Life as it ain't

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

Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

“The little girl on the plane/Who turned her doll’s head around/To look at me.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 14, 2011

Click to look inside

Undoubtedly the best Salinger I’ve read to date, Franny and Zooey reads like a more sophisticated rewrite of The Catcher in the Rye. The sour-mannered Holden is here replaced by the mild and diminutive Franny Glass and — in another shape — the somewhat peremptory Zooey Glass, the youngest two members of the family which Salinger came to in all his books except Catcher. The vituperative first-person narrative is replaced by a gentle and keenly observant quintessentially American sort of third person voice straining to break free of the chains created by the limitations of language. The rant about phoneys is replaced by a violent and touching discussion of the value of what one may call mystical philosophy*, a discussion whose majority I’m not in any significant manner qualified to understand except in a skimmy way wherein I surmise the concepts from what is said in the book but the rest of which provided a useful supplement to what I’ve read in S Radhakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy.

The first part, Franny, deals with an encounter between Franny and her boyfriend Lane. Lane definitely qualifies as a pompous arse as per last paragraph, and despite her almost frenetic attempts not to, she every so often goes at him fangs bared, and feels sorry about it every time. She’s surrounded by lessers constantly acting like her greaters, and she has resolved to not set the record straight, to be meek in front of these her nemeses. It’s little wonder then that she has a nervous breakdown.

This isn’t just an incoherent scream; there’s a definite catalyst involved, in the form of a pair of books about a farmer who wants to understand what it is to pray unceasingly. He learns that that’s exactly what it is: unceasingly saying to yourself, “Lord Jesus Christ, have Mercy on me.” till the rhythm becomes a part of your heartbeat and you don’t need to do it consciously any more and then you achieve much greater oneness (there’s probably an Alan Moore video or interview somewhere in which he compares this idea, which is actually a pretty common one — long tracts of the Vedas are just repetitions of God names, for example –, with the effect of art). The first part ends with Franny ruining Lane’s mood, then collapsing, coming to and starting the Jesus prayer.

The second part is called Zooey, and illuminates Zooey’s stand on these concerns as opposed to Franny’s. But first, a bit of history. It turns out that Seymour and Buddy, the eldest Glass siblings, already in their twenties during the infancy of these two, supplemented their reading with mystical philosophies. Because these two, on their philosophical odysseys, had bent more and more towards the mystical philosophers; they felt the need to unlearn the differences between things (Radhakrishnan names this as the goal of philosophy as opposed to science, and this is what I use to characterise “mystical philosophy”) and hope that if these ideas are fed into these two from early enough they won’t have as much trouble.

Zooey is a young actor, slightly bitter at Seymour and Buddy for turning him and Franny into freaks. And he says he’s been through what Franny’s going through. And he proceeds to convince Franny that her breakdown is wrong.

In my review of Catcher, I wrote about Holden, “it is in this rejection of what he believes to be half-human that he expresses his true love for humanity.” Here, at first glance, there is no love for humanity. There is relief at the existence of people not covered with the jaded secretions of American society, but that’s about it. And yet… a little bit more thought shows that the purpose of the Fat Lady is to illustrate that there, in fact, is; the hate is reserved for social interactions. (This in fact curiously mirrors and extends what I said in my Catcher review: “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.” While I say that it’s vile when sometimes some people’s facades slip, Salinger says that facades are by their nature vile.)

Oh, and it’s magnificently important that both of these are actors by calling, and the final resolution is Seymour’s point that the Fat Lady is watching.

Now, while I’ve stressed on the philosophical aspects of the novel, there is another, equally important one, which Buddy desperately wants us to remember:

I know the difference between a mystical story and a love story. I say that my current offering isn’t a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it’s a compund, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.

As I hope my piece has shed some light on, for Salinger, these two types of story are not all that different.He seems to be a man who felt intensely out of place with people, and always remembered that that was the reason he was compelled to pursue wisdom like a madman. If I had to bet either way, I would bet that he hated his endless thirst, that he envied the people around him who could live without this insane drive; that, in other words, he wished he were the Fat Lady, such is his discomfort with this wisdom.

*Though I refer to it as mystical philosophy, it is in no sense of the pulling rabbits out of hats by the grace of God sort. It is in fact a result of very deep consideration of the states of being. I’ll come to why exactly I call it mystical soon.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Salinger, J. D. | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

“She knew this music–knew it down to the very core of her being–but she had never heard it before.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on May 19, 2011

This review comes nine months late, but not with any the less love for it. In fact, if anything, it comes with all the more, now that the wounds caused by the overabundant bad writing in The Little Country have worn off.

So, before I go further, let me just get this one sticky issue dealt with: yes, this book is not well-written at all, but it’s not bad writing born out of laziness – wherein the writer substitutes tropes for actual thought – but that born out of just plain idiocy; deLint knows what he wants to say, knows how he wants to say it, but is not very good in the execution, falling back repeatedly on stylistic tropes like the way a thriller goes around jumping viewpoints for a page here and a page there, giving us ‘depth’ by making the in-view character think about the event most significant to the story right after introducing us to the fact that this character exists. It basically sounds like this: “Abed was coming home that day, and as he stared at the clickety-clack of the window-panes, he got to reminiscing about his failed relationship with Janey. They had been in love for years before calamity struck. And so this had happened, and so that had happened” and whatnot. This, in my opinon, is the worst stylistic trope there is. Yes, even worse than the art novel’s angsty voice (well-parodied in Prashant Bhawalkar’s Unruly Times and J M Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year); at least there are people like Coetzee, Chandler and Eliot use the angsty voice to beautiful effect. The thriller introduction is so obviously the laziest way of doing things and so nakedly trying to hold a pretence of thought-realism that I honestly doubt it can be used well, except for the purposes of parody (even the estimable farce artist Terry Pratchett falls for this). Of course, this isn’t confined just to introductions. Any and all knowledge that one of the characters has which the writer wants to convey to us is conveyed in a similar fashion. And it makes me gag.

