Expat@Large

Listen – New Yorker Fiction Podcasts

Posted in books, literature, New Yorker, podcasts, short stories by expatatlarge on March 2, 2012

E@L subscribes to this podcast. One of two, the other being polymath, or at least poly-listener, poly-interviewer, poly-pre-reader, Melvyn Bragg’s amazing In Our Time from the BBC. But back to the New Yorker.

E@L was working out on the gym (IKYN) in Bangkok last week and was listening to what he thinks now is a very good short story, Thomas Beller’s “A Different Kind of Imperfection,” and was also intent on following the discussions between the reader, Said(umlaut over ‘i’) Sayrafiezadeh, and fiction editor Deborah Treisman at the beginning and end of the reading. This is a great way to learn about how short stories work E@L has found. He hasn’t done anything with any of this knowledge, but he has found it.

You can still listen to or download the podcast on the New Yorker website. A Different Kind of Imperfection. It’s 42 minutes, 30 being the story itself… Please do so.

If you don’t listen to you it or reread it, if you have the collection (E@L doesn’t, he has to keep jumping around the podcast to confirm things), the following small essay won’t make one iota of sense. Move along, nothing to read here.

~~~~~~~~

E@L was not so impressed with the story initially, it was vague and inconclusive (traits E@L generally admires in entertainment ) because the relationship of Alex with his mother seemed to be unexplored (intentionally, E@L now realizes), however the discussion was moderately excellent. And Said(umlaut over ‘i’)’s narration is a bit anNOYing.

Turns out Said(umlaut over ‘i’) is a friend of Beller, and the story reminded him of his own childhood, etc… Yada yada. He spoke about how Beller’s writing fascinates him and they both note how he reminds them of Salinger (and did they mention Kafka? No I am thinking of another podcast) and that the solipsistic protagonist, Alexander home from college for the Xmas holidays, may be Holden Caulfield a few years older.

They don’t miss much. Good point: The Oedipal undertones are now as bright as the morning sun in Singapore and just as easy to spot, in retrospect – E@L didn’t pick them up at first.

Alexander is always commenting on his mother’s outstanding beauty. He describes her eyes as liquid, as a hazel which sometimes turns to green, her delicate high cheekbones, all with a barely suppressed sensuality. She looks like a goddess. Yep, Oedipus, front and center. (One of the Seven Basic Plots – well, not actually, Booker only gives it half of Chapter 30. Coleridge however calls OdRex one of the three perfect plots . Not sure about the other two.)

But E@L was now making other observations to augment those of Said(umlaut over ‘i’) and Deborah.

Masterly, Beller distracts you from the implications of this Oedipal lust, and instead makes you think the story is about; firstly the break-up of Alexander and his girlfriend, Sloane. This is what is making him depressed (imperfectly his friend tells him), lethargic, what keeps him at home with his mother, what prevents him from going skiing with his friend and chasing girls up and down those slopes.

Secondly the search for the secret, in a sense, identity of his dead father (a drawn out case of cancer, died when Alex was 10 [drawn out over 8 yrs, give me a break!*]). A fading photo shows his handsome but monkey-faced (huh?), absent father. Mother is beautiful, father is merely good looking. Alexander becomes obsessed with the objects in the house that might have been his father’s. The Wolfschmidt whiskey, the cigarettes; he drinks them, smokes them – patently, Herr Dr Freud, he wants to replace, to become his father. Note that the father was a psychiatrist and has the, ahem, complete works of Freud on his shelves – Alex opens a page of one of the book, reads the word “incest” and shuts the book quickly. (Can’t you hear Bernard Herrmann’s score reach a screeching crescendo here?)

And, hey, what’s that over there? There are hundreds and hundreds of other books scattered all round the apartment, piles of books on the floor, “spilling over everywhere.” Alexander sees them again with fresh eyes, it is like he has not noticed them before. (He mentioned them earlier, casually.) He blithely assumes that these are his father’s books and becomes fascinated and obsessed. He is looking through the books and he finds that some passages are underlined and with annotations that Alexander assumes to be his father’s as, hmm, the handwriting resembles his own . Then he finds some words underlined (but not annotated) that strike him powerfully. He wonders why his father would be reading To The Lighthouse (Wolff, Wolfschmidt!) and marking passages like this:.

“She had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness.”

This phrase keeps reappearing. He is baffled, “disturbed and moved”, by his father underlining these words. It is not the words themselves he finds powerful, he can’t even see them, but the surprising fact that his father underlined them. What was going on in his father’s life that this phrase would mean something important. He feels that his father (the psychiatrist, remember) had discovered something, a secret that Alex isn’t a party to. There is some mystery, there is a truth between the lines, a key. The answer is behind a wall he can’t get past, beneath an impenetrable surface.

Yep, the story seems to be about Alex and his failure to comprehend his father.

And yet…

Crucially, the ambivalent Alex always pushes away from his mother’s affection in what he calls “the unwilling retreat.” It was like she loved him too much, he says. When he was young he felt that his parent’s attention demanded more from him than he could supply. He can’t talk to his beautiful mother, can’t answer her questions. He isn’t worthy.

At the very end of the story, Alexander, out for a walk, sees his mother walking back from shopping with her head down lost in thought (or crazy). When she sees him and fails to recognize him at first (her “look used to warm him”), she is for some reason shocked (OMG it’s my husband reborn! we presume), but then she smiles when she does, and he rushes to her with a great, cathartic hug. He hugs her tightly, holds her tightly to him, because that expression on her face, that smile, makes him think she has an answer to something, as if “a secret, which only she knew, would slip away.”

