Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Growing Up

Whenever I stumble upon a good book or interesting narratives by a writer in terms of voice and writing style, I think of getting another copy of the book as I am so excited about the find that I want to give a copy of it to a friend. 

Storytelling is an essential part of our collective understanding about humanity. Be it through fiction, non-fiction, writers translate facts, figures, ideas, perceptions and experiences into empathy and understanding. When a story is being told, it is the writer’s voice that  engages a reader’s attention.

This year I picked up the novel I am China from Borders and then I picked up 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth from an independent bookshop that sells used and overrun books. I had unwittingly picked up two novels by XiaoLu Guo click without realizing that both novels were by the same author.  Guo’s writing style comes across as a hybrid between Chinese and English. Twenty Fragments was originally written in Chinese, then when it was translated into English, Guo rewrote in English on top of the translation.

After reading books by writers whose native language is English, Guo’s voice offers a breath of fresh air and a certain charm. Her voice is authentic, instinctive and effective.
20 fragments of a Ravenous Youth reminds us of the frailty of youth and modern city living. The story is about Fenfang, a young film extra who has travelled 1800 miles to seek a life outside her sweet potato fields back home. She wants to have those shiny things in life.  When she is in urban Beijing, she works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer’s movie threatre, falls in love with unsuitable men and her dinner is UFO noodles when she is dire straits.

“ Heavenly Bastard in the Sky” is Fenfang’s favourite phrase. Betty Blue -37’2 le matin is Fenfang’s favourite film.

Even after 15 times. I could never forget the end. Betty was dead and her man Zorg was writing alone at a table. Suddenly, his cat jumped on the table and stared at Zorg. And then it spoke. Oh, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky. The cat started to speak and it was Betty’s warm voice asking Zorg, are you writing now? Zorg looked at the cat. And that was it. The End. Heavenly Bastard in the Sky! Even just thinking about this made me want to cry.'

The novel is written in twenty fragments in the protagonist’s voice and each fragment is a segment of her youthful experience. It is  a coming of age story.

In Fragment Seven, Guo writes,
I HAD ALWAYS WANTED TO LEAVE my village, a nothing place that won’t be found on any map of China. I had been planning my escape ever since I was very little. It was the river behind our house that started it. Its constant gurgling sound pulled at me . But I couldn’t see its end or its beginning. It just flowed endlessly on. Where did it go? Why didn’t it dry up in the scorching heat like everything else?’

 ‘I used to imagine the source of the river. Some faraway hidden cave that was home to a beautiful fairy. From there, the water flowed through our world to yet another world, a magical place close to heaven where lucky people lived, or animals perhaps-foxes maybe, or rabbits, owls, even unicorns. Wherever it was , it was not a place the people from my village could ever enter.

In Fragment Nine, Guo writes,
Kafka said, anyone who can’t come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to wave away his despair and the other to note down what he sees among the ruins. I thought about the diary I used to keep. I wished  I still had it. By now I would have had a whole library of my thoughts to look back on. But I stopped writing it when I was with Xiaolin. He treated it as his evening newspaper. He would leaf through its pages when he was bored, looking for stories. So instead, I kept my true thoughts , desires and dreams hidden deep within. I became a person who was very good at hiding her emotions. Maybe that was why people thought I was heartless. Apparently my face often had a blank expression. Huizi, my most intellectual friend, would say, ‘Fenfang, yours is the face of a post-modern woman.’
20 Fragments of A Ravenous Youth is melancholic yet hopeful. I have been to a few big cities in China and I  find that Guo’s narratives about modern China are insightful and aptly descriptive. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Back to the Present

There are days when my mind is so divided that I cannot hear what I think. Sometimes, when I react to situations and know my inner thoughts, I see the monster in me. I believe that there are many versions of us with traces of every trait that we see in others. Every individual is ultimately a few versions merged into one.

No matter how hard we try to erase some stuff from our memory bank, they tend to replay in our head like a broken record. The ghosts of these past form part of us and after some time they become blurred and we can no longer recall why they had mattered. We have to decide what and who should matter in our lives. We have to be mindful of our thoughts and try to understand why we are affected by what is going on around us. From time to time we land our own reality so as  to move on with  life.
All Our Wrong Todays written by Elan Mastai is the story of a time traveller. The year is 2016.

First there is Tom Barren who lives in a techno-utopian world that we are supposed to have, that is with ‘ flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases.’  It is a ‘techno- utopian paradise of abundance , purpose and wonder’.
Imagine a world where every avocado you ever eat is perfect and all the banal functions of daily life are taken care of by technology. The menial and manual jobs are automated and mechanized.

Getting dressed involves an automated device that cuts and stitches a new outfit every morning, indexed to your personal style and body type. This fabric is made from laser-hardened strands of a light-sensitive liquid polymer that’s recycled nightly for daily reuse.

 Tom’s father, Victor Barren is a genius.

After finishing his third PhD, Victor Barren spent a few crucial years working in long-range teleportation before founding his own lab to pursue his specific niche field – time travel.

In the techno world that is built on the limitless energy of the Goettreider Engine , oil is irrelevant and basic resources are plentiful yet not everything is perfect because people still get anxiety and stress and there is still corruption, unrequited love  and failed marriages, childhood could be a playground or a dungeon.  Pharmaceutical use is rampant.

In his voice, Tom writes,
‘I’ve never succeeded at anything, so for me failure is pretty much synonymous with life itself.

In  the techno- utopian world, his mother is dead. When she was alive, she was more like a mother to his father because his father needed  everything that didn’t involve his big brain managed for him. So within a few months of her sudden death, everything became a total disaster.

Tom is unable to find his place in this dazzling and technology advanced world and he makes a rash decision by travelling back in time to drastically change not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. He wakes up into his own dream and find him in the world that is similar to our  real world but for him, our world seems like a dystopian wasteland. He discovers a different version of his family.

Tom  is John, a successful, driven and impressive architect in another reality. His dad, Victor Barren, a tenured professor of physics at the University of Toronto with a specialty in photonics who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. He has a sister, Greta  and he has his parents’ rapt focus yet he chronically shrugs them off.  He meets Penny and he tells Penny that he is an accidental plagiarist. There is Tom in John.

Okay,” she says, “but what if every creative idea that someone has is unconsciously borrowed from that person’s experiences in another reality? Maybe all ideas are plagiarized without us knowing it, because they come to us through some cryptic and unprovable reality slippage?

Does that mean, like, the version of you that had the idea in the other reality also stole from another version of you in yet another reality ?’ I say.

The conversation between Penny and John continues.

Or maybe we’re giving individual human beings too much credit. Maybe a vast alien intelligence is seeding original concepts into our minds to test if they can pass through whatever boundary separates us from other dimensions. Like, some ideas are porous, while others are impermeable and can’t escape their root reality. Maybe the best ideas are the ones that travel freely and don’t really belong to any one person.

I often find that ideas flash through fast and freely as if someone channels them , some inconsequential while a lot of it are elusive and some of it make sense vaguely. Here is a passage in Tom's voice,

The truth is , there are no alternate realities. At least not the way Penny describes them. Maybe an infinite multiverse is born from every action, whether it’s two atoms colliding or two people. Maybe reality is constantly fluctuating around us, but our senses aren’t equipped to detect those quantum variations. Maybe that’s what our senses are, an ungainly organic sieve through which the chaos of existence is filtered into something manageable enough that you can get out of bed in the morning . Maybe the totality of what we perceive with our senses is as clumsy a portrait of reality as a child’s chalk drawing on a sidewalk compared to the face of the woman you’re already falling in love with lying next to you in a mess of sheets and blankets, her lips still pursed as they pull away from your mouth.

The story is cleverly crafted and told in an engaging voice. I am  a fan of time travelling stories and thus I have enjoyed reading  All Our Wrong Todays,click a smart and witty debut novel by Elan Mastai. click A mind-bending story where the protagonist gets to decide which version of his life he wants to live in. 

The idea that what if there is another me in another timeline is intriguing but for now , I have to get on with my reality whatever that makes sense to me as John narrates, 
But in terms of our actual experience, there’s just one reality , this reality” 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Bright and Precious Days

A couple of months ago, we had to convert our study into a guest room. Before its conversion, the study was spilled with my books  that I could not  stop buying and in constant need and urgency to devour them. Some of the books have now taken residence in my daughters’ room while some unread journals, exercise books, folders and papers are packed in boxes and tucked away in the storage room. I had been thrown off my daily rituals and for a few weeks, I was not able to do much reading let alone writing. I knew I could easily settle on a new corner for my personal space yet I was on edge for days and weeks! Despite my rational self telling me that I was acting immaturely and that I was not practising  what I believe : One must get out of one’s comfort zone, I was feeling out of sorts when I could not settle into my reading and writing. I knew why I was  resisting the change yet I could not think clearly and hear what I think. Now  that I  have returned to  my  reading and  writing rituals, bright and precious days ahead. 

I have the habit of reading multiple books at one time. In that way whichever book that I can engage in  gets read faster than the others. Whenever I have my free time during the week, I try to make sure that I alternate my reading between books so as to be able to read them all eventually in whatever time it takes. There are times when there is too big an interval between the last time I read a particular book  and the time I resume reading it,  I usually conclude  that  it is just not the right time for me and it   has absolutely nothing to do with the writing as I would not have bothered picking  up the book otherwise. Certain books have to be read more leisurely as they require more attention and concentration . For me  the momentum of reading a particular book only picks up when I get into the rhythm of the voice and theme of that particular book.The past long weekend was idyllic and I managed to  read Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney, the last installment of the trilogy by the author. It must have been a decade ago when  I last read  Brightness Falls ( published 1992) and The Good Life ( published 2006). The story about an attractive couple, Russell Calloway and Corrine Calloway continues in Bright, Precious Days. It is the portrait of a couple who live the dream that first drew them to Manhattan and continue to  face  challenges in their union as they enter into  their 50s. McInerney captures ordinary life with wit and apt observation. He has an acute narration describing the glamour and life in New York City and he is deft at capturing personality traits of the characters in his fiction.

Here are the opening lines of the book. 
ONCE, NOT SO VERY LONG AGO, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems, or because they wanted to be associated with the production and distribution of those artifacts and with the people who created them. For those who haunted suburban libraries and provincial bookstores, Manhattan was the shining island of letters. ‘
Russell Calloway is from Michigan. He  is an independent publisher who has excellent credentials as a book editor but minimal cash flow. 

And if the realities of urban life and the publishing business had sometimes bruised his romantic sensibilities, he never relinquished his vision of Manhattan as the mecca of American literature, or of himself as an acolyte, even a priest , of the written word.

Corrine has long quitted her job as a stockbroker and devotes herself to raising the children and help feed the  hungry poor in the city. Soon they find themselves being priced out of their loft in TriBeCa, a neighbourhood that has become newly fashionable and too expensive to remain in. They find their marriage tested more severely than ever with their twelve year old twins, a  son and  a daughter caught in the balance. As they move past each other’s  past indiscretions, the memory of their best friend, Jeff Pierce begins to haunt them. Their life becomes complicated when  Corrine, feeling unappreciated and discontent, faces a moral dilemma with the reappearance of Luke McGavock, a man she met while she volunteered at Ground Zero during the time of 9/11. When Russell’s publishing business has a tumble, his resolve begins to erode.

He’d always been an optimist, able to convince himself that the best was still ahead, that every day held the promise of new adventure, but now he seemed increasingly conscious of his failures and anxious about the future. It was impossible to be optimistic at three-forty-five in the morning, at the age of fifty-one, and there were times when he was absolutely terrified at the prospect of his own extinction. Finally, he took half an Ambien or a Xanax and waited for the panic to subside.’

How was it that after working so hard and by many measures succeeding and even excelling in his chosen field, he couldn’t afford to save this house that meant so much to his family? Their neighbors seemed to manage, thousands of people no smarter than he was – less so, most of them ---- except perhaps in their understanding of the mechanics of acquisition. Partly, he knew, it was his lack of the mercenary instinct. Never caring enough about getting and keeping and compounding, he’d felt himself above such considerations and stayed true to the ideals he’d formed in college, at the expense of his future. If he’d been savvy and resourceful, he could have bought this house years ago, or , more important, a place to live in the city, but as things stood, he owned nothing; he’d missed the biggest real estate boom of his lifetime and even now that the bubble is bursting, his own finances were more precarious than ever. It was increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that he was, by the conventional measures of familial and professional achievement, a failure.

Bright, Precious Days is set against the financial crisis of 2008. Although the story of the Calloways is straightforward, the middle-age malaise and restlessness felt by the main characters are well depicted and the ensemble of the interesting side characters make the fiction a pleasurable read. Alas I did want the book to end partly due to the fact that I was eager to  get back to my pile of books despite the author's  prolific prose.