But, there’s a beautiful book behind this excrescence. It’s a book about art and how we relate with our art. And it’s told as a parable about the art that I find it hardest to relate to – music – and the art that I find easiest to relate to – writing. What’s not to love?

De Lint seems to be saying that our art needs to be ascribed a life of its own if we are to ascribe it with any power whatsoever. This power, the power to connect to our surroundings and channel it through ourselves and thereby make others connect to us, is magic (an alarmingly common notion actually).

She knew this music–knew it down to the very core of her being–but she had never heard it before. Unfamiliar, it had still always been there inside her, waiting to be woken. It grew from the core of mystery that gives a secret its special delight, religion its awe. It demanded to be accepted by simple faith, not dissected or questioned, and at the same time, it begged to be doubted and probed.

And there’s no power in the supposed magic unless there’s life in it.

Simple as that, really. That’s what the book is about. There’s a book within the book that’s different for every person who reads it; because it’s magical, because it channels another real world and lets you read about someone who corresponds to you in that world. And music is what’s common to both worlds.

But, of course, you’ll notice, what I’ve said the book is about is just a setup, a description of how things are. There’s epiphany too, as is necessary for a book to be good. Don’t worry. This is a lovely book; it won’t let you down thematically.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, de Lint, Charles | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Knock! Knock! “Who’s there?” “Joe.” “Joe wh–?”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on May 11, 2011

As far as the majority of Batman fans are concerned, it is a horrible idea to have me review a book about the Joker; I feel that the white-faced lunatic in the 2008 movie The Dark Knight was but a pale imitation of the villain I know of as the Joker.

It should come as no surprise then that I also hate Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s generally well-reviewed Joker. In which, incidentally, the Joker looks almost exactly as he does in the movie.

The idea is to write a book about the Joker set in an ultra-noirish world, where everyone is evil and “only cops call people ‘scumbag’. People refer to people by other words.” And, Harley Quinn turns up naked in a strip club (stark realism that refuses to mollycoddle the reader!), and everyone’s face is pitted beyond belief. Sometimes even at the cost of making the character look laughable. Yes, in this case, the size of the nose is as much at fault, but it’s the lines on it that really make me cringe. And, forget faces, there are far too many lines on everything. Of course, we could always blame the inker, Mick Gray, as the parts inked by Bermejo himself don’t look nearly as bad (if you ignore the bizarre pose good old Harley is in over at the back).

But I’m not going to let Bermejo off so easily. There’s, for starters, the fact that faces don’t look the same from one page to the next. Yes, it is a testament to the shifting and uncertain nature of Joker’s reality. Yes, it is exactly as hackneyed, unsubtle and one-dimensional as it sounds.

And then, there’s the minor problem of the fact that nowhere in this book did the Joker truly send ripples of goosebumps up my back, despite the fact that he actually has some very good lines. The Joker’s face may well be locked in a perpetual smile, but the smile never reaches his eyes. Look at the way he walks out of Arkham Asylum:

Why so serious, man?

Of course, more than with the art, this is a problem with the writing, which is an unlovely colossus of Holvudine psychology whose sole purpose is to describe an interesting villain. Never mind that the psychological portrait – inasmuch as it makes sense; internal contradictions abound – has little, if any, resemblance to the mythological symbol it tries to explicate. Seriously, is there any Joker worth our time who would be angry during his release from Arkham Asylum? Is there any Joker who would … ahem … “salute” the city as this white-faced guy does? The last I checked, the Joker loved Gotham, and didn’t really care about territory and respect as he does in this book.

And, most importantly, the guy should be allowed to choose to smile, not have his lips pulled tight by a scar.

What do I want from a graphic novel about the Joker? I don’t want a definitive explanation of seventy years of villainy; what I want is an interesting perspective. Because, finally, that’s the only thing any one writer can offer, for any mythological figure. I love other Joker-explanatory novels, like Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and John Higgins’ The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum and Bob Hall’s I, Joker (the first and third being my two favourite pieces of art featuring Batman), and all of them, if seen as a definitive explanation, look hackneyed and idiotic.

What I don’t want is an uninspired, “starkly realistic!” piece featuring a white-faced man being diagnosed by an emotionless psychiatrist who calls himself a writer; and that, dear reader, is exactly what this Joker is.

Posted in Azzarello, Brian, Bermejo, Lee (Illustrator), Book reviews, Books | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Waiting for Godot

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 18, 2011

Cover

Click to look inside

Is there anything I can say about Waiting for Godot without sounding either contrived or clichéd? I can think of five:

1.       It’s hilarious. Uproariously funny, even on paper.

2.       It features that rare representation of a gay couple/pair isomorphic to gay couple in which neither could be replaced by a woman without changing the dynamics.

3.       It’s about the stories we tell ourselves. I could write a long essay defending this sentence, but I don’t care enough.

4.       It’s not very existentialist: there’s much hope in the face of the understanding that Godot is a story as much as any of the side characters’ shifting identities are.

