It's been a while since I have read a book that has left me so utterly devastated, a book entailing such a profound emotional investment that having finished it I feel a gaping emptiness within, a sense of loss. It feels like my heart has been simultaneously crushed into pulp under the weight of the tragedies that descend on the lives of a handful of characters and blown to smithereens. And I would never be able to pick up the pieces and glue them back together into a throbbing whole again.
I read In the Woods while on vacation, whenever I took breaks from watching wave after wave crash on to the shore with the familiar rip-roaring intensity of the sea. I read this even when I was too tired to stay up till late, lying on an unfamiliar bed with a sheet of dubious hygiene standards. I read this during prolonged car rides. And every time I had to tear my eyes away from its pages, I felt a pang of irritation.
As I made my way toward the bone-chilling climax of this narrative, awake at an unholy hour, I distinctly remember breaking out in a sweat on a cool December night to boot. Sleep became an alien entity and, come hell or high water, I knew I would not wrench myself away from this fantastic make-believe world of a small town and the sinister occurrences that tied the lives of its residents in the most twisted way possible. I longed to stay trapped in the eerie magic spell cast by the woods, under the ominous shadows of leafy canopies of pine and beech, caught up in a hazy daydream playing hide and seek with Peter, Jamie and Adam. My heart ached for the two children who never returned home from their beloved woods, who were never found again and the way the tragedy of their mystifying disappearance dealt a crushing blow to the life of their traumatized playmate who returned unharmed. It wept for Rob and Cassie and their missed chances at happiness.
This book isn't about crime and punishment, it isn't about the science of deduction or smooth-talking, fedora-sporting detectives smartly arriving at inference after inference and nabbing the culprit in style. I almost crave for the standardized simplicity of regular crime thrillers at this moment, the stories which conveniently compartmentalize the crime and the police procedure, the good guys and the bad guys. At least a book like that would not have left me feeling so desolate and bereft of any happy feeling.
But this book took my breath away with its ability to instill so much life in each one of its characters that their distress became my own, with its ornate but never ostentatious prose and the way it deftly narrated a story infused with the dull shades of a sadness so affecting. Tana French foregoes all the spick and span categorizations here, thumbs her nose at the usual pigeon-holing. Instead with consummate skill, she outlines the faint traces of humanity in the most brutal impulses, acknowledges the messed up ways in which this bizarre drama of life plays out and how a neat tying up of all loose ends seldom happens in reality. Sometimes, life is that merciless and cold.
This book is about the labyrinthine pathways of our mind which treacherously conceal our most terrifying memories and how our subconscious prods us to replace the unpleasant truths with self-justifying falsities and even establishes our faith in them. It is about the seemingly innocuous, small cruelties of mundane everyday life that are capable of triggering much bigger disasters that destroy the lives of children and the unforgivable cruelties oblivious, ignorant children are themselves capable of.
I refuse to label this electrifying debut novel mere crime fiction because, in all earnestness, it is not. Rather, it is literature which delves deep into the causality of crime and meticulously brings out the humanity of all the people involved, literature capable of wringing out empathy from even the least sensitive reader. And it is an exploration of the convoluted workings of the human mind, of evil and barbaric urges lurking somewhere in its darkest nooks and crevices. It is a cerebral suspense thriller and, without a doubt, one of the best I have ever read. But it is also a beautiful, bittersweet story about people who carry on with their broken lives shouldering the unbearable burden of past trauma, an unforgettable human drama which left me emotionally drained, agitated to the extreme and yet gasping for more.
"It was as if Udayan were there, speaking to him, teasing him. He felt their loyalty to one another, their affection, stretched halfway across the world. Stretched perhaps to the breaking point by all that now stood between them, but at the same time refusing to break."
You don't have to be in a certain place, at a certain time to be able to catch the faint thrum of the lifeblood coursing through the pages of this book, live the heartbreak of its characters, to develop a sense of solidarity with their loss and desperation, to gaze at the spectacle of their unravelling fates across continents. But it will help if you have lived, at some point in time, in a city christened Calcutta by the British and rechristened Kolkata (the pure Bengali name) centuries later by a government intent on erasing telling signs of a nation's unfortunate colonial past. It will help if you have ever felt rudderless, adrift in a sea of anonymous human faces, unable to come to terms with a painful event, its aftermath too profound and terrible for you to grasp at once. It will help if you are carrying on with a half-life thousands of miles away from the land of your birth, toeing the line of divide between two distinct yet similar worlds.
