Monday, January 23, 2017

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


This post will go into great detail about some of the characters in the book, their motives and such, but not any plot developments. I wouldn't call any of my observations spoilers as such; but the post would probably be more interesting to someone who has read the book.

"If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding."
- an extract from the blog "Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black", featured in this book.

It is impossible to start this post without linking to the Danger of A Single Story TED Talk by Adichie which, even after watching it a zillion times over, doesn't fail to amaze/inspire me. This TED talk is the reason I wanted to read Americanah and part of the reason I was convinced I would love it.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria, the fifth of six children. In the talk, she describes having spent her childhood in a typical middle class Nigerian family. She grew up on a university campus where her parents worked and was an early voracious reader. She studied medicine at the University of Nigeria and moved to the U.S. at the age of nineteen. After spending four years in the States alone, she went back to Nigeria, and has since split her time between both the places. I tell you all this because Americanah, at a first glance, seems like a semi-autobiographical story.

Ifemelu has lived in America for thirteen years and is making plans now to return to her home country. But she has been away too long and a lot has changed. As a young girl, Ifemelu had not been attracted to the idea of America. Her fascination with it developed as a teenager in a Lagos school, through her friend and lover, Obinze - a professor's son who thrived on American books, movies and music. When Ifemelu had moved to the US to study, Obinze planned to join her. But he never made it.

And, throttled by cultural shock, Ifemelu lost touch with her earlier self, and her true love. Now, Ifemelu is a successful blogger, dating a Black American professor. She writes about race and identity politics in America from the perspective of a non-American Black. A Princeton graduate, she has no apparent reason to leave the States. Yet, after more than a decade's disconnect from home, Ifemelu's heart still plays with the possibility of a reunion with Obinze, and a future in Nigeria. If, only if...

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves a seamless saga, a book that is not limited by one topic or intended audience. No emotion is diluted, there is no forced subtlety. It is a story steeped in culture and were I asked to grind its theme down to one thing, I would say it is about human interaction. 

Over and over, it deals with our constant, often unconscious, attempts to redefine our identity to suit the cultural context we are cocooned in. Ifemelu is an eminently unlikable character, because she is un-rooted. She tries on identities like clothes and casts them aside with apparent ease, without noticing and for the longest while, letting us notice, the toll it takes on her. With a white boyfriend, she plays the role of the exotic black woman. With her black American professor friends, she attempts to be an intellectual. Even her carefully constructed online persona is just that - constructed. For Ifemelu, it was only with Obinze that she never bothered to be anything, and just was. And in the midst of every great upheaval of her life, she finds herself craving that comfort of being true to herself.

The story is peppered with an amazing array of characters. One of my favourite people in Ifemelu's American life was her cousin, Dike, the product of her Aunty's affair with a rich officer back in Nigeria. Ifemelu is often shown to be puzzled by, even a little derisive of, the change her aunt undergoes after moving to America, where she adopts what Ifemelu and Obinze term an exaggerated sense of gratitude.

"“Dike, put it back,” Aunty Uju said, with the nasal, sliding accent she put on when she spoke to white Americans, in the presence of white Americans, in the hearing of white Americans. Pooh-reet-back. And with the accent emerged a new persona, apologetic and self-abasing. Sometimes, while having a conversation, it would occur to Ifemelu that Aunty Uju had deliberately left behind something of herself, something essential, in a distant and forgotten place."

But the exact effect that immigration has on Dike, a baby at the time of his arrival, is lost on Ifemelu. She is a child of Africa, raised without the concept of race. Dike, on the other hand, has race and colour woven into his identity. In spite of being an easygoing and altogether popular boy in his school, Dike does face bits of unfair aggression. But he trains himself to laugh it off - a camp teacher who assumes he wouldn't need sunscreen, for instance. What I love about the character of Dike is the interesting juxtaposition of his relation with Ifemelu versus her interaction with the rest of her American mates.

For all the superior conviction with which Ifemelu blogs her mini theses on racial identity, interactions with Dike leave her puzzled and helpless. Her failing lies perhaps in considering him more Nigerian than American, like herself. Throughout the book, her African Americans friends call out her ability to write about race successfully as a luxury that she can afford because she was not born on the receiving end of racial prejudice. If she were a black American and wrote what she wrote, she would naturally, they say, be called dramatic and shunned. Ifemelu often bristles at such pronouncements, but her repeated inability to understand Dike's point of view, his inner struggle, shows that such judgments are truer than she would care to accept.

Race is a complex issue and there does not exist a singular definition of oppression or racial identity. Through endless examples, Ifemelu stresses on this. There is no united league of the oppressed, but it is somehow worse to be black. Popular media tries to serve us a single story of racism; and popular opinion tries to convince itself that that story no longer exists - that 'proper' racism is mostly gone.

“In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. 

Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters.”

Obinze's character and his story add an honest charm to the book. His perspective is most interesting in contrast to hers because he is as grounded in his identity as she is not. His suffering, his struggle comes not from inside as hers, but from his inability to fit in with those around him, to be what he is expected to be in changing surrounding, to construct himself a fitting persona. His straightforward simplicity reminded me absurdly, randomly, of Konstantin Levin from Anna Karenina - though why they should seem similar I haven't given a thought. Obinze's was the character that really propelled me to keep on reading the book, whom I was invested in... I wanted to know what would happen with him. Even his experience with class prejudice somehow hit closer home that many of Ifemelu's experiences.

There were times when the story lines felt a little maudlin, somewhat prone to cliches. And it perhaps could have been a shorter book, but finding faults in the book has proved to be a needles-in-a-haystack task for me. I loved it. I cannot imagine anyone not loving it.
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You know, I'm technically brown-skinned, but I'd find it funny to call myself a person of colour. I've never lived outside India, that may be why (which is not to say we don't have any racism within)... even so, I understand, at least in part, the absence of the idea of race in the mind of a person of colour. I kind of liked how unapologetic-ally African the names of the characters were, and that they came with no directions on how they were to be pronounced. I learnt a great many new things about African culture. There is something that I forgot to mention in the rest of the review that deserves to be here, so I will add it to this paragraph of miscellaneous unsorted final thoughts - the language, the language, the language! Adichie's lines are precise, cutting and just divine. My sister, who raced through the book in the span of a day probably, said the book was impactful (not verbatim), that she did love it, but it did not not make any groundbreaking observation. This is true. But it did have dollops of wisdom delivered in a way that made me think - I have always known this, I just didn't know that I knew it. And one of the great pleasures of reading, to me, is to find instinctive convictions and passing observations of mine put rather gloriously into words.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip Dick


Warning - Minor spoilers: but none for the plot. I am very glad to have heard of this book only through Jess Mariano on Gilmore Girls, though this should have given me a clue of its cult status. But I don't suppose watching Blade Runner would have pushed me to read the book, so I am quite happy I hadn't.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick reminds me of a Terry Pratchett quote... "What would humans be without love? Rare."

The story begins far into the future when most of the life on our planet has been wiped out by a plague of dust. Man has colonized Mars and nearly everyone has left the planet Earth to live on the colonies. Many people in the world have been contaminated by the dust, altered to become something not quite human, not quite right. These are called 'specials'. Still on Earth with the specials are certain people like our protagonist whose jobs have kept them back.

Technology has advanced to such an extent now that it is impossible to tell the difference between man and machine by simple physical appearance. The only thing that androids lack and humans have is the power of empathy. The colonies are run with the help of android-slaves, who have a habit of disappearing and running off. The Earth police are equipped with a technology that can determine humanity and android-ness based on reactions to certain psychological stimuli. Very simply put, this device measures how many seconds it takes one to wince when someone gorily describes murder or animal slaughter.

Rick Deckard is an Earthling and a bounty-hunter, whose job it is to catch and terminate any androids which have illegally alighted on the planet by escaping from the colonies on Mars. When a new type of android arrives which may fool the police technology, Rick begins to wonder what empathy really is. The androids he meets in his hunt test the limits and possibilities of his sense of empathy, and he wonders how well a judge it can be of humanity. Could a robot feel empathy? Could a human love a robot? Must a human possess empathy?

Through the book, introducing us to newer concepts and characters of this world along the way, the author asks and explores these questions. A world where electric animals are bred as pets, because most live species are extinct. A 'special' who cannot tell a live animal from a fake. A man who decides to help out a band of escaped androids. A robot who believes it is human. A machine to control and assign moods. Whatever does it mean to be human?

This is an excellent read. What Dick lacks in poetry of language, he makes up for in linguistic inventiveness. One of the non-living monsters of Dick's world is "kibble" which is the word for odds and ends accumulated over time, any useless 'stuff.' He says our lives are full of it and it wreaks degradation in our lives. When no one is around, he says, kibble reproduces itself. It's material chaos. This is just one example of the words that he has derived for this world. An elaborate "diktionary" of his terms is available online - a must read to get a taste of his writing.

The major theme is life and survival, and it also focuses of religion, popular culture and marginalization. Unlike most dystopian fiction, this does not have a 'hero against  the system' plot. Even so, I am a little tired of bleak futures, and would like recommendations of science fiction books with brighter todays and tomorrows. Or something that is set in the future but has a different immediate conflict, like Asimov's initial Robots mysteries. I'd like something of that sort to be the next book I read for the Science Fiction Experience 2017

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

(I had to finish this in November, for German Literature Month, but it spilled into December.)

The first book I finished this weekend was a beautiful autobiography of German Nobel-Prize-winning author Günter Grass. The title, Peeling the Onion, is a running metaphor for peeling back the layers of memory, gradually, carefully, taking care not to cut too deep too soon and unleash withheld tears. It is popularly considered a confessional account of Grass's entry into the Waffen-SS, the Nazi military wing. It follows him through his days as an ex-Nazi prisoner of war and the later years as a sculptor and an artist, and how these life experiences influenced his writing and peace-time politics. 

To start with, let me just say I have read nothing by Grass and not a lot about him. And yet, I knew this - he was the voice of post-war Germany, their self-appointed moral compass, and the man who said, "it is a citizen's first duty to not keep quiet." And yet it took Grass so many years to break his silence. This book caused quite a stir when it was published, precisely because of the irony of its revelation; the fact that Germany's so-called conscience-figure had been a willing believer in the Third Reich. This was why I was looking forward to reading the book. I wanted to read the 'confession of guilt', make sense of it, the scandal it caused; it could be a non-fictional version of Miller's The Crucible, and with this expectation, I was setting myself up for disappointment.

I went in expecting a very different book. Peeling the Onion is not Grass's daring confession about his part in the Waffen-SS. Guilt is a major theme in the book, and war played a major role in his life - but not in the way you'd expect or want it to be. The controversy, in hindsight, makes as little sense as accusing To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee of racist talk or trying to ban Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

The controversy takes a cursory glance at the book and misses the subtext. Grass was not a hypocrite, for the man demanding and expecting honesty from fellow men did not carry himself on a high horse. This book shows, in fact, that he was rather a man who had spent the better part of his life struggling with remorse for not having done just that - for not having had the courage to speak up. For not asking, "Why?" The narrator of a book is ideally a sympathetic character. This, Grass is not. Yet, it is perfectly possible to look past that for the book has a lot to offer. 

"When shortly after my eleventh birthday synagogues in Danzig and elsewhere were set aflame and Jewish merchants' shop windows shattered, I took no part, yet I was very much a curious spectator. I simply stood by and observed, and was, at most, surprised.

No matter how zealously I rummage through the foliage of my memory, I can find nothing in my favour. My childhood years seem to have been completely untroubled by doubt. No, I was a pushover, always game for everything that the times, which called themselves - exhilaratedly and exhilaratingly - modern, had to offer."

Grass is unerringly honest. And this honesty is disconcerting to read, as in the chapter 'His name was WEDONTDOTHAT'. Grass tells us about a spirited blue-eyed blonde boy, a fellow soldier in the Luftwaffe, who would pointedly refuse to hold any weapon because it was un-German. "We don't do that," he would say, no matter how and how often he was punished for it, and "Wedontdothat" became his name; Grass talks about how relieved they were when, one day, he disappeared from te camp and with him, the pricking doubt he put in the rest of their minds finally vanished. Grass didn't care where he had gone, though they all knew. It was difficult to take Grass's brusque honesty in a stride at such times. I had to take periodic breaks from the book as it was too emotionally charged to read at one go. 

Of course, the infamous Waffen-SS is only a minor feature in the 500-page book. One-fourth of it, perhaps. A large quarter of the book is about hunger, and how Grass spent most of his life satisfying one hunger after the other, hunger of the stomach during war-time, of the flesh as a youth and of the mind. How hunger frequently dictated the course his life would take. Grass details his experience as a prisoner of war at the age of eighteen. Injured, in mind and body, yet never having shot a bullet himself. Tells us how it was to meet Jews for the first time since the war, how it was to learn about the horrors of the concentration camp and how the ex-soldiers would refuse to believe that it existed. He talks about listening to late night arguments on politics and coming to terms with his ignorance and indifference. He details later learning what happened to his family "when the Russians came." How the war changed his mother, who never told him what really went on when Danzig, the hometown, was raided. How it broke his sister's spirit. It is a cinema-reel of atrocities and the clear sun-lit reality of it all makes it so difficult to tell black from white. The supposed controversy of Grass's revelation has long ceased to matter at this point.

Günter Grass was a sculptor. This, I did not know at all. He had been an art enthusiast as a child and artist was one of the things he wanted to grow up to be. A waning half of the book is about his career as a sculptor, the women in his life during this time. Amidst all the women (and his children) in his life, this book details only one of his marriages, to Anna Schwarz, the dancer. His second wife Ute makes guest appearances in his travels.

The various characters of his numerous books start taking shape now, inspiration flowing in from his war memories, and we finally begin to learn a little something about Günter Grass, the writer. He used to stand when he wrote! What a weirdly inconsequential thing to discover, yet it has stuck, maybe because it is so random - it was a habit he picked up as a sculptor, he wrote at his stand-up desk. He was left-handed, and talks as though he is constantly aware of his left-handedness; and of course he is, so am I. (Aren't right-handers constantly aware of their right-handedness? Must be, because so many show surprise when I casually raise my left hand to do something.) He also dwells on his transformation from a total non-smoker who'd use cigarettes as a favourite barter in his prison days to the young artist who smoked for careful pretense until it became an incorrigible habit. 

Often he drifts into the third person talking not of himself but a boy and I cannot help but wonder, is he making it impersonal for our sake or his own? But, of course, he has already told me that. I should know by now... nothing escapes him, least of all his own failings. The very first sentence of the book reads - "Today, as in years past, the temptation to camouflage oneself in the third person remains great."  

It cannot be easy to fashion a tangible narrative out of wisps of memory. Moreover, to convert ones past into something of interest to another. The writing does not possess an inch of self-importance or flattery, nor does he ever put on an air of fake modesty. Quite possibly because it took me so long to read it, but also because of how far and deep it extended, I neared the end of the book with the conclusive impression that I had experienced a lifetime - a long, long trek, and I was the mental equivalent of out-of-breath.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

SO I have no intention of ever reading the Game of Thrones books; not out of a sense of I'm-too-good-for-it, but rather, Who-has-the-time? But I was curious about Martin's style, so I have been meaning to get this book for a while now. Fevre Dream is a vampire story, which is much more up my alley than chain-mail-clad sword-brandishing fantasy, anyway. Written in 1982, this book is what one might call steampunk science fiction.

Summary: It is the story of a steamboat captain named Abner Marsh who is commissioned to construct a new boat by Joshua York, a strange beautiful gentleman and businessman who wishes to be his partner. The magnificent new steamboat is called the Fevre Dream and it is Abner Marsh's dream to make it the fastest running vessel on the Mississippi. Part of Abner Marsh's contract with York is to stay out of his away, no questions asked about York's nocturnal habits or the strange company he keeps. Abner Marsh is more than eager to accept York's conditions for the chance to captain his dream boat. That is, until he begins to discover a strange pattern to York's secrets. A rumour floats upstream... vampire.

Meanwhile, in a small settlement along the Mississippi lies a haunted house. A house inhabited by such monsters that no slave is ready to work there, no guest returns alive. The property is run by Damien Julian, who calls himself the bloodmaster of his clan. As the neighbouring town turns against the demonic presence in their house, the ancient Damien Julian sends out his clan to find accommodation elsewhere. And a couple of them just happen to board the Fevre Dream.

"The very one, Abner. An astounding man. I had the good fortune to meet him once. Our steamboat put me in mind of a poem he once wrote.” York began to recite.

She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

"What shall we name her?" York asked, his eyes still fixed on the boat, and a slight smile on his face. Does the poem suggest anything? I had in mind something like Dark Lady, or—"

"I had somethin’ in mind myself," Marsh said. "We’re Fevre River Packets, after all, and this boat is all I ever dreamed come true." He lifted his hickory stick and pointed at the wheelhouse. "We'll put it right there, big blue and silver letters, real fancy. Fevre Dream." He smiled.

For a moment, something strange and haunted moved in Joshua York’s gray eyes. Then it was gone as swiftly as it had come. "Fevre Dream," he said. "Don’t you think that choice a bit... oh, ominous? It suggests sickness to me, fever and death and twisted visions. Dreams that... dreams that should not be dreamed, Abner."

