Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Archive for February, 2010

“We know the sound of two hands clapping. / But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” – A Zen Koan

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 21, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye may be the Salinger book considered the classic, but most seasoned book lovers I know, both on World Literature Forum and the blogosphere (I know precious few in real life), prefer his Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey. Right now, after having read this book twice, the first time as I would any other book and the second to confirm the new view I got of it in the last story “Teddy”, I’m not sure I care enough about the book to be writing this review. It’s basically trying – if the above-quoted epigraph and “Teddy” are enough to go by – to ,at least slightly ,disturb our view of reality.

It’s method: take the three-act structure and leave out an act (or maybe just half of one, but I don’t really care for these formalisms anyway), so that the ending completely blindsides us, the difference from The Sixth Sense being that Salinger’s ‘twists’ can’t even be properly explained in retrospect. It’s a very good experiment, and it doesn’t detract from the experience that Salinger is one of the best I’ve read among American anti-formal writers, but, with the exception of four stories, I’m just… best exemplified by a bored Bill Murray.

As I said, I only liked four of the stories, so I’m only going to talk about them, as I believe I’ve explained myself adequately on the negative front. The stories are “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, “Down at the Dinghy”, “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” (by far my favorite) and “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”. Special mention for coming close to being good: “Just Before the War with the Eskimos”, about one girl talking to one man and then another, and “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”, about a new art teacher who finds an extraordinary student.

Instead of actually talking about “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, I’ll just direct any interested readers to two interesting write-ups on it, one by Kevin (from Canada) and one by Trevor Barrett, as they say anything and everything I could possibly say.

“Down at the Dinghy” is the second appearance, in Salinger’s work, of a Glass family member, after Seymour in the first story. This is the story of the relationship between Boo Boo Tannenbaum, née Glass, her son Lionel and Lionel’s Godot-ish father.
It is, along with “For Esmé”, the least random of the nine stories.

“For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” is by far my favourite of the nine. It centers around an American soldier posted for training near Devonshire, England. He goes down to the town, walks into the church, listens to the child choir sing, notices particularly one among them, and goes over to a tea shop. Soon, the girl, her little brother and their governess walk in. The girl walks over, and introduces herself as

“My first name is Esmé. I don’t think I shall tell you my full name, for the moment. I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles. Americans are, you know.”

Salinger, as has been endlessly noted everywhere man can put pen to paper, has a great ear for dialogue; my favourite touches were the frequent interruptions and the not uncommon intonations of syllables, like “wonderful”. What is really amazing about these stories, however, is how this dialogue is so masterfully intercut with details. We aren’t surprised, for example, when after the conversation they shake hands, and the narrator observes,

Esmé and I shook hands; her hand, as I’d suspected, was a nervous hand damp at the palm.

But this conversation is only half of the story. When he reveals he is a writer, Esmé asks him to write a story:

She guided the conversation in a different direction. “I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”

I told her that I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”

“About what?” I said, leaning forward.

“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

I was about to press her for more details, but I felt Charles pinching me, hard, on my arm.

I urge you, dear reader, to ponder on the placing of “She reflected.” Other writers would have had her reflect on something, but this guy, he’s content just having her reflect, leaving open various questions, questions which become clear if you read the story.

Anyway, back to the story, the second half is the story he writes for her, which would be hilarious with its biting wit if it wasn’t for all that poignance.

Finally, “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”. This is the most completely conversation intercut with action of all the stories. An old man and his mistress are sitting in a little room when he gets a call, and the guy on th other end of the line is looking for his wife. The plot twist in the end of the story isn’t actually surprising if you’re reading carefully. It’s what happens after that that makes it the most randomly ended of the Nine Stories.

A final word: the question on top is much more ably answered in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music. The answer is that one hand makes the ‘cl’, and the other the ‘ap’.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Salinger, J. D. | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

“set down / This set down / This”: a complete misreading of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 11, 2010

My Edition: Translator Mirra Ginsburg, Publisher Bantam Classics

He is a sickened man … he is a spited man. An unattractive man. He thinks he is a “sick man … I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man.”

In truth, he is neither sick nor spiteful.

Well, one Thursday, unable to endure my solitude any longer and knowing that Anton Antonych’s doors were shut on Thursdays, I thought of Simonov. As I climbed to his fourth-floor apartment, I was thining that this gentleman found my presence irksome and that I should not be going there. But since such thoughts would always in the end goad me still more irresistibly, as though in spite, into dubious situations, I went in.

That’s only how he acts. He is endowed with the intellect of an intelligent man who has never been able to relate to people.

He is not unattractive because he is ugly. He is, in fact, unattractive because he is unattracted.

