Posts Tagged ‘literary review’

The Dirty Cages Where The White Tiger Prowls

March 15, 2009

The precise cliche with which to begin trashing the cliche-ridden nonsense that is Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker-prize winning novel, The White Tiger, eludes me. Shall I ask what might have possessed the prize awarding committee? Shall I talk about the obvious faddishness of writing about India and its poverty? Shall I worry about how literary status is today decided by the smooth publicity machines that are akin to political lobbies and king-making backroom cabals? Or should I follow the technique of literary polemics in ripping the author a new one by exposing all of his obvious literary deficiencies, and making ad hominem attacks on his patent incompetence and ineligibility to be admitted even into the lowest rungs of the literary pantheon?

Maybe I will just do all of these because I am unemployed, talk is cheap on the Internet, and I like typing.

Adiga’s novel takes about sixty minutes to read, about fifty-five if I tip you off before you start it that the word “black” will appear about once every five paragraphs, and you should find some way to elide it visually from the page. It will really get you flipping the pages fast.

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On Being At Home

February 16, 2009

A few months ago, I wrote down a note to myself: Home is where you can be a failure. That thought is haunting me a lot recently because I have been “unsuccessful” in various ways — I was laid off twice last year, and I have been seriously disappointed in general at my ability to understand and participate in most human interactions, including but certainly not limited to, my relationship with my girlfriend. While in this mood, I thought about what it means to always have to be employed while in the United States, and how that necessitated being emotionally and mentally alert, stable and competent. It is as if the immigration laws of this country were written to only let normal and stable people work here; those who cannot be the “best and brightest” have to pay the penalty for their lackadaisicalness and indolence by returning to their home country. Over there, presumably, I can let myself go as much as I want, and no one can really do anything except hope that I will either shake myself out of it or be forced to work out of indigence, shame, a sense of filial, matrimonial or parental duty or some combination of the above.

I just read a book that was written by another immigrant to the United States, a man named Aleksandar Hemon. He came here from Bosnia, or Serbia, or one of those war-torn countries where for a while, the ethnic strife became a global theater of blood-engorged horror. He had it easy in coming here — he pointed to Bosnia (or Serbia) and said, my home is no more, and they believed him. He wasn’t a famous, New Yorker-published writer then, so they didn’t keep him because he was known to be industrious and capable of having a normal, mainstream life. In fact, seeing as how his brethren back at home were ripping each other’s throats out, or pumping sniper bullets into each other’s hearts and lungs, at that very moment, the immigration officials could well have been excused for turning Mister Hemon back under grounds of being a potential vector of homicidal lunacy.

As it happens, they let him stay on, so that he could, after a suitable series of circumstances, involving the inculcation of enough English to allow his natural talents as a writer to emerge in his adopted tongue, produce a not-inconsiderable body of work in a language he wasn’t born to speak. Having read, and been entranced by, a short story of his in the New Yorker, I picked up his latest book, The Lazarus Project.

The book’s basic structure is that the narrator, Vladimir Brik, is working on a research project involving one Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who escaped pogrom back home (for him, home was where you could be buried alive or simply bludgeoned to death for being born into a certain religion) to arrive on the shores of the United States and thence to the ghettos of Chicago. In parallel, Hemon weaves the story of Brik himself who, upon fortuitously receiving some foundation grant money to pursue this project, decides that the best way to spend it would be to travel himself to the city in Moldova where the eponymous Lazarus was from and learn more about the circumstances that caused Lazarus to flee. Of course, it makes sense that this journey becomes a sort of homecoming for Brik too — he is, after all, from a part of the world that isn’t that far away from the scene of this turn-of-the-century iniquity. During the journey, we learn gradually more about the narrator’s own ambiguous relationship with his foster-motherland, a relationship reflected in all-too-real terms in his marriage to a woman from a mid-Western family, representing in her general attitude of self-exceptionalism, the vaunted purity of American idealism. She “suffers,” Brik keeps telling us, “from a surfeit of good intentions,” as does her father, though his moralizing turns him into a stern and unyielding father who the children naturally come to hate, in that peculiar way that Americans have of almost reflexively turning against the values of the previous generation, almost every generation, creating a cycle of liberalism and conservatism that works with the same sense of deadly clockwork as does the country’s business world.

Meanwhile, Brik’s research subject has crossed paths him, in a literary sense, by coming to America from the place Brik is headed to. He has landed unwittingly in a time and place that is going to be very dangerous for him, because the ghettos are under fire from virulent anti-immigrant sentiment. In fact, the novel itself opens with a spectacular shoot-out in which an unarmed and plainly very innocent Lazarus has just been butchered to death by Chicago’s Chief of Police. Brik’s utter disdain for and cynicism about authority in its many forms spews out of the pages almost from page one, both in his descriptions of the conditions under which the murder has taken place, as well as in his assessment of social mores in more modern America. The parallels between the spectre of anarchism then and the bugaboo of terrorism now are plain.

Of course, things are no less dangerous in other parts of the world, where terrorism is, if not exactly a predictable and regular event like the neighborhood farmer’s market, at least something more real than a political sound bite for talk shows and State of the Union addresses. Brik is on a perilous trip and Hemon reminds us constantly that the erstwhile republics of the Soviet Union are a capricious place, perhaps partly to contrast with the humdrum orderliness of ordinary life in the United States, and perhaps also because this is his strongest sense of what it was like to live in the satellite worlds of Soviet power. He and his traveling companion, a sometimes laconic, sometimes irrepressible man named Rora, are always surrounded by hulking men, who seem to be perpetually on the verge of committing a crime, of running away from one or at the very least, having just planned one. These are the people who are “all now,” Brik muses, whereas he is himself, being a writer researching a dead history, much more in the past.

At some point, because this is a post-modern novel of sorts, the two story lines collide in even more of a literary sense than the one I’ve already mentioned. Hemon glides effortlessly from dialogues between his “real life” characters to thoes between the “fictionalized historical” ones. The fears of one set of travelers who are outsiders looking into a fearful world where they were once insiders and would still be mistaken for it were it not for their shields of invincibility — their American passports — meld with those of the set who are desperate to be inside a world that both fears and welcomes them for being outsiders.

Though the characters I’ve described here might seem like caricatures who will pall after a few pages, the book is anything but boring or cliched. The Adventures of Brik And Rora, which might have well been a working title, engulf you all the way through to the end in their madcapness, even after you have fully imbibed Brik’s, and Hemon’s, point that around where they are wandering, the distinctions between nations are largely administrative — as far as the people and their attitudes go, it might well be one vast stretch of Fuck-Youistan. Yet, Hemon creates just enough space in the interstices of the borders he crosses and fills it with just the right mix of sardonic humor, violent anger, mordant self-deprecation and philosophical brilliance, all emanating mostly from Brik but also from Rora who acts as his foil, that you never feel like skipping past the boring bits about the museums and parks, for a cursory glance at the last part of the travelogue, where you can find listed the cheap places to eat and pick up a whore at. And it is hardly a spoiler here to say that in the end, everything is resolved, in some sense, not because characters are necessarily transformed, or are transported through their personal epiphanies but because they make a grand choice, a choice between life and death, in a manner that only the characters of really good novels can.

In an interview many years ago, David Foster Wallace said that writing used to be about “taking people to foreign lands and exotic cultures and giving … access to worlds they didn’t have access to.” Now, he said, (and his “now” was about fifteen years ago, in this interview,) things had turned around a 180 degrees, because everybody was familiar with every place, so writing had to exoticize and distance everything. What Hemon does is to perform both tasks — his lands are both familiar and strange; his characters both improbable and eminently believable.

Perhaps one place Hemon fails to perform this sort of magical melding is in his thoughts of the country that he, and the obviously semi-autobiographical Brik, now call home. Brik reminds us on multiple occasions of the perniciousness of idealism — the idealism of religion, personified by the life and decisions of “Mister Christ,” as he refers to the Christian messiah; and of course, the idealism of the United States, which transmogrifies frequently into naked and ugly power, uglier when more naked. It is an idealism into the fold of which his father-in-law and wife are portrayed as relentless in bringing him. Brik’s bile shows the most when he ruminates on the world he has (temporarily) left behind on his trip — but slapping into senselessness the subtleties of the American point of view into such doesn’t do his case any good. It is a show of demagoguery that would sound more natural from a disgruntled jihadi or an unreformed Communist — is Brik merely harboring an intense resentment of the United States for having been against his side of the war in the former Yugoslavian nation; or it is just the pressure of a failing, perhaps ill-advised, marriage merely “acting out”? It’s never clear, nor does Hemon clarify this situation for us, leaving America a rather trumped-up villain straight out of a Punch magazine sketch.

The Lazarus Project is worth reading because it represents a good example of what happens when someone with cross-cultural sensibilities puts his consciousness into literary creation. The questions in the Project are still existential but they are keenly aware of the real history of immigration and globalization — for most of us, home is merely an accident, a skin thrown over us in the haste of our creation, and it’s an accident that we come to terms with and to celebrate. For others, finding a home is one of the ends of life itself, rather than the means of living it. For every one who has been on that journey, Hemon’s Project is a voice in support.

Adam Bede, Chapters VI through X

June 26, 2008

I am continuing here from where I left off in a previous post, talking about my endeavor of reading through Adam Bede, about five chapters at a time, while participating in an online group critique of it. At the time of writing this post, I have already read past the eleventh chapter, and that has somewhat dulled the degree of surprise I had experienced after the first ten chapters of how free the novel was of being overwrought and sappy. But nonetheless, I am still enjoying the combination of sheer joy and acerbic disdain that I feel Eliot must have experienced in creating the characters in this novel.

Naturally, Hetty Sorrel is the focal point of these five chapters, and the only reason the character of Mrs. Poyser comes in second, albeit by the breadth of the smallest concession that she might give in a battle for getting her due out of those that associate with her, is because Eliot has taken care to sound the most ominous notes when talking of Hetty before this. We have ample reason to suppose that Hetty is what I term the “broken disciplining paddle” of a good nineteenth century novel — the cause of many a sorry end, including itself. If I were Mel Brooks satirizing this novel, I would, in the first few scenes, have the kettle drums and minor chords playing ostentatiously whenever someone said Hetty’s name, until one of the other characters, perhaps Adam, would be forced to walk “off camera,” revealing the drum band to the right, who he then proceeds to warn off any future scene.

Before I return to Hetty, let me briefly spend time with Mrs. Poyser. Who can represent better the true face of England’s future than this endlessly harrying woman, attempting with every breath to negotiate a materially more satisfying, cleaner and safer world for herself and her brood? Clearly, Eliot’s sympathies lie with Mrs. Poyser and her kind more than any one else in this novel — not with the dying breed of aristocrats, country squires and Anglican clergy that the Donnithornes and Irwines are, nor with the pretentiousness of the religious novelties that Dinah and her Methodists (which would make such a good band name!) nor even with her hero, the man who lays claim to the title of the novel, if not the title of any land, for after all we already know that Hetty is his fatal flaw. The only character that will survive and do so intelligently, instead of because of a last minute Dickensian intervention, is Mrs. Poyser.

What I remember from these chapters more than anything else is the continuation of Eliot’s sarcastic sense of humor. Our introduction to Hetty’s beauty is through a series of metaphors that subvert themselves through Eliot’s insistence that none of them could possibly do Hetty justice, only because the truest justice to such beauty as Hetty’s is done by actually gazing upon it. Her lack of interest in the senior Bede’s death is the expected response; her lack in Totty’s cherubic charms is a surer indictment, coming as it does after the first scene we see Totty in, with her mother, where we’re primed to expect that every one who comes within a few feet of her lisping presence will immediately dissolve into paroxysms of indulgence. That Hetty fails to do so, especially in the presence of a gentleman who is already smitten by the little child and could only gain a favorable impression of Hetty were she to share in the coddling, more clearly marks her as a massive failure than any other past or future insensitivities could.

The discussion of these chapters on The Valve, which motivated me to start reading Adam Bede, has much to say about Eliot’s description of Totty, of her beauty being so intense that lack of understanding it forces one to extinguish it. It’s a chilling thought, and one that I believe conceals a strikingly deep, if cynical, understanding of power. Something as beautiful as a child threatens traditional power because it is seductive. The child itself is not threatening but Eliot uses the tiny Totty effectively as a metaphor, for how we can be overwhelmed by beauty until we become obsessive about it. In retaliation, we find ourselves developing a Fight response to this seductive force, and we want to crush it.

Moving on from Hetty to Dinah, I found Dinah’s role in the bereaved Bede household surprising in how mean she is made out to be, which is of course a very relative thing to say given that Dinah is clearly on her way to beatification within the normal course of things. Her desire to bring the word of God on every lip seems so strong that we begin to suspect her motives in comforting Ma Bede. She’s itching to make the old woman kneel before the Lord’s omnipotence and is barely able to contain herself — perhaps held back eventually only by the attraction she will begin to betray for the “hunky hero,” Mr. Adam Bede himself. The discussion on The Valve also touches on Dinah’s lack of “interiority,” which I don’t find to be a flaw in Eliot’s style, but rather the truth of who Dinah is. We can forgive Dinah for her almost overbearing and single-minded behavior when it comes to religious responsibility only because we know she’s compelled by forces she doesn’t understand, a fact that becomes even more abundantly clear in later chapters.

Seen in this respect, the novel is beginning to shape up, rather nicely, I might add, around the question of human desires, secular and transcendental, and how we act under circumstances beyond our control — Hetty’s seduction is almost a red herring in this regard, the obvious story that is itself a microcosm representing the larger story it is a part of. It is almost as if Eliot is setting us up, lulling us, through both Hetty’s story and the calm and idyllic setting of the English Midlands, to not see the larger picture, so that the true drama, when it unfolds, is that much more frightening.

Adam Bede, Chapters I through V

June 22, 2008

I tried reading Middlemarch a few months ago, on the recommendation of a resolutely misogynistic friend who proclaimed that reading it had convinced him that George Eliot was not only the only woman novelist worth reading (ever!) but that she was an exceptional novelist in the first place. This was praise of a special kind, coming as it did from someone who was rarely moved to any kind of positive opinion of things. So I proceeded to read the novel, even though I had an initial twinge of despair when I saw how large it was.

I did not finish the book — too quickly I found the plot slow and the situation of the characters rather tepid, on the whole. I wasn’t expecting a Michael Crichton blockbuster or a James Cameron screenplay, but once it dawned on me that all the action of the novel would not stray far from a small part of nineteenth century England, that indeed I should have considered myself forewarned by the bloody title itself, this grain of realization quickly became a desert of insight in which my stream of early motivations sputtered to a dry and sorry death.

I mention this at length because it is an important part of the context which I have brought with me to the reading of Adam Bede as part of this Summer Reading Project. I anticipated that the format of discussion would provide a better motivation than the one that drove me to try and read Middlemarch, because it would be more ongoing. I hope also that there will be a community engaged in the same task as I, whereas with Middlemarch I had only the implicit approval of my friend and perhaps the added benefit that we could add a discussion of the book to our existing topics of conversation.

I also bring to the analysis of this book no literary context other than (more…)