Sunday, May 15, 2011

Craven retrieval

It wasn’t just sad when 46-year-old David Foster Wallace hanged himself on the porch of his house in Claremont, California, in fall 2008. It was a blow. Here was a man who rebuilt the skyline of American literary fiction in 1996 with his 1,079-page doorstopper Infinite Jest. His journalism for various publications is equally breathtaking. The Pale King is his posthumous work that has been assiduously brought together by Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown and Company and Mr Wallace’s longtime editor.

The book is essentially about agents at an IRS Regional Examination Centre in the leafy town of Peoria (Illinois) during the Reagan era. Like every slow-moving bureaucracy, here too paperwork comes to die and, over a period of time, so do the souls of humans working here. Abiding by the dictum of “if you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish”, the agents pore over the tax code’s minutiae day in and day out.

While the book talks about people in fragments, the plot tends to be unclear, though Mr Wallace’s widow Karen Green said his notebook mentioned that “an evil group within the IRS is trying to steal the secrets of an agent who is particularly gifted at maintaining a heightened state of concentration”. Lane Dean Jr, Claude Sylvanshine, David Cusk, Chris Fogle and Leonard Stecyk form the book’s dramatis personae apart from David Foster Wallace (not to be confused with the writer, as he reminds us over and over), a newly arrived trainee at IRS. Although each character sketch would qualify as a gripping novella, all of them cohere to make The Pale King a page-turner. Apparently, Mr Wallace spent a year taking accounting classes to prepare himself for the book, hence the onslaught of Illinois tax code’s snippets. During the course of reading the book, I had to take two hot showers to come to terms with Mr Wallace’s fascination with trivia. Here’s what a reader has to grasp quickly: “Revenue Procedure 74-17 announces certain operating rules of the Service relating to the issuance of advance ruling letters concerning the classification of organisations formed as limited partnerships.”

Mr Wallace started writing the book around the same time he gave that perceptive commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 where he said, “Life is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” It’s this depression, ennui, ambivalence, whatever, that seems to have driven Mr Wallace to suicide. These are the same themes that recur in The Pale King too. You have a pretty woman providing the details of her brief stay at a mental asylum to a relatively unknown colleague, a couple of agents talking about their mirthless weekend as if the Super Bowl happened in their backyard, another agent reminiscing about his dead father in the drab tone of a sports commentator and yet another who subconsciously counts the number of words that he is speaking. There’s also an elaborate description of the architecture of the run-of-the-mill IRS buildings.

Unlike Infinite Jest and his journalism, Mr Wallace’s trademark footnotes don’t run a riot in The Pale King. But that’s hardly a quibble considering his prose, which is not for the faint-hearted, is intact. Here’s a sample of the rather graphic story of a kid who wants to “be able to press his lips to every square inch of his body”, which you might either find beguiling or enough to provoke a four-aspirin headache: “The insides of the small boy’s thighs up to the medial fork of his groin took months even to prepare for, daily hours spent cross-legged and bowed, slowly and incrementally stretching the long vertical fasciae of his back and neck, the spinalis thoracis and levator scapulae, the iliocostalis lumborum all the way to the sacrum, and the interior thigh’s dense and intransigent gracilis, pectineus, and adductor longus, which fuse below Scarpa’s triangle and transmit sickening pain through the pubis whenever their range of flexibility is exceeded.”

While reading The Pale King there were quite a few moments when I imagined how Mr Wallace could have expanded his literary tentacles if he were alive today. My reference point is Infinite Jest where he was too busy trying to be avant-garde, post-structural and, as he told to Jonathan Franzen, “linguistically calisthenic”. While all these elements are alive and kicking in The Pale King, Mr Wallace appears more at peace with himself. In Infinite Jest, Mr Wallace was obsessed with savaging the corporate culture of America (so much so that he christened every year belonging to a certain product) but in The Pale King his X-ray focus is on baby boomers, who are fit for recruitment into the IRS after the Vietnam War.

According to Aristotle, we are what we do. According to Mr Wallace, we are what we endure. At time, however, Mr Wallace’s ontological despair tends to get wearisome. For example, chapter 25 is all about various agents turning pages in their respective files. But this is hardly a Faustian pact compared to the enchanting storytelling of which Wallace is capable.

David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company
944 pages; Rs 1,120

El Classicos galore

I’ve always been a late bloomer. Heard Beatles at an age when people usually graduate to jazz, started watching French cinema even after those living under the rock and read ‘Corrections’ at least four years late. While I’ve taken these things in my stride, I couldn’t reconcile with the fact that I came to know about El Classico this late in my life.

From April 17-May 3, four Real Madrid-Barcelona games were to be watched. Comparing it to India-Pakistan cricket matches will be a huge disservice and facetious to the Spanish teams.
The history attached to these teams is way too much and intricate to encapsulate into a blog post. It would be suffice to say that barring El Salvador-Honduras football game (Ryszard Kapuscinski’s ‘Soccer War’ is a brilliant piece of reportage on this), El Classico is the greatest sporting tie, ever. With Jose Mourinho at the helm of Madrid affairs, I knew that these four games will be high on testosterone. The way things panned out, they exceeded my wildest expectations.

Last November, Madrid received a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Barcelona and a fusillade of, rather premature, obituaries were written out how a team full of superstars (Ronaldo, Kaka for the starters) is not a patch on the proponents of ‘beautiful game’. April 17 was the second leg of La Liga and the game sailed by to a satisfactory 1-1 draw. Next game was the Copa Del Rey final and a beautiful Cristiano Ronaldo brace in the extra-time ended Barca’s chances of a treble this season. These two games were just a prelude to the opera called UEFA Champions League semi-final.