5.       It’s not that great: it provided me neither with enough fun nor with enough freshness of insight to justify its reputation.

Posted in Beckett, Samuel, Book reviews, Books | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“The past does live on, in people as well as in cities.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 16, 2010

Click to go to Amazon page

It is 1989, a time of great flux for Samar, as it is for India.

Rajeev gandhi hasd set into motion the machinery for the economic liberalisation that will culminate in the reforms of 1991, and will be defeated very soon in the general election. The next two years will see two diffferent prime ministers, till Narasimha Rao comes and stays from 1991 to 1996.

Samar, a Brahmin autodidact and all-round bookworm who was brought up in a village without any companions and with a not insufficient awareness of his caste and social position, has just moved from Allahabad to Benares, next door to the British Miss West, who will introduce him to Western Classical music and Benares’ teeming Western society.

His strangeness in the world of Westerners who have always had social lives is in fact deeper than just habit. It is a difference in culture itself. He doesn’t think and perceive the world in the same way.

..and the word ‘pretty’ came to be crystallised by the lovely vulnerability of her face, the clear olive skin, the large hazel eyes that looked out at the world with a mixture of uncertainty and sadness, the full lower lip, the dark wavy hair that formed a perfect inverted V over her forehead. After this, her soft French accent seemed oddly childlike, more human, more manageable.

***

But his new social life doesn’t just involve foreigners and Indians who spend time with foreigners; there’s also a violent student activist in the Benares Hindu University who comes from a dirt-poor family and reads Rumi.

***

Things happen and, like in organic chemistry, bonds break and bonds are formed, and, also like organic chemistry, we are interested not by the bonds themselves but by how they break and form.

***

Overall, it works as a complex portrait of a country in flux, but much more compellingly as one of a man in flux, gaining a social life, suddenly finding himself in a mire of feelings, then in a position from where he has to proceed with the utmost caution, and then having his heart broken and retreating ffrom his feelings till they come back and hit him in the face; and then his final confrontation of them – if that is what it is.

***

Even on the writing front, Mishra is pretty much excellent. He combines an immense sensitivity to Samar’s state of mind with a searing eye for detail and adds to it the mildly odd turn of phrase characteristic of Indians who taught themselves fluency of English by reading voraciously.

In some sense, I travelled everywhere and nowhere. The miles clocked up, and there came a point when I could no longer distinguish between the settlements that clattered past my jaded eyes – the overpopulated slums with their tottering houses, fetid alleys and exposed gutters, their cooped-up frustrations and festering violence, their hardened ugliness. The small and big towns where I often spent a sleepless night in tiny bare hotel room all began to merge together. I would often be kept awake by the varied cacophony that emanated from the other rooms, where young men of distinctly criminal appearance drank rum and watched jaunty Hindi musicals together.

***

Is The Romantics a great book? I don’t know; it could well be, and I suspect it in fact is, but it’s certainly one that I love, and one that I will always cherish.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Mishra, Pankaj | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

“…how strange it must have been, living in a place like that, where you could commit suicide any time you liked just by touching a fence.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on September 23, 2010

Click to look inside

Never Let Me Go is well-written. But it isn’t a triumph of language or anything. If anything, it is written very blandly – the sentence ending with “or anything” for me symbolises the sort of colloquial style in which Ishiguro’s heroine writes; it is well-written only in the sense that Ishiguro convincingly creates the narrator and her feelings.

It is surprising how strong the underwrit edge of sadness – always an undercurrent, never more, mind you – is in her reminisces about her blissful childhood, and even more surprising how strongly I feel that that edge would be there even if I tried to recount Kathy’s life.

Kathy perpetually sounds like she’s more interested in recounting her social life than her world, a fact that carries much more importance than it seems to, because it is the only way Kathy would write it; her reasons for writing the novel – revealed in an expository climax that is very unpoular with critics, but which I think worked fine because it brought together many of the book’s ideas and themes – have absolutely nothing to do with Ishiguro’s, and yet her reasons shed light on his.

***

Never Let Me Go is a book not only engaged in creating a world, but also in creating a world and then creating another world inside that world to augment the outside world. The inside world is that of Kathy’s social life, and in some way it is the one I too am more interested in.

I’ve always known that of all the ideas I have in my mind for novels, the one I’m most likely to write is the social novel; a novel simply and surely about hostel social life, something I’d never seen described in a book till three days ago.

And besides, it’s only the third or fourth novel I remember reading almost exclusively because a good friend loved it; my interest in the social aspects of this novel is of course enhanced by the fact that I’m reading it for social reasons, and in a room five steps away from the social reason’s.

***

Back to the book, an angle of it which stands out for me very strongly is a sort of refusal of existentialism. While the existentialist asks what the point is of living a life without any ultimate purpose, Never Let Me Go asks what the point is of living, as in really enjoying, a life with one.

Simple question, powerful refutation.

James Wood at The New Republic Online has a rather more colourful way of expressing the same sentiment. I don’t recommend reading the whole essay before the book, because I think it reveals too much, but the following passage is certainly worth it. Note especially how he unwittingly contradicts the end of the first paragraph with the whole of the second.

