Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review: Speedboat by Renata Adler

First published:- 1976

Republished:- March 19th, 2013 by NYRB

Read in:- June, 2014

Star rating:-

Much of life does not make a lot of sense in the moment it is occuring. Only in posterity, when we dwell on memories, are we able to see past happenings in a clearer light. The passage of time helps us tame the inveterate romanticism of first perceptions and lets the realization sink in that some things are just what they appear to be and further efforts at figuring out some deeper significance are going to remain futile forevermore. Scattered fragments of time spent with people in places glow like fireflies in the dark but the dots never connect. No hidden, congruous patterns emerge. Some moments stand out in the multitude and bring us pleasure, sorrow, mirth, intrigue or some other keenly felt emotion while the rest merge with the void and perish.

Renata Adler's writing is thoroughly deserving of all the accolades because of her earnestness at remaining faithful to dull realities, everyday mundane things that we eagerly discard in favor of the exaggerated glamour of tragedy or romance. Her fictional love interests are ordinary and unexciting, her protagonist is just another city girl in the endless sea of anonymous faces, and her sardonically narrated observations utterly devoid of the artistic grandeur found in the trademark melancholic novel on urban alienation. 

Just as the traditional narrative of the novel is subverted without any pretensions in 'Speedboat' which, true to life, refuses to stitch together ephemeral moments into a much bigger collage of the human consciousness, the short story format is also ingeniously shunned. Adler's aphoristic 'stories' (for lack of a more apposite term) are just what they are - anecdotes on events and conversations recounted somewhat dispassionately and left unexplained, minor departures from the cyclical nature of routine-bound life laid bare for the readers to dissect and derive their quota of 'reading between the lines'from. The random handsome, young man encountered on the subway on your way to work who monopolized your attention for the length of the journey, the quarter found in the backseat of a cab that you surreptitiously picked up after wrestling with your conscience for a while, the ailing woman on the verge of certain death in the hospital ward who said she was doing fine on being asked how she was - these are but some of the many discrete snapshots of our collective lackadaisical existence in the backdrop of any nameless metropolitan city of the world and not just Adler's New York.

"The idea of hostages is very deep. Becoming pregnant is taking a hostage-as is running a pawnshop, being a bank, receiving a letter, taking a photograph, or listening to a confidence. Every love story, every commercial trade, every secret, every matter in which trust is involved, is a gentle transaction of hostages. Everything is, to a degree, in the custody of every other thing."

Her depiction of idiosyncratic urban life as she knew it is one of the most life-like I have ever come across and, possibly, ever will.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

First published:- 1999

Read in:- April, 2014

Star rating:-

To call these meanderings and sub-meanderings of a brilliant mind short stories, will be akin to putting a leash on DFW's creativity with the aid of conventional terminologies and thereby undervaluing the sheer inventiveness on display in this compelling collection. 
In course of my limited venturings into DFW's literary landscapes I have arrived at one crucial inference. That to read DFW is to transgress the very act of simply reading through and discover a newer way to commune with his chain of thoughts, to work your grey matter just a tad bit harder to truly grasp what he has intended for you to understand. And that's an exercise I am all too happy to engage in especially if it sharpens my senses and compels me to achieve a state of oneness with the narrative without sparing a second thought to any of my other parallel reads.
Reading him is like being given the unique opportunity to listen in on one of the greatest minds that ever existed speaking from some imaginary podium and letting that same mind direct my own to follow pathways that it didn't even know existed. It's like making yourself a part of the virtual reality he has recreated through his words and believing in the truth of it without trying to compartmentalize his writing.

Hideous men (and, occasionally, women) and the alarmingly convoluted inner workings of their still hideous minds string this collection together. Some of the 'short stories' are mere snapshots of eponymous interviews of seemingly disturbed individuals, ranging from hippie youths who have devised Machiavellian plans to seduce and subsequently ditch women with psychopathic precision to adolescents with elaborate masturbation fantasies creepy enough to make you involuntarily shudder, while some are little snippets which merely detail the secret inner lives of certain individuals which always remain carefully concealed behind an ingeniously orchestrated charade. Add some metafictional commentary inserted sporadically as footnotes of considerable length, in several of which the author even challenges the potential reader to weird pop quizzes, and you have a hazy idea of what this collection has to offer. But even so, I probably haven't even grazed the tip of the iceberg of DFW's gift for redefining narrative structures. 

Given that I am accustomed to more or less linear narratives, consisting of immaculately crafted sentences which put more emphasis on superficiality of actions and emotions, it is a bit of a surprise to find myself being drawn to a writer who sought to expose the raw core of every pretension. Sometimes while reading I was even tempted to flip a coin to decide whether he was being ironic or simply acknowledging some disturbing reality in a matter-of-fact tone.

"He ruled from that crib, ruled from the first. Ruled her, reduced and remade her. Even as an infant the power he wielded! I learned the bottomless greed of him. Of my son. Of arrogance past imagining. The regal greed and thoughtless disorder and mindless cruelty - the literal thoughtlessness of him."

The man's perspicacity is so palpable in everything he writes and his sincere attempts at perfect reconstruction of thought processes and the true motivations at work behind every human gesture so obvious, that I can't help but be charmed. The 5 stars are probably a dead giveaway of my veritable moony-eyedness. 