I have lived near Tollygunge all my life - a sort of an overlapping region between the place where I spent the earliest years of my childhood and the place where I grew into a young woman. Every time I arrive at the beginning of Tollygunge Circular Road from another portion of the city, I know with a comforting certainty that I am close to home, close to the assurance of rest and a meal, close to where my loved ones await my return as yet another day reaches its inevitable end. And Ms Lahiri has brought my humble, modest, familiar Tollygunge to life. Reminded me that my decrepit and majestic city has been witness to the rise and decline of too many political regimes, to the bloodletting during senseless communal riots and a terrible famine manufactured by a colonial administration too busy fighting a world war. That my city has been living for centuries before I was born, like a mythical, gargantuan beast and that it would continue to throb with life and activity years after I am gone. How silly is it that in the eagerness to match steps with the developed world, to achieve set targets, we forget the blood-soaked, tear-streaked history of the country we live in, that we are inextricably bound to the political upheavals which serve as foundation stones to our present state of equanimity, to the sheer tragedy and violence of turbulent times.
Neither am I Jhumpa Lahiri's biggest fan nor her harshest critic. My reaction to her writing has been very subdued so far. In addition, Ms Lahiri never seems to accomplish anything else other than rehashing the same old themes of nostalgia, the very cliched search for identity and the familiar rigmarole in novels recounting the immigrant experience. But with The Lowland, she has achieved something monumental, managed to rekindle an extinguished flame within me. Perhaps her achievement lies in an accurate enactment of that unmistakable sensation of being anchored to a place and a way of life, of being pulled towards a powerful centre. Whatever the case maybe, my past resentment about her 'undeserved' Pulitzer win is now gone as if it never was.
It's like she has reached out to me from across the shores of the Pacific, held my hand and gently propelled me towards a life-like portrait of Calcutta, my Kolkata, the maddening, mystifying, glorious and ugly city of my birth which will remain as beloved to me by any other name, towards the people who inhabit its upscale townships and dingy shanties, towards the unknown stories of hardship and triumph which breathe life into this jungle of steel, brick and mortar, towards the struggles of an ill-fated generation now forgotten in the mad dash for globalization, towards a culture which has molded me into what I am today. It felt like looking into a mirror after a prolonged gap and spotting something hitherto undetected in that reflection. It felt like remembering something important.
I won't go into the subject of Udayan's misguided idealism and the havoc it wreaked in the lives of his loved ones. I won't elaborate on how Subhash ended up living a proxy life, responsibly stepping up to assume all the roles designated for his brother. I will not retrace Gauri's path to self-discovery and emancipation from the assigned identities of bereaved widow, dutiful daughter-in-law, mere wife and mother. And I certainly will not defend or condemn her refusal to let her life be defined by the flawed choices of the man she loved.
Instead I would only leave you with a polite request to place your faith in the Booker committee's judgement and read this. Regardless of where you may have grown up - Rhode Island or Tollygunge - irrespective of whichever movement has left its indelible mark on the socio-political landscape of your nation -SDS or Naxalite agitation - Ms Lahiri will take you on a trip down memory lane, back to your roots, to the values that reside at your core and hold you together, to the people you have left behind somewhere in this long, befuddling journey of life but cannot ever forget. And she may remind you of who you used to be once and what you are now.
"Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things - naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror - are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself - quite to one's surprise - in an entirely different world."
Oh this vile bunch of snot-nosed college brats, fattened on their parents' money like ticks on blood. Oh their ennui and way of seeking solace in esoteric practices believing them to be the one-way ticket to some metaphysical dimension which will exclude us mere working class mortals with our worldly woes from entering and interfering with whatever unearthly pursuits they busy themselves with. Well guess what kids? We would like to be rid of over-confident, smug, self-important, world-weary bastards like you too. I almost wish I could go on a mad rampage during an eye-roll inducing, unbelievably ridiculous Dionysian rite and kill every single one of you as well.
The Secret History is one of the best crime thrillers I have ever read. And this is perhaps because this is not a crime thriller in the conventional sense of the term but literary fiction with moral ambiguity and loss of innocence as central themes. The actual crime(s) is a minor part of the narrative and doesn't eclipse the gradual build up to it or the domino effect it triggers subtly, a devastating chain reaction which results in the collective crumbling of the fabric of 5 young lives. And it is the shadow of this crime, the anticipation of its occurrence and the crushing psychological aftermath of it that lends the narrative its true substance. A discrepancy between the occasional sting of conscience felt by the perpetrators of the crime and their previous heinously selfish justification of the act of murder is what makes this book so utterly engrossing and a veritable unputdownable. Because here we aren't dealing with the solution of a complicated police case but instead getting acquainted with a thread of events which also happen to include a murder from the narrator's point of view who is a reluctant accomplice to the crime.
But then why the conflicted 3-star rating? That's because I foresaw every unimaginative turning point or cliched plot device thrown in for the sake of heightening the drama. A third of the way into the narrative, with the grand revelation (which is not very grand to be honest), the unravelling of the rest of the story becomes very guessable. This is not to mention the'Argentum' fallacy which Manny has pointed out in his review already. Any attentive reader who has a grasp of high school level basic chemistry will realize that 'Aurum' refers to gold,'Argentum' refers to silver. But these aren't even the major irritants. My biggest problem is with the ludicrous contrivances that are passed off in the name of a premise for the story to build itself on. There's a tinge of unreality to the idea of a super close knit fraternity of 5 snobbish students of classical Greek in a college in 80s Vermont mentored by an even more snobbish and elitist professor, the narrator conveniently finding an entry into this brotherhood sort of grouping out of the blue and becoming a passive spectator to the sequence of events which follow. And lastly the main characters are hardly believable, especially the sole female character who remains a vaguely outlined one at best.
The 3 stars are for Tartt's writing which is never showy or deliberate but graceful and quite excellent. I hope The Goldfinch is more impressive and free of proof-reading errors.
Before it all slips away from my feeble psychological grasp, before the after-effects start wearing off, let me write it all out. About the summer before the dark.
The first thing that struck me while reading was this - Fuck purple prose. Or red or maroon or magenta prose for that matter. (And I say this in full acknowledgement of the fact that my prose is often closer to purple than any other color.) Screw post-modernism and its deliberate way of being obtuse, obscure, snarky. Screw all that.
Because this is it. This is what I want to achieve if I were to attempt writing a stream of consciousness novel some day. This laying bare of all the everyday inner battles a woman wages with her conscience, with society, with those hunters lined up on the sidewalk eyeing her with the interest of a sexual predator as she walks home in that form-fitting dress. Delving this deep into the psyche of a human being who navigates the space of a few months rapidly changing disguises never knowing which of them are closer to her real self, but in prose so beautifully self-evident. The things nobody in the world is bothered about because all of it is so awfully pedestrian. After all, there's nothing remotely tantalizing about an upper class woman having perfunctory sex in a passionless affair or caring for her husband, her children, molding her existence around their schedules. There's barely any appreciation for what she is doing for society at large by playing the forever-at-your-service comfort-giver. The way she is working a thankless job, drifting through life mostly invisible in the eyes of the ones who surround her.
This is how Virginia Woolf would have written if she had been alive right now. Because Mrs Kate Brown is nothing but a slightly modified modern day avatar of Clarissa Dalloway or Mrs Ramsay. Her insecurities about her steadily whitening hair and declining sex appeal maybe belittled as a rich white woman's first world problems but pay a little attention to them and you will see how universal and all-encompassing her gripe with patriarchy is.
"She marries because to get married young is to prove herself; and then it must be as if she has inside her an organ capable of absorbing and giving off thousands of watts of Love, Attention, Flattery, and this organ has been working at full capacity, but she can't switch the thing off."
This is what I can only hope to do some day. Make my words bite, sting and burn those who read them. Force them to ponder upon devoured words for extended periods of time.
But does it really deserve 5 stars? Perhaps not, especially in light of the portions where the narrative loses sight of its destination in one of its countless meanderings and gives us the impression that we are trapped in the quagmire of Kate's own inner chaos. But then I am already in awe of Doris Lessing's voice and its power, her way of systematically eviscerating an unequal partnership where the husband is somehow in command of his own life but the wife isn't, her way of cutting open and dissecting motherhood, magnifying each one of its ignored, glossed over aspects for us to see clearly. I love the way this perfectly ordinary Kate Brown with her ordinary name gets under my skin and burrows through my insides, making me so deeply uncomfortable, coercing me into reconsidering my view of the women I have known closely over the years.
How elegantly she bridges the gap between the inner and outer worlds of an individual and yet in the simplest of manners! And that, for me, is a 5-star achievement.
Disclaimer:- Put down your pitchforks, po-mo & purple prose lovers. I wasn't really being serious in that second paragraph. I love my share of po-mo fiction and purple prose almost as much as you guys do.
Oh Virginia! How is it that you make your words spring to life from the barren pages and hit my senses with the force of a gale every time? How is it that you peel off the layers of the banal and reveal the terrible beauty of the core? How is it that you steer my consciousness so deep into the murky waters of uncharted territory that resurfacing takes a toll on my strength?
I wonder what spirit possessed you every time you picked up your pen, brimming over with confidence or maybe unsure of your own craft, to pour every ounce of what weighed on your mind fluidly into the empty pages waiting in anticipation. I wonder if you heard the voices of decades lost in the spiral of time whispering into your ears the truest wisdom of all, as you sat at a desk in a room of your own, pursuing the tail end of some stray thought. I wonder if you ever realized the worth of what you wrote or the gift you have left for generations to cherish after your bones and flesh have been turned to dust and returned to where they rose from.
I wonder if I have ever known a woman like Mrs Ramsay in person - been enamored of her ethereal beauty and grudgingly admired her command over the hearts of those who lived in her shadow and the way she let go of that same command as and when her whimsies deemed fit. I wonder if nearly every marital bond ever forged between two individuals has been or is a replication of the interplay of words and emotions, spoken and unspoken, between the Ramsays. I wonder if Lily Briscoe is truly a personification of the unified spirit of the man and the woman, their dichotomies conjoining imperfectly in the splotches of color she dabs on to her empty canvasses.
I strive to make sense of the lighthouse and what it illuminates in a rare moment facilitating cognition, when my eyes have become well-adjusted to the darkness. I don't get the purpose of its existence but I do. I see the lighthouse, hazy and sprayed white by the sea imprisoning it on all sides, standing tall in all its majestic grandeur merging with the horizon, out of my reach and I wonder how it looms so large yet recedes into the distance as a mute, inanimate witness to the play acts of life. I see it as I turn the pages, sometimes not understanding what it is that Virginia wants me to grasp and sometimes struck speechless by the impact of a realization in an instant of profound lucidity.
No other book has rendered me so completely helpless in my measly efforts to encapsulate its essence. No other book has required of me such prolonged contemplation.
Think of the usual quota of trite responses to a question like"How're you?". Think of the quick "I'm fine" or "I'm well, how are you?" that comes without a moment's delay and how untrue and inadequate either response is each time. If somebody asks me to pronounce judgement on TTL, I'd perhaps respond with an equally predictable 'It is the best book I have read yet' and realize instantly how vapid and insincere this answer is, how silly it is to call this Woolf creation merely a "best book".
Currents of erratic thoughts, many of them contradictory in nature, are zipping past each other inside my head this moment and I am unable to articulate into words the fact of their individual existence as I open my mouth or let my fingers move over this keyboard. That is what attempting to dissect To the Lighthouse feels like. Irrespective of what I write or attempt to write, it is sure to be of little significance and ineffective in giving anyone even a teeny glimpse of what Virginia succeeds in capturing so flawlessly.
Sights and sounds and smells and emotions - strong, subtle, indescribable. The ephemeral quality of an instant when a man and a woman watch their little girl play with a ball, a rare moment in time when each of their individual actions and thoughts are somehow in perfect harmony. The resolute constancy of life and it's cautious but sure-footed tread on the newer ground of change and our bittersweet relationship with this change. A melding together of past, present and future in a blur of color and meaning. All of this and much more. A pure cerebral extravaganza, a celebration of the collective spirit of our existence on this ugly and beautiful world of ours, an acknowledgement of both pain and joy. That is what I think it is.
I dream of going to the lighthouse one day like James, I dream of letting it guide my progress in the lightless, labyrinthine pathways into the heart and soul of this narrative once again. I dream of not allowing any sentence, any word to whiz past me uncomprehended when I read this again some day.
Till then I only delight in swaying to the rhythm of her words, in her immortal lyrics in the song of life.
Imagine being stuck in a place where all sense of time is lost in the web of inactivity, a place which enables people to lead a life devoid of any greater purpose and only focused on recuperation from a queer illness, a place almost hermetically sealed and self-controlled, successfully keeping the repercussions of wars and diplomatic feuds between nations at bay. Imagine being rid of all your earthly woes of finding means of survival and all the elements that stand as pillars supporting the normative structure of life during a sojourn in a special, secluded place. Imagine a miniature diorama of a society thriving on its own, divorced from society at large.
If you haven't been successful in imagining a real life scenario fitting aforementioned descriptions, do not despair. You can always discover this specially constructed safe haven in a certain fictional sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where our protagonist Hans Castorp languishes for seven whole years.
The experience of reading this book is akin to a painstaking hike up a dangerously steep slope. (Excuse the overused analogy but it happens to be quite apt)
There are long dry stretches requiring ritualistic finding of one footing after the next, ensuring that as a reader you do not slip and tumble headfirst into the gaping chasm of incomprehension. And then there are the moments of perfect clarity when snippets of Mann's wisdom filter in like errant rays of sunshine through the drear of many tedious descriptions of long walks and repetitive conversations, making the long and difficult climb seem worth it all of a sudden.