But Never Let Me Go … could probably not give much final consolation to those who talk about protecting “a culture of life.” For it is most powerful when most allegorical, and its allegorical power has to do with its picture of ordinary human life as in fact a culture of death. That is to say, Ishiguro’s book is at its best when, by asking us to consider the futility of [their] lives, it forces us to consider the futility of our own. This is the moment at which Kathy’s appeal to us — “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham …” — becomes double-edged. For what if we are more like Tommy and Kathy than we at first imagined? The … children are being educated at school for lives of perfect pointlessness … Everything they do is dipped in futility, because the great pool of death awaits them. They possess individuality, and seem to enjoy it (they fall in love, they have sex, they read George Eliot), but that individuality is a mirage, a parody of liberty. Their lives have been written in advance, they are prevented and followed, in the words of The Book of Common Prayer. Their freedom is a tiny hemmed thing, their lives a vast stitch-up.

We begin the novel horrified by their difference from us and end it thoughtful about their similarity to us. After all, heredity writes a great deal of our destiny for us; and death soon enough makes us orphans, even if we were fortunate enough, unlike the children of Hailsham, not to start life in such deprivation. Without a belief in God, without metaphysical pattern and leaning, why should our lives not indeed be sentences of a kind, death sentences? Even with God? Well, God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it: the writing may well be on the wall anyway. To be assured of death at twenty-five or so … seems to rob life of all its savor and purpose. But why do we persist in the idea that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose? Why is sheer longevity, if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it? The culture of life is not such a grand thing when seen through these narrow windows.

***

All this is there, but none of it is why I cried at the ending. Rather, all of it is why I cried at the ending, but only a part of why I cried. Okay, that’s not true either. Let’s say: I cried at the ending because of the philosophical implications, but all my concern was filtered through my relationship with Kathy.

This amalgam of personal and abstract emotion is rarely achieved; by all logic, I should treasure this book for e’ermore. But I don’t see myself doing that. I don’t know why, but my memory of the book, less than an hour after finishing it, is strangely ambivalent. Yes, it was very good and very powerful, but I didn’t love it, or something like that; while I can’t bring myself to say anything but good things about this book, I just don’t see myself putting it on a list of all-time greats along with Coetzee and Dostoevsky and Bao Ninh and god knows who else. Or maybe I’ll love it and my love is going to increase as a slow burn. Let’s see.

Addendum:

I think I’ve realised why I had misgivings about the book. It has to do with the fact that there are both personal and philosophical arcs that are supposed to end at the same time.

The personal arc is about the question of whether the main character lives are worth enjoying and whether they have any souls and so on; and the philosophical is what Wood points out in the second paragraph of the quoted passage. While the personal arc has an emphatic resolution, the philosophical one is pussyfooted in pointing at us and saying everything Wood says; whatever Wood and I felt about the book pointing to us, it didn’t come to me enough from the book itself even though it was very obvious, which makes me feel as if the book is somehow incomplete.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Ishiguro, Kazuo | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

“The assembled company were elyctrified.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on July 5, 2010

Book Cover: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Click to look inside

The principle difficulty with writing about China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is that one can’t even begin to describe the plot. To even say more than a vague paragraph would be ruining the book; unlike other books, the parts that can be spoiled don’t start when there are fifty pages left in the book, but when you are fifty pages into the book.

And, by Murphy’s Law, it is practically inevitable that in any self-respecting book of this sort, the characters will be so radically different by the end of the book that any description of the parts a reviewer is allowed to reveal will feel hollow and incomplete to the reviewer.

So, what am I allowed to say? There’s a suggestively named renegade scientist called Isaac who lives in a fantasy city called New Crobuzon. He is having an affair with a bug-headed woman, belonging to a race called the khepri, called Lin, who is a sculptor. One day, he is approached by a garuda — garudas are a human-shaped, bird-featured race of xenians (a term for all non-human sentient beings in Miéville’s world) —  called Yagharek, whose wings have been cut-off. Yagharek wants to fly again, and came to Isaac because he has heard that Isaac is something of a genius. Isaac accepts the commission. And then things spin out of control. LibraryThing lists twenty-six important characters, and I feel as if I have intimate knowledge of all of them; and let’s not forget, that list itself is a spoiler.

So, I’ll try to talk about the book trying to stay away from its characters and plot, as impossible as that is.

And, before I launch into a discussion — listing might be a more appropriate word in this case — of the book’s themes and concerns, let me make an interesting observation: the beginning of Chapter One of this book has been practically plagiarised by Vikram Chandra for the beginning of his Sacred Games, which I wrote about here. Of course, knowing Chandra, it’s significantly more likely that he’s trying to use it to make a point, albeit one that I can’t see.

Finally, we come to the book and what I thought of it. Let me begin by saying that I have little or no conception of Miéville’s vision, or even some random vision that I can feel comfortable ascribing to Miéville. Also, I don’t blame this on him; he obviously has something truly awesome in mind, so awesome that I’m too stupid to see it. But, if I had to say something at gunpoint, I would say that this book is about separation and unification, not of the physical kind but of the kind that happens in our minds. Of course, one must note that this leaves at least one major plot element and one other major aspect pf the book unexplained.

Isaac grabbed a pencil and wrote words at the three points of the triangle. He turned the diagram to face Yagharek. The top point was labelled Occult/thaumaturgical; the bottom left Material; the bottom right Social/sapiential.

“Righto, now, don’t get too bogged down with this diagram, Yag old son, it’s supposed to be an aid to thought, nothing more. What you’ve got here is a depiction of the three points within which all scholarship, all knowledge, is located.

“Down here, there’s material. That’s the actual physical stuff, atoms and the like. Everything from fundamental femtoscopic particles like elyctrons, up to big fuck-off volcanos. Rocks, elyctromagnetism, chymical reaction . . . All that sort of thing.

