On reading Gillian Flynn

Spoilers ahead.

**

The last time I picked up a murder mystery was in high school. I was hooked onto Perry Mason back then, and the legendary lawyer and his dashing friends were a staple of our weekly library rounds. Eventually those books gave way to Michael Crichton and Ken Follett and David Baldacci and then I moved onto Amitav Gosh and Terry Pratchett.

In short, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn was my first murder mystery in ages. I don’t pretend to be connoisseur of the genre, but I had enjoyed Gone Girl the movie and I was looking for a book that would keep me turning the pages. The book delivered what it promised—it had me hooked, it surprised me, it had that final ‘aha!’ ending. It was grippingly written and it had everything that should have made it a great thriller—from Satanism and drugs to teenage pregnancy and child abuse. And yet, there were some points in the narrative where I could barely stop myself from rolling my eyes. It felt too in-your-face-obvious and trying-too-hard.

Why? Some of it was a problem of style. Dark Places was Flynn’s second book and I’m assuming her style will only grow smoother. Writing a good mystery is like pulling of a great card trick—the watcher knows something is going on, but they’re always one step behind. If your sleight of hand is clumsy—not quick or smooth enough—the trick fails. Some of the ‘clues’ felt a bit too obvious—the narrative flips between two timelines, one in the past and one in the future—and some past events mentioned in one chapter were immediately picked up in the investigation in the next chapter, leaving the reader feeling that they’ve been hit with a forensic brick.

But more interestingly, what works against (and for) Dark Places is its ambitious structure. The traditional mystery story followed a certain set pattern—there is a crime, a rational detective, a reporting side kick, a sympathetic character (usually the accused or a damsel in distress), and a set of suspects. Once your sympathies have been firmly established in favour of the detective and the accused / damsel, the writer is free to play a game of forensic chess, gradually revealing clues to keep the reader’s attention moving between the many suspects. Because the reader’s emotions are clearly invested elsewhere, the unravelling of the forensic knot is an entirely rational activity. What you’re interested in is ‘what happens next’, but not ‘what happens to this character’. Plot takes precedence over character. The ‘motive’ of the criminal recedes to the background—sometimes, people are just evil, that’s why.

But here is something even more interesting. There is a certain law of causality that most of us collectively believe in without being aware of it: ‘good people deserve good things to happen to them’. We might not be convinced about whether ‘good things do happen to good people’, in this lifetime or the next, but we can all agree that it should be that way. In the contemporary world, pop culture and religion is steeped with the idea: the underdog finally wins the prize and the virtuous go to heaven. In fiction, if this rule is ever broken, it usually is done to make some point about reality—that ‘power always wins’ or ‘the universe is indifferent and random’—or to provide catharsis in a tragedy. If terrible things happened to someone the reader never liked much to begin with, it wouldn’t be much of a tragedy.

Where religion and fictional universes diverge is that in a fictional world the laws of causality are fairly rigid, but the laws of morality can be far more flexible. Morality has been a dodgy subject since time immemorial, and a good writer can make a serial killer look ‘good’ or a corrupt stockbroker virtuous. This is usually achieved by putting something else human beings value a great deal on a pedestal—usually a skill or a passion—for truth, beauty or love. So when the rule ‘Good things should happen to good people’ operates within the fictional universe, the ‘good’ here does not mean a moralistic good, but more loosely, ‘good’ stands in for that relationship that readers develop with fictional characters—that wistful feeling of kinship that you know exactly what that person feels like or that tug of respect or fondness you feel for this imaginary person.

An obviously ‘likeable’ character makes the writer’s job easier—the reader takes an interest in this imaginary person and reads unto the last page to find out if everything turned out all right for them in the end. It keeps the reader’s attention anchored in the story. In the traditional form of the murder mystery, it is usually the detective, the side kick, the innocent accused or the damsel-in-distress (or a combination) who is the receptacle of this sympathy. As long as our emotions are invested in these characters, the suspects themselves retreat to the background. We see them only as foils to the main characters, either as aids who will help uncover the mystery or villains who obstruct it—but not quite as people.

However, here is where Gillian Flynn breaks the mould. Flynn specialises in writing ‘unlikeable’ characters. In a story such as Gone Girl (my interpretation based on the movie), at least some part of the audience was split according to gender lines. Some women believed ‘he had it coming’, and some men swore ‘she’s a psycho’. Since it was very obviously a man pitted against a woman, it made it easy to take sides. In Dark Places however, there are literary no likeable characters. Each of the characters are scarred in some way by childhood trauma, which leads them to becoming rather messed up adults. They are kleptomaniacs, drug addicts, failures. Even more interestingly, Flynn does away entirely with the rational voice of the detective. Instead, you are left lurching through the ‘chase’ and uncover clues with a narrator with faulty memory and who’s just emerging from about twenty-six years of denial.

The structure of Dark Places grows even more complex. The narrative careens between three distinct points of view and two timelines—there is no one emotional anchor in the story—your distrust, curiosity, and sympathy is scattered across almost the entire cast. But at the moment when you decide to spread emotional investment across characters, the story ceases to be a simple murder mystery and turns into a psychological thriller. Though Dark Places would fall into the genre of murder mystery loosely defined—the investigation of a murder—because it has no clear rational detective or ‘good character’—what becomes of greater interest—now that we are interested in all of the characters almost equally—is not what happened, but why.  Now, here is the tricky part. If the writer of a murder mystery could prove that such a crime is possible, then his or her job is done. There is no need to explain why exactly the crime was committed, as long as the ‘good guys’, the characters we’re cheering for, baffled us with their genius/bravery/luck and emerged victorious. In a psychological thriller, especially in one like Dark Places where the reader’s suspicion flits from character to character, the writer’s work is not just to prove that a particular character committed the crime, but she also needs to convince us that they were capable of doing it.

Which is where Dark Places runs aground. It has every element to make it a perfect mystery—the surprises and the twists come thick and fast. Flynn has gone out of her way to include elements that would make a perfectly gruesome murder—drugs and Satanism. Except, the story is no longer a murder mystery. It is no longer about the plot. It has turned into a story about people whose lives collide in one cataclysmic night—their need to do what is right for themselves and their loved ones running in antithetical directions and tearing them apart. The investigation is not an intellectual puzzle but a psychological dissection—why, why why? And Flynn’s answers are not very convincing. By packing in so many surprises within such a short space, the characters never quite catch up. The reader is left with a sense of disbelief—that person, really?

If only the story had been a little less ambitious—if only the murder had been a bit more run-o’-the-mill and the demands on the characters less—if only there had been less action and better thought out character introspection—this book would felt less heavy-handed and better balanced. But because of the expectations the book raises within itself because of its chosen genre and form, it doesn’t quite work as well as it should.

(That said, Gillian Flynn is an awesome writer and you should totally read her books!)

On Reading Kafka

To get back into the habit of writing, I promised myself that I will write something about every book I read. Not a review exactly, but something.

**

In my imagination Kafka was a pallid-faced monster sitting in a lonely moonlit garret, gnashing his teeth and with a hand driven by madness steadily moving across a page, his eyes staring into a blank wall, seeing horrors only the cursed can see.

That was before I actually read any Kafka. He is one of those writers whose reputations had constructed a monstrous entity in my mind that I had convinced myself I did not want to become acquainted with. Work-related reading brought “The Hunger Artist” and “Into the Penal Colony” to my attention, and in curiosity I soon read “The Judgement”, “The Country Doctor”, “Letter to an Academy”, and of course, “The Metamorphosis” in quick succession. I haven’t read “The Trial” yet, or any of his longer works, but I am inclined to take a breather before returning.

Now that I’ve read his work, if I walked into a room and found Kafka sitting at a table and quietly sipping coffee, would I stop to say “hello”?

What caught me by surprise was the sadness of it all. Not grand tragedy no, the sadness of a man who has looked into the casual cruelty of our psyches and has been bewildered by it. Frightened and scrambling to find a way out on his worst days. But not angry, no. And never surprised. The stories seemed to come from a place where someone who has looked into the deepest evil in our hearts shrugs with a wry smile, as though to say, “What else can one do?” It is a smile that invites concord, and we cannot stop ourselves from guiltily chuckling along. (Guiltily, perhaps not because we feel truly horrible, but more in part because Kafka’s reputation has me somewhat convinced that he is “serious” writer and therefore I should not laugh.) But perhaps what is most striking about his humour is that it does not come from wordplay but like his sadness from simple and direct observation — how does one not laugh when one reads of the giant bug covered with a blanket rocking back and forth contemplating the best way to get out of bed without hurting its head?

