Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why NOTW will be missed

Once the paroxysm of anger against News Of The World subsides, the tabloid will be sorely missed. Here’s why. In the age of Internet, when there’s ginormous amount of information to be accessed instantly, it’s a foolhardy thing to assume that people will wait for the next day’s paper to know what’s happening at that moment. Unless newspapers reinvent themselves and start doing original reporting, there’s no real reason why a newspaper should exist at all.

NOTW was doing exactly the same thing. It might be using guerrilla journalistic techniques but it’s giving something new to the reader every morning. Rupert Murdoch, owner of NOTW, is probably the last news baron the world will see. His love for newspapers is amazing. He bought Wall Street Journal when it was bleeding money and couldn’t cope with competition from Internet. And this is exactly the reason why the world needs Murdoch now more than anytime else.

Newspapers make sense of the madness. On Internet anything goes as news as long as it’s taken at the earliest. You can pass canards and get away with it but it’s the newspapers that give the reader an accurate sense of the event. So we need more newspapers now more than anytime else. As it is, newspapers across the world are shutting their presses or resorting to ridiculous cost-cutting measures. This is why we should not take point our knives towards Murdoch, yet.

His championing of the newspapers is legendary. He still believes they have a role to play in the way world shapes up. He started a New York Metro section in WSJ as competition for New York Times. He started a book reviews supplement in WSJ when everywhere else the reviewing space is constantly shrinking. This doesn’t mean that Murdoch may sup with the devil (read phone hacking).

But clearly demarcated lines can do a world of difference. I’m sure journalists must be wondering if committing that act of daily journalism is worth it if this is how things are going to pan out. Right now, we should mourn the shutting of NOTW. I have a feeling this might be the beginning of the end of newspapers.

Charm offensive

What is one to make of the modern-day Russia? If the global media is to be believed here’s a country that has unabashedly shed its communist leanings (hell, it didn’t even celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the coup); you either have to be rich or beautiful or well-connected to live in Moscow or else be condemned for a life of vermin; the media is muzzled (we all know what happened to Anna Politkovskaya).

Snowdrops, the debut novel of A D Miller, former Moscow correspondent for The Economist from 2004 to 2007, doesn’t veer much from these stereotypes through his narrator Nicholas Platt or Nick, a 30-something Englishman, who is a corporate lawyer. Written in the form of a confessional billet doux to his would-be wife, Nick tells her about his ugly past in Moscow that involves a cousin-duo, Masha and Katya. After having come into contact with the girls under trying circumstances, Nick develops romantic feelings for Masha. As his luck would have it, she reciprocates and the carnal rituals follow on an almost daily basis.

On the professional front, he is the face of a group of banks loaning $500 million to the subsidiary of an oil major Narodneft (since the story is set in Putin-era Russia, comparisons with Gazprom are thinly disguised). The front man for this subsidiary is a shady but infinitely charming person called “the Cossack”. Meanwhile, Nick is introduced to the sisters’ aunt, Tatiana Vladimirovna, who is a staunch communist and still worships Stalin. One insanely cold night, she muses, “What a shame. Such a winter, and no war.” She starts adoring Nick and the hopeless romantic starts imagining a “happily married ever after” life with Masha.

Not surprisingly, a mixture of deliberate emotional and financial obfuscations gets Nick tangled in an intricate web of self-realisation. It doesn’t help the matters much when the Cossack also vanishes with all the money. With such a straightforward plot, Miller’s confidently brilliant writing comes to the book’s rescue on several occasions. Speaking about the stinking, moneyed ethos of Moscow, Nick says, “The cars congregated around the must-be-seen-in restaurants and nightclubs like basking predators at watering holes, while money went inside to gorge itself on caviar and Cristal champagne.” The hatchet job extends to the few Russian girls who never ended up in relationships with Nick because they wanted “a car, a driver to go with the car, one of those silly little dogs they drag around the designer shops in the cobbled alleys near the Kremlin”.

The novel acquires the gravitas of a Higher Lonely Planet here: “The old part of the Moscow Metro, in the city centre, is the sort of subway system you get if you give a tyrannical maniac all the marble, onyx and disposable human beings he can dream of.”

But then, exquisite writing (the writer studied literature at Cambridge and Princeton) can only buttress a gossamer-thin plot in short bursts. Moreover, Miller’s characters are way too flaky to be taken seriously. Nick needs a nice spanking for believing a comely Russian woman would fall for him with no strings attached. Thumb rule for expat men: never fall for local ladies unless you are George Clooney. Masha and Katya never entirely transcend the caricatures. As far as the Cossack is concerned, I would paraphrase what Voltaire said about God: “If there was no Cossack, it would have been necessary to invent him.” Tatiana is a direct lift from any Alexander Solzhenitsyn book. The only person who shines through this mess is Steve Walsh, a well-connected foreign journalist, an alcoholic and an inveterate womaniser, who knows the inner quarters of Kremlin creepily well. “In Russia, there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories,” he says.

Too bad that Miller chooses such an underwhelming story. Too many loose ends are allowed to hang around and this is where the function of the editor comes into question. Snowdrops reminded me of what Zadie Smith said about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland: “Isn’t it hard to see the dark when it’s so lyrically presented?” For such run-of-the-mill characters, belletrism of the highest order is unjustifiable. I just don’t see any of these people mouthing these lines in real life. It’s as if they have spent all their lives in various creative writing workshops. Only Nick’s bitterness is this flailing novel’s defibrillator. Here’s he talking about his acquaintances in London: “People I know in London who had already got married began to get divorced, and people who hadn’t, adopted cats. People started running marathons or becoming Buddhists to help them get through it.”

Miller earns his journalistic stripes by making vague references to Putin’s inefficiency (“weasel President”) and to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Yukos fiasco (“uppity oil tycoon, his unfortunate lawyer and his livid minority shareholders”). Still, that doesn’t lift the spirits of an already torpor-induced reader. I would still suggest you pick up Snowdrops — to hurl at the Man Booker judges for long-listing this self-centred, high-class literary pretentious slush.

A D Miller
Atlantic Books
273 pages; Rs 399

London calling

There are parts of our society that are not just broken but frankly sick. When we see children of 12 or 13 looting, it’s clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society.” It wouldn’t be far- fetched if you thought this was a statement from the head of a war-ravaged or drought-prone country. But these observations were made by David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom, one of the world’s most developed countries. He was expressing his anger after surveying the damage during the recent urban riots in the UK.

Against the backdrop of this pillage, Stephen Kelman’s debut novel Pigeon English makes for a timely read. Even otherwise it would have been an almost brilliant book. By illegal means, 11-year-old Harrison Opoku arrives in London from Ghana along with his mother and older sister Lydia. As movies on immigrant angst like This Is England and Harry Brown and books like Londonstani and Brick Lane show, the inner-city housing estates of London are a self-contained universe where debauchery and depravity are deemed virtues. Yet to grapple with the realities of a white-dominated locality, Opoku is in a culture shock of sorts.

During one of those addled days, he is a witness to the knifing of a senior at school. Along with his friend Dean he tries to find the killer, “CSI-style”: collecting spit samples, fingerprints et al. Kelman’s plot includes a handful of characters for whom Opoku is the centripetal force. There is Lydia, who falls into those Justin Bieber demographics, cooing over girlie things and forever at odds with Opoku, a mother who is spooked by London ghetto life but determined to give her children a better life, Opoku’s cousin Jordan, who is on the fast lane to self-destruction, and the eponymous pigeon that visits Opoku every day and is his subconscious shining light in the darkest of times. There are also blink-and-miss characters like Connor Green, whose supposed wisecracks always fall flat but will still entertain the reader, and Dean, who is, in turn, condescending and appreciative of Opoku’s detective brain.

With a plot set within a time span of just four months, Kelman deals with a multitude of issues plaguing inner city society in an engaging rather than sanctimonious manner: mindless killings, urban dystopia, dysfunctional families, adolescent violence, xenophobia, illegal immigration, racism and homophobia. All these issues are witnessed through the fresh and non-judgemental eyes of Opoku. “Mamma says the CCTV camera is just another way for God to watch you. If God’s busy in another part of the world, like if he’s making an earthquake or a tide, his cameras can still see you. That way he can never miss anything.” In a country, where there’s a CCTV camera for every 13 people, this is a convenient explanation for the Big Brother side of the state.

The greatest strength of Pigeon English is the author’s vice-like grip on the proceedings. There were moments when the story grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. A major reason is Kelman’s rooted language, which evokes the HBO TV series Wire and Emma Donoghue’s Room (fittingly, she wrote a blurb for the book). The pidgin is authentic and so are the kids’ ruminations that never grate even if they oscillate between the sublime and the ridiculous. Throughout the book there is a certain Ghanaian lingo peddled, which should make it to in no time. “Asweh” is short for I swear, “bo-style” is the coolest fad in the town, “dey touch” means “are you crazy?”, “hutious” means frightening, “Gowayou” is the short for, yes, go away, you.

Opoku’s relationship with his sisters forms the book’s emotional core. Although he is not overly protective about Lydia, he does make his presence felt and, on the other hand, his thoughts are forever dominated by the well-being of Agnes, a younger sister whom he left behind in Ghana. The best part about Pigeon English is that what purports to be a find-the-killer sort of book, actually ends up with Opoku finding his moral moorings.

Opoku tries hard to be accepted in the local gang, Dell Farm Crew, as that would lend his meek disposition a veneer of audacity but, as luck would have it, he fails to live up to the “missions”. If there’s a misstep in an otherwise flawless book, it is that the pace lags a bit in between. The entire episode of Opoku finding a love interest in Poppy, a classmate, sounds a bit far-fetched. Also, the killer is found way too easily and in an abrupt fashion. Having said that, Pigeon English is most definitely the Catcher In the Rye for the Internet generation. This heady cocktail of dystopian innocence and strange sadness could only have been whipped up by Cormac McCarthy among living authors. This book wraps its crooked fingers around your heart and keeps tugging at its strings.

Stephen Kelman
263 pages; Rs 499

The longest 90 minutes of my life

There used to be beatniks, peaceniks and these days there are coolniks. Everything that anyone does has to and is supposed to be cool. Be it the words they utter or the phone they brandish or their Facebook timeline, the underlining theme is, yes, ‘cool’. Being cool is passé as well, now it’s all about being uber-cool. This is just the sort of affliction Abhinay Deo has. He’s the man who made Delhi Belly with some able production support from the supposedly sole arbiter of sensible cinema in this part of the world, Aamir Khan.

Right off the bat let me make it clear that this isn’t a review where I’ll throw around intensifiers followed by the synonyms of either brilliant or horrible. And neither do I intend to piss on anyone’s parade. What really gets my goat about this egregiously execrable movie is its hollowness that’s being showed off as ‘boldness’. I didn’t know that mouthing the F-word (that too in the most effete manner possible) would make a movie ‘shocking’. For the last six weeks, I was addicted to this brilliant American series called Wire and, trust me; the variants of F- and S-words in it will leave you gobsmacked a.k.a ‘shocked’. Since we are so cool, female infanticide or farmers’ deaths or massive corruption is just sad, if ever they fall in our social radar. An erection on screen or blown up display of human feces or sonic variants of farts is what is, well, shocking.

I don’t mean to sound like an idealistic savant here. When a movie claims to have “broken new ground” in terms of “shock value”, I obviously would draw comparisons with the clitoral circumcision in Anti-Christ or the abandoned fetus scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or the butter scene in Last Tango in Paris and so on.

New York Times was on its money in its review of the film,” Your average American sitcom, let alone summer comedy, outdoes “Delhi Belly” in rudeness and crudeness, though its graphic language and sexual candor are unusual for an Indian movie.” The point to be underlined is the “unusual for an Indian movie” part. Post-Internet, we shouldn’t be at the mercy of Indian film-makers to teach us what is profane or sacred. If a cerebral film-maker in Senegal has something to say, we should be all ears as well. A car boot load of non-funny gags passing off as ‘bold cinema’ cannot be construed as the zeitgeist of any generation. As long as we the audience demand such shoddy supply, movies like Delhi Belly will continue to be dumped on us.

In a nutshell, I wanted to chew my arm off than watch something as putrid as Delhi Belly.

Reading, RIP

If the seventies’ hit single Video Killed the Radio Star is to be given a digital twist it most certainly will be on the lines of “Internet Killed the Books”. With Twitter, Facebook, e-mail , smartphones, Tumblr, Xbox competing for your attention, words assembled in a rectilinear form in black and white will hardly hold you in thrall for more than ten straight minutes. This might sound like an antediluvian rant but David L Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading is anything but that.

Buoyed by the acclaim (and vitriol) that his 2009 essay by the same name in Los Angeles Times brought him, Ulin has stretched the essay into a book. Ulin begins the book with a laser beam on his 15-year-old son who finds it tough to plough through The Great Gatsby. Ulin knows what’s wrong: “Like many of his [Ulin’s son] friends, his inner life is entwined within the circuits of his laptop, its electronic speed and hum.” Can a book really deliver that elevated sense of solitude if this relentless digital cacophony persists?

Ulin, a Los Angeles Times literary critic until 2010, delves into his past to answer this all-important question. Recalling his backpacking trip in Europe in his mid-twenties, Ulin speaks about his serendipitous encounter with Trocchi Rare Books, owned by Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi. As the bookstall’s name goes, Ulin made some amazing purchases that still give him a good shiver down his spine. Moreover, he is fascinated with the persona of Trocchi, who had all the potential to be the best Scottish literary expert across the Atlantic (“bastard son of Jack Kerouac and Albert Camus”), but instead burns out owing to his heroin abuse. The lines in his novel Thongs take existentialism to another level: “You call life meaningless and you think you assert your freedom in rejecting it. But your act of suicide is just as meaningless as any other.” That’s the thing about going to a stall and looking for a certain title and suddenly stumbling across another masterpiece. In these days of Amazon and Flipkart, a computer algorithm will tell the reader what is to be bought.

Another indelible mark on Ulin’s literary psyche was made by Frank Conroy’s 1967 memoir Stop-Time in which he talks about his compulsive reading habit as a high school kid, “Night after night I’d lie in bed, with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me, and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning.” It’s tough to think a 16-year-old would do the same nowadays. If anything, he’ll be flanked by a MacBook and iPhone on his bed.

Strangely, now is the time when people should be reading more than anytime else. Right from our tweets to status updates to blogs to mobile texts to YouTube comments, we are dealing with words more than ever before. In his recent column, Simon Kuper, a Financial Times columnist, described the language of nouveau English speakers as Globish — “a simple, dull, idiom-free version of English with a small vocabulary.” Kuper is not yet done with his excoriation: “In a Globish world, the native English-speaker triumphs. When you need to drop into Globish, you can. But when subtlety or speed is required, you beat them. Native English-speakers often steer conversation, using phrases like, ‘Can I just jump in here...’ and, ‘So what we’re saying is...’ Foreigners sit mutely, trying to follow what’s being said.” In short, move beyond LOL and bollocks like that.

There’s never a moment when we are not thinking and the way you phrase your thinking will define your articulation level. In the middle of his slim book, Ulin takes a beautiful detour and tells the reader about a near-fatal accident of his son while scuba diving in Hawaii and how his son finally managed to reach safely and compares it to his son’s complaining about The Great Gatsby, “I had a mental image of him floundering in the linguistic ocean of the novel, much as he had floundered in the Pacific on that diving day.”

While Ulin is busy slamming the current age of Instant Gratification, his book seems to be an output of an unfettered access to Google and Red Bull. Most of the book’s eureka moments happen to be quotes from a myriad of sources; right from Scott Fitzgerald to Nicholas Carr and Borges to Nicholson Baker. Ulin seems so impressed with Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that he quotes the book’s most cogent arguments verbatim and ends up cleaning the digital Augean stables with the help of the shape-shifting book: “Fiction readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensations are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from vast experiences. Deep reading is by no means a passive exercise. The reader becomes the book.”

Ulin’s criticism of Kindle too is borrowed from Nicholson Baker’s 2009 New Yorker article, “sharp black letters laid out like lacquered chopsticks on a clean tablecloth”. Though it’s true that the brains of the current generation are the digital equivalent of a web browser with 12 tabs open at once, it’s not yet certain if the Internet is indeed a bane to literature. The phenomenon needs to be given at least another decade to quantify its intelligence or vacuity-quotient. For now, let’s install the Freedom software and get off the digital treadmill.

David L Ulin
Sasquatch Books
152 pages; Rs 466