“Opposite, that’s social. Sentient creatures, of which there’s no shortage on Bas-Lag, can’t just be studied like stones. By reflecting on the world and on their own reflections, humans and garuda and cactacae and whatnot create a different order of organization, right? So it’s got to be studied in its own terms—but at the same time it’s also obviously linked to the physical stuff that makes everything up. That’s what this nice line is here, connecting the two.

“Up top is occult. Now we’re cooking. Occult: ‘hidden.’Takes in the various forces and dynamics and the like that aren’t just to do with physical bits and bobs interacting, and aren’t just the thoughts of thinkers. Spirits, dæmons, gods if you want to call them that, thaumaturgy . . . you get the idea. That’s up at that end. But it’s linked to the other two. First off, thaumaturgic techniques, invocation, shamanism and so on, they all affect—and are affected by—the social relations that surround them. And then the physical aspect: hexes and charms are mostly the manipulation of theoretical particles—the ‘enchanted particles’— called thaumaturgons. Now, some scientists—” he thumped his chest “—think they’re essentially the same sort of thing as protons and all the physical particles.

“This . . .” said Isaac slyly, his voice slowing right down, “is where stuff gets really interesting.

“If you think of any arena of study or knowledge, it lies somewhere in this triangle, but not squarely on one corner. Take sociology, or psychology, or xenthropology. Pretty simple, right? It’s down here, in the ‘Social’ corner? Well, yes and no. That’s definitely its closest node, but you can’t study societies without thinking about the questions of physical resources. Right? So straight away, the physical aspect is kicking in. So we have to move sociology along the bottom axis a little bit.” He slid his finger a fraction of an inch to the left. “But then, how can you understand,
say, cactacae culture without understanding their solar-focus, or khepri culture without their deities, or vodyanoi culture without understanding shamanic channelling? You can’t,” he concluded triumphantly. “So we have to shift things up towards the occult.” His finger moved a little, accordingly.

“So that’s roughly where sociology and psychology and the like are. Bottom right-hand corner, little bit up, little bit along.

“Physics? Biology? Should be right over by material sciences, yeah? Only, if you say that biology has an effect on society, the reverse is also true, so biology’s actually a tiny bit to the right of the ‘Material’ corner. And what about the flight of wind-polyps? The feeding of soul trees? That stuff’s occult, so we’ve moved it again, up this time. Physics includes the efficacy of certain substances in thaumaturgic hexes. You take my point? Even the most ‘pure’ subject’s actually somewhere between the three.

“Then there’s a whole bunch of subjects that define themselves by their mongrel nature. Socio-biology? Halfway along the bottom and a little bit up. Hypnotology? Halfway up the right flank. Social/psychological and occult, but with a bit of brain chymistry thrown in, so that’s over a bit . . .”

Isaac’s diagram was now covered in little crosses where he located the various disciplines. He looked at Yagharek and drew a neat, final, careful x in the very centre of the triangle.

“Now what are we looking at right here? What’s bang in the middle?
“Some people think that’s mathematics there. Fine. But if maths is the study that best allows you to think your way to the centre, what’re the forces you’re investigating? Maths is totally abstract, at one level, square roots of minus one and the like; but the world is nothing if not rigorously mathematical. So this is a way of looking at the world which unifies all the forces: mental, social, physical.

I apologise for the length of the excerpt, but it is necessary for my purposes. Anyway, readers who have read a more than insignificant amount of fantasy will be somewhat surprised: it is exceedingly rare for a book’s world to include magic in its scientific system. In general, magic is treated, in fantasy, as fantastical and, in science fiction, as either non-existent or explainable using more conventional science. Perdido Street Station is, in fact, the first book I’ve ever read that looks at magic with the eye of a writer of science fiction. And, because this is too conventional a goal for Miéville, he also looks at his science through the more abstract lens of the city the book is set in (Perdido Street Station is the center of New Crobuzon), and — in the form of silently yet surely ascribing Perdido Street Station and another area called simply The Ribs as points of power — uses a fantastical metaphor for his city as a living, breathing organism.

But this trichotomy of science fiction, fantasy and city fiction is only the simplest and most general of all the separations Miéville breaks, and that’s forgetting the separations he creates. Probably the most important example of the latter is in what he does with consciousness.

And his dreams of unification aren’t that of just treating one or two sets of disparate, connected elements; the method he uses for unification that is at least as important in this book as the first-level method of insight and imagination is unification by treatment in this book. In fact, if I believed that mine was a complete understanding of this book, I would confidently say that the only reason he stopped his book was that he had to, an illustration of problematic my incomplete understanding is even without thinking too much about the book itself.

It really is interesting how much he does with this general idea. We have inroads into politics and economics, a re-invention of physics, a love story (?), questions about justice, questions about prejudice in a multiethnic city, questions about identity when one leaves one’s roots, ideas about cities, peoples and the relation between cities and their people, death, all handled somehow or the other with this basic template. And let me tell you, that list came out of one brainstorm; further sessions will certainly reveal more.

Unexplained Aspects

It turns out that at least two of the major aspects unexplained by my theory of unificationa and separation are allowed here.

The first would be the epigraph:

“I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.”

-Philip K. Dick, We Can Build You

It only relates to a rather small number of the aspects of this book. Two explanations are possible. The first would be that the name of the book is important, for that would greatly increase the amount of relation that the quote has to the book. The second is that Miéville is using this quote to elevate the importance of the city as a world, specifically a world encapsulating the aspects of this book. However, both explanations feel hollow and rationalised, and that’s forgetting that the first one is rather inadequate.

