There’s a very popular narrative regarding achievement I’m seeing pop up across the arts and business fields, particularly in industries with a large self-employed or freelance population. The idea is that happiness is not worth seeking, but rather one should seek meaning through passion, mastery, and achievement. The idea continues: happiness is fleeting, meaning lasts forever. However noble this idea sounds, it can lead rather quickly into a downward spiral. David Burns, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, argues in his book Feeling Good that this belief system stems from capitalism and the Protestant worth ethic, and is designed to make people work harder, accumulate capital, and generally be miserable. In short, “meaning” is an abstract concept and doesn’t add tuppence to your life.
Dear friend, can I borrow you for a few moments to geek out about the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie? I just finished reading “Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights” and I am in awe of his mastery. In this version of 1001 nights, the barrier between the land of the jinn and our twenty-first century world collapses, and the dark jinn invade our world, causing havoc. But this is also the story of a battle between two philosophers—Ghazali, who believes that God is supreme, and Ibn Rushd, who tries to reconcile faith and reason. And yet, this is also a story of not-belonging, or of longing for a home or a love that no longer has a place for one. Only Rushdie can so perfectly fold these stories into each other: the novel unravels revealing stories within stories, a loss here balanced by a victory there, each new revelation sliding into place perfectly, and then, when he is finally finished, voila! there it stands, the most beautiful creation, balancing perfectly on the finest point. There’s a great pleasure in reading a book crafted by a master that opens up like Russian nesting dolls—every subsequent layer is equally beautiful, and each encloses the next just so, so you never quite forget where you began, though you may forget how you got here. Even now, I find myself grasping for the names of characters, elaborate back stories fading into the mist—when the air is filled with lightning and there is a jinn in a flying urn threating to destroy the world, does it really matter whose uncle left whom a fortune? Continue reading “On the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie”
Donna Tart’s Goldfinch is a novel that is crafted like a classic bildungsroman—a coming of age story where a young man’s life is thrown off its set path by a freak incident, and in a new and unfamiliar world filled with crime and opulence, he grows into his own. And like a classic nineteenth-century novel, the book sweeps over large portions of time, skipping several years between chapters, but suddenly zooming into the details of a necklace, the finish on an antique table, a long conversation with a returned friend. The pacing is often frustrating—these sudden jumps in time followed by long periods of languishing—and the protagonist, with his brooding amorality, is far from likeable.
I am not the most loyal reader, and I often abandon books midway to pick up others, or I read a few pages on a lazy Sunday morning and put the book back on a teetering pile to never glance at those pages again. What then was it about this book that kept bringing me back—that at the end of some other entirely different book, I would wonder what indeed had happened to Theodore Decker? And like picking up a conversation with an old friend, I would open the book again at the postcard which I used as a bookmark, and away we would go. A hundred pages later, rather predictably, I would abandon the protagonist in his latest drug haze and wander away only to return months later. Continue reading “On Reading Donna Tartt’s ‘Goldfinch’”
It’s been a while since I read a book where I was not plummeting towards an ending. I tend to favour short intense books that swallow me whole and spit me out before I can blink. I like reading like a swimmer hurtling to the surface for air. I have a fondness for brevity, minimalism, lightness. Any draft that comes my way goes back bleeding red.
But this book, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, was a refreshing change of pace. It slows you down; it stops you on a busy street corner and says “Look!” It tells you the names of the birds in the air, which trees are flowering this season, it tells you exactly how breakfast tasted. It reminds you that you are standing in the locus of an electromagnetic spectrum and in this very moment, there are millions of messages hurtling past you—I love you, and I miss you, and don’t forget the eggs. There are so many things that are fantastic about this book and I don’t know where quite to start—but perhaps here—it reintroduces you to that feeling of wonder—when you can look at a bird spiraling high above and think, isn’t this just fantastic. Continue reading “On Reading Anthony Doerr”
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. Continue reading “On reading Gillian Flynn”
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.
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. Continue reading “On Reading Kafka”
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?