girl, awkward

August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Taking this blogging thing to a whole new level and putting up a review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband,  and He Hanged Himself some three months later. #awkwardblogging

This originally appeared in Pop Matters:

In her book of short critical commentaries and interviews with ten contemporary writers, Voices of Russian Literature, Sally Laird describes the women and girls who populate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories as hapless and ill-suited to even the most basic machinations of life. They seem to lack “even the rudiments of pride or strategy,” and on the surface, as Laird points out, “many of Petrushevskaya’s heroines appear to live their lives ineptly.” Nothing better describes the heroines of the stories in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself.

These girls and young women are average-looking or sometimes outright unattractive, as in the case of the protagonist in “Give Her to Me”: “Karpenko… was one of those unfortunate creatures forced to compensate for their appearance with a pleasant disposition and a carefree attitude.” They’re barely visible to the world outside of their cramped apartment shared with family members. “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else,” begins one story, for example. “Until Clarissa turned seventeen not a single soul admired or noticed her—in that respect she was not unlike Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling,” begins another.

Motherhood is a central theme in these stories, and mothers loom large over these inept, awkward daughters. But these daughters then grow up to become inept, awkward mothers. This pattern keeps repeating itself throughout Petrushevskaya’s stories. That the parents are practically indistinguishable from their children is one of the key tropes in this collection.

In her interview with Laird, Petrushevskaya is keen to emphasise that she doesn’t regard herself as a women writer.” As she says: “I write above all about children, not about women; the land I inhabit is a land of children, not of grown-ups.” These love stories are as much about women trying to find their lost or dead babies in grown men as it is about love between two adults or supposed “equals”.

If Petrushevskaya’s women are hapless, then the men are clueless. But if there is a war of the sexes in Petrushevskaya’s stories, however, it’s a war between two losing sides. Husbands have lost their jobs, money, and teeth, and their wives plot to escape to another apartment inherited from dead aunts. Husbands and wives scream at each other over dinner and stomp off to bed; they wake up the next day and show up to perform the same ritual all over again.

That’s because they have nowhere else to go. Another central theme in Petrushevskaya’s stories is that of space or the absolute lack of it—the key characteristic of the Russian kommunalka. Petrushevskaya’s stories make no overt mention of politics, but her characters are constantly manoeuvring their way around the cramped spaces of communal apartments; the concept of privacy is literally impossible, barely even imaginable. The space of the communal apartment organises the behaviour of the inhabitants; it mediates their social interactions.

Petrushevskaya may eschew overt discussion of Soviet communism in her stories—all the action tends to take place “inside”, in these apartments and in offices, bus stops, grocery stores—but the Soviet-era administration of space haunts each and every personal encounter. In “Young Berries”, one of the collection’s most poignant and formally-inventive story with its alternating first and third person point-of-view, a young girl finds that she’s unable to have the phone conversation she wants to have with her crush because “the apartment’s entire population now stood in the hall… The conceit was that everyone was waiting to use the phone after me.”

More central to the story, however, is how the girl’s stay in a sanatorium—with its autumnal park and lush trees, with all its space—is what she comes to miss the most after she returns to a crowded apartment shared with one too many family members. “By the time the girl reached fifth grade, of course, all Soviet citizens were proletarians.”

To the extent that this collection features “love stories”, however, love is a mangled, ugly thing. Despite love’s viciousness, manipulations, and violence, however, Petrushevskaya’s characters are lonely, and they want some of the sweetness it brings: human contact, warmth, an elevated sense of self, the idea that there must be something better out there than life as they know it. Often, it’s a means of escape—a way out of those damn communal apartments, for one thing (and into another, as it often turns out), but for children, it’s primarily a means to escape the pressing weight of their parents.

In “Father and Mother”, for example, Tanya leaves her bickering parents’ home with her lover after deciding that she’s had enough of them, and she never looks back: “Everything that happened to her afterward—homelessness, then a landlady who drank nothing but kefir and tried to hang herself every March but was rescued by her son—all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” In the hands of a different writer, the bleakness of these stories would be overwhelming, its black humour enervating or merely “ironic”. But Petrushevskaya wants her characters to have a better life. She’s not sure if they can, given the fact that the world is a pretty shit place, but she’s not going to give up on them.

It’s this aspect of Petrushevskaya that American reviewers seem to adore, perhaps assuming that this reveals a kind of liberal humanism that has seen the worst of Soviet communism and whole-heartedly refused it. And perhaps it does. Petrushevskaya is well-known playwright and writer in her own country and has been writing since the ‘70s, although it was only after the implementation of glasnost under Gorbachev during the ‘80s that her prose writings began to see light of day.

Meanwhile, she became well-known to American readers (and by proxy, readers in other parts of the world) after the publication of a collection of “scary fairy tales” by Penguin Books, ,i>There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, in 2009. While Petruskhevskaya, in Laird’s interview, says, “I’ve never concerned myself with politics—it doesn’t interest me at all, for all sorts of reasons,” this strikes one as a particularly disingenuous statement because while it’s never overt, there is a sense of resistance or criticism to forms of communal living, and by extension, the Soviet communist project at large, in all her stories. This seems to indicate a particular political position, even if it’s not explicitly articulated.

In this light, then, her characters’ absolute lack of drive, ambition, or self-transformation is particularly interesting—their incompetence at life becomes more of a political stance and less of a quirk of the “the mysteries of human nature” variety for which Petrushevskaya’s stories are often praised. As Jochen Hellbeck points out in his study of diaries written during the Soviet revolution, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, “The concern with self-transformation, shared by the Communist regime and these Soviet diarists, was rooted in the revolution of 1917, which promoted a new thinking about the self as political project… Talking and writing about oneself had become intensely politicized activities. One’s ‘biography’ had become an artifact of considerable political weight.”

Petrushevskaya, whose forebears were part of the Old Bolsheviks and comprised the Russian intelligentsia, lived a life of poverty and neglect. Anna Summers writes in her translator’s introduction that as a young girl in Moscow “Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments,” while in the interview with Laird Petrushevskaya talks specifically about wanting to write the stories of “ordinary people” outside of the circle of politicians and intellects that she knew grewing up.

The characters of her book don’t keep diaries or ruminate on their innermost thoughts—they are consumed by detail and the minutiae of the everyday life; in those cramped apartments, they barely have space to think. This fulfils one common narrative beloved by liberal capitalists about life under Soviet communism: people are so victimised they barely even know how to have thoughts! On the other hand, as Hellbeck points out, Soviet diarists came from varied backgrounds and occupations, and many were wrestling with the summons to “internalize the revolution” with a personal attempt to write themselves into “the revolutionary narrative”. In this sense, while it was a Communist dictat that the people should write their lives and transform themselves into ideal revolutionary subjects, indicating a certain form of political and social coercion, people retained a sense of agency in their writings and sought to shape their troubled, conflicted individual narratives within a larger, collective one.

Petrushevskaya’s stories of “ordinary people” are ambivalent and unsettling because while people show up to help each other, they seem unaware of their own actions or the impulses, desires, and reasons behind it. Petrushevskaya wants her characters to come out on the other side, still surviving, but this concern for her characters can be as forceful, patronising, and muddled as the love parents have for their children. In her introduction, Summers wants us to see that Petrushevskaya “wants us to be strong, and clever, and resourceful, like the Russian people she loves.” But if the characters in her stories stand in for the Russian people she loves, then these are a people who are exhausted and perplexed, sent out into a world they don’t quite know how to navigate, subject to love, luck, and brutality by the incomprehensible energies of an indifferent universe (or, depending on your point of view, a gifted and shrewdly manipulative writer). There’s a sense that some readers can take some form of comfort from that, but for others, these stories merely suggest business as usual—only bleaker.

Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist.