"But he who knows the body, who knows life, also knows death. Except that's not the whole thing - but merely a beginning, pedagogically speaking. You have to hold it up to the other half, to its opposite. Because our interest in death and illness is nothing but a way of expressing an interest in life..."
The summit of this "magic mountain" becomes the location of a metaphorical watch tower from where the spectacle of our collective civilizational march is viewed, dissected and analyzed with precision. The quirky patients inhabiting the sanatorium become mere proxies for some nations or disparate points of view, their inter-relationships often symbolic of some deeper ideological conflict woven intricately into the fabric of existence.
But despite the sheer brilliance of this premise, there's something off about this book. Something that prevented me from according that final star.
Even if this remains a lengthy and eruditely presented discussion on Europe's inner contradictions, its juxtaposition of progress in all spheres of life and violence brewing under the veneer of that sanctimonious progress, as a work of literature it is somehow imperfect and rough around the edges. Since I was often tempted to believe it would have worked better as a nonfictional philosophical discourse. It's sort of like my eloquent friend Dolors says, 'The book lacks a soul.' How succinctly put.
The characters are employed as mere mouthpieces, never resembling well-drawn sketches of actual people with their own stories. The situations and backdrops are mere contrivances specifically begotten to tout ideas on life and death. It's as if the whole narrative is an elaborate ruse developed to convey Mann's thoughts on the state of Europe prior to the First World War. During my moments of exasperation with the book I was able to recall a few of Nabokov's thoughts in his article on Lolita-
"...All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann."
Clearly a jibe at TMM if I have ever seen one.
Not that I agree with Nabokov's opinion on TMM being topical trash but it surely gives rise to the suspicion that if you strip the book of all its allegorical significance, almost nothing substantial remains. And with the turn of the last page, it leaves the reader with a sense of indescribable dissatisfaction about having just finished a journey neither very rewarding nor enjoyable.
Maybe a re-read some time years later on in life will restore the elusive star. Maybe it will not.
I have started a group so that people who have changed names from Goodreads can be found by friends looking for them and otherwise identified. I keep finding people are familiar here but I can't place them.
Once in a while, I stumble upon an unheard of book written by someone who expresses everything I have ever felt and says it as eloquently and without any reservations as I would hope to someday. And I realize once again why reading is so vital to my existence. Only literature helps me make my peace with all the ugliness in the world and infuses me with the strength to carry on with whatever futile everyday doings I busy myself with in the hope that someone somewhere is summarizing the human condition with deep empathy and sensitivity, for me to derive my solace from.
Orianna Fallaci makes no pretensions in this book. Doesn't sugar-coat her attempt at shaking the very rigid walls that make the citadel of patriarchy, doesn't shy away from tackling the entire spectrum of burning issues which if you proceed to discuss with friends and acquaintances even now in 2013, will earn you the raised eyebrows of some, urgently conducted hushed discussion of your morals as a 'woman' behind your back by others and vehement denouncement by the rest. And to think this brave war correspondent from Italy, who had removed the 'hijab' or 'chador' forced on her during an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in addition to criticizing the imposed compulsion of wearing it, wrote this in 1975. (I am not going into the topic of her alleged Islamophobia)
A woman's right to her life over the life of her yet unborn child. Is there one?
And not just that. When do we say that life comes into being? At the moment of conception or in the ninth month and, in some cases, the seventh month when the foetus actually becomes viable?
How morally justifiable is it to ask a woman to behave, monitor her own mood changes, refrain from undertaking tasks which put a physical strain on her or treat her like an inanimate incubator designed to mold its existence around a foetus' needs? Is it okay to overlook the importance of the life of a full-fledged person of flesh and blood, with her own place in the world, taking only into consideration the hint of possibility of life that has taken roots inside of her? Given a choice, would an unborn child want to be born in a world like ours where a mother is unable to ensure her child's safety and slavery begins the moment we are liberated of our dark prison inside the mother's womb?
Oriana Fallaci writes with a poetic flair, fearlessly lending her voice to plenty of questions which nearly all of us (specially women) battle with in solitude over a lifetime but are often unable to articulate these ideas in front of an audience in fear of backlash by a predominantly conservative society. The central ideas are presented in the form of a young woman's internal monologue, in which she confronts her own fears, doubts, misgivings and suppressed anger while pretending to converse with her unborn child.
As I reached the end of the book I couldn't help but wonder if the irony of mostly men framing abortion laws in almost all nations of the world would have registered with the ones running our governments if they had a copy of this book? Probably not. After all, a writer like Fallaci is more likely to be labelled a 'radical feminist' and her views snubbed coldly with a patronizing shake of the head without further thought.