No, in truth, he is not unattracted. He is merely scared of being attracted, of being attracted and finally rejected, scared merely because he can’t possibly see it coming.

I have in my own life merely carried to the extreme that which you have never ventured to carry even halfway

That is true, for isn’t he but the modern version of a character from a Greek morality play, a tragic character not because of what happens to him but because of who – what – he is?

Isn’t it, after all, true that the only way to explain this man, in all of his contradictory facets, is to name the character that he is?

… This little runt of an essay is, I believe, the centrepiece of my method of understanding this book (revealing the understanding itself, in my opinion, would be spoiling the goods).

I began planning to portray this beautiful and poignant novella, how it went from an extended whine to parody during its course, how I love Eliot (quoted at title) because he sounds good but Dostoevsky because he goes so deep into what life is, but soon found that my writing skills weren’t up to the job (it’s certainly a pity that writing has become, for me, the major channel for catharsis). To be honest, even Dostoevsky’s weren’t; didn’t this book, after all, begin as a negative review, a negative review supposedly of a book but actually of a genre, a genre that was basically a mindset? If Dostoevsky needs a hundred pages, how can I be expected to do it in a few hundred words?

Final note: My compliments to translator Ginsburg’s endnotes, which were both endlessly illuminating as well as view-of-the-book shaping.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

“Why is this ultimate phoney ignoring me?”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 4, 2010

J. D. Salinger passed away due to natural causes on January 27th this year, at the ripe age of 91.

I am writing this retrospective on the only book of his that I’ve read, The Catcher in the Rye, in place of an obituary. I first (and last) read it in June. I will also write about his Nine Stories in the upcoming two three or four weeks (delay due to shipping problems).

Finally, I’d like to thank fellow book blogger Kevin (from Canada, I believe) who made me actually sit myself down to write this piece (rather indirectly, actually; you can read how he got me to as well as where I got my title from in the comments section of his retrospective).

Catcher in the Rye cover

I find it hard to take this book seriously in any of its other covers.

I’ll always have a special connection to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. That has, however, to be taken with a pinch of salt; out of around fifty to sixty books I read in 2009, I think so of about twenty-five. But, this book is special over and above that; I began and ended this book with a slice of medium pizza (I was chewing well, and the book took me two hours).

Okay, that’s a lie. The real reason I love it so much is that the book perfectly portrays… what does it portray? The life of a teenager? If it did, all the schools would have shut down by now. Society? Won’t even answer that. Growth? To an extent, yes, but most people think that Holden, the narrator, doesn’t actually mature in the novel. Angst? Possible, but… some explanations just don’t feel right.

Now, that was a digression I’d never have imagined was going to come. It’s so clear in my head. Maybe I’m having this problem because I read this book in June. Then again, maybe not. Fine, from the beginning on.

The book is about and narrated by Holden Caulfield, an ex-student at a boarding school called Pencey close to but not in New York. The narration is happening a year or so after the events we are going to encounter. This bit tells you as much about the style as you want to know.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

There are only two people Holden really cares about, his sister Phoebe (another one of life’s mysteries that I read this book very soon after I watched the American series Friends, the best character in which is called Phoebe Buffay) and his English teacher Mr. Antolini.

No, he’s not a misanthrope. He just hates ‘phonies’. It is, in fact, hard to find a page in which he doesn’t express his hate for them. This idea of the phony, I suppose, is one of the major reasons I connect with this book so deeply.

For me, at the time, it wasn’t a new idea, but I’d never seen it confirmed by someone I hadn’t attempted to explain it to. This confirmation was important to me, because I saw these phonies all around. Everywhere. Every bloody where. In fact, I still do, but adopt a more philosophical (read: explanatory, therefore comforting) view about it.

So, why do I claim that Holden is not a misanthrope? Because it is in this rejection of what he believes to be half-human that he expresses his true love for humanity. Witness, for example, the type of books he likes:

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you are all done reading it, you wish that the author was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

I, for example, am no misanthrope, and I know that I wouldn’t want to call up authors. Neither, I believe, would most ardent readers. But Holden understands that, because there are so few non-phonies, the few of these who write (the sentence above is immediately followed with “That doesn’t happen much though.”) shouldn’t be segregated as people you don’t want to meet. They should be met and known and hung out with. It’s not because of a special approach to books; his approach to books, by all other indications, is fairly normal.

The real fact about these phonies is that we all prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. Some people just prepare more elaborate ones than others, and they can’t always keep it up. These facades, they fall in often very subtle ways, like when someone rationalises something out of a piece of art which he doesn’t actually feel that it’s right (this is rather more obvious than most people would think). Also, the most intricate ones end up looking like facades. Is it really such an irritating book if it complains about something so real? For me, no.

