Archive for ‘Indian Express’

September 1, 2014

The future is ScarJo

I have watched a lot of Scarlett Johansson movies this year. I have also watched other movies, some of which are mentioned in this thing I wrote recently for the Indian Express (this version is slightly edited, the result of having rewatched Lucy). This isn’t the long Scarlett Johansson’s Summer of SF piece I crave, and I hope someone does write that soon. I do want to write more about Lucy which, for all its badness is occasionally bad in really interesting ways (on twitter, Rahul Kanakia summed it up for me when he said it was nice to see “an SF film with vision and ambition”, even if “both vision and ambition were very stupid”). But not yet.

 

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A young American student in Taiwan falls into the hands of drug smugglers, who surgically insert a packet of a new chemical into her stomach. When the package leaks, its effects upon her system are catastrophic—her capacity to use her brain expands, allowing her to manipulate matter and absorb huge amounts of information at a glance, but she has not long to live.

Accepting the obvious, that no movie exists in a cultural vacuum, it’s tempting to read Luc Besson’s Lucy in the context of other recent movies. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular character, has starred in a run of science fiction films over the last year—she plays an alien in a human body in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a quickly-developing sentient computer operating system in the Oscar-nominated Her, and spy-turned-superhero the Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

All of these roles have her cast as an outsider and observer of humanity– even the Marvel movies, where her character is self-contained and closed-off. Johansson brings to them all a sort of curious detachment that is genuinely effective. Under the Skin opens with the putting-together of the alien character’s eye so that from the beginning we’re aware of her as a being who sees; in a probably-accidental parallel scene in Besson’s film, Lucy comes back to consciousness after the drug has wracked her body and we see her eye blinking through several shapes and permutations before coming to rest.

And yet. As the nameless protagonist of Under The Skin comes closer to humanity, we’re invited to see the creatures she preys on as vulnerable, thinking beings. Black Widow’s arc has her open up and form gradual friendships with her new colleagues. Samantha, the “her” of Her, begins by forging a relationship with one human but is soon involved in intimate connections with hundreds, her developing intellect allowing for a larger relationship with other creatures, human or AI. Lucy, by contrast, is growing away from the humans around her.

Lucy has a number of resonances with another big science fiction movie of this summer, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, in which brilliant scientist Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) uploads her dying husband’s consciousness to a powerful computer. With access to near-infinite amounts of information and a rapidly expanding consciousness, Will Caster (Johnny Depp) turns into something of a monster. Both films have their protagonists grow more and more remote, both are martyred for science (Transcendence seems a little more ambivalent than Lucy on this subject). Both feature Morgan Freeman in the supporting role of a scientist whose job is largely to look wise and reflect upon the follies of mankind. Both use TED talk style settings as a tool for exposition. Neither is very good.

And yet it’s interesting (or ought to be) to consider what these two science fiction films about characters transcending what we know as human, released within a few months of each other, have to say about humanity and where it goes from here.

Nowhere good, appears to be the answer. Lucy’s preliminary reaction to the changes in her body is to travel around Taiwan indiscriminately killing the local people—the film’s racial politics are about what you’d suspect from the trailer, which consists entirely of Johansson’s character killing Asian men—and even as she becomes more resigned to her situation and tries to reach out she finds it harder to make connections with other people.  Will Caster’s expanded consciousness doesn’t extend to such things as greater empathy—he quickly begins to use other people’s bodies as tools and even with the wife whom he loves he is unable to grasp the concept of consent. (The scene in which Hall’s Evelyn reacts to his violation of her boundaries with an almost-childish “you’re not allowed!” is one of the most powerful in the film.)

Apart from being a tragically limited understanding of human intelligence, I suspect this is bad science—though accepting flawed science is probably a prerequisite of both films.

Early in the film, as Lucy is pursued by her captors we cut to Discovery channel-style footage of a predator fleeing prey—at one level she is just another animal. In a late scene we see her travel through time to meet the first Lucy, our earliest human ancestor and reach out to her, re-enacting Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (previously shown in the film, which doesn’t really trust its audience to understand things like metaphors). Across time and space and thousands of years of evolution the first and last humans (because when Lucy’s brain has reached 100% capacity where else is there to go?) see each other, and forge a connection. The film can identify Lucy with animals, or with our most distant ancestors, or with the Biblical God; when it comes to humans in our current form both it, and Lucy herself, don’t seem to know what to do.

In this Lucy is the more intelligent of the two films (which is to say very little); more than once we see her struggling to hold on to her humanity.  Yet the question remains. Freeman’s character, Professor Norman, tells Lucy that one of the most important functions of life forms is to pass on knowledge. A suggestion that this knowledge might be misused is made, then dismissed. “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it,” says Lucy, at the end of the film. I suspect many of us would prefer not to.

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July 16, 2013

Redface, Cumberkhan, and whitewashing in Hollywood

Apparently I have been so openly grumpy about Hollywood whitewashing in recent months that I was asked to do this piece for the Indian Express. It is considerably shorter and less ranty here than it was in first draft, at least.

 

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In an interview with the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness, done months before the film was released, actors were asked to choose a favourite Star Trek villain. John Cho, who plays Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted series of films, chose Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh, adding pointedly that he was  also “a man of colour”. Cho’s comment may have

(The newspaper version of this piece may not have contained this picture)

seemed innocuous enough at the time. But the same interview included Benedict Cumberbatch who was at the time only known to be playing the villain of the movie. A few months later we were subjected to the ridiculous spectacle of the lily-white Cumberbatch declaring “my name is Khan”.

Hollywood has a history of changing the ethnicity of a character, either by rewriting them as white, or by having white-skinned actors don “blackface” (or “yellowface” or “redface”) in performances that frequently lampooned them through the use of racial stereotype, as in the whole tradition of minstrelsy. While it is generally accepted that blackface is no longer acceptable (though a Hindi movie used the trope for humour earlier this year), the number of non-white characters played by non-white actors is still far smaller than one would expect it to be.

Racebending.com was an organisation formed in 2009 by fans of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The series was based on a number of Asian cultures, yet Manoj Knight Shyamalan’s adaptation failed to cast Asian actors in the major positive roles.

It is not simply a case of getting the “best” actor for the job, though that excuse is often trotted out. In an industry where white is the cultural default (unless a role is specified as belonging to a character of a specific ethnicity it is too often assumed to be white) talented actors already have a difficult time finding a range of complex roles. Even when ethnicity is specified, it is sometimes not clear enough for the culture around it. When the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was released last year, there was a wave of internet outrage over the casting of the character Rue. Collins had mentioned Rue’s dark skin and hair more than once but this wasn’t enough for readers, who went so far as to suggest that the character seemed less “innocent” and her death less tragic when played by the African-American actress Amandla Stenberg instead of a light-skinned, blonde girl. Viewers also expressed anger at the movie Thor, when Idris Elba was cast as a minor character. The idea of race-blind casting seems to be trotted out selectively, and rarely to the advantage of non-white actors.

Most recently, there’s Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, which released in theatres this week. Tonto has long been a controversial character, a pidgin-speaking sidekick whom a number of Native American critics have found to be a demeaning stereotype. Depp has spoken about the potential for reimagining the character in a respectful way, perhaps even mocking the racist depictions that have come before. But none of this answers the question of whether or not Depp should be playing Tonto in the first place. Depp claims some unconfirmed Native American heritage, and has been adopted as an honorary son by a member of the Comanche Nation, but this hardly makes his casting appropriate. Surely Disney (or Depp himself, if the project is so important to him) could have produced a film with a Native American actor in the part? Debate will continue to rage, people will continue to point out that there are no Native American actors of Depp’s stature (and why would that be?) and the cycle will continue. (Edit: I was going to link to one of Native Appropriations’ posts about Depp and Tonto, but here are all of them)

But there’s hope. Iron Man 3 came as a huge surprise this summer. When the most recent movie in the franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr was announced, much attention was focused on Ben Kingsley’s turn as The Mandarin, a character originally portrayed in the comics as a half-Chinese supervillain. Kingsley, of course, is not Chinese (though he is part-Indian) and to many fans this particular casting choice, and this choice of villain, seemed potentially fraught. In the event, what the film offered was a partial deconstruction of the “yellowface” it seemed to perpetuate; The Mandarin wasn’t a Chinese man at all, merely an English actor (though one far less successful than Kingsley) playing to stereotype. This is still far from ideal, and the movie’s exploitation of its own seeming racism for effect is problematic. But the implication that the movie recognises that audiences are aware of this debate is heartening. If, as the blogger Marissa Sammy at Racebending.com suggests, the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness deliberately used the secrecy surrounding Cumberbatch’s role in order to avoid criticism, this too is heartening in a way. It suggests, at least that the issue is finally making its way into the public discourse to an extent that it can no longer be ignored. What Hollywood chooses to do with this information is yet to be seen.

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June 6, 2012

Kishwar Desai, Origins of Love

I had a short review of Kishwar Desai’s new novel in Saturday’s Indian Express.

Aruni Kashyap has a piece in the  Assam Times that is partly about his journey away from, and back into writing as an Assamese writer. Among other things he speaks of writing to an imaginary audience to whom he felt the need to explain Assam.

The thing that interested me most about Origins of Love (otherwise not destined to be one of my favourite books this year) is this question of audience. Who does Desai think she’s writing for? At times I suspected the book of doing something rather clever in centring the Indian experience; the white British characters are reduced to cultural stereotypes. Kate, for example, got pregnant in her teens: “She didn’t want to drop out of school or be stuck at home juggling milk bottles and living off benefits like so many of her friends. Besides, Terry (or Jack?) had disappeared quite soon after their evening together”. (Tuhin Sinha, author of That Thing Called LOVE would probably refer to this teenage sexing as “the domain of the prurient West”) The audience is expected not to know, for example, that “the different communities were quite divided in London. The Indians in Southall, the Bangladeshis on Brick Lane…”.  (Useful tip: apparently if you are a lady sitting in pubs in Southall locals will be scandalised, but you can charm a bartender into pouring more generous drinks by swapping stories of “back home”). Shops and labels are namechecked (Agent Provocateur and Harrods, anyway). Parallel to this treating the British as aliens that need explaining, there’s a sort of India Shining narrative. Subhash and his wife Anita are an “elegant couple – certainly a far cry from the gruff and often crumpled doctors he had dealt with in the NHS back home”. The sperm bank in Gurgaon is far more impressive than the one in London. The old empire has declined, everything about Britain is a bit tawdry.

But then suddenly we’re doing things the other way round – the tourists are wearing FabIndia clothes, cows are eating plastic bags on which they will choke to death, ‘locals’ take autorickshaws and there is a completely unnecessary explanation of the Ambassador car. So who is this for?

The other interesting thing about the book is that for five minutes I thought it might be science fiction.

None of these things serve to make the novel any good though.

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A child conceived via in vitro fertilisation is found, mysteriously, to be HIV-positive. Her parents are dead, her family untraceable, and the surrogate mother has mysteriously disappeared.

Origins of Love consists of multiple individual plotlines woven together. There are the Pandeys, proprietors of a hospital in Gurgaon offering assisted reproductive technologies; Kate and Ben, an English couple who desperately want a child, though for different reasons; Sonia, one of the surrogate mothers and Diwan Nath Mehta, a customs officer who becomes embroiled in an attempt to make money from the embryos.  Tying all of these plots together is Simran Singh, the social worker who formed the focus of Desai’s earlier, Costa winning novel Witness the Night. Simran’s is the only thread of the story to be told in first person; it is she who, with the reader, pieces together these stories to work out what is going on.

And there’s a lot to work out. Origins of Love attempts to be both an exploration of a social issue (that of surrogacy in India) and a rather crowded mystery/thriller. But it soon becomes obvious that Desai is more interested in the issue than the story. Subplots that might in other circumstances have been entire novels are gestured at and then rather half-heartedly wrapped up; such as that of Ben, whose guilt and curiously over an ancestor’s actions in India lead him into perpetuating the same set of dynamics, or Renu, a rising politician who plans to use her child for her political ends. The couple around whom the mystery revolves, Susan and Ben Oldham, barely get any page time, making the various revelations about them rather lacking in impact.

As a discussion of the various issues around surrogacy, the book is more thorough. The lack of agency of the women who agree to become surrogate mothers is a point constantly made – even when characters make the original decision for themselves (Sonia thinks that the money will help her to escape an abusive boyfriend and return to her family), control is almost immediately wrested from them. The upper classes are not let off – the Pandeys may be sympathetic characters on the whole, but we are still treated to uncomfortable scenes in which Dr Subhash Pandey evaluates potential surrogates who can be most easily fobbed off as middle-class on ignorant foreigners. Occasionally Desai is too heavy-handed in the effort to make the reader see the point of this, and puts together the evidence of what the text has already shown us into convenient expository paragraphs.

This is a problem throughout. Show-don’t-tell is perhaps the most hackneyed literary criticism there is, but there is some truth to it. Unfortunately, Desai explains everything. Characters are reintroduced as if we had forgotten them in the last fifty pages, and Subhash’s discomfort with homosexual couples having children is something that must be told to us again and again. This need to explain is at its worst when it comes to the international aspects of the plot – it’s hard to tell who her intended audience is when the author is at one moment explaining London’s racial divides to the reader, and at the next explaining that ‘locals’ in Delhi would travel by autorickshaw, and that Ambassador cars with red lights on the top indicate an important person.

If Desai finds her voice at any point it is with the Diwan Nath Mehta plot. Mehta is a fundamentally decent man caught up in larger matters that he never anticipated and there’s something rather exaggerated and larger than life about the world as he perceives it. This makes for great satire, in the conspiracy theories of Mehta’s boss and in the form of caste-obsessed sperm bank officials who inform us that they are “well stocked on Brahmins”.  But there are also hints of a touching romance. This is in sharp contrast to Simran’s overwritten sections in which we’re given plenty of details (down to the colour of her underwear) but little in the way of feeling.

The problem with issue-based fiction is always going to be that it’s more about the issue than the fiction. As a book about surrogacy in India Origins of Love does exactly what it needs to. As a novel, however, it is incomplete, half-hearted and seems to think very little of its readers.

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April 1, 2012

Kiran Nagarkar, The Extras

Almost the best thing about reviewing The Extras was that it gave me an excuse to reread Ravan & Eddie and claim that I was working. I’m not sure if The Extras is ever going to achieve the sort of cultural importance that Ravan & Eddie has (I’m not sure it’s quite as good, even though that has no real bearing on the question of whether it will endure as well) but I wish everything I was given to review was of a quality as high as this.  My review of Nagarkar’s latest was published in this weekend’s Indian Express.

 

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Before embarking upon Kiran Nagarkar’s The Extras I reread Ravan & Eddie, the book to which The Extras is a sequel. Ravan & Eddie is the story of two boys born and raised in a Bombay chawl. Precluded from ever being friends by an incident in early life (Eddie’s father saved the baby Ravan from falling to his death and in doing so lost his own life) the two boys nonetheless lead parallel lives; both are unsuccessful at school, both become enamoured of films, and both learn martial arts.

When The Extras opens, Ravan and Eddie are on the cusp of adulthood. Ravan has a brief career with a wedding band before becoming a taxi driver, while Eddie balances a job in a speakeasy with a band of his own. In time, both are drawn inexorably towards Bollywood, and they meet and form an uneasy alliance as extras (or “sub-artistes”) in the movies.

As a sequel to Ravan & Eddie, The Extras mimics much of the style of the earlier book. Here again are the droll, scattered essays on various aspects of Bombay (and Indian) life that pop up every once in a while. (One of these kindly tells the reader that she should feel free to skip it and return to the main story a few pages later). Here also is the careful, almost too obvious parallel structuring of the two main characters’ lives. If Ravan lies to his mother about his job with a band, Eddie pretends to be working as a car mechanic. Ravan is taken in by a conman who offers him a passport and a Dubai visa; at the airport he learns that Eddie has suffered the same fate. With a rather excessive bit of symbolism Nagarkar at one point has these aspiring movie starts dance as mirrored, chromatic opposites in an item number featuring Helen and titled “Black or White”.

The author takes things even further by providing counterpoints to events from the previous book – aspects of Eddie’s relationship with the “Aunty” who runs the speakeasy, and Ravan’s foray into Catholicism will both seem very familiar. Reading the books in quick succession it was hard, for a great deal of The Extras, to remember where one book ended and the other began.

The Extras really comes into its own in the latter half of the book. One of the major shifts is that the impersonal essays peter out, to be replaced with more personal accounts of the city in the form of letters from a powerful criminal with whom Ravan has become embroiled. The tentative friendship that is formed between the two young men is expertly done – there are no sudden revelations of blamelessness on either side – it is entirely organic.

The Bombay of the late 1960s is fully alive, corrupt, chaotic, horrifying, full of violence but also unexpected kindnesses. Nagarkar rarely romanticises the city, but he observes it in loving detail until the city itself is as big a presence as the main characters. We move from grim scenes of botched abortions in the red light district to comic set pieces, including one in which a character attempts to hide his venereal disease from the family who visit him in the hospital.

The Extras is subtitled “★ing Ravan & Eddie”. This brings up a recurring theme of the book – are Ravan and Eddie the stars of their own story, or are they merely the “extras” of the title? A conversation with a fellow “extra” late in the book raises the question again.

One of the strengths of Ravan & Eddie was that it did not give its titular characters the story arc of a protagonist, allowing the central conflicts of their lives to go unresolved. This is The Extras’ biggest departure from the previous novel. Here, Ravan and Eddie may be naïve, ignorant and prone to failure, but they can also be extraordinary. The latter half of The Extras is pure Bollywood- the meteoric rise to fame, a partnership involving (shades of Amar, Akbar, Anthony!) a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim; one of the characters may even, in the face of religious difference and family opposition, get the girl in the end. Eddie stubbornly declares that he and Eddie can at least be the stars of their own lives and here, in the book not named after them, Ravan and Eddie come into their own.

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March 22, 2012

On The Hunger Games as dystopia, and so forth

Wednesday’s Indian Express carries this piece on The Hunger Games by me. I have felt quite lukewarm towards the series from the beginning – I love the potential for political revolution that this setting offers, and I love Katniss herself, but I’ve also been very frustrated by how little the story does with the potential it has. I think the first book is the best in the series, yet it lets me down in many ways. It chooses to neglect the political history of this world in favour of the characters, yet even for the characters things are made too easy. Katniss never really has to face the possibility of killing someone she likes, for example; the book disposes of or saves everyone in the arena with whom she might have that kind of connection. In my Indian Express piece, therefore, my major complaint is that the books are too safe. A version of that piece is below.

 

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This month sees the release of the first of a series of movies to be made from Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful Hunger Games trilogy. These books are set in a far-future America in which twelve districts are forced each year to send two ‘tributes’, children above the age of eleven, to the city of Panem. Here the children battle for survival in a gruesome televised competition that ends when only one tribute is left alive. In The Hunger Games, the first of the trilogy, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film) volunteers to be the female tribute from her district in order to protect her younger sister from the same fate. She is joined by Peeta, a boy from her district for whom she may have warmer feelings than she has realised. The bulk of the story focuses on Katniss’ experiences in the arena, forging and breaking alliances, coming to terms with the fact that she may have to kill a friend, and putting on a good show for the audience.

The Hunger Games is the most prominent of a number of dystopic novels aimed at young adults that have been released in recent years. It’s always a little ridiculous to come up with grand, overarching theories about trends in fiction – I defy anyone to come up with a watertight explanation for vampire romances – but it is tempting to consider what might be behind this recent flood of grim, post-apocalyptic future fictions.

The dystopian novel is not particularly new (see 1984) and if the dystopian young adult novel is, that is more likely because Young Adult (or YA) fiction has only comparatively recently emerged as a publishing category. What is new, or at least constantly changing, is the specific form that these dystopias take at different points of time. Most of the books in the genre are or draw from science fiction, and science fiction has historically reflected the concerns of its contemporary society.

So what are the concerns that create these fictional worlds? The Hunger Games gives us very little information about the events that turned present day North America into the world of the books, though we know that “rebellions” of some sort were involved. There are hints that global warming triggered the enormous changes in the world – an earlier generation of books would have nuclear holocaust in this role. Climate change appears over and over again in this genre – it is the motivating factor behind Saci Lloyd’s two Carbon Diaries books, as well as Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road. Yet the process that led to the creation of this world is never the focus of The Hunger Games as it is of so many of these books. Instead, the series takes as its central conflict another feature of many dystopian novels; the totalitarian state.

In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies books and Ally Condie’s Matched, the government exerts an abnormal degree of control over the bodies of its citizens; Westerfeld’s teenage characters are made to undergo mandatory plastic surgery, while Condie’s have their partners chosen for them by the government. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (an earlier novel, published in 1993) depicts a society in which all emotions are suppressed by the use of pills. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother has as its villain a surveillance state.

