Thursday, July 07, 2011

Junk Bond

Here’s a pop quiz. What’s common to these writers: Kingsley Amis, John Pearson, Sebastian Faulks, John Gardner and Raymond Benson? After the death of Ian Fleming, the creator of the James Bond series, all of them have written at least one Bond book. It’s a glowing testimony to Fleming’s Zen-like focus on the world’s deadliest fictional spy that none of these writers saw their books made into movies. The Fleming estate continues to gamble and this time it is American thriller veteran Jeffery Deaver who writes the latest Bond book.

In keeping with current world politics and cultural mores, Bond’s enemies are no longer the Soviets (if anything, the new ones are to be found in the Tora Bora caves), he totes an iPhone and has this new-mannish sensitivity of avoiding sex. What’s more, no fist fights and cliff-hanging either. I wouldn't mind if you asked whether we are talking about Jason Bourne or James Bond. As you see, this is less of a renaissance and more of a recrudescence of Bond.

Carte Blanche opens in Belgrade with a train full of methyl isocyanate (of the Bhopal gas tragedy notoriety) almost being derailed. Bond averts the sabotage but is intrigued by the motives of a dead-eyed villain, Niall Dunne. Back in London, then gearing up for the Olympics, Bond traces Dunne’s antecedents to Severan Hydt, the owner of Green Way, a garbage disposal company.

Meanwhile, an Operation Gehenna in the making is reported by Government Communications Headquarters, a UK agency that collects and analyses foreign signals intelligence. The attack scheduled for three days later might leave thousands of casualties, including, yes, the British.

Bond, the nifty dot connector, tracks Dunne and Hydt to Dubai then Cape Town, where a not-so-cracking denouement awaits the reader. In between, Bond assumes a different identity to gain entrance into Hydt’s lair, which is certainly going beyond Green Way’s motto: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The ruse that Bond adopts to gain Hydt’s confidence is a stroke of genius. Calling himself Gene Theron – spoiler alert! – he masquerades as a mercenary who supplies troops and arms to the despots of war-ravaged countries.

Deaver involves a handful of other characters to lend Bond’s mission vim and vigour. Ophelia Maidenstone is his pointswoman in London, Bheka Jordaan is his partner-in-crime (pun intended, unfortunately) in Cape Town; and there’s Bond’s love interest Felicity Willing, who intends to put a stop to the horrible practice of “foreign-owned megafarms forcing their way into third-world nations and squeezing out the local farmers”.

Being a Bond devotee, Deaver is able to maintain the tight pace of the story with staccato writing and he does manage to capture Bond’s typical derring-do style. But a Bond book is not so much about the destination as the journey. Right off the bat I can list the trademark Bond tics that are missing in the Deaver avatar — obsessive-compulsive tendencies, depression and a tinge of S&M.

The problem is that Deaver tries to touch all the familiar Bond bases but doesn’t really succeed. For instance, Hydt comes across as convincingly feral in the beginning but he doesn’t do much after that and ends up being as generic a villain as they come. Also, many of the hallmarks of the series are missing — especially the quirky inventions (the use of the ejector seat to upturn the Aston Martin in Die Another Day) and neatly judged humour (Bond straightens his tie while submerged in the Thames during the boat chase in The World Is Not Enough).

Of course, Deaver has managed to invest his Bond with a sense of humour as dry as the martini (“shaken not stirred”) that he famously favours. During a fight in a basement that is on the verge of demolition, putting Bond at risk of being buried under the detritus, he has him musing, “Not a great place to be buried alive...” When his mission is going nowhere and pressure is mounting, Deaver has him thinking: “I'm beginning to feel a bit like Lehman Brothers; my debts vastly outweigh my assets.”

The prose, however, becomes clunky in places. Examples: “you can keep secrets from those you’re close to for only so long” or “seduction in tradecraft is like seduction in love, it works best if you make the object of your desire come to you”.

Though the dialogue is trite and characters weak, Carte Blanche is not a complete downer. The author does manage to successfully recreate the Bond persona: tuxedos, fast cars and pretty women. Deaver also deserves to be appreciated for his sleight of hand in deftly handling the alphabet soup of agencies’ names.

