Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid

(Penguin, 209pp, £7.99)

This novella has been atop our bestseller lists at the bookshop for some time now, so I thought I'd better give it a try. It was shortlisted, along with several other short novels such as On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip (more on the latter later), for last year's Man Booker, and shares with those two at least the frustrating quality of being better by a long way than the novel that won, Anne Enright's The Gathering, which I found dreary and shapeless.

The book opens with a lively address to a reader who is gradually characterised as an American man in a suit, supposedly engaged in conversation with Changez, a Pakistani national educated at Princeton and eventually spat out by a wealthy American business consultancy firm. The setting is Lahore, and each chapter generally begins with Changez's comments on the changing scene around them as dusk falls, and the food to which he is introducing his new acquaintance; it then continues with his narrative of the past. Hamid has done well with his form-content relationship, and limited the amount of time to be narrated to about a year, limited further to Changez's career, an ongoing romantic saga with a troubled Princeton friend, Erica, and his changing attitudes to Western culture. Indeed, many of the review quotations on the back of my paperback edition comment on how "spare", "taut" and "sharp" the book is: there are no swathes of description or attempts at anything other than what seems to be an earnest relation of his activities. The prose is readable, entertaining and (surprisingly at times) sympathetic: I was taken especially by this passage (at page 179):

If you have ever, sir, been through the breakup of a romantic relationship that involved great love, you will perhaps understand what I experienced. There is in such situations usually a moment of passion during which the unthinkable is said; this is followed by a sense of euphoria at finally being liberated; then comes the inveitable period of doubt, the desperate and doomed backpedaling of regret; and only later, once emotions have receded, is one able to view with equanimity the journey through which one has passed.
This seems beautifully unembellished and accurate, and yet carries at the same time an air of dismissal, perhaps because of the semi-colons and the slight pomposity of the language. Perhaps the speaker is belittling his own emotional journey compared to the ideological overhaul he has experienced simultaneously?

The tone of the book builds beautifully to the end, but it is in fact the end that I found almost unbearably frustrating. I don't often think that books ought to be longer, but in this case I think another 50 pages would have done this one good. The last chapter reveals so much in such a short time, suddenly condensing the passage of a few months, and only in the last page revealing the triumphant twist, that I was unable to reconcile the ominousness of the previous chapters with this ending: I was expecting something subtler and, if I'm honest, more carefully handled. The section after Changez's return to Lahore seemed bunged in, if you like, and tacked on, less precise in its detail and apparently in a rush to reach the end. This is a shame since the earlier scenes, and especially the characters of Wainright, Changez's boss, and Erica, forever in love with a sweetheart who died very young, are vivid and convincing. I found far more satisfaction in the end of Erica's story than that of Changez (and of the whole book), which meant that I came away less happy than I have from far worse books with better endings. Read it, is my conclusion, but take your time getting to the end and enjoy what comes before.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


Just a quick one this time - and sorry for being so absent. Hopefully things will improve after Christmas - going back to the subject of Twilight. I was told by someone at work that Meyer is approaching her plotlines 'from an abstinence point of view'. That is, the idea of the honourable vampire who won't drink the blood of another human is a manifesto for sexual abstinence.

It is certainly true that Edward and Isabella, despite being close to adulthood, don't have sex or even come close to it (although I don't know about subsequent books); they never discuss it or suggest it, although Edward suggests at one point that his feelings for Isabella are the same as any other man's - by which I presume he means sexual, judging by the context. The fact that he longs for her blood more than any other is shown as a cause of his love for her, not parallel, so the metaphoric link between sex and vampiric violence is arguably present in Meyer's mind as well as more generally in folklore.

Is this really a responsible thing to be suggesting to our teenagers? I sell people this book, and I'm crying a little inside as I do it.


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

You were certainly honest when you said
that you can't dance. Getting in from the pub
with a head like honey, my brain
melting into my smile,

I find you, in the front room, a dark upright eel
against the streetlights outside -
how you would be, I suppose,
if I'd dropped a pill not a pint -
two-tone orange and charcoal grey -

and dancing, like a serene fool
belonging finally in your own noise, to a song
on my iPod - which I can hear, the beat only,
like a muffled music from another world -

and have I leapt into primitive eyes,
before we tried to find God in ourselves,
where a curious flex of protons and power
shows us
what will be and must be, ourselves at our most glorious? -

that is, me at my most drunk.


