Tom Wolfe And The Beautiful People

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is a tough book to read. If you are in tune with how Wolfe is talking, on the bus so to say stylistically, one is inclined to be incensed with the sneering tone  used. A sneering tone towards a gentle experience they hold dear. Like someone making jokes on stage about how you fuck while you are in love. If one is with Wolfe however, in looking down at the entire experience as a bunch of nut cases, one is well and truly bewildered with the writing style. What the fuck is this motherfucker talking about. And rightly so.

 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a nonfiction book by Tom Wolfe that was published in 1968. The book is remembered today as an early – and arguably the most popular – example of the growing literary style called New Journalism. Wolfe presents an as-if-firsthand account of the experiences of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who traveled across the country in a colourfully painted school bus named “Furthur“. Kesey and the Pranksters became famous for their use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs in hopes of achieving intersubjectivity. The book chronicles the Acid Tests (parties in which LSD-laced Kool-Aid was used to obtain a communal trip), the group’s encounters with (in)famous figures of the time, including famous authors, Hells Angels, and The Grateful Dead, and it also describes Kesey’s exile to Mexico and his arrests.

Context is central to absorbing the book, the content, the writer, the intention and the beautiful people. We are talking about a person who has written a literary non fiction memoir about a bunch of people out of their minds on LSD, without ever having smoked a joint. Without, some say, actually spending any time with his subjects. And who is scathing in his judgemental tone nevertheless. And has written a brilliant book for all of it. A special kind of asshole.

electric_kool_aid_b

From the Goodreads description of the book:

They say if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. But, fortunately, Tom Wolfe was there, notebook in hand, politely declining LSD while Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters fomented revolution, turning America on to a dangerously playful way of thinking as their Day-Glo conveyance, Further, made the most influential bus ride since Rosa Parks’s. By taking On the Road’s hero Neal Cassady as his driver on the cross-country revival tour and drawing on his own training as a magician, Kesey made Further into a bully pulpit, and linked the beat epoch with hippiedom. Paul McCartney’s Many Years from Now cites Kesey as a key influence on his trippy Magical Mystery Tour film. Kesey temporarily renounced his literary magic for the cause of “tootling the multitudes”–making a spectacle of himself–and Prankster Robert Stone had to flee Kesey’s wild party to get his life’s work done. But in those years, Kesey’s life was his work, and Wolfe infinitely multiplied the multitudes who got tootled by writing this major literary-journalistic monument to a resonant pop-culture moment.

Kesey’s theatrical metamorphosis from the distinguished author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the abominable shaman of the “Acid Test” soirees that launched The Grateful Dead required Wolfe’s Day-Glo prose account to endure (though Kesey’s own musings in Demon Box are no slouch either). Even now, Wolfe’s book gives what Wolfe clearly got from Kesey: a contact high.

Phew. I’ll give you an example. Here, from an excerpt from the book, Wolfe is talking about the BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!

ACTUALLY, THERE WERE A LOT OF KIDS IN THE EARLY 1960S

who were … yes; attuned. I used to think of them as the Beautiful People because of the Beautiful People letters they used to write their parents. They were chiefly in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City, these kids. They had a regular circuit they were on, and there was a lot of traffic from city to city. Most of them were from middle-class backgrounds, but not upper bourgeois, more petit bourgeois, if that old garbanzo can stand being written down again—homes with Culture but no money or money but no Culture. At least that was the way it struck me, judging by the Beautiful People I knew. Culture, Truth, and Beauty were important to them . .. “Art is a creed, not a craft,” as somebody said … Young! Immune! Christ, somehow there was enough money floating around in the air so that one could do this thing, live together with other kids—Our own thing!—from our own status sphere, without having to work at a job,and live on our own terms—Us! and people our age!—it was…beautiful, it was a… whole feeling, and the straight world never understood it, this thing of one’s status sphere and how one was only nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two or so and not starting out helpless at the bottom of the ladder, at all, because the hell with the ladder itself—one was already up on a … level that the straight world was freaking baffled by! Straight people were always trying to figure out what is wrong here—never having had this feeling themselves. Straight people called them beatniks. I suppose the Beautiful People identified with the Beat Generation excitement of the late 1950s, but in fact there was a whole new motif in their particular bohemian status sphere: namely, psychedelic drugs.

El… Es… Dee … se-cret-ly … Timothy Leary, Alpert, and a few chemists like Al Hubbard and the incognito “Dr. Spaulding” had been pumping LSD out into the hip circuit with a truly messianic conviction. LSD, peyote, mescaline, morning-glory seeds were becoming the secret new thing in the hip life. A lot of kids who were into it were already piled into amputated apartments, as I called them. The seats, the tables, the beds—none of them ever had legs. Communal living on the floor, you might say, although nobody used terms like “communal living” or “tribes” or any of that. They had no particular philosophy, just a little leftover Buddhism and Hinduism from the beat period, plus Huxley’s theory of opening 

doors in the mind, no distinct life style, except for the Legless look … They were … well, Beautiful People! —not “students,” “clerks,” “salesgirls,” “executive trainees”—Christ, don’t give me your occupation-game labels! we are Beautiful People, ascendent from your robot junkyard

:::::: and at this point they used to sit down and write home the Beautiful People letter.

Usually the girls wrote these letters to their mothers. Mothers all over California, all over America, I guess, got to know the Beautiful People letter by heart. It went:

“Dear Mother,

“I meant to write to you before this and I hope you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian Reservation!!!! New York, Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende, Mazatlán, Mexico! ! ! !] and it is really beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it happened, but I really tried, because I knew you wanted me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college, my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

… and in the heart of even the most unhip mamma in all the U.S. of A. instinctively goes up the adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades—dope.

Quotation-Tom-Wolfe-people-hope-mother-Meetville-Quotes-81403

There’s a nicer way to encapsulate what Wolfe has done with his writing here, and the excellent editing folks over at wikipedia have done a wonderful job of getting it together in the Cultural Significance and Reception section, picked mainly from Bredahl, “An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe’s Acid Test”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is remembered as an accurate and “essential” book depicting the roots and growth of the hippie movement. Additionally, the book is remembered because of its usage of New Journalism techniques. The book was widely read and attitudes towards its themes were polarized. Some saw the book as a testament to the downfall of American youth, while others read the book as gospel, seeing Kesey as a sort of Christ figure.

The use of New Journalism yielded two primary reviews, amazement or disagreement. While The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was not the original standard for New Journalism, it is the work most often cited as an example for the revolutionary style. Wolfe’s descriptions and accounts of Kesey’s travel managed to captivate readers and permitted them to read the book as a fiction piece rather than a news story. Those who saw the book as a literary work worthy of praise were amazed by the way Wolfe maintains control.[3] Despite being fully engulfed in the movement and aligned with the Prankster’s philosophy (Snip: Doubtful) Wolfe manages to distinguish between the realities of the Pranksters and Kesey’s experiences and the experiences triggered by their paranoia and acid trips.[3] Wolfe is unique from the Pranksters, because despite his appreciation for the spiritual experiences offered by the psychedelic, he also accepts the importance of the physical world. The Pranksters see their trips as a breach of their physical worlds and realities. Throughout the book Wolfe focuses on placing the Pranksters and Kesey within the context of their environment. Where the Pranksters see ideas, Wolfe sees objects.[4] Had this book been written by a Prankster it would not have the appeal that it does from Wolfe’s hand. Wolfe captures the essence of the Pranksters but tells the story in relation to the real world.

Let me give you another example. When they say Wolfe captures the essence of the Pranksters but tells the story in relation to the real world, this is what they mean. The Pranksters, they have a briefing every Friday night, a sort of a picnic where everyone is sitting around cozy discussing ideas. Here’s Wolfe writing about it.

A few joints are circulating around, saliva-liva-liva-liva-liva. 

The same sentence, splashed around multiple times. One can almost feel the distaste burbling over from the pen.

Kesey and Cassady, Barechested, 1968.

Kesey and Cassady, Barechested, 1968.

 

It isn’t to say that he doesn’t try. Try this (another excerpt from the book) where Wolfe is talking about….

The Unspoken Thing

HOW TO TELL IT! . . . THE CURRENT FANTASY … I NEVER heard any of the Pranksters use the word religious to describe the mental atmosphere they shared after the bus trip and the strange days in Big Sur. In fact, they avoided putting it into words. And yet—

They got on the bus and headed back to La Honda in the old Big Sur summertime, all frozen sunshine up here, and no one had to say it: they were all deep into some weird shit now, as they would just as soon call it by way of taking the curse . . . off the Unspoken Thing. Things were getting very psychic. It was like when Sandy drove 191 miles in South Dakota and then he had looked up at the map on the ceiling of the bus and precisely those 191 miles were marked in red … Sandy : : : : : back in Brain Scan country the White Smocks would never in a million years comprehend where he had actually been … which was where they all were now, also known as Edge City …

Back in Kesey’s log house in La Honda, all sitting around in the evening in the main room, it’s getting cool outside, and Page Browning: I think I’ll close the window—and in that very moment another Prankster gets up and closes it for him and smi-i-i-i-les and says nothing . .. The Unspoken Thing—and these things keep happening over and over. They take a trip up into the High Sierras and Cassady pulls the bus off the main road and starts driving up a little mountain road—see where she goes. The road is so old and deserted the pavement is half broken up and they keep climbing and twisting up into nowhere, but the air is nice, and up at the top of the grade the bus begins bucking and gulping and won’t pull any more. It just stops. It turns out they’re out of gas, which is a nice situation because it’s nightfall and they’re stranded totally hell west of nowhere with not a gas station within thirty, maybe fifty miles. Nothing to do but stroke themselves out on the bus and go to sleep … hmmmmmm … scorpions with boots on red TWA Royal Ambassador slumber slippers on his big Stinger Howard Hughes in a sleeping bag on the floor in a marble penthouse in the desert DAWN

All wake up to a considerable fetching and hauling and grinding up the grade below them and over the crest comes a

CHEVRON

gasoline tanker, a huge monster of a tanker. Which just stops like they all met somewhere before and gives them a tankful of gas and without a word heads on into the Sierras toward absolutely

NOTHING

Babbs— Cosmic control, eh Hassler!

And Kesey— Where does it go? I don’t think man has ever been there. We’re under cosmic control and have been for a long long time, and each time it builds, it’s bigger, and it’s stronger. And then you find out… about Cosmo, and you discover that he’s running the show. ..

The Unspoken Thing; Kesey’s role and the whole direction the Pranksters were taking—all the Pranksters were conscious of it, but none of them put it into words, as I say. They made a point of not putting it into words. That in itself was one of the unspoken rules. If you label it this, then it can’t be that… Kesey took great pains not to make his role explicit. He wasn’t the authority, somebody else was: “Babbs says…” “Page says…” He wasn’t the leader, he was the “non-navigator.” He was also the non-teacher. “Do you realize that you’re a teacher here?” Kesey says, “Too much, too much,” and walks away… Kesey’s explicit teachings were all cryptic, metaphorical; parables, aphorisms: “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” “Feed the hungry bee,” “Nothing lasts,” “See with your ears and hear with your eyes,” “Put your good where it will do the most,” “What did the mirror say? It’s done with people.” To that extent it was like Zen Buddhism, with the inscrutable koans, in which the novice says, “What is the secret of Zen?” and Hui-neng the master says, “What did your face look like before your parents begat you?” To put it into so many words, to define it, was to limit it. If it’s this, then it can’t be that… Yet there it was! Everyone had his own thing he was working out, but it all fit into the group thing, which was—”the Unspoken Thing,” said Page Browning, and that was as far as anyone wanted to go with words.

For that matter, there was no theology to it, no philosophy, at least not in the sense of an ism. There was no goal of an improved moral order in the world or an improved social order, nothing about salvation and certainly nothing about immortality or the life hereafter. Hereafter! That was a laugh. If there was ever a group devoted totally to the here and now it was the Pranksters. I remember puzzling over this. There was something so… religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it there was just a group of people who had shared an unusual psychological state, the LSD experience—But exactly! The experience—that was the word! and it began to fall into place. In fact, none of the great founded religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrian-ism, Hinduism, none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience, what Joachim Wach called “the experience of the holy,” and Max Weber,”possession of the deity,” the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one. I remember I never truly understood what they were talking about when I first read of such things. I just took their weighty German word for it. Jesus, Mani, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha—at the very outset the leader did not offer his circle of followers a better state hereafter or an improved social order or any reward other than a certain “psychological state in the here and now,” as Weber put it. I suppose what I never really comprehended was that he was talking about an actual mental experience they all went through, an ecstasy, in short.

In most cases, according to scriptures and legend, it happened in a flash. Mohammed fasting and meditating on a mountainside near Mecca and— -flash! —ecstasy, vast revelation and the beginning of Islam. Zoroaster hauling haoma water along the road and— -flash! —he runs into the flaming form of the Archangel Vohu Mano, messenger of Ahura Mazda, and the beginning of Zoroastrianism. Saul of Tarsus walking along the road to Damascus and— flash! —he hears the voice of the Lord and becomes a Christian. Plus God knows how many lesser figures in the 2,000 years since then, Christian Rosenkreuz and his “God-illuminated” brotherhood of Rosicrucians, Emanuel Swedenborg whose mind suddenly “opened” in 1743, Meister Eck-hart and his disciples Suso and Tauler, and in the twentieth-century Sadhu Sundar Singh—with— flash! —a vision at the age of 16 and many times thereafter; “.. . often when I come out of ecstasy I think the whole world must be blind not to see what I see, everything is so near and clear … there is no language which will express the things which I see and hear in the spiritual world …”

Sounds like an acid head, of course.

———————–

By nightfall the Pranksters are in the house and a few joints are circulating, saliva-liva-liva-liva-liva, and the whole thing is getting deeper into the moment, as it were, and people are working on tapes, tapes being played back, stopped, rewound, played again, a click on the plastic lever, stopped again … and a little speed making the rounds—such a lordly surge under the redwoods!—tablets of Benzedrine and Dexedrine, mainly, and you take off for a burst of work and rapping into the night. ..

Experiments of all sorts favored here, like putting contact microphones up against the bare belly and listening to the enzymes gurgling. Most Prankster bellies go gurgle-galumph-blub and so on, but Cassady’s goes ping! — dingaping! — ting! as if he were wired at 78 rpm and everyone else is at 33 rpm, which seems about right. And then they play a tape against a television show. That is, they turn on the picture on the TV, the Ed Sullivan Show, say, but they turn off the sound and play a tape of, say, Babbs and somebody rapping off each other’s words. The picture of the Ed Sullivan Show and the words on the tape suddenly force your mind to reach for connections between two vastly different orders of experience. On the TV screen, Ed Sullivan is holding Ella Fitzgerald’s hands with his hands sopped over her hands as if her hands were the first robins of spring, and his lips are moving, probably saying, “Ella, that was wonderful! Really wonderful! Ladies and gentlemen, another hand for a great, great lady!” But the voice that comes out is saying to Ella Fitzgerald— in perfect synch

“The lumps in your mattress are carnivore spores, venereal butterflies sent by theCombine to mothproof your brain, a pro-kit in every light socket— Ladies andgentlemen, Plug up the light sockets! Plug up the light sockets! The cougar microbesare marching in … “

Perfect! The true message!—

—although this kind of weird synchronization usually struck outsiders as mere coincidence or just whimsical, meaningless in any case. They couldn’t understand why the Pranksters grooved on it so. The inevitable confusion of the unattuned—like most of the Pranksters’ unique practices, it derived from the LSD experience and was incomprehensible without it. Under LSD, if it really went right,Ego and Non-Ego started to merge. Countless things that seemed separate started to merge, too: a sound became … a color! blue … colors became smells, walls began to breathe like the underside of a leaf, with one’s own breath. A curtain became a column of concrete and yet it began rippling, this incredible concrete mass rippling in harmonic waves like the Puget Sound bridge before the crash and you can feel it, the entire harmonics of the universe from the most massive to the smallest and most personal— presque vu! —all flowing together in this very moment…

This side of the LSD experience— the feeling! —tied in with Jung’s theory of synchronicity. Jung tried to explain the meaningful coincidences that occur in life and cannot be explained by cause-and-effect reasoning, such as ESP phenomena. He put forth the hypothesis that the unconscious perceives certain archetypical patterns that elude the conscious mind. These patterns, he suggested, are what unite subjective or psychic events with objective phenomena, the Ego with the Non-Ego, as in psychosomatic medicine or in the microphysical events of modern physics in which the eye of the beholder becomes an integral part of the experiment. Countless philosophers, prophets, early scientists, not to mention alchemists and occultists, had tried to present the same idea in the past, Plotinus, Lao-tse, Pico della Mirandola, Agrippa, Kepler, Leibniz. Every phenomenon, and every person, is a microcosm of the whole pattern of the universe, according to this idea. It is as if each man were an atom in a molecule in a fingernail of a giant being. Most men spend their lives trying to understand the workings of the molecule they’re born into and all they know for sure are the cause-and-effect workings of the atoms in it. A few brilliant men grasp the structure of the entire fingernail. A few geniuses, like Einstein, may even see that they’re all part of a finger of some ¡sort—So spaceequals time, hmmmmmm … All the while, however, many men get an occasional glimpse of another fingernail from another finger flashing by or even a whole finger or even the surface of the giant being’s face and they realize instinctively that this is a part of a pattern they’re all involved in, although they are totally powerless to explain it by cause and effect. And then—some visionary, through some accident—

—through some quirk of metabolism, through some drug perhaps, has his doors of perception opened for an instant and he almost sees— presque vu! —the entire being and he knows for the first time that there is a whole . . . other pattern here .. . Each moment in his life is only minutely related to the cause-and-effect chain within his little molecular world. Each moment, if he could only analyze it, reveals the entire pattern of the motion of the giant being, and his life is minutely synched in with it—

— AND WHEN THE CHEVRON TANKER FOLLOWS THE BUS INTO … NOWHERE . . . ONE

GETS A GLIMPSE OF THE PATTERN, A NEW LEVEL . . . MANY LEVELS HERE . . .

The Pranksters never talked about synchronicity by name, but they were more and more attuned to the principle. Obviously, according to this principle, man does not have free will. There is no use in his indulging in a lifelong competition to change the structure of the little environment he seems to be trapped in. But one could see the larger pattern and move with it— Go with the flow! —and accept it and rise above one’s immediate environment and even alter it by accepting the larger pattern and grooving with it— Put your good where it will do the most!

Oh dear.

… these things

THAT ONLY LUCKY DOGS AND MERRY PRANKSTERS HEAR

71vupa7nmBL._SL1421_

I suppose I shall be talking more about the book eventually. I haven’t even begun to talk about Kesey yet. I am still in the middle of the book.  Savouring it very slowly, over months.

 

 

Fuss and Feathers – Excerpt from Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

YOU WEREN’T BORN choking on no silver spoon, you know how it goes when you go looking for a job and you need one: You wait in the first indifferent room, ink in the forms, apply in another room with linoleum that’s waxy and squeaks and overhead lights that don’t miss a thing; then there’s the desk and the person behind it who thinks he’s an admiral, or it’s a she and she thinks she’s now in line for the throne to somewhere, and next you’re kissing ass and aw-shucksing toward the desk, telling how bad all your life you’ve been wanting to be night janitor in a chemical plant, or hog wrangler in a slaughterhouse, or pizza delivery boy, how you’ve laid awake in bed gettin’ goose bumps just from imagining how high and wide your life might someday be lived if ever you could average five dollars and forty cents an hour.

But there’re these questions, as always: Could you explain what you did from February of that one year until July of the next? And also that other year, from May to September?

Oh, did I not write that down? you say, then start spinning phantom jobs out your mouth, and they’re the best you ever did have, too: roller-coaster operator at Six Flags; Delta guide and driver for that two-part National Geographicarticle; day bartender at Silky O’Sullivan’s.

Your palms break sweat and you sit there, needy, while your work ethic and character are available for comment from strangers you wouldn’t share a joint with at a blues festival.

And you don’t get the job.

Those old failings showed through.

Not even lies helped.

Before all that long, you start telling those near to you that you went on interviews that turned out sorry when factually you never even made the phone call.

Image

From the excellent Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

In the middle of reading ‘Marching Powder’

I am reading this book called Marching Powder about a Bolivian Prison by an Australian backpacker called Rusty Young.

Rusty Young was backpacking in South America when he heard about Thomas McFadden, a convicted English drug trafficker who ran tours inside Bolivia’s notorious San Pedro prison. Intrigued, the young Australian journalisted went to La Paz and joined one of Thomas’s illegal tours. They formed an instant friendship and then became partners in an attempt to record Thomas’s experiences in the jail. Rusty bribed the guards to allow him to stay and for the next three months he lived inside the prison, sharing a cell with Thomas and recording one of the strangest and most compelling prison stories of all time. The memoir, Marching Powder, was released in 2003.

A film adaptation has been announced with the rights to the book with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

The prison itself is fascinating, the corruption and the drugs and lives inside a prison like this. The worst realization was the understanding that the prison has a better economy than the rest of Bolivia, which is why family members CHOOSE to stay in the prison. This, for example is a normal scene from the prison.

Scene inside of San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia

The book however grates on one’s nerves, the tone forever being “You Won’t Belieeeeve what happens in a South American Prison”. Much like the 2012 movie Argo. WOAH MAI GAWD THEY WENT INTO AN ARAB BAZAAR AND CAME OUT ALIVE NO INFECTIONS EITHER TAKE DECORATIONS, MEDAL, OSCAAAR.

