Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lovable fuck-up of a man

In the seventies the American fiction’s landscape was dotted with male characters that were predominantly machoistic. Famous writers like Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Saul Bellow turned up men who were nothing if not macho.

These men wouldn’t know what unrequited love means. They were constitutionally incapable of taking any form of rejection and would eventually find their way, especially with women. “All I had to do was go down into the subway. It was like fishing down there. Go down into the subway and come up with a girl,” says a Roth character in Human Stain. In Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man where the protagonist finds out that his girlfriend is ‘cheating’ on him with a sex toy, he goes on a self eulogy, “Every woman I was ever with told me I was the best. I knew how to move, how to groove and I was a handsome bastard too. I had a nice frame, about six feet even. Hundred and sixty-five. Straight hair, dark skin, dark eyes, sensuous mouth, so I heard.” At the slightest provocation here’s a man going on about himself and his virility.

These overtly macho men are not to be seen around anymore in modern American fiction. They have been replaced by the lovable fuck-up of a man whom women don’t usually mind and some considerate ones would even try to ‘redeem’ him. The best lovable fuck-up I came across this year was in Adelle Waldman’s maddeningly alluring debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. This 240-page novel about the eponymous self-absorbed writer living in Brooklyn is hootingly funny, extremely well-written and bracingly vivid. What particularly struck me is the way Waldman captured the essence of aesthete culture of modern-day Brooklyn through her lead character, who is in turns repulsive and charming. If there’s one novel in 2013 that I would unreservedly recommend to everyone, it’s this consistently sparkling one.

The novel opens at a subway station where Nathaniel bumps into the girl whom he impregnated during a brief affair (and later accompanied her for abortion). His evasive disposition towards her sets the tone for rest of this gorgeous novel. Waldman, a print journalist, quite possibly etched out the quintessential lovable fuck-up of a man of our times. Sample this: “When he was younger, he had imagined that as he grew up, he would become progressively less shallow and women’s looks wouldn’t matter much. Now that he was, more or less, grown up, he realised it wasn’t going to happen.” This matter-of-fact voice of her character is what makes Waldman a writer to look forward to.

It’s not a coincidence that Waldman’s favourite writer is Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections is nothing if not a minor ode to the subject under review. Chip Lambert’s frightful insouciance towards women, life in general is emblazoned on the cortex of every reader. Praising Waldman for creating such a believable male protagonist will invariably smack of sexism but I’m taking my chances because she genuinely deserves kudos. In fact, in an interview she expressed her admiration for Franzen for creating absolutely authentic female characters.

This year I also finally got around to reading Ben Lerner’s debut novel (published 2011) Leaving the Atocha Station. Lerner, a poet, tried his hand at fiction for the first time and came up with the character Adam Gordon, who is participating in a prestigious Spanish scholarship in Madrid circa 2004. Reading both these books simultaneously I couldn’t help but think of the bromance that would have bloomed between Adam and Nathaniel. While Nathaniel would judge his girlfriend for not taking care of her body, which is getting a bit bloated, Adam would lie to a random girl at a party that his mother died, just for her fleeting affection.

Both the men behave like drama queens (entertaining ones at that) at the slightest whiff of rejection from the opposite sex. These men are markedly different from their predecessors of seventies. They are sensitive, worldly, culturally evolved. There’s a beautiful passage in Leaving the Atocha Station where Adam wants to bid farewell to his sort-of-girlfriend. He maxes out his father’s credit card to take her out to the best restaurant in Madrid and later to a five-star hotel to spend one last night together. At the end of the chapter Adam says that ‘‘I thought of the artist for a while’. The heartbreaking brilliance of this particular scene is an absolute must-read.

"Here's the most average thing in the world: the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what he can't have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere,” says Hannah to Nathaniel. Despite this outburst, Nathaniel leaves her and gravitates towards someone else.

You might ask what’s the charm in knowing about such men. It’s another facet of human race that needs to be amply chronicled. If Nathaniel needs his friend Jason’s approval of his girlfriend in terms of looks, I would like to know all about it. If in a fit of rage and utter dejection, Adam gives away the ring he bought for a girl he loves to a random person at a museum, I would love to know more than just the token dismissive phrase reserved for such occasions: “they are boys wrapped in a man’s body”.

With women no longer dependent on men and gender dynamics changing so rapidly, the lovable fuck-up of a man is here to stay much to everyone’s delight.

The A-Z of Jaipur Lit Fest 2014

 After five days of passive and active interaction with some of the finest creative minds of the world, it’s only appropriate I don’t act favourites and just tell everything in alphabetical order of my amazing experience.

A for Amartya Sen: His frail physical disposition belied his powerful opening speech that was equal parts riveting and controversial (“I yearn for a strong and flourishing right wing party that is secular, not communal”).

B for Barnett Rubin:
This Afghanistan expert left everyone spellbound with his original take on the current ground situation and, what more, he even rapped a seven-minute song about his stint at the US State Department.

C for Cheryl Strayed:
This disgustingly talented writer was an instant favourite with everyone who cared to know about her life-affirming story of trekking really long distance in the backdrop of personal catastrophes (later written as ‘Wild’) .

D for DSC Prize: The annual DSC Prize this year went to Cyrus Mistry for his heartbreakingly brilliant novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. Everyone thought no one deserved the $50,000 prize more than him.

:E for Ekta Kapoor: Just when it looked that this year’s JLF is controversy-free, on Day 4 Ekta Kapoor’s session attracted  some serious bile from people who protested the historical inconsistencies in her serial Jodhaa Akbar.

F for Fashion: Chunky knit belted over maxi dress. Silver hand harness with woollen kurta. Leather trench and booties. You name the hottest fad in world fashion and JLF’s audience has it in spades.

G for Gatsby: Two sessions revolved around the heady days of the 1920s and the best chronicle of them, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The most vocal of the speakers was Sarah Churchwell, who wrote a book titled Careless People on the same topic. She was pure joy for the way she recreated the hedonism of the halcyon past that was more or less very Gatsby-esque.

H for Homi Bhabha: The director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University was instrumental in making the most unyieldy topics sheer fun for those present. He slalomed from Crime and Punishment to ‘The Contemporary Indian Art Revolution’.

I for Irrfan Khan: JLF 2014 has been low on Bollywood glitter unlike the other editions but Irrfan Khan made up for most of the missing glamour with his unassumingly intelligent take on everything that comes in between Aam Aadmi Party and Rs 100-crore cinema

J for Jonathan Franzen:
The organisers had to lure this arguably greatest living novelist from Manhattan to Diggi Palace (the JLF venue) with the promise of a birding expedition in Himalayas at their expense but it looked worth the effort considering how people couldn’t get enough of his hilarious constitution.

K for Kulhar: It was bone-rattlingly cold in Jaipur this time and the tea that was being served in the mud cups was as much in demand as much as high brow literary discussions.

L for Litcrit: As someone who loves to read book reviews, the Litcrit session on what writers think about critics was deeply illuminating to me. The way Homi Bhabha and Philip Hensher went ka-pow each other over James Wood was a great sight.

M for Maaza Mengiste:
With Taiye Selasi not present at the festival, the onus of representing African literature fell mostly on the able shoulders of the Ethiopian writer who held her fort in various sessions with a compassion that was infectious.

N for Nicholas Shakespeare:
The most infectious session at this five-day jamboree was on Monday, “Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age”. While Churchwell was talking about America in the 20s, Nicholas Shakespeare gave a fascinating peek into what it was like in England at the same time. Through the vantage point of Evelyn Waugh’s career arc, Shakespeare painted a wonderful picture of the swinging twenties.

O for Otto De Kat: The Dutch writer and publisher was a hit with the audience for his wry sense of humour that pervaded every session he was in, be it on historical novel or literature of war and revolution (Anne Frank is his literary hero).

P for Philip Hensher:
He was a delight throughout, be it while picking up minor fights over James Wood’s idea of a good book or getting into the intricacies of how exactly historical fiction should look and sound like.

Q for Queues:
This is the year JLF clocked the maximum number of visitors (220,000 to be precise) and it clearly showed how every session was filled to the brim. Right from tea counters to book signings to standing all the way through hour-long sessions, the queues were ubiquitous.

R for Reza Aslan:
If anyone stole thunder from Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri this year, it has to be Reza Aslan. People thronged to see him in person just for his sheer magnetism and delicious self-deprecation. The way he fought it out with A N Wilson over Jesus’ antecedents was emblazoned in the cortex of everyone who was present.

S for Shashi Tharoor:
If anyone was conspicuous by his absence, it has to be the Minister of State who was supposed to talk at quite a few sessions but his wife’s suicide torpedoed not only his JLF presence but also took some shine off the event itself.

T for Tinariwen:
This desert guitar band from Mali (a Grammy winner too) was the headlining act of the festival and they  lived up to their top billing. Their 45-minute sonorous gig kept everyone on their toes.

U for Understanding India: This is probably the year when most foreign speakers made it a point to include India in their tangential point of view. Every topic was seen through the prism of India even if it’s only for a moment.

V for Ved Mehta: This writer of many-an-exquisite books who also happens to be blind left everyone dumbstruck with his pitch-perfect take on the world. Here’s what he said about India, “It is a functioning anarchy. Now, anarchy is fine as long as you can see.”

W for William Dalrymple: Someone please give this man a medal for making JLF a global fixture and managing to bring a fantastic line up of writers every year. Who’s up for 2015? Well, V S Naipaul and Patti Smith, for starters.

X for Xiaolu Guo: She left everyone gobsmacked with her charged-up attack on Anglo-Saxon literature by terming it, rightfully so, as 'over-rated'. "Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it's so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society," she lamented.

Y for YOLO:
I met so many people during the course of the fest who came from as far as Pretoria and Miami to listen to the writers. English teachers, PhD students, aspiring writers, everyone came down from foreign lands because they felt that the scene at JLF is far more vibrant than in their home land.

Z for Zzz: Let’s face it, no one can take seven hours of literature for five days straight and this was made apparent when the in-house cameras gave some comic relief by revealing people who either found their smartphones far more interesting than the talks or who were just caught napping.