Archive for ‘Guardian20’

April 19, 2011

Manju Kapur, Custody

I reviewed Manju Kapur’s latest book for TSG, here. Short version: I didn’t like it very much. Long, unedited version below.


Raman Kaushik is a nice middle-class boy with IIT and IIM degrees, a job in a multinational soft drinks corporation and an extended family in East Delhi. Shagun is a very beautiful woman about whom we know little else. The two marry and live quite a happy middle-class life for a few years before things get rocky, Shagun falls in love with another man, and a long custody battle begins. Manju Kapur’s latest novel chronicles the various intricacies around the dissolution of a marriage and a family.

The end of this marriage is explored from multiple angles, with Kapur shifting from character to character, point-of-view to point-of-view. This makes for a nuanced rendition of the situation so that the text as a whole never allows an easy apportioning of blame. Raman’s rage and bewilderment are both understandable, but it is equally clear why any woman might not wish to stay married to him.
Unfortunately, this technique doesn’t make it any easier to sympathise with the characters – perhaps it was never meant to. Raman’s tedious self-righteousness grates and is only occasionally relieved by a flash of personality. Shagun all but disappears two-thirds of the way through the book and from this point onwards is mostly seen through other people’s reports and her own cringe-worthily banal letters to her mother.
Ashok, Shagun’s lover and (later) husband, comes off worst of the lot. Apparently a business school degree renders one incapable of thinking in non-business terms, and any sort of marketing job fills one’s head with cliché. He thinks of Shagun as “a perfect blend of East and West” and reflects that “[t]o woo her would thus be that much more difficult: he must first create a need before he could fulfil it. But he was used to creating needs, it was what he did for a living”. Later, he is exhorting her to think “out of the box”.
Of the four major adult characters in Custody it is only Ishita, the woman whom Raman later marries, who comes out of the book as much of a person at all.
One unfortunate result of Kapur’s jumping from voice to voice is that the book itself ends up having no voice of its own. Kapur has been compared to Jane Austen for her detailed, sharp depiction of a comparatively small section of society but here, at least, the comparison breaks down. Austen is always definitely herself; in Custody Kapur is not. So when, for example, the text describes the new India where “[a]nything seemed possible if you worked hard enough. India was becoming a meritocracy, connections were no longer necessary for success” it’s hard to tell if Kapur is for some mystifying reason imitating Ashok’s trite patterns of speech and thought, or whether the triteness is unintentional. And surely Raman’s thinking of a carton of mango juice (which he is supposed to be marketing) that it “swam insouciantly about in the pool of anxiety that lay at the heart of his working life” is supposed to be humourous?
The focus of the book is very much on the Indian middle-class, and it is not an entirely sympathetic one. Mrs Kaushik, Raman’s mother, is depicted as entirely awful, and Ishita’s marriage-mad mother Mrs Rajora is only slightly better. (This is where an Austen parallel could be drawn – these women are both slightly reminiscent of her Mrs Bennet). Yet Kapur’s portrayal feels very much like that of an outsider and her barbs are at the most obvious of targets.
The elder Kaushiks put a grille across the passage, black granite tiles on the walls and floor of their section of the corridor and hung a small chandelier with dangling crystal pendants in the middle… Rohini declared she thought she was living in a palace her new home was so grand…

The real Central Park, not the falsely named builders’ creation in Gurgaon.

“Beti, why did you listen to him? What is the need for all this secret-vekret?”

As seen above (“secret-vekret”, really?) the cadences never quite ring true. The set of values Kapur associates with her subjects also appears inescapable. Ishita, who appears the one exception, finds herself at the end of the book consulting astrologers, changing her child’s name for superstitious reasons, and even reflecting upon the irony of it all.

Custody is admirable for its balance, for its depiction of its central relationship, and particularly for the authentic-seeming portrayal of the two child characters. But none of these quite make up for its obviousness, its lack of a sense of direction or the blandness for which it can have no possible excuse.


(Does anyone else have trouble writing the word “custody”? I always end up with “custory”.)

April 11, 2011

Lawrence Durrell, Stiff Upper Lip

My Left of Cool piece this week discussed Lawrence Durrell’s very silly Antrobus stories, collected in Stiff Upper Lip. I discovered these stories only recently, when my best friend came across a lovely old edition of the collection.
The column is at the newspaper’s website, here, or can be read below (including the footnote I carelessly left out of the website version. Despite what the headline on the site implies, I do not think Durrell’s Big Books are in any way pretentious.


Most reasonably bookish Indians discover Gerald Durrell reasonably early in life. It’s only later that Lawrence Durrell appears on the radar. I’m not sure how many of them ever really discover Lawrence; books that look as if they’d take an effort to read are never going to be that widespread. But everyone knows that he exists, and it’s something of a shock to realise that the author of the Alexandria Quartet and the Avignon Quintet is the “Larry” of My Family and Other Animals.

The reader of My Family and Other Animals knows that (Lawrence) Durrell lived for some time in Corfu. During the Second World War he worked for the British embassies in Egypt and later for the British government in Yugoslavia. His stint in Egypt led to the writing of the Alexandria Quartet. His stint in Yugoslavia led to something very different: the Antrobus stories, of which Stiff Upper Lip is the second collection.

For a person who has not read them the defining characteristic of the Alexandria and Avignon books is that they are long. They are also complex and interlinked (Durrell preferred to use the term “quincunx” instead of “quintet” to describe the Avignon books, since the former term indicates a more linear progression).

Against these vast, rich works for which Durrell is known Stiff Upper Lip rather stands out. This is a slim volume of stories about life in the diplomatic corps, ably illustrated by Nicolas Bently. They are populated with people whose names range from the Dickensian (Dovebasket, Bolster, Wormwood*) to the Wodehousean (Polk-Mowbray, Butch Benbow, Mungo Piers-Foley). All the stories are narrated by Antrobus, a character who, like the Oldest Member of Wodehouse’s golf stories, seems to do very little but tell stories chronicling the follies of those surrounding him.
And such follies they are. That I have invoked Wodehouse twice already is a clue to the sheer silliness of Stiff Upper Lip. The English diplomatic corps faces multiple murder attempts (perpetrated by one jealous lover and one disgruntled writer), culinary adventures (the accidental consumption of both horsemeat and garlic – of which garlic is considered the more generally horrifying), Dutch poetry and jewel thieves. A diplomatic dog show goes horribly wrong when a villainous attaché blows a dog whistle for a prank. Of particular interest to the readers of this paper, perhaps, will be “The Swami’s Secret”, featuring the suave Anaconda Veranda who gives reincarnation lessons by post.
Not every story in the book focuses on these Eton-educated diplomats. Durrell democratically includes an account of the sufferings of Percy, the second-footman at the embassy in “The Iron Hand”. In “The Game’s the Thing” there is an attempt to appease the Italian Mission by inviting them to a football match and losing. In our modern, post-match-fixing-scandal times we have a tendency to assume that every match is fixed, an assumption that is perhaps born out of a belief that fixing a match is easy. It is not, we learn, even though “we British know how to lose gamely. Prefer it, in fact. We had all taken on that frightfully decent look as we puffed about, showing ourselves plucky but inept – in fact in character”. Unfortunately not everyone on the team possesses the sporting spirit and, predictably, things do not go quite as planned.
In the hands of a different writer, Stiff Upper Lip would not be quite so strange. Had Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh written it one might have shrugged, reflected that it was not entirely in their usual style, and moved on. Silly and funny as it may be, its weirdness stems mainly from the incongruity of this author and these stories. This isn’t the Lawrence Durrell we know; but it is certainly recognisable as Gerald’s “Larry”.

*”Wormwood” is also a character in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. This character forms the inspiration for the name of the school teacher in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes series. This is one of those things people who quiz are very pleased about knowing. But that’s beside the point and doesn’t make the name any less Dickensian.


I must get myself a nice copy of the Alexandria Quartet soon. Does anyone have any recommendations as to which edition?

April 5, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

One of the best children’s writers we had died recently. There have been new Diana Wynne Jones books all my life, and I’m still not entirely reconciled to the fact that there won’t be any more. The night I heard the news I sat and reread Fire and Hemlock for the first time in many years. It turns out it’s still brilliant.

I wrote this tribute for the Sunday Guardian. It can be found on their site here This is a slightly longer version – longer mainly because in the absence of space constraints I couldn’t not include the whole of that quote.


British writer Diana Wynne Jones died last week, at the age of seventy-six. She had written close to fifty books for children as well as a couple for adults; she had won awards (never enough) and been runner-up for several more; her 1986 book Howl’s Moving Castle had been made into a critically-adored Hayao Miyazaki film. By anyone’s standards she was a significant figure within children’s literature. She was already a name (though never as big a name as she deserved to be) when I first started to read. She had had fifteen books published before I was born and continued to write well into my adulthood – Enchanted Glass came out a year ago and a novel for younger readers, Earwig and the Witch, is set to be published posthumously in 2011.I cannot claim to have read half of her work, yet the thought of no more Diana Wynne Jones books is as unsettling as it is sad.

Her connection to the literary world went beyond her writing. The various tributes that have been written this week have brought up the most wonderful stories about her life. As a child she lived in the house where the children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books had lived, and managed to annoy Ransome himself. She also managed as a child to antagonise Beatrix Potter. At college she was taught by Tolkien and Lewis, and in later years would go on to exert much influence over the careers of writers like Neil Gaiman. As Farah Mendlesohn (the author of a book on Jones) notes in a tribute to the writer, Jones “had not just grown fans, she had grown writers”. She was still writing when writers who had read her books as a child had grown up, and written books of their own. The Harry Potter books have a lot to do with the boom in children’s publishing over the past decade (many of Jones’ own books were reissued for this reason) but most of these writers grew up on Diana Wynne Jones.

Her books were often quite disturbing. Many existed in a space between traditional children’s fantasy and realism. So a parent might not be an evil stepmother, but s/he could be self-absorbed or criminally neglectful – the title character of The Lives of Christopher Chant sees so little of his parents that he’s terrified that he might one day meet them in the park and not recognise them. The adult world might be a terrifying place, but a lot of the reasons for this terror were the same ones that any child would go through. For years I was reluctant to re-read the earliest pages of Fire and Hemlock, one of her finest books, not so much for outright scariness as a sense of deeply felt unease. And she wasn’t afraid to demand thought from her child readers; she never wrote as if she expected us to feel lost in her many-layered narratives. And if sometimes I did get lost it didn’t matter.

As serious as all of this sounds, all my memories of reading her books involve laughter. A lot of it was clever wordplay or absurdity of the sort that anyone would find funny. But the best parts, and the ones that I suspect were responsible for all the writers this author raised, were the bits about books. A lot of the humour in Diana Wynne Jones was directed at people who read and could therefore be assumed to understand exactly what she meant. Take the beginning of Howl’s Moving Castle, where she explains that “… it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.” Or A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, an entire book of sendups of fantasy tropes. Or even the episode in Fire and Hemlock where a character writes a clichéd description of a back and is sent a corrective note:

Dear Polly,
Tom wishes you, for some reason I can’t understand, to consider the human back. He says there are many other matters you should consider too, but that was a particularly glaring example. He invites you, he says, to walk along a beach this summer and watch the male citizens there sunning themselves. There you will see backs – backs stringy, backs bulging, and backs with ingrained dirt. You will find, he says, yellow skin, blackheads, pimples, enlarged pores and tufts of hair.
This is making me ill, but Tom says go on. Peeling sunburn, warts, boils, moles and midge bites and floppy rolls of skin. Even a back without these blemishes, he claims, seldom or never ripples, unless with gooseflesh. In fact, he defies you to find an inch of silk or a single powerful muscle in any hundred yards of average sunbathers. I hope you know what all this is about, because I don’t. I think you should stay away from the seaside if you can.
Yours ever, Sam.

She laughed at the genres she wrote in, intelligently but lovingly, and in doing so made us think about books and how they worked.


There’s a wonderful list of links to tributes at the Strange Horizons blog, here. Gaiman and Mendlesohn’s are particularly lovely, but there’s also a fantastic long essay by Rush That Speaks.
March 28, 2011

Shatnerquake and Left of Cool

A couple of weeks ago I started writing a new column. Left of Cool will appear in The Sunday Guardian every Sunday. Aadisht Khanna and I (on alternating weekends) will be talking about books that are mildly odd or completely bizarre or just generally obscure and wonderful. This week (most serendipitously the week of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s 80th birthdays) I chose to focus on Jeff Burk’s Shatnerquake.

The review in the paper can be found here; an edited version is below.

William Shatner fascinates me. Even now, after decades of seeing him in other things and knowing just how far he is from one’s mental picture of what a dashing, heroic space captain ought to look like, it is possible to watch one of the original series episodes of Star Trek and have a crush on Captain Kirk. It makes no sense.

The internet is fond of a certain game. It is called “Who would win in a fight?” Popcultural figures are pitted against each other in imaginary duels, as people conversant with these figures and their skillsets work out what possible strategies and advantages they could possibly deploy against each other. Superman vs Batman? Alien vs Predator? Chacha Chaudhary vs Godzilla? Who would win in a fight between a William Shatner character and another William Shatner character?

Jeff Burk goes a step further in his book Shatnerquake. The question Burk asks is this: who would win in a fight between all the characters Shatner has ever played and Shatner himself?

The story, if you can call it that, is as follows. William Shatner is at a convention for William Shatner fans. Unfortunately, so are a group of Campbellians, fans of Bruce Campbell (who has also had an odd acting career, though not quite as much of one as Shatner). These Campbellians, having infiltrated the convention, set off a “fiction bomb” which brings all the characters Shatner has ever played into this reality, where they cause chaos and destruction.

The result is both less stupid and more awesome (depending on how you the reader feel about very silly books about cultural icons) than it sounds. Every other line is a reference to something or the other that is Shatner related, and it would take a serious connoisseur to unpack the full extent of the book’s allusiveness. As a mere dilettante myself, I suspect I only picked up the most obvious references. So you have Captain Kirk killing innocent fans dressed as Klingons and sexually harassing other innocent fans dressed as Orion slave girls, T.J. Hooker yelling at people, and bewildered bystanders witnessing spoken word performances. When he speaks, Shatner keeps making the random pauses that we know him for. There is a man in a red shirt whose name (it is Stephen) Kirk refuses to know. The plot of Shatnerquake itself might be a reference to the actor’s appearance in a skit on Saturday Night Live, in which he insulted a convention-ful of Star Trek fans. The book even has a two-dimensional animated Shatner, invisible when he turns sideways. And somehow (and I cannot give Burk enough credit for this) it is actually readable.

Perhaps Shatnerquake could not work if it were about almost any other celebrity figure. But as Burk himself points out in a letter to Shatner at the beginning of the book (it ends with the postscript “please don’t sue me”), one is never quite sure whether the actor is acting, when he is parodying himself, when he is serious. Shatner has had quite a bit of success spoofing James T. Kirk, but it’s more than that; as Burk says, “[His] entire life has become an elaborate work of performance art”. The actor has been blurring the lines between actor and character for so long now that it makes perfect sense that they should be completely obscured in this manner; there simply isn’t a Shatner-persona we can take as more ‘real’ than any of the parts he has played. From this perspective the book ties in perfectly with the larger piece of art that is Shatner’s own life.

The first page of the book carries a list of the author’s other works, among them Shatnerquest and Shatnerpocalypse. I suspect that neither of these books exists, but so strange is this actor’s career that I would not be surprised if they did. Or even if he had written them himself.

February 10, 2011

Peter Y. Paik, From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe

My review of Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe appeared in last week’s sunday guardian, here. This one was difficult to write: I’m not sure reviewing an academic book for a mainstream audience even makes sense. I enjoyed reading Paik’s book, though more for occasional insights than for any sustained argument.

The point I’ve made about writing criticism of Moore is one I’d love to go into in more detail if anyone feels like discussing it. I attempted a Lost Girls paper a couple of years ago and found myself doing exactly the same thing that I accuse Paik of here.


The word “utopia” refers to a perfect society, governed by an ideal socio-legal system. Yet the term, coined by Thomas More in 1516, literally means “no place”. Over the centuries various works of literature have considered what utopia would look like; Plato’s Republic is an early example. The science fiction genre has often explored the dystopia, utopia’s opposite, in which everything has gone horribly wrong and “perfect society” means “totalitarian government”. What is perhaps less discussed is the massive, catastrophic change that would be required to bring about such a state of affairs.

In From Utopia to Apocalypse Paik analyses a selection of science fictional texts in the light of the insights they provide into revolutionary politics. He stresses upon the totalitarian impulse at the heart of revolutionary politics; what the book’s blurb describes as the “fantasy of putting annihilating omnipotence to beneficial effect”. Among the works he examines are Alan Moore’s comic Watchmen, Hayao Miyizaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind and three films: Jang Joon-Hwan’s Save the Green Planet, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy of movies and James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, adapted from the work of the same name by Alan Moore. The focus on comics especially is an unusual and not unwelcome choice – the texts examined here are definitely science fiction, but none of them are the novels or short stories traditional to the genre. Equally welcome is the decision to explore cultural products from Asia as well as the UK and the USA.

At all points the book stands in danger of turning into the Alan Moore show. In addition to the chapter-and-a-half dedicated to Moore’s work (in a book that contains only four chapters this feels unbalanced), the introduction is dominated by a discussion of his Miracleman. This isn’t necessarily a flaw – these sections are smart and engaging – but it does make the work as a whole seem a little unbalanced. The Moore chapters are good, but they’re not particularly relevant; partly because Moore has been studied extensively before, but also because his fiction is so self-consciously commenting on itself that it’s easy for a critic to slip into merely explaining what the text is already doing.

Paik’s strongest chapters are the ones dealing with slightly less mainstream texts. He makes an insightful study of Save the Green Planet, a Korean movie that chronicles the interactions between a violently angry man and a businessman whom he believes to be an alien of a race that secretly controls humanity. But the book’s biggest strength by some distance is its in-depth study of Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. The exploration of the choices of a character who is portrayed as simultaneously saint-like and destructive (Nausicaä effectively chooses to sacrifice the entire human race to a higher cause) is nuanced and fascinating. Coming after this a final chapter on The Matrix and V for Vendetta feels like a bit of a let-down. The comparison of the politics of the latter film to those of the original comic is entertaining but hardly new.

It’s hard to decide who the intended audience for this book might be. Some sections might be rather intimidatingly scholarly for a casual reader who is not well versed in political theory. On the other hand, Paik spends a part of his introduction painstakingly explaining the connections between popular cultural products and the societies that create them; to the hypothetical academic reader this is rather like reinventing the wheel. It’s also interesting to note that Paik engages comparatively little with the major science fiction critics (barring a mention of Carl Freedman and a few references to Jameson; Zizek and Badiou, by contrast pop up on every other page). On the whole this is a good thing. I’m certainly in favour of more critical angles being brought to science-fiction criticism, and certainly wouldn’t advocate that critics all keep reading and referring to the same people ad infinitum; on the other hand, to contribute to a conversation you need to be a participant in it.

One thing that From Utopia to Apocalypse does seem to lack is a final chapter. A book like this one is never going to lend itself to a neat conclusion but it seems to end more abruptly than one would like. Despite these flaws, however, Paik’s book is engaging, often rigorous and very well worth reading.


December 22, 2010

Gary Shteyngart. Super Sad True Love Story

I’m rarely as irritated by a book as I was by Shteyngart’s dystopia. I’m also rarely as respectful of one. When I reviewed this book for The Sunday Guardian I had to hold myself back. Because however fine a writer he is (and he is one) and however well-conceived his dystopia (and it mostly is, very) he’s still the sort of writer who needs you to know that he knows that he’s writing yet another love story about a middle-aged man and a beautiful young girl.

This doesn’t stop Super Sad True Love Story from occasionally being quite gorgeous, though.


It is perhaps rather obvious that dystopic fiction should structure itself around the fears of its contemporary society. Orwell’s 1984 (the dystopia everyone has read), for example, deals with constant surveillance by an all-powerful state that has taken over even language.

One of 2010’s biggest theatrical releases was The Social Network, a film whose reception said a lot about the centrality of Facebook to our lives. In India, 2010 also saw the release of Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhokha, a film about social voyeurism and the media. In 2010 it’s not Big Brother who is watching you: it’s everyone.

This is certainly the case in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian satire in a world where all information about a person is constantly available to those around him. People own apparats, devices to link them to social networks wherever they are. Everyone around you knows your financial status, personal history and “fuckability” rating. It is in this world that middle-aged, hopelessly unfashionable Lenny Abramov falls in love with the much-younger, beautiful Eunice Park. As their relationship progresses, so do larger world political events. Until America falls apart.

The novel uses various formats in order to tell this story, shifting from Lenny’s diary entries to Eunice’s emails and chat transcripts. Lenny’s keeping of a written, personal diary is, like his habit of reading physical copies of books, very unusual in a world where books may not be banned, but are unfashionable enough that most people believe they smell bad. Both Lenny and Eunice experience genuine difficulty in reading, and Lenny has had to re-train himself to write. Interestingly Shteyngart has said (in an interview with the Paris Review) that one of his reasons for choosing this particular narrative style, with the text broken up into short sections with different formats, was that he believed people nowadays find it hard to read a book cover to cover – that we’re no longer as equipped to read books as we once were. This will become the novel’s biggest flaw.

Lenny is an interesting narrator. His many flaws are visible throughout the text. This is the sort of man who uses the word “eponymous” a page into beginning his narrative, and a couple of pages later is gushing about “the Baroque architecture of twentysomething buttocks”. He is attracted to women with tragic pasts – particularly victims of child abuse.

His feelings for Eunice arise naturally out of the sort of person that Lenny is. Early in the book he describes her as a “nano-sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair, who lacked both breast and scent”. He attempts to convince himself that “the woman I had fallen for is thoughtful and bright”, but it comes across merely as an attempt to convince himself of his own lack of shallowness. He claims that “for me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks”. When the tragedy comes, however, it is not the loss of this relationship that is affecting but the loss of many others.

Lenny’s relationship with his friends, for example. One of the few positives that Shteyngart’s dystopia allows for is that this “permissive” age allows for more physical closeness among men who “grew up with a fairly tense idea of male friendship”. With the rest of the world constantly tuning in honest conversation becomes difficult, but there’s never any doubt that there’s love there.

Eunice’s emails to her family and her friend “Grillbitch” (real name Jenny Kang) are equally moving. Perhaps because she’s younger and better able to communicate with technology, Eunice never seems to feel, as Lenny does, that the modern world makes it harder to communicate with her friends and there’s more honesty in her emails and chat transcripts than there ever is in Lenny’s private diary. Eunice grows and changes over the duration of the novel, and is in the end a far more sympathetic character.

Then there’s Lenny’s love of America. If this novel’s title were intended to refer to its narrator’s relationship with his country it would be quite understandable. Lenny commits himself to loving his country even as it collapses around him, and the sense of what has been, or is about to be, lost pervades the novel.

Every returning New Yorker asks the question: Is this still my city?
I have a ready answer, cloaked in obstinate despair: It is.
And if it’s not, I will love it all the more. I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again.

At the end of the novel, however, Shteyngart disappoints. He provides a frame narrative, and in it attempts to forestall a number of criticisms that might be made about the novel. That it is too much in the style of “the final generation of American “literary” writers”. That Eunice’s entries are preferable to “Lenny’s relentless navel-gazing”. It’s the sort of thing that might be intended to intimidate the reader into not making those criticisms herself – yet Shteyngart’s knowledge that these potential criticisms exist does not make them less true.

And this is ultimately my problem with Super Sad True Love Story. It is beautiful, it is smart, it is incredibly moving, but ultimately it does not trust its readers to read it. Shteyngart will cut the crusts and literally break his book into bite-sized pieces for his readers, and make for himself the criticisms they might have made. One of his fictional reviewers describes Lenny’s book as a “tribute to literature as it once was”. Super Sad True Love Story is the opposite; it’s a book for readers who are already in the dystopia that Shteyngart describes.

Here are a couple of other reviews: Sasha Nova at BSC, Patrick Hudson at The Zone, Deepanjana Pal at Mumbai Boss.

November 14, 2010

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

A version of this appears in yesterday’s Guardian20, though I don’t think it’s on the site yet. I don’t think there was ever any way I was not going to like an Ian McDonald book set in Istanbul, but this was just gorgeous – rich and dense and stimulating.