I haven't 5-starred this book merely because it deals with a strongly feminist humanist theme or because the prose is praise-worthy but also because it neatly presents a logical argument both in favor and in opposition of nearly every pronouncement of the pregnant woman. The unnamed protagonist's voice keeps shifting between the extremities of calm rationality and impatient anger, sometimes making irrefutably cogent statements in front of an imagined jury silently judging her thoughts and actions, and sometimes just lashing out in cold fury at the unfairness with which the world treats her.
She is as humane and prone to error as any one of us, which is why it is most important to acknowledge that our established notions of life, death and motherhood could be just as flawed.
"I wonder what happened to him, I wonder what happened to all of them, this wondering is the nature of matter, each of us a loose particle, an infinity of paths through the park, probable ones, improbable ones, none of them real until observed whatever real means, and for something so solid matter contains terrible, terrible, terrible expanses of nothing, nothing, nothing..."
Ordinary human lives, sometimes crisscrossing, sometimes briefly touching, sometimes swiftly passing each other by through the fabric of space and time, creating imperceptible ripples on the surface of some invisible lake of our collective consciousness that eventually lead up to an event of cataclysmic significance....
Everything considered, Ghostwritten is an imperfect masterpiece. In the sense it makes its far-reaching ambitions of being viewed as a tour de force of its generation apparent at the onset but when one sets about to allow oneself keener examination of all its narrative intricacies, it smacks of amateurishness. If, at its best, Ghostwritten is a fascinating meditation on the hollowness of human lives, human fallacies, urban alienation, intertwined fates and our unslakable thirst for validation in the 21st century then at its worst it is a rather complicated mess of styles and themes usually identified with two masters of the craft - Calvino and Murakami. I'd, thus, refrain from calling it masterful and call it the work of a master in the making instead.
There is something so blatantly Murakami-esque about this book, that I am tempted to label Mitchell as Murakami Lite and this is supposed to serve more as a mild chiding rather than approbation of any form. It is like Murakami's ghost (excuse the unintended pun) continuously haunts Mitchell's characters and their lives, his voice reverberating in their unvoiced musings, innermost stream of thoughts, conversations and his invisible presence subtly influencing the magical-realist aspects of the book. So much so there's even a minor character who fleetingly mentions spotting his own doppelganger on the streets of London one day. I almost began anticipating the appearance of talking cats or strange sheep men after this point, although thankfully none were found in the end.
But regrettably enough, this book failed to give me any of those goosebumps-inducing moments of pure intrigue which I have often come to categorize along with the effects produced by Murakami's surrealistic vignettes.
It is also quite obvious Mitchell has distilled the essence of Calvino's Invisible Cities into his own deconstruction of modern day cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, London and New York in a 20th-21st century set up. The concept of islets of human existence huddled together in their own miniature niches, disparate yet suffering from similar fates, their ideas of the city they dwell in coalescing clumsily to impart the city its true identity, comes into play here but not under the guise of Calvino's beautifully rendered symbolism.
Prior to picking up this book, I had heard so much about Mitchell and the widespread adoration he enjoys, I was expecting something life-altering and unforgettable. And despite the narrative sweep and all-encompassing nature of the subjects Mitchell touches upon here, Ghostwritten seems to be neither of the aforementioned. At least not in my opinion. And as the novelty of the interconnection among the short story length snippets wears off with the gradual progress of the narrative, the lack of finesse in Mitchell's writing becomes all the more prominent.
"God knows darn well that dabbling in realpolitik would coat his reputation with flicked boogers."
Inclusion of quite a few crude metaphors like the one above just felt jarring to the overall tone of the novel.
I am hoping Cloud Atlas is more accomplished.
I have had a relationship with Goodreads for a little over a year and that surprises me whenever I think of it. Because not only does it seem that I have learnt more from Goodreads than my four years of college, but I have never had an opportunity of interacting with so many erudite, politically/socially aware bibliophiles before I joined as a member. Goodreads has definitely broadened my horizons, not only in terms of helping me discover new books and authors but also in terms of serving as a repository of the collective knowledge of all its members. I wouldn't have had any access to their world views, opinions, personal experiences otherwise.
So it goes without saying that making a Booklikes account and shifting all my stuff over here has been harder than I thought it would be. But I don't regret it.
The last few days have been tumultuous over at Goodreads. The people who do not merely care about getting 'likes' and 'comments' on their reviews and upping their popularity quotient, have joined the protest against Gramazon's unjust new review policies by posting and re-posting their views and made their voices heard. They have dared the GR administration to delete their accounts, fearlessly making their positions clear on the issue. While we have others who have chosen to quietly ride out the storm, carrying on with their usual GR activities, carefully maintaining their neutrality on the situation.