The seat of power in the Hunger Games universe is called Panem, from the Latin “Panem et Circenses”, or “bread and circuses”. It is clear from this that the real purpose of the games in the trilogy is as a form of distraction – the people want food, the government give them spectator sports. Hunger versus games. It’s impossible in this context not to mention Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, in which, again, the spectacle of children killing each other is used as a means of state control. The Hunger Games is frequently dismissed as being derivative of Battle Royale, though  apparently Collins had not previously read the book.

Yet, as with the hints of almost apocalyptic climate change, the reality television aspect of the games often seems mere furnishing. The Hunger Games chooses instead to focus almost entirely on the struggle of its protagonists to retain their sense of self in the face of a state that tries to treat them as pawns.  Katniss thinks, “I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.”

It cannot surprise anyone that so many teenaged readers should be drawn to books about young people asserting their individuality in the face of authority. In a way, the trilogy’s willingness to ignore all the political fodder that the genre makes available renders the books toothless and rather too safe. But it also taps into a story that is universal and never stale.

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This evening (a few hours after that Indian Express piece was published) I watched the Hunger Games movie at a special screening. I doubt I’ll get around to thinking things out and doing a proper review, but preliminary thoughts are on twitter and recorded here for posterity (sorry, posterity).

Edit: Abigail Nussbaum has a fine post here that both gets at some of the things I liked about the movie and explains my problems with the book (at least, what I said above about it being too safe)

March 3, 2012

Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan (ed.), The Obliterary Journal

A version of this appeared in today’s Indian Express.

 

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“Obliterate Literature!” proclaims an anthropomorphised danger sign in the foreword to The Obliterary Journal. In comic format, a Mayan glyph, a Chinese seal script character and the abovementioned sign (warning of nearby ionizing radiation) argue for the eradication of literature that relies too heavily on text. They are crushed by an army of alphabets, but manage to squeak out one last message of defiance.

If The Obliterary Journal doesn’t quite do away with words entirely, the twenty pieces of which the book is composed do generally manage to relegate them to the background. Some pieces contain no words at all – notably Vidhyun Sabhaney’s “Gurk”. “Dhool Ghoul”, by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan and B. Anitha, is a collection of alarming images – skulls (complete with long, plaited hair, mallipoo and pottu) and blood-stained roses. Amitabh Kumar’s story uses a symbol for its title. “Kovai Gay Story” by Bharat Murthy only incorporates words in its framing narrative. Even in the comparatively straightforward exerpt from Yukichi Yamamatsu’s Stupid Guy Goes to India, the narrator’s incomprehension of the languages around him is depicted in speech bubbles filled with meaningless symbols.

Somdutt Sarkar shifts the focus from letters to numbers with his illustrated riddles from Bhaskaracharya’s Lilavati; if you notice the words at all, it’s to wonder why the English translations take up so much more space than the original Sanskrit versions.

It’s fascinating to see the extent to which The Obliterary Journal exists outside its own pages. This is a printed book, and therefore words and pictures are the most it can do. But both the cover and the table of contents are presented in the form of signs painted on physical walls by S. Venkataraman and photographed for the book. A large proportion of the book consists of pictures of street art – such as Tammo Schuringa and Paul Faber’s “Exerpts from Shaved Ice & Wild Buses: Street Art from Suriname”. There are all sorts of unlikely motifs here – Bollywood actors and international politicians jostle for space next to Bob Marley and Wailers, Che and the golden gate bridge. Zen Marie’s “Autoraj” is another collection of photographs documenting a project that exists far more in public space than it does within the confines of this book.

And then there’s “The Nayagarh Incident”. In 1947 the Princely State of Nayagarh was witness to an alien invasion. Of course, the nation was going through other significant events in 1947, and this incident passed almost unnoticed (though events in Roswell, New Mexico only a few weeks later would become the staple of conspiracies for decades afterwards). The only real record we have of the Nayagarh Incident consists of a series of unlikely looking creatures in the traditional talapatra chitra art of the area. Sri Pachanana Moharana’s amazing palm leaf etchings of robots really exist – the journal only contains photographs of this remarkable art.

Another section is dedicated to the Hand Painted Type project started by Hanif Kureishi, and focuses on archiving the various typefaces produced by roadside painters. If this section is text-heavy, it is so in a way that renders the text (or what it says) irrelevant, turning alphabets into convenient shapes. “Danger Taxi Book Post” collects photographs of hand-lettering. The authorship of “Twenty-Three from the One Gross” is credited to an inanimate object, “durrrrk mixer grinder serial no. 30277XM03”. It is soon clear that these short “stories” (ranging from a couple of words to a paragraph) are randomly generated. What meaning there is, then, is in Malavika P.C’s art.

What we have, then, is a strange mixture. The Obliterary Journal features a number of quite conventional (though usually excellent) graphic pieces – such as Amruta Patil’s “Atlantis”, Roney Devassia’s “Karuna Bhavanam”, Orijit Sen’s almost wordless “Emerald Apsara” and the promising extract from Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj’s Hyderabad Graphic Novel. But it also functions as a record of a number of forms of literature that cannot by definition be contained within a printed book – reminding us of them, but also setting itself up to fail at depicting them. Which makes the whole enterprise (depending on where you stand) either spectacularly ill-conceived or utterly wonderful.

