Why fiction is necessary, according to Arundhati Roy, and me.

I have heard research shows it is mainly women who read novels now. I have heard multiple men say before that they do read, but only nonfiction. As though fiction is somehow frivolous. This grieves me.

It shows ignorance of all that fiction can teach you, and inspire you to reach for further learning, as they knit together complex realities in a way only an imaginative product can.

“Only a novel can tell you how caste, communalisation, sexism, love, music, poetry, the rise of the right all combine in a society. And the depths in which they combine,” author Arundhati Roy told The Guardian after the publication of her new novel.

“We have been trained to “silo-ise”: our brains specialise in one thing. But the radical understanding is if you can understand it all, and I think only a novel can.”

In 1997, this woman’s first novel, The God of Small Things, astonished people around the world. It won the Booker Prize, which had never before been given to an Indian who actually lived in India. Or an Indian woman for that matter. It’s now sold 6 million copies.

It followed the lives of a woman embroiled in an illicit, intercaste love affair, and of her twin children: how, as it says, “they all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.”

It created the twins’ childhood world in a voice so individual it has haunted me for the past two decades. It remains a standout of my reading life.

But Roy is primarily a nonfiction writer. She’s spent the 20 years since The God of Small Things’ release embroiled in politics, producing essays on topics such as major government dams, the  2002 state-sanctioned massacre of as many as 2000 Muslims in Gujarat and the brutal suppression of tribes whose land is being mined. These will be published in collected book (i.e. brick) form next year.

The news she was publishing a second novel was exciting for the book world; I finally opened The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with the greedy happiness of someone who has a box of chocolates all to themselves.

I soon realised the story unfolds against a vast backdrop of modern Indian history that I frankly didn’t understand.

Here’s four paragraphs I wish someone wrote for me before I started:

  • ‘Partition’ means the division of British India in 1947.
  • It divided three provinces, based on district-wide Hindu or Muslim majorities, to create India and Pakistan.
  • This displaced over 14 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises and large-scale violence, with up to two million dead.
  • It created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that continues now.

Or, as Roy put it,

God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbors turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness opens in Delhi in the 1950s, where Partition still reverberates.

The first part follows a transgender outcast called Anjum who lives in a graveyard. There, she has set up a funeral home and guest house, and dreams of motherhood.

Yep, you read all that correctly.

On her first night in the graveyard, after a quick reconnaissance, Anjum placed her Godrej cupboard and her few belongings near Mulaqat Ali’s grave and unrolled her carpet and bedding between Ahlam Baji’s and Begum Renata Mumtaz Madam’s graves … her desolation protected her. Unleashed at last from social protocol, it rose up around her in all its majesty – a fort, with ramparts, turrets, hidden dungeons and walls that hummed like an approaching mob. She rattled through its gilded chambers like a fugitive absconding from herself.

The stories of Anjum’s life are brilliant in themselves.

Anjum called her guest house Jannat. Paradise. She kept her TV on night and day. She said she needed the noise to steady her mind. She watched the news diligently and became an astute political analyst. She also watched Hindi soap operas and English film channels. She particularly enjoyed B-grade Hollywood vampire movies and watched the same ones over and over again. She couldn’t understand the dialogue of course, but she understood the vampires reasonably well.

But after a while I began to wonder where it was all going.

Then the book enters its second part, with an abrupt switch in setting to Kashmir, a region Partition plunged into territorial disputes between India, Pakistan and China that continues today, resulting in almost continuous warfare and civil unrest.

It also switches to a second protagonist, Tilo, an architect who gets involved with Kashmiri independence fighters.

Between these two parts, both told in third person, a first-person narrator is introduced: a drunk hiding out in Delhi while he’s supposed to be in rehab, and one of three men who see Tilo as the love of their life.

I have constructed myself around her. Not around her perhaps, but around the memory of my love for her. She doesn’t know that. Nobody does, except perhaps Naga, Musa and me, the men who loved her. I use the word love loosely, and only because my vocabulary is unequal to the task of describing the precise nature of that maze, that forest of feelings that connected the three of us to her and eventually to each other.

The narrator dips in and out once or twice more alongside a huge cast of secondary characters. While Tilo and Anjum provide some humanity, some whimsy that lightens the darkness of the political setting and the horror and trauma of the country’s warfare and politics, they are never fully revealed psychologically in the way novels conventionally develop characters.

Instead, they form what The Guardian calls an “extraordinary and visceral state of the-nation”.