The above is a poem I found from early September. I changed the lineation and phrasing a bit, and it still needs a good deal of work, but I thought I'd bung it up here anyway. Perhaps if I edit it I'll record the editing process as it evolves.


The Accidental by Ali Smith

(306pp, Penguin, £7.99)

The blurb on the back of this book, which claims that the novel 'explores the nature of truth, the role of fate and the power of storytelling,' does not do The Accidental justice. If I were to write a replacement blurb, I would start with the intensive, meditative portrayal of consciousness, the alienation of the everyday, the defamiliarisation of emotion and the comic polyphony of twenty-first century life.

Quite simply, this is a marvellous book (not surprising that it won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005 and was shortlisted for both the Man Booker in 2005 and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006). It is divided into three sections: beginning, middle and end, and further into five chapters in each section, told from the point of view of each main character. There's Astrid, the 12-year-old girl obsessed with the archiving of film footage and the discovery of new word and phrases; Magnus, her 16-year-old brother struggling with guilt over his partial responsibility for a schoolgirl's suicide as well as his own sexual awakening; Michael Smart, their stepfather, an English lecturer weaving a tangled web of lechery and infidelity in his search for a kind of linguistic supreme; Eve, the children's mother, trying to hold things together; and Amber, the stranger who arrives at their holiday home in Norfolk one day, and immediately entrances the whole family.

The plot of the novel is for me far less significant than its stylistic feel. Smith is funny, clever and has a poetic imagination matched even by few poets. I was entranced by this passage:
She had entered him like he was water. Like he was a dictionary and she was a word he hadn't known was in him. Or she had entered him more simply, like he was a door and she opened him, leaving him standing ajar as she walked straight in.
Smith is as sharply observant as a comedian, finding the ridiculous in life, silly phrases, individual obsessions. Her book oozes with the authenticity of life in 2003 even while she mocks the idea of the authentic through Eve's authorial pursuits, which involve recreating and manipulating the lives of 'Genuine' figures from the past. She is explicit in her narrations of sex, brutally, sometimes, and in some ways these scenes seem to mark the lack of sentimentality that characterises the whole novel. The figure of Amber, who is shocking at first for no other reason than her lack of conventional civility, becomes a kind of antithesis of every artificial rule we as a society have laid down for ourselves, and because of this she is powerfully attractive to the whole Smart family.

This is the kind of book that stays with you for a long time. My one trouble with it was its density: it is a novel to be read slowly, deliberately, like Virginia Woolf or Proust, like any stream-of-consciousness, but it is funnier and livelier, irreverent, rich with allusion and insistently peculiar. I wondered at first if either Astrid, Magnus or both were mentally ill - autistic possibly. They aren't, but I suspect this is what it is to see into someone else's consciousness: destabilising and weird to realise how much of what we think is translated into what is considered 'normal' so that we are not rejected by society. Smith understands this completely, and when I give the borrowed copy of The Accidental back to its rightful owner I'm going to buy my own and scribble all over it - which must be the sign of a brilliant read.


Thursday, 4 December 2008

A quick note ...

So I reread Pride and Prejudice, but I hope you'll forgive me for not writing a review of that. I'm currently on Ali Smith's The Accidental, so I'll cover that one when I finish it.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

(343pp, HarperCollins, £7.99)

Note above the more formal presentation of the review, and the ditching of the out-of-10 mark. Partly I've been inspired by this reflective and clever book, which narrates Nafisi's private 'book club' for her most intelligent, free-thinking students in Tehran. The book is divided into four sections: 'Lolita', 'Gatsby', 'James' and 'Austen' (the latter two sections deal mainly with Washington Square and Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice); each tells of the whirling events of the political turmoil in Iran, including the revolution and the transformation into the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the war with Iraq from 1980 (apologies if these facts are wrong, I'm working from memory here), interlaced with their discussions of the works of English and American literature they read. Nafisi shows cleverly how the ideas in even Jane Austen's works relate profoundly to the constantly scrutinised, highly moralistic society by which Nafisi and her students are bound. I particularly liked these paragraphs on Pride and Prejudice:

