So here’s an admission that someone who probably owns 700 or 800 books shouldn’t make: all of last year, I think I finished only one novel. I couldn’t read novels last year. I was dead in vast swathes of spirit, and none of what was left could accommodate the mindspace of a novel. I was living from border run to border run and then, difficult, surreal reorientation to the self not split between borders. If you have no idea how living that way shrinks the landscape of one’s system, don’t try to find out.
The only novel I remember finishing last year was something I would not normally have bought at a place like Kinokuniya. It was not even the Ondaatje one I bought at the equivalent of Rs.1200 on the day it came out — which I waited for for months and when it was finally in my hands, could not start. It was The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I was splurging with purpose, a risk on something popular, possily pedestrian, on a bookshopping date. The book moved, sentimental as it was. I recommended it.
Over the weekend I got some bonus money for something I had already been paid for. I did what I firmly believe one must do with unexpected money — either splurge or give it away. I splurged. I bought five novels. Two by authors I trust. One out of curiosity. One the way I bought The Time-Traveller’s Wife, on simple faith. One whimsically.
And because my computer at home exploded and I am only in the office for three or four hours in the late mornings, I’ve been forced to return to something I used to love. I finished one book the day before yesterday, another the day before that, a hundred pages of yet another yesterday.
And yes, I did bring the Ondaatje back with me. After not reading it for so many months, despite having even given it to someone else (who did finish, and loved, it) I must wait for a quiet moment. It will call.
What I’ve been reading:
The whimsical choice: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
I started with this book because I had read the first two chapters in the bookstore, and knew that despite its suspiciously chick-lit flavoured cover, it was going to be a smart, funny read (and being the most expensive of the books, its purchase really did have to be justified). The Greek gods and goddesses, being immortal, find themselves in contemporary London. Redundant, reduced to less than almighty professions (dog-walker, TV psychic, phone sex operator) and filled with ennui, not to mention unable to discuss all of the above and the potential political struggle that could change things, immortal life really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be anymore for them.
The book is as cynical as it is funny — and, if you’ll excuse the snobbery, it is this cynicism that places it in a better literary situation than the average rom-com romp. The underworld is a dreary place. Haunting the upperworld as a ghost is no better. The sense of touch does not exist — so there go food, drink, sex, playing the piano. Hell, yes. And heaven? Doesn’t exist.
A good dose of blasphemy — Christianity, as it were, is the make-believe religion, which puts the converted Eros into a bit of a sad pickle — and perfectly commonplace incest lend themselves to a smug wickedness. The dynamics of the immortal (and immoral) family and the sad humour therein reminded me of the similar dysfunctions of those in Wes Anderson’s work. I think the novel will translate very well into film, even more entertainingly than on the page. You could snip-snip the actors out of The Royal Tenenbaums right into this plot but oh! — Kim Cattrall as Aphrodite, hands down.
An author I trust: Now Is The Time To Open Your Heart by Alice Walker
When I say I trust Alice Walker, I mean I trust her. Completely. She may be the bravest novelist in the world. Could anyone else could have written so wrenchingly, so frighteningly, about female genital mutilation as she did in Possessing The Secret of Joy? She writes out of her iyari, without fear. I believe her when she says she had an ancestor who was a lion. When she says she communes with their spirits. I believe her just because for someone who speaks out of their iyari, all these and more are possible.
Kate, a well-published author who’s somewhere between middle and old age, goes into the rainforest in a journey of self-discovery aided by natural hallucinogenics and the shamans who administer them. It is a journey she has undertaken before, and this time she goes because she finds that even Buddhism, that most practical of religions, has failed her. And she fears for the loss of the earth itself.
Walker herself is a shaman. I usually get tremendously upset to read or watch material about the destruction of the earth. It’s an issue that depresses me too deeply to consider at length. Reading Alice Walker is like having someone hold your hand and take you through it, the terribleness of it. And this book in particular — at the end of that journey is a truth no politician, no activist, can tell you. And it is profoundly reassuring.