A barrage of soccer invectives were exchanged between Mourinho and Pep Guardiola (Barcelona’s manager) prior to the game and they only intensified after the game. Barcelona have been accused of playacting, a neologism for the way Barcelona’s players feigned fouls and fell to the ground. The game touched its nadir when Pepe was sent off for what looked like a typical football tackle on Dani Alves. Reduced to ten men and that too without Pepe, who was pretty successful in marking Lionel Messi, Madrid were barely hanging to the game when the final straw came in the form of two successive goals. If that wasn’t enough, further salt was sprinkled onto Madrid’s wounds by UEFA for banning Mourinho from the stadium for the second leg for his comments on Barcelona’s style of playing.

With an insane advantage of two away goals, Barcelona had to just defend itself during the second leg of the semi-final. Defend they did but if not for a disallowed goal at the 47th minute, Barcelona would still be smarting from a bitter defeat. While Gonzalez Higauin was at the cusp of converting a Ronaldo pass, Javier Mascherano fell to the ground in controversial circumstances (he allegedly faked an injury) and from there on the game ended in a tame 1-1 draw.

At the end of four El Classicos, I was reminded of what Kingsley Amis thought of someone who just got initiated into P G Wodehouse: “What a lucky beggar! Just think of the fun he’s going to have reading all those other books for the first time.” This late-bloomer thing really tastes bittersweet.

Geeks shall inherit the earth

One look at the well-illustrated jacket of Angela Saini’s Geek Nation: How Indian science is taking over the world and all those “Emerging India” clichés popped up in my mind: a booming software industry, fresh-out-of-college graduates earning more than their dads, a technological brain drain that has been manna from heaven for US, UK and other developed countries. After reading the book, I stand corrected, more or less.

“It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” is a statement that is included in the Indian Constitution on the insistence of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Saini, a UK-based award-winning science journalist, spends six months on the Indian soil to see for herself if Nehru’s unflagging patronisation of the sciences bore any fruit six decades later. Her first stop happens to be the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, one of the 16 institutes that Nehru envisioned would, in Saini’s words, “train up an army of innovative young engineers, who would be the country’s first generation of technocrats, researchers and inventors”.

She expected the college to be a sort of an academic Woodstock where intellectual curiosity and innovation will be in the air. It turns out to be borderline academic dystopia. Students’ sole intent seems to be getting marks and landing a cushy job. Anything that “won’t help them pass their engineering exams, they don’t want to know”. “All I can see are drones” is how she expresses her despair. Another sacred cow that Saini slays is this new-fangled thing called the “IT boom”. Indian computer science engineers are increasingly becoming the backbone of every tech company that mushrooms in developed countries, with salaries that are hardly rivalled elsewhere in any other sector in the country. This lemonade stand is turned into a chain by companies like Infosys, Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services and so on. On her visit to a couple of IT companies in Bangalore, which is unnecessarily dubbed the “Silicon Valley of India”, Saini could see through the nebula: “Lucrative though it is, most of the work done in Bengaluru tends to be day-to-day maintenance and routine software development.”

While Saini’s technological insight might be questionable, she compensates for it with her excellent journalistic skills. She’s not starry-eyed, doesn’t mind burning a few formidable bridges for the sake of truth and always takes facts with a fistful of salt. She doesn’t balk at painting an almost unflattering, and accurate, portrait of Infosys chairman N R Narayana Murthy. At his penchant for calling his employees “Infoscians”, she says the term sounds “as if they were scions of some great, dynastic family”.

With one-third of the book resembling a Swiss Army Knife, Saini only builds on it by checking on India’s geek quotient during pre-historic times. She pores over Vaimanika Shashtra, a scientific paper written in the early 20th century, which contained, among other things, descriptions of real aircraft that existed thousands of years ago. It’s these nuggets of information that give Geek Nation an intelligent heft. Like a true journalist, Saini places both sides of the story in a dispassionate manner. While she respects the common populace’s belief that Ganesh idols really drank milk, she takes on board the opinion of the general secretary of the Indian Rationalist Association: “One that is modern, with science and another India that is living in the Middle Ages.” Saini achieves a fair amount of success when she talks about this modern India through a genetically modified banana, a lie detector that would put truth serum to shame and a possible panacea for tuberculosis. But her use of pat phrases and blanket assumptions does jar at times. While it’s true that “the Indian government spends under $200 million on all of the IITs, equivalent to just eight per cent of the annual budget of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US”, Saini discounts the fact that India is still an emerging economy and has a lot of catching up to do. In a chapter titled “Geeks Rule”, she talks about how embracing technology has helped untangle bureaucratic red tape. While it might be true that e-filing will help reduce paperwork, it’s foolhardy to expect that the process cannot be stretched in the infamous Indian courts. Saini happily buys this notion that the e-mitra kiosk that she sees in Jaipur, where people can pay all their bills online, if replicated all over the country will be a boon to the populace. She somehow fails to factor in the fact that corruption is all-pervasive in government offices and the employees will always find ingenious ways to extract a bribe.

In all fairness, Geek Nation still manages to make for a very good read and that’s only because Saini treats her subject matter with care. In a chapter titled “Brainpower” she pays a visit to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and gives hitherto unknown insight into India’s nuclear capabilities. A thorium reactor that is being designed will put an end to India’s energy problems, for once and all. At a time when science writing is beset by arid literature, Saini’s writing gives her already interesting premise a masterful and penetrating feel.

How Indian Science Is Taking Over The World
Angela Saini
288 pages; Rs 499