Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book Groups

I must admit to several character weaknesses in my personality make-up. Call me squeamish, but I don’t like confrontations. I go out of my way to avoid confrontations. I am also a creature given to contradictory, usually short-lived but very genuine, enthusiasms. I have a near-compulsive need to rationalise; I try with the best of my abilities to put myself in others’ shoes; I try to understand; I attempt to find reasons when there are no reasons to be found; and then I try to convince myself, against my better judgment, that what is clearly unpalatable will be palatable if only I tried harder. The result, more often than not, is I end up making decisions I regret even as I am making them. I agree to do things I know I will hate even as I agree; and I accept things every rational part of my brain is screaming I should be treating with the same suspicion with which Prince Philip approaches the extended hand of an Australian aboriginal.

I have been a member of a book group for more than a year. Don’t ask me why I agreed to join the group (see the paragraph above). Essentially I could not say no when a friend of a friend invited me to join. To be honest I was also flattered—like when an unattractive teenager with spotty face and dandruff on his collar is asked out by the attractive girl in the class with bouncy bust, he is secretly lusting after—when he said he and his book-mates would be very honoured if someone like me who was such a voracious reader joined the group. I got a bit carried away. I thought that in these monthly gatherings to discuss literary fiction I—the voracious reader—would dazzle the other members with my searing comments, mordant wit and incisive insights. 

A year down the line, I am regretting the decision. It was a mistake. It was never going to work. When a group comprises more than half a dozen individuals, it is impossible that they will have the same taste in reading. Now, you might say that that’s a good thing. People, in such groups, will suggest different genres, and you’d read books you’d otherwise not have read.

That is exactly my problem. I have been reading books in the past one year I’d have not read otherwise, and, reading them has confirmed to me that I was right in avoiding them all these years. I do not buy this argument that it is good once in a while to read books that won’t be on your usual reading list. Taste in reading is a bit like taste in wine. If you don’t have the taste for it, no amount of trying is going to make you like the vinegar that is passed for a wine in California.

Then there are the members of the book-groups.

One of the group members relishes in describing himself as a “working class boy from East End of London”. I don’t know what he does for living (he works for some charity, I think), but he gives autumn parties, books tickets for the first day of the Ashes tests, drinks  white chateauneuf du pape, and is a member of a frigging book club. But he refuses to consider himself even an honorary member of the middle classes. The man does not strike me as mentally privileged and his command over English is shaky at best.  Probably for these reasons he claims to hate middle brow fiction. Which basically is any novel that is literary and does not have gruesome murders in it. Sometime ago we discussed The Good Soldier. The man read the first ten pages of the novel and apparently lost the will to live. He could not carry on. It’s a matter of regret that he did not kill himself.  That’s what he does with any novel that challenges his attention span, and announces in the meetings that the novel was full of “middle class nonsense” and he simply could not read such tosh. He gets on my nerves. He is forever suggesting novels of writers like Carl Hiaasen and George Pelecanos. A couple of months ago, probably just to have a break from his moaning, the group agreed to read a George Pelecanos novel called The Cut. Words fail me to describe how awful the novel was. It really had no redeeming features. It was an easy read, but, since I am not a fast reader, I still wasted four days finishing it. When the group met, it turned out that the majority had not liked it. A few members laid into the novel, and I actually found myself arguing that the novel was not as bad as that; that it had some witty dialogues; and that there was a semi-believable depiction of the soft underbelly of Washington D.C., the city in which apparently majority of Pelecanos’s novels are set.

This brings me to my second problem. In the past one year I have not managed to dazzle the group with my searing observations and mordant wit. Indeed I have not managed to say much at all in the meetings. There are a few reasons for this. It seems to me that for some group members the ability to listen to others is about as useful, in this day and age, as the ability to make fire with twigs. It is not necessary; they can do without it. As soon as the discussion opens these guys launch into their monologues as if a yearlong curfew on speaking has just been lifted for a few hours. They are fluent, I will grant them that. (Do they rehearse in front of the mirror what they are going to say in the meeting?) Some of them have done creative writing courses and, even though they have not got round to publish even a short story, they use lots of technical words with the relish of a gynaecologist explaining hysterectomy procedure to his patient. It is not that they don’t have a point. Unlike the “working class boy from East End of London” some of these guys have an interest in reading. (The “working class boy”, I suspect, comes mainly to eat, and also because he has probably heard that sophisticated, cultured people join book groups, although he would soon shoot himself between the eyes than accept that he wants to be cultured and sophisticated.) But they talk too much, probably working on the principle that it is a sin to be precise and concise when you can waste five times the required number of words. They are tireless and tiresome. As they drone on I try to keep myself awake, as I poke about my pepperoni pizza, by thinking imaginative questions such as why only fingernails continue to grow while the rest of the body stops, and whether the plump waitress sashaying seductively between tables (although for all that sashaying not great in the tits department) and wearing improbably tight trousers would burst an artery in her pelvis. On the rare occasion when I manage to get a word in edgeways, I, to my disgust, find myself saying mealy mouthed wishy-washy things which are vaguely complimentary. Even when I have not liked the novel (which has been the case 75% of the time so far) I avoid criticising it harshly. Why do I do it? Probably for the same reason I do not make a fuss when the waiters are rude in restaurants, or when a young mother demands to get ahead of me in the queue at the till because her child is cranky, or why I don’t ask the old biddy, who happens to sit next to me on the bus and who attaches great importance to telling you her entire life history, to shut up. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want to be nice.

If I were a man of metal, if I had the personality strength of an iron skillet, if I were not obsessed about offering the world my unwavering amiability and appearing relentlessly reasonable, I would tell the other group members that I was sorry to be the bearer of a bad news but it would be grossly irresponsible to suggest anything different; that the book group meetings were so dire that I would rather have my teeth slowly extracted (without local anaesthesia) by a chatty dentist who has had lots of onions for lunch than spending an evening in a restaurant the white tiles of which put you in the mind of a urinal, in the company of people in comparison with whom parish meetings of Dagenham city council were like a gallon of coffee.

We are going to discuss The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry next month.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Book of the Month: Trumpet (Jackie Kay)

Trumpet is the d├ębut (and so far the only) novel of the British poet Jackie Kay. First published in 1998, Trumpet won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

The protagonist of Trumpet is a renowned jazz musician called Joss Moody. Moody is a famous trumpet player (the title of the novel is a direct reference to the instrument that brings fame to Moody). Joss Moody around whom the novel revolves never speaks directly to the reader because he is dead. The novel begins with the death of Moody. Moody has died, leaving behind his widow, Millie, and his adopted son, Colman. The world of Jazz music has lost one of its greatest exponents. However, this is not the only reason why Moody, in his death, is dominating the headlines in the tabloids. In his death Joss Moody can no longer keep the secret he has lived with all his life. Moody, who lived all his life as a man, was married and adopted  a son, was born a woman, and, anatomically , remained a woman all his/her life.  The “discovery” of Moody’s true gender attracts lots of unwarranted media attention, complete with prurient speculations about the sex lives (and sexual orientations) of Moody and “his widow”.

Trumpet  tells the story of Joss Moody through different voices: the funeral director (who discovers the true sex of the famous trumpeter); the drummer in the band to which Moody belongs; an avaricious journalist who is trying to make a name for herself out of the drama of Moody’s life with the sensitivity of George W Bush on a bad-hair day;  Millie, Moody’s “wife”, who has known all along that her “husband” was a woman ; and last but not the least, his son Coleman, who doesn’t know, until he reads the newspapers, that the man he thought was his father was in fact a woman.

The premise of Trumpet is not as preposterous as it might seem. The novel is based on the  real life American Jazz musician called Billy Tipton. Tipton was born a woman—Dorothy Tipton. A piano player, Tipton started her musical career in the 1930s. She used to appear as a man during public performance, but, by 1940, she had begun living as a man even in private. Tipton went on to have a series of relationships with women, some of which lasted for several years. (Those partners of Tipton who could be contacted after Tipton's death clarified tat they were aware that Tipton was a woman; all of them consaid that they considered themselves to be heterosexuals.) Tipton adopted three sons in the 1960s when “he” was in a relationship with a woman, and, upon separating from her, carried on living with “his” three sons who apparently remained blissfully unaware that their father was in fact a woman even when they reached puberty. Tipton died in poverty in 1989. The sons became aware of their father’s anatomy when Tipton, at the age of 74 became ill (he had resisted for months going to the hospital) and paramedics were called. Tipton never explained or left behind any note explaining why he chose to live the way he did. It has been speculated that the scene of Jazz music was dominated by men in the 1930s when Tipton started out, and s/he might have felt it necessary to take on the persona of a man in order to have a career. Some of Tipton's professional colleagues felt that Dorothy Tipton was a lesbian because during the years when she was appearing as a man only during public performances, she lived with another woman.

Trumpet makes no attempt to explain the fictional Joss Moody’s sexuality. Was Moody a lesbian? A transvestite? A transsexual? Kay is not interested in spelling this out for the readers. Just as Dorothy Tipton, the real life inspiration behind Joss Moody, never explained what motivated her to live the most whole life as a man, Trumpet leaves it for the reader to figure out why Moody lived his life the way he did. What Kay is interested in are identity and love, and she explores these themes with great subtlety. On the one hand we have the dead Joss Moody, who, for all outward appearances, had no conflict in his mind about his identity, which, to most, would seem more complicated than Christopher Nolan’s Inception; on the other hand there is Moody’s adopted son, Coleman, whose sexual identity is straightforward enough, but who has struggled all his life to come out of the shadow of his famous father, and, not having any musical (or any other skills) to speak of, is drifting in search of an identity. The revelation of his father’s gender triggers a riot of emotions in Coleman’s mind compared to which the Bolshevik revolution was a tea party, and makes his struggle for identity more convoluted. Coleman’s struggle to accept his father for what he was is a powerful strand of the novel. Millie, Moody’s widow, is also grappling with the issue of identity, though there is no confusion in her mind. Millie, who has always known that Joss was a woman, views herself as straight, and does not accept the media’s depiction of her as a lesbian. To Millie it matters not a jot that Joss Moody was anatomically a woman. She loved Joss for what he was. Although not explicitly stated, it is implied that Joss Moody considered himself a man, and that is good enough for Millie. The sections describing the relationship between Joss and Millie are very moving without ever descending into the maudlin. The ending has a twist but it’s not gimmicky.

Trumpet, at its heart, is a love story; but it is also a psychological thriller and an exposition of identity. Jackie Kay is a renowned poet and has an extraordinary feel for language. She knows how to select, what to focus on, how make her characters sparkle and how to make her scenes vivid. The different voices of the novel are handled with great aplomb and are utterly convincing. All—even the slightly stereotypical and unlikeable journalist—are treated with compassion. Not an easy thing to pull off, one would have thought, but Kay manages it.

Trumpet is a wonderful novel. Humane, poignant, wise and insightful, it’s one of those novels that give you a rich sense of satisfaction when you reach the last page.