Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shadows

The shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords- a dreadful, vicious act, but one that was tinged with a chill sense of foreshadowing. One column in the NYT outlined this precise feeling, that it was a disaster waiting to happen. The column touched upon the mean-spirited, incendiary and hate-based political rhetoric that is currently the norm in the US, but I think that there are also a couple of other factors at play.
One is certainly the gross neglect that many mentally ill patients suffer, both from the medical establishment and from society at large. The shooter in the Arizona case is said to be schizophrenic- he was expelled from college for profound anti-social behavior, and in his online profiles he ranted incoherently about government mind-control. Mental illness is often the least-discussed of illnesses, vastly under-diagnosed and poorly understood.
Then, there is the all-too-obvious issue of astoundingly easy access to guns. Agreed, that Americans are proud of their Second Amendment- ‘the right to bear arms’. While that may be fundamental to their identity as a society, I also would like to hear educated views about how much the world has changed since the days in which this tenet was framed. For today’s society as much as for those days- if there are no checks in place to prevent the sale of guns to the mentally ill, disaster lurks within a large number of those sales.
Also there is the undeniable tone of violence and bullying that marks much of the political discourse in that country. (Palin actually had a map of Giffords’ constituency marked with a cross-hairs on her Web site). Fed with a contant stream of hate and thinly-veiled exhortations to violence, armed with a legally purchased gun, it is no big shock that a young mentally disturbed male takes this horrendous step. While it is not known exactly why he targeted Ms. Giffords, the motivation is certainly political, and certainly anti-Democratic. Not to say that this tragic confluence of factors would have inevitably led to this same conclusion, but in this case, it did. (And he injured a good many others and killed six, including a 9-year-old girl.)
All this makes me wonder why the US seems to thrive on a culture of fear. No other developed country has quite such a record of homicides and public shootings, nor such ease of legally purchasing weapons.  Needless to say, no other country has such an astonishingly long list of nations with which it has been or is, at war. This throbbing vein of fear seems to be at the heart of what is happening there today, the Arizona shooting being just a tragic and visible symbol of this fear.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

Readings: Wonderboys

A story about a middle-aged pot-head writer/professor’s crazy weekend: one that involves a transvestite, a tuba, a dead dog, an almost-suicide, a broken marriage, a pregnant mistress, and Marilyn Monroe’s coat? Absurd as it sounds, Michael Chabon manages to make a go of it. He accomplishes this by skilfully driving the novel on two levels- the superficial one, where the absurd events take place, and the other in the narrator’s inner life where sadness, regret, painful self-awareness and shaky integrity play out with adult seriousness and wry humor.
Thus we have one Grady Tripp- an author and English professor working on his long-awaited second novel, ‘Wonderboys’, after his award-winning first. Only thing is, this novel has taken on a life of its own: Tripp is simply unable to finish it. It’s only natural that this would strain his friendship with Terry Crabtree, also his agent. However, this aspect of Tripp’s failure we come upon later in the tale; most of the story is about his spectacularly bad behavior over the course of a single weekend involving all those crazy elements like dead dogs and tubas.
There are two young students, James Leer and Hannah Green, in Tripp’s writing class who are also involved in this wild weekend- and it is here that Tripp shows his best behavior- his sense of responsibility and protectiveness only appears when dealing with the youngsters, it seems. The talented and somewhat mysterious James is like a young bird that gets under Tripp’s wing, and the beautiful Hannah stays out of disaster by a hair’s breadth after her critique of the Professor’s work.
The only section I didn’t enjoy fully was the one where Tripp drives up to his wife Emily’s family home to share the Passover meal with them. It seemed to wander and was written too much like a witty screenplay, dying to be translated into film. And then the incident about the second dead animal was simply overkill, to use a crude pun. (Also was the very name- Tripp- a cute allusion to the Professor’s weed habit?)
Ultimately, Grady Tripp’s weekend ends with loss on multiple levels. Some caused by his own bad choices, some by pure dumb luck (even if we are led to believe that he is a reasonably happy man by the end of the novel). A lot of the story has to do with the art of writers- their world, academic and otherwise, their ‘midnight disease’ and their sometimes indistinguishable oneness with their own characters. Chabon once again conquers all with his own masterly writing, which makes the sad, drug-crazed weekend of a middle-aged rouรจ this layered and nuanced. An interesting sub-text of male friendship also runs through- with Crabtree, the father in law Irv, and even with young, semi-doomed James Leer that adds its own sweetness and longing, purer than Tripp’s disastrous loves with women.
I enjoyed Wonderboys for this superior writerly talent that Chabon posseses- each page yields a sentence or turn of phrase that one would like to underline and jot down in a notebook, to be read and re-read in later days with wonder and appreciation.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Fists and words

A group of girls in Bangalore has done what I and doubtless many, many girls want to do almost everyday: beat up a man for making sexual advances. However, they still took the 'precaution' of adding a few boys to their group before they beat the man. I would have been just a tad happier if they had decided to complete the task themselves-no need for bodyguards. Still, the man apologized. Is this going to stop him from sexually harassing women for the rest of his life? No-one knows. But it's a start, and a much-needed one. There is a lot to be said for the power of a well-timed thrashing.
Now, I am well aware that the general, catch-all term for sexual harassment in this country is 'eve-teasing.' I don't know whether it actually exists as such in the Constitution, but really, it has GOT to go from our daily usage. Why not call it what it is? Why hide behind this twee, outmoded and patronizing term? EVE TEASING? Really? In the 21st century? Anything short of rape, and it's coyly termed eve-teasing. Please. Words have immense power. Let's start using them appropriately.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Readings: The Final Solution

Imitation can be found in a few members of the...Image via Wikipedia
The year is 1944 and somewhere in rural England, an ancient bee-keeper becomes involved in the life of a nine-year old mute Jewish boy and his pet parrot. This intriguing premise and the added allure of it being a Sherlock Holmes tribute drew me to this slim little novella written by the luminous Michael Chabon.
The Sherlock Holmes character, known through the book only as the ‘old man’, naturally, has a case to solve. The boy, Linus, having been separated from his family in Nazi Germany, lives with an English family  which takes in boarders to supplement their income- it is the murder of one of these boarders that is brought to the old man for him to help the local police with. However, Bruno the African grey parrot (the boy’s only friend) also subsequently disappears. And it is this disappearance that draws the old man more to the case than the actual murder.
Each character is finely etched and has a well-defined motivation: as can be expected from Chabon, the prose is precise and threaded with an inherent understanding of the human condition. I find this aspect the most interesting in the book- whether it is the character itself or his or her reaction to the upheaval brought about by the murder, Chabon paints each man and the lone woman with steady, empathetic strokes. And what a delight to have a ‘barefoot, boot-black’ youth (now middle-aged) from Kerala as the pastor of an English village church!
Ultimately, the ending lives up to the title of the book with a subtlety that I did not quite grasp immediately- and when I did, it increased the book’s appeal manifold. Chabon is in quite fine, if unexpected, form. Sherlock Holmes would have been pleased.
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