nadeem aslam is a treasure to the world and everyone should read him. his writing is simply fantastic -- i think i liked the writing in The Wasted Vignadeem aslam is a treasure to the world and everyone should read him. his writing is simply fantastic -- i think i liked the writing in The Wasted Vigil better, but probably one would like best the one one reads first. the writing's fullness and ornatedness -- the riches of adjectives, similes, metaphors, imagery, and occasionally magic -- has reminded better readers than i of urdu and of the ancient poetic tradition of islam. here's an eloquent passage from manjul bajaj's lovely review in Outlook India (the review is excerpted on goodreads, where i found it):
Seeping out from beneath the grammar and syntax of his perfectly polished adopted tongue is the melancholy and ache of Urdu’s vivid images and startling metaphors... Moonlight, fireflies, flowering plants and trees, singing birds, the movement of the stars and the colour of the sky texture the narrative and act as subliminal triggers which create an emotional subtext connecting the reader to the beauty of Islam’s poetic and artistic traditions.
light is a dominant theme. the light of stars, of kerosene lamps; the light of the dappled sun and of sun- and moonlight reflected in water; the light of fireflies; often the lack of light, like when power is cut and generators don't work, or when someone goes blind and the light his eyes can still see is more a tease that an aid. this is present in Wasted Vigil too.
also: representation, especially the sly representation of pentimento painting, a tool of survival in a world where extremist islamism makes images forbidden.
then books, books everywhere, and nature: flowers, plants, smells, tastes; animals.
animals have a particular place in his extraordinary book, and here i'll say what makes it so extraordinary: as manjul bajaj so beautifully and accurately says, "the book is Aslam’s prayer for the whole world, his attempt to bathe it in light." but i think that aslam goes even farther than this. i think that in his book he makes peace. he creates it. he imagines it and makes it happen.
all of his characters (in this book, unlike in Wasted Vigil they are muslim except for one, the priest of the school where two of our protagonists teach) are peace-loving people who put humanity, decency, and compassion way ahead of their own safety, comfort, and lives.
the tremendous injury of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks -- a whole country attacked for no reason at all, its people decimated, its cities and villages reduced to rubble, fundamentalism and rage stoked with the most powerful bellow of all -- is mourned deeply and shown clearly in the book, but there is no anger: only a huge sorrow. and the protagonists of the book, this motley host of sometimes weird and always beautiful characters put their bodies in the wound and heal it.
it's aslam's novel and he can do what he wants with it. so he heals this unhealable wound. he does it mainly through the unbelievably lovely character of mikal, whose love for animals and for peace, whose utter inability to be angry, whose putting peace ahead of desire and self, are poetry unto themselves.
to say more is to give away the book, but if you read this extraordinary work of art, pay attention to mikal all through the book and in particular in the second half. pay attention to his carefulness with life -- all life. to his tenderness. to his earnestness. to his incredible love.
aslam uses a quote from simone weil at a crucial point in the book: "Love is not consolation, it is light." i am not sure what weil meant when she wrote it; i'm not even sure what it means, in general. but in this book this quote could not be more appropriately placed.
and let me say, it is difficult to set a book in immediately-post-9/11 afghanistan and not make it drip with rage. i did occasionally feel rage. you will too. but aslam is SO NOT AFTER rage. he bathes the world with light. ...more
this is a self-consciously 20-something book in which life is lived mostly at night -- people work during the day but their workdays (ETA par. at end)
this is a self-consciously 20-something book in which life is lived mostly at night -- people work during the day but their workdays seem unimportant -- in a drifty sort of way, fueled by extravagant quantities of alcohol, constant personal interaction (conducted in person or through text messages) and very little sleep. the 20-somethingness is conveyed, i take, by the choppiness of the narrative, the characters' restless sexual lives, their promiscuity, their great reliance on cell phones and most notably (as far as i am concerned) the bloody lack of sleep. when i was in my 20s i didn't do any of the things these people do except not sleep. if we had had cell phones then i would probably have died of sleeplessness and starvation.
all the characters are queer and while the book is obviously centered around this the characters hardly ever discuss it. when a girl starts dating a guy and a friend asks her if she's gone straight, the girl balks. you don't go straight or queer: you go where your heart and your lust take you.
what gives this novel its particular high-anxiety, strung-out atmosphere is, ostensibly, the fact that one of the protagonist, a transsexual called josh, works as a paramedic. the whole book feels lived out in a state of emergency, partly because it is (josh's work-life is discussed a lot) and partly because these old-young people's lives are a permanent state of emergency. billy, a 25-year-old ex-music-star (yes, in the second millennium people are exes at 25), is awfully agoraphobic, obsessive, and anxious. her whole existence is an extended attempt at keeping her devouring anxiety under control and under wraps.
these are not kids. these are people with a lot of life under their belts. they have seen death, illness, misery, their own fall from grace, and the sprouting and withering of lifelong relationships. they do not turn to their parents. they turn to each other, offering each other whatever faulty, cracked, weak solace they can.
since the book is set in toronto there is a pleasant sense of a lived-in city, of which one becomes aware every time bicycles are mentioned (a lot). the city, if nothing else, contains and sustains these aged kids, holds them steady, gives them a community.
i suspect this novel is successful in what it seeks to achieve, but i felt anxious the whole time i read it. it's hard to imagine a future for these queer kids and they themselves seem not to think in terms of a future. they are very much rooted in the present: the couches on which they are crashing, the jobs to which they need to show up, their love obsessions. they are also tortured by worry, jealousy, indecision. there is little redemption, no real trajectory. i wish at least one of them had felt some hope, a sense of direction; i wish there had been one genuine moment of simple, complete contentment, some happiness. but nope, it's sorrow and the burden of life from beginning to end, and while i'm sure there are young people who feel like this, i hope they are not too many.
the reason why the book ultimately didn't work for me, even though i gobbled it up and felt drawn to it, is that zoe whittall never quite tells us what is wrong. she intentionally stays out of the psychology of these characters, their histories, their inner conflicts. some lines here and there seem to suggest that psychological tensions are not something whittall believes in a whole lot: maybe it's all bio-chemistry, maybe it's simply the terrible anxiety of the times. but if you put a bunch of queer people in the narrow space of a novel, i want to see this queerness play a role in the happiness/unhappiness of the characters. we are not and i think we will never be in a "post" enough queer time that being queer plays no role in the tensions and stresses of young people. ...more
this is a delicate, almost fragile book, and it won't stay with you the way other books do. it will disintegrate in your memory and all you'll remembethis is a delicate, almost fragile book, and it won't stay with you the way other books do. it will disintegrate in your memory and all you'll remember is that a bunch of people got stuck in a basement during a california earthquake and, in order to survive, swapped stories. the stories started off sluggish (who wants to tell stories?) but became terribly urgent as the day and night wore on. this is all you'll remember. you won't remember the stories.
the stories are not remarkable. they are not meant to be remembered. these stories are the stuff of precarious survival and mean much more to the speaker than to the listener. the speaker pours her or his heart in the story because the story is what is holding the speaker together -- never-before-spoken grief, loss, disappointment, regret, a moment of victory, a moment of enlightenment. the story in itself is like an frozen cobweb: it's not meant to endure touch. but in the mind of the speaker the story is as strong as the beams and the rods that kept the collapsed building together and are still preventing it from pancaking on this motley crew.
after each story there is almost no commentary. the story is not meant to be held by the memory of another, only by the memory of the speaker and the evanescent soul of the listening group. this is all the group is meant to do: listen. and the group does.
the stories keep the building from giving.
it is an extra bonus that divakaruni puts such racially, ethically, and religiously disparate people in this group. it is the only less-than-fragile aspect of the book. their difference plays a meaningful role, of course, but only up to a point. the essence of the book is the value of survival -- not only following the earthquake, but especially in the time leading to it.
this fantastic author has been telling fragile stories for a while, but the stories in this book of stories are special. a husband and wife each tell their story. the stories may be devastating but neither spouse changes as a consequence of hearing them. there are no meaningful gestures, ruptures, reconciliations. the stories live in silence. the audience's silence allows the existence of the stories.
we don't often tell stories. i wonder if the chilean miners told each other stories. i like to think they did. i suspect it might be hard to survive so long in a hole underground without telling stories.
it's not that we don't have stories to tell; it's that stories thrive in attentive, uninterrupted, unjudgmental silence. stories ask that advice be withheld. stories don't ask for much. stories ask for absence rather than presence, and we are a fast, active, productive culture. we fill holes. absence makes us nervous.
i wish we were more adept at silence. maybe we can learn. ...more
this book plain blew me out of the water. i must say that i listened to it, and that i just discovered the pleasures of listening to audiobooks, sometthis book plain blew me out of the water. i must say that i listened to it, and that i just discovered the pleasures of listening to audiobooks, something i previously considered anathema. i am a slow reader and i like savoring sentences and reading them over and over. so it was a while before i found the right book to listen to, and this one was great because the reader reads slowly and doesn't do too much silliness with the voices (though i had to wonder why they picked a male reader for a book written by a woman; not to be stickler about this, but when i read a book and i know that a woman wrote it, i sort of hear a female voice rather than a male voice, in my head).
the first thing that attracted me to this book is the awesomeness of the title. the title was first used in dead earnestness and literality by Daniel Defoe in his Due Preparations For The Plague, As Well For Soul As Body. published in 2003, hospital's book seems to me a deep, if off-center, analysis of 9/11, terror, and the implications and socio-political fabric of terrorism. i use "terror" here not as the current shorthand for "terrorist nefariousness" but as terror proper, that terrible feeling of overwhelming dread that makes us loose our bowels and go cold and dead with horror.
what hospital does here, she follows a bunch of young-ish folks who were the kids who were let out of a (fictional) hijacked plane in the 80s. the story is set in the year 2000. islamist groups are involved, and their final ending up in afghanistan (this is not a spoiler) obviously hints at a world of meaning-making and signification.
these kids, let out of the plane in paris or another european city (i should remember but don't; copenhagen?) before the plane's final disastrous journey to destruction and universal death, were filmed by countless cameras as they slid, distressed, terrified, and tearful, down an emergency chute, so the book is intensely visual, and images of this or that kid return almost obsessively. the visuality of the book is haunting and speaks of a large system of surveillance and observation all too familiar to 2013 readers.
the story is the kids', now adults', obsessive reconstruction of what really happened. in this respect, this is an enormously gripping spy story. the details are engaging and engagingly told, the story is taut and expert, and the author keeps us guessing till the very end.
but what strikes most is the trauma of the children, whose lives are all by hanging by a thread. they have created a website for kid survivors of the hijacking and are constantly forming connections with people and pouring over heavily redacted documents obtained through FOIA (remember that?) to find the truth.
the novel moves back and forth in time, very effectively, and a lot of it takes place in paris, from which the ill-fated flight departed.
the pain of the children is visceral. two of them, samantha and jacob, are literally tortured by the events. another adult who was also a child at a time and lost his mother (though he himself was not on the plane), lowell, is the third protagonist and his life is in shambles. the memories won't leave these people alone. sam, in particular, is very angry at the aunt who adopted her after her parents and her little brother died on the flight, and the relationship between the two women is, well, fantastically described, a great portrayal of tortured but (surprisingly) steady, safe, and tender love.
as the process of discovery proceeds and the picture is assembled, there is a palpable emotional crescendo, which culminates in the final section. this final section is worth the whole book alone. god. it is amazing. and unfortunately there is nothing i can tell you without giving it all away. but let me say this: if this were the only literary description of the sheer awesomeness of people, of the lovingness that prevails in the face of the most ruthless evil, it would be enough to make us believe. ...more
such a lovely book, and such a quirky and interesting look at the pain of adolescence, which is the same as the pain of being human except less coveresuch a lovely book, and such a quirky and interesting look at the pain of adolescence, which is the same as the pain of being human except less covered by layers of fake adaptation (as the book itself points out at some point). james, the protagonist narrator, is barely more adjusted to living in the-world-as-is than christopher of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, but the novel deftly and lovingly avoids pathologizing his difference. in fact, the only thing we know for sure about james is that he's really, really unhappy. his unhappiness is so deep, he can't be bothered to articulate it. he can think about it, but talking, well that's another matter altogether. for one, words betray the purity of thoughts -- a delightful recognition on cameron's part of a very adolescent way of finding that one's (new) emotions dwarf one's linguistic endowment. for two, thinking and speaking are two very different processes that happen at very different times and require very different skills. for three, talking is just so damn exhausting.
cameron captures beautifully the hopeless sense of uniqueness ("there's no one in the world like me") of the teenager who has had limited exposure to the comforting similarity of other strange and unique people.
there are no explanations of and no investigations into the roots of james' pain, yet the character seems so alive, and with such a rich past, it's as if the writer had it all figured out but felt like keeping it from us, out of consideration for his character.
the novel pivots around two main set pieces that are aching and beautiful. one is pure despair, the other is pure desire. in the latter, james is so little in touch with the good things in him that his desire is invisible even to himself. he sublimates it in net searches for a perfect house in the midwest, away from the wonderful dreariness of the city, a place to which you can belong so profoundly, it makes you feel like you don't belong anywhere else -- not even inside yourself.
some painful scenes in a therapist's office. like many fictional and not fictional therapists, the woman believes in the sly bullying of her patients. james, though, seems to be able to thaw even this most determinedly entrenched mental health professional into being human. good on him. ...more