The Wiki page is far better organized. Here are a few links.

San Pedro Prison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Pedro_prison
Runnerup: Guardian Student Travel Writer of the Year 2009: http://www.girish-gupta.com/article.php?id=6
Photo Journal: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/06/americas_inside_a_bolivian_jail/html/1.stm
Rusty Young has already made a documentary about this: http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/stories/s963744.htm

But that is not the reason I am posting this. I read a review on Goodreads, which pretty much knocked my wind off in that one line. This lady writes,

“Not amazed, as its a third world prison and they will never amaze me…”

Scares me that Brad Pitt is attempting this.

There once lived a boy who used to be me

Just read a few lines from the beginning of The Lives of Grandmasters, a narrative non-fiction story from The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon. A pang, a strike, and I want to read all of it now. Reproducing the words below:

I do not know how old I was when I learned to play chess. I could not have been older than eight, because I still have a chessboard on whose side my father inscribed, with a soldering iron, “Saša Hemon 1972.” I loved the board more than chess — it was one of the first things I owned. Its materiality was enchanting to me: the smell of burnt wood that lingered long after my father had branded it; the rattle of the thickly varnished pieces inside, the smacking sound they made when I put them down, the board’s hollow wooden echo. I can even recall the taste — the queen’s tip was pleasantly suckable; the pawns’ round heads, not unlike nipples, were sweet. The board is still at our place in Sarajevo, and, even if I haven’t played a game on it in decades, it is still my most cherished possession, providing incontrovertible evidence that there once lived a boy who used to be me.

Reading Experience of The Magus

Magus

(Copying from my Goodreads page)

The Magus is a 650 page book. I read the first 100 pages in a flash, within a day, annotating, clipping, quoting and generally grinning at the broken rake of a protagonist, feeling all kindred hearted. The last 100 pages similarly, I finished in a day, with a pain in the pit of my stomach, wanting this to be quickly over, unable to deal with the depression that came with it (similar to what the protagonist was going through). The middle 450 pages,oh dear lord, are a different story. Those are without doubt the most difficult, the most infuriating set of pages I have ever read in my entire life. It took close to two months to traverse that terrain. In the meantime, I couldn’t read anything else, could not concentrate on anything else, and felt rage, livid rage at what the author was doing. I felt like a prisoner.

And it isn’t because it was boring, or the writing was bad or the story was absurd. Au contraire, this is very fine writing. The very fact that Mr. Fowles pulls this … this monstrosity off is a paean to his skills.

Why was it so difficult then?

This is a book about deceptions. Everyone lies. And not in a convoluted plot sort of way. The lies are very … honest, necessary for the forward movement of the plot. Yes I am lying, and you will know later why. Not only visible to the reader, but also to the characters. It was infuriating beyond measure.

It was while reading this book that I realized the reason why I don’t lie is because I cannot take others lying to me.

What was infuriating was that the choice was wide open, to me, and to the protagonist Mr. Urfe to just walk away anytime, no harm done. The only thing you will lose is further plot development. And the very voice of sanity in the set of fantastical developments prods one forward. How can one not see what lies ahead?

The choice is further lies (someone is lying to you, making an effort to lie to you for an intrigue, for something beyond the ordinary), or a dry boring life. I try to kid myself thinking that 10 times out of 10, I would have walked away from such a situation, from such a woman, but Mr. Urfe did not, and on second painful thoughts, neither would I.

As you can see, character identification forms a large part of my reading experience of this book, and it particularly played with my ego/emotions. Urfe’s emotional scatter, his arrogance and caddishness, I identified with all of that. I lapped up lines like,

“I suppose I’d had, by the standards of that pre-permissive time, a good deal of sex for my age. Girls, or a certain kind of girl, liked me; I had a car-not so common among undergraduates in those days-and I had some money. I wasn’t ugly; and even more important, I had my loneliness, which, as every cad knows, is a deadly weapon with women. My ‘technique’ was to make a show of unpredictability, cynicism, and indifference. Then, like a conjurer with his white rabbit, I produced the solitary heart.” 

and

“I had always believed, and not only out of cynicism, that a man and a woman could tell in the first ten minutes whether they wanted to go to bed together; and that the time that passed after those first ten minutes represented a tax, which might be worth paying if the article promised to be really enjoyable, but which nine times out of ten became rapidly excessive.” 

I also excerpted two passages, calling one The Last Moments of a Relationship and the other Death of a Suicide.

…and it is because I was as much into character as Mr. Urfe, feeling himself too intellectual and impervious of things that could touch him, is why I felt the sucker punch as much. The self doubt, the wrath, the need to punish, all spiralling down into a merciless manic depression. After one point, I wasn’t believing anything (just like the protagonist), and the only way I could make sense of it was because I was holding this physical book in my hands, and I saw that it had a finite ending. It WOULD end. At such moments, I would turn back to the last page, 655, and wistfully sigh.

It is easy to record one’s feelings through the pages here on Goodreads, and I did that with my statuses, here are some of them,

On Page 129 : “Dramatic change in reading speed from Part 1 (till Ch. 10) to Part 2. Screeched to a slow measured trickle. Obfuscation has apparently begun and that is a desired effect. Apparently.”

On Page 210: “I am getting very, very irritated with this book, almost as much as with a real person. I have a very low threshold for teasing, and this book has crossed it a hundred pages back. If this was a real person, I would have walked away long back, keep your fucking mystery and stuff it up your ass. Fucking teasers.”

On Page 480: “Unbelievable, this motherfucking book. Unbelievable.”

small Magus

The Magus is exquisite torture. The only reason I had picked this up and stayed with it was because of David Simon. He had mentioned in The Wire : Truth Be Told that when he met his partner Ed Burns for the first time, the latter was carrying three books, one of which was the Magus. That had piqued my curiosity enough for me to note the names down. (I have been slowly but surely reading everything in any way related to the Wire)

I am glad that I stuck with it. I am also sure I would definitely read it again. As also sure that I would respect any person who has read this book just a little bit more. This despite the fact that Fowles mentions that only adolescents would love this book. Perhaps I still am one.

P.S. Midway through the book, I realized that the ePub version I am reading, and the physical book I am reading (I often alternate) are quite different. The Magus was revised at a later date by Fowles, and it is quite a comprehensive revision of scenes. If you pick it up, I would suggest the latter, revised version.

600full-the-magus-cover

Personality Profile (Excerpt from The Magus, by John Fowles)

The subject of our 1953 experiment belongs to a familiar category of semi-intellectual introversion. Although excellent for our purposes his personality pattern is without subsidiary interest. The most significant feature of his life style is negative: its lack of social content. The motives for this attitude spring from an only partly resolved Oedipal complex. The subject shows characteristic symptoms of mingled fear and resentment of authority, especially male authority and the usual accompanying basic syndrome: an ambivalent attitude towards women, in which they are seen both as desired objects and as objects which have betrayed him, and therefore merit his revenge and counterbetrayal.   Time has not allowed us to investigate the subject’s specific womb and breast separation traumas, but the compensatory mechanisms he has evolved are so frequent among so-called intellectuals that we may posit with certainty a troubled period of separation from the maternal breast, possibly due to the exigences of the military career of the subject’s father, and a very early identification of the father, or male, as separator. The subject has then never been able to accept the initial loss of oral gratification and maternal protection and this has given him his auto-erotic approach to emotional problems and life in general. The subject also conforms to the Adlerian descriptions of siblingless personality traits.  The subject has preyed sexually and emotionally on a number of young women. His method is to stress and exhibit his loneliness and unhappiness — in short, to play the little boy in search of the lost mother. He thereby arouses repressed maternal instincts in his victims which he then proceeds to exploit with the semi-incestuous ruthlessness of this type.   In the usual way the subject identifies God with the father figure, aggressively rejecting any belief in him.   He has careerwise continually placed himself in situations of isolation. His solution of his fundamental separation anxiety requires him to cast himself as the rebel and outsider. His unconscious intention in seeking this isolation is to find a justification for his preying on women and also for his withdrawal from any community orientated in directions hostile to his fundamental needs of self-gratification.   The subject’s family, caste and national background has not helped in the resolution of his problems. He comes of a military family, in which there were a large number of taboos resulting from a strongly authoritarian paternal regime. His caste in his own country, that of the professional middle class, Zwiemarm’s technobourgeoisie, is of course marked by an obsessional adherence to such regimes. In a remark to Dr. Maxwell the subject reported that “All through my adolescence I had to lead two lives.” This is a good layman’s description of environment-motivated and finally consciously induced paraschizophrenia — “madness as lubricant,” in Karen Homey’s famous phrase.   On leaving university the subject put himself in the one environment he would not be able to tolerate — that of an expensive private school, the social transmitter of all those paternalistic and authoritarian traits the subject hates. Predictably he then felt himself forced both out of the school and out of his country, and adopted the role of expatriate, though he insured himself against any valid adjustment by once again choosing an environment which was certain to provide him with the required elements of hostility. His work there is academically barely adequate and his relationship with his colleagues and students poor.

To sum up, he is behaviorally the victim of a repetition compulsion that he has failed to understand. In every environment he looks for those elements that allow him to feel isolated, that allow him to justify his withdrawal from meaningful social responsibilities and relationships and his consequent regression into the infantile state of frustrated self-gratification. At present this autistic regression takes the form mentioned above, of affaires with young women. Although previous attempts at an artistic resolution have apparently failed, we may predict that further such attempts will be made and that there will be the normal cultural life-pattern of the type: excessive respect for iconoclastic avant-garde art, contempt for tradition, paranosic sympathy with fellow rebels and nonconformers in conflict with frequent depressive and persecutory phases in personal and work relationships.

As Dr. Conchis has observed in his The Midcentury Predicament: “The rebel with no specific gift for rebellion is destined to become the drone; and even this metaphor is inexact, since the drone has at least a small chance of fecundating the queen, whereas the human rebel-drone is deprived even of that small chance and may finally see himself as totally sterile, lacking not only the brilliant life success of the queens but even the humble satisfactions of the workers in the human hive. Such a personality is reduced to mere wax, a mere receiver of impressions; and this condition is the very negation of the basic drive in him — to rebel. It is no wonder that in middle age many such failed rebels, rebels turned self-conscious drones, aware of their susceptibility to intellectual vogues, adopt a mask of cynicism that cannot hide their more or less paranoiac sense of having been betrayed by life.”

***

“There are two appendices, or footnotes. One comes from Professor Ciardi, and is as follows: ‘I dissent from the view that the subject is without significance outside the matter of our experiment. In my view one may anticipate in twenty years’ time a period of considerable and today almost unimaginable prosperity in the West. I repeat my assertion that the threat of a nuclear catastrophe will have a healthy effect on Western Europe and America. It will firstly stimulate economic production; it will secondly ensure that there is peace; it will thirdly provide a constant sense of real danger behind every moment of living, which was in my opinion missing before the last war and so contributed to it. Although this threat of war may do something to counteract the otherwise dominating role that the female sex must play in a peacetime society dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, I predict that breast-fixated men like the subject will become the norm. We are entering an amoral and permissive era in which self-gratification in the form of high wages and a wide range of consumer goods obtained and obtainable against a background of apparently imminent universal doom will be available, if not to all, then to an increasingly large majority. In such an age the characteristic personality type must inevitably become auto-erotic and, clinically, auto-psychotic. Such a person will be for economic reasons isolated, as for personal ones the subject is today, from direct contact with the evils of human life, such as starvation, poverty, inadequate living conditions, and the rest. Western homo sapiens will become homo solitarius. Though I have little sympathy as a fellow human being for the subject, his predicament interests me as a social psychologist, since he has developed precisely as I would expect a man of moderate intelligence but little analytical power, and virtually no science, to develop in our age. If nothing else he proves the total inadequacy of the confused value judgments and pseudo-statements of art to equip modem man for his evolutionary role.'”   The woman laid down the paper and picked up another. “This second note comes from Dr. Maxwell, who of course has had the closest personal contact with the subject. She says: ‘In my view the subject’s selfishness and social inadequacy have been determined by his past, and any report which we communicate to him should make it clear that his personality deficiencies are due to circumstances outside his command. The subject may not understand that we are making clinical descriptions, and not, at least in my own case, with any association of moral blame. If anything our attitude should be one of pity towards a personality that has to cover its deficiencies under so many conscious and unconscious lies. We must always remember that the subject has been launched into the world with no training in self-analysis and self-orientation; and that almost all the education he has received is positively harmful to him. He was, so to speak, born short-sighted by nature and has been further blinded by his environments. It is small wonder that he cannot find his way.'”

Death of a Suicide (Excerpt from The Magus, by John Fowles)

….I did not post the letter, but again and again, night after night, I thought of suicide. It seemed to me that death had marked my family down, right back to those two uncles I had never known, one killed at Ypres and the other at Passchendaele; then my parents. All violent, pointless deaths, lost gambles. I was worse off than even Alison was; she hated life, I hated myself. I had created nothing, I belonged to nothingness, to the néant, and it seemed to me that my own death was the only thing left that I could create; and still, even then, I thought it might accuse everyone who had ever known me. It would validate all my cynicism, it would prove all my solitary selfishness; it would stand, and be remembered, as a final dark victory.

The day before term ended I felt the balance tip. I knew what to do. The gatekeeper at the school had an old twelve-bore, which he had once offered to lend me if I wanted to go shooting in the hills. I went to him and asked him to let me have it. He was delighted and loaded my pocket with cartridges; the pine forests were full of birds.

I walked up a galley behind the school, climbed to a small saddle, and went into the trees. I was soon in shadow. To the north, across the water, the golden mainland still lay in the sun. The air was very light, warm, the sky of an intense luminous blue. A long way away, above me, I could hear the bells of a flock of goats being brought back to the village for the night. I walked for some time. It was like looking for a place to relieve oneself in; I had to be sure I couldn’t be observed. At last I found a rocky hollow.

I put a cartridge in the gun, and sat on the ground, against the stem of a pine tree. All around me blue grape-hyacinths pushed through the pine needles. I reversed the gun and looked down the barrel, into the black o of my nonexistence. I calculated the angle at which I should have to hold my head. I held the barrel against my right eye, turned my head so that the shot would mash like black lightning through the brain and blast the back wall of my skull off. I reached for the trigger — this was all testing, all rehearsing — and found it difficult to reach. In straining forward, I thought I might have to twist my head at the last moment and botch the job, so I searched around and found a dead branch that I could fit between the guard and the trigger. I took the cartridge out and fitted the stick in, and then sat with the gun between my knees, the soles of my shoes on the stick, the right barrel an inch from my eye. There was a click as the hammer fell. It was simple. I reloaded the cartridge.

From the hills behind came the solitary voice of a girl. She must have been bringing down the goats, and she was singing wildly, at the limit of her uninhibited voice, without any recognizable melody, in Turkish-Moslem intervals. It sounded disembodied, of place, not person. I remembered having heard a similar voice, perhaps this same girl’s, singing one day on the hill behind the school. It had drifted down into the classroom, and the boys had begun to giggle. But now it seemed intensely mysterious, welling out of a solitude and suffering that made mine trivial and absurd. It held me under a spell. I sat with the gun across my knees, unable to move while the sound floated down through the evening air. I don’t know how long she sang for, but the sky darkened, the sea paled to a nacreous gray. Over the mountains there were pinkish bars of high cloud in the still strong light from the set sun. All the land and the sea held light, as if light was warmth, and did not fade as soon as the source was removed. But the voice dwindled towards the village; then died into silence.

I raised the gun again until the barrel was pointing at me. The stick projected, waiting for my feet to jerk down. The air was very silent. Many miles away I heard the siren of the Athens boat, approaching the island. But it was like something outside a vacuum. Death was now. I did nothing. I waited. The afterglow, the palest yellow, then a luminous pale green, then a limpid stained-glass blue, held in the sky over the sea of mountains to the west. I waited, I waited, I heard the siren closer, I waited for the will, the black moment, to come to raise my feet and kick down, and I could not. All the time I felt I was being watched, that I was not alone, that I was putting on an act for the benefit of someone, that this action could be done only if it was spontaneous, pure, isolated — and moral. Because more and more it crept through my mind with the chill spring night that I was trying to commit not a moral action, but a fundamentally aesthetic one; to do something that would end my life sensationally, significantly, consistently. It was a Mercutio death I was looking for, not a real one. A death to be remembered, not the true death of a true suicide, the death obliterate.

And the voice; the light; the sky.

It began to grow dark, the siren of the receding Athens boat sounded, and I still sat smoking, with the gun by my side. I re-evaluated myself. I saw that I was from now on, forever, contemptible. I had been, and remained, intensely depressed, but I had also been, and always would be, intensely false; in existentialist terms, unauthentic. I knew I would never kill myself, I knew I would always want to go on living with myself, however hollow I became, however diseased.

I raised the gun and fired it blindly into the sky. The crash shook me. There was an echo, some falling twigs. Then the heavy well of silence.

* * *

“Did you shoot anything?” asked the old man at the gate.

“One shot,” I said. “I missed.”

* * *

Years later I saw the gabbia at Piacenza; a harsh black canary cage strung high up the side of the towering campanile, in which prisoners were left to starve to death and rot in full view of the town below. And looking up at it I remembered that winter in Greece, that gabbia I had constructed for myself out of light, solitude and selfdelusions. To write poetry and to commit suicide, apparently so contradictory, had really been the same, attempts at escape. And my feelings, at the end of that wretched term, were those of a man who knows he is in a cage, exposed to the jeers of all his old ambitions until he dies.

Solitude – Excerpt from Perfume, by Patrick Suskind

Prologue: The more Grenouille had become accustomed to purer air, the more sensitive he was to human odour, which suddenly, quite unexpectedly, would come floating by in the night, ghastly as the stench of manure, betraying the presence of some shepherd’s hut or charcoal burner’s cottage or thieves’ den. And then he would flee further, increasingly sensitive to the increasingly infrequent smell of humankind. Thus his nose led him to ever more remote regions of the country, ever further from human beings, driving him on ever more insistently towards the magnetic pole of the greatest possible solitude.

Chapter 25: (So, What do you DO all day?)

He spent the next few days settling in on the mountain – for he had made up his mind that he would not be leaving this blessed region all that soon. First he sniffed around for water and in a crevasse a little below the top found it running across the rock in a thin film. It was not much, but if he patiently licked at it for an hour, he could quench his daily need for liquids. He also found nourishment in the form of small salamanders and ring snakes; he pinched off their heads, then devoured them whole. He also ate dry lichen and grass and mossberries. Such a diet, although totally unacceptable by bourgeois standards, did not disgust him in the least. In the past weeks and months, he had no longer fed himself with food processed by human hands – bread, sausage, cheese – but instead, whenever he felt hungry, had wolfed down anything vaguely edible that had crossed his path. He was anything but a gourmet. He had no use for sensual gratification, unless that gratification consisted of pure incorporeal odours. He had no use for creature comforts either, and would have been quite content to set up camp on bare stone. But he found something better.

Near his watering spot he discovered a natural tunnel leading back into the mountain by many twists and turns, until after a hundred feet or so it came to an end in a rock slide. The back of the tunnel was so narrow that his shoulders touched the rock and so low that he could walk only hunched down. But he could sit, and if he curled up, could even lie down. This completely satisfied his requirements for comfort. For the spot had incalculable advantages. At the end of the tunnel it was pitch-black night even during the day, it was deathly quiet, and the air he breathed was moist, salty, cool. Grenouille could smell at once that no living creature had ever entered the place. As he took possession of it, he was overcome by a sense of something like sacred awe. He carefully spread his horse-blanket on the ground as if dressing an altar and lay down on it. He felt blessedly wonderful. He was lying a hundred and fifty feet below the earth, inside the loneliest mountain in France – as if in his own grave. Never in his life had he felt so secure, certainly not in his mother’s belly. The world could go up in flames out there, but here he would not even notice it. He began to cry softly. He did not know whom to thank for such good fortune.

In the days that followed he went into the open only to lick at his watering spot, quickly to relieve himself of his urine and excrement, and to hunt lizards and snakes. They were easy to bag at night when they retreated under flat stones or into little holes where he could trace them with his nose.

He climbed back up to the peak a few more times during the first weeks to sniff out the horizon. But soon that had become more a wearisome habit than a necessity, for he had not once scented the least threat. And so he finally gave up these excursions and concerned himself only with getting back into his crypt as quickly as possible once he had taken care of the most basic chores necessary for simple survival. For here, inside the crypt, was where he truly lived. Which is to say, for well over twenty hours a day in total darkness and in total silence and in total immobility, he sat on his horse blanket at the end of the stony corridor, his back resting on the rock slide, his shoulders wedged between the rocks, and enjoyed himself.

We are familiar with people who seek out solitude: penitents, failures, saints or prophets. They retreat to deserts, preferably, where they live on locusts and honey. Others, however, live in caves or cells or remote islands; some – more spectacularly – squat in cages mounted high atop poles swaying in the breeze. They do this to be nearer to God. Their solitude is a self-mortification by which they do penance. They act in the belief that they are living a life pleasing to God. Or they wait months, years, for their solitude to be broken by some divine message that they hope then speedily to broadcast among mankind.

Grenouille’s case was nothing of the sort. There was not the least notion of God in his head. He was not doing penance nor waiting for some supernatural inspiration. He had withdrawn solely for his own personal pleasure, only to be nearer to himself. No longer distracted by anything external, he basked in his own existence and found it splendid. He lay in his stony crypt like his own corpse, hardly breathing, his heart hardly beating – and yet lived as intensively and dissolutely as ever a rake had lived in the world outside.

“What is a crowd?” Excerpt from Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

THESE ARE THE things that are said about crowds.

A crowd is mindless.

A crowd is primitive; it is barbaric; it is childish.

A crowd is fickle, capricious, unpredictable. A crowd is a dirty people without a name (Clarendon). A crowd is a beast without a name (Gabriel Tarde). A crowd is a wild animal (Alexander Hamilton, Hippolyte Taine, Scipio Sighele). A crowd is like a flock of sheep (Plato), like a pack of wolves (Plato), like a horse—tame when in the harness, dangerous when set free. A crowd is like a fire burning out of control, destroying everything in its way, including finally itself (Thomas Carlyle). A crowd is in a fever, in delirium, in a state of hypnosis (Gustave LeBon). A crowd reveals our Darwinian selves, primal hordes suddenly liberated by the sway of the pack. A crowd reveals our Freudian selves, regressing to a state of elemental, primitive urgency. A crowd killed Socrates; a crowd killed Jesus. A crowd kills—in the Bastille, at the Commune, in front of the Winter Palace, in the streets of Vienna, down a dirt road in Mississippi or Soweto.

And who do we find in a crowd? Trouble-makers, riff-raff, vagrants and criminals (Taine). The morbidly nervous, excitable and the half-deranged (LeBon). The scum that boils up to the surface of the cauldron of a city (Gibbon). Both honorary barbarians (Hitler) and the vulgar working class who want nothing more than bread and circuses (Hitler). We find people driven by the impulses of the spinal cord and not the brain (LeBon). We find people who have abandoned intelligence, discrimination, judgement, and, unable to think for themselves, are vulnerable to agitators, outside influences, infiltrators, communists, fascists, racists, nationalists, phalangists and spies. We find people with a thirst for obedience (LeBon), an appetite to serve (Freud). A crowd needs to be ruled. A crowd needs its patriarch—its despotic father, chief, tyrant, emperor, commander. It wants its Hider, its Mussolini. A crowd is like a patient to a doctor, the hypnotized to the hypnotist. A crowd is a rabble—to be manipulated, controlled, roused.

A crowd is not us.

Whose metaphors are these? They come from Freud, Burke, the historians of the French revolution, our nineteenth-century heritage, our newspapers. Who is telling us what a crowd is like? It is not the crowd—the crowd does not tell us its histories; it is the observers of the crowd, listening to each other as much ‘as to the shouting outside their windows: Edmund Burke, removed in London, weighing the gravity of a revolution that he sees only through other people’s eyes. Hippolyte Taine, preparing lectures in Oxford, where he reads in the English papers of the violence of the Commune and fears for his family and his property in Paris. Gustave LeBon, the ‘father of crowd theory’, eleventh-hour sociologist, effortless plagiarist, lifting passages from Scipio Sighele, Gabriel Tarde and (inevitably) Hippolyte Taine (it is possible that the only crowd seen by the father of crowd theory was in Paris on a shopping day). Freud, two years after the great crowd massacres of the Great War, the streets outside his window already alive with the sounds of restless nationalism and anti-Semitism, advancing his own theories about the crowd and its leaders, based (inevitably) on the work of the ‘justly famous’ Gustave LeBon.

The history of the behaviour of crowds is a history of fear: of being a victim, of losing property, of a terror (and of the Terror) so powerful that it needs a name—to be accounted for, distorted into intelligibility, made safe. The history of the behaviour of crowds is one of explanations. It has given us the politics of violence and its sociology. It has provided us with the models of revolution and the ego-ideal. It has shown us cause and effect, the details of oppression, the brutalities, the injustices, the prisons and the torture, the price of bread, the loss of land, the inequities of exploitative taxation, the mechanical contrivances and contraptions of a dehumanizing modernity. Crowd theory makes sense of the crowd and its violence, as if, as in a scientific experiment, the right conditions could and always will produce the same results. Crowd theory tells us why—relentlessly, breathlessly, noisily, as if by shouting the reasons loudly enough the terror can be explained away. But crowd theory rarely tells us what: what happens when it goes off; what the terror is like; what it feels like to participate in it, to be its creator. I have a recent photograph depicting a crowd incident in the seaside city of Split in Yugoslavia. I will describe it.

The crowd, all men, fills the frame. It consists of Croatian nationalists who have surrounded a tank that has been sent in among army troops to restore order. The photographer, uncredited, is positioned above the crowd—perhaps perched atop a vehicle travelling alongside or else crouched on the balcony of a nearby flat. Some of the protesters are pressed up against the tank, so closely that, panicking, they are having to pull themselves out of its way. They are the only ones moving. The others are still. Their stillness is sudden and compelling. In another context, they could be described as onlookers or members of an audience: their faces have the same expressions—expectant, slack-mouthed, not just judgement but the act of judging suspended or deferred—that we are used to seeing in any sporting crowd, waiting for something to happen. Or not. They, too, are waiting for something to happen. Or not.

Five men have just climbed on to the tank. There is a sixth man, out of view, about to leap on board—we see only his arms extended as he reaches out for support—and another, a seventh, still on the street, who is afraid of being left behind and is prepared to climb on from the front. The others are more circumspect and have avoided the gun turret, knowing that, to disarm the tank, they would have to do it from the rear, as though coming up behind a snake and grabbing it below the head. The men are neat and clean-shaven, except for one who has a moustache. He was the first to reach the top of the tank, although he is now being pulled back by his jacket—the seam joining the sleeves is starting to come undone—by a man who is eager to get to what he has in his hands. It is the head of the tank commander. The man with the moustache has reached down into the tank and pulled out the commander by his head: his hands cover the commander’s face—his thumbs are pressed deep into his eyes—and he is yanking him out by his chin. It is possible to complete the metaphor: having taken the snake from behind the head, the man, wanting to disarm it properly, has now reached into its mouth to pull out each one of its fangs.

A brave act? Or a crowd act?

The newspaper reports that one soldier died in Split that day. We can imagine that the fatality was the tank commander. As I write, there are accounts of terrible killings in Yugoslavia—dismemberments, a disembowelment. We are accustomed to the journalist’s scrutinies of the excesses of human conduct; they provide us with the material of our entertainments, the stuff of our newspapers, our television news, our films. We have no illusions about the potential depravities of our nature, except that rarely, despite our modern sophistication, do we admit that these depravities are genuinely our own: yours, mine. We know how the mob behaves, once in a frenzy. But, even today, the mob is not us. It is easy to dismiss an incident of crowd violence in Yugoslavia; it is an unstable state; it is not ours….

…..

It is worth re-examining the photograph from Yugoslavia.

I am intrigued by what I continue to find. I note that the men are well-dressed—two are wearing fashionable leather jackets; one, a suit and tie—and that it is likely that they have jobs, perhaps well-paid jobs in an office or a shop. I note that they are mature adults—with handsome, attractive faces; one has a stylish haircut. I note the high calculation of their act—coming up behind the hatch and pulling out an armed man. It is bold, but thought out, the risks weighed. Studying this scene on the tank, in medias res, I can infer the order of events that led to it: that the crowd, having surrounded the tank, found itself unable to commit the next act—an unequivocally criminal one, antisocial, lawless—and then one man, the man with the moustache, scaled the tank. He was not a leader, or at least not a leader in the sense that we believe crowds to be governed by leaders. He was not there to cajole, persuade, exhort, enjoin, hypnotize or rouse, and it is unlikely that the crowd would have responded to him if he had tried. Although he will be seen by the authorities as responsible—he is there, after all, in view—he has no influence over the crowd. He is merely the first to cross an important boundary of behaviour, a tacit boundary that, recognized by everyone there, separates one kind of conduct from another. He is prepared to commit this ‘threshold’ act—an act which, created by the crowd, would have been impossible without the crowd, even though the crowd itself is not prepared to follow: yet.

Every crowd has a threshold; all crowds are initially held in place by boundaries of some kind. There are rules that say: this much, but no more. A march has a route and a destination. A picket line is precisely itself: an arrangement of points that cannot be crossed. A political rally: there is the politician, the rally’s event, at its centre. A parade, a protest, a procession: there is the police escort, the pavement, the street, the overwhelming fact of the surrounding property. The crowd can be here, but not there. There is form in an experience that tends towards abandon. I have described the relentless physicalness of the terraces and how they concentrate the spectator experience: that of existing so intensely in the present that it is possible for an individual, briefly, to cease being an individual, to disappear into the power of numbers—the strength of them, the emotion of belonging to them. And yet again: it is formlessness in a contrivance of form. Being a spectator is an insistently structured experience: there is a ticket that confers exclusivity; there are gates that govern what is possible here, inside; what is not possible there, outside. The demarcations are reinforced by the architecture itself. The face that a stadium, of uniform concrete or brick, presents to the outside world is blank and unexpressive: nothing is said, nothing admitted. The face that it presents to itself is an enclosure of faces—faces packed as tightly as bodies will allow, design at its most expressive: everything is possible here. Outside, one experience; inside, another; outside again, and the crowd experience, like the match which governs it, is terminated: there is an ending, closure, a point when the crowd can be designated as having ceased to exist. In every crowd, there is something—with form—to contain the inherently formless nature of the crowd itself, to control what is potentially uncontrollable.

And when the threshold is crossed, the form abandoned?

There in the streets of Tottenham I watched the faces, concentrating, as moment by moment everyone tried to build up the confidence or the intensity or simply the strength of feeling that would allow them to step over the high boundary that separated them from where they wanted to be. The idea was, figuratively, literally, historically, an act of transgression: to step (gressare) across (trans) what was forbidden to cross. Everything militated against crossing it. Every act of every day, every law that had been learned, respected and obeyed, enforced and reinforced, every inculcated custom of conduct, was preventing them from finally taking the step.

Again, the photograph in Split. The man with the moustache has been followed up on to the tank by five or six others. These men are not LeBon’s morbidly nervous, half-deranged masses nor are they Gibbon’s urban scum; they are ordinary, ordinarily responsible members of society, except in this one crucial respect: they have now done what is not done and cannot return to the orderly crowd standing round watching them. Having crossed this line, they are now outside the civilization they have left behind. On the face of one, the man pulling at the jacket of the one with the moustache, wanting also to get to the tank commander, is a look of terrible excitement. It is not panic or fear or anger or revenge. It is exhilaration.

There cannot be many moments in a person’s life when what is civilized ceases to be, when the structures of continuity—job, shelter, routine, responsibility, choice, right, wrong, the state of being a citizen—disappear. English, the great mapping language of imperialism, has no verb which is the antithesis of to civilize, no word to describe the act of un-making the rules that citizens have made. Our lives do not admit the prospect, are organized to exclude it. Our day consists of patterns of conduct that hold us intact. My place in a civilized society, my place as a citizen, derives from an arrangement of agreements and routines. My day is heavily patterned: I wake, pee, eat, shit, shower, dress, travel to work, write my letters, make my phone calls, pay my bills, attend to my diary, drink coffee, pee, talk, lunch, run errands, catch my train, arrive home, have dinner, drink, pee, am entertained, fuck, pee, clean teeth, sleep. I have a house, a shelter. I leave it in the morning and return to it in the evening: it is there—a material fact, not simply reassuring but reinforcing in its familiarity. I own it by virtue of an agreement between me, my place of work, the bank and the law of the land. I am a collector, not in a refined sense but a fundamental one—my photographs, my articles of clothing, my pieces of furniture (arranged so), my library of books (arranged so), my friends and loved ones (arranged so), my idea of my life made smooth and comfortable by regular use, my papers, my work, my idea of me. I surround myself with things, prop myself up with property, fill up my space with stuff: I personalize it; I make it intimate, I make it mine.

I have so many images for it—this state of being a citizen, of being civilized. I see it as a net that holds me in place, keeps me from falling. I see it as a fabric—a network of individual threads, intertwined, pulled tight—that keeps me warm, that I can wrap around both me and others. I see it as property, a house, a structure, a made thing, walls to keep out the cold, a door to keep out the unwanted, a roof to protect me from the night and its terrible undifferentiated darkness.

But I see it, too, as a weight. I see it as a barrier, an obstacle between me and something I don’t know or understand. I see it as a mediator, a filter that allows only certain kinds of experience through. And I am attracted to the moments when it disappears, even if briefly, especially if briefly: when the fabric tears, the net breaks, the house burns—the metaphors are arbitrary. This line, again; this boundary: I am compelled, exhilarated, by what I find on the other side. I am excited by it; I know no excitement greater. It is there—on the edge of an experience which is by its nature antisocial, anti-civilized, anti-civilizing—that you find what Susan Sontag describes as our ‘flair’ (the word is so attractively casual) for high temperature visionary obsession: exalted experiences that by their intensity, their risk, their threat of self-immolation exclude the possibility of all other thought except the experience itself, incinerate self-consciousness, transcend (or obliterate?) our sense of the personal, of individuality, of being an individual in any way. What are these experiences? There are so few; they are so intolerable. Religious ecstasy. Sexual excess (insistent, unforgiving). Pain (inflicting it, having it inflicted)—pain so great that it is impossible to experience anything except pain, pain as an absolute of feeling. Arson. Certain drugs. Criminal violence. Being in a crowd. And—greater still—being in a crowd in an act of violence. Nothingness is what you find there. Nothingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity.

——————————————————————————————

About the Violence

I will not describe the violence because what I want to depict is this precise moment in its complete sensual intensity—before chronology allows the moment to evolve into its consequences. What has occurred? What has happened when a crowd goes over the edge—or the cliff: the metaphors, though hackneyed, are revealing.
This is the way they talk about it.

They talk about the crack, the buzz and the fix. They talk about having to have it, of being unable to forget it when they do, of not wanting to forget it—ever. They talk about being sustained by it, telling and retelling what happened and what it felt like. They talk about it with the pride of the privileged, of those who have had, seen, felt, been through something that other people have not. They talk about it in the way that another generation talked about drugs or drink or both, except that they also use both drugs and drink. One lad, a publican, talks about it as though it were a chemical thing, or a hormonal spray or some kind of intoxicating gas—once it’s in the air, once an act of violence has been committed, other acts will follow inevitably—necessarily.

And how would I talk about it?

I think of consciousness as having to be aware of the present on a multiplicity of levels. The human mind is never at rest in the present; it is always roving, recalling, remembering, selecting, adding, forgetting. Sitting in this room as I write my mind is accommodating so many different activities at once: it encompasses this sentence as I write it; it has already composed the next one; it has completed this book and it has, at the same time, not completed it; it has never completed it. It accommodates the state of the kitchen; the sounds of the birds outside; the quality of the light; the items that I must address later in the day—tonight, this weekend, next month, when I am old. It has, over the time it has taken me to write this paragraph so far, addressed my relationship with the bank, with my family; noted the eye make-up that my sister wears on national holidays, recalled a death; lingered upon a sad memory. Human consciousness exists on far more levels than consciousness itself could represent. This is our reality; our humanness: the thousand million stimulants of the moment, the indiscriminate mass of motion that the mind is constantly engaging, disengaging, abandoning, retrieving.

I am attracted to the moment when consciousness ceases: the moments of survival, of animal intensity, of violence, when there is no multiplicity, no potential for different levels of thought: there is only one—the present in its absoluteness.

Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures. There on the streets of Fulham, I felt, as the group passed over its metaphorical cliff, that I had literally become weightless. I had abandoned gravity, was greater than it. I felt myself to be hovering above myself, capable of perceiving everything in slow motion and overwhelming detail. I realized later that I was on a druggy high, in a state of adrenalin euphoria. And for the first time I am able to understand the words they use to describe it. That crowd violence was their drug.

What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness.

——————————————————————————————

About a Beating

I had run into a trap. The pretence of a police ‘retreat’, the tear-gas, the hill hiding what was on the other side: it had all been a trap.

I looked round, admiring the details. The street was very narrow, and the houses were built alongside each other, without alleys or passageways. Nice touch. There were no side-streets. It was a corridor of punishment. If I carried on, I would run straight into the police waiting at the bottom; I would be killed. They would not intend to kill me—it would be an accident—but they would do so all the same. If I turned round and went the other way, I would, once I emerged out of the tear-gas, run straight into the other mob of police. I did not think they would kill me—for some reason, I was equally confident about that—but I was certain that they would injure me badly. I did not want to be injured badly. I concluded, therefore, that there was no way out. I was trapped. I was impressed, but trapped nevertheless.

Shit, shit, shit.

I looked back down at the policemen. They were still waiting, leaning forward. I recognized one, an older one, with a round face and woolly eyebrows. He was one of the uniformed superintendents, and I had watched him trying to contain the crowd as it surged down the Via Roma. His face had been memorable—it was humane, sympathetic, expressive, warm. It was a different face now; it was hard and full of hate.

…….

I looked back down the hill. Time, in that punishing, familiar way, was starting to slow down, and I felt I was watching every step each policeman took, and, although I knew they were running with great determination, they didn’t seem to be running very fast. They seemed to be running in water. Their faces were vivid and distinct. Most of those faces were looking at me. I found myself reviewing my prospects again: go forward, get killed; go backwards, get injured. Fly? Can’t fly. Damn, I wish I could fly.

What would you do?

What I did was this: I crossed the street. I wanted to get as far away as possible from the Esso station and the thousand or so supporters crushed into its corner. That was where the police would end up; I could see that. So I crossed the street and got between two parked cars. I took one last look at the police—very close—and got down on all fours (bits of gravel pressed against the skin of my knees), covered my head and curled up into a ball on the ground. I surrendered.

I thought: I fooled them.

I thought: I’ve deprived them of the chance to beat me up. You can’t beat up someone who has surrendered and is lying on the ground.

And then I thought: Maybe they’ll truncheon me once en route to the other supporters. I had been truncheoned before; it stings, but the sting soon goes away.

I noticed three things the first time I was hit. One was the effort to ensure that I was hit powerfully. My head was down but I could tell that the policeman, rather than smacking me once on his way to the other supporters, had come to a complete stop: I could see his boots. He then pulled back his truncheon and paused, aiming his blow. I thought: he won’t do it.

And then I thought: OK, OK, so I was wrong.

Second, the target. It was my kidney. The policeman, I infer, had sized up the situation—fat man on the ground, curled into a ball, head covered with hands, cotton T-shirt rising up the back slightly—and concluded that the kidney, thus exposed, was the most obvious target: that was where he could do the greatest damage.

Third, I noticed that the blow did not sting. It hurt. It sent a sharp impulse of energy—like an electric thread—from the point of impact straight to my stomach.

There was a fourth thing. The policeman did not leave. He hit me again. This, I admit, surprised me. I thought I had fooled them. Then he hit me again. This, inevitably, surprised me less. Then he hit me again. This was no surprise at all. By the time he had hit me five times, I realized that he was not going to leave. He was going to stand over me, taking his time, lifting his truncheon, aiming it and then smashing my kidney. Each blow went to the same spot, the kidney. And each one, I found, hurt just as much as the one that came before it.

There was a fifth thing. Not only was this policeman not going to leave, but he was to be joined by a colleague. This did not make sense—why waste another policeman on me, when there were so many people still to beat up?—but the temptation must have been too great: here, on the ground, showing little resistance, was a perfectly adequate specimen, even if a bit fat. He couldn’t pass it up. The second policeman went for my head. My head was covered by my hands, and I remember thinking: although it hurts having my hands smashed up, I am grateful that I thought to cover my head with my hands because I would not want to see my head smashed up. The second policeman really wanted to see my head smashed up. I infer this from the damage he inflicted upon my hands—each knuckle was colourfully bruised, except for one, which was both bruised and broken. I believe his intention was to smash up my fingers so badly that finally I would pull my hands away—thus exposing an expanse of skull—so that he could then smash up my head. After a while, he gave up on the smashing-the-fingers tactic and took to pulling them away, grabbing my fingers with one hand, while pummelling the intermittently exposed bit of skull with his other.

The two policemen were soon joined by a colleague. It was getting pretty crowded, but there were still my shoulders. They became the concern of the third policeman. His real concern, I concluded after examining the bruising, was not the shoulders as such; he was trying to get to the collar-bone. He, too, was trying to move me around with his free hand, so he could get a clear view of his target; it was the snap-crackle-pop sound that he was after, the one the collar-bone makes when it breaks in half.

All of this was exceptionally painful, as would be expected, but my experience of it was different from that of the others who were being beaten up. Their experience was one of simple pain. For me, it was more complicated, because I knew that I would be writing about it. While being beaten up, I was thinking about what it was like being beaten up. I was trying to retain the details, knowing that I would need them later. I thought for instance that this experience was not so different from the one I had witnessed in Turin several years before when a Juventus fan, who had also surrendered, was beaten up by a number of Manchester United supporters. I thought of the fact that I could even think of this coincidence and marvelled at the human mind’s capacity to accommodate so many different things at once. And I thought about that, the fact that, while being beaten up, I could think about the human mind’s capacity to accommodate so many different things at once. I thought about the expenses I had incurred and was grateful that I was going to get something out of this trip after all. But mainly I was thinking about the pain. It was unlike anything I had known and I wanted to remember it.

The beatings went on so long that I was convinced the police would have to stop from exhaustion. But they didn’t let up, and after a while the blows blurred together and became one terribly loud crashing noise. I felt explosions of energy and, up and down my body, a long, protracted sensation of heat. It burned the way a fire burns—hot, hot, hot. I want to say it was a white heat, but only because I was seeing white. My vision was intermittently lost and I saw white flashes. These flashes seemed to emanate from the points where I was hit, as if some network of nerves had become overcharged and was carrying too much sensation.

As the beatings continued, I grew a little worried. I did not think that my kidney could sustain this much punishment and I was resigned to spending the night in an Italian hospital. I noticed that I was breathing very heavily. I was gasping for air but unable to get any. Why did I need more oxygen—what body function, in an experience so inherently passive, was requiring it? The need for air increased; it was imperative; I had to have it. Suddenly I felt that I was going to suffocate, and this made me angry and I stood up and wanted to fight back, but the moment I raised myself up I was hit across the forehead and I blocked one truncheon with my arm but was hit across the forehead again and then on my chin. I was astonished by the intensity of feeling that I saw on the faces of the policemen. It would have been impossible for me to communicate with them, to convey something powerful enough to counter the strength of their hatred. I was not a human being. I was some kind of object, some thing. Strangely, I thought of myself as a fact, one that they wanted to hurt, and I dropped back to the ground and curled up and covered my head, and one policeman went for my kidney, and another went for my head, and another went for my shoulders. I had lost interest in wanting to describe this experience, except that I briefly recall noting that I had lost interest in wanting to describe it. The experience then became something I wanted to end. But it didn’t end. I don’t know how much longer it went on. I don’t know what happened next. I had ceased to be a person writing about it. My next memory is that finally it ended. It was over. It had stopped because there was no one left to beat up.

Afterwards, I noticed little except my pain. I ran round in circles and went from one side of the street to the other. I couldn’t stand still. My body was full of a sharp electric stinging, and I was trying to shake it out but it wouldn’t go away. Slowly I started to take in what had happened.

2012 Stories : The Reading Flow

This is a delta t post (t is time chunk in life). As in description of a chosen period of life (chosen by self/writer, also specific variables chosen to be talked about, others specifically not delved in) instead of a dt/t post, which is a dip of a random moment in time (the moment at which it is written, a complete check up, so to say of all/some life variables) . The intention of the 2012 Stories bit is to write a few delta t stories. Because come to think of it, everything that I have done in my professional life, it has always been building of a delta t narrative. Why not apply that to a personal narrative once in a while too?

See, I’m an honest story teller. I’ll be out with the hook of this story right away. In a period of 30 consecutive days in this year, starting 20 Oct, I read up ten books. That is it.

That time period has been randomly chosen, as are the figures of 10 and 30 (What? It is not a deca metric system world!). I read a lot of books before that period (yes immediately before too) and have read three more since. There was wilful cheating involved too. I had realised 20 days into the period that I have read 6 books, and I pushed myself to read 4 more in the next 10 (and wilfully chose books with thickness 200-250 pages, not more). Also one of the books is a book of poems that I read in less than half hour. So well why? Because it makes a good delta t narrative. I think.

Two of the books were non-fiction (the second and third) and the rest were fiction. One was a book of poems (the one I was hesitant about including here). The books were chosen randomly (whichever next caught my eye). So what was common in that selection? I read all of them on my 3.7 inch Motorola phone. Yes, take a deep breath. I am not making it a point point. Now is not the time of head-shaking and blah-blah and this or that (there will be time for it later *). This is just the only common variable in the list, I read them all on my phone. Let’s move on.

A small note about me through the month. Dussehra and Diwali fell during that period. I had gone on a ride to Shivanasamudra falls, and onwards to Mysore to see  the festivities at Mysore Dasera (we didn’t, too tired after the ride, we slept through the afternoon and woke up after all the festivities were over). I also went over to Pune for NH7, a five day trip. The point being that reading was not obsessively being pursued over other distractions.

Meanwhile, here’s the list of the books.

  1. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.
  2. Opium Fiend by Steven Martin.
  3. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.
  4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
  5. City of Thieves by David Benioff.
  6. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.
  7. Skios by Michael Frayn.
  8. I could pee on this by Francesco Marciuliano.
  9. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.
  10. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I have read parts of other books through this period too, most notably Lord of the Rings, and Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks.  They are still on my Currently Reading list.

1. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.

This was the book that took the longest to finish, six days, and even before that was involved in two false starts, and the one that incensed me the most. Enough for me to write Narcopolis is a bad trip and Jeet Thayil wants it that way. My reflection on the book,

I feel a bit more kindly towards Narcopolis (very little) after finishing it, in the sense that perhaps I now understand what he was trying to do, also comprehension has dawned as to why the hullaboo off shores about this book. Like the amazing Chinaman last year, which mimics the stages of a cricket test match, even the way in which the writing guides the reader into a certain mind state through the book. One gets it, this is what Jeet Thayil is out to do, this is one long pull off an opium pipe – that is how one gets guided into the book, a prologue of one sentence. A seven page long sentence. And that is the best piece of writing in the book. In that, it sets up everything, your possible reactions, how you should read it (slow, repeated puffs). And that is how the book is constructed. If you took a good, long puff at the prologue, you would be well into the narrative (if you can call it that) before you realize that this isn’t a very good trip after-all. That is why the continued bewilderment of where the narrative is going, continued chapters – pages after pages of disembodied dreams, disconnected from everything, just a vague bloody fog page after page. What the fuck is happening? What am I reading about? Didn’t I just lay down in a khana in Shuklaji Street with an Opium pipe? Why am I reading about this Chinese man? Where the fuck did he come from? And it irritated me. The fact that that is not a random occurence. That the author knows the lay mind’s connection between opium and china. So just like that, that is a major character. Whether you like it or not. You have just taken a puff of opium and you don’t like what is happening to you. You are not supposed to. You don’t like these dreams, and these vague shapes, and this dirtiness, and there’s a whore, and she’s a hijra, and oh fuck the shame, here take a puff, this is so literary and raw.

Excerpt begins from Chapter 4 : Mr. Lee’s Lessons in Living

[Lee dreams] Then he heard drums, jungle drums, and he thought of witch doctors and the image of the great junk faded to violet mist. He heard the sound of surf and he heard someone speaking or cursing in Hindi. Your mother’s cunt, the voice said. Or the voice was saying someone’s name, Marky Chu.”

Excerpt ends.

I understand why to the lay and uninitiated foreign reviewer, the below would seem to be the case. (this sentence is the first thing that google flashes at you if you punch in Narcopolis)

“Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated.”

Subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. Gulp! Definitely going to be a couple of sessions called that in the next year’s Jaipur Literature Festival.

These are dirty, ugly characters with nothing to flesh them out from each other. Random chapters start with a different “I”, protagonists move from page to page before you can say uh, hello and one doesn’t feel any different in inhabiting a different character from one page to another. One doesn’t really care either. Oh the motherfucker is dreaming again. And yes, he/she/it is high, and the dreams must mean something.

A character in the book gets one another addicted to a new maal called Chemical. It is garad (dusted heroin, brown) that the local dealers mix with rat poison. The strychnine in it is what gives you the real kick. It’s the shit, in that the first sampler just dies, boom.

For the lack of a better word imagery, that is what this book feels like to me. Very artificial. Very Chemical. Not organic. Not felt. But constructed. That is the feeling I get. Of pretense. Of slimy pretense. For aggrandizing and self profiting. It is a carefully constructed book, however it doesn’t take out my initial and continuing distaste with the writing. It is carefully constructed for a reason, to appeal to a certain populist wildness. While one might rightfully argue that fiction has a right to be well, Chemical and they would be right.

I still do not feel empathetic towards the writing, nothing for the characters, not even disgust, just nothing. Immediately after finishing the book this morning (I had a little tenderness in me for the book by then, well constructed that it was), I returned back to the beginning and read the prologue again and skimmed through most of the first half of the book again, now that I knew how the plot went by the end. Still, nothing. Just a bad trip. And Jeet Thayil knows it is a bad trip, and he wants it to be a bad trip because aren’t dirty bad trips set in Bombay literary? Oh my, here, take another puff.

But the primary reason I am pissed about Narcopolis is that it takes the name of Bombay in vain.  More here.

2. Opium Fiend : A 21st century slave to a 19th century addiction by Steven Martin.

I picked this book up as a counter-point to being disgusted with the writing in Narcopolis. At about 430 pages, this was the thickest of the list. With its disaffected narrative, this was also the most brilliant to have been put to words, an awe pervaded towards the author by the end. This was an absolute pleasure to read, the best reading experience amongst this list of ten, even perhaps amongst the top few in the year (and I have read a lot this year). Here is an excerpt from the book, the first chapter that I reproduced on my blog. My reaction to the book:

MIND FUCKED! This is an amazing book, the obsessive and meticulous and honest and intelligent memoirs of a SANE guy. The opium is an ever present backdrop, but this is essentially the author’s story felt and what a bloody story! The writing is masterful and very, very engaging, in that he explains his pleasures, his fascinations, and he builds them up, like he felt them, like he experienced them, down to some specific texture his fingers experienced, it is an enchanting experience reading this book. I very highly recommend it.

This is a FANTASTIC book! I wish if and when I write my own memoirs, I could use a tone as disaffected, engaging and unhurried as the author in here. This is an amazing racy read even without opium fascination. If you are, however, interested in opium, the paraphernalia and the customs and the whole hog, there isn’t a more detailed book written on the subject (so says the author after diligent research.I believe him.)

3. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

I had a personal experience in my life, quite recently, inspired by this book (I plan to write another 2012 Story on that, shall link it here after that is done – here it is). While undergoing that experience, and it was pretty painful, all I could think of were words from this book, quite surprising for that moment in time. Here’s an excerpt from the book. Here is what I wrote immediately after finishing the book.

“Among the thugs” is both a very fun and a very funny book, surprising since the premise is football(fan) violence, which quickly moves on to crowd behavior. Buford is a witty writer and his pace is frantic and electric. He spends quite a bit of time expounding his theme and thoughts but without ever sounding preachy or “learned”.

Bill Buford spent about five years (gonzo) researching crowds, their motivations and reasons for sudden spontaneous, meaningless violence and vandalism. By the end of it, he is sickened by the subject as well as the time he wasted (his words) on it. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable book to read. He mentions that all previous literature on crowds is from the perspective of the victims, of a moment delta t in time when “something happened” because of the crowd. What has always been missing is the perspective from inside the crowd, of how it got together, how the adrenaline builds up, the myths about crowd “leadership” (A leader doesn’t make a crowd, a crowd makes a leader). The way Buford writes about the process of a crowd building up to the point where “it will go off” is breathless(and he does it repeatedly, again and again, at different events, different crowds).

I would highly recommend this book if you are looking for something “different” to read. It has certainly aided my understanding of crowd behavior, and in quite an entertaining turn of prose.

4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

This was perhaps not a random pick up. I had an eye on the movie that was about to release, and I wanted to read this before I saw the movie. I had started this twice before, but had got lost in the initial meetings and Mamaji and so on. This time however (flow maybe?), I finished it off in one breath (figuratively, dear reader, figuratively). Needless to say, I loved the read, and yes, I felt that the book was better than the movie, more entertaining even (though the movie was visually beautiful). It did not make me believe in God by the end, and I still haven’t got that bit (the improbability of survival attributed to existence of god, perhaps?), but I loved the young Pi Patel bits in the book. My immediate reaction to the book was a succinct

Waah Waah!

5. City of Thieves by David Benioff.

This was one of the most delightfully weird books I have read this year, completely unexpected, and one with an enlightened sense of humor. You could call it black humor, hell.. you could call this book a lot of things, and yet I don’t think it would do justice to this reading experience. Here is what I tried saying.

This is a beautifully weird book! Leningrad is under seige in war torn europe. There is no food in the city, nothing, since September! People melt the gum from book spines and sell/eat for the proteins. In that bleak setting, our protagonists are out searching for a dozen eggs.It would be sad if I used tired cliches to describe this wildly original book, so let me think of a movie that comes close to this mood. The first one that I was reminded of was “Life is beautiful”, but “City of Thieves” is not half as cheesy. Ah, Zombieland! Yes, that would describe the dominant mood and milieu perfectly. This is a buddy book, a journey book, a war book, a coming of age book, weird and beautiful at the same time.
It would make an evocative graphic novel. You (the “I” in the book) are a puny, seventeen year old virgin boy in war sieged St. Pietersburg. Hunger, propaganda and patriotism abound all around, when you meet a suave charmer called Kolva, and get on to a mission to get a dozen eggs for a wedding cake. The city hasn’t seen eggs (or chicken or any other food for that matter) in a long, long time and it is a fool’s errand.

I have never read anything like this. I would heartily recommend it. It’s quite a light read despite the subject.

6. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.

I didn’t like this much, though I really wanted to (moment in time, right book at the right time?). Alas. This is what I felt when I was done reading it.

This one’s a A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, and not a good one at that (the movie’s better).

The book runs you through nine short stories and nine women (none of who I would ever want to be dating, seriously). In fact, the apathy towards the characters extends to such a level that I felt good every-time one of the girls would take his ass, or vice-versa for that matter, they deserve this shit, you think. The book does showcase the Dominican way of life, in a distracted sort of way, but literary merit? In something that is fun and games and assholery and dear diary? I could choke on some of the reviews written here for this book.

A strictly okay read, on the face interesting only because breakups are the subject.

7. Skios by Michael Frayn.

Read in the moment. Very Wodehousian (stripped down). My reaction after reading the book.

Skios is a farce (right then); a good, old-fashioned potatoes-&-meat kind of dependable old world humor, nothing too exotic (despite this being on a greek island), just mistaken identities, people tripping over this and that, co-incidences, and ex-girlfriends and current crushes meeting, and midnight rendezvous going crazy, two greek taxi drivers (brothers!!) going back and forth, very Wodehousian and everything coming all together in a giant climax.

This is a very easy read, keeps you sniggering and interested through the book and piles on loads of genteel humor, something rare to find these days.

I had not heard of Michael Frayn before Skios (I am gloriously uninformed), but I am definitely looking to read more books/plays by him.

8. I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano.

This is the only one I am guilty about putting here, a sort of making up the numbers. Ideally, Nine Parts of Desire would have been here instead of this, but I haven’t still finished it. My “review”.

Can’t believe I read this all the way (in twenty minutes). The disbelief is not upon reading this quickly, but upon finding me reading

1. A “Cat” book.
2. A “Poems” book.

Ah well.

9. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

I wrote a lot after reading this book (twice too, the first time my internet connection ate up the unsaved words), and I was pissed at the book too, part of the reason was certainly being that I expected it to be a breezy, quick read (Stream of consciousness, hello?), and it took every bit of my self resolve to plod through it after a point. Here, just read what I wrote,

I am not the intended target reader of the book, and I speak this not as an Indian, though this monologue is indeed given to an American (and hence to a dumb cliche employed who doesn’t understand cultural diversity). I say that with respect to the story that the author has unloaded on to the reader. The narrator is an author surrogate, down to the Princeton education, the management consultancy job, etc. etc. I would wager to suggest that most of the experiences come from the author’s autobiographical bouquet.

The author frequently tries to shock the reader with simplicities – Look I have a beard, but I can speak flawless English and I am polite, Look I am a Pakistani fundamentalist but I have fucked an American, Look I am a produce of Princeton and million dollar salaries but I am anti-american in my heart – I smiled when the twin towers went down. I can understand why Americans would have a hard-on about this, but this doesn’t work if you are not a Westerner, or if you have been a little been-there or done that (or if you yourself have a beard).

Despite the illusion of it’s thin-ness, it took me about four times longer (than expected) to finish this book. It wouldn’t ever engage long enough, and it’s ranting at times sounded dated and childish. The book is a polemic against American policies in/against Pakistan sandwiched within a thinly veiled “love story”. I put that under quotes because it is a fucked up love story. I can see who it has been aimed at. The guy is smartest in his batch at Princeton (he is hungry for success, you see), but is basically a virgin, and hence his unsure non-threatening ways are seen as gentlemanly by the american girl. The girl is in love with a dead ex-lover and won’t forget him. Every time they meet, she is like Oh Chris (the dead guy), and I am like Chris ki maa ki choot. I have met people with both the above afflictions and both types have been unbearable as company. To have these as main characters in your book only suggests a personal connection, otherwise I cannot imagine voluntarily spending time with such chutiya characters (but nevertheless exotic to western readers).

The protagonist would suck Uncle Sam’s cock as long as it takes to reach the million dollar salary and then feel guilt and angst and self hatred at working the job. This is an oft repeated motif across generations of NRI (or P) kids, everyone feels they are selling their soul for financial gain while not considering personal goals and that is so painful and boo hoo hoo. Oh so brave of you to quit it all.

I am sick of reading this shit and I am sick of the gusto with which the same is lapped up every time. Everyone needs something for their Saturday night (tear) drinking sessions while bitching about their corporate chains and how they are wasting their lives.

I was quite pissed by the end of this book, especially with passages that perpetuate the myth of a victimized and innocent Pakistan instead of providing an insider perspective. The insider perspective is limited to what food is available in Lahore, or how Jasmines smell nice here.

Sample for example this passage (and there are many like this through the book) which in essence state that all Pakistani problems are either due to America or India. What I find amazing is that never for a moment, not for a sentence, not for a whiff of thought is the idea ever presented that Pakistani society/government could also have some role to play in this fucked up charade. And this is the educated view!

Excerpt:
“A common strand appeared to unite these conflicts, and that was the advancement of a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of the fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers. I recognized that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species, then the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage. This, I reasoned, was why America felt justified in bringing so many deaths to Afghanistan and Iraq, and why America felt justified in risking so many more deaths by tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan.”

No, I do not believe you can opt to stay out of conflict while living in a conflict zone. That is wishful and stupid thinking. You are implicated even if you do nothing; especially if you do nothing as a society.

I am quite the Mohsin Hamid fan, judging from my reaction to his first book Moth Smoke, but this one sorely lacks the poetry of his first effort, and instead chooses to play upon the hackneyed insecurities of the average western reader. Judging by the general reaction to the book, he has succeeded, and that’s a shame.

10. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I have not written a review of this book yet. This moody, quirky massage of a book was the one that soaked into me. It stayed with me, like a thick atmosphere around me while I was reading it, and I kept talking about it to people, long detailed descriptions that just fucked me up in their laid back style. I haven’t felt like that since The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I have been meaning to see the movie for years now, and I have always put it off for some reason or the other. I downloaded it the night after finishing the book. But still haven’t seen it, because I know it wouldn’t/cannot be as good as the book. These words in your head build up such a sick atmosphere that any amount of visualization would totally kill. I know it.

—————-

*

Notes:

There it is then. The ten books in a month story. Now a few footnotes on equipment, technique, flow and this and that.

Equipment and Technique:

My phone, the one on which these shenanigans have been done, is the 3.7 inch screener Motorola Defy. This is no doubt the device that stays with me the most, almost always, is with me just before I fall asleep, I can read on it when the lights are off (critical score). More importantly, I am not scared of breaking it, or am never too careful with it in the loo/shower.

The tension free Defy.

The tension free Defy.

A Kindle was one of the first purchases I made earlier this year. That purchase, along with discovering Goodreads the website created a spurt in my accumulation/reading. Also, I have been in Bangalore and have access to Blossoms, perhaps the best second hand bookstore in India. So as far as obsession is concerned, it was well stoked and humoured throughout. Sometimes (lot of times), I would buy the paper version of the book, load it up on my kindle and on my phone, and would just move from one to another on whim and want (though I would tend to stick to one version after I was into the book). I have done this for a lot of books this year, and I have not noticed any preference for any particular device. Reading in one form tends to encourage further reading in the same. This is especially true because for me, I think, reading on the phone becomes an everyday seamless thing instead of discrete items as in the case of books.

There have been a few books which would have been impossible to read but on the Kindle. The % of book read feature is a very comforting, essential even for trudging through a few “classics” this year.

The Big Fucking Mobile Library

The Big Fucking Mobile Library

Numbers, Ratios and Flow.

I have read a lot of books this year. Not only more books this year than any other year, but it feels more than all the books I have ever read (I am exaggerating for effect), certainly some of the most important books I have ever read (a lot of those that had been getting pushed endlessly plus the discovery of David Simon). At the wee end of the year, it feels I hadn’t been reading before at all. As a comparison from a previous year – 2005-2006 in this case because I remember the numbers from that year, my first year of earning a salary. I had bought 72 books in  that first year of having my own money. I read 4 in that time.

Goodreads has this self imposed Reading Challenge feature that you can set for yourself. At the start of the year, I had set it at a highly ambitious (for me) 25 for the year. As of today, my count for the year is 37, with me confident of polishing off another 5-6 before the year ends.

This was not something I came out to achieve, reading hasn’t been a target activity for me, nor have I obsessed over it for long. There have been entire months where I haven’t touched a book. I think there are two things responsible for this – the reading flow (the more I read, the more I want to read), and the almost unlimited and immediate ability to get any book in the world at the moment you desire it, online. The latter still feels magical and beats every other advantage of a “real book” for me. But the point is not to diss any particular form over another. The point is that reading has been a pleasure this year, almost as if I have discovered it for the first time.