On Reading Anthony Doerr

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 fantasticContinue reading

On reading Gillian Flynn

Spoilers ahead.

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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 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.

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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

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?

Madam Bovary

It’s not very often that I sit down to dissect how a book has made me feel. I usually prefer to remember it by the mess of emotion it inspires – to look further feels like limiting its complexity with my own lack of understanding. Madam Bovary is different. This is not a book that accidentally came into my hands, I went to it looking for answers; I went looking for a voice to tell me I am not alone. There are a few moments in your life when you have a sudden craving to read a novel about a bored stay-at-home provincial mom who has adulterous affairs, gets bored again, gets into debt, and finally finishes herself off with handful of arsenic. I had one of those moments. It was the word ‘bored’ that hooked me, and maybe the suicide. Or maybe it was because I had fallen in love with the book even before I had read it – ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ by Julian Barnes had introduced me to a line that has haunted me since I first read it – “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” The truth and beauty in that single sentence made me hope that maybe Flaubert had dredged the depths of this existence, and found something, anything, worth salvaging and turning into art. But he is merciless – Flaubert gives his characters no redeeming quality to hide behind – he reveals all, shining a bright light as he straps them to a dissection table and drives a scalpel into their weakest spots. The book said exactly what I thought it would – that there is no real answer for our constant clamouring for more, more, more, that we, as a race, have nothing much to show for ourselves, that there is no such thing as true love. When I turned the last page, I was left feeling sad, not because Flaubert denied me the consolation I craved, but because I realised the book was not about Madame Bovary at all. There was too much anger, and not enough compassion. The book begins with Monsieur Bovary and ends with Monsieur Homais – one the embodiment of mediocrity, the other of self-importance. The good madame was an elaborate set-up, a Trojan Horse for Flaubert to launch his attack against his times – moneylenders, clerics, quacks, social hierarchies, marriage, mistresses, fiction, Paris, love – he lashed out at it all. Each character was a carefully aimed arrowhead, driven by only one motivation, one flaw. They are not caricatures, but – but, I trip over my own interjection, wondering if it is some dying flame of idealism in me that keep insisting “he’s wrong! he’s wrong!” If they had been mere caricatures, how could they be so true? His characters do not lean on the arm of an omniscient narrator, Flaubert hides his puppet strings well – the only flaw in their creation being the character’s ignorance of their own flaws, and lack of attempt to rise above them. Flaubert never gives them the chance to even try to redeem themselves, and because of that, the entire book is washed by a single brush stroke of gloom that reduces the story to a well-mechanised rant about his lack of belief in the human race. In the face of having nothing to salvage, turn your anger into art. Or maybe I am being too harsh on Flaubert. Maybe he was writing by an old school of tragedy, the kind where characters head toward their doom as though wound up by clockwork, and no one is left standing in the end. But there is no Ophelia to bring a touch of purity to this story, no clause of love or honour – all the characters are equally flawed to the point of being intolerable. After a failed on-and-off relationship for eight years, numerous mistresses and prostitutes, maybe Flaubert did look into the very depth of the human heart, and that was all he could see. Boredom. Perhaps Flaubert’s sight was limited, maybe he could not write of love, and I cringe as I write this, because he had known none. Or maybe from my sheltered high horse of morality, that is all I can see of Flaubert – the top of his bald head as he goes gallivanting through the middle east in search of new sensations, carrying venereal diseases across continents. Without love or morality to provide answers, what did Flaubert see, worth turning into art? Is the only beauty rendered to our existence our yearning for it to be something more? Was that my answer? I remember Hemmingway sitting in a dingy Spanish bar with a glass of whisky in his hand at four o clock in the evening saying with his slow drawl, “I was trying to write then I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. […] The real thing, the sequence of motion and fact that made which made the emotions and which would be as valid in a year or ten years, or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.” Ah, there it is. It was never about what he was trying to say, Flaubert was beyond such petty agenda pushing. The beauty in his book lay in the fact that he gave us, as purely as he could, what he saw. Whether his sight was faulted, whether I agree with his perspective or not, is a completely different issue. Flaubert crystalised the world that he saw into art – with no mercy and no pretences – his work is tainted by his own judgement, but he does not do it the disservice of trying to hide it by smudging the sharpness of its detail. Madame Bovary was not a reflection of the world as it is, no one can capture that, it was a reflection of the world as Flaubert saw it – without love or relief – stated without flinching, therein lay his mastery. I had my answer. There was nothing to salvage, but that does not matter.