That doesn’t mean Daniel Craig should be the leading man if Carte Blanche is made into a movie. This is a sort of the role Jason Statham should be sinking his Kevlar-like teeth into. Deal with it, Bond fans.

Jeffery Deaver
Hachette India
436 pages; Rs 499

Pitch Reports

It was a John Updike moment when VVS Laxman was about to catch the ball that deflected from Wasim Akram’s bat, which would complete Anil Kumble’s achievement of 10 wickets in an innings: “It was in the books while it was still in the air.” The latest book to chronicle that world record is journalist Amol Rajan’s Twirlymen: The Unlikely History of Cricket’s Greatest Spin Bowlers. But there’s a twist of schadenfreude to the tale here: Englishman Tony Lock was giving his team-mate Jim Laker no easy route to the 10 wickets that he would eventually take against Australia at Old Trafford in 1959. Cut to Delhi. “By the time Kumble was on his ninth, Javagal Srinath was bowling wide long hops at the other end”.

It’s anecdotes like these that give Twirlymen a brio of Eurostar. Rajan’s borderline Darwinian approach to spin bowling is the missing link between Wisden Almanacs and websites like Cricinfo. The writer charts out the history of spin bowling and how it keeps evolving with an armory of deliveries that keep befuddling the most experienced batsmen. Rajan is easily at home while discussing Clarrie Grimmett’s flipper as well as Graeme Swann’s shenanigans in the days prior to his current level-headed disposition. Be it Shane Warne’s ball of the century or Muralitharan’s helicopter twist or Saqlain Mushtaq’s doosra or Ajantha Mendis’ carrom ball, Rajan combines his journalistic chops and easy-going prose with élan. He gets down to some serious myth-busting as well: googly wasn’t invented by Englishman Bernard Bosanquet and nor was Saqlain the progenitor of doosra (England’s Jack Potter is the answer you are looking at if asked at a pub quiz). At the end of each chapter there are illustrations of how famous spin deliveries are to be delivered. Here’s a 21-gun salute to spin bowling. Lately, there has been a minor explosion of sorts in the representation of cricket in the field of arts: fiction, non-fiction and documentary.

Fire In Babylon is a delightful amble into the annals of West Indies cricket from 1975 to 1994. Circa 1975, West Indies still had the yoke of colonialism attached to its neck, and when its cricket team toured Australia, it was treated with utter disdain by the hosts. With lilting reggae soundtrack in the background, Steven Riley goes about telling the tale of the most dominating reign of a team in the history of team sports. Initially, Clive Lloyd drew first blood and then Viv Richards took over. At their peak, the pace quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner (Malcolm Marshall is to come later) have sent so many chills down batsmen spine. What used to make batsmen balk even more was the lack of protective equipment and no one-bouncer-per-over rule. With no respite coming from any end, this small clutch of islands was ruling roost over cricketing world’s imagination. Add to this the punishing blade of Richards and Gordon Greenidge. Roberts, christened as “Hit Man” in his heydays barely managed a chuckle on the field but speaks his heart out before Riley’s camera: “The sympathy is there (for the batsman) but I can’t show to the batsman.” There are more such confessions one from Greenidge, who took a long time to understand the spectre of racism during his childhood in England. It’s a fatal error to push Fire In Babylon into the facile sinkhole of sports documentary when it deals with multiple issues: racism, country politics and exorcising past ghosts.

* * *

Just like the West Indian team, Pradeep Mathew could have been the toast of Sri Lanka in the fictional tale of Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka. Here’s someone who defied conventional spin bowling techniques and went on to build up his own armory that till date remains unmatched: chinaman, googly, top spinner and an amazing arm ball. It remains uncertain whether its diffidence or arrogance but Mathew never plays his cards the way they ought to be. His open defiance of his seniors’ diktats, a chronic womaniser who doesn’t mind bit of hanky-panky in between match days, a blithe ignorance of his talent makes him an enigma. With his life never well fleshed out for public perusal, an aging sports journalist W G Karunasena, takes up the mantle of resurrecting the image of the greatest cricketer Sri Lanka never had.

Karunatilaka’s sparing prose is an unsparing take on the obstacles that have been besaddling Sri Lanka: LTTE, Tamil discrimination and xenophobia. While his liver threatens to die any moment (massive alcohol abuse does that, you know), a recalcitrant Karunasena wants to give that patina of respect to Mathew. While Rajan never gives much credence to the spinners who never made it big, Karunatilaka’s novel is a tribute to bowlers like Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Narendra Hirwani. The former had three six-wicket hauls in his first three innings and the latter hogged 16 wickets on his debut but their careers never ascended any further peaks.

Duncan Hamilton’s A Last English Summer is an unapologetic critique of the 20-20 version of cricket, which makes Kerry Packer’s World Series look like a conservative affair. Hamilton is one of those sticklers who prefer to slug it out for five days to get their cricketing kicks rather than fall for the ‘razzmatazz’. Speaking about the version’s “incalculable harm to the wider game”, Hamilton laments the “technical ability needed to bowl a long spell or vary their bowling, for example, or bat for hours, or adapt successfully to different types of pitches and conditions”. This is Hamilton’s way of doffing his hat for a game that is increasingly being perceived to be going to dogs. He travels the length and breadth of England to capture the beauty of the game: MCC v Durham fixture at Lord’s, Ashes series, Lancashire League and other local matches.

The grand-daddy of recent cricketing literature has to be Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland which was longlisted for Man Booker 2008. Hans ven den Broek, a Dutch banker, living in London and in harmony with his erstwhile briefly estranged wife and son, reminisces his past in New York when he was re-introduced to cricket through Chuck Ramkissoon, his erstwhile friend and “business associate”. O’Neill wades through some really choppy waters: the New York of 9/11, the powercut and the neo-conservativism in the air. To O’Neill’s credit, he comes up trumps and part of the credit should go to the novel’s leitmotif: cricket. In a passage he compares cricket to baseball: “…the art of batting is directed at hitting the ball along the ground with that elegant variety of strokes a skilful batsman will have spent years trying to master and preserve: the glance, the hook, the cut, the sweep, the cover drive, the pull and all those offspring of technique conceived to send the cricket ball rolling and rolling, as if by magic, to the far-off edge of the playing field.” Clearly, O’Neill did for cricket in US whhich ICC couldn’t do: make it look like art.

Breaking Bad

What would you make of a brilliant chemistry teacher, who uses his chemical expertise to churn out the purest form of methamphetamine the US state of New Mexico has ever seen? Before you jump to a conclusion, allow me to work a Nazi metaphor here: not everyone who worked at the concentration camps is evil. Walter White is diagnosed with an acute form of lung cancer and obviously his piffling teacher salary will never be a cushion for his wife, a disabled son and a soon-to-be-born daughter.

Thus, to provide for his family after his truncated life, he gets down to ‘cooking meth’ with his erstwhile not-so-bright student and currently a drug peddler-cum-junkie, Jesse Pinkman. This duo is probably television’s equivalent of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and a more menacing one at that. While White is the matter, Jesse is the anti-matter and their banter is easily the show’s greatest strength. This must be one of those few television dramas whose mise-en-scene is not contributed by the garage sale of a rich man’s mansion. Barring the household squabbles of White, rest of the action happens in the open and this is the sort of action that can give you anxiety attacks.

Apart from the lead duo, there are a bunch of other characters who could easily straddle both the worlds of David Lodge and Werner Herzog. There’s White’s tough-as-Kevlar cop brother-in-law Hank, whose psyche goes for a toss after a ghastly experience. White’s sister-in-law Marie is a kleptomaniac and is forever in a state of self-denial. Of course, there’s White’s wife Skyler, a perfect embodiment of a household dominatrix. As show progresses there are other minor but hugely memorable characters that keep giving the show its Eurostar brio. Of the three seasons, the last one has some high-octane drama that would put even Robert Rodriguez to shame.

More than anything else, this show only reignites Gore Vidal’s assessment of USA: United States of Amnesia. Here’s a show set in the sleepy town of Albuquerque where all the settings are natural and the show’s creator Vince Gilligan has a Zen-like focus on the failings of the much ballyhooed Great American Dream. This is one show that will richly recompense for whatever time you expend on it. David Foster Wallace merits to be quoted here: “Entertainment provides relief. Art provokes engagement.”

Breaking Bad is art with capital A.

PS: Fourth season begins on July 17.

Ethical downloading

“I download stuff and I ain’t ashamed of it.” I plan to inscribe this on a plain tee sometime pretty soon. I have utter disregard for those who perceive downloading movies and music as the worst form of theft. Because they take this sanctimonious stand that Intellectual Property is a holy grail, even a sensible argument will be met with a wall. I’ll however hasten a risk and list out a manifesto, which someone like me, who downloads 70 GB of unique content every month (that’s a shameless plug, I know), tends to follow.

· Never download movies that will find a release near your theatre. If you are the kind of person who downloads Kung Fu Panda-2 and critiques it on Facebook, you should be given a brief custodial sentence. Admit it, if someone confesses to be a movie buff and is busy downloading Scream 4, he or she is anything but a ‘movie buff’. I didn’t have any compunction about downloading “Hobo With a Shotgun” because I was very well aware that delicious gore wouldn’t find a theatrical release in this part of the world.

· If you really respect movies, start from Buster Keaton’s silent cinema. Then graduate to Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel, early Woody Allen, and latter Spielberg and so on. All these movies are available for downloading and you are very much justified to download these flicks. I don’t really give two monkeys about the sanitised world cinema that UTV and NDTV proffer to show in their channels. Imagine watching ‘Irreversible’ without that underground rape scene and that’s how badly they mangle movies with aesthetic sex scenes (or gratuitous for that matter) and justified swearing.

· By the way, never ever download the camera prints. Always go for the dvdrips that are available 90 days after the movie’s release.

· If downloading music is really a crime, Steve Jobs should have been Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s fellow inmate at Rikers Island. The iTunes service has already hijacked the concept of album and peddles singles to anyone willing to pay anything as low as a half-quid. Anyway, it’s an old saw that bands don’t earn money anymore from CD sales but it’s the live concerts that brings bread to their table. That means I’m exonerated, right?

· I’ll also propose institution of a system of fines to anyone found downloading downright garbag-ish sitcoms like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, et al. Star World anyway plays these shows round-the-clock, if you have such free time to expend. Instead download The Killing or Wire or Breaking Bad (PS: I refuse to believe the daft argument that one man’s Grisham is another man’s Shakespeare). What more, none of these shows are broadcast in India.

· Now the above ‘rules’ might not apply to students who depend on their parents for their daily expenses, right? That’s wrong with a capital W. If they can find enough money to buy Blackberry to frantically fiddle with the trackball and BBM sweet nothings or if they can throw flashy birthday parties at one of those over-priced fast food joints, I’m sure they can spend Rs 200 on something as rewarding as watching a movie in a dark starkly dark room where the only light is a beam from the projector. Anyway, if they are really interested in cinema, there are at least half-a dozen movie clubs that show amazing movies pro bono.

Do remember to abide by these rules and I’ll be more than happy to welcome you into this digital Ku Klux Klan. Feel free to add more ‘rules’.

Their perestroikas

When Cat Power sang “If I can make it there; I’ll make it anywhere; New York”, it’s hard to dispute the magnetic charm of this megalopolis. After reading Jennifer Egan’s marvellous fourth novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, I somehow imagined a New Yorker singing these Perfume Genius lines instead: “No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress; No one will hear all your crying until you take your last breath.”

Remaining loyal to her Zen-like focus on urban dystopia, Ms Egan starts her latest novel in a similar vein with the lead character Sasha, who doesn’t have much to look forward to in her life. This assistant to a record executive is battling a lot of demons too: kleptomania, zero love life and the inability to break the shackles of a super-bourgeoisie life. Her boss, Bennie Salazar, a former punk rocker (of a band with the cringe-worthy title Flaming Dildos), is no better: a promising rock future is cut short, as a record executive he displays a tin ear for bands of the future, he is sexually frustrated and has an adorable son whose custodial rights he doesn’t own thanks to his infidelity.

At first glance, these characters might strike the reader as bilious New York clichés but Ms Egan lends them respect with her way with words. Mulling over his current job, Salazar realises that the world couldn’t care less about meaningful music: “The problem was digitisation, which sucked the light out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!”

In brutally staccato prose, Ms Egan slowly lets us piece together the fragments of back stories encompassing unhinged lust, dysfunctional families, a love triangle, teenage angst and ridiculous levels of hipsterism well past its sell-by date. Ms Egan even writes the book’s longest chapter in the form of a Power Point presentation. This is Jonathan Franzen meets early Woody Allen meets Italo Calvino without sounding like any of them.

The back stories involve Bennie, the band’s lead guitarist Scotty, and three girls, Jocelyn, Rhea and Alice. Scotty’s heart pines for Jocelyn, she is on the verge of a romantic relationship with Lou, a biggie in the music industry. Another parallel back story happens to be that of Lou and his children. Another circle in this back story Venn diagram is that of Bennie’s first wife Stephanie and her neurotic brother Jules Jones, an erstwhile celebrity journalist.

As a connoisseur of celebrity profiles I was blown away by Jones’ profile of Kitty Jackson, yet another Hollywood ingénue. Jones, who is already disenchanted with his job, writes a brutal takedown of Jackson, which might send a chill down the spine of even seasoned celebrities. “I feel slopping within me a volatile stew of anger, fear, and lust: anger because this naïf has, for reasons that are patently unjustifiable, far more power in the world than I will ever have, and once my forty minutes are up, nothing short of criminal stalking could force the intersection of my subterranean path with her lofty one,” laments Jones. Unable to bear his self-loathing and to spice up an otherwise bland interview, Jones forces himself upon Jackson, only to find himself in Rikers Island.

Ms Egan’s love for popular music is the book’s greatest asset and, no kidding, music actually wafts from every page. She captures the zeitgeist of every generation (precisely three generations) with their kind of music. A younger Bennie swoons to Iggy Pop, his older self graduates to Dead Kennedys — a clever allusion to the fact that fire-in-the-belly is inversely proportional to age. Sasha’s daughter, who is a breath away from reaching the Justin Bieber demographic, is obsessed with pauses within the songs. Did you know that Police’s “Roxanne” has a pause from 1:57 to 1:59? The infant picks up at least ten such songs. A possible PhD subject on Planet Egan! The novel ends on a really high note (pun not intended): Scotty, who slid into a cave of obscurity, finds a second lease of life when Bennie prods him to perform on a slide guitar, a performance that turns out to be bewitchingly brilliant.

Of course, Ms Egan stumbles occasionally. The chapter in which Kitty Jackson is employed to put up a human face to a “genocidal dictator” does echo the Naomi Campbell-Charles Taylor story but is hardly compelling. So is the chapter where Sasha is living her hipster life in Naples. While Ms Egan’s description of Naples was tactile I couldn’t really empathise with Sasha’s salt-of-the-earth lifestyle. That said, credit needs to be given to Ms Egan’s literary sleight of hand that ensured all these disparate stories cohered into a simple narrative.

Goon Squad can be used as a textbook at the creative writing workshops. Within one book Ms Egan uses all kinds of literary styles (sly satire, moving tragedy, even Power Point) and tenses: be it present tense or the various forms of past tense like the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect. In short, this book is the perfect anti-matter to the “feminine tosh” remarks made by that literary panjandrum V S Naipaul. Perhaps it’s this refusal to conform to stereotypes that earned Ms Egan the Pulitzer in fiction for Goon Squad.

Jennifer Egan
Anchor Books
342 pages; Rs 529

Google, a benign evil?

In one of G K Chesterton stories the hero observes that nothing is as frightening as a labyrinth without a centre. Google might be one such labyrinth: a cloud computing major, owner of an insanely successful operating system called Android, owner of YouTube, even producer of a car that drives itself. All of this, apart from its lucrative search engine exoskeleton. How can a decade-old company be branching out like a banyan tree on crack? A possible answer is the Montessori schooling of Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, according to Steve Levy in his new book In The Plex: “To ask their own questions, do their own things. Do something because it makes sense, not because some authority told you.”

This has been the guiding light of this unobtrusive duo right from its typical-Silicon-Valley garage-start-up days to its current “800-pound gorilla” status. This journey has been charted pretty well in Mr Levy’s conventional but fairly elegant book. Mr Levy, a technology reporter, almost unlocks the Google “labyrinth”. He meets almost every employee who is someone at Google and accumulates a massive corpus of interviews. The first two chapters on how Google came up with the AdWords and AdSense concepts and the course-changing decision to induct Eric Schmidt as CEO amply show how Mr Levy knows every cobble of Google’s journey.

As it gained traction with web users, Google started to look beyond the search business. It locked horns with Microsoft and Apple. So enraged was Apple CEO Steve Jobs with Google’s smartphone operating system (Android) that he once quipped “we did not enter the search business, why is Google entering the smartphone business”. It’s apparent that Mr Jobs did not have a Montessori background. Mr Brin and Mr Page, who think as one, are like two unhinged horses together in harness. They are always on the lookout for new paths and don’t baulk at exploring them.

The first five (out of eight) chapters are a build-up to the following chapters that take the reader on a TGV ride. Google’s kerfuffle with China over privacy issues has been the search engine’s major lightning rod in 2010. As it is, Google was neck-deep in problems in the world’s largest Internet market over censorship issues, cultural issues and massive competition from local search engine major Baidu. However, Google was still trying to sail through these choppy waters when the Chinese government allegedly hacked the Gmail accounts of Chinese activists.

Google, whose motive is “Don’t Be Evil”, couldn’t take this arm-twisting anymore and started locking horns with the government only to make an unceremonious exit. Google has had other embarrassments too, like the public spat with publishers and authors over the digitisation of every book that has been ever produced. Unlike China, Google cannot claim to be a victim here. As Mr Levy tells his readers, “Google was making a copy of every book – without permission – to build a library of its own, without paying publishers and authors for the privilege.” However altruistic Google may sound in its aim of making books available to one and all with there being no geographical boundaries, it was actually being a literary shark that is into some serious literary land grabbing. Here’s an instant where that Chesteron hero should get “frightened”.

While Mr Levy’s journalism in the book is stellar, he does miss (overlook really) a couple of issues. He doesn’t even hint at the Big Brother aspect of Google Earth, which drew some serious ire in Europe. Another issue is Google’s inherent bias towards engineers and blithe ignorance for non-engineers. Mr Levy does touch on that but never cares to burrow enough. A classic example is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and former vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. In a recent BusinessWeek article, Roger McNamee, a friend of Ms Sandberg’s, was quoted as following: “Google has done so many things right, but the thing they screwed up more than anything was missing the import of people from nonengineering backgrounds and failing to appreciate the value such people can bring. As a consequence, a lot of people like Sheryl (Sandberg) were not given an opportunity to shine to their true level. For all intents and purposes, Google chased Sheryl away.” There might not be a grain of truth in these allegations but Mr Levy, with his unhindered access to Google, could have investigated further.

The book’s greatest strength is in its closing chapter (“Chasing Taillights”). The chapter enumerates so many sour grapes that it could pass for a massive vineyard. With Facebook’s meteoric ascent, Google has every reason to worry. Google Buzz, the company’s feeble attempt at social networking, turned into a huge PR disaster when users’ email contacts were made public. Foursquare’s co-founder Dennis Crowley had a similar prototype that Google bought but never cared enough to build into something shape shifting, which Foursquare eventually turned out to be. Google has a social networking site called Orkut, which is Facebook before Facebook, but lack of enough patronisation saw it limiting itself to Brazil and India.

Google has a couple of search engine worries as well: Microsoft’s Bing is trying to close in on Google and Yandex, a Russian search engine, just raised $1.5 billion through an IPO. This “labyrinth” better find its centre, soon.

Steven Levy
Simon & Schuster
424 pages; Rs 961