It was peacetime. Or so they said. All morning a hot wind had whipped through the city streets, driving sheets of grit, soda-bottle caps and beedi stubs before it, smacking them into car windscreens and cyclists’ eyes. When the wind died, the sun, already high in the sky, burned through the haze and once again the heat rose and shimmered on the streets like a belly dancer. People waited for the thundershower that always followed a dust storm, but it never came. Fire raged through a swathe of huts huddled together on the riverbank, gutting more than two thousand in an instant. Still the Amaltas bloomed, a brilliant, defiant yellow. Each blazing summer it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You.

I spend most of the novel loving this writing, but overall baffled, following gamely along and waiting for it all to come together. The two parts of the narrative do join in the end, and a bit of happy redemption takes place. Yet I’m left still grasping for meaning.

Roy told The Guardian: “What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city? … can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed?”

She sure can.

“It’s a book that doesn’t pretend to universalise anything or conceptualise anything. It’s a book of great detail about a place,” she goes on. “Writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat, which readers love and therefore can be bestsellers, that’s so dangerous.”

The Atlantic reckoned she went too far, criticising her for a lack of self-editing, confusion about point of view and a lack of humanity for “the very people she tried to humanise.” It called the book a “fascinating mess”.

But she’s still a must-read for me. I’ll probably open her third novel with equal excitement, but more wariness. Like it might either be a box of pralines or a bomb.

Because her writing is still astonishing, like no other writer I can name. It’s not just the magic realist style; it’s like she’s invented her own language. And while it doesn’t mesh as harmoniously with these characters as it did in The God of Small Things, it’s still delightful. Sentences becomes sandcastles, sweet and ephemeral, just existing for the fun of it.

Two men – one white, one Indian – go past, holding hands. Their plump black Labrador is dressed in a red-and-blue jersey that says No. 7 Manchester United. Like a genial holy man distributing his blessings, he bestows a little squirt of piss on to the tyres of the cars he waddles past.

Look, unless you adored The God of Small Things I won’t recommend this. Especially if you’re one of those men who have given up fiction. Starting with this would scare you back off for life.

But it challenged me. We need to be challenged. And if you do read it, now you know at least one person who’d be happy to discuss it with you afterwards!

 

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Hercule Poirot is alive and well in The Monogram Murders

hannah-monogram-murdersI was dubious when I heard modern crime writer Sophie Hannah was approved by the descendants of Agatha Christie to resurrect her detective Hercule Poirot, beloved by many.
So dubious I avoided it on its release in 2014. I read positive reviews, which mentioned Hannah’s chops as a crime writer, her love of all things Poirot and her faithful promise she  would cut no corners in dusting him off for a new case.
This was good enough for the family, but inexplicably still not good enough for me, so I just eyed it suspiciously in bookshops every time I passed it, stroking the cover creepily but still not quite trusting.
I love Poirot, OK?
Dipping my toe in, I assessed Hannah’s skills by reading her Kind of Cruel, which I found highly satisfactory, twisty and mucky like all good crime.
Finally took the plunge on The Monogram Murders and – ! – was not disappointed.
This has the wit and psychological insight Hannah clearly already commands, and that obviously made her an ideal choice for the project.
It’s also, more importantly, so spot-on rendition of Poirot that – and I feel disloyal, but – I just can’t tell the difference. I can actually hear David Suchet speaking the lines. The rhythm, the cadence, the humour; all perfect.
It’s uncanny, as though the Belgian detective, quirks, mannerisms, wardrobe and all, has stepped prissily from the yellowed pages of Agatha Christie into another woman’s book, where he is rendered in loving, lifelike detail and doesn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
Strait-laced young detective Catchpool makes a good solid foil, just the kind Poirot needs to shine. The murders, too are very Christie. Three corpses are found laid out in three different rooms of the same hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth.
The plot is full of classic Christie tropes and features, though I will not say what they were for fear of spoilers, and is quite as convoluted and macabre as Christie at her nastiest.
Yet nothing feels contrived or formulaic. It does not feel exactly like Christie and yet I could not put my finger on any difference. You can feel the confidence and the the fun the author has had, and it is infectious. A joy to read.
I’ve caught up just in time – the family must have been happy, too, because her second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, is now on shelves. Hurrah!

Madman releases Jasper Jones trailer

Madman Entertainment has finally released the trailer for Jasper Jones, adapted from Fremantle author Craig Silvey’s best-seller and featuring an all-star Australian cast including Hugo Weaving and Toni Collette.

Silvey is also known for his debut Rhubarb, but I and most people I speak to agree Jasper Jones is by far the favourite: a novel you never forget. It’s done the book club rounds because it’s that rarest of combinations, a literary novel and a thumping good read.

Now from Bran Nue Dae director Rachel Perkins, Animal Kingdom producer Vincent Sheehan and Goldstone producer David Jowsey comes this eagerly awaited adaptation.