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January 30, 2012

Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman and Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

These are what I spent most of my time in Jaipur reading. Not much to say about Kaling’s book really (other than that it made me laugh out loud multiple times) but there’s quite a bit more to be said about my issues with Moran’s feminism – one does get the impression that she’s unfamiliar with most of the discussions that have been going on within feminism(s) over the last couple of decades. Which is fine, and I suppose this book could work as a useful introduction to feminism for someone reasonably first world (or third world but privileged in lots of other ways, perhaps). But it’s hard to imagine someone who would pick this book up in the first place needing to learn any of this stuff. Still; charming, funny, and as long as it isn’t regarded as any sort of feminist textbook, quite good.

This was in Saturday’s Indian Express. I haven’t seen a physical copy of the paper (household paper-getting politics are complex and often involve physical violence) but the version on the website has a major formatting issue that removes the line breaks and indents from the Kaling quote at the end of the piece and so mixes my words with hers. I’d be grateful if someone who does have a physical copy could check whether the print version also has this problem – not that I can do anything about it at this point.

 

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A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens suggested that women simply were not as funny as men. It seems facile and rather pointless to counter something so idiotic (and so objectively unprovable) with a list of funny women, but you have to wonder, at least, how many of those who idolised the man are now also big fans of Tina Fey.

In the few years since Hitchens’ controversial Vanity Fair piece we’ve had a wealth of women being funny. Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids, a movie that had its female characters getting drunk and behaving badly, being the victim of gross bodily functions, and in general just being more flawed and relatable than the women we’re usually allowed to see on the screen. There have also been any number of books by well-known female comedians – Chelsea Handler and Amy Sedaris among them. Of the various comic memoirs by women to come out in 2011 Fey’s own Bossypants was probably the most prominent. But we also had Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

Kaling is best known for her portrayal of Kelly Kapoor on The Office, the US sitcom based on the British show of the same name. But she is also one of the show’s writers, and previously co-wrote and acted in the successful play Matt and Ben.

Most of Kaling’s book functions as a memoir, with sections (divided roughly chronologically) on her time in school, what it’s like to grow up chubby, androgynous and Indian (“Kaling” is a shortened form of “Chokalingam”) and her early attempts to make it in the industry before the success of The Office and her newfound stardom. The tone throughout is rueful and self-mocking; on the subject of herself Kaling is often sidesplittingly funny.

The autobiographical chapters are interspersed with shorter observations on various aspects of life, relationships and the media, and these are decidedly hit and miss. “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real” pokes fun at the narrow range of women in the movies – beautiful klutzes (a flaw that makes a character palatable while allowing her to still be beautiful), sassy best friends and the like. “When You’re Not Skinny, This Is What People Want You To Wear” is a hilarious, infuriating take on the fashion industry. Unlike Fey and Moran, Kaling never actually mentions the word “feminism”, but there’s an implicit political stance in sections like these, and the book is all the better for them.  In “Roasts Are Terrible” she suggests that the modern phenomenon of roasting people on television is something we could all do without; and this too is a principled stance. “The self-proclaimed no-holds-barred atmosphere reminds me of signs for strip clubs on Hollywood Boulevard: “We Have Crazy Girls. They Do Anything!” We don’t have to do anything. Let’s bar some holds.”

On the other hand, a lot of these feel like padding and read like hurried blog entries (“Jewish Guys”, really?) and when the author begins to write defences of men’s chest hair and to wonder why they take so long to put on their shoes, you wonder how much she really has to say.

Unlike Kaling’s book, Moran’s is explicitly a feminist work. Moran is a British columnist, TV critic and Twitter celebrity. How to Be a Woman begins at the onset of her puberty (“Chapter 1: I Start Bleeding!”) and follows her through the perils of hair removal, high heels, love, reading Germaine Greer, encountering sexism in the workplace, and negotiating marriage, family, children, abortion and jobs.

Germaine Greer is a part of the problem with How to Be a Woman; she’s the only living feminist writer (unless you count, as you probably could, Lady Gaga) Moran mentions. The implication is that feminism stopped developing a few decades ago, when in fact it often looks like Moran simply wasn’t paying it much attention. It’s a little hard to take seriously Moran’s injunction to stand on a chair and shout “I am a feminist!”  when you’ve read enough to know that many groups who choose not to identify with the term (then again, Moran’s book is very obviously aimed at very mainstream white Western women) do so for reasons far more complex than anything in this book.

Yet this is easily forgiven because when Moran talks about herself she is utterly charming. I am all the better for knowing that occasionally food falls out of her mouth while she’s laughing at 30 Rock, and that she spent her late teens “like a sexed-up lady Pac-Man – running around flapping my mouth open and closed, gobbling up people’s faces”, just as I am for knowing that Mindy Kaling works out to elaborately plotted revenge fantasies.

As for the ‘are women funny?’ issue? Moran never mentions it, but it’s quite clear what her answer would be. Kaling does explicity mention it in an FAQ section at the end of her book.

 Why didn’t you talk about whether women are funny or not?

I just felt that by commenting on that in any real way, it would be tacit approval of it as a legitimate debate, which it isn’t. It would be the same as addressing the issue of “Should dogs and cats be able to care for our children? They’re in the house anyway.” I try not to make it a habit to seriously discuss nonsensical hot-button issues.

 So there.

 

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January 8, 2012

Kunal Basu, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure

Historical fiction that isn’t just historical fiction and isn’t necessarily set (when written by an Indian author) in India. There isn’t enough of it around. I like a lot of Basu’s earlier work, and I’m a big fan of how wide-ranging it is. But The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is not his best work.

