Archive for ‘Indian Express’

October 22, 2011

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

New Ondaatje. Subtle, lovely, lacking in actual plot but who would seriously complain about that?

A version of this was published in last Saturday’s Indian Express.

 

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At some point in the 1950s Michael (or “Mynah”) travels from Colombo to England on the liner Oronsay. Aboard the ship, Michael dines each night of his three week voyage at the “Cat’s Table”; the table furthest in importance from the captain’s table. With him are two boys of his own age, a tailor who never speaks, a musician, a botanist, and the unassuming Miss Lansqueti who turns out to have the most exciting story of all.

Also on the ship are Michael’s beautiful cousin Emily, her mysterious, half-deaf friend Asuntha, a famous man dying of a curse and a ‘Baron’ who lures Michael into a life of crime. Most exciting of all is the dangerous prisoner with the unlikely name of ‘Niemeyer’ who is escorted onto the deck late at night but spends the rest of his time in captivity down below. Michael and his companions lurk in the shadows every night to watch him go past. He is rumoured to have murdered an English judge, and is being taken to England to stand trial.

The Cat’s Table has very little in the way of a traditional plot, but what there is focuses on this prisoner and an attempt to help him escape. That there isn’t more attention paid to this plot (or to Michael’s criminal activities, or to Miss Lansqueti’s political connections) has everything to do with how this novel is narrated.

There are at least two Michaels telling this story – the eleven-year-old boy who undertakes the journey and the grown man whom he becomes. The larger story of Michael’s future life is revealed in glimpses of moments as they relate to events on board the Oronsay. And so we know about the dissolution of his marriage before we are introduced to the woman who becomes his wife; we know that a character will die before we hear the story of his death; we know about the future career of one of Michael’s companions aboard the ship and that the two will never meet again. Gradually the details of the adult Michael’s life come together, though it is never a complete picture.

Yet the fact that young Michael is a child is perhaps the most compelling thing about his account of his shipboard experiences. There’s a sense of time passing slowly – the three weeks stretch out (much like school summer holidays) into lifetimes worth of experiences. Any writer would make much of the notion of a group of people cut off from the rest of the world by the vastness of the ocean. Ondaatje doesn’t dwell on it, but for “Mynah” and his companions, Ramadhin and Cassius, the rules of normal life have been entirely suspended.

I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.

And so they throw valuable objects overboard, commit occasional acts of hooliganism, and inadvertently cause the death of another passenger aboard the ship. They completely ignore the divisions between first class and the rest of the ship. They become involved in other people’s crimes and other people’s romances. On one memorable occasion they lash themselves, Odysseus-style, to the deck of the ship during a storm so that they can watch it from “the best seat in the house”.

What is impressive here is what Ondaatje chooses not to do. Young Michael is just about beginning to put together his experiences into a cohesive view of the world, but much of the time he experiences events in isolation. And so the text does not attempt to put together grand narratives of race and class, say, though markers of both show up multiple times. Readers of the book are presumably capable of putting these things together for themselves. It’s taken for granted, almost, that these stories will be incomplete; after all, we’re on a ship with characters who Michael may never hear from again. (“So we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”) Some stories are fleshed out – notably those of Miss Lansqueti and Asuntha. Others trail off or end abruptly. Mr Fonseka, a passenger whom the three boys befriend “welcomed me with unusual and interesting stories, stopping abruptly in mid-tale and saying that someday I should find out what happened after that.” In a way, Ondaatje is doing something similar.

There is a third Michael present –  the narrator. Ondaatje also travelled to England from  Sri Lanka at around the same age. The Michael of the book is revealed to be a writer who eventually moves from England to Canada. In the afterword, Ondaatje specifies that this is not an autobiography. The cover has “a novel” printed under the title to drive the point home further. Given all this, when the adult Michael speaks of how Emily “read my books, and that whenever she browsed through she spent her time putting two and two together – some fictional incident with the original drama that had happened in her presence”. Ondaatje’s voice is clearly present here. In a novel which manages to inhabit both of its narratorial voices so thoroughly, this is a useful reminder that there is an author behind the scenes and completely in control of it all.

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October 2, 2011

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The more I think about The Testament of Jessie Lamb, the more I am impressed by it. This is a novel about the end of the human race with a teenaged narrator (one, it turns out, who is capable of the most singleminded fundamentalism). The narratorial voice is so authentic for a character of this sort that in the early stages of my reading I thought it just wasn’t very good. I was wrong; it is.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Indian Express last weekend.

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If you want to wipe out a species, targeting the females is a good place to start. In James Tiptree Jr.’s 1977 short story “The Screwfly Solution” a mysterious epidemic spreads across the earth that causes men to murder women. At the end of the story we learn what has caused this state of affairs, and that it was intended to end the species. It is too late; by this point the human race is doomed.

In Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb the cause behind the spread of ‘MDS’ is never discovered, and is never (beyond idle speculation by the characters) the focus of the book. What matter are the results of this disease; MDS, or ‘Maternal Death Syndrome’ has now infected everyone on the planet, and any woman who gets pregnant will die.

Jessie, Rogers’ narrator, is a teenaged girl. Over the course of a few months she moves from indifference towards MDS (she thinks of it as normal and only expresses irritation at the mass funerals for women), through an involvement with various political groups, to a willingness to take radical steps to save the human race. Her “testament” is told from captivity; the identity of her captor, hidden at first, comes as an unpleasant shock. Her account of the events that led up to this moment is interspersed with reflections on her prison.

How do you wait for the world to end? From the beginning of The Testament of Jessie Lamb it’s clear that unless something miraculous happens the human race is going to die out within a couple of generations. And (as Jessie thinks in the context of MDS) “the knowing it was coming must be the worst part”. Rogers documents various reactions to this knowing; Jessie’s mother tries to get on with life as usual, her aunt joins a religious cult, her friends join various feminist and environmentalist groups. Young people, angry with the mismanagement of the world by “grown-ups” (the awkwardly petulant teenagers are Rogers’ biggest weakness here) form a separatist movement.

The best solution that science can come up with is to sacrifice young women (“Sleeping Beauties”) – implanting them with embryos on the understanding that the women will die. The religious groups think this is wonderful; the feminists think it’s barbaric – and Jessie is tempted by the prospect of saving the species. At this point it becomes clear why the book is prefaced with a quote from Euripedes’ Iphegenia at Aulis. Jessie’s name also begins to seem ominous – the similarity to “Jesus” might be a coincidence, but Jesus is also the “lamb” of God. Late in the book Jessie’s father describes a girl choosing to become a Sleeping Beauty as a “lamb to the slaughter”.

The Christ analogy ties in with a broader set of references to Christianity. In a plot as apocalyptic as the end of humanity, it’s unsurprising that there should be explicit religious overtones. And so Jessie’s story is a “testament”, and the farm where she takes refuge is “Eden”. The religious group to which her aunt belongs are known as the “Noahs”.

At first Jessie’s narrative is rather underwhelming. But as the reader approaches the later stages of the book it becomes clear that this is a brilliantly crafted piece of work – Jessie’s frustration at the adults around her, her conviction of her own rightness and her attraction towards heroic sacrifice all ring true. It gradually becomes clear that the text is capable of a complexity that is far beyond the simplicity of Jessie’s own thoughts.  I’d like to think it’s a rare reader who will agree with Jessie’s choice or the reasoning behind it. Underneath it all are the twinned associations of martyrs and suicide bombers. Yet we see every step of the road to this decision. And as awful as it is we are made, after a fashion, to respect it.

The result is a deeply uncomfortable piece of writing. The last few years have seen plenty of dystopian novels featuring teenaged protagonists (and I do wonder how this book would have been received had it been published as young-adult literature). But reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb, it’s easy to see how this science fiction novel published by a small press should have made it to this year’s Booker long list. It is outstanding.

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May 1, 2011

Jo Walton, Among Others

I mentioned recently that my reading this year had become focused on books about books. One of the reasons (probably the biggest) for this is that I read Jo Walton’s Among Others a couple of months ago. A short review of it appeared here, in yesterday’s Indian Express.

A version of that piece below:

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Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn’t care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo. But that doesn’t matter.

A teenaged girl with friends among the fairies fights her mother, a powerful and evil witch. Though she triumphs and saves the world, she loses her sister and receives a permanent injury.
But this is not the story of Among Others. When Walton’s book opens, what might in other stories be considered the main action of the plot has already taken place. Mori Phelps has already escaped her mother and faced her sister’s death. She must now find her place among others – her English father’s family (Mori is Welsh) and the girls at her boarding school. Sexual awakening, an increased understanding of gender dynamics and the perils of family are all things she must learn to negotiate.

These issues – adolescence, finding a place in the world, learning to engage with others, recognising how the world works, dealing with loss – all seem far removed from the world of epic battles between good and evil. Walton based aspects of Among Others on events from her own life, and it reads as an authentic account of growing up. What makes it unusual is that Mori’s engagement with the world around her comes through books.
Often these are specific books. At the beginning of the book a character expects her own experience with fairy magic to be similar to The Lord of the Rings. When Mori contemplates going to boarding school she wonders if it will be like the novels of Angela Brazil (it is not). A realisation that her parents have read and discussed some of the same books as her is an early recognition of them as real people. Mori’s gradual realisation of how the sexes are treated differently comes through the way female authors are discussed in her book club, and a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Others is written for people who read; often references are not explained, but assume the knowledge of the reader. Mori joins a science fiction book club (in a nod to Vonnegut she calls this her “karass”) and has a series of discussions about books. Her views on sexual morality come from Robert Heinlein, then Samuel Delany, and she assumes that James Tiptree Jr. is a man. All of this will delight a reader who grew up in the genre – the book is full of these little shibboleths put there to remind a certain sort of reader of a certain shared cultural experience. Often the emotional impact is massive if you know what is happening; when, towards the end of the book, Walton quotes directly from Tolkien (“Huorns will help”) it is overwhelming.
More than just the books, Among Others is clearly a love letter to the science fiction and fantasy reading community as a whole. But a more general love of reading keeps this accessible to even a person who does not pick up on all of Walton’s references, or share her experiences with science fiction fandom. You don’t need to have read Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 to understand that not having finished a good book seems a perfectly adequate reason to stay alive.
Despite all of the book discussions (Among Others is a book about books before it is anything else) the epic fantasy plot does continue in the background. Mori’s mother is a constant, lurking threat that surfaces from time to time, trying to break into her new life. If her frequent intrusions seem a bit incidental, this is because they are. Though there is a showdown at the end, it is never really the focus of the book; real living happens in the gaps that big narratives leave, and in the long stretches before and after the main plot, and this too is a comment on literature. (Subtly done but very present is another quest – to save the elms of the world from Dutch Elm disease. Saving trees: Tolkien would have approved.)

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Walton was also kind enough to answer a few questions I had. I’ll be putting that short interview on the blog as well.
December 6, 2010

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City

I wrote a short review of Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City for Saturday’s Indian Express. It’s a fantastic book, and one that’s quite likely to be seen as a classic in the near future. I’d like to see more set in this universe (not a sequel – I think Zinzi’s story ends at the right place) because there’s a lot in it to play with. My IE piece focused on the genre elements of the book but there’s quite as much to be said about the familiars, the ways in which the familiars are discussed (the reason I can read the book as science fiction) and the way Beukes weaves other forms of writing into the text.

I think (and I’ve been trying to work this out since I wrote the review) that the one thing that stops the book from entirely blowing my mind is that it didn’t feel as if there was enough. I thought the causes of animalling and the Undertow deserved more exploration; not necessarily explanation, since as I’ve said in the review the not-knowing works rather well. Sometimes it was as if this potentially really great concept was warring for pagespace with a really tight, strongly plotted story. The story won, and while this wasn’t necessarily a bad choice, ideally the choice wouldn’t have had to be made. Judging by many of the reviews I’ve read I suspect that I’m alone in this viewpoint though.
Either way, it’s a smart, solid, good book. An edited version of my piece is below:

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Lauren Beukes is a South African journalist and writer. Her first book, 2008’s dystopia, Moxyland, was well-received. Zoo City, her second novel, is a fantasy crime thriller set in the city of Johannesburg.

Zinzi December is a former journalist. After the death of her brother (for which she is in some way responsible) and a spell in prison she moves into Zoo City, a ghetto in Johannesburg inhabited by other former criminals. Here she begins a new life and ekes out a living writing emails for 419 scams and helping people to find missing objects, which are all too frequently in the city’s sewers. The one thing she refuses to do? Find missing persons. Then a client dies and Zinzi is unfortunately on the spot. She’s persuaded by a pair of thoroughly unpleasant characters to take on the case of a missing teenage popstar, and from there on it all goes to hell. Thus far we have a reasonably typical (and rather good) noir crime novel.

Except that Zinzi carries a sloth with her everywhere she goes; her lover has a mongoose and her new employers are accompanied by a poodle and a bird of prey. In this universe, somewhere around the mid-90s certain people began to be accompanied everywhere by animal familiars. This “Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism” or “animalling” seems to happen to individuals who have killed someone, and though many theories are discussed in the book no one seems to know why it happens. The animalled are ostracized within their society and targeted by the police; the very presence of the animals confirming that they are guilty of something. Nor can you get rid of your animal by killing it – those whose animals die become victims of something called the Undertow (left undefined and all the scarier for it).
So there are elements of urban fantasy. And possibly science fiction as well; though very little is known about aposymbiotic familiarism, it is generally discussed with the assumption that there is a rational-scientific explanation for it. Beukes herself has suggested “muti noir” as an appropriate genre name, but then that might just relegate it to a genre of one.
Whatever it is, though, Zoo City is impressive. The text is interspersed with different sorts of writing – exerpts from music magazines, medical journals, gossip blogs, internet spam and even something that looks like an imdb page. Zinzi, with her tragic past, her (frequently amoral) survival instinct and a job that skirts quite close to “detective” makes the ideal noir protagonist.