The second thing that I can’t explain is the language. I’ve already mentioned that Miéville reinvents physics for his world, but what I have before now failed to mention is that he seems to be doing something similar with language. In most fantasies, it is safe to assume that as long as it isn’t our world, it’s not our language. That is certainly true of New Crobuzon, whose human language is called Ragamoll. Other fantasy writers I’ve read who are especially interested in language, notably J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan, prefer to create their own arcane languages and translate the common one into standard English, giving only space for style. Miéville, however, carries over a lot of Ragamoll into his ‘translation.’ For example, the word ‘elyctrified’ in the title of this review (which, incidentally, would also describe rather well a group reading this book together), among other slightly changed words. Another example is the vocabulary. Vocabulary changes from time to time, words go in and out of vogue, and so on. The words in vogue in translated Ragamoll include such… urm… arcana as ‘salubrious,’ ‘ostentatious’ and ‘tenacious.’ Common enough words, but their counts in the book range in the double digits, which isn’t exactly normal. I don’t have much of a grasp over liguistics, so more than an aspect that I can’t explain, it’s an aspect I don’t understand.

Now that you’ve seen a fraction of the reasons the last two thousand words were meandering, pointless bullshit, it’s time to tell you how brilliant the writing is. In many ways, it’s structured like an action thriller. Especially in the parts that are the most science fiction heavy.

In the science-y parts, the writing is straightforward enough, and the ideas are amazing enough to make life such that you don’t breathe for a while (and eventually have to stop for a while because the world’s gone black all of a sudden).

But it is in the action parts where the prose shows its face from behind the content and gains a life of its own. I would love to quote one (and practically double the amount that I’m asking you to read), but it’s been over two thousand words, so I’ll just describe to you what makes it so breathtaking. Miéville doesn’t just describe the action, with a periodic interjection that “time went slow.” No, for his characters, and therefore for his readers too, time does go slow. Snail-pace. We aren’t told “he went and stabbed the damn thing;” we are told the exact place he reached after every agonising step leading up to the stabbing.

To be sure, I described using a straw man, but I’m just trying to illustrate a point; if other writers slow down to half-speed, Miéville slows down to tenth speed. Literally.

And I haven’t even told you about the times the action is an illustration of ideas, and how, by the end, you’re left fully comfortable with not one of the characters, but you’re still have with them complete emotional involvement, making it emotionally cathartic in the extreme.

To conclude, I’ll quote Jerry Seinfeld, “Big boom! Big, bada boom!!”

A couple of things before you go:

If you do decide to read this book, and I do highly recommend it, please try and read the 2003 Del Rey edition (ISBN 978-0345459404), which I read it in. For one, it is really small and cheap, which distracts from the fact that the book is over six hundred pages long, not to mention the pleasure you get when you realise how much you actually have left of it. Second, it has the feel of pulp of the sort that originated the name, which very nicely supplements the book. And finally, none of the other English covers seem to really understand this book and its atmosphere (even this one doesn’t really, but at least it gets the colours right).

I thank shigekuni and Jayaprakash for recommending it to me.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Miéville, China | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

“The candle-end had long been burning out in the bent candlestick, casting a dim light in this destitute room upon the murderer and the harlot strangely come together over the reading of the eternal book.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on July 2, 2010

https://i2.wp.com/pubimages.randomhouse.co.uk/getimage.aspxCrime and Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts and an Epilogue, by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Foreword by Richard Pevear

“I’m convinced that many people in Petersburg talk to themselves as they walk. This is a city of half-crazy people. If we had any science, then physicians, lawyers, and philosophers could do the most valuable research on Petersburg, each in his own field. One seldom finds a place where there are so many gloomy, sharp, and strange influences on the soul of man as in Petersburg. The climatic influences alone are already worth something! And at the same time this is the administrative center of the whole of Russia, and its character must be reflected in everything.”

-Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment is about a natural disaster, a massive, thunderous clash roaring in the skies above, and streets below, the hallowed city of St. Petersburg; it is about the clash between two worlds, the world of Dostoevsky’s inhuman masterpiece the Underground Man and the world of the city of St. Petersburg.

“I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.”

-Philp K. Dick, We Can Build You. Found in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station

St. Petersburg, more commonly known as Petersburg, was an important symbol in Notes from Underground; it was a city that had been completely planned, an utterly unnatural organism, but an organism nonetheless. How such a city lives was, in fact, a wonderment central to the previous book, as central as the man/mouse duality that Underground Man (still one of my favourite characters in all of fiction) talks about in this passage:

if, for example, one takes the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of heightened consciousness, who came, of course, not from the bosom of nature but from a retort (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect that, too), this retort man sometimes folds before his antithesis so far that he honestly regards himself, with all his heightened consciousness, as a mouse and not a man. A highly conscious mouse, perhaps, but a mouse all the same, whereas here we have a man, and consequently . . . and so on . . . And, above all, it is he, he himself, who regards himself as a mouse; no one asks him to; and that is an important point.

One of the central conceits of C&P is basically that these two concerns are in reality one and the same, that the breaching of one of the concerns (the edict againt action) results in a breach of the other (Petersburg).

All my readers, I’m guessing, know – or at least have a vague idea – that the story tells of the murder that a young man called Rodyon Romanovych Raskolnikov commits, and its aftermath.