We could all pretend to nobility within the walls of our minds, but in truth, we have only to drop our heads and accept in shame. We would have done no different. If Gregor Samsa had been my son I too would have driven him back with a broom no matter how much I had loved him in his human form, and when faced with a bizarre torture device I too would have hmm-ed and haaww-ed politely while formulating a plan to complain to a higher authority. All of Kafka’s people are ordinary people caught in bizarre circumstances. Perhaps the genius of Kafka lies not in his ability to create the bizarre circumstances (which he is most famous for), but in his ability to place everyday working class people in those situations and being able to dissect how they will react.

I admit I did not pay too much attention when reading. My eyes raced across the page, gobbling up the words, strange images forming in my mind, and quickly dissolving into something else. Like watching a painting morph before my eyes, watching time slow down or speed up (“The Country Doctor”), while exclaiming “But of course!” while turning the pages, “How else was someone supposed to react?” The details only contributed to the larger picture which melded and dissolved seemingly with no reason — and I never stopped to analyse the symbols or breakdown the metaphors. But I’m left with one very clear impression: the elements that saddened me the mist were not the metamorphosis into a vermin or the man who emerges from the kennel and leaves bite marks on the maid, but it is us. The fear and sadness does not come from the bizarre world that Kafka creates, but from the way the ordinary people in those circumstances react to it. None rise to glory and even kindness wears away to tiredness.

Sometimes when I read something heart-breaking, I imagine doing something to make the author feel better — perhaps offering a hug or making them a cake or sending them a postcard or just having a conversation. But now, I believe such actions come from a certain place — the belief that “Things are not so bad, you’ll see, things get better.” A need to prove the other person wrong and your own (more optimistic) worldview right. To believe — and the need to prove — that there is hope or love or beauty or truth and something worth living for. Because without that, what do we have left? With Kafka though, there are no words. There is nothing that can be said or done to refute him because he is irrevocably right about human nature. Would we have known how wretched we are if Kafka had not told us? But once he has told us, can we forget? He needed the stuff of nightmares and visions to tell us who we truly are. Perhaps that is the only way he could have communicated with us — this labyrinth of nightmares — to let us know what truly frightened him — those jagged edges within our human souls.

Kafka was not a monster nor was he mad, he was only cursed to see what the rest of us are blessed to be blind to. What he saw he could not contain within himself and so he spilled onto the page.

And yet, I would turn around and leave as quietly as I came, hoping that I did not give offence. Because there is something about Kafka that is undeniably frightening. To acknowledge him is to acknowledge that there is something wrong with us: to accept that the monster is not the giant bug, but the young lady, virtuous and beautiful in every way, who places food for it every day and yet refuses to see it. And yet, she too did not become a monster by choice. She too, like Gregor Samsa, meant only well. She too tried her best. And yet, and yet… there is the inevitable.

To speak to a man who lives in such a world is to risk being drawn into it. I am comfortable yet with my world of hope or love or beauty – but perhaps not truth – not yet.

Kapu

The sky blushes at Kapu,
blushes for every kiss
we imagined stolen from our lips
for every kiss that was stolen
just beyond our line of vision
for every kiss the wave pressed on the shore.

The sky blushes at Kapu,
blushes as we try to squeeze words
out of the last drop of red sun
and instead collapse in laughter
holding onto the railings of the lighthouse
daring ourselves to lean a little too forward.

The sky blushes at Kapu,
blushes as the wind steals our voices
and rushes into the horizon as we lay on our backs,
the sun framed between our knees,
the roar of the ocean silencing the noise within
and the hush between wave and wave
punctuating our confessions of love and loss
and the inherent injustice of the world.

The sky blushes at Kapu,
blushes at our insolence,
trying to make the last drop last till tomorrow
As each wave pushes us one moment forward
we push back, closing our eyes,
pretending to fall asleep and ignore the sinking sun
like children who pretend the world ceases to exist
everytime they blink, we try to escape the future
by ignoring the present.

The sky blushes at Kapu,
blushes because it knows we forget;
colours always fade in memory.
The silence expands between us
on the long bus ride home
we close our eyes and surrender
and only the sky blushes at Kapu.

Dear Mr Eliot

Dear Mr Eliot,

I wish you were here so that then I could burst into tears on your shoulder. I need a shoulder to cry on tonight, and I wish it were you. You, Mr Eliot, because you would understand. You would understand this feeling of never belonging, of never being able to do enough to belong. because if you belonged to any place, any time, any person, you would cease to be who you are. You Mr Eliot, you so caught up in your own diffidence, translating everything you could not say into words. You Mr Eliot, who knew the inadequacy of language from the very beginning, but knew just as surely, that there is no hope for us but in the trying. You Mr Eliot, who buried yourself in books to escape the outside world. Who fled from America to Germany to Britain looking for a tradition that you can surrender to. I wish I had the conviction you found in religion. Tell me Mr Eliot, when you were younger and wracked with fear, did you look at words as your only salvation, your only security on nights like this where there is nothing to do but curl up and deny everything or loose your mind? Did you ever feel that way Mr Eliot? That you were slowly slipping away from yourself, dripping through your own fingers, melting before you could desperately remould yourself? I heard you were a bank clerk. Did you return home casting off one skin, peeling off another, wanting to scream at the universe no no no! Do you understand Mr Eliot, that on night like this the only voice I have to talk to is your words on a page, and I find your voice quiet and reassuring saying the words slowly with those long drawn out vowels of yours, unhurried, as I crash through your lines discovering your rhythm discovering the anger that is more mine than yours. Mr Eliot, do you not see, I am an imperfect version of you. You are everything that I ache to be, just as you ached to be somebody else, and that person ached to be someone else, and that endless circle back to the beginning of time. Except of course, you would tell me, time does not work that way. Why do we hanker to be anywhere but where we are? Why can I submit to time, as you say I should, and in turn escape it, thinking about nothing but this. These words. On this page. Instead Mr Eliot, here I am conjuring you out of the timeless eternity you have escaped into, and here I am holding your hand and weeping, except of course you do not know the right words to say, because you never do. Did you ever think of living your life like a poem? I know that you never did, you were much to practical for that, you paid your bills by working in a bank after all. Have you noticed Mr Eliot, that those people whose lives are poetry are not very poetic? It is those of us who are always on the outside, pressing cold noses to the windowpane, it is we who construct poetry, because we are so good at narrating our lives back to ourselves in retrospect. We live our lives through stories of make-believe, through moments of hesitation atop staircases. Those who live in the timeless moment cannot write about it. Mr Eliot, did you make a deal with the devil, did you agree to always living on the wrong side of the glass, as long as you have the words? Did you promise the devil that he could steal your life, as long as you write it all down from afar? And now Mr Eliot, now that your life is over and done with, now that everything that could be done has been done, now Mr Eliot, do you ever regret? Do you ever regret that first choice you ever made, do you ever regret that you never chose to annihilate yourself?

On a party I never went to

She told me on the morning after
the party that we are all
fat cats. Smug purring engines

vintage motorcycles thrumming
of beer, shining lazy-cat smiles
under lids heavy with second-hand
puns and damp politics.

Night after night we gather
in the shadows of empty houses
to raise our voices, caterwauling
to a moon long gone

about the words of mad men
who live no more. The air is thick
with abandoned arguments
and hash. A sharp retraction
of voices cuts

but the night surges forward
dissolving all into softness,
belly-up complaining in the dark.

Ranakpur

You, who created Ranakpur,
freed moon-white pillars of flowers and sex
from the coldness of stone,
I salute you.
When I saw your magnum opus,
the pillar to the diagonal left of the southern entrance,
I knew: here was perfection that should not be forgotten.
I stood in front of it, smiled and flashed the peace sign.

As I blinked into the pale shadows, recovering from the overdose of light,
I caught sight of Time puttering around quietly,
absorbed in his own world as all master artisans are,
and I wondered if there had been any friendship between you.
Did you have long conversations with him,
confessing your dreams of immortality,
did you hold his hand and weep?
Did you tell him about that recurrent dream,
where you saw the faces of your great great grandchildren
still with peace, lit by the coolness of marble?

Whatever it was you said,
you will be pleased to know that after all these years
he touches your work with such gentleness,
delicately running his fingertips over your coiled flowers.
You should have seen him, stepping aside,
out of the frame of my friend’s camera,
around the French couple pointing at your marble lovers,
between the Gujarati family on holiday.
The soft of his hands rubs away all the sharp edges you left behind.

First draft

Girl, descending staircase

One foot delicately suspended
between the surety of a moral upbringing
and an uncertainty gained through experience.
A hand lightly rests on the sun drenched wall
reluctant to seek support in a moment of imbalance.
Eyes pensively gaze through a glass slated window
betraying no turbulence or recognition,
only a mild amusement at the present state.
A gold earring brushes against the curve of the neck,
drawing attention to a single strand of dark hair
come loose and tucked behind the ear
with the artistry of a baited hook.
The unmarked cheek blushes,
as it feels the yearning of the world
to leave an opinion,
a scratch.