As an outsider, it’s tempting to read almost everything that comes out of South Africa as being in some way about apartheid. In the case of 2008’s District 9, this was certainly justified, though it did somewhat draw attention away from the sfnal aspects of the film. In Zoo City the parallels are less obvious, but they are very present. A number of places in the city have a “policy” against allowing the animalled in. Zinzi and those like her are subject to greater scrutiny by the law and are restricted to living in the only area in the city that will have them.

Wider African politics are also woven into the plot, particularly in the form of Benoît, Zinzi’s lover and a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. Zinzi herself impersonates an impoverished girl from the DRC (much to Benoît’s disgust) in the service of one of her 419 scams.

Then there are the animals. Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series will be familiar with “daemons”, animals that exist as a sort of external manifestation of the human soul. Beukes namechecks Pullman within the text with a web page that references “Steering by the Golden Compass: Pullman’s fantasy in the context of the ontological shift (2005)”. Beukes’ familiars are different from Pullman’s daemons, particularly because they exist only for a marginalised few. But this makes the relationship between human and animal far more interesting – simultaneously resentful and (reluctantly) affectionate.

If Zoo City has a particular flaw it’s that its characters are not very likeable. Perhaps this is for the best, considering the number of awful things that seem to happen to them. Despite this Beukes’ book is intelligent, gripping and relentless, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

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I’m a bit surprised that I’ve had cause to reference District 9 (a film about which I felt rather ambivalent) in two reviews in a row now.
November 14, 2010

Kate Bernheimer (ed), My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Yesterday’s Indian Express carried a short review of Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of fairy tales. A 500 word review was never going to be enough to discuss a collection of 40 stories (many of which could do with posts to themselves) and I’m very tempted to do a longer version sometime this week that discusses some of the individual stories in depth and goes into some of the wider themes that I was forced to leave out. For now, here’s the short version.


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There is a sense in which all fairytales are retellings. The Brothers Grimm collected their tales from a long tradition of oral storytelling. Charles Perrault adapted his for the drawing rooms of 17th Century France. My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me opens with an Angela Carter quote: “Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?” Carter’s own 1979 work, The Bloody Chamber, was a seminal act of fairytale retelling. Bernheimer’s collection of forty fairytales by various writers is dedicated to Carter, and her shadow looms large over many of the stories.


Many stories in this collection are entirely original works that use fairytale tropes. Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” takes the good-sister/bad-sister theme that runs through many fairy tales, but adds aliens, artificial tan and police reports. Kelly Link’s “Catskin” has links to Rapunzel and Puss-in-Boots but is an entirely original piece.

Writers like Brian Evenson, Susan Shuh-Lien Bynum, Hiromi Ito and Joyce Carol Oates base their pieces on established stories. Evenson’s “Dapplegrim”, based on a Norwegian folktale, is dark, obsessive and full of bloodshed. Ito’s “I Am Anjuhimeko” is powerful and epic in scope. Oates and Bynum tackle stories previously riffed off by Carter but take them in entirely different directions. Oates’ version of the Bluebeard myth is clever and surprising, while Bynum’s “The Erlking”, about a mother’s anxiety over her child’s education, was one of the highlights of the anthology for me.

The Grimm brothers’ “The Six Swans” forms the starting point for some of the best pieces. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Halfway People” in particular is a gorgeous, brutal story about yearning and incompleteness. Shelley Jackson’s “The Swan Brothers” is, hands down, the best thing in the book, partly story, partly a loosely connected set of observations about the fairytale. Here, for example, are the Things You Learn From Reading:

Women are trouble—if it isn’t an evil wife, it’s an evil stepmother. Or mother-in-law. Mothers are usually all right, unless they’re witches—watch out for witches. And their daughters.

You might be all right with kings, princes, and fathers, unless, as is usually the case, they’re under the influence of someone else, usually a woman. Men are weak. Sometimes they rescue you, but they always have help—from ants or birds or women. Sometimes you rescue them. This is kind of sweet.

You can trust animals. Sometimes they turn into people, but don’t hold that against them.

Children had better watch out.


To retell a story inevitably leads to thinking about how narratives work, and many of the pieces in this collection are, like Jackson’s, stories about stories. Kim Addonizio’s “Ever After” has seven dwarves reading “Snow White” as a religious text. Karen Brennan’s “The Snow Queen” and Francine Prose’s “Hansel and Gretel” both have their narrators thinking through their own relationships with fairy tales. Notes from the authors explain the genesis of each story and provide further insight into the mechanics of these narratives.

My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me is an impressive anthology, featuring some of the most exciting writers in the world at the moment. There are some real treasures in this collection, with all the menace and magic of the traditional fairy tale.


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