The book, on the other hand, tells of tensions; tensions between four of the five central characters, tensions born not out of everyday mundanities such as plot but out of ideologies, which one might even without much hesitation call philosophies (and they have been called as such by others, under various names, like nihilism, existentialism and objectivism), tensions so complex that any attempt to recount them will double, maybe even triple, the length of this essay.

The first thing that struck me as I started reading the book was that Raskolnikov was, in fact, Underground Man. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong, but then I couldn’t have been more right either. See, Raskolnikov is the man Underground Man once was, and the book is nothing but the tale of his transformation into that which Underground Man could have been, if only he had acted.

For, truly, if Notes from Underground was along the lines of a tragic morality play in which the central puzzle for the reader was to but name our character, Crime and Punishment is the play which an angry viewer wrote in criticism, yet admiration, of the original writer; in admiration of the vision of the first writer, but in angry, scared, criticism of the fate to which the vision is assigned.

There is so much more I would like to say about this marvellous, but that, as I’ve already mentioned, will exponentially increase the size of this essay. And that is why, dear readers, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment will be the subject of my first blog series, in which spoilers will truly abound, as I discuss each aspect of the story in minute, loving detail. Call it an essay in six parts and an epilogue, with an attached foreword.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

“There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 21, 2010

Originally Published at PassionforCinema.

Book: Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Boland and coloured by John Higgins.

Movie: The Dark Knight (2008), directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaon Eckhart and Gary Oldman

I’ve liked as well as disliked The Dark Knight for various reasons, chief among them (for both sides) being that it never seemed to be clear on its own morality. Today, however, I may have come across the thing to perfectly demolish any hopes that movie ever had of coming over once and for all to my good side, something that may well mean that that movie will remain eternally in my disdain, and that thing, dear reader, is this:

That, dear sirs and madams, is a page from Alan Moore’s scary twenty two-year-old Batman: The Killing Joke. And, having read it only once, I feel convinced that this is the Batman interpretation. Why? Well, the reasons are various, and convoluted.

So, in keeping with the form the reasons have taken, let me start at the second act: for me, the strongest moment in The Dark Knight was this one:

Filched from Jim Emerson's site

No, it wasn’t because the Joker was enjoying himself. Let’s zoom in:

Yes, we must all stare at the arm, for it is the arm wherein lies the ultimate difference between comic and film.

And like all ultimate differences, it only bears mention for one reason, that it is this difference when looked at hard enough and from the right angle that gives way to the ultimate similarity between the two works of art.

Yes, ultimate similarity, for book and film – though neither is rehash of the other – are the same work of art. Or, rather, they are the product of the same vision. Not just a fuzzily similar sort of vision, but the exact same vision.

Okay, now the first act; let us go back to the remote days of childhood, days of darkness in which the only reason I took recourse to art was because I was bored, having no idea, no conception even of what was to come ahead. It was then that I first encountered the Joker, on TV, a white-coloured man with green hair wearing a purple suit. Funnily enough, I never remember having laughed at him, or having been scared of him; like most lasting memories from my childhood, I barely gave him a thought back then.

But, now I realise, I must always have had a morbid fascination with him, for how else would he be so much clearer in my head than other cartoon characters I spent infinitely more hours watching? Back then, I didn’t know the word, but in retrospect I can say that the characteristic of this apparition was that he was gaunt. And I mean Gaunt, like an anthropomorphic personification of the characteristic.

The reason he was like that, dear reader, is because he was designed that way. He was an evil maniac or whatever, but if Batman’s hand got to him, we knew it was over. Later, much later, as I would be going through my revival in comics, I understood that he needed this weakness; without it, he was too strong. I also understood that the gloomy environs were nothing more than a literalisation of the Batman’s innards.

I also understood that a superhero comic wasn’t just any old story, it was a mythos, a mythology endlessly told and retold, each time by a different fool, each time suffering from a newly thought up neurosis, what some would like to call a zeitgeist, if a zeitgeist could exist on a personal level.

See, we’ve been in the third act for a while now, for the third act is my return to comics, in June 2010.

And it is in this third act that I’ve suddenly come across a flush of some of the best novels I’ve ever read: a rediscovery of the beautiful intricacies of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, a surreptitiously acquired second-hand copy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, being so profoundly disturbed that I was punching the side of a bus for an hour after reading Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, and now… today! Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke.

Every interpretation I’ve ever seen of Batman has used the city to reflect the insides of Batman, and the Joker has always been this Gaunt Menace (another thing he’s the anthropomorphic personification of). Twenty two years ago, a man called Alan Moore, the very man who brought superhero graphic fiction to some iota of respectability with his seminal 1986 novel Watchmen, sought to re-imagine that trope, and in doing so bring to the forefront a few relationship dynamics that had always been simmering beneath the surface. Two years ago, an admittedly talented filmmaker and his brother re-imagined the same trope, and made the same statement with it, and were hailed as progressive genii for it.

Well, I don’t particularly mind the wrong person being hailed as the progressive – for it is a fact that it is the second much more often than the first to conquer new territory who is so hailed – and that’s without even taking into account the fact that he brought back vitality to a flagging yet unassailable genre in his industry.

No. What I really mind is that the hailed progressive was not a fraction of the real one.

See, both of them started with the same basic idea, however they may have framed it: what will happen if we give the Joker more power? Interestingly enough, both made exactly two major changes to the landscape of Batman.

The Nolan brothers, first they made the Joker a bulky, superhumanly strong nut job with big, beefy arms. Then, they castrated Gotham, as fellow blogger Stephen Russell-Gebbett once so ably noted in passing (if you don’t believe me, count the number of scenes that happen in the day with insane amounts of almost blinding light).

The Moore man, first he gave the environs to the Joker (look at the colour combination on the above shown page), and then he made the Batman vulnerable (making for a truly heart-wrenching climax).

See, both explore the same idea: that Batman and the Joker are aspects of each other. Yes, one does it in the world of allegory and one does it in the world of comics, but – as I’ve already said – comics are nothing but a mythos, an idealised, anthropomorphicised reflection of the real world; after the existence of The Killer Joke, The Dark Knight is no real achievement (except, and this bears repeating, in the particular cultural context in which it was made).

The Killer Joke has two sets, Arkham Asylum (which, I found out firsthand a couple of days ago, is named after something from H. P. Lovecraft’s world) and the Joker’s amusement park. These two sets, which appear the second after the first, are framed by the action of ripples, and the trickeristic play of light – deterministic, non-chaotic, yet unpredictable, action-consequence relations – and a joke, but there’s no use talking about that and spoiling it for you. The first humankind we see is the Joker’s hand… but it has spikes! The next panel reveals it to be a trick of the light on the Batman’s hand.

Arkham Asylum is the old comic-order, dark moody lighting. But lit by bright, harsh-bright, yellow. The amusement park is the same except there’s no shadow, and … details. This is a tableau infinitely more frightening in its dullest moment than anything the Nolanistic epic has to offer us, even including Heath Ledger dressed as a Joker dressed as a nurse throwing a tantrum that the bomb isn’t going off.

See, the problem with the film was that it gave its Joker physical strength, and a singular, expositioned motive; because, first of all, the Joker’s powers must lie in the mind, in the paraphernalia, in the visceral details that all but the Batman will miss, for otherwise he is a castrated Joker. Also, is there any villain more supple in nastiness than Iago, who has not one but three contradictory motives for being a bad guy, and is there anything more of an affront to the senses than a self-proclaimed Lord of Chaos? Assorted readers might think back to the sixth book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, whose eponymous Lord of Chaos proclaims himself so, but then they would be forgetting that that proclamation says as much about the character himself as it does about his position, unlike in the case of the Nolan’s Joker.

A castrated Batman, a castrated Joker… and you get a movie that is, even if well-directed, at its heart balless. And balless is one accusation that can never be laid at the feet of Alan Moore’s graphic novella.

In fact, it has, at its heart, one of the ballsiest movies ever made. Half an hour or so in length, it must be hand-animated, drawn by the same pair of Brian Boland and John Higgins who created the panorama that is this book, it must be in glorious 4:3 tall-screen, for this is the sort of paraphernalia that hangs over us, threatening to fell lest we do anything suspicious, the Joker ought to be played by the sort of voice we got to hear in those cartoons of yore, performed now without much laughing, the Batman performed by a Sylvester Stallone like voice except without the accent… and everything a but hurried, hiding away the secrets of the surroundings, exactly like in the book, in need of constant pausing so that it can only be truly enjoyed, again exactly like the book… and finally, sublimeness – even sublimation, if you should so wish – will be achieved.

Posted in Bolland, Brian (Illustrator), Book reviews, Books, Higgins, John (Colourist), Moore, Alan, Movie Reviews, Movies, Nolan, Christopher | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

“He looked rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 13, 2010

Book CoverThe above line is a near-perfect review of Dashiell Hammett’s noir masterpiece The Maltese Falcon.

But, since it’s considered too short, let me make a couple more points about it.

First, it’s written cinematically. The prose is ready to describe the scene in excruciating detail, with special love for protagonist Sam Spade’s expressions, but it never goes into anyone’s head. I remember in days when I still read thrillers, I always found it annoying how the writer was ready to go into anyone’s head and describe his/her back-story as a completely unrealistic memory just to further the plot. Hammett, wisely, and much like his protagonist, stays somewhat detached from the action, letting his prose – again, much like Spade – spring away and become an entity of its own.

A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the telephone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth. He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.

Second, there’s also a jab at hedonism in the book, but I’m significantly less interested in that.

Basically, this book, like an overwhelming amount of literature, is engaged in creating a world, and no review can describe what it’s like to read it, all the cynicism, humour, and, below all that, sense of honour that lies at the heart of this short book (just over two hundred pages long) and makes it one of the best I’ve ever read.

The above line is a near-perfect review of Dashiell Hammett’s noir masterpiece The Maltese Falcon.

But, since it’s considered too short, let me make a couple more points about it.

· It’s written cinematically. The prose is ready to describe the scene in excruciating detail, with special love for protagonist Sam Spade’s expressions, but it never goes into anyone’s head. I remember in days when I still read thrillers, I always found it annoying how the writer was ready to go into anyone’s head and describe his/her back-story as a completely unrealistic memory just to further the plot. Hammett, wisely, and much like his protagonist, stays somewhat detached from the action, letting his prose – again, much like Spade – spring away and become an entity of its own.

“              A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the telephone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco. Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.

Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth. He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.”

· There’s also a cynicism about hedonism somewhere in the book, but I’m significantly less interested in that.

Basically, this book, like an overwhelming amount of literature, is engaged in creating a world, and no review can describe what it’s like to read it, all the cynicism, humour, and, below all that, sense of honour that lies at the heart of this book.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Hammett, Dashiell | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »