Sunday, 7 December 2014

Boy Done Good

I heard the 2014 Booker Prize winner, the Australian novelist, Richard Flanagan, in a literary programme a few years ago. I had heard his name and had even a novel of his in my collection, Gould’s Book of Fish (but only because I had got it for a couple of quid in a second-hand bookshop, and the title and premise had seemed interesting) which I had not got round to read. Indeed the only reason I attended the Richard Flanagan's talk was because I had bought the ticket for the whole programme for a discount.

Flanagan informed the audience with pride he made no attempt to conceal that his people were convict people. They had all been sent out during the famine to the gulag of the British Empire that was Tasmania. The land was originally called Van Demon’s Land, and the name remained until, I guess, it ceased to be a gulag. Flanagan was born in Longford, a village with a population slightly less than that of the backstreets of East End of London. Longford was the place where Flanagan’s great great grandfather was sent for stealing corn worth eight pounds (given what eight pounds at the height of famine would be worth nowadays, it was probably a robbery). Flanagan’s father was a primary school teacher and, when Flanagan was three, was posted to Rosebury, an isolated mining town with a population even less than that of Longford (so not really a town), five miles away from civilization in every direction (imagine Norfolk).

Flanagan went on to inform the audience that, disgracefully, he always wanted to become a writer, which, he acknowledged, made no sense. He even wrote a letter to his sister when he was six, informing her that he wanted to be a writer. The conclusion is ineluctable: Flanagan was a child prodigy. He didn’t inform his parents, however, until he was well into his twenties, about the career he had chosen (probably because he was worried what his mother’s reaction would be, as she had set her heart upon Flanagan becoming a plumber). Be that as it may, once Flanagan decided to become a writer he had to leave Tasmania. “Why?” I hear you asking. I have no idea. If it helps Flanagan couldn’t provide a satisfactory explanation either in the programme, although that was not, going by his facial grimaces when he discussed it, because of want of trying. You just could not do literature in Tasmania, and that is that. You could be a labourer or a goatherd (or a primary school teacher) in Tasmania, but if you wished to become a writer, you had to go to Europe and America. Trying to become a writer in Tasmania was like having your teeth checked by Shane MacGowan. No sane person would do it. So that’s what Flanagan did, or didn’t do. He came to England, Oxford to be exact, on a Rhodes scholarship. It was in Oxford that Flanagan started writing and getting published. He wrote history books, even though what he really wanted to do was to write a novel (which would with the Booker Prize one day), because it was apparently easy (or easier) to publish history books.

After the stint in the grimy, grey and flat England, Flanagan returned to Tasmania and (since the money he earned from the history books would not have bought a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe) he started labouring. Literally. He worked as a labourer through the winter and a river guide through summer. He hadn’t given up on his ambition to become a writer, though, and, through a friend, managed to get paid $ 10,000 to write the story of a Bavarian criminal. The German had defrauded the banks in Europe of hundreds of millions of dollars, and, after escaping to Australia and being subjected to the biggest manhunt in Australian history, was eventually caught and sent to prison, where, entirely expectedly, he was offered a huge contract to write his story, which he had accepted. The slight trouble was the man could not write. That is where Flanagan stepped in and started inventing the criminal’s life story in a Hobart Cafe. Could he not have, like, interviewed the German? Well, no; because the criminals blew his brains out before he was to appear in court, which was within a few weeks of Flanagan trousering his ten thousand dollars.

Flanagan’s first published novel was The Death of a River Guide, which, Flanagan disarmingly informed the audience, did not attract rave reviews from the critics. But, what do the critics know? The readers loved the novel, kept on buying it, which meant that the publishers had no choice but to publish reprints of the novel. Tough, but such is life.

Flanagan’s second published novel was The Sound of One Hand Clapping. (If you want to know how that can be possible, you would need to read the novel.) Flanagan focused on the Eastern European migrant community (Slovanian, in this case) in the novel. Flanagan nearly won a prize for this novel, but was pipped to the post by a novel which was about a Ukranian mass murderer. The novel was written by one Ukrainian writer named Helen Demidenko, except that she was not Ukrainian and was not Helen Demidenko. Her real name was Helen Darville and she was the daughter of an English nurseryman. That Demidenko/Darville cheated him out of a prize obviously rankled with Flanagan after all these years. He described the Demidenko/Darville’s novel as an anti-Semitic work that read like a pornographic comic book, and added, incredulity written all over his face, that the literary establishment loved it. (Maybe the novel indeed was as poor as Flanagan thought it was. Let’s hope that he will be in a more forgiving mood towards Demidenko/Darville’s novel after The Narrow Road to the Deep North was lapped up by the critics.)

Flanagan’s next novel, Gould’s Book of Fish, is the one he was most famous for (until The Narrow Road to the Deep North came along). Flanagan had never heard of either Gould, a convict called William Gould, or his book comprising 28 water colour paintings of fish. The archivist who made Flanagan aware of the existence of the book had hidden the book (also named as Gould’s Book of Fish) in a cupboard. Apparently no pictures of convicts incarcerated on Sarah Island (where William Gould served his sentence) are available and, as Flanagan looked at the paintings of fish, it seemed to him that the convict Gould was trying to smuggle some sort of experience out of the island through the eyes of these fish. The idea of the book came to him instantly. He knew that each chapter of the novel would begin with one of the pictures of the fish. This book took off and—Flanagan had no hesitation in declaring this—became a monster across the globe. This was a fun book for Flanagan, but he did not want to be imprisoned in it. So his next book was the incredibly bleak (by his own admission) novel describing the unsafe paranoid world we have come to inhabit after 9/11 (The Unknown Terrorist). (It always amazes me how many of us in the Western world made the discovery for the first time that the world is paranoid and unsafe after 9/11. If I make so bold as to point out, the world was always paranoid and unsafe; a modicum of research would reveal that people in different parts of the world were always getting massacred and meeting horrific deaths, before 9/11.) This book, too, was a big hit and a best seller in Australia, though it received mixed reception from the critics.

The programme I attended was really about what at that time was Flanagan’s most recent novel, entitled Wanted, but, by the time Flanagan came round to talk about it, my concentration, which, at the best of times, has a shorter span than that of the fish in one of Flanagan’s novel, was wavering (the interviewer’s proclivity to ask very long-winded questions, matched by Flanagan’s proclivity to give longer winded answers might also have something to do with it, as also the captivating spectacle of the man sitting in the front row showering dandruff on his collar every time he moved his head).

I left the literary programme thinking to myself that I should read Gould’s Book of Fish, which seemed like an intriguing novel. And forgot about it (and its author) until this year when it was announced that Flanagan had won the Man Booker prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North last month. I must confess that I wasn’t swept away by it—and neither did I notice (therefore appreciate) the lyrical quality of Flanagan’s prose (about which the interviewer in the literary programme had talked a lot, making faces as if he was trying desperately not to burp)— but I thought that it brought to the fore the ironies and futilities of life in a manner that made you think. You can’t say that about many books. 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Book of the Month: May We Be Forgiven (A. M. Homes)

May We Be Forgiven, American writer A M Homes’s 2012 novel, starts brilliantly. Harry Silver, a Jewish underachieving academic (there is no cause and effect, here), a Nixon scholar, married to an American-Chinese woman, who is more successful (that is she earns far more money than Harry), is having a Thanksgiving dinner with the family of his younger brother, George. George, of whom Harry is secretly jealous, is a successful executive in a television company and—it is a job requirement, really—is an aggressive psychopath who likes to brag. So that’s what George is doing at the dinner table. Talking about himself while “picking turkey out of his teeth”. Harry is toing and froing between the kitchen and dining room, as Claire, his Chinese-American wife, is sitting at the table listening to George’s self-aggrandizing talk and George’s teenage children are sitting like “lumps” at the table, “as if poured into their chairs”, “truly spineless”, their “eyes focused on the small screens” in front of them. Its Jane, George’s wife, who is helping Harry clean up in the kitchen. Then Jane cosies towards Harry and plants a kiss, “wet, serious and full of desire” on George. Fast forward a few months. George jumps a red traffic signal and rams into another car, killing the couple in the car on the spot though their young son survives. George has what the psychiatrists describe as a breakdown and is wheeled into the local hospital. Harry is dispatched by Claire to help George and Jane. Harry takes his job way to seriously and begins comforting Jane in George and Jane’s marital bed while George is undergoing psychiatric evaluation in the hospital as his lawyer tries to figure out whether the charges against George can be mitigated by a diagnosis of psychiatric illness. One evening, much to Harry’s discomfort, George arrives at the house (it is after all his house), having taken his discharge against medical advice, and finds Jane and Harry in the master bedroom without any clothes on and so close that no light can pass between them. George picks up the heavy bedside lamp and swings in the general direction of the head of his unfaithful wife; then he swings again. The lamp makes contact on both occasions and Jane’s head is a squishy mess of broken chips of bone, hair and grey matter. Now George is in serious trouble, and is wheeled off to the locked loony bin for the criminally insane. Claire discovers Harry’s infidelity and gives him the marching orders. The head of the university where he teaches “Nixon” gives Harry the news that comes as a surprise only to Harry: no one is interested in learning about Nixon, and Harry would not be required from the next semester onwards. Not exactly the circumstances that would put you in the frame of mind to take on the guardianship of your nephews whose mother's speedy dispatch off to the next (not necessarily better) world was substantially assisted by your bedroom callisthenics with her in the moments leading to her death. But that’s what Harry ends up doing. It is a responsibility for which he is ill-prepared, not having any children of his own; and, to be sure, he finds himself in unexpected, not to say tricky, situations, such as advising on telephone his niece who has started menstruating which “hole” to insert the tampon into (she has inserted into the wrong “hole”), and organizing his nephew’s bar mitzvah in a South African village the nephew has “adopted”. Then there is Harry’s mother, stagnating in a nursing home and losing the last of her marbles to the inexorable march of dementia. George, the psychopathic killer, has been shifted from the high secure mental hospital to a scheme that looks more dodgy than the money laundering capers one reads about in the Daily Mail.  In the middle of this hectic itinerary, Harry has to find time to sexually satisfy mentally unstable housewives and random women he meets in local supermarkets, more horny than a rabbit on Viagra. When the novel ends, 365 days (and 500 pages) later, Harry is in charge of a whole gaggle of children (including the hyperactive kid whose parents George killed before he decided to treat his wife’s head as a golf ball), and a village in South Africa that seems to subsist nicely for months on the pocket-money Harry’s nephew sends them by saving on his ice-candies. Does Harry grow up emotionally and is a better person at the end of the year more topsy turvy than the helter skelter in the village fun-fair? You certainly hope so.

May We Be Forgiven is a sprawling, frequently meandering, tale with a large cast of characters. There are several strands to the plot, some of which—for example, Harry’s expertise on Nixon and his involvement with the Nixon’s family who has found a stash of manuscripts of short stories the disgraced former president of America allegedly wrote—sit uneasily in the bigger story, while some others—such as Harry’s dementing mother who is having a nookie with a man of advanced years—much to the disgust of his daughters—probably do not effectively serve their intended purpose, which, I thought, was to depict Harry’s slow maturation as a person and re-establishing dwindling family ties, although they are, undoubtedly, funny.

There are a lot of whacky characters in May We Be Forgiven (rather like Homes’s earlier novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, which was a great commercial success). As a result, the novel has a surreal, almost absurd, feel to it. In an interview Homes commented that she believed that we lived in moment when reality itself was somewhat surreal. What she appears to have tried in May We Be Forgiven, with considerable, if uneven, consistency, is capture the oddity and inexplicability of daily life. The narrative pitch is (deliberately, I think) kept an octave high to arrest the reader’s attention. The novel seems plot-driven at the beginning, but after that the story becomes somewhat picaresque; however, such is Homes’s control over the pace of the narrative that the reader carries on turning the pages, plunging more and more into Harry’s life which seems increasingly adrift.

What also raises May We Be Forgiven above the mundane is Homes’s great feel for dialogue and her black humour.  Some stretches of dialogue are side-splittingly funny; they could easily fit into a comic sketch. Life, Homes once remarked, can be so painful and disturbing that if one has to survive it, one has to find humour in it. The novel is not a satire, but what it manages with appreciable success is to combine the serious with the comic, and in the process tells the story of the redemption of a cold, emotionally distant man.

May We Be Forgiven, despite its flaws, is a gloriously readable, wickedly funny and uplifting read.