Life as it ain't

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

Posts Tagged ‘book review’

“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.

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

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Logicomix: “A Narrative Argument Against Readymade Solutions”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 8, 2010

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, Bloomsbury (2009)

Writers: Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Art: Alecos Papadatos

Colour: Annie di Donna

The creators of the almost brilliant Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth have forgotten a very important fact; that, to be great lecture fiction, a book must first be great fiction. And one of the rules for a book to be great fiction is that it must not lecture.

However nonsensical it may seem, that paragraph does make sense.

The book opens with Apostolos (an obvious stand-in for Mr. Doxiadis, but none of the characters introduce themselves with surnames, and I will follow that) introducing us to this book he’s writing called Foundational Quest and telling us that he is going to meet Christos, who is a computer engineer and, therefore, an expert in mathematical logic (a textbook written by him resides in my college’s library), as a consultant.

“You see,” he informs us, “this isn’t your typical, usual comic book.” Friends who have been told what it is about haven’t taken them seriously, and, when they have, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

And it goes on, till he meets Christos, and starts telling him a story of Bertrand Russell’s lecture in America on the day England declared war on Germany. Mr. Russell meets, outside the hall, a group of protesters insistent that their country stay out of the war. He invites them in for the lecture, “The Role of Logic in Human Affairs” and starts narrating his own life-story. Meanwhile, Christos and Apostolos have got to the studio and meet the artists, Alecos and Annie (Miss di Donna has also worked on the famous Tintin series), and the visual researcher Anne.

From the very beginning, Apostolos and the artists make it clear to Christos that the book is about the interplay between logic and madness, but Christos doesn’t see the point of it being so character-driven.

Needless to say, he eventually comes around, and the exact chain of events that leads to his understanding sheds a non-trivial amount of light on the major theme.

To be honest, I disagree that this book is strictly about the relationship between logic and madness. It is about the madness that comes out of the thirst for knowledge in a strictly rational epistemology.

A minor disagreement, but a disagreement nevertheless.

This book really needs little exposition from my side; the final pages explain everything that has been explored, and a reread in the light of these last pages will illuminate it all.

What this book is really successful at doing, finally, is not at talking about rationality and madness – though it does do that very well – as much as at portraying the world of philosophical/mathematical academia and what drives the leading figures in these circles.

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“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: , , , , , , , , , | 16 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 »

“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 »

“The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was cerainly English.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 25, 2010

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
and
Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,
by Lewis Carroll

I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was really small, and forgot  everything about it, almost. I remembered the story of a rat prosecuting a cat written in the shape of a rat’s tail, Alice picking up a bottle on her way down the rabbit-hole, and the Mad Tea-Party. I also remember that I didn’t read the second book because I’d got bored. Having just read both books today, I can say with confidence that my child-self had much the same tastes I do; those three things are the exact things that stay with me from the first book. One mistake little Ronak made, however, was to stop reading, a mistake even this big Ronak almost made, for the second book is a truly beautiful one.

The two books, as you undoubtedly know, is a series of encounters with anthropomorphised animals — not exclusively animals, though, we even get cards and chess pieces and, believe it or not, ideas — that happen when a) Alice follows a rabbit nervous about the time down a rabbithole into Wonderland and b) Alice walks through a mirror into Looking-Glass land. Also, we learn that of the Cheshire Cat, who is a cat who always grins.

I loved the first half of the first book. The driving force behind everything seemed to be to challenge Alice’s preconceived notions of reality in every possible way, and it worked,  reaching its peak in a tea-party with a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse.

‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
‘Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.
‘It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.
‘I didn’t know it was YOUR table,’ said Alice; ‘it’s laid for a great many more than three.’
‘Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.
‘You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; ‘it’s very rude.’
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. ‘I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud. ‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.
‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’
‘It IS the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Sorry for the length of the excerpt, but it’s hard to both convey the charm and not cut off abruptly at the same time.

Well, as I’ve already said, from here it goes downhill; there’s the entrance of the Queen of Hearts, who’s just annoying. While every other character makes complex existential statements, her oddness is limited to ordering executions. And there’s a gryphon and a mock turtle — the latter learnt in school, among other similar things, “the different branches of Arithmetic–Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision” –, the vignette involving whom is unfortunately marred by substandard poetry. And, finally, there’s a courtroom sequence which acts as a pathetic stand-in (think, as a description of the problem, the Queen of Hearts) for a climax and end.

The second book is much of the same thing, except the momentum carries through to the end; Carroll is obviously much surer of his structure and form here. Everything is better integrated, and the queens (red and white) who take centre-stage for rather long actually have worthy dialogues, making this a beautiful book.

Incidentally, the Cheshire Cat can appear and disappear, and it doesn’t even need to pop, or fade, in and out of view; it can disappear from one end to the other.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Carroll, Lewis | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Puzzling Road

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 22, 2010

Book Cover

The best cover I could find; I read it in an awful blue one.

The Road, one of the most critically acclaimed books of the decade and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2007, has left me somewhat nonplussed; what was it about? And why was it about whatever it was about in the specific way it was about it?

When I heard it was the story of a father and a son travelling across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I was sure it would be about McCarthy’s post-apocalypse, with the father and son providing an emotional centre a la Ladri di Biciclette. The initial pages confirmed my opinion, and on my first try – sometime in 2008 – I only read around thirty pages because I thought it was getting too repetitive.

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

Notice, apart from the obvious melancholy, the number of sentence fragments in the piece. That is an obviously ‘artsy’ attempt at bleakness, which I don’t think generally works. Well, in this case it does, but this book is littered throughout with sudden onslaughts of description using these fragments which tend to be poetic descriptions structured without consideration for any narrative rhythm. Which is a pity, considering the quality of the rest of the prose. Another problem with this attempt is that these two characters are at a point beyond the ability to feel bleakness, where their life is basically drudgery, with occasional poignant reminiscences.

But the real point I was trying to get at using the extract was how much this sort of thing added to my puzzlement about the book; if the point of the book was its vision of the future, and this attempt at bleakness supports this idea, why was its vision nothing more than a generic one, an aftermath of floating ash a la the Triassic and no surviving food sources?

Okay, so maybe it’s not about that. Is it, then, about the complete lack of real hope in this world – in other words, an environmental message? The ‘bleakness’ would support this too, and I can see how some people might have taken it that way, but isn’t it the wrong point of time to capture this lack of hope, when the basic idea of hope has gone out the window and blown up in the nuclear blast? What I’m trying to say is, isn’t it a better idea to capture a moment while it’s still slipping out of their hands and heading for the window, giving some real room for poignancy in the bleakness rather than this plain, simple – I’m going to have to repeat a word – drudgery?

Then, I’m led to remember these passages, conversations between the father and the son:

He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. Shh, he said. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.
Okay.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I dont know. But it’s okay now. I’m going to put some wood on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didnt answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt turning.

I’m forced to conclude, that is, that the book is about the relationship between father and son, the father’s fears for his son, and the world is merely a device to accentuate it.

Well, shoot me for being puzzled.

Also, the themes weren’t the only thing puzzling me:

  1. The usage of obscure words. It was completely and utterly inorganic to McCarthy’s style. It completely contradicted his hopes to achieve bleakness by cutting his sentences up. He should have at least caught itself when he used one and had to explain it. “They were discalced to a man … for all their shoes were long since stolen.”
  2. The need for editing. There were sentences where both the father and the son were ‘he’, and one had to stop reading and think to find out which was whom. And there’s two – exactly two – passages written in first person, inexplicably breaking from the third person of the rest of the narrative.
  3. The need for copy-editing: There’s a sentence which starts with a small letter and, like that’s not enough, is very mysteriously butchered. Spelling mistakes I’m comparatively fine with, but this is totally unacceptable.

But all this is making The Road sound like a bad book. By the heavens, that it is not. When McCarthy isn’t describing anything, his prose has a level of mood and force few people can match. Not to mention that it did actually bring home the realities of living in a post-nuclear world, from the constant uncertainty about the next supply of food (there’s a beautiful bit where they stumble into a vault full of it) to the constant need for new shoes. All in all, however, I have higher hopes of the movie, which may be able to break free of McCarthy’s distracting obsession with his son and simultaneously bring home the reality of the world that McCarthy’s hackneyed method of description couldn’t.

Other interesting reviews of the book and movie:

Max Cairnduff of Pechorin’s Journal had feelings in many ways similar to mine, but for different reason.

William Rycroft of Just William’s Luck loved the book, found the relationship thing completely fine, and included it among his best of the decade.

Trevor Barett of The Mookse and The Gripes loved the book and was rooting for its Pulitzer win that year.

Roger Ebert loves the book and appreciates the movie.

A World Literature Forum member hates its very guts.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, McCarthy, Cormac | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »