Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stockholm syndrome

Jeffrey Eugenides took the literary world by storm in 2002 with his novel Middlesex. While talking about the life of a hermaphrodite, Eugenides, who is of Greek descent, narrated a post-modern tale of the three generations of a Greek family. He tackled themes as varied as incest and gender identity, which earned him a Pulitzer for fiction. Almost a decade later, Eugenides’ new book, The Marriage Plot, is out. It is not even half as complex as Middlesex or, for that matter, his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides.

That said, The Marriage Plot is a huge departure for Eugenides after writing something as mind-bending as Middlesex. Set in Reagan-era America, the latest Eugenides novel centres around 22-year-old Madeleine Hanna, an English major at Brown University, who is trying to write a thesis on the eponymous subject in classic English novels by the greats like Austen, Eliot, James et al. A PhD is on the cards too. In a truly life-imitating-art fashion, Madeleine’s life takes an Austenesque (it’s a made-up term) turn as she ends up caring for her super intellectual manic-depressive of a boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead.

When at his best, Leonard is a charismatic silver-tongued man who’s equally at home talking about the DNA of yeast cells and Kierkegaard’s concepts. In a rather dramatic situation, Madeleine ends up being Leonard’s live-in partner at the fellowship programme he’s pursuing at Pilgrim Lake on the mating habits of yeast. Here’s where the relationship falls apart like a pack of cards as Leonard’s medication takes a toll on his psyche and he ends up playing havoc with Madeleine’s mind as well. Like in every classic English novel, there’s a counterpoint to Leonard in Mitchell Grammaticus, a friend of Madeleine who nurtures feelings for her but his love for her never transcends their platonic friendship.

The first thought that struck me when I heard of the novel was why it took him a decade to write a novel that looks, more or less, pretty straightforward. I voiced similar sentiments when Jonathan Franzen took the same amount of time to get Freedom published after his barnstormer of a novel Corrections. It’s obvious that Eugenides had to unlearn a lot of things and write something more linear in narrative and in a throughout second-person account unlike his other two novels. This is probably his most personal novel.

What might look like a wafer-thin plot is more than just masked by Eugenides’ vivid imagination and his hands-on experience of the eighties. Right from evoking Talking Heads lyrics to the post-hippie milieu of the eighties, Eugenides lives his youth vicariously through the book. Apart from writing about Brown University, Eugenides’ alma mater, The Marriage Plot is quite autobiographical. He mines his friendship with David Foster Wallace in the way Leonard is presented: always sporting a bandanna, a philosophy junkie, chewing tobacco, depression. Mitchell is more on the lines of Eugenides himself: student of religion, Greek roots. While these similarities might give a roman à clef feel to the novel, they never impede its consistently good flow.

With Middlesex Eugenides established himself as one of the most sensitive wordsmiths in the Western Hemisphere, and he does his reputation no harm in The Marriage Plot. Here’s how he describes Madeleine’s joy during an ephemeral period of time when Leonard is back at his cerebral and cheerful best: “The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly get to a good part again, which keeps on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.”

The biggest strength of The Marriage Plot is its richly imbued characters; they are not perfect and that makes them very human. The reader will find herself at the heart of a moral nightmare throughout the novel. Why would Madeleine stick to Leonard instead of dumping him? Maybe it will give her ego a boost that her “love” brought a guy out of a deep mess. Why would she always give ideas to Mitchell if she never thought of him as anything beyond a “friend”? Maybe 22-year-olds behave so vacuously. Fittingly, the novel opens with the following Francois de La Rochefoucauld quote, “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” If there’s a problem with The Marriage Plot, it has to be the backstories of Leonard and his family. His entire upbringing in a dysfunctional family in Portland is animatedly written about for something so banal. Equally weariness-inducing is Leonard’s depression that Eugenides is always skirting and never gets around to cutting to the chase.

However, these wrinkles are smoothed out soon enough whenever Eugenides is at his personal best: talking about Brown University or Calcutta, where he spent some time working in a Mother Teresa home in the eighties. And, of course, the novel is suffused with his mordant wit. Madeleine “could become a spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance, and never gaining weight”. The reader wouldn’t mind waiting another decade if Eugenides promises something equally unbelievably beautiful.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Fourth Estate;
406 pages; Rs 399

Mind games

Picture this: you’re on your way to a movie and you lost some money. There are high chances that you’ll still buy the ticket thinking of it as a minor dent in your decent-by-any-standards back account. However, if you lose the ticket you might think of it as double the charge and you might very well skip the movie. Both the situations look similar but they are not. According to his dazzling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, a 2002 Noble laureate in Economics, your brain’s ‘System 2’ was at work in the former situation while ‘System 1’ was activated in the latter one.