It feels like it’s been a long time coming, with my anticipation heightened by Barking Gecko’s stage version a couple of years ago at the State Theatre Centre of WA, and more recently by hearing about the advance premiere screening of this adaptation at CinefestOZ in Margaret River some months ago.

The movie, set for theatrical release in March, follows Charlie Bucktin, a bookish 14-year-old misfit living in a small Australian town in 1969.

In the dead of night during the scorching summer, Charlie is startled awake by local outcast Jasper Jones outside his window, pleading for help.

Jasper leads him deep into the forest to show him something that will change his life forever, setting them both on a dangerous journey to solve a mystery that will consume the entire community.

In an isolated town full of secrecy, gossip and thinly veiled tragedy, Charlie faces family breakdown, finds his first love and discovers the meaning of courage.

But don’t think this is going to be boring and worthy. This was a seriously funny and vibrant book – that’s why its following is so loyal.

As well as Collette and Weaving, stars include Levi Miller from Pan and Angourie Rice from the excellent These Final Hours. Just looking at the stills makes me think they’ve cast this movie perfectly. I’m excited!

Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

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An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

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Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

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A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

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My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.



 

 

Amnesia: the ‘new’ Peter Carey book

Peter Carey’s easily one of my top five authors and on my fantasy dinner party list, so of course I leapt straight on to his new book. Well, I meant to.

Now that I’ve finally got round to it I realise that Amnesia was published in 2012, so shame on me. But it’s certainly not lost any of its potency during its patient wait for me on the shelves of the recently opened City of Perth Library (beautiful and well worth a visit).

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Disgraced political journalist Felix Moore, unemployed after a highly public defamation conviction, is commissioned by a shady but powerful ally to write a biography of – and thereby potentially gain public sympathy for – young Australian hacker Gaby Bailleux, whose parents he knew in their younger days.

She faces extradition to America for infiltrating prison systems there and at home and Moore is promised access to her in her hideout – but the access never eventuates. Moore, held by shadowy figures of the resistance movement in remote locations for his own ‘protection’, is forced into a dreamlike attempt to grasp his elusive subject, and pin her inner life to paper, through the infuriatingly scant and subjective secondary materials she sees fit to provide.

He writes her life story, each page whisked away for an editing process completely beyond his control. He is unable to separate her from the backdrop of the society into which she was born – one whose politics is forever troubled by its murky relationship with America, from Vietnam War-era machinations between the CIA and Australian government until the present.

It sounds complex, and it is. This plot is not for the faint-hearted, and I confess to a rather foggy understanding at times. It requires a focus beyond the level neede for your average page-turner or blog post; perhaps that’s why it’s taken me four years to read it.

But that’s not to say it’s boring. Its ambitious plot reflects a leap for Carey into a heady new direction for his style, in which he crafts a modern thriller that still bears the Carey hallmarks. His dialogue is immediate and unhampered by quotation marks, a feature of much of his writing, which adds to the sense of surreal displacement experienced by his narrator. It’s a part of his style that has been described as fabulism, in which a sense of the fantastic is blended with a realistically reported narrative. In fact, the whole book embodies this concept, in a sense – the story of the objective political reporter who suddenly finds himself flung down the rabbit hole.

Above all, the novel retains the sublime power of description I love Carey for, a power so great it really goes beyond description, in which words do not seem to go through your brain for translation into pictures and feelings, but instead seem to cut straight into your soul.

Amnesia, to be truthful, did not grab me by the heart and the imagination in quite the same unforgettable way his Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, did.

But it did reaffirm my belief that Carey is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. In it I could see the expertise that has built over the decades and appears to still be growing. A privilege to read.

 

Get under it: Stephen King’s 900-page Under the Dome in five days

Stephen King - Under the Dome

Yerp. It’s big.

The only way you can finish a 900-page book in this amount of time is with the divine aid of the Holy Trinity.

  1. holidays from work
  2. spouse stays at work (so as not to distract you)
  3. book must be freaking awesome

This happy set of circumstances allowed me to arise from the couch On the Fifth Day cramped and red-eyed, but with a glad heart.

The book is about a giant clear dome that slams down, without warning, one fine day over the entirety of a small town in Maine, King’s home town. It tracks the town’s various inhabitants, who are largely under the thumb of a local politician, and observes how they deal with the sudden imprisonment. Poorly, it turns out – spectacularly poorly. And let’s not forget this is America, so they all have guns.

Chaos unfolds, with an outnumbered band of sane citizens trying to protect themselves and their families as they hope for rescue. But as a baffled US Government runs out of options, they must look inside their own hearts and minds  for the answer.

Stephen King has said he had the idea for this book as a young writer but it was essentially too complex, too big, too difficult to write. So he kept it in the back of his mind until he was the kind of writer who could afford to get a researcher to figure out all the scientific ins and outs of what would happen if a giant dome cut off a town from the outside world.

The result is rigorous, fascinating sci-fi with delicious flourishes of the kind of horror only Stephen King can provide (remember the closing scene of Pet Sematary, anyone? Or the opening scene of IT?)

The cast of characters is truly enormous and no amount of commissioned research can help King there – it’s his skill as a novelist, honed over many years, that lets him unfold these simultaneous storylines with dexterity and relentless tension.

This is the most exciting book I’ve read in ages; essentially, after I got out of the Dome, I wanted back in.

That’s why I watched the TV series. Well, two episodes of it. In fact, I was so into this story I began watching the TV adaptation before I had even finished the print version.

It may be that I am being overly judgmental because I was fresh from the book. After all, King and Steven Spielberg are both involved in the production. It should be good. But I stopped after Episode Two. It just doesn’t get the job done. I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.

Just get under the real thing! If you’ve never read King before I there’s no time like the present. Don’t be put off if you don’t like genre fiction (in which case you’re an idiot anyway). The best genre fiction transcends genre, and this gargantuan tale of power, corruption and compassion is a gift from a master storyteller at the top of his game.

 

Ready, Player Two? Ernest Cline’s Armada and how it measures up

Armada - Ernest ClineErnest Cline’s hit 2011 debut Ready Player One was the pure, unfettered brainscream of a child of the 80s,” as American writer and Juno chief executive Charles Ardai memorably put it.

 

For the uninitiated (where have you BEEN?) the novel wove a veritable treasure trove of 80s movie, gamer and pop-cultural references into an engaging post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel relying heavily on these references for its plot development – a novel at once more exciting, more significant in style and more original in conception than the description I just gave could possibly convey.

In short, it created waves of excitement in every 80s-raised-or-remembering person, one of whom I am proud to be (I was born the same year as The Goonies, yo). It excited the rest of the world too, enough for Steven Spielberg lay claim to directing the movie version, now due in 2017.

So obviously, no pressure on that second novel to succeed, Cline.

Enter Zack Lightman, an 18-year-old gamer who lives with his mom in Oregon. His father died in an explosion at 19, when Zack was just a baby, and the young doppelganger lives in a virtual shrine to the memory of his dad, who bequeathed his obsession with (yes…) 80s movies and games to his son by way of a collection of possessions in the attic of the home Zack and his mother now share with just the ageing beagle, Muffitt.

Zack, a dreamer already dealing with some anger issues and worried about his own grip on reality after spending too much time living in the world of his father’s games, notes and conspiracy theory-filled journals, thinks he must finally have lost the plot when one day he sees a ship from global hit game Armada circling the skies outside his classroom window.

But it soon becomes clear that these is a lot more at stake here than one teenager’s sanity, and this is maybe the first time in history that being a really, really good gamer can be called a life skill – a skill crucial to the future of the human race.

Despite my clearly being a member of the target audience, my kinship with the subject matter here ends abruptly at the word ‘gaming’. Thankfully, my long association with nerds has given me the vocabulary to cope, and even if you don’t care about the 80s or gaming, if you have any interest in the nature of modern sci-fi writing, I’d encourage you to give this a try.

Like its predecessor Ready Player One, Armada features the same endearingly enthusiastic tone, like your best friend chewing your ear off about their latest obsession. A nerd’s wet dream, it’s sharp and humorous, giving the reader an almost immodestly fun ride. It really sounds as though Cline had a ball writing this, particularly some of the wise-cracking dialogue, and that kind of enjoyment is contagious.

The writing is not amazing or life-changing. It’s not full of stirring descriptions or memorable quotes. Several times I am jarred slightly by a choice of adjective or simile. But it doesn’t need to be poetry. The language is entirely functional and the sheer momentum of this story needs no help. The pictures Cline paints are clear as daylight and lent soul by the central theme of Zack’s utter devotion to the idea of his father.

Funnily enough, I remember thinking as I read this that it read a bit like the novelisation of a movie, or indeed the script for one. Cline’s books are both very cinematic stuff, so it surprises me not one whit that Spielberg is all over this.

The author has written a confident and worthy successor to Ready Player One and confirmed his place as a truly original and exciting new voice in sci-fi.

They’ll both undoubtedly make kickarse movies, so keep your ear to the ground (or your eyes on the skies).

Want more sci-fi book reviews? 

Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed
William Kotzwinkle, The Amphora Project
M. John Harrison, Light
John Wyndham, The Outward Urge