Then we have the detractors, who have neither joined the protest nor merely carried on with their activities but have gone ahead and made thoughtless, snide remarks about the people who are risking their necks (daring the GR staff to delete their accounts). And lastly we have people who seem to be miffed because others are not choosing their methods of protest (which are because they are completely impractical and virtually useless) and following someone else's leadership instead of theirs. So even though I hate the present Goodreads situation, I am equally thankful for this censorship fiasco because it has unwittingly brought to light the true nature of many of my close GR buddies.
Hurt, bitter, angry sentiments are running amok. And it pains me to log into Goodreads in the present scenario. I am no longer the same enthusiastic GR member, reviewer and reader that I was before this whole debacle started. My Goodreads isn't the same either and I doubt it ever will be again.
The only reason I haven't put a definite end to my relationship with Goodreads yet is because quite a few of my friends won't leave the site and it is this invisible pull of my affection for them and their writings, that has stopped me from hitting the 'delete' button. So for now I am willing to sacrifice a little more of my free time trying to be in both places at once. Although I don't know for how long I will be able to do that.
I feel a little tired and I haven't gotten much reading done over the last few days. Books I have read need to be reviewed. And yet I am sitting here typing out this useless, sentimental blog post on Booklikes where I have only 45 followers. But I suppose this is how I seek closure. The very fact that I am not cross-posting this on Goodreads and pouring my heart out here instead, goes to show the kind of distrust I harbor for the site now.
This is not a goodbye yet, since I fully intend to post more protest reviews and continue my somewhat dysfunctional relationship with Goodreads. But this is as close to a goodbye as it can get.
Ugh! Ugly name-calling and petty fights over what's the right approach to fighting Goodreads censorship has broken out over there with people posting snide remarks and counter snide remarks regarding the protest reviews. This is NOT the Goodreads I knew.
I am beginning to see more and more advantages to jumping ship to this place.
A vague sense of foreboding persistently stalks the reader on every page of this narrative, as if something potentially dangerous and forbidding awaits one at the turn of the next page. But then the pages fly by, nothing truly nefarious ever materializes and the feeling finally settles in that the substance of this narrative lies not in a likely event of cosmic importance or even in the anticipation of its occurrence but in the minutiae a reader usually glosses over.
The everyday happenings, some of them mystically inexplicable, some of them a little odd but so commonplace that they do not merit even a second thought let alone further introspection - the things we breeze past in an effort to dwell on the more materially satisfying aspects of life without realizing that each one of these discrete snippets of time spent with people in places is what makes up the structure of life itself.
As I glanced at the blurb (which clearly does not do the book justice even as a half-hearted synopsis), I felt a stab of sympathy for whoever wrote it (author/publisher/random intern), because not only is it very difficult to clearly define the contours of this book but it is equally trying to put one's finger on one strongly resonant theme in it since there are many.
There's the subject matter of the suffragettes (the term used for women campaigning in Britain in the late 19th and 20th centuries for the female ballot) and a young Mary Richardson who had taken a blade to assault one of the priceless works of art in the National Gallery on the eve of the First World War while Marie's great-grandfather Ted was a guard at the museum. It's no coincidence that our protagonist is the namesake of this revolutionary since the shadow of Mary Richardson's act of bravado looms large over Marie's life, silently influencing her in ways she remains oblivious to.
Hence it can be stated that feminist undertones are delicately woven into the the narrative without being glaringly obvious.
There's also an overarching feeling of the protagonist's unnerving indifference to most things, her tacit refusal to take the wheels of her own life and letting herself be propelled by happenings and the decisions made by people around herself. In the beginning I was speculating on the possibility of some sort of unique psychological condition plaguing her in an attempt to convincingly explain her aloofness from life or what could even be called her cowardice. But by the end of the narrative, I realized, a little bit of Marie's dogged impassivity lives inside all of us.
She is haunted by the spectre of her own isolation in the midst of people and her inability to steer her life in the direction of romantic entanglements and fulfillment of any kind. As a guard at the National Gallery in London, Marie comes across many visitors from day to night who spend agonizing minutes peering over works of art which have been witness to centuries of history. With the passage of time, she starts equating the cracks and fissures showing up in the fabric of her life with the craquelures in the paintings. And finally when she confronts her own hesitations after an enigmatic encounter with an owner of a chateau in France, the reader is left with the parting message that Marie has finally summoned the courage to destabilize the status quo in her life just as a certain young Mary Richardson of yesterday had dismantled the status quo in the socio-political landscape.
Chloe Aridjis is a gifted story-teller. Her writing is richly atmospheric and often plays out like a discordant symphony, combining too many erratic musical notes together and yet sounding so perfectly melodious. Same can be said about her choice of original but beautiful metaphors.
"It began with those viragos, he'd tell me, comets detached from the firmament, deviant and sharply veering, long-haired vagabond stars, hissing through the universe on their solitary paths, a tear in the social fabric, threats to the status quo. Yes once war broke out, Ted said, their battle eclipsed by larger events, became no more than one of many lit matches in the stratosphere."
This book made me feel thankful for my relationship with Netgalley which has allowed me to discover such promising new female authors as Chloe Aridjis and Nina Schuyler. In other words, this is very highly recommended.
This is the book which has given me anxiety attacks on sleepless nights.
This is the book which has glared at me from its high pedestal of classical importance in an effort to browbeat me into finally finishing it.
And this is that book which has shamed me into feigning an air of ignorance every time I browsed any of the countless 1001-books-to-read-before-you-die lists.
Yes Jack Kerouac, you have tormented me for the past 3 years and every day I couldn't summon the strength to open another page of 'On the Road' and subject my brain to the all-too-familiar torture of Sal's sleep-inducing, infuriatingly monotonous narration.
Finally, I conquer you after nearly 3 years of dithering. I am the victorious one in the battle in which you have relentlessly assaulted my finer senses with your crassness and dared me to plod on. I can finally beat my chest in triumph (ugh pardon the Tarzan-ish metaphor but a 1-star review deserves no better) and announce to the world that I have finished reading 'On the Road'. Oh what an achievement! And what a monumental waste of my time.
Dear Beat Generation classic, I can finally state without any fear of being called out on my ignorance that I absolutely hated reading you. Every moment of it.
Alternatively, this book can be named White Heterosexual Man's Misadventures and Chauvinistic Musings. And even that makes it sound much more interesting and less offensive than it actually is.
In terms of geographical sweep, the narrative covers nearly the whole of America in the 50s weaving its way in and out of Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco and many other major American cities. Through the eyes of Salvatore 'Sal' Paradise, a professional bum, we are given an extended peek into the lives of a band of merry have-nots, their hapless trysts with women, booze, drugs, homelessness, destitution, jazz as they hitchhike and motor their way through the heart of America.
Sounds fascinating right? (Ayn Rand will vehemently disagree though).
But no, it's anything but that. Instead this one just shoves Jack Kerouac's internalized white superiority, sexism and homophobia right in the reader's face in the form of some truly bad writing. This book might as well come with a caption warning any potential reader who isn't White or male or straight. I understand that this was written way before it became politically incorrect to portray women in such a poor light or wistfully contemplate living a "Negro's life" in the antebellum South. But there's an obvious limit to the amount of his vile ruminations I can tolerate.
"There was an old Negro couple in the field with us. They picked cotton with the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama."
Seriously? God-blessed patience?
Every female character in this one is a vague silhouette or a caricature of a proper human being. Marylou, Camille, Terry, Galatea are all frighteningly one-dimensional - they never come alive for the reader through Sal's myopic vision. They are merely there as inanimate props reduced to the status of languishing in the background and occasionally allowed to be in the limelight when the men begin referring to them as if they were objects.
Either they are 'whores' for being as sexually liberated as the men are or they are screaming wives who throw their husbands out of the house for being jobless, cheating drunks or they are opportunistic and evil simply because they do not find Sal or Dean or Remy or Ed or any of the men in their lives to be deserving of their trust and respect, which they truly aren't.
And sometimes, they are only worthy of only a one or two-line description like the following:-
"...I had been attending school and romancing around with a girl called Lucille, a beautiful Italian honey-haired darling that I actually wanted to marry"
Look at Sal talking about a woman as if she were a breed of cat he wanted to rescue from the animal shelter.
"Finally he came out with it: he wanted me to work Marylou."
Is Marylou a wrench or a machine of some kind?
And this is not to mention the countless instances of 'get you a girl', 'get girls', 'Let's get a girl' and other minor variations of the same strewn throughout the length of the book and some of Sal's thoughts about 'queers' which are equally revolting.
Maybe I am too much of a non-American with no ties to a real person who sees the Beat era through the lenses of pure nostalgia or maybe I am simply incapable of appreciating the themes of youthful wanderlust and living life with a perverse aimlessness or maybe it's the flat writing and appalling representation of women. Whatever the real reason(s) maybe, I can state with conviction that this is the only American classic which I tried to the best of my abilities to appreciate but failed.