My thoughts: To me, a well written speculative fiction contributes to the existing lore, offers an alternate. (To me, for instance, the 'vampires don't come out in the sun as they sparkle and stand out' bit of the Twilight series is the least of its faults because of its sheer innovation. Did anyone ever even consider that the sun did not in fact harm vampires directly but made them more conspicuous?) In this aspect of lore-feeding, Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin fares rather excellently. The vampires of Fevre Dream are not supernatural, but rather a distinct race - humanoid yet different. A race afflicted by a thirst which might just find itself a cure in science.

The popular vampire myth is steeped in Christian ritual. The vampire is a reanimated corpse that rests in its coffin, leaves it at dusk, can be repelled with the cross, may not enter a church, gets burnt by holy water. Take all that away and what is left may not be a vampire at all. Hindu mythology speaks of batlike demon creatures but they bear only a vague resemblance to our walking dead. Like all recent vampire mythology, Martin's story is a fight of good versus evil. It is also very Christian, but in a different way. Martin tells the story of Joshua York as a messiah come to free the vampires of their curse, the Pale King come to lead them to a newer tomorrow.

On a more meta-level, Martin's story is a fight between the popular contemporary myth and the old darker one. I have heard of Martin writing morally ambiguous characters. Here, however, there is a clear black and white, which serves its (unintended?) purpose. On the one hand, you have Joshua York, beautiful and alluring, leading a civilized life and on the other, Damien Julian, blood master, a frightening creature wrought with pure evil and destruction. The vampire myth has adapted itself to the needs and likes of every generation and Martin's story tests our allegiance. It does not leave you with a satisfying ending, but rather, drags you along till you make a choice - which is more enduring? The tragic prince-turned-Beast or the terrible monster? I chose the latter. Abner March, loyal to the end, remained alongside the beautiful and tragic Joshua York; the perfect friendship.

Fevre Dream is engaging; a surprise, for its size is tremendous. Martin's lengthy descriptions of characters and their physical appearances bored me. Literary references abound, with Shelley and Byron being particular favourites of Joshua York. But the atmosphere of steamboat racing, breaking the chains of slavery, bubbling invention is a fantastic capture. The writing loses its way sometimes, gives in to gimmickry, but on the whole, it pulls you in. I have been chewing on this review for a long time, and one thing is clear, the book has left an imprint on my thoughts, if not always a positive one. 

Accidentally slitting my hand on a knife yesterday may have played a major part in pushing my opinion in favour of Martin's book; the uncaring spillage of blood in modern vampire stories, its supposed beauty, now brings a particularly bitter taste, and having a young man or woman lust sacrificially after the metaphorical knife seems plainly objectionable. Dracula makes more sense than Prince Lestat, and Fevre Dream lets you pit one against the other.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why I Like Being a Vegetarian

Image courtesy of KEKO64 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I was lamenting the fact that whenever I say I am a vegetarian, I always somehow end up offending someone. The responses I get range from, 'You are missing out on so much," and "Plants have feelings too," (do they?) to "I hope you get a husband who eats non-veg, then you'll have no choice but to eat it..." (seriously.) I have made my views on the ethics of meat eating plenty clear before - it's a personal choice, we all have a limit to what we consider moral. Where we draw a line... Some people put their foot down at eating dog meat, some are vegetarian, and others go vegan.

My reason is animal rights, I make no excuses, I love animals and cannot bear the thought of eating them. I cannot look the other way when it comes to the cruelties of poultry farming and such. I see myself on an eventual path to veganism, though I am not quite ready yet. I have been a lifelong vegetarian, excepting a short trip to non-vegetarianism in my teenage years; so I do see both sides of the coin and make no claim to any moral high ground. There is no right or wrong, just what each of us is comfortable with. 

That said, I do have no intention of going back to eating meat and I do enjoy the perks of being a vegetarian. There are many other reasons I continue with this lifestyle choice, aside from a less guilty conscience - which seems to be the focus and point of attack in any conversation about my dietary choices. Here are a few reasons I like being a vegetarian - some I hope more people can relate to, others might just give you an idea of how the world is on this side of the table, help answer that "but why would you give this up???" -

1. I feel less full after meals. My appetite is on the larger side. Instead of many small meals, which I suppose is the healthier option, I prefer to eat my fill when I do. Luckily for me, veggies don't settle down in the pit of your stomach quite as much as meat. Consequence - I don't get that bursting-at-the-seams feeling after a heavy meal and I seem to digest food quicker. It's also been harder to gain weight, a giant plus because I don't do what I should be doing to lose it.