For me, in fact, this book is about these overdone facades, and how we deal with them. It is, of course, true that this might not have been the case if I hadn’t come across the idea earlier in my life, but then, which interpretation has been done in a vacuum? (Aside: answer may be found in the last paragraph; there is a sense in which that is done in a vacuum, because the interpreter is refusing to use any of his experiences except those involving his logic.)

So, what does this book have to say about these facades? ‘They are a bad thing, voila’? I think it is a big enough service that it points them out. But, there could have been more. Holden could have learnt to philosophise about it by the end of the book, but either Salinger disagreed with me or he didn’t think of it. What does happen is that Holden realises his life’s vocation; he grows up, matures, but doesn’t leave this idea behind. He decides to become the catcher in the rye, teaching young children like his little sister Phoebe not to become phonies.

What is really interesting about this is that the Robert Burns’ song Holden thinks is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is actually ‘Comin’ through the rye’. Make of it what you will. I know what I do, but I have no right to spoil this idea for people who haven’t read the book, so I’ll stop here.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Salinger, J. D. | Tagged: , , , , | 8 Comments »

Lola Rennt (1998): Inter-cutting to cartoonation

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 2, 2010

Originally published at PassionforCinema.

Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) is nothing either more or less than an action movie which is trying to tackle the issue of reality. It is by no means a perfect movie, because I continually felt that there were things that could – rather, should, because I don’t actually know what adds to Tykwer’s vision and what’s there for the fun of it – have been done better, but it is an astoundingly, adrenaline-releasingly well-made one, especially considering the complexity of both the vision as well as the method of execution; most of my problem was that many elements seemed overdone before making their importance clear.

The story is about Lola (played by Franka Potente, whose name fits the role) whose boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreu) has just lost a hundred thousand marks entrusted to him by a dangerous gangster to a bum. At twenty to twelve, he calls her and tells her the whole problem, that he has to pass on the money (incidentally, the boyfriend’s called Manni) at twelve. So, she starts running.

Ah, but there’s something before that. The movie begins with a shot of a crowd milling about, out of which the camera isolates a few, all the minor characters we are going to meet during the course of this movie. And there’s a narrator, who says:

Man… probably the most mysterious species on our planet. A mystery of unanswered questions. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? How do we know what we think we know? Why do we believe anything at all? Countless questions in search of an answer… an answer that will give rise to a new question… and the next answer will give rise to the next question and so on. But, in the end, isn’t it always the same question? And always the same answer?

Then there’s a police officer, introduced in that style, who says: “The ball is round, a game lasts 90 minutes, those are the facts. Everything else is pure theory. Off we go!” Then, he throws the football in his hand up, and we see that the crowd is forming the title. Later, we’ll see the same shot, where something thrown up leads to something implausibly ordered, first right after the phone conversation in which Manni tells Lola the problem when Lola throws the receiver up and it eventually falls in place. Then, multiple times… wait right there, we’ll get there.

So, after Lola finds the problems, she starts running. In a cartoon as well as in feature. She meets people, and there are little montages informing us of their future, in a pace that would be fitting for them to be nothing other than Lola’s imaginings. There’s also inter-cutting to her father agreeing to leave his wife for his girlfriend. She gets to her father, and asks him for the money. He throws her out. And she again starts running, and ends up helping Manni rob a store, learning how to operate a gun in the process. Then, they get surrounded by police, Manni throws the money (please tell me you’ve got the joke by now) high into the air, and she gets shot (not really a spoiler) and then there’s this scene, presumably in Lola’s head, which ends up dissolving into the new reality.

Soon, we see that everything is the same yet subtly different, like it’s a dream version of the events that have just transpired. The “And Later” montages, which seemed to have become gimmicky when the camera panned to a guy just for one of these, start making sense. And then we see what’s really changed. And things happen, and I won’t tell you how many times we dissolve into a new reality.

The point is that there is only one reality, the first one. The later ones happen in heads. The characters seem to have a collective memory of what other people did, exemplified not only in the montages but in that the people dreaming know what other people did in the twenty minutes. Don’t forget, there’s a reason I insist the realities are nested, not laid out for our choice as James Berardinelli suggests in his otherwise insightful article.

However, I’m led to wonder, is the outermost reality any more real than the inner ones? What type of reality is it in which the TV is showing a cartoon version of the woman who just ran out, in which one person knows what the other person did when she was away? In which Lola can run so much?

Answer: the one which adheres to the rule

The ball is round, a game lasts 90 minutes, those are the facts. Everything else is pure theory. Off we go!

Posted in Movie Reviews, Movies, Tykwer, Tom | Tagged: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »