories are bewildered and left behind by the new China; here, we see the other side of the coin.

The five stars of Five Star Billionaire are the winner of a reality music show, an idealistic coffee-shop owner turned businesswoman, the scion of a wealthy family looking to expand its interests, a young woman who works in a spa and a mysterious tycoon seeking a legacy. Having thrown these balls up in the air, Aw makes them cross in their upward and downward trajectories, most of the time with a degree of skill. Beneath this is a subterranean plot to do with the catching up of a retributive past.

The fast-changing, polluted city with enclaves of affluence is a tangible presence in both books; in addition, fakes feature in both, as local rip-offs as well as the authenticity – or lack thereof -- of the characters. In his trademark tone, Hamid writes: “You know quality matters, especially for fakes”, and Aw observes of a counterfeit brand: “Like everything in life these days, I suppose you could say it’s a copycat – a fake”.

One of the chapters in Hamid’s novel starts with an exhortation to focus on the fundamentals. As novelists, both he and Aw do this by focusing on character and plot and creating alternative, competing visions of Asian rise and fall. Business headlines may trumpet a nation’s success story, but it takes a novel to unmask the darker, intimate stories behind it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Gospel According To John Coetzee

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

In the beginning was the title and it was The Childhood of Jesus, and those who looked upon it saw that it was a light that illuminates the new novel by J.M. Coetzee.

And though many of Coetzee’s earlier titles are terse (Boyhood, Youth, Disgrace), some are resonant (Waiting for the Barbarians) and some ironically apt (Foe). But the name of his new work is both simple and skilful.

For once again Coetzee puts aside autobiography and anti-fiction and returns to allegory, using a simple style that reaches the realm of parable. All of which is entirely fitting, given his subject. And in the novel, the characters of the middle-aged Simón and his five-year-old ward David arrive in the township of Novilla in an unnamed country in a quest for David’s missing mother. 

And Simon discovers that Novilla is governed by rules different from those he’s known before. Daily allowances and accommodation are freely available and residents are driven by kinship, not competition. As he’s told: “People here have washed themselves clean of old ties. You should be doing the same: letting go of old attachments, not pursuing them”.

And the spirit of Kafka moves upon the early part of the book as man and boy try to make sense of the egalitarian yet bureaucratic nature of their new world. Given that the citizens speak Spanish, it could well be that Cuba was what Coetzee had in mind.

It comes to pass that Simón finds work as a stevedore, then meets a strange woman named Inés, whom he instinctively feels will make a good mother to David. And Inés takes over maternal duties towards the boy who is described as magical on more than one occasion, and both decide to nurture his other-worldly qualities.

And Coetzee gives names to his characters that are as significant as his title. Simon is also the first name of the Apostle Peter, the so-called rock upon which Jesus built his church; Inés comes from the Greek for “holy”, and she is described as “the virginal type”; and David is mentioned in the gospels as an ancestor of Jesus.

Now, while the writing style is simple, what it contains can be subversive. A neighbour’s son is called Fidel and a faithful dog answers to Bolivar. For the Latin American Liberator’s first name was Simón, too. And David is inspired by reading Don Quixote – written by a “man named Benengeli” -- especially the knight-errant’s habit of mistaking the objects of his imagination for reality.

And to further drive home the point, there are loaves, fishes and a sinister Senor Daga who tries to lead David into temptation. Though there is also much that seems inspired by Buddhism. The benevolent residents of Novilla philosophise freely, and have the habit of uttering statements such as: “This endless dissatisfaction, this yearning for the something-more that is missing, is a way of thinking we are well rid of.”

But there are also moments of great peculiarity, such as a discussion with David on the one-ness of human excreta: “Once it gets into the sewer pipes it is no one’s poo…it joins all the other people’s poo and becomes general poo”.  Later on, there’s an invisibility cloak, which strikes an incongruous, Potter-ish note in a novel such as this.

And having finished the book, one recalls the first chapter of Elizabeth Costello in which Coetzee writes that novels of realism aren’t the best way to put forward ideas, because such ideas have to be embodied in characters.Which could explain the writer’s attraction to the allegory, a form that yokes together idea and character.

Verily, with The Childhood of Jesus, Coetzee offers an ingenious reassembly of the roots of one of the world’s dominant religions. The new Pope ought to read it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

After The Union Budget, My Literary Budget

My Sunday Guardian column

Readers and non-readers of the house, I rise to present my literary budget for the year. At the outset, let me emphasise that all of us are affected by wider currents sweeping in from the world beyond and as such we can no longer isolate ourselves from the international situation of books and writing. As John Donne said, no man is an island and, with flights and hotel rates becoming more expensive, no man can plan an island vacation, too.

It will come as no surprise when I point out that growth suffered last year. The ratio of number of books bought to number of books read reached alarming levels, and ­the unread piles that have gathered in corners lead me to my first proposal: that of a cut in the rates of warehousing facilities. This will free up valuable space that can be used for other activities, and if not, can be used to stack more books.

I had earlier mentioned the influence of overseas trends. Nowhere is this more significant than in the appearance of three volumes in bookshops across the land, volumes that appear to be manuals for painters but in fact have to do with the shades of grey in the relationships between men and women. This has led to a loss of valuable foreign exchange and therefore I must place a cap on the number of such books exhibited. As with gas cylinders, these, too must be rationed out across shelves.

Speaking of bookstores, it has also been observed that such shops have begun to stock items such as stuffed toys, board games, electronics and sundry good that do not resemble books in shape or form. My next proposal, therefore, is that only 3.1416 per cent of the space in such shops be set aside for non-book goods, with the rest given over to what one expects to see when one enters a retail outlet called a bookshop.

My economic team has also provided me with statistics which reveal that many are refusing to read, instead preferring activities such as watching movies, television serials or spending time on social media. Therefore I present to the house a proposal that before any such activity is indulged in, proof will have to be provided that a certain number of hours have been spent with a book. Ration cards will shortly be issued to the public for this purpose, in which details of the number of hours that have been employed in reading must be recorded. Magistrates and gazetted officers will henceforth be bestowed with the power to ratify such documents and since we will therefore need more of them, this step will also generate employment.

Exemptions are one of the reasons that many tune in to budget speeches, and this one too has its share of them. First of all, a blanket exemption to stop reading is granted to those who, after they persevere with a book for more than 100 pages, find that it fails to move them in any way. Such individuals are free to drop off the said book at any local library, no questions asked. (A caveat: such exemptions cannot be granted to those who are reading work by Joyce or Beckett. Irish writers have to be persevered with.) Further, literary agents and publishers are exempt from replying to aspiring authors who submit manuscripts that have a minimum of five typos on the first page.

The country’s young are its future, and this also gives me a chance to use the words “demographic dividend”. I also take this opportunity to use the words “national literacy mission” and “teachers are a valuable resource”. They are good words. I will use them again next year.

In closing, I can already hear some voices from the back calling this a populist budget. I strongly oppose this unfair allegation. If it was indeed populist, I would have made it mandatory for Chetan Bhagat to write a book every year. So there.

Quivering Incidents Of Prose

This review appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian


The fictional world of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden is one where a face is “a record of time’s weight on the soul”. Love is “the result of having caught a glimpse of another’s loneliness”. A character’s mind is a “black leaf-encumbered forest”. The landscape is “ripped to pieces by its own elemental energies”. And the sky is full of “quivering incidents of daybreak”.

Readers of Aslam’s earlier novels will be familiar with such quivering incidents of prose and he serves up large slabs of the same in his fourth. In theme and backdrop too, The Blind Man’s Garden is similar to his The Wasted Vigil, with noble and sometimes naïve individuals caught up in the maw of current events over which they have little control. Of a character in that earlier novel, Aslam wrote that her interest was “caught by personalities and events on the edges of wars, by lives that have yet to arrive at one of history’s conflicts, or those that have moved away from the conflagration.” In The Blind Man’s Garden, the conflagration and conflicts are closer home, something tersely and more obviously stated in the novel’s first sentence: “History is the third parent”.

This is largely the story of Mikal, who travels with his foster brother Jeo from Pakistan to Afghanistan shortly after the events of 9/11, ostensibly to tend to the war wounded there. Events take a cataclysmic turn, as they have a habit of doing in fiction, and Mikal faces a difficult journey home, having to deal with Taliban fighters, local Afghan warlords and American torture chambers. Along the way he manages to acquire a pet, a playful snow leopard cub. The force is strong with this one.

The novel also tells us of the fates of the ageing Rohan, Jeo’s father and former headmaster of a school that is now being used for more nefarious purposes than education; and of Naheed, Jeo’s wife, whose heart used to beat for Mikal before her wedding and who, in the absence of both of them, has to ward off an sinister, elderly suitor.While Mikal is battling through travails in Afghanistan, the others become embroiled in chaotic events to do with a school siege planned by a former armyman determined to show who’s boss.

Every now and again, Aslam introduces dramatic images, some surreal, some overly weighted by symbolism. Snares are set for birds on a tree in Rohan’s garden, a trap from which they try to extricate themselves by fluttering helplessly in the manner of his characters. At other times, a herd of horses emerges from underground, a fakir roams the streets clad only in chain links that represent the sins of supplicants, and a mysteriously-appearing ruby is used for ransom.

The heavy-handedness extends to the plot, with a series of all-too-neat coincidences and twists. Naheed loves Mikal but is carrying Jeo’s child; Jeo stumbles upon his wife’s secret by finding her letters in Mikal’s satchel; Rohan is instrumental is saving the life of another boy also named Jeo; Mikal kills two Americans, then redemptively saves a third.

After a while, one ceases to look upon these people as flesh-and-blood characters. They become both less than real and less than mythical, striding through strange worlds and seeking an elusive salvation that only love can provide. Scenes of brutality intersect with those of tenderness and there are also anguished paeans to do with the futility of extremism, in whatever form, in whichever country. Aslam’s heart is clearly in the right place; if only he hadn’t made every event excessively portentous, The Blind Man’s Garden would have been a more affecting depiction of what Atiq Rahimi in The Patience Stone, another novel set in Afghanistan, called “the mad world of men with notions of honour, pride and a woman's place.”

The Cheater's Guide To Love

This, lightly edited, appeared in today's DNA.


For Hemingway, it was a taciturn form of grace under pressure; for Roth, it was an unbuttoned rant against stricture and tradition. Over the years, masculinity has been variously represented in American letters: of late it’s been marked by flights from traditional roles and ambivalence, a recent example being the conflicted narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

Displacement and changing notions of what it means to be a man are also very much a part of Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. These nine stories revolve around Yunior – earlier encountered in the author’s Drown – and are a record of his hopeless romantic entanglements as well as his family’s adjustment to life as Dominican immigrants in the United States.

Most of the collection concerns itself with the cocky Yunior’s inability to stay in a steady relationship because of his roving eye. “I’m not a bad guy,” he says in his defence: “I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good”. To this, a former girlfriend counters that he’s a typical Dominican man: “a sucio, an asshole”. Other stories tell of the unsuitable alliances of Yunior’s swaggering and self-destructive elder brother, as well as recollections of their father – who, Yunior says, bequeathed to him the gene of infidelity.

In a shift of tone but not of theme, one of the stories is from a woman’s point of view, recording the immigrant dreams and hardships of a hospital worker and her relationship with another arrival from Dominica whose wife has remained behind. Moving and without flashy effects, it ably expands the collection’s reach.

Yunior’s alliances and break-ups with the women in his life are occasionally recorded in a wistful manner that can bring to mind the character played by Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. The prose, though, has an infectious and rhythmic insouciance and is liberally sprinkled with Dominican words and phrases, as was the case with Diaz’s earlier books. Every once in a while one comes across a sentence that re-affirms his gifts as a writer -- take, for example, the effortless sweep of this one, when Yunior recalls his mother’s behaviour on the evenings that his father invites co-workers over: “She started out each night natural and unreserved, with a face that scowled as easily as it grinned, but as the men loosened their belts and aired out their toes and talked their talk, she withdrew; her expressions narrowed until all that remained was a tight, guarded smile that seemed to drift across the room the way a shadow drifts slowly across a wall”.

The final story, ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’, is narrated appropriately enough in the second person, and tells of Yunior’s comeuppance. He spends years obsessing over a former, failed relationship as he comes to realize the price he has to pay for his way of life. (As Hank Williams could have told him: “The time will come when you’ll be blue/Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you”.) Finally, self-recrimination leads to self-realisation and, in an act that feels “like hope, like grace”, Yunior finds redemption in writing about his earlier affairs. ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’, then, could well have been the title of this impressive collection by an evidently talented author.