There is seldom a physical description of a character or scene in Pride and Prejudice and yet we feel that we have seen each of these characters and their intimate worlds; we feel we know them, and sense their surroundings. We can see Elizabeth's reaction to Darcy's denunciation of her beauty, Mrs Bennet chattering at the dinner table or Elizabeth and Darcy walking in and out of the shadows of the Pemberley estate. The amazing this is that all of this is created mainly through tone - different tones of voice, words that become haughty and naughty, soft, harsh, coaxing, insinuating, insensible, vain.
The sense of touch that is missing from Austen's novels is replaced by a sense of tension, an erotic texture of sounds and silences. She manages to create a feeling of longing by setting characters who want each other at odds. Elizabeth and Darcy are placed near each other in several scenes, but in public places where they cannot communicate privately. Austen creates a great deal of frustrated tension by putting them in the same room yet out of reach. The tension is deepened by the fact that while everyone expects Jane and Bingley to be in love, the exact reverse is expected of Elizabeth and Darcy.
Nafisi is clearly very intelligent, but these moments of interpretation are not over the average reader's head - that is, I shouldn't think you need an English degree to understand them. What you do ideally need, though, is a working knowledge of the works she writes about - and in this sense my judgement of the book was nicely balanced, since I have read Lolita and Pride and Prejudice but not The Great Gatsby (I know, shocking) or either James novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, I enjoyed the two middle sections, about Gatsby and James, far less than the other two, and so I would strongly suggest reading the novels before embarking on this book; that way you won't have to contend with unfamiliar political events as well as unfamiliar plotlines embedded in plotlines. Perhaps because I'm also not old enough to remember many of the events she describes, I did get confused, and I also got the names of Nafisi's students muddled because of the unfamiliarity of Iranian names (so many of them begin with M!). I should also warn that it is a slow-ish read: the text is fairly dense, laden with facts. I actually enjoyed her approach to the narration of the political events, during which she describes horrors perpetrated by the Iranian authorities with minimal comment or judgement, which certainly saves us from the repetition of her shock, as this would doubtless become tedious. However, you do have to concentrate on what you are reading, try and remember the various qualities of each character (there are quite a few, some of whom crop up so infrequently that you've all but forgotten about them), and be willing to use your brain (something I can't say for Twilight!). It is fairly clear that Nafisi is not a native English speaker: her prose, though perfectly grammatical and lucid, is sometimes slightly awkward, and she lacks the subtle understanding of natural English rhythms which you don't even notice until you are faced with their absence. Of course this is by no means her fault, but it does make the book slightly more tiring to read. If you have the energy to devote to it, though, you'll find yourself entertained, enlightened and, as I discovered slightly to my surprise, elated by this thoughtful narrative.


I'm aware that the above review wasn't very long; this is mainly because I was prompted by the book to reread Pride and Prejudice. I have read about half of it today, and, having not read it for some years, was reminded of her brilliance in even the smallest point. I wanted to illustrate this using the shortest of quotations from towards the end of Chapter 15, when Mr Collins is a guest at Mrs Philips's little party: "Mr Collins repeated his apologies in quitting the room, and was assured with unwearying civility that they were perfectly needless."

I want to narrow in on the phrase "unwearying civility". It seems to me that Austen inserts the adjective "unwearying" because she wants to draw our attention to how quickly Mrs Philips's civility could weary, even if it doesn't (mainly because she is so flattered by Collins's admiration and attentions that she forgives him his pomposity) - and suggests in the process how quickly any normal person's civility would quickly weary under such assault from Mr Collins. Isn't that brilliant?


Monday, 1 December 2008

Special powers ...?

If you had a super-power, what would it be?

I think mine would be to remember, word for word, everything that was ever said to me, all the films I've ever watched, everything I've ever read. (It certainly would have helped during Finals!). Either that or to fly. Or to make whoever I chose fall in love with me and save the pointless heartache. Although I think the latter would probably cause more problems than it would solve. As would being able to remember everything verbatim, I suppose - my head would end up stupidly cluttered.

Let's hear from you, folks - what would your power be, and what would be the amazing pros and cons?