Saturday, September 25, 2010

#41: Netherland

Others have already called Joseph O'Neill's Netherland a masterpiece, summoning specters of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and even "[providing] a resonant meditation on the American Dream" (so enthuses the New York Times' vaunted book reviewer Michiko Kakutani).

I will not be doing that. I hesitate not out of disagreement but due to some innate reluctance to place contemporary books amidst the pantheon of Great Literature. I'm not well-read enough in either area to be sure I'm connecting the right dots in the right way. And yet one can't help but get the feeling, while devouring O'Neill's magnetic writing, that he has managed to capture the American zeitgeist in a way few others have.

O'Neill zeroes in on post-9/11 New York, but with the unique perspective afforded to an outsider. For Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born equities analyst who had previously lived in London, home is Manhattan, even as childhood memories of The Hague and frequent dashes to and from London create a sort of love rectangle, with each city vying for his attention. To Holland belongs his nostalgia, but it is London, where his increasingly estranged British wife and adoring son have retreated following the Twin Towers' collapse, to which Hans continues to return, both in mind and in body.

New York is just where he lives. And yet therein lies the secret to O'Neill's subtle ode to the city: he neither waxes poetical nor transforms New York into the gritty metropolis so ubiquitous in crime dramas. Yes, he revels in the occasional admiring glance. (Of Times Square, Hans concedes that "I always regarded these shimmers and vapors as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city's pigeons -- as natural, humble sources of iridescence.") But O'Neill's focus, and thus that of Hans, is drawn instead to its myriad characters, most notably that of Chuck Ramkissoon.

Chuck is a Trinidadian who, and here we can echo reviewers worldwide by drawing parallels to Jay Gatsby, dreams of leveraging his love of cricket into a burgeoning business empire, dedicated equal parts to revenue generation and also to a bizarre strand of ecumenism. "I'm saying that people...are at their most civilized when they're playing cricket," Chuck declares to Hans one day, in a characteristic burst of grandiloquence. "What's the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this."

By that measuring stick, Chuck doesn't play enough cricket himself. As Hans finds himself increasingly drawn into the sport that marked his youth, Chuck wedges his way in too, serving as Hans' instructor, ostensibly preparing him for his impending driving test. In reality, Hans soon learns of Chuck's ulterior motives. "It gave Chuck a measure of cover, maybe even prestige, to have a respectable-looking white man chauffeuring him while he ran around collecting bets all over Brooklyn."

Chuck's unsavory business dealings soon leave Hans with a sour taste in his mouth, one that fades only with geographical distance as Hans finally bids New York adieu in search of reigniting a future with his wife, Rachel. Soon after the World Trade Center attacks, Rachel had coldly expressed to Hans her intention to take Jake, their son, with her to London. "It's safer," she reasoned. For his part, Hans bitterly noted that "all lives...eventually funnel into the advice columns of women's magazines." Now, with weeks and months of separation accumulating with ever-decreasing notice, Hans returns to the United Kingdom to salvage the wreckage of what was once a marriage.

In a sense, Hans truly is the Nick Carraway of Netherland, narrating from the sidelines, an objective third party to people, places, and events that intimately affect his own life, from his wife to the cities through which he passes. He may leave the dreaming to Chuck, but Hans van den Broek's observations virtually force readers to close their eyes and open their imaginations.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

#40: Am I a Redundant Human Being?

It may be that I chose to read Mela Hartwig's Am I a Redundant Human Being? based largely upon the agreeable cover art. That, and's intriguing juxtaposition of this book with Elizabeth Gilbert's contemporary memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. (Yes, the one that became a Julia Roberts-led feature film and spawned Gilbert's encore, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.) From my brief intrusions into her posthumous Web presence, Hartwig appears to be most famous simply for her friendship to Virginia Woolf in the latter's final years.

This is an apt metaphor for her short novel's protagonist, Aloisia Schmidt, whose most notable (and verbosely related) achievement appears to be the emulation and adoration of those select few who befriend her. Fittingly enough, I, too, have fallen prey to the vice of sycophancy: I was only made aware of the parallels between Hartwig and her creation, Aloisia, after reading someone else make this very same point. Daniela Hurezanu, writing on, asks: "Isn't the artist condemned to impersonating and copying other existences and others' feelings? Could it be that Aloisia's problem is that, in her own way, she is herself an artist, albeit a failed one?"

It could be, yes; hence, my appropriation and subsequent extension of Hurezanu's observation. But I steal her point mainly because it makes sense: Hartwig, born late in the nineteenth century, became an actress and then a feminist writer, but (unless I've been hiding under a rock, which is entirely possible) has since been relegated to the dusty corners of history's bookshelves, with nary a lasting honor bequeathed to her save her acquaintance with a far more notable figure.

Aloisia Schmidt, meanwhile, finds herself in much the same predicament. Faced by the suicide of Elizabeth, her friend who had fallen in love with an indifferent man, Aloisia muses, "It seemed to me that you couldn't ask more from life than this: to be capable of such a grand passion. I no longer mourned for Elizabeth. I envied her." Throughout, the protagonist continues to emphasize her overwhelmingly mundane features and betrays with deadpan fervor her utterly nonexistent self-esteem: "I...completely lacked that equilibrium between our talents and objectives that we call confidence."

At one point, after she exasperates a potential suitor with her constant stream of self-deprecation, the wearied companion demands: "Why are you making it so hard to believe in you, Luise, I mean, who on earth can afford to be so hard on themselves, who? It's hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself." And therein, perhaps, lies the crux of Aloisia's dilemma: her never-ending introspection leads to an impossibly negative self-image that is, ultimately, arrogant in its totality.

I can't say I understand Aloisia Schmidt much better now than I did at the beginning of the book, but it seems that she managed an epiphany of her own, regarding an ability to feel or something of that sort. If anything, this realization was opportune in concluding a very brief novel; I'm not certain I could have made it through another hundred pages of Aloisia's self-pity. I presume -- and hope, for the sake of the late Virginia Woolf -- that Mela Hartwig did not share her protagonist's failings.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Last call for book suggestions

Dearest blogosphere,

If you (collectively, individually, or otherwise) have any book suggestions -- a book you've read recently, perhaps, or even one you haven't laid eyes on in years, but that you absolutely must tell someone about -- well, tell me about it. At this point, I'm all queued up through book #45 (I'm still waiting on a mystery title to add it to my "on deck" panel), so I only have five slots left for which I haven't already decided the books.

Now is the time. As a tip, I'm more likely to pick up a book if it's on the shorter side. Until I've actually completed this self-imposed fifty-book challenge, I'll never be quite sure I'm actually going to, so it helps when the book lengths are surmountable.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

#39: The Imperfectionists

As a former employee of the International Herald Tribune and the Associated Press, Tom Rachman clearly has a soft spot for the news. Although The Imperfectionists is a novel (Rachman's first, about a boutique international newspaper based in Rome), it is really more of a series of vignettes. These brief glimpses bring us into the editor's office, behind the copydesk, and even to the streets of Cairo, where aspiring journalist Winston Cheung plays second fiddle to eccentric news veteran Rich Snyder, who, after regaling his protégé with embellished tales of professional glory, admonishes him not to "write about diplomacy. Write about human beings. The tapestry of human experience is my press office." (Cheung, it is later reported, eventually procures employment at an "exotic-animal refuge in Minnesota" where, presumably, industry clichés are less in vogue.)

Each story is titled after a news headline -- "Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls" opens the first chapter; "Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says" heralds another -- and focuses on a different member of the newspaper. Left alone, these episodes could function separately, as portraits of news-people toiling away futilely in the face of rapidly declining readership and ever-expanding free alternatives online. But instead of taking the Paris, Je T'aime approach, in which each five-minute story stands alone, Rachman opts to eulogize the printed news a la New York, I Love You, complete with recurring characters to help center the otherwise disparate perspectives.

This only partially works. Rachman is an entertaining storyteller, and his characters are mostly believable. At times, however, his writing adopts the quixotic air of a sitcom teleplay, as when straight-laced business reporter Hardy Benjamin takes on a jobless boyfriend, reasoning that "in this regard alone, she refused to see matters in terms of business." Or when chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola is randomly assigned the airplane seat adjacent to the man she had just fired, and ends up tangling with him in an Atlanta hotel room. If these two snippets seem to have a common thread, it's because Rachman takes genuine delight in unlikely matchmaking; but this soon becomes an easily recognizable pattern, which then prevents the reader from actually experiencing surprise. The author's propensity to find love (or lust) in every situation ultimately takes on a distinctly deterministic flavor, as if a romantic connection necessarily concludes every story worth relating.

Perhaps this is too American of me, but I also expected a little more on the plot side of things. The end is not entirely abrupt, but it is included with little enough context to raise doubts as to its importance. I nevertheless enjoyed Rachman concluding each chapter with a chronological history of the newspaper. I'm referring, of course, to the specific newspaper on which the novel is based, not the newspaper as a concept. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

#38: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb

It wasn't until the penultimate sentence of the final chapter that I was certain what Amitava Kumar's latest book was trying to say. "Instead," the author concludes, "the larger point is that the war on terror is obscuring from our sight the war in Iraq and its human cost." Prior to this declaration, Kumar had expended 186 pages' worth of explication, to varying degrees of success, without explicitly supporting any particular thesis.

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, whose title is a play on an earlier work with a nearly identical title (Kumar turned "book" into "bomb"), looks very much like a supplementary reader in a cultural studies class and, in fact, reads similarly to what one would expect from such a niche role. That Kumar enticed me to keep reading long after I'd given up hope on discovering the book's raison d'être entitles the author to a small measure of genuflection, if even a bit reluctantly.

Kumar's reflections on the American response to the September 11 attacks center around two individuals: Hemant Lakhani, "a seventy-year-old tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an FBI informant;" and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who the author believes was "baited by the New York Police Department into a conspiracy to bomb a subway." Interspersed throughout are various vignettes devoted to artists and intellectuals whose visceral repulsion with an increasingly militant national anti-terrorism campaign was duly expressed in some truly inventive works of art. Among these is Hasan Elahi's rigorous self-surveillance routine, in which he painstakingly logs every action he undertakes, ostensibly as evidence in the event of a government investigation -- but on a larger scale, as a protest against that very same state-directed intervention.

Kumar's failings, strangely enough, can be attributed to his fascination with this and other tangential narratives. It is not that they are irrelevant to a sober discussion of anti-terror initiatives; however, at times the author becomes so enamored of his subjects that he neglects to take a larger view. He lingers for some time on the questionable role of the government informant in the Lakhani case, recounting his many failings as a businessman as if to prove his lack of credibility via low credit score. And yet Kumar recoils when such circumstantial evidence is used to convict Lakhani, a man who was caught on tape proclaiming that "it will [expletive] their mother if one or two [planes are struck by bombs]...If it happens ten or fifteen places simultaneously at the same time...The people will be scared to death that how this could have happened."

The problem with focusing so heavily on character is that the same technique Kumar uses to condemn the government's methods in pursuing suspected conspirators is doubly as effective against the perceived victims of the state's investigations. Clearly, as evidenced by American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, serious crimes were committed in the name of justice. But Kumar's valiant attempts to humanize the enemy notwithstanding, his defenses wither in the face of insurmountable evidence. Seemingly realizing this, Kumar mostly shies away from directly contradicting judicial verdicts; instead, he observes from his perch on the periphery, remarking on incongruity on the margins as the heavy hand of the state came crashing down with a vengeance.

Describing the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Kumar notes that "what saves me from the annihilating hatred, if only for a moment, is the voice of the terrorist at the other end [of the phone conversation, which was recorded]...He is more interested in describing to his superior the rooms that he says are large and lavish. It's amazing, he says, the windows are huge here...Rightly or wrongly, I'm caught by the drama of the displaced provincial, the impoverished youth finding himself in the house of wealth." This all makes for a tidy little novel, but reality is rarely so neatly synopsized. By dancing along the edges of the legal process, Kumar contributes little to the discussion of where the American response went wrong. This is an unfortunate consequence caused by a writer's compassion; the result, then, is a scattered cacophony that leaves one unsatisfied with the hurried conclusion.