October 17, 2012 § 8 Comments

I was in Sydney for two weeks, which was nice, but nice doesn’t quite capture it. And what was nice about it? Being away from KL was nice. “I need a new city”, someone I follow once said on Twitter, and that seems to be the thing: I need a new city. I don’t think Sydney will be my city, although I loved it, and I loved spending time with my nephews while they were on their school break, I liked the idea of a wholesome PG-13 holiday and I liked being asked by the barista if I was enjoying the school break, being away from school must be fun and all, he said. And then I said no, I’m no longer in school, and then he was like, Oops and Are these your children, then? referring to my nephews, and I somehow went from high school kid to mum in like two seconds but look, if someone wants to think I’m still in high school I am going to silently, gratefully thank the universe. But why should I thank anyone or anything, fuck this ageist capitalist society, fuck it, yes, but I still live in it, so how to fuck it is the question. The barista was cute, and my sister watched me from afar, and then calmly informed my nephews that the barista was trying to flirt with Aunty Suba and then my nephews giggled and I stammered and blushed as much as I could blush with brown skin. And the one thing they don’t tell you about older sisters is that you might get older but you’ll always feel (be) 12 around them.

We went to Darling Harbour while I was there, and that’s the one part of the city I loathed because it was a nightmare concoction of what corporate city planners think is “wholesome family fun”, there are restaurants and malls and museums and an IMAX theater and carefully-planted trees and Disneylandesque stone paths and manufactured conviviality and it reminded me so much of Singapore’s Marina Bay, another place that makes you want to run away as you enter into its vicinity.


Uniformed white men on horses in Circular Quay. I think there were epic ceremonial rites taking place that we basically stumbled upon by chance. I mean, there were reporters and shit! And who can resist the uniformed white men on horses? Not us Malaysian tourists, that’s for sure.

While taking the train from the suburbs, where my brother’s family lives, to the city, I stared out of the windows and saw things — shops and places and people and the “Say no to burqas” graffiti next to the one proclaiming “Free speech”.

Things that stick in your mind.

The one place I can’t get out of my mind is Cockatoo Island, which was formerly a penal colony (in the mid to late 19th century), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourist spot (when we went it was a long weekend and families were coming in on the ferry to camp there for the weekend). While I really wanted to visit the place — absorb it, in a way — because of its history (that awful, almost unavoidable touristy need to cannibalise history and its affects), I also couldn’t shake off the wrongness of my presence, my out-of-placeness, or the out-of-placeness of all “visitors” in a place that was formerly a site of discipline, surveillance, and hard labour. “Foucault tourism” as Nicholas Mirzoeff writes, in a piece which you should read:

My British forebears did know how and where to build prisons, you have to give them that. The island is isolated in the middle of Sydney harbor, with the prison itself located on top of a steep cliff. Recent excavations have uncovered minute solitary confinement cells, which have a distinctly contemporary look in this Abu Ghraib era. The officials built themselves sandstone residences with a Georgian feel but placed at the highest point to give them a panoptic viewpoint. Grain silos dug into the rock still have chain rings, to which the excavating prisoners were linked while working. The prison was created right at the end of the transportation era in 1849–convicts were not sent to New South Wales after 1850, although they went to Western Australia as late as 1868.

Factory workhouse on Cockatoo Island

I stood inside the the military barracks/guard house, the place from which military supervisors of the penal colony monitored the prisoners, and took pictures of the panipticon while watching other tourists take pictures of the panopticon, all the while waiting for an answer from Foucault. Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist. What am I doing here?

Cockatoo Island’s military guardhouse i.e. panopticon


In 2000, a group of Aboriginal people occupied the island and claimed it as sovereign territory. You can still see their murals, using the Aboriginal flag as a motif. Using the colonial doctrine of terra nullius, Isabell Coe and others asserted that Britain had never formally claimed the island, a claim rejected by the courts as “inconceivable.” Really? A deserted island on the edge of the harbor? Regardless, Coe created a tent embassy on the island and asserted sovereignty. The occupation of occupied indigenous land and the counterclaim to sovereignty was a powerful performative act.

The art exhibition was over when I was there and so the island was populated by adults and surly teenagers and perplexed babies, looking at the air raid shelter and the powerhouse chimney and the sewerage treatment plant and perhaps recognising the ghosts among us. It’s a quiet, isolated place; perfect, in fact, for isolated disciplinary methods and punitive labour. Strong winds, the bright sun. “This place is fascinating,” said a mother to her two teenage sons, coming down the road just ahead of us. “It was the most boring experience of my life,” said the elder son, shoving his younger brother.


While I was in Sydney my review of Roshi Fernando’s Homesick went up on Pop Matters. I didn’t expect to like it for various reasons I talk about in the review, but it surprised me. You can read the review in full here but here’s an excerpt:

One of my favourite stories, “Sophocles’s Chorus”, gives us a youthful Preethi slowly blossoming into her sexual and intellectual powers: she kisses the most lusted-after boy in school, she reads Howard’s End and Antigone, she is the star in a school play, and her dreams and words and images slowly bleed into one another until fantasies and imagination hold the possibility of becoming real. But these moments of youthful potential and hope, moments that appear to be touched by a sort of otherworldly grace, sour pretty quickly, and the kiss becomes a shame that Preethi must endure under the watchful, cruel eyes of her peers.

What starts out as tragedy on the page, experienced from a distance as a reader of Sophocles, becomes the unwished-for reality: all that held the promise of something sweet becomes rank with wrong choices and misdeeds, and Preethi slashes her wrists in the bathtub. She survives this suicide attempt, of course, but the Preethi we meet later will always be raw and vulnerable, always approaching the edge of something, only to be pulled back by someone: a husband, a cousin. Families will consistently fuck you up, Fernando seems to say, but sometimes they also don’t let you die.



Also if I had to choose between watching a slice of dry toast sit on a plate and a Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance, I’d go with the former.


People tell me that JGL is Great and Hot but I think Toast is Better, Seriously. I know he was supposed to be really good in Brick, which I think I watched, although I can’t remember maybe I just ate some toast who knows, so maybe I should watch Brick and revisit my opinion of JGL.

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Confessions NOT on a dancefloor

March 22, 2012 § 6 Comments

1)      I used to be a Hanson fan.

There, I said it.

No. I have to tell you that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I was an active member on a Hanson fan forum! I got mad at my sister when told me that Taylor Hanson looks like a girl! I read Hanson fanfic! I wrote Hanson fanfic! I thought Taylor was misunderstood by the world and the hambrained Hanson-haters and only needed to get to know me in order to live a happy and fulfilling life! I made friends on the Hanson fan forum, friends with whom I exchanged postcards, letters, mixtapes, mix CDs, posters, books, and phone calls! Actually, this last thing was the best thing of all. I haven’t talked to any of them in about 12 years, which suddenly makes me feel sad.

Taylor Hanson married someone else and had someone else’s babies, and life went on.

I was reminded of this because I just read this great piece on Rookie. The part that made #lolsob:

Though I am way too old to believe that my teenage fantasies will save me, I still find myself taking comfort in them. A few weeks ago, I stayed up all weekend watching Hanson videos on YouTube and I came across a clip of Taylor forgetting the lyrics at a concert and then endearingly asking the audience to help him, and suddenly I was all, What a magnificent person, I wonder if he and his wife are going to get divorced, even though they have four kids. He would probably be more intrigued and fulfilled by someone really creative and unhinged like, um, me.

(Jenny, who wrote that piece, writes a really great blog called Fashion for Writers. And it just occurred to me that we’re both using the same WordPress template, as are a few other WordPress blogs I frequent, and it’s always a little bit embarrassing, like going to a party and finding out that you and a bunch of other people you really admire are all wearing the same outfit. Or another way of looking at it: There is only one decent WordPress outfit theme and we all have to use it.)

The Hanson brothers

2)      I haven’t properly read Marx. I read The Communist Manifesto but I think it’s the least you can do and not something you’re allowed to brag about. So my project for 2012 is to get through Capital, with David Harvey’s help. (A sub-confession: this is 2011’s resolution, brought forward.) And about 20 minutes into David Harvey’s introductory video, he makes a joke and I do not laugh: “One of the best things about reading Hegel before reading Marx is that makes reading Marx pretty easy. So get yourself a dose of Hegel before you do Marx and everything will be okay.” I DO NOT LAUGH because-

3)      I have not read Hegel. Not even a sentence, I don’t think. Maybe a phrase. Maybe I’ve glanced at some Hegelian words. (Do I need to read Hegel before Marx? Should I go back to the Greeks? Perhaps reread Shakespeare? WHEN DOES THE PROJECT START AFTER I’VE READ EVERYTHING EVER WRITTEN HOW THE FUCK HOW HOW HOW FOR THE LOVE OF ISSUS OF BARSOOM I HAVEN’T EVEN READ ADAM SMITH UNLESS EXCERPTS COUNT WHY DO I NOT KNOW A DAMN THING WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY LIFE WHAT DO I READ WHEN HOW HOW)

The Karl Marx

4)      Instead of starting on Capital as I had planned to, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars last weekend in preparation for John Carter because I had no say in the matter. (The choice of movie, that is.) I think I liked the book, despite taking the time to laboriously type notes in my Kindle along the lines of, “Bahaha!” and “LOL!” and “For fuck’s sake!” Books that you can simultaneously mock and enjoy possess a certain form of power. I love that John Carter has gone to Mars but all the rules of heteropatriarchy still apply. I mean, that’s just how our world the universe works. I just got such a kick out of this hypermasculine wish fulfillment fantasy that is also one of greatest sci-fi classics of all time or something.

5)      I watched John Carter and I think I liked it and maybe you might like it too IF YOU IGNORE the nice Disney-liberal sheen, when John Carter tells some Confederate soldier dude, “You started it. You finish it!” and soldier dude goes, “Oh-ho, gone all native have we?” and John Carter replies, “No, damn the Apaches too,” or something to that effect and we’re meant to relate to and agree with this hunky embodiment of rational (white) male subjectivity, who is an Individual and who sees the robbing of American lands from the natives as a fight among equals, you know, damn you all to hell all of you I AM JOHN CARTER AND DO I NOT LOOK GOOD WITH MY DIRTY BLONDE LOCKS and when the Therns talk about how the human race is overpopulating itself and fighting to the death because THERE ARE SO MANY HUMANS and you’re meant to think OH THAT’S WHAT WAR IS ALL ABOUT NOT REALLY ABOUT GEOPOLITICS AND POWER MATRICES IT’S BECAUSE THERE ARE JUST TOO MANY OF US WELL WHY DON’T WE GET RID OF A FEW and maybe it should be the Tharks because they’re not aesthetically pleasing like John Carter of Earth and Dejah Thoris of Barsoom who are PRETTY PRETTY PEOPLE AND NOBLE AND GOOD AND PRETTY AND REALLY WOW GREAT BODIES TOO and the Tharks are just so strange looking aren’t they and none so noble as a human as Tars Tarkas and Sola, because the rest of them are brutes but hey John Carter’s loins say save Helium and Dejah Thoris and so, for that purpose, let us harness the labour of the Tharks to fight on behalf of Helium even though John Carter told Sola earlier that she is the only Thark worthy of the honour of her father’s legacy of kindness and nobility but that’s okay coz none of the other Tharks heard him say that and now they’re all really excited to fight for him even though they called him a white ape earlier, the brutes, but John Carter was really exemplary in dealing with all that hatred and racism from the uncivilised Tharks and you see the lesson here? John Carter may have benefited from white supremacy on planet Earth but he went to Mars and he was discriminated, just like the rest of us, DO YOU SEE, he just triumphed and showed the Tharks the way by staying true to the course and so if you can ignore all that, then yeah. It was pretty enjoyable, and you might like it.

The script was co-written by Michael Chabon.

The lovely people of our various planets

6)      The only book by Michael Chabon I have ever attempted to read: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The attempt was unsuccessful. I really, really, really did not like it. (Related question: What fuels the Chabon-mania? I do not understand. Do I really want to? No.)

7)      I willed myself to stay away from Twitter for a few days and I did and those few days became a week and then I was scared to go back there but then I went back and all my time is gone, again, because I read and wrote more in my spare time than I would have while tweeting, retweeting, and madly favouriting, which is what I’m doing now, having gone back. How do people hold down a job, be married, make babies, write books, write poetry, direct films, sing songs, play musical instruments, go to the gym, bake a fucking cake, and STILL ACTIVELY TWEET AND BLOG? I don’t know.

8)       I can’t stand Don Draper. I finally watched Season 4 of Mad Men and I realise that we sat through a whole season of smugbum privileged pricks just so that we could enjoy what was engendered by the various hypermasculine charades: interaction between Peggy and Joan, for like 5 glorious minutes, in the final episode. In general, I just don’t know about the adult characters this season. I’m #TeamSallyDraper all the way. I’m really sad that she has Father Issues and that her Father is Don Draper. (In summary: #nodads.) I’m amazed at how quickly Betty became the wholly unsympathetic witchmother/wife. I felt like her character was made to stand in for much of the audience’s rage and disgust over the treatment of Carla although neither Don Draper or Betty’s new husband Henry Francis gave a shit about Carla until she was fired. (And then, specifically on Don’s part, it was about how it would affect him when he takes the kids with him to California.) Yes, they’re all racist, the show vaguely and quickly assures us, but Betty is just a little bit worse for being so bitchy about it. Meanwhile, Don Draper carries on with the DonDraper Guide to Life which goes along the lines of, Secretaries: use or marry. “You don’t want to start giving me morality lessons, do you? People do things,” says Don Draper to Peggy, in reference to him sleeping with his former secretary while drunk and not taking any responsibility for the fallout. Oh, but he TRIED! How he tried! He attempted to write a letter, wrote one sentence, and threw the letter away because words on a lousy letter cannot bear the significance of the complexity that is Don Draper. Meanwhile… next episode! (File this under: “How Don Draper’s Creators Allow Don Draper to Get Away with Shit.”) Seriously. I cannot stand Don Draper. (Does Betty say the same thing? I think so.)

9)      Since reading Joan Riviere’s “Womanliness as a Masquerade” a few months ago and identifying myself as one of the intermediate types, I keep asking myself, What went wrong during the oral-biting stage? This is the question to ask (your)myself. And this made me realise that although I’ve read quite a bit of Freud I haven’t quite properly read Freud, either, and even less of the feminist critiques/engagement with Freud, and WHY DO I NOT KNOW A DAMN THING WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY LIFE WHAT DO I READ WHEN HOW HOW

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Review of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

A slightly delayed posting of my review of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care for Pop Matters. Here’s an excerpt:

This is a book about Guyana, but it’s also in part about India, where the protagonist and the vast number of the Guyanese population locate their roots. Guyana, the protagonist informs his readers, “had the feel of an accidental place”. The protagonist of The Sly Company is a 20-something cricket journalist from Bombay who ups and leaves his job to spend a year in this accidental place. Up until this point, this book had only referred to India tangentially through the acknowledgement of the myriad ethnicities that people present-day Guyana. It spoke of a past India seen through the lens of colonialism that brought indentured labourers to emancipated Guyana from Calcutta and Bihar and other parts of India (alongside, in smaller numbers, people from Portuguese Madeira, China, other West Indian colonies). It spoke of a hyper-realised Bollywood India seen through the wistful eyes of Indian descendants of labourers who had never been “back”.

I wanted very much to like this book in an uncomplicated way, but perhaps the discomfort I had with it speaks more of Bhattacharya’s talent than a simple “I liked it!” This was the book review I was wrestling with when I wrote this post on Fanon.

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Open City by Teju Cole

June 26, 2011 § 8 Comments

I reviewed Teju Cole’s Open City for Pop Matters. I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve been having trouble reading fiction for awhile now. I’m not sure if I’m having trouble or I just haven’t been interested enough to read a novel or a collection of stories. I’d read only good reviews of this book prior to reading it and, as a result, was dreading it. But having read it – count me in among the swooning masses.

This book was hard to get through because I read it during a time when I wanted to escape my own mind – and it was impossible, because Open City places you smack dab in the narrator, Julius’ mind, and of course this means you’re in your mind while in Julius’ mind. I wanted to be less think-y. Julius is think-y. So I read it slowly, and felt slowly consumed by the ever-present consciousness that belonged not to me, but to a fictional character, and yet one that was refracted through my own consciousness. Short of escaping myself, it was an invitation to dwell.

I think I’ve recommended Open City enough in my review and on Twitter that I probably don’t need to say more besides invite you to read the review for yourself, if you’re into the sort of thing. Speaking of Twitter, Teju Cole is on Twitter, and you’ll want to follow him. None of that “I will be launching my book at ______” or “Read a review of my book at __________.” Nope. “News from the Lagos papers, remixed” is what Cole’s Twitter bio tells us, and that is exactly what you get.

(If I swoon a little too much when I talk about Teju Cole it has nothing to do with anything.)

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In which I review Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey

May 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

for PopMatters.

It starts like this:

Zachary Mason’s reimagining of The Odyssey in 44 vignettes is a fleet-footed and agile act of creation, much like wily Odysseus himself in Homer’s original epic. The premise of The Lost Books of the Odyssey hinges on this literary conceit: 44 variations of Homer’s The Odyssey have been found at an excavation site, written on “pre-Ptolemaic papyrus”. The result is this purported “lost books” of the Odyssey, translated and compiled into one book.

This mock-scholarly preface to the Lost Books already prefigures the sense of play that will imbue the narrative, but it’s a muted kind of play. If anything, Mason’s fragments subtly reveal what I found most affecting about Homer’s tale of Odysseus: the bleakness and loneliness that constantly shrouds this perpetual wanderer slash trickster. “I hope this translation reflects the haunted light of Homer’s older islands”, writes the unnamed writer of the preface, and the light that is cast on these fragments is indeed haunted by the unending play of memories.

And you can read it in full here if you want! Or not.

I started out feeling really ambivalent about the book. I dislike feeling ambivalent about a book. I know that sometimes ambivalence probably helps, in terms of writing an objective (as much as it can be) review, but the reading experience felt strangely… muted. And then somewhere in the middle it suddenly became an emotional experience, and then towards the end I cried a bit. I know. What on earth? you’re thinking. On the whole I admired Mason’s sense of structure and his ear for language. The bits that really got to me were the bits where Athena hovered about, wily and cunning like Odysseus, always looking out for him. I’m agnostic, I guess, but there is some residual Hindooism in me. My inner Hindoo likes to talk to Hanuman, thinking that he’s watching out for me. Hanuman, too, is a little bit wily, a little bit of a trickster. I felt something for the relationship between Odysseus and Athena – at least, in the way Mason portrayed it.

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“This is our land [Coconut City]”

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Nikesh Shukla’s Coconut Unlimited invited me in with its very tempting cover of vivid saree-appropriate orange. And not just ordinary saree-orange. Saree-orange speckled with graffiti-ed words and doodles. A cow accompanied by a “no beef” sign hung out next to a cassette tape, and a microphone floated somewhere above it. More important, however, were the blurbs. I would like to consider myself blurb-proof. Apparently, I only am blurb-proof when the blurb reads: “A lyrical portrait of an ordinary American family in the heart of the Midwest rocked to the core by sudden revelations and secrets from the past.” Coconut Unlimited’s blurbs were penned, though, by hip names – Joe Dunthorne of Submarine and Riz MC, star of Four Lions, for one thing – and embellished with choice words. The choicest of them being the phrase, “the Brit-Asian Rotters’ Club”, courtesy of Niven Govinden. What to do? I bought the book. I am not blurb-proof. I am not impervious. Altogether, say it to me: Hubris will be thy fall, etc.

The combined effect of colour + cover + blurbs leads the susceptible-to-covers reader (me) to believe she’s about to read THE BEST NOVEL EVAH. So it’s hardly surprising that Coconut Unlimited did not quite live up to the hype. It had its journey very well-mapped out, and it followed closely to the prescribed path. This was meant to be a warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn about three Indian boys in a posh public school in Harrow banding together to form a rap group as a buffer against the virulent British-strain of public school classism and racism. And so it was a warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn. Yet, interwoven threads of cultural differences and immigrant blues underpinned the yarniness, and it felt like the narrative would have sometimes liked to go down a different a path – a little less slap-your-knee funny, a little more turbulent and chaotic – but it seemed to have been firmly yanked back into warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn territory. Still, it must be acknowledged the flood of acclaim that came out for Coconut Unlimited book probably points towards the need among readers for adolescent school stories featuring less-than-lily white characters, for stories situated outside of the sphere of the white British experience trotted out as being representative or typical.

As far as male friendships go, Coconut Unlimited is a fine tribute to the ties that bind. Amit, the protagonist who presents this tale to us in a narrated flashback, and his two buddies Anand and Nishant, are ready-made outcasts in their posh collegiate environment because of their race and skin colour. The three are intermittently geeky and surprisingly smooth, and the dialogue between the three form some of the best parts of the book. Amit is witty and adept at summing up his social condition in a few well-chosen words:

At private school, the only thing to rebel against was wealth, which made all the white kids turn to angsty guitar music about upset stomachs and parental resentment. We three had no wealth to rebel against. We were the victims of our parents’ desire to ensure we had a good education, meaning all their money was spent on private school. No holidays, no proper nights out, no musical instruments, no frivolity – only austere learning. We rebelled against the stigma of being the three Asians.[i]

Being brown and not black isn’t enough to withstand white contempt, or at the very least it only invites a different kind of contempt that is rooted in unflattering comparisons to curry – and so Amit and his crew decide to go black via rap music and “street” culture. Problem is, neither one of them can rap – and neither one of them has experienced “life on the street”. But where adolescent energy finds its destiny, nothing can stand in its way, and so Amit, Anand, and Nishant are on their way to being Coconut Unlimited by careful and disciplined appropriation of black culture and rap music as gleaned from TV and music magazines.

Coconut Unlimited is set in the 1990s, so for these cash-deprived Indian boys of Harrow, cassette tapes are the medium by which music is discovered and consumed. Hey! Much like it was for cash-deprived Indian girls of Malaysia. Amit and his friends trade mix tapes and record songs off of bought albums and spend hours listening to beats and memorising lyrics. The mix tape is the site in which the self is continuously being remade. This isn’t surprising as music-obsessed adolescents of the 80s and mid-90s attempted to build, demolish, and reconstruct new identities in tandem with their shifting interests and obsessions with newly-discovered music, and the cassette facilitated easy acquisition and dispersal of music to suit rapidly-changing needs. Press play, hit record, or rewind – it’s there one minute or deleted and recorded over the next. The Coconut Unlimited trio also record their self-made music using cassette tapes, figuring out creative ways to layer rapping over vocals and beats in an awkward and adorable attempt at bricolage. But what’s interesting is that Amit’s father does the same, using his cassettes as a way of maintaining ties to a place – in this case, India – by copying Bollywood albums brought over by friends, and then circulating and trading these tapes amongst his friends. In Amit’s father’s case, the mix tape is a means by which he rediscovers what probably constitutes the lost self of a first-generation immigrant to Britain.

Amit’s always-present anger and confusion is often sublimated into crafting rhymes that sound good in his head but also tend to stay in his head – Amit is a failed rapper before he can even begin – which is interesting, of course, and funny. But this aspect of Amit’s character also feels overly-prescribed, as if Shukla’s attempt to rewrite the comic English novel to the key of brown prevents him from exploring (or wanting to) the boundaries between laughter and shame, or laughter and pain. After all, the immigrant experience of being the outsider constantly reminded of one’s “otherness” is not always summed up with a catchy rhyme or deviated with a few laughs. When I think about what is one of the most successful depictions of both vivid pathos and humour as it plays out in the daily lived experience of the immigrant, I think of The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. The Lonely Londoners tells the story of the working-class, however, and Coconut Unlimited tells the story of young men who aren’t poor but who are trapped within limited economic circumstances that seriously circumscribe their ability to be “pretty cool”.

Perhaps there is never really any true pathos in the experience of the marginalised-yet-pampered second-generation Indian immigrant, only sublimated anger and resentment. Pitching the narrative at one particular emotional note throughout the book doesn’t seem to have done justice to Coconut Unlimited’s scope and imagination. Sometimes the racist bullshit that the boys endure are not so much of a laugh, haha. The familial tensions that arise out inter-generational conflicts are tiny stabs to the heart, and not so much of a laugh, haha. That’s not to say that Shukla shouldn’t have set out to write a comic novel undercut by humiliation and marginalization (two situations ripe for humour), but the comedy faltered at points. From a reader’s perspective, it felt like the comedy faltered at precise points where comedy needed to sit back and allow a little pathos to seep in through the gaps. But those emotions aren’t given permission to expand to fit those gaps, and what remains are absences in the text that don’t so much as engage curiosity as shut it down.

This is partly a problem with Amit, who drops tiny bombs throughout the narrative about his displeasure for Asian and Indian girls. He meets the daughter of his parents’ friends, a girl whom he considers sexy, only to remind us that he only considered her “sexy for an Asian girl.” Amit spends a lot of his time wanting to distance himself from his white male counterparts – and white male culture in general – while generally only desiring white females and holding Indian/Asian girls in contempt. Amit’s dislike and contempt for Indian and Asian girls is constant – he derides his sister’s Indian friends as stupid and giggly, and derides the Indian girls at a Gujarati cultural event he attends as stupid and giggly, and objects to Anand’s first girlfriend on grounds of simple jealousy, but also because she’s Indian. This is interesting, and one wonders if it’s an expected immigrant malaise to sexually reject the people who are most like you and desire those most unlike you as you grow up in a culture that valorises the people most unlike you.  The Lacanian construct of “desire is the desire for the other” seems to bear out most convincingly in immigrant or post-colonial communities. No surprise then that the teenage Amit reveres white girls more than others – except that the grown-up Amit, who narrates this story and comes back to join in the final chapter, has fulfilled teenaged Amit’s dream by marrying a white woman. One can’t help but wonder about the buried subtext of this after an adolescence spent imagining Indian/Asian women to be somehow deficient – capable only of provoking Amit’s disgust and scorn.

Amit’s pretty astute in realising that he’s mocked for appropriating black street culture while living in the comfortable suburbs of Harrow, and is aware enough to feel embarrassed when his mom says unthinking sort-of racist things about black people and black culture. At the same time, it’s a fairly common adolescent rite-of-passage to rebel, strongly and loudly OR subtly and wimpily, against one’s parents and by extension, one’s culture – since most parents tend to fill the role of cultural gatekeepers – and also to rebel against all that undercuts your sense of self and rubs your face in daily misery. In Amit’s case, the latter is realised by his posh white classmate and the entire racialised structure of his private school experience. But Amit also performs some of his own (unconscious, perhaps) cultural gatekeeping when he evaluates his Indian peers, mocking them for their fondness for vacuous R‘n’B music and appropriation of bling-bling culture:

The boys: gelled spiky hair in a variety of angles and shaved sides, jumpers with logos emblazoned near their nipples, Moschino or Ralph Lauren or Armani – s’ all bout da laaaaabels blud – jeans with insignias all over them, gleaming white trainers, gold rings on every finger displaying religious iconography.

The girls: grey or green contact lenses, foundation like pate, catty eye make-up and the rest all in black, their long small fingernails painted golden, their hair straight and middle-parted, small, all under five-foot – all so generic, so exactly the same that there was nothing even remotely attractive about them.

Sure, people might argue that Amit is young – it’s practically a requirement for him to be an ass.[ii] But young or no, one hopes to excavate other character traits that would make him interesting to be with for the duration of the narrative, if not exactly a pleasure to be with. Shukla gives us an Amit with a sparse history and with very few engagements in life beyond this sudden manic obsession with rap music as a means of attaining cool factor and redeeming his social standing. Amit seems intangible, almost a figment of authorial nostalgia and memory, while the people around him – Anand, Nishant, his parents, even Pentil the racist bully in his school – are sketched out in strong, sharp strokes, imbuing them with a stronger presence on the page than Amit ever achieves.

Shukla’s prose, however, provides the rhythm that propels the book’s narrative forward in a fairly entertaining way; the dialogue peppered with the steady and catchy beat of street slang (or at the very least, mimics the attempts of straightlaced good boys trying to speak in slang). There are some hilarious inclusions of Amit’s (misfired) attempts at crafting rhyme for their rap songs, and as expected for a comic novel well-versed and respectful of its tradition, rapid-fire wit and humour are in abundance. Amit’s mother’s constant irritation with her son’s speech style, “What do you mean ‘what’s up?’ Why must something always be up?” got a smile out of me each time. The general tenor of her dialogue is affectionately and tenderly executed; she isn’t framed as being silly or nasty (as some Indian moms appear to be when seen from the perspective of their beloved sons… or yes, daughters), just stolidly and comfortingly present.

So is Coconut Unlimited the Brit-Asian The Rotters’ Club? I remember the latter creating a world of juvenile angst, confusion, lust, desire, and the manic teenage enthusiasm for 70s British punk. It was absorbing; I read it very quickly and without many breaks while I listened to XTC in the background, and came out of it fully-convinced I was a young English male on the cusp of an exciting future. Coconut Unlimited peeled off only very outer layer of its characters’ complicated lives, and as a result I only wanted to give it my very superficial attention. It’s like expecting a lunch of rice and sambar made from scratch, only to be given sambar-from-a-box. You eat it… but there’s some crucial element missing. There’s very little room in Coconut Unlimited for the characters to feel genuinely bad for more than two seconds, and because of that the book is somewhat inadequate. From other reviews I’ve read, I seem to be in the tiny minority. But I can’t say I don’t look forward to see what Shukla will come up with now that he’s exorcised the ghost of his adolescent past with this book.

[i] Note that Amit is British yet refers to his public school as a private school, although I do believe that a public school in Britain is the term used for private school, but perhaps public schoolers in Britain refer to their public schools as private schools in private. I do not know. The alternative explanation is that this was a concession made in the text so as not to confuse non-English readers, who are more likely the easily-confused Americans. Ha! Just kidding. No, not really.

[ii] This definitely leads one to wonder if that’s the reason why there’s been a recent wave of books by adult men for adult audiences – Proper Books, mind you, without brain injury involved – featuring adolescent males as main characters filtering the world through an adolescent male experience.

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Interlocking issues

January 17, 2011 § 3 Comments

Some musings of mine on the issue of Interlok ran in The Nut Graph today. I have reproduced it here in full:

The debate about the novel Interlok by Malaysian national laureate Abdullah Hussein continues to rage, but among a select few. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) wants the book to be withdrawn from the Form Five syllabus for Malay literature on the grounds that the novel contains “offensive” words and depictions of Indian Malaysians. The MIC claims that the book will offend the entire Indian Hindu community, who, according to them, no longer practise the caste system.

Coming from the MIC, this smacks a little too much of hypocrisy, because I know of Indian Malaysians who still have to battle with issues of caste within their communities and families. The issue of caste has also come under scrutiny for its implications on the internal politics of the MIC. And it’s hypocritical because the MIC itself is part of a power structure that continues to practise and propagate race-based discrimination.

Interlok may or may not be right in its depiction of the Indian Malaysian community, which is taken for granted to be monolithic when it is not. But the MIC’s claim that the book highlights issues that are no longer relevant for the Indian Malaysian community is a blatant lie. It’s also a blatant form of politicking in order to win back the Indian Malaysian vote. By fighting for the rights of Indian Malaysians through this issue, the MIC is no doubt hoping that the community will forget its complicity in promoting race politics.

Selective arguments

There’s also hypocrisy from those who want the book to remain in the syllabus. These are people I follow on Twitter, traditional media columnists, as well as other writers and scholars quoted in media coverage of the issue. They claim that to censor or remove words from a published work of literature is to insult the author’s integrity. On one hand, I agree with this, because as a writer myself, I believe that the craft of writing must be respected.

More importantly, however, books, including works of creative expression, should be judged on their merits. Speculations as to the author’s intentions should not tilt the scale either way. Further to this point is the argument for free speech: something should not be censored, banned, or restricted simply because it offends some people’s sensitivities.

What would these same people who argue for the author’s integrity say about the tendency of the ruling coalition to ban any book that challenges its authority? 1FunnyMalaysia, perhaps?

Education system the problem

My greater concern is how a national education system that is fundamentally structured to be racist can attempt to teach a text as problematic as Interlok.

This book, because of its content, is the kind of book that should help further, deepen, and intensify national discourse on race relations. It is a book that should be handled with maturity and critical yet intelligent interrogation. Precisely because it offends some people, it should be deconstructed and taught with sensitivity.

But how are we going to do this through a nationally constructed pedagogy that promotes half-truths and prejudiced views, which alters history, neglects critical thinking, and undervalues the role of the teacher and student? How can we fill our schools with racist, defeated teachers, hand them a racially problematic text, and expect these very same people to teach it with any degree of responsibility, compassion, or intelligence?

Scholastic hypocrisy

Some scholars argue that Interlok depicts the “social reality” of the time in which it was set, and thus should be studied as a realistic portrayal of Malaysian society during that period of time. The Malaysian Institute of Historical and Patriotism Studies says that Interlok is a “suitable novel for use of as a textbook for the literature component of the Bahasa Malaysia subject in Form Five because it is based on historical facts”. The National Writers Association (Pena) has come out strongly against the removal of the book. A memorandum has also been signed by several groups, including the Malay Consultation Council and Ikatan Persuratan Melayu.

Will these scholars say the same about Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy, which is arguably one of the best novels about colonial-era Malaya? Burgess is equally scathing of all races, including the British. Will any Malay Malaysian politician champion for Trilogy to be taught in schools the way some of them are for Interlok?

In fact, as Sharon Bakar has pointed out, The Malayan Trilogy is not only not taught in our schools, it has also at one time or another been banned or restricted, presumably because it takes the mickey out of not just the Indians or the Chinese, but the Malays as well. I would like to hear scholars, politicians and writers come out in defence of this book for English Literature classes in Malaysia. I think all we would hear are crickets.

We uphold free speech only when it’s convenient, and argue for the integrity of artists and the free circulation of art only when it suits us. But let us not be gullible enough to assume that if Interlok is allowed to be taught in schools nationwide, we’ve won a small part of the battle. It might only be dispiriting confirmation that the national discourse favours the sensitivities and sensibilities of one particular group or race over another.

(This is cross-posted at We Are the Cocoa to Your Puffs.)

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the way that we’re living, is all take and no giving

October 19, 2010 § 4 Comments

Without a doubt, what all the reviewers tell you are true. Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a superb book, a world unto itself set in Seabrook, a boys’ boarding-school in Dublin, Ireland. There are allusions to Robert Graves’ mythic White Goddess, Celtic myths, M-theory, the first World War, and what seems like every emotion and experience one imagines must be known to modern Irish teenagekind. Murray’s writing is funny and sharp, as when he describes Titch, Seabrook’s current it-boy with the ladies:

Titch, in short, is so remarkably unremarkable that he has become a kind of embodiment of his socioeconomic class; a friendship / sexual liaison with Titch has therefore come to be seen as a kind of self-endorsement, a badge of Normality, which at this point in life is a highly prized commodity.

Within a few sentences, Murray has described that boring everyboy in every Anglo-American school designated to be the Popular One – the unbearably tedious Finn Hudsons of the world who will put you to sleep but manage to get the most girls and have the most “friends”.

This is a book about boys and men and men being boys, and in Murray’s hands, these boys of Seabrook are at once fragile, heroic, obnoxious, and tender, especially in their relation to one another. In the case of Daniel “Skippy” Juster – the boy who dies in the first chapter – his is a life lived by a tentative walking on eggshells, a boy who is unable to break free from the dark and foreboding ties of family. He is a mess because his family is a mess – a more Freudian boy-child could not have existed. All of his family’s flaws and minor tragedies seep into him unfiltered. From the start you get the sense that this poor kid doesn’t have a chance. His one major shot at happiness comes in the form of Lori, one of the most beautiful young girls around for miles. She initially appears shrouded in mystery, a distant object of uniform desire for all the boys, but of special note to Skippy. She touches something deep inside him – gaining entry into a tiny little locked room in Skippy’s psyche to which no one, even Skippy himself, has the key. Skippy thinks that “the beauty of this girl is something bigger, something beyond, with infinitely more sides to it – it’s like a mountain with an impossible shape that he keeps trying to climb and falling off, finding himself lying on his back in the snow…” Lori ignites in Skippy something more, definitely, than mere throbbing loins.

Desire is never simple

The course of infatuation never does run smooth. The fear is that the act of knowing ruins the desire, but more likely it simply roots it in the realm of action and responsibility where flights of fancy often have to come to a crashing halt. Or as Lacan might perhaps say if his words were to be butchered by me: sexual relations, in order to function, will always have to be screened through some fantasy because the realness of it is too traumatic. Where we’re dealing specifically with sensitive, tormented young men in popular culture, though, this ultimate objet petit a has nothing to do with lust – even if she is the hottest chick around – but more to do with the young soul’s timorous and instinctive yearning for pure and unvarnished Beauty. As Murray writes it, every other boy around may be thinking of ways to sex up Lori, but Skippy is concerned with her As a Person, in so much as Her Person remains elusive, perfect, and untouchable. A mountain – whose beauty will mean more once he climbs it. Or will it, after he has climbed it, mean something less? Will it be cast aside as he moves on to other girls, something to be revisited only in memory?

This burgeoning love for Lori on Skippy’s part is cleverly layered with yet another story of obsession and desire, but of the adult variety. The boys’ History teacher, Howard Fallon (“Howard the Coward”) is newly-fixated with a substitute Geography teacher, Aurelie McIntyre. At their first meeting, when Aurelie learns that Howard is teaching his kids about the First World War, she suggests he reads them Robert Graves because “he was in the trenches” and because “he was also one of the greatest love poets.” The Goddess as Muse motif is laid out here as Howard observes Aurelie’s physical movements and notes: “She squeezes her hands sensually, a goddess forging words out of raw matter.” Howard is in his late twenties, but the effect of a flesh-made-Goddess, whole and real in front of him, is not something even his seasoned, grown-up impulses can withstand – of course he wants her, but this desire is complicated by the unfortunate matter of his existing girlfriend, Halley.

Howard is a former Seabrook boy returned to teach in the school. The hermetic space of a boys’ boarding-school, the old-boys network, the world it creates in and of itself is a major indication that Howard is never really willing to leave this world behind and enter the realm of adulthood. Howard used to work in investment banking for a time, but finally chose to return to his alma mater for a teaching stint even as he seems repelled by Seabrook and its legacy. Howard’s very character shows readers how the realm of adulthood is a purely imaginary act, sustained by collective imaginings of shoulds and oughts of which no one really has a bloody clue. It’s precarious and sustained by its ultimately insecure sense of flexibility – the man-child ever-ready to play and have fun sometimes, ready to take on responsibilities and “man up” at other points. The reason why some boys don’t want to “grow up” and become men is because they are uncertain of what the cultural and societal construct of manhood requires of them.

Howard seems more of a boy than the boys of Seabrook. His infatuation with Aurelie is grounded in the emotions engendered by her physical presence. This is complicated, because the initial moment of “falling in love”, whatever one may take it to mean, encompasses desire and the yearning to be near the other’s physical presence. In Skippy Dies, however, the female characters worthy of male attention are uniformly described as being beautiful – nay, STUNNING, and also uniformly coveted by and agreed upon by ALL men as stunning. If their beauty is not worthy of note, they’re distinguished by their yearning for men who don’t want them, as in the case of Halley, Howard’s girlfriend, and Janine, Lori’s friend. This, really, is nothing new in art or in popular culture. It’s familiar and predictable. The women worth paying attention to from a man’s perspective are the beautiful ones. It is, however, banal and depressing. This very typical manner of framing gender and sexual relations feels even more disappointing in a book as dazzlingly imaginative as this one.

The society in Skippy Dies is the kind that fucks-up every one of its children. Janine, for instance, wants bad-boy Carl, who is, even as far as fucked-upness goes, beyond the pale. Carl, also the product of a hideous family situation, is a drug-pushing, drug-addicted self-destroyer who, among other things, lusts after Lori. Strangely enough, his obsession with her – peppered as it with repulsive imaginings of violent sexual acts he’d like to inflict upon her, imaginings straight out of internet porn – is quite unbearably sad, because it seems like Carl mentally debases her simply because he needs, but can’t have, the solace she seems to offer. Sure, he’s drawn to her lollipop-sucking shiny lips with a mad amount of lust from the start, but Carl seems to know that she exists as a person precisely in the world from which he wants to run. His conflicted, tormented thoughts are deftly written by Murray to show how Carl seems to be playing out expected forms of being for a teenage male who wants to be seen as strong, ferocious, and studly. Carl registers the signposts of manhood on how to perform and re-enacts these performances even as his thoughts reveal a private self that knows no rhyme or reason about its very existence.

Janine, nowhere close to being as hot as Lori, gives Carl blowjobs in the hopes that Carl forgets about Lori and begins to want her. Why she does this is devastating and puzzling, because any girl in her right mind would run screaming from Carl. But in the hierarchical, heavily-stratified world of adolescence, social capital carries more cachet than any possible form of self-aggrandizement one can dream up. Lori is pretty and the most wanted and desired, and having what Lori has / had is probably the closest Janine can get to being able to enjoy a small slice of Lori’s appeal; appeal that is steadfastly denied to her because she lacks the right looks and the right framework to perform those looks. It doesn’t even matter if it means debasing herself around a boy who is clearly only using her to get closer to Lori, because the other option of invisibility is not only self-debasement, it’s self-erasure.

These boys are sexist, and predictably so, because in adolescence one feels that one must either quickly learn how to make a public display of acceding to the status quo, or make a public display of doing the exact opposite and rebelling. In that same way, the type of teenage girls portrayed in Skippy Dies don’t seem to be invested in rebelling against sexism either – because the alternative pretty much renders them either insignificant or negatively visible. The male characters who don’t refer to other girls as bitches or whores and evaluate them on the size of their boobs or the symmetry of their facial features are the ones who have the hardest time of it in the social sphere – Skippy, and to some extent, his best friend and roommate Ruprecht (although Ruprecht’s singular devotion is only towards the abstraction of science and quantum physics).

There is a depressing sense that this crude adolescent sexism simply morphs into pseudo-sophisticated adult sexism by way of better learning and mastery of language. There is a scene, when Carl and his other fucked-up friends are talking about which living women they’d like to have sex with, where one boy suggests Beyonce and is shot down by another who laughs and reminds him that she’s “black”. Similarly, Howard has a discussion with his colleague, Jim Slattery, who tells him about Graves’ The White Goddess:

… it delves into various pre-Christian societies – Europe, Africa, Asia – and keeps finding this same figure, this White Goddess, with long fair hair, blue eyes, and a blood red mouth. Right back to the Babylonians, it goes. His theory is that poetry as we know it grew out of this goddess worship.

“Blue eyes, a blood red mouth,” Howard thinks, his own personal Goddess made flesh in Aurelie. (What hope is there for female poets, though? Both Muse and Creator in one – perhaps the only option is to stick one’s head into a gas-oven and die.) But more to the point, yes, the mythic idea of this blonde, white, blue-eyed Goddess who, according to Graves, is to be found everywhere in the world, is accepted wholeheartedly by Howard because that is exactly how it plays out in his own life.

However much it looks back to the past through Howard’s history classes and modern-day superstitions built upon tantalising myths, and however much it looks to the future via Ruprecht’s heartbreaking and hilarious botched physics experiments, Skippy Dies is resoundingly realistic. Realism means that in this particular wedge of Dublin society, sexism is rampant whether or not it is acknowledged, and race is nonexistent, presumably because Irish boys’ boarding schools of prestige and stature rarely allow in boys of a different hue. Worse still, crimes are committed by figures of authority, and religion and traditionalism hang like dank spectres over the general psyche seduced by the usual suspects of modern life.  There are abusive priests, negligent parents, and profit-and-glory-chasing teachers and headmasters. If anything, Skippy Dies is proof of how the stratified social hierarchies inherent within late modernist society is its own straitjacket – stifling not only the people it hopes to manage, organise, and categorise – but the very ideals of society it wants to promote.

Towards the end, the life lessons inflicted upon Lori have managed to infuse her character with a depth that wasn’t there at the start. But this is also because the objet petit a no longer exists after Skippy dies. Free of Skippy’s adoring gaze, the reader is left to deal with Lori as a real person, all wasted-away flesh and eating disorders and haunted dreams. While Murray’s depiction of Lori sometimes seems a little too familiar – pretty girl with the troubled life and the hidden torment – he nevertheless gently attempts to portray the exigencies faced by a young beautiful girl in a society that demands too much of her in some aspects, and barely nothing in others.

We see things for a little while from Halley’s perspective – hers is a crisp, dry voice that grows on you, but unfortunately she only gets a very small section of the book. In true mythic Goddess form, we only ever see Aurelie through the eyes of others, chiefly Howard’s. Adhering to the predictable modern-day fairytale-gone-wrong trope, the Goddess turns out to be kind of a heartless bitch, after all. Aurelie’s that kind of beautiful woman who leaves the unsuspecting young man confused and a little bereft, , his life turned inside out – touched by Beauty for so short a time.

If all this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, this would be untrue. I couldn’t stop reading it because Murray’s skills of writing and storytelling are immense. Skippy Dies is an intensely imaginative experience and a labour of tender love towards its (male) characters. Murray’s writing has the enviable ability to get at the heart of the matter with precision, as when the school principal, also known among the others as the Automator, tells Howard, “Dreaming’s not something we encourage here either, Howard. Reality, that’s what we’re all about. Reality: objective, empirical truths.”

Reality is what Skippy Dies is fundamentally about, as well, precisely because the dreaming proves to be painful and regrettably more real than reality itself.

P/S (Oct 21): For the longest time I was trying to remember what Skippy Dies vaguely reminded me of, and it just hit me today: Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club. Posh boys’ school, beautiful girl as object of attention, male friendships. But somehow, Coe’s book somehow did it better, if I remember correctly. It’s been years since I read it. It’s due for a reread.

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“Everything that begins as a comedy ends as a horror movie”

September 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

Writing about The Savage Detectives will not be easy, I thought, as I ploughed through its 570 or so odd pages, and now that I’ve started, writing about it is not easy. This is more of a record-keeping; an attempt to make a note on my blog that I’ve read it and spent about two weeks in the company of a large rotating cast of characters whom I’ve not met before but with whom I’ve consented to go on a road trip. The book itself is centred upon a road trip – a road trip that is actually a calculated getaway – that starts on page 124, and then not mentioned again until page 527. The time in-between is the time you spend in a dodgy rest-stop with people who come up to you and tell you their fractured stories; stories that have absolutely nothing to do with what you started out doing but which draw you in anyway.

Beginning with the journal entries of one seventeen-year-old Juan Garcia Madero, who is invited to join a literary movement of Mexican poets, the visceral realists, where he meets the enigmatic poets and men of letters Ulises Lima and his Chilean literary comrade Arturo Belano, the book segues into 400 pages of first-person narrations of various people who have met Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano in various places and in various guises, before returning us into the journalling hands of Madero again for the final 70 pages. This story is not a story, and The Savage Detectives is not really a novel. And the plot that is not a plot focuses on Belano and Lima’s quest for a Mexican poet, Cesarea Tinajero, whose work and person is spoken of in tones of reverence, but without any of this work or person present.

What is astonishing about The Savage Detectives to 21st-century sensibilities finely-attuned to short blocks of texts, sentences in under 140 characters, and BULLET! POINTS! is the incredible depth and breadth of its prose. It soars, it swoops, it lingers on windowsills, it sticks its beak into fountains, it spreads its wings, and it flies, thanks in large part to Natasha Wimmer’s translation, which seems to have been a stupendous labour of love. The Savage Detectives is, in essence, formless as far as novels proper go, but it creates its own form in the polyphony of voices that take up the role of one or several key traditional narrators. Bolano’s early training in poetry is apparent in the supple grace of his prose, where regular sentences thrum with an intrinsic rhythm and an ever-present stamina that allows them to go on for what seem like miles and miles of page before coming to a breathless but triumphant stop. If T.S. Eliot measured out his life in coffee spoons, then Bolano’s characters seem to measure their lives in gulps – as much as they can drink, consume, breathe, and take in where people, reading, writing, sex, experiences, and ideas are concerned.

The heart of the story ostensibly concerns Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano’s hunt for Cesarea Tinajero, a heart which then shrivels into a primary obsession of knowing about Lima and Belano, before blooming outward into an orchestra of voices determined to go about the business of knowing themselves. There is no single story that takes us through Lima and Belano’s path; instead, the heteroglossia of Bolano’s prose sends the reader hurtling through time and space with disparate memories stemming from disparate subjects as the sole existing map. The increasing thinness of Lima and Belano’s characters are little pinpricks to the consciousness and they disappear, then reappear – don’t forget, Bolano seems to say, it’s them we really want to know – while the chorus of narratives keep getting louder and louder, taking us away from what we really set out to learn at the start of the book.

In The Savage Detectives, Bolano has made a case for all knowledge being primarily selfish – in that, we crave knowledge of others, ideas, and events in order to better know ourselves. In Bolano’s hands, this isn’t a hearkening back to Enlightenment values of the liberal individual so much as it is a reaffirmation of Bakthin’s concept of the Rabelaisan carnival in which the collective body (or is it the bodies of collectivity?) influence one another and circulate amongst each other precisely to subvert the status quo. Humour is an essential component of Bolano’s sensibility, with a finely-attuned ear for both the absurd and the sweet, where women tell sexually-insecure burgeoning poets things like, “You are who you are and you have a cock that’s worth its weight in gold.” Madero masturbates to poetry; there are intense discussions among the visceral realists about the difference between “queer and faggot poets” that is futile and doomed to its own feeble circulatory logic from the start. Bolano has the ability to invite the reader to laugh – fondly – with and at his characters.

Bolano, as depicted by The New Yorker

While the ribald humour is often undercut by sadness and isolation, the plurality of consciousness is the truth; there is no truth that is unified and knowable by one subject. Each of the characters the reader meets in the book are pieces of the puzzle, but because they’re animate beings instead of bits of little cardboard, you can never really expect them to come together in a perfect finish and provide the single solution to all your questions. One gets the sense that each of the narrators is rebelling against a preconditioned sense of self as determined by society – particularly in the character of Joaquin Font, the town lunatic with the mental resources to pierce into the profound but more often banal unvarnished reality.

Bolano’s female narrators are particularly arresting, their voices imbued with a percolating sense of energy that propels the story forward in new and exciting ways. This is interesting, as some of his male narrators reveal themselves to be absurdly stupid in sexist ways – not least Arturo Belano himself, modelled after Bolano (if the name wasn’t a hint), and prone to occasionally slapping women both for sexual excitement and out of anger – but his female narrators, particularly Xochitl Garcia, Maria Font, Angelica Font, and Auxilio Lacouture, always seem to exist on the periphery of what’s acceptable, negotiating and renegotiating their space in society. Auxilio, in particular, comes fully-formed with a distinctive voice and a bizarre, captivating story centred on her hide-out in the bathroom of the National Autonomous University of Mexico as the army invades the campus before the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. It’s no surprise that Amulet, a novel that Bolano wrote after The Savage Detectives, is hers alone. Auxilio’s voice is a voice that deserves its own novel.

The book ends with a question written in Garcia Madero’s journal, reaffirming what one of the narrators earlier said: “Everything that begins as comedy inevitably ends as mystery.” But it’s also a strange and lonely ending; the laugher and freedom and potential of the start both of the book and their journey are marred by inexhaustible problems brought upon by mercurial temperaments and uncontrollable destinies. This, then, brings to mind the words of another narrator: “Everything that begins as comedy ends as a comic monologue, but we aren’t laughing anymore.” The end is a comic monologue by Garcia Madero, but somehow along the way the punch-line was forgotten. The end, however, is a stark reminder of the nature of things in life – you set out asking questions and are rewarded for your brazen curiosity with more questions capable of scrambling your mind beyond recognition to yourself or others.

In terms of its prose, The Savage Detectives is as egalitarian as one could hope, shading Mexico in a rainbow of colours and hues, with narrators coming from diverse layers of society, presenting all the good with all the bad in a way in a way that isn’t good or bad but just is, in a way that only a non-native probably can. (Bolano is Chilean, but lived in Mexico during formative years.) There is a yearning in this reader from the “East”, this third-world location of brown folks, to claim Roberto Bolano as our writer as much as he is yours and the “West’s”. Though The Savage Detectives is deeply rooted in geographic space and location (it feels like Mexico’s dust comes floating out of the pages with every turn, along with its sights, the smells, the sounds), the book itself can compel the average reader to read in Bolano some vestige of a particularly rootless “we are the world” strain of thinking. Therefore it does come as a bit of a disappointing surprise to learn that Bolano had once said in an interview, “Basically, I’m interested in Western literature, and I’m fairly familiar with all of it.”

Say what? Just “Western literature”?

But we all need to have standards and for some of us that means splitting the world in two. Bolano would probably not have cared what some blogger from the non-West would have thought about his book, but now that I’ve read it The Savage Detectives is mine – and yours – as much as it is his. Perhaps that’s the best revenge a non-Western reader can have on Works of Western Literature, but I suppose, really, who’s keeping tabs? Once in awhile a book like The Savage Detectives comes along, rendering borders moot even the creative force behind it sought to keep those borders in place.

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