System 1 is what stimulates our intuitions and our basic thinking automatically. While System 2 prods us to go beneath the surface and demands concentration. Aided by stupendous examples, Kahneman sets out to explain his hypothesis in an engaging manner. Sample this: “tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole”. That begs the obvious question: If we know very well that System 2 is what drives the all-important decisions, why do we rely on the unreliable System 1? The answer is that System 2 is lazy. We don’t usually prefer to burn our grey cells when System 1 has something to offer to us readily.

Divided into five parts with the two Systems as the recurring theme Thinking, Fast and Slow can easily be titled as Psychoanalysis For Dummies. There’s absolutely no human tic that Kahneman leaves out in this 500-page monument for human brain. Here are a few names that he invented to describe the cognitive illusions a human is usually prone to: “illusion of validity,” “availability bias,” “endowment effect,” “anchoring” among many others. Illusion of validity means that what we perceive as a skill that we excel in is actually not very useful. Kahneman posits that at the heart of it a stock broker and a dart-throwing chimp have nothing much to distinguish. Availability bias alludes to the basic human tendency to evaluate a situation on the basis of past knowledge, which will be exaggerated. Traveling by train because there have been a couple of air crashes in the recent past is an example.

Endowment effect can be used to define situations where we attach higher significance/cost to things that we own than when they are owned by someone else. A common example is of selling stocks that are trading higher than the ones in the red. After all, losses loom larger than gains. Anchoring can be best explained through the following example, “If you consider how much you should pay for a house, you will be influenced by the asking price. The same house will appear more valuable if its listing price is high than if it is low.” Kahneman coins an abbreviation WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) for our Pavlovian reflex of focusing on existing evidence and ignoring absent evidence.

Will these terms help us curb our natural instincts is debatable but at least Kahneman, a Princeton University professor, makes sure that we have something to address retrospectively and probably avoid in the future. Thinking, Fast and Slow might resemble Malcolm Galdwell’s Blink, a book on intuition, but Kahneman combines his superb knowledge of behavioural economics and psychoanalysis to produce something monstrously original. It’s almost like watching David Lynch’s Mullholand Drive where your intellectual toolkit is reduced to nothing in no time. The reader is bound to have lot of gotcha moments. Here’s one, “The odds that “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” is more reassuring than the equivalent statement that “mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.””

The chapter on “base rate concept” according to which we presume a lot of things without ever delving deeper into the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, is the book’s major triumph. The book is a strong recommendation just for the way it exposes all the latent flaws within a human. When we witness an accident but someone else is already helping the victim we feel relieved of responsibility and get on with our usual work.

If there’s a problem with the book it has to be the glaring omission of the name of Sigmund Freud. In the 32 pages of endnotes, there’s not a single reference to the man deemed to be a one-man industry in the field of psychology in the first half of twentieth century. Freud may be regarded as a quack for his Oedipus Complex findings, which an experimental scientist like Kahneman will readily dispel as hallucinations. Still, Kahneman should have given Freud’s fancy theories a patina of respect. Apart from that, Thinking, Fast and Slow is an astonishingly brilliant book.

Blogical inclusion

The little spark that the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi ignited in December 2010 to torch himself in retaliation against corruption has engulfed the Arab region ever since. It brought the power back into people’s hands and the jitters were felt by the tyrants in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya and, to an extent, Bahrain (apart from Tunisia, of course). That begs the question: would all this have been possible without the World Wide Web? Yes it was the dispossessed and disenchanted who first raised their arms against the totalitarianism, but it’s a stretch to deny the blogs played their part by sowing the seeds of discontent.

You may call Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein a Nouriel Roubini of geopolitics for predicting an Arab Spring sort of thing after his visits to Damascus and Cairo, which are chronicled in a lively manner in this book. The book is a collection of dispatches from Loewenstein’s visits to Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China in 2007 to make sense of the nascent blogging craze in these repressive countries.

In Iran, Loewenstein brings the blogging scene to life in an almost Hunter S Thompson way. He visits nooks and crannies of Tehran to meet the handful of dissenters and brings to life the doings of the Ahmadinejad regime. It surely doesn’t augur well for the argumentative nature of any country if a blogger is detained for revealing that Iran’s presidential staff bought dogs from Germany for $150,000. Even though he touches upon the familiar issues, female and homosexual repression, Loewenstein has many original points to make. He’s spot on about the underground rave party scene, where demure women let their hair down. This is something that was portrayed last year in the gritty Iranian film Circumstance.

Equally illuminating is his reportage from Cairo, the solar plexus of the Arab Spring. Loewenstein chats with quite a few bloggers who raised their voices against the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak. Over the course of his trip, Loewenstein unearths blogs and websites that convey the Egyptians’ anguish in a more nuanced manner than the Western corporate media stationed there. Loewenstein’s trip to Syria is also as revealing and it confirms theories that the Arab Spring was in the making for a long time; all it needed was one small push, which Bouazizi provided.

The Blogging Revolution will be remembered for its prescience. A blogger tells Loewenstein in 2008, “If Mubarak lost power, the Islamists would take over and cause trouble.” This is exactly what looks like is happening in Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster. The book lays bare how misguided the perception of blogs being “echo chambers” and “information cocoons” is. This book is a perfect riposte to what Forbes once said blogs are all about: “the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective.” The Arab Spring showed how the Goliaths had to surrender before the Davids whose only “weapon” is the Internet.

What pulls back The Blogging Revolution a notch or two is that Loewenstein doesn’t make much headway in Cuba and Saudi Arabia. He’s either seen dithering or the authorities never let him near the actual troublemakers. He builds his reportage more or less on an assortment of articles from various sources. Although it’s laudable that he chose to brave the odds and travelled to Saudi Arabia and Cuba, the author appears as hapless as an upended turtle. In China, Loewenstein casts a wider net and tries to ask the Chinese if freedom of speech means anything to them as long as everything’s hunky dory with their personal lives.

Contrary to what Western media reports, Loewenstein finds out that most people prefer to be insouciant about the Tiananmen massacre. “People just want to get on with their lives. It’s in the past,” tells a source to Loewenstein. Here’s how Loewenstein summarises the attitude of Chinese bloggers, “On their wish lists, a Nintendo Wii comes far ahead of democracy. Free pirated films, television shows and music are their primary concern.” However, at the end of his dispatch he concludes that the Chinese politburo cannot anaesthetise the revolutionary streak among Chinese bloggers.

Another setback for The Blogging Revolution is the way Internet revolution zeitgeist has shifted from blogging to social networking and micro-blogging. The Arab Spring really exploded when people started tweeting about the atrocities being committed by Mubarak during his last-ditch efforts to cling on to power. During the disputed elections in Iran in 2009 when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to clamp down on protests and Twitter quelled his efforts, Economist carried a headline “Twitter: 1, CNN: 0”. These minor gripes aside, The Blogging Revolution is a nice throwback to whatever monstrosities the Arab Spring managed to undo and what blogging can achieve, with its heart in the right place, in the future.

Antony Loewenstein
Jaico Books
294 pages; Rs 350

I think, therefore iPod

Exactly a decade ago the iPod was launched by Steve Jobs (bless his heart!) to a mystified audience at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California. There’s a Youtube video of Steve Jobs talking about this revolutionary contraption and his swagger suggests that he knows he found the missing link between what will be the Internet generation and the preceding analog generation.

There are two ubiquitous cultural symbols that define the last one decade and both of them are white in colour: the Google search box and the iPod’s white headphones. Spartan is the word to describe both these phenomena. On Google, it’s a complete white screen with a solitary search box bang at the middle, which suggests absolutely no distraction. An iPod’s elegant design is something similar with a large enough screen and its singature click wheel, which has all the MP3 player functions, embedded seamlessly to entice both the nihilist and sybaritic.

Here was something that could hold ginormous amounts of music (right from 4 GB to 160 GB) and a massive improvement from those bulky Heath Robinson contraptions like MP3 disc player. Here’s something that fits into a pocket and can belt out a lifetime of music (20,000 songs, which an iPod Classic can hold). My initial reaction and many others to iPod was a bafflement that was last seen when Bob Dylan chose to play electric guitar. Unlike that incident, Jobs didn’t face any opprobrium and he was well on his way to be deemed a visionary.

But iPod did cause a very significant and intangible damage to the psyche of this generation and iPod is the primary reason for the ever-shrinking attention spans of the youngsters. It might seem like a facetious argument but it does stand some water. The biggest masterstroke of the iPod is the Shuffle option. "I have seen the future," Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, wrote in 2004. The setting on the iPod that lets the user flit from one random track to another is where the restlessness of this generation’s lies in. Way before the smartphones and social networking sites and Xboxes there was the Shuffle option whose implicit message is “you deserve instant gratification”.

Not only that, it even did an unmitigated damage to the music industry as well. Not so long ago the English music industry used to belt out a significant number of concept albums, NAME DROPPING AHOY, the major ones being by Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia); Jethro Tull (Aqualung, Thick As A Brick, A Passion Play); the Moody Blues (Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, On The Threshold of a Dream, To Our Children’s Children’s Children); Emerson Lake and Palmer (Tarkus); Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans); Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On); Willie Nelson (Phases and Stages); Jimi Hendrix (Axis: Bold As Love); ABC (The Lexicon of Love); Van Morrison (Astral Weeks); Curtis Mayfield (Superfly), Frank Zappa (Freak Out!).

As their name suggests, concept albums have a concept that runs throughout the album and the entire disc needs to be heard in the predetermined order so as to enjoy the record to the hilt. Thanks to iPod, music lovers don’t really make it a point to listen to every track the way the artists want it to be. After all, in their expertly curated playlist, the users would prefer their Mozart followed by Linkin Park who is succeeded by Miles Davis. Thus, there has been a significant decline in the concept albums in the last one decade.

Barring The Streets’ (A Grand Don’t Come For Free), Gorillaz’s Demon Days, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and P J Harvey’s This Is England, the concept albums are on the wane. Leeds-based indie rock outfit Kaiser Chiefs released their latest album The Future Is Medieval online and asked users to handpick their favourite ten tracks out of the twenty on offer and decide on their own running order and even to design their own cover before downloading it for £7.50. In the age of an all-pervasive iTunes where you can purchase only the singles, the music groups cannot survive even if they circle their organs. Thus, the latest move by Kaiser Chiefs indicates that you are better off joining them if you can’t beat them.

Ricky Wilson, one of the band members, said in a wistful tone to Financial Times that, “A couple of weeks ago in India they manufactured the last typewriter. It won’t be long before that happens to CD players.”

Another long-term deleterious impact of iPod will be its compatibility with MP3 format of music. Thanks to the compressed music formats that are being peddled around we don’t even know what it feels like to listen to the music on vinyl records. iTunes, the software used to transfer music onto the iPod, is what I would call a software equivalent of China. It allows the user to download a track for as low as one cent and the user will be left with a smug feeling of having bought music legal but for utter pittance.

And of course there’s that ultimate criticism about iPod of it having killed the man’s commune with nature. We are so used to the constant buzzing in our ears that we make it a point to charge our iPods to the hilt in case of long distance train journeys. It’s just unthinkable to stare outside the window without those earphones blaring out some noise or the other. Every man might be an island but technically the iPod users (330 million at the last count) are this world’s largest archipelagos. Interacting with strangers, which in the pre-iPod era, was a joy to behold and equally distressing if they happen to be irritating. But at least we had a chance of interacting with someone interesting whom we otherwise might never meet in our lifetime. Nowadays, we are totally alienated from rest of the populace because our iPod is supposed to be the best companion possible.

Urban sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh lamented about the iPod culture in New York Times in a heartfelt manner: "In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the 'mob mentality.' Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can't join someone in a movement if you can't hear the participants. Congrats Mr (Steve) Jobs for impeding social change." In his brilliant article for the n+1 magazine Nikil Soval found it strangely ironic that we need to be forever wired to the iPod when in fact “there is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels devoted to them, on the air, nonstop”. Add to this, the music played while reading, writing, cleaning, exercising, eating, sleeping.

While I might come across as a massive party pooper or a Luddite for my unequivocal rant so far, I would like to clear the air by saying that iPod is nothing less than a revolutionary gadget. It’s not for nothing that Steve Jobs is compared with Edison. iTunes allows the rarefied listeners to access artists whom they wouldn’t otherwise get to know. ITunes is democratic and is a great fountain of music. I would rather be earmuffed to Rihanna’s caterwauls if it would help in drowning out an infant’s crying when I am traveling but then not at the expense of forgetting that silence is, after all, golden.

The Grim Reaper

For anyone who cared about what’s going on in the world, the death of Christopher Hitchens was a Steve Jobs moment. When he died last month at the age of 62 due to esophageal cancer, it was the end of what may very rightfully be termed as a Hitchens era. There’s probably no major publication where Hitchens wasn’t published or translated. He was a regular writer for Slate and Vanity Fair. So vast was his erudition that he can be equally dexterous while talking about oral sex and waterboarding.

Hitchens’ journalistic oeuvre is a case study in the retention power of human brain. His friends, among whom are Iam McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, would recall that he used to recall verses and passages of the great masters of literature from the back of his hand. Nothing used to escape Hitchens hawk eye and his snark. He never endeared himself to the masses or maybe that’s how he wanted it. He was critical of Mother Teresa, Pope, Dalai Lama and even God. His book “God Is Not Great” is a, pardon the irony here, Bible for atheists. So caustic are his comments that the one at the receiving end is better off remaining silent.

Hitchens once branded Mother Teresa “a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf” and said: “She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

He also branded religion as “junk science” and claimed Christianity is “leaving us as the mockery of the world by pretending that we did not evolve.”

About Sarah Palin he said “She’s got no charisma of any kind [but] I can imagine her being mildly useful to a low-rank porn director.”

So brilliant are his turns of phrases, a result of his Oxbridge education, that he would elevate even the most mundane topic to the realms of fascination. He is known to have churned out perfectly readable essays in twenty minutes. Hitchens did have his own limitations though. One look at his copious amounts of work and you would notice that this man is a sexist par excellence. He once even wrote an essay for Vanity Fair on “why women aren’t funny”. There’s no woman in his exalted friends circle. None of the hagiographical essays that he wrote included a woman.

His championing of Iraq War too was a baffling decision and till date it’s a mystery why he defended George W Bush in his deluded decision to dig out the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Having said that, Hitchens is one of the most original journalists you’ll ever read. None of his arguments, however misplaced, are bland or unoriginal. He is very prolific and is known to write his perfectly readable thousand-word column for Slate in flat twenty minutes.

It’s appropriate to have a coda in the form of a Salman Rushdie quote (about Hitchens) “the most indefatigable of allies and the most eloquent of defenders”.

The big talkers

In the pantheon of Indian book talk fests, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is the biggest rockstar. Every year William Dalrymple and his colleagues bring together distinguished writers to talk about their work and the world. The next edition, scheduled for January 20-24, promises an array of discussions on Bhakti and Sufi traditions; the Arab Spring; Gandhi, Ambedkar and Anna; censorship; writing from conflict zones; theatre; theology; and motherhood, among other topics. Here are the headlining acts at this literary rock fest.

In “The Arab Spring: A Winter’s View”, the talking heads will be Kamin Mohammadi, Iranian writer, Navdeep Suri, retired Indian diplomat, Karima Khalil, doctor and chronicler of Tahrir Square, Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian lawyer and writer, Hisham Matar, Libyan novelist, and Max Rodenbeck, Cairo-based American journalist and writer. This should be illuminating, because the speakers have been at the forefront of probably the biggest historical event since 9/11. Matar was instrumental in Col Gaddafi’s ouster. Expect genuine insights into the movement that rocked every dictatorial Titanic.

At “Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Crossroads at Jantar Mantar” will be Joseph Lelyveld, former New York Times executive editor, Sunil Khilnani, writer and professor of politics, Aruna Roy, activist, and publishers S Anand and Urvashi Butalia. They will discuss non-violent movements in India from M K Gandhi to the Dalit movement to the ongoing Lok Pal campaign.

Among the minor gems, the discussions involving Amy Chua of Tiger Mom and Lionel “We Need to Talk about Kevin” Shriver. Chua faced opprobrium for her book in which she described being an aggressive “mom” and pushing her child hard to succeed. In two talks, one with Puneeta Roy, director of Tehelka Foundation, and another with journalist Madhu Trehan, the audience will witness the demolition of a few myths related to Chua’s method of parenting. In a tête-à-tête with TV anchor Barkha Dutt, Lionel Shriver will discuss her gut-wrenching but beautiful novel about a mother coming to terms with the loss of a son who goes on a killing spree. The novel was turned into a film this year, to rave reviews.

For the first time at JLF, famous playwrights like Tom Stoppard, Ariel Dorfman and David Hare will come, to talk about the art of writing for the theatre. Stoppard is chairing sessions on “The Art of the Play Wright”, “Adaptations” and “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare”.

Journalism will be celebrated as never before. David Remnick, editor-in-chief of New Yorker magazine, will talk about his biography of Barack Obama, published in 2010. In his distinguished career, Remnick has written about everything from Muhammad Ali to Mikhail Gorbachev and far beyond. His talks are titled “The Disappointment of Obama”, “Journalism as Literature” and “Art of Biography”.

Philip Gourevitch, former editor-in-chief of the Paris Review and a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker, will also sprinkle some journalistic stardust. His coverage of the Rwandan genocide attests to his brilliance as a reporter. At JLF, he will participate in talks on “A Good Man in Africa”, “Journalism as Literature” and “The Weather in Africa”.

Add to this list Michael Ondaatje, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Ben Okri, Hari Kunzru and Mohammad Hanif — writers and novelists all — among many others.

On the organisational front, one more tent, called Gulistan, will join the four customary ones. As it is, last year the venue Diggi Palace was denuded of horse stables to accommodate more people. Looking at the star studded literary line up, the organisers will have to clean the Augean stables this time around as well.