2. I spend less on food. This is awesome! Vegetarian food, here in India, is considerably cheaper in restaurants than meat or fish. I don't know if this is true for anywhere else in the world where meat is the norm. But so long as I'm here, I save more than a little on fancy lunches and dinners. Less variety for us vegetarians is also not an issue in India. 

3. Healthier diet. Now I don't know if veggies are healthier - I have read and heard many contradictory views on this. But there have been two big changes in my diet since my comeback to vegetarian food. A. When I was a kid, I underwent a gall-bladder-removal thing, the permanent effect of which was, simply put, that I can't eat foods too fatty, because I have nowhere to store all the extra (an explanation I received at the age of 8, don't ask for details.) Being a vegetarian, I am able to avoid the aforementioned overly fatty, heavy foods with very little effort. B. I eat way more fibrous food than I used to. Way more! 

4. Default thumbs-up from all the aunties and grandmas - Okay, this is a joke. I neither condone the judgments nor am I a vegetarian for religious reasons.

5. It looks prettier. Vegetarian food looks prettier and more vibrant and colourful than a giant slab of meat. It's just a fact. Look at those tomatoes!

6. I feel in control. This is the biggest reason! I befriended someone last year, not from India, who went vegetarian upon making a pact with themselves to give up something that meant a lot to them and learn to live without it. I thought it was the most wonderful thing, because it made me realise just how much this influenced my own dietary choice. I would be lying if I said I don't reminisce the taste of a chicken wing every once in a while - just the taste, without the animal-cruelty-connotations associated with it. I do. But I don't give in to the occasional craving. I don't want to!

I had a moment a few months ago when I accidentally bit into a chicken burger, because the fools hadn't marked it with the little red square. I knew it was chicken, even as my friend wondered, precisely because I hadn't had it in about five years. My mouth flooded with the taste of chicken, strangely comforting in a way, yet all I wanted was to spit it out. And rinse and rinse till the flavour was gone. The craving doesn't guide me anymore. I have reached a point where I am not a slave to my senses. Or to my peers. It's a little weird to me how many things your friends can get away with forcing you to do. At the risk of sounding corny, when it comes to this, I like that my principle / belief wins. Of course, I desperately await a time when I feel just as "in control" in matters of pizza...

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Dead Zone by Stephen King


'My daughter,' Bannerman agreed softly. 'I think she passed within forty feet of that ... that animal. You know what that makes me feel like?'
'I can guess,' Johnny said.
'No, I don't think you can. It makes me feel like I almost stepped into an empty elevator shaft. Like I passed up the mushrooms at dinner and someone else died of toadstool poisoning. And it makes me feel dirty. It makes me feel filthy. I guess maybe it also explains why I finally called you. I'd do anything right now to nail this guy. Anything at all.'

A little while ago, I was telling someone how Stephen King writes more than *just horror.* You know, one of my usual rants. In the foreground of that conversation, I am all the more happy I chose to read The Dead Zone. Published in 1979, it is one of his older books and has that experimental style. I don't know how I missed it for so long.

The Dead Zone is about a man named Johnny Smith, who once gets in a life-altering car accident. Johnny is a man who is shown to have possessed a strong sense of intuition since his childhood. But is after he wakes up from a nearly five-year-long coma, that his intuition has blown into a full-fledged clairvoyance. Johnny has sustained unusual brain injuries that may be the cause of his psychic ability. He can sense the past, the future and worm out people's secrets. But there are some things that he can never reach - and these he says lie in a damaged part of his brain which he calls 'the dead zone.' With the help of his ageing father, Herb and his doctor, Sam Weizak, the book follows Johnny as he attempts to lead a normal life in spite of his new extra-normality. Life, however, has other plans for him.

