Sunday, 28 August 2011

Not bad just boring? Or just not for me...

I loved Aravind Adiga's first novel, `The White Tiger', despite its flaws. I thought that it was a bit too simplistic, too neat, and relied too heavily on stereotypes when depicting most of the characters other than its brilliantly entertaining and vivid narrator. Hence I was keen to read this - his next full-length attempt - in the hope that it would amend these niggles while continuing to demonstrate his obvious talent. The puzzling thing is, it does. In `Last Man In Tower', Adiga gives us a much larger and more complex society in which no character can be accused of being anything less than fully-fleshed out, and his writing is more than up to par. I can't point to anything that's wrong with it, exactly, and yet for me, it just didn't work. I kept on thinking of Irwin's line from `The History Boys' - `It's not bad. It's just boring'.

The major conflict of the novel is very simple. Mr Shah has offered each resident of Vishram Society Tower A a windfall in cash to move out so he can demolish the tower and build afresh, as long as all the residents agree and take the money. After some demurring, they all accept, except recently-widowed `Masterji', a retired teacher who has previously commanded everyone's friendship and respect. Initially equivocal over the sale, Masterji eventually embarks on his own personal crusade, embodying the idea that not every man has his price and it is possible to want for nothing. This single strand - Masterji versus the world - dominates the novel, and made it collapse, at least for me, into something far too schematic. The large cast list at the beginning led me to expect a far more complex network of relationships, alliances and betrayals among his neighbours, but most of the families are never or rarely mentioned and only a few characters in Tower A other than Masterji are fully utilised; notably Mrs Puri, who desperately wants the money for her son who has Down's Syndrome; dim but affable internet-store owner Ibrahim; crooked broker Ramesh Ajwani; and Masterji's long-time elderly friends, the Pintos.

More importantly, these characters come to form a chorus of resistance rather than a fractured whole, with their individual motivations skated over, although briefly sketched earlier in the novel. One of my major problems with the cast was that I felt no real sympathy for any of them, including Masterji, and although I don't think at all that a novel needs a truly sympathetic character, in lieu of that, unpleasant characters should at least be interesting. The only interesting figure for me here was Masterji, and gradually I found him more frustrating than fascinating. His stand is principled - perhaps too much so; it is the hostility of his neighbours and the corruption of lawyers and the police that seems to drive him, rather than a truly desperate desire to stay in Tower A. While his neighbours lost my initial sympathy (I couldn't see what was wrong in their general desire to achieve a better life for themselves and their families) after they gradually descended into underhand and violent acts in an attempt to force Masterji's hand, I did not transfer this sympathy to Masterji, whose position seemed increasingly pointless. Late in the novel he tries to argue that Tower A holds too many memories of his dead wife and daughter for him to leave, but as this was never brought up earlier, it appears to be a reason developed after he had already established the fact of his staying put; a good reason, but ultimately not the true cause of his intransigence. Perhaps focusing on Masterji is misleading - perhaps the interesting point here is how his essentially normal neighbours are warped by the situation to commit appalling acts - but with a lack of detail on each of them, this seems to me to swing the novel back towards a schema again. And the number of pages, not to mention the title, devoted to Masterji, does seem to indicate that he is Adiga's major focus.

I suppose I'm writing another of those reviews that essentially say: this is not a bad book and Adiga is not a bad writer, but it emphatically wasn't for me. The elements of his style that I appreciated in `The White Tiger' are still here. Mumbai is brought to life in his descriptions of the city, especially of food - from the cheap snacks on sale at market stalls to the security guard's sandwiches to the expensive fish consumed by Mr Shah - and transport, in Masterji's hellish experience of travelling by train during rush hour. So by all means give this novel a go, as long as you aren't expecting something too similar to his first one. Just don't spend too much time on the character list at the front.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

More historical novels David Mitchell please

[Posting more regularly has not gone entirely to plan so far, but I hope to put up something every couple of days from now on...]

In some ways this excellent novel is a departure from David Mitchell's usual stuff; in other ways, not at all. Having read everything else he's published so far (except number9dream, which is also set in Japan) I was fairly confident that I knew what to expect, and yes, it's all there; the idiosyncratic style, the stylistic fireworks (although they're a little less flashy here; in retrospect, a lot of Cloud Atlas was very sophisticated showing-off, which is not necessarily to criticise it - literary fiction could do with a bit more intelligent, fun, classy showing-off) and the large and sometimes confusing cast of vivid characters.

But then it parts ways. First and foremost, this is a historical novel, and although certain of the historical aspects might be called into question - I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the early nineteenth century, but it struck me that Mitchell was more interested in big, bombastic storytelling than strict accuracy - this sets it apart from the rest of his work from the start, except perhaps for the small section of Cloud Atlas that is the 'Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing'. Secondly, it has a great narrative drive, which is not something I've really found in his other books - they're readable, certainly, but not page-turners. And it turns out that Mitchell writing page-turning historical fiction is really quite fantastic. I had the impression (which may be wrong, as I haven't been keeping a close eye on reviews) that the reception of this novel was quite muted in the press, especially when it wasn't shortlisted for the Booker, but I'm going to step up and say that it might be his best yet (OK, a quick Google establishes that the Guardian at least agrees with me).

The book falls essentially into two sections - Jacob and Orito - and on first glance the most gripping story is told in the middle part of the book, which deals with Japanese midwife Aibagawa Orito and her imprisonment in a bizarre shrine where she gradually learns the horrific fate that awaits her and the other Sisters. This is certainly where the novel becomes most unputdownable, but I can't help thinking that The Thousand Autumns of Aibagawa Orito would have been a little shallow by itself. Not because Orito is under-developed as a character in the slightest, but because the horrific-cult-imprisonment story has been told before, and more specifically, it's been told before by Mitchell in the 'Orison of Somni' section of Cloud Atlas. To go too closely into the similarities between the two would be to spoil both stories, but they were immediately obvious to me. Apart from Orito and Jacob, another standout character is the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, who gets a sub-thread of his own, but this is essentially part of the Orito narrative, and so doesn't offer much balance.

This is where we need the framing narrative of the book, that of Jacob de Zoet, unfortunately-honest clerk for the Dutch East India Company in 1799. Jacob is not as immediately compelling a character as Orito, but he certainly has his moments. His adventures are a mismatch of foiling corruption within the Company, brief encounters with Orito before her imprisonment, horrific experiences with eighteenth-century medical practice, and a final showdown when the British sail into Dejima, and hence form a panorama of different impressions of the trading port during this period. I also appreciated the light and subtle touch that Mitchell brought to the brief thread of his relationship with Anna, whom he left behind in the Netherlands to make his fortune in trade so he might return and marry her. The less-than-a-sentence that wraps up Anna's story in the final pages of the book is heartbreaking, and proves that Mitchell isn't only good at flashy writing. A brief note on the ending itself, without giving anything away - I can appreciate that some readers might have found it unsatisfying, but I liked the looseness of it, and the fact that Mitchell didn't draw in the connections between the two halves of the book too tightly, while linking them together sufficiently that it doesn't feel like two stories in one. My only query would be that I wish we could have seen the conclusion to Orito's story, rather than its being recounted by hearsay.

If I had a criticism of the book, it would be that I struggled to follow many of the Dutch and Japanese characters, who are often referred to by first or last name depending on whose company they are in - but then I realised that the proper edition of the book has a character list, which my proof copy lacked. I think this would have been a big help, so won't mark it down too much for the confusion. At first, I also thought I would have preferred more description of Nagasaki and the other locations in the novel, but by the end, I found I had formed my own impression of the port without a great amount of information, and was glad to have skipped the carefully-researched historical scene-setting we usually get. Overall, this is a brilliant read, and Mitchell's take on the historical genre is truly refreshing. More please!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Posting more frequently

I have decided to attempt to post more frequently on this blog; while I still want to post detailed reviews, I'll probably be interspersing them with a lot more short comments, links and random ranting. So today's thought is... I think Ursula Le Guin has been rather hard on Mark, one of the lead characters of Belinda McKeon's Solace, which I reviewed here, and rather generous to his father Tom, in her review of the novel in today's Guardian Review. I suppose as I thought one of the strengths of the novel was the author's even-handedness in depicting the conflict of those two characters, this undermines one of my reasons for liking it. Or perhaps I'm just biased towards dissolute PhD students...

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Thomas Hardy backwards: escaping one's fate

Thomas Hardy wrote fifteen novels in his lifetime, but he singled out eight as his 'Novels of Character and Environment,' which is the group that includes his better-known works, such as Tess and Jude, and also the group which includes the only novels of his I've read. This wasn't deliberate. I was unfortunate enough to read Tess initially as a set text for A-Level; whatever you may think of the book, it comes awkwardly out of an examination essay when gutted for too-obvious themes such as 'fate' and 'journeying'. Something possessed me to read Jude next. Not sure why; after that I was ready to give up on Hardy. I started saying that I liked his poetry, but couldn't cope with his novels. But then I read The Mayor of Casterbridge. And The Return of the Native. And then Far from the Madding Crowd. And I realised that I was reading (at least this set) of his novels backwards (although Tess and Jude swapped places):

  • The Poor Man and the Lady (1867, unpublished and lost)
  • Under the Greenwood Tree (1872)
  • Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
  • The Return of the Native (1878)
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
  • The Woodlanders (1887)
  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)
  • Jude the Obscure (1895)
and more importantly, that I felt they were getting better.

This isn’t what’s happ

ened when I’ve assessed the works of other nineteenth-century writers in sequence, but the interesting thing was it seemed almost schematic; Far from the Madding Crowd and Return of the Native sharing beautifully-realised rural settings but with the grimness of the plot amping up a notch in the latter; The Mayor of Casterbridge much heavier on plot and tragedy, rather than locality, but not quite as fate-ridden as Tess; Jude, unlike even Tess, unremittingly bleak. The key point, for me, was that from book to book the characters gradually lose their ability to affect their own li

ves and their ultimate destinies.