Belying expectations the footnotes did not annoy. The infinite digressions merely served to intensify my fascination with the way DFW's mind worked.
But can it be said that DFW left behind a body of work which can be given the label of 'proper literature'? The answer to the question depends on the way you choose to constrict your definition of 'proper literature' or whether you choose to constrict it at all. 

The man was a genius and his suicide only translates into a profound loss for all the good which remains in the world of publishing. And I doff my hat in honor of the creative freedom he refused to sacrifice while writing.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Review: Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges

First published:-1962

Read in:- May, 2014

Star rating:- 

A university professor had once expounded on the supposed conflict between history and literature, the former bemoaning the irrelevance of the latter when it comes to tracing the contours of reality while the latter countering this accusation by deploying the well-known defense of 'there's no one way of looking at the truth'

Indeed. Why restrict ourselves to just the one way and the one reality? Why overlook the truth of infinite permutations and combinations of each eventuality and each one of them, in turn, forking off into myriad possibilities ad infinitum? Why seek neat compartmentalization of two disparate disciplines and prevent their intermingling to create new streams of thought? Why believe mathematics and literature to be so fundamentally apart that there can be no blending together of both without the results being distorted beyond intelligibility? 

The very fact that the known limits of what's considered intelligible are being breached every moment, has its roots in the reluctance of labyrinthine minds like Borges' to follow linear pathways. 

Mysticism, mathematics, arcana, philosophy, and literary criticism. A perfect blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction leading to the creation of an entirely new entity which challenges the normative narrative form. And a moment of perfect lucidity arising out of a churning of all these elements. Where our imaginations come to a staggering halt, Borges' begins. 

I do not wish to squeeze out every last drop of meaning from these complex interpolations of a known truth into discrete bits of hitherto unknown logical conclusions by googling every reference I did not get. Instead I delight in Borges' perfectly synchronized demolition of all and any conventions associated with writing with an authorial preeminence, I gaze enthralled at the vision of clarity being birthed out of pure chaos. 

"In a birdless dawn the magician saw the concentric blaze close round the walls. For a moment, he thought of taking refuge in the river, but then he knew that death was coming to crown his old age and absolve him of labors. He walked into the shreds of flame. But they did not bite into his flesh, they caressed him and engulfed him without heat or combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another."

I let my mind latch onto his even if for a little while and let it guide me into realms where only the divinity of thought reigns supreme in its many manifestations. 

And, for now, that is enough.


P.S.:-It's good to know where David Foster Wallace acquired his irksome yet awe-inspiring footnoting habit from.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

First published:-1937

Read in:- April, 2014

Star rating:-

Here is a woman who led a wretched life for years, doomed to stagnate in the drab depths of oblivion even after her death which had gone under the radar and generated no nostalgia-soaked, emotional obituaries. She lay in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, Florida, treated by her own contemporaries like an outcast because of a difference in perspectives, to be resuscitated and acknowledged as one of the foremost powerful voices that ever reverberated across the African-American literary landscape years later. And here is her creation, a 'coffee-and-cream' skinned Janie Crawford, a child born out of a possible rape, a sure forerunner to Toni Morrison's Sethe, Denver and Beloved or Alice Walker's Celie and Nettie. A mulatto woman in a white man's world, who grew aware of an identity not shackled by notions of race, skin color, and even gender, who could look beyond the small horizon carelessly conferred on her by an era which was bluntly apathetic to her kind, who could aspire to be free of a legacy of mere victimhood.
And here I am, trying to make sure I do not fuse Zora and Janie together, unable to decide how to love, revere and pity them at the same time.

I watched the young and carefree Janie, who bubbled over with an enthusiasm for life, eventually morph into the Janie who embraced the bittersweet realization of having loved and lost. My eyes traced her unsure footsteps from financial servitude to financial stability, from the daily battle of ignoring the sting of self-denial to grasping at a life free of emotional subservience. I loved the hapless, innocent Janie who consented to being passed over like property from her grandmother's ownership to her first husband's just as much I admired the Janie who found her salvation in Tea Cake's good-natured laughter after two marriages which had simultaneously stripped her of her last shred of self-esteem and caused her to listen to that stifled inner voice. And I felt a strange kind of happiness building up inside for the Janie who would not succumb to the temptation of self-loathing like the misguided Mrs Turner, the Janie who found the firm ground of self-awareness to tread on while the world of conflicting ideas rotated on its axis like ever.

Zora Neale Hurston had a rich dual voice - one of them fearlessly recounting the quirks characterizing the Black American community in the deep south still clinging on to the outer fringes of a white-dominated society intertwined with the lyrical, oneiric voice of a philosopher and a feminist, possibly one of the first among her kind. And it is this wholly harmonious union of these two voices which transforms this bildungsroman into a honeyed ballad of love and grief, of psychological bondage and emancipation.

"He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom-a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God."

Janie never bore a grudge against her 'God' for making her path to fulfillment so long and arduous. She merely watched Him with hopeful eyes, lovingly accepting all He bestowed on her. And I watched Janie with a tear-strained smile.

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