I reviewed the book in Saturday’s Indian Express. An edited version below.

 

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At the end of the nineteenth century, Portugese doctor Antonio Maria discovers that his father is dying of syphilis, for which there is no known cure. Antonio is unable to accept the painful and ignominious (syphilis sufferers are social outcasts) death that awaits his father. He looks to China for a cure, placing all his hopes in the rumour that few Chinese have syphilis and in the Yellow Emperor’s Canon of internal medicine.

In China he is established in a part of the Queen’s Summer Palace, though the Queen herself is never seen. Antonio is placed under the care of a doctor named Xu who undertakes to teach him the whole of the Nei Ching school of medicine, since it seems that the cure for syphilis cannot be applied without knowledge of the whole.  He divides his time between the Legation, a nearby colony of Europeans, and the Palace where he rapidly falls in love with Fumi (for his own reasons, Xu seems to prefer to leave his student with his assistant).

Through all of this, larger political events are taking place in China. The Boxer rebellion is brewing through most of the novel, breaking out properly in its final third.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure looks back to a fascinating moment in history. The delicate equations between the great powers at the dawn of the twentieth century may not be the subject of this book, but they are ever present. This is particularly evident in the interactions of the various foreigners (Americans, Japanese and an assortment of Europeans) at the Legation. In addition, there’s a strong sense of an end to power in both of the novel’s main locations. Portugal’s colonial prominence is all but over, and in China the almost phantom Queen (never seen, though when Antonio trespasses into the forbidden parts of the palace there is the implication that she has only just left) does almost nothing to assert her power.

Portugal and China are also notable for being relatively unusual settings for English language fiction. This has its disadvantages though, and over and over again one gets the feeling that the text doesn’t quite trust the readers to keep up without being fed quantities of historical context. Particularly in the early stages of the novel, we are subjected to many scenes in which things are painstakingly explained. It’s hard to do such a thing without being awkward, and here Basu’s writing is at its least elegant.

 

Antonio’s perspective is another difficulty. His impressions of China are entirely in line with those one would expect from a nineteenth-century European man. The problem, however, is that many of these assumptions also colour a great deal of later literature which takes them perfectly seriously – we’re all too familiar with the “inscrutable” Chinese, or the European who bothers to learn his native servants’ names being morally superior to his fellow countrymen. At times it is easy to remember that Antonio’s vision is imperfect. The Legation scenes recognise this with deadpan humour. And when his internal narrative comes up with “lovesickness, a disease no less mysterious than the rarest of female disorders” or “the secret workings of the Chinese mind, how it went about solving puzzles and inventing things” we’re being invited to roll our eyes at him. But all too often in his interactions with the natives the only thing reminding us of this is a prior faith in Basu’s abilities as a writer. And the binaries the book sets up are predictable and uninteresting; in Xu’s words “Western doctors deal with simple cause and effect …the Chinese look for reasons that might even lie outside the body”.

The search for the cure that lies at the heart of this book is an elusive one. Syphilis, a disease associated with sin, comes to mean more than itself. “What if it was immortal?” asks Antonio’s friend Arees, speculating that syphilis is “the price we must pay to be alive”. Antonio himself connects the mystery of syphilis to that of his lover Fumi, “two symptoms both arising from the same condition”. Even the name of the disease reflects this endless deferral of meaning; the “French Disease” in Portugal, it is named after the Portugese elsewhere and in China is “Canton Rash” (historically it has also been “the German sickness” and “the Christian disease” among others). In the real world a cure for syphilis would be developed within a decade of the events of The Yellow Emperor’s Cure; within the novel, this seems almost inconceivable.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure skilfully weaves together its various historical strands, resulting in an unusual, intelligent novel. Yet it is let down by its own simplicity in places, and (particularly when placed next to some of Basu’s earlier work) is eventually a little underwhelming.

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December 4, 2011

Erin Morganstern, The Night Circus

Did a rather rushed review of this for the Indian Express this past weekend. I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, but it just left me deeply frustrated. I am willing to accept a book that is basically a series of lovely images, but only if the writing itself is so special as to make all of those images seem new. And the dates at the beginning of each chapter are presumably meant to tell the reader where we are in the storyline (the book goes back and forth in time rather a lot) but they only served to remind me how weak the book’s grounding in this historical period was.

Having said all of which, when The Night Circus is made into a movie (it has already been optioned) I think I will love it.

 

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Towards the end of the nineteenth century, two rival magicians enter into a competition. Each chooses a child to be his champion; the rules of the game are not specified, but the children are bound to it for life. They are Celia Bowen, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, and Marco Alisdair, an orphan of unknown parentage. The venue for their contest is the Night Circus, an exhibition of wonders that comes and goes without warning and that is only open at night.

The carnivalesque setting of the circus invites inventive literature. The most immediate association is with Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, which also deals with the strange and wonderful and is also set during the fin de siècle. Carter’s is not the only modern classic that Morganstern’s book evokes. Readers familiar with these works may see elements of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But invoking the greats is dangerous, and after all this what we get is The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern.

The Night Circus is physically beautiful and stylistically quite ambitious. It leaps about in time over a period of four decades, moves between a number of perspectives, and occasionally slips into the second person and addresses the reader directly.  It has its own metatexts – quotes from writings about the circus, generated from within the plot, are used to open each of the book’s five parts.

Unfortunately, it fails to develop its plot or its main characters. We are frequently reminded that the protagonists don’t even know the rules of the game they are playing and this continues even when, late in the book, we realise how high the stakes are. The horror of the inevitable outcome is muted by the fact that we’ve been given no reason to care about the people it will affect. Because though The Night Circus is a love story, we know nothing about its main characters that would cause any emotional investment in their fate.  So although we see Celia’s father torturing her as part of her training and know that her mother thought her evil, we never see how it feels to be in this position. We’re told that Marco regards his patron as a father, but never given any insight into how this happened. Isobel, a tarot reader, keeps referring to the “deep emotions” of the characters as they appear in the cards, and the reader is obliged to simply take her word for it.

The competition (and courtship) between Marco and Celia takes place mostly in the time they spend apart, through their various feats of magic. Celia excels in altering physical objects and Marco in creating beautiful settings. Occasionally they work together to combine these skills. Without a particular focus on plot or character, then, The Night Circus becomes a series of tableaux. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the titular circus provides some gorgeous scenes. It’s easy to see this translating beautifully to film (it has already been optioned) with its almost-silent, monochromatic circus full of wonders. Sometimes Morganstern succeeds in describing these: “Where the sunlight hits him he is all but invisible. Part of a shoulder appears to be missing, the top of his head vanishes in a flutter of sun-caught dust.” “he takes a dramatic, inverted bow”. Extended descriptions of the circus clock, a carousel, a garden on ice all almost describe something breathtaking.

But it’s that “almost” that undoes the book. The Night Circus could survive its lack of some of the move conventional elements of storytelling if only Morganstern were able to adequately invoke the gorgeous imagery. At times she succeeds, and those moments are truly wonderful. But all too often she does not, and we have descriptions that are too stale or awkward. It’s to the book’s credit that even when the language isn’t up to it we still have some sense of the beauty that is being gestured towards. Yet my primary reaction to The Night Circus is frustration at its many missed opportunities.

 

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November 3, 2011

Terry Pratchett, Snuff

I approve of how new Terry Pratchett books are generally published around my birthday. I reviewed the new Discworld book (the 39th) in last weekend’s Indian Express. In a day or two I’ll be posting a more scattered piece on the book, focusing a little more on a few specific areas. I suspect that one will be of more interest to people who have read the book.

This is a version of the Indian Express piece. If you’re really, really strict about spoilers you might want to avoid this one.

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The Discworld floats through space on the backs of four elephants which are in turn borne upon the back of a massive cosmic turtle. It’s an impossible world, suffused with magic and governed by Narrativium, the force of story. It is here that Terry Pratchett has set nearly forty novels.

His most recent, Snuff, focuses on Samuel Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Fans of the series have followed Vimes’s progression from lowly policeman and recovering alcoholic, through various stages of promotion (and marriage to an aristocrat) to a position of great power. He is flawed, prejudiced, constantly insecure about his new position, and fundamentally decent – all of which make him a favourite with Pratchett fans.

In Snuff, Vimes and his wife Sybil take a holiday to her ancestral home. Pratchett often plays with genre tropes, and at first this is an obvious nod to the country house murder mystery. But Vimes soon discovers that the crime that has taken place is both darker and more widespread – everyone in the village seems involved or implicated, and the result is something closer to The Wicker Man than Agatha Christie.

Reviews of non-realist fiction often point out in tones of surprise that these books can still comment intelligently upon the real world. Recent Discworld books have been built around versions of the information age, religious fundamentalism and racial discrimination. In Snuff, Pratchett takes on another rather significant (and particularly horrible) piece of real world history – the slave trade. For the most part this is well done but it all falls horribly apart at the end. Discworld books, however dark they may be, have reasonably happy endings and something as vast and awful as this simply cannot fit into that sort of framework.

Part of the joy of series fiction is that it offers a far greater opportunity to watch characters develop. In addition to Vimes’ own development over several books, many minor characters have been fleshed out and given stories of their own. Sybil Ramkin, Vimes’ wife has in previous books remained in the background, important to the plot but given very little development as a character. Here she is a character in her own right. So is Willikins, the manservant (think Jeeves, but with more concealed weaponry) who has in previous books been used partly for comic effect, and mainly as a symbol of Vimes’ changed social status. Most delightful of all is Vimes and Sybil’s son young Sam, now six years old and making a detailed forensic study of all the animal excreta that can be found in the country. It’s a clever reminder that the way in which small children experience the world is itself a sort of deductive science.

The author is known as a writer of comic fantasy, but in Snuff the humour is comparatively muted. Young Sam’s unfortunate hobby provides a number of jokes and there’s a running gag about the use of “avec” in French (or on the Disc, “Quirmian”) food, but there’s none of the laugh-a-page hilarity of the earlier books. Even the footnotes, through which much of the comedy in these books is played out, have been been reduced. Where Pratchett’s wordplay comes to the forefront it is brilliant; a visit to Quirm has Vimes walking along the “Rue de Wakening” and a barge named “the Wonderful Fanny” makes multiple appearances.

The novels featuring the City Watch have begun to follow a rather similar pattern of late, and there is much about Snuff that is entirely predictable. But the warmth, the cleverness and the basic decency that come with every new Pratchett book are precious, and we should treasure them while we can.

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