The main features of this schema that stood out to me were [spoilers for these five novels]:

1. Fate. As mentioned above. Far from the Madding Crowd is almost entirely free of this theme, with the heroine, Bathsheba’s, choice between three different suitors placed at the centre of the narrative, although there are still ironic twists that foreshadow the interventions of the hand of fate in the later novels, such as Fanny turning up at the wrong church to marry Sergeant Troy – if this marriage had taken place, one of Bathsheba’s options would have been removed and Fanny’s tragedy averted. The Return of the Native forces its characters further into a pre-determined pattern, but they still seem to have some freedom of will. However, The Mayor of Casterbridge allows the eponymous mayor, Michael Henchard, exactly one choice – selling his wife at the beginning of the novel – and the rest of his fate follows from there, whereas Tess and Jude are simply accounts of individuals being unable to escape their destiny, and that's that.

2. Landscape. One of my favourite things about Hardy’s writing is his evocation of locality and rural custom. This is particularly striking in Far From the Madding Crowd and Return of the Native; in the former, he dwells lovingly on the pattern of the farming year, as in the well-known sheep-shearing scene, whereas the latter brings the power and beauty of its setting, Egdon Heath, to life; for example, when Clym meets Eustacia on the heath before their marriage in a hollow of ferns: ‘He was in a nest of vivid green. The ferny vegetation round him, though so abundant, was quite uniform: it was a grove of machine-made foliage, a world of green triangles with saw-edges, and not a single flower… The scene seemed to belong to the ancient world of the carboniferous period.’ By letting this description stand alone, the beautiful but alien nature of the heath is fully conveyed. In contrast, the description of Egdon in Tess is weighted down with the momentum of the plot, a sense of what is to come. Tess is walking across the heath to her new job as a dairy-maid, hoping to leave her old life behind her after the death of her baby, but ‘in every bird’s note seemed to lurk a joy’, and she stands ‘like a fly on a billiard-table of indefinite length, and of no more consequence to the surroundings than that fly.'

Hardy keeps drawing our attention back to Tess’s ultimate fate, and the descriptions also have a habit of focusing back towards Tess herself, who is pictured innumerable times in the novel; there is never a change for the reader, or Tess, to make up their own mind as to how to view her or her future. As for Jude and Mayor, they burn through plot so fast that they leave less space for setting.

3. Heroines. I’m tempted simply to type ‘They get more annoying’, but I feel the novels deserve a bit more analysis than that. Sue Bridehead, however, is simply one of the most irritating characters I have ever encountered, and I have nothing more to say about her. Unfortunately, Tess is almost as bad. Although Hardy implicitly criticises Angel and Alec for their idealised and incorrect versions of her, he only manages to substitute his own idealised picture for theirs, as noted above. She is frustratingly passive, and ultimately her own victim as much as a victim of fate, by deciding that her lot has to be grim and refusing to accept Angel’s help when she is poverty-stricken. Although I’ve read critics who claim that she is the only fully-rounded character in the novel, I found Angel’s internal conflicts far more interesting. The Mayor of Casterbridge lacks a real heroine, juxtaposing the weak, compromised Lucetta against the perfect Elizabeth- Jane. Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native is almost interesting, but feels like a sketch – although the novel was written later – for Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd, by far the best-drawn and strongest female character I’ve seen in Hardy’s work, despite her vacillations. Hardy seems to fully engage with her mindset, fleshing her out as a person in her own right, and although she makes some poor choices, they do make sense. For me, her original and realistic character crystallised after reading a statement she makes late in the novel, a truth that could also help to explain Tess, Eustacia and Sue: ‘it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.'

4. Tragedy or tragi-comedy? It is impossible to find more than a glimmer of humour in Jude, Tess, or Mayor, but an aspect of the earlier novels I really appreciated, intentional or not, was how the tragic fates of the characters often have a humorous element to them. For example, I can’t think of almost all the remaining cast drowning in

the weir at the end of The Return of the Native without smiling, even though this is hardly a happy ending. Far from the Madding Crowd is even better, beginning with the memorable image of all Gabriel Oak’s flock of sheep running over a cliff in the dark – although disastrous for him personally, it struck me as a wonderful way to lose your business. A later scene involving Troy mourning at Fanny’s grave is my favourite – although false to her in life, he decorates her grave with expensive flowers to show how much he minds now she is dead. Unfortunately, heavy rain that night means that the water from the church roof is all directed in a single stream through the mouth of one ‘gurgoyle’ (gargoyle), and this floods the grave. I think the humour here, at least, is intentional, mocking Troy’s pretentions, especially as Hardy chooses to title that particular chapter ‘The Gurgoyle: Its Doings.’ Perhaps the fact that I’m laughing at misfortune is a weakness in the earlier novels, but I appreciated these jumps into melodrama; it makes the plots distinctively Hardy-esque, without being utterly hopeless.

So in conclusion… Under The Greenwood Tree must be fabulous, and The Woodlanders poor, and I need to read them to prove my thesis! I have doubts about the former, which sounds good, but sketchy, but as Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Hardy, describes The Woodlanders as ‘a black version of Far from the Madding Crowd’, I may be right after all.