Meet Greg Stillson. An aggressive obnoxious salesman-turned-businessman who nurtures an ambition to one day run for President. Avoiding straight answers, making ludicrous promises, loud gestures - these are some of Stillson's specialties. His rallies are led by gangs of bikers for an audience of mindless fanatics. His is a nearly farcical exterior that helps hide the beast underneath. Greg Stillson is a dangerous man masquerading as a joker. The true extent of his breed of terror is revealed to Johnny Smith when he shakes hands with Stillson, and gets a dreadful vision. The Dead Zone is very much about the politics of its time - yet it couldn't be any more relevant in today's world. In fact, look what Stephen King tweeted earlier this year, "Populist demagogues like He Who Must Not Be Named aren't a new thing; see THE DEAD ZONE, published 37 years ago."

King does not let you take the driver's seat in this story. You cannot guess what will happen, I don't think you are supposed to. The Dead Zone is as unpredictable and meandering as real life. It is at once a murder mystery, a horror story, a family saga, a political thriller, a psychological drama and a blossoming love story. It is all of these and none of these. Its characters are its lifeline, not its plot. At its core, it is simply the story of a man dealing with what life throws his way and trying to make the best out of it. A good man who has been dealt a bad hand. It is a story of redemption and forgiveness, it is a story that makes you love its simplicity, until it goes and shocks the hell out of you. 

"The same chipped angels year after year, and the same tinsel star on top; the tough surviving platoon of what had once been an entire battalion of glass balls. And when you looked at the ornaments you remembered that there had once been a mother in the place to direct the tree-trimming operation, always ready and willing to piss you off by saying 'a little higher' or 'a little lower' or 'I think you've got too much tinsel on that left side, dear.' 

You looked at the ornaments and remembered that just the two of you had been around to put them up this year, just the two of you because your mother went crazy and then she died, but the fragile Christmas tree ornaments were still here, still hanging around to decorate another tree taken from the small back woodlot. 

Sure, that's right, God's a real prince. God's a real sport. He's such a sport that he fixed up a funny comic-opera world where a bunch of glass Christmas tree globes could outlive you. Neat world, and a really first-class God in charge of it."

I mentioned an experimental style before... The book has a strange narrative flow. An unreliable narrator we don't know we have until the story begins to sound like an unfinished puzzle. We have letters and newspaper clippings and a chunk of story shoved into a mind-blowing epilogue. Surprises, surprises, so many of them. His writing breaks all the norms and so well, it makes you wonder why there are any rules at all. Recently I saw an interview with Stephen King where he said something to the effect that he doesn't want people to read his books for their language, or their message or whatever. What he wants is to just reach out and grab his reader. He did, here. He always has.

(Let this be part of R.I.P XI which pulled me back to horror after a far-too-long hiatus.)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On individual interpretations, abridgment and reading White Fang by Jack London

Brace yourself, this will be one of the long ones... 

Set in the coldest North Canada, White Fang is the story of a wild little wolf cub, White Fang, borne of a wolf and a female wolf-dog. The story of a wild animal who grows up near and in the company of man. The effect this has on him, and what it says about life, death, nature and nurture is what the book is all about. It is the companion book of The Call of the Wild, apparently its mirror.

For the last two months, for one reason or the other, I have been immersed in fantasy and children's books. White Fang was a welcome change. The writing left me spellbound. Here are two excerpts:

"It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offence to it, for Life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man - man who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement."

"Life flowed past him, deep and wide and varied, continually impinging upon his senses, demanding of him instant adjustments and correspondences, and compelling him, almost always, to suppress his natural impulses."

On individual interpretations and my takeaway - the evolution of the dog:

I finished this book towards the end of last month. Since then, I have discussed it, if fleetingly, with more than a couple of people. The interactions have left me somewhat amused. One friend finds it eerie, to another it's the classic classic (I have yet to understand exactly what being a classic classic entails) while my favourite is perhaps the idea that it belongs to the same class of quiet reflective books as Walden (which, by the way, I haven't read.) I agree with each takeaway, while being carefully aware that that is not how I saw the book, at all: because I, for one, am most affected by the most literal of interpretations this book could have. This, I admit, is not the deepest essence of White Fang, but this is what the post shall deal with foremost - the evolution of the domestic dog. 

I am a cat person to the core. One of my favourite things about cats is that they are not so much domesticated as willing to share space with not entirely unlikable creatures (that would be us) so long as we serve their every need. A dog, in very stark contrast, lives to please. It is as if there is something inside a dog that exists only for the human caress. And, London says there is. London repeatedly talks about this feeling hidden deep within the wolf, White Fang, this call of the civilisation (let's put it like that) and its slow awakening with increasing contact with people. There is a very obvious analogy there with the savage man, of course, but the book significantly overtly captured my amateur (mostly experiential) interest in animal behaviour. 

Recently, a friend told me that the evolution of dogs was genetic. Very simply put, this meant that there was a certain genetic marker that made wolves afraid of humans, and a kind of wolf evolved in whom this hormone (I suppose) was absent - a forefather of our dog. Hours of swift-fingered Googling (the easiest research there is) led me to interesting tidbits - my friend was right, dogs were not tamed by us, really, but somehow "invented themselves" by becoming steadily tamer around and dependent on humans, in a surprisingly parasitic fashion. 

The rapid and random breeding of dogs makes it hard to trace their precise origin, but it is generally agreed that they were domesticated at least 15000 years ago. The process, I'm sure, was not nearly as simple and affecting as was described in White Fang, yet I wonder what that first wolf-dog felt... (such is the power of historical fiction.)

"There was something calling to him out there in the open. His mother heard it, too. The stream, the lair, and the quiet woods were calling to him, and he wanted her to come. But she heard also that other and louder call, the call of the fire and of man - the call which it has been given alone of all animals to the wolf to answer."

Dogs and men have a special relationship, no doubt. And this book just gets it, from an utterly un-romanticized dog's perspective. The cruelty suffered by White Fang and the building of trust that forms the basis of any dog-human relationship is beautifully expressed. I read on Wikipedia that London suffered criticism for his "fake nature" writing and for overly anthropomorphic animals. I find this accusation ludicrous! The opposite is true. I loved how, throughout the book, London reaffirms that White Fang, the wolf, had no conscious clue of his nature or intentions, that it was plain instinct that guided his every move.

“Had the cub thought in man-fashion, he might have epitomized life as a voracious appetite, and the world as a place wherein ranged a multitude of appetites, pursuing and being pursued, hunting and being hunted, eating and being eaten, all in blindness and confusion, with violence and disorder, a chaos of gluttony and slaughter, ruled over by chance, merciless, planless, endless.”

That pesky allegory:

Yes, White Fang is about life and experience, or often lack thereof. It is so many things, layer beneath layer of story. A fable about a lone pup in search of warmth and love. It is about coming of age. About the pull of the unknown and the loss of innocence that comes of it. White Fang is about reconciling with the wild in us, the savage that lurks in the belly of every civilization. The book humbles you in the face of nature, like The Lord of the Flies, and makes you question your firmest beliefs. It is also, quite unlike The Lord of the Flies, immensely reassuring. A book of quiet reflection, it will give you plenty to mull over.

It is also supremely idiotic in how the white man makes a naturally superior god to the wolf than the tribal. I don't remember there being any memorable women among the humans in the book, but in the interest of not bristling at every turn, I do think that the mother wolf is one of the coolest female characters ever. 

Lost in abridgment; an afterthought:

Grade 5 of the school I teach at has an abridged chapter from this book in their English syllabus... The Grey Cub. It was this more than anything else that got me interested in Jack London - an author whom I have once, long ago, abandoned two pages in... (in a kiddy version of The Call of the Wild). I blame abridgment. Reading White Fang now, I kept wondering why we bother with abridged texts. Is it not a form of censorship?... taking it upon ourselves to decide what is and isn't appropriate for a certain age to read and experience. There is a lot, I realised as I read White Fang, that is lost in in this translation. 

The chapter from the Grade 5 book is mildly interesting, at best. It is simple and straightforward, where Jack London has poured multiple layers of meaning into every line, to peel back and marvel at. Look here - what is a mere "fall down a steep slope" in the textbook is originally this vivid gem of a line. Which child, tell me, won't chuckle at this?

"Now the grey cub had lived all his days on a level floor. He had never experienced the hurt of a fall. He did not know what a wall was. So he stepped boldly out upon the air."

And even if a book is deemed, rightly, as more appropriate for a certain age, then why distort it to suit another? Surely we have plenty of beautiful, profound children's literature to fill up all the textbooks in the world. Why bother with texts that need to be watered down when we have many available that cater to the very needs of the children? During my post-grad, I took up a course in teaching reading where we briefly dealt with how to edit texts for age-appropriateness: replace complex clauses with simple, use grade-level vocabulary and such. At the time, it never occurred to me simply ask; but why the hell just not stick to children's books instead! Thinking of the ones I have enjoyed over the years, I am not convinced they have any less to offer.
...

Too long to read? White Fang by Jack London - a must read, if ever there was one.