The 2009 movie District 9 opens with an observation about the arrival of an alien spaceship. “To everyone’s surprise, the ship didn’t come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead it costed to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg.” There is an awareness here that the terrain of science fiction (when it has been on Earth at all) has been rather limited.

That is, to some extent, changing. Both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards for 2010 were awarded to novels with plots that played out in non-traditional settings. China Miéville’s The City and the City took place between two fictional Eastern European countries, while Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl was set in a future Thailand.

Since 2004, British science fiction writer Ian McDonald has been exploring alternative settings for speculative fiction. His works in that time have included River of Gods, an award-winning novel set in future India; Cyberabad Days, a collection of shorter fiction set in the same world; and Brasyl, set in Sao Paulo and the Amazonian jungle, and in the future and the past. His latest novel, The Dervish House, takes for its setting near-future Istanbul.

It is 2027 and Turkey has been a part of Europe for five years. On a Monday morning the head of a suicide bomber explodes in a tram. McDonald begins his new book with a number of separate threads, all seemingly connected only by the explosion and the fact that the protagonists all live and work around Adam Dede square, “small enough for two tea shops but big enough for rivalries”. The square is also home to an old tekke, or Dervish House, and it is around this building that the stories revolve.

There is Cam, the boy detective who must wear special earpieces to shut out sound, and who experiences the world through his shape-changing robots. Georgios Ferentinou is a Greek economist and the brains behind the “Terror Market”. Necdet is a young man with a troubled past. He lives in the Dervish House with his brother, and after witnessing the explosion begins to see djinn everywhere. Leyla Gültaşli, a young woman who is trying to escape the pressures of family, finds herself forced to accept a job with a cousin after the tram explosion prevents her from getting to a job interview. Adnan Sarioğlu is a businessman and his wife Ayşe Erkoç an art dealer. Ayşe accepts a commission to find a “Mellified Man”, a saint whose body has been turned into pure honey.

As the novel progresses these stories connect in other ways as well. The ways in which people’s lives and pasts intersect and come together to form parts of the larger narrative are an appropriate method of telling this story. This is because McDonald’s major preoccupation here seems to be those fundamental concerns of storytellers, scientists and sociologists everywhere: how things fit together, how they become parts of a bigger whole, and what constitutes individual identity. So we have Cam’s robots, joining together, breaking apart, joining again to form new shapes; the cells that make up a human body turning into computers; a silver Koran that is cut in two, each half supposedly yearning toward the other because the Koran is one thing; the entire history of the city in its individual stones.

Istanbul is the perfect location for this novel. It seems terribly cliché to point out that the city sits at the point where Europe meets Asia, straddling the East-West divide. McDonald’s Istanbul works as a natural connector of things. East and West, Islam and Christianity, various empires and names layered one on top of the other. The city’s history (“twenty-seven centuries”) is skillfully woven into the story, moving from historical Byzantium and Constantinople to more recent events. Ataturk, relationships with Kurds and Greeks and attempts to be a part of Europe all inform the plot.

And then there’s McDonald’s prose that somehow manages to bring together art, economics, and the sounds of the city and make them all surprisingly lyrical

The Baku Hub opens before him. It’s a beautiful, intricate flower of traders and contracts, derivatives and spots, futures and options and swaps and the dirty menagerie of new financial instruments; micro-futures, blinds, super-straddles, fiscalmancy evolved in quant computers so dark and complex no human understands how it makes money; all folded like the petals of a tulip around Baku’s fruiting heart of pipes and terminal and storage tanks. Istanbul is a barker’s tent, a street hustle by comparison. Baku is where the gas goes down.

The Dervish House is dense, both in its language and its content, and is occasionally somewhat intimidating in the level of engagement it demands from the reader. But it is precisely because of this that it is a book that does engage the reader fully. As a work of science fiction it is vast in its scope and bursting with ideas. As a work of fiction it is as exquisitely crafted as one of the miniatures it occasionally uses as a metaphor. McDonald is a gift, and it’s high time readers outside science-fiction discovered this fact.


Other people have reviewed this and seen that it is good: see Strange Horizons, Punkadiddle, @Number 71