~~~~~~~~

E@L gets it. Mum gets it. Alexander doesn’t get it. Said(umlaut over ‘i’) Sayrafiezadeh and Deborah Treisman don’t get it. And in failing to grasp the meaning of this secret, the final, unspoken, irony of the story, the only satisfying conclusion in my opinion, they failed in their responsibility to explain to us how this is not merely a good story but, how E@L sees it now, a VERY good story.

The main unsaid thing in E@L’s opinion… the crucial thing… the unmentioned point of the fucken’ story

Their discussion didn’t mention it. It was unnoticed. I was stunned. These smart people had missed the point. They got so far but failed to take the next step and so failed to find the brilliance of the story.

~~~~~~~~

The secret? The key? Here’s what I think.

Those were Alexander’s mother’s books.

Those were her notes and her underlining.

She was the one who thought that Virginia Wolff had nailed it. The books, the wisdom they contain had brought her solace, they were the therapy she needed to keep going. Fortunately for Alexander, she didn’t drink the Wolfschmidt, but went running with the Wolff…

It was her who had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness. When her husband was alive, when she was in love. She never remarried.

Yep, mother had been depressed since her beloved husband died. Look at the state of the house. She had not had the apartment walls painted since her husband’s death; chairs have broken wicker seats; the books are strewn untidily. She hardly ever had guests. She, like Sloane, is a professional at depression. Is this parallel what attracted Alex to Sloane in the first place?

That smile. She knows that Alex loves her, even thought he never says it explicitly, even though he has, shy, embarrassed, feeling inadequate, avoided answering her motherly questions all these years. She knows that he is disgusted with himself for his incestuous feelings.

His mother holds the secret, not his father. It is not his father he should have been looking for after all, it is his mother. And she was right there in front him. Part of him has been blocking this knowledge. Id, ego, superego. He has been afraid to find her, to reveal his love for her, because he doesn’t deserve it. Pure Freud. If he looks like his father, then he too has a monkey face.

And so, at the end, when she is old and fading, no longer the beauty she once was, it is safe for him to give her love now and safe to accept her love for him, for she does love him and he does deserve her love. It is safe to give her that immensely affecting bear hug. A hug that should have been given years ago… Tears from E@L.

~~~~~~~~

Please listen to the podcast, and tell me if you think this Oedipal stuff with the Chekhovian, O.Henry’ish twist is really there, or if E@L is imagining it, psychoanalysing himself Alexander into it. After which we can discuss the story and disagree (i.e. you can be wrong) or agree: let me know.

As most readers will realize, E@L is expecting only Savmarshmama to help him on this. Everyone else: Surprise me.

~~~~~~~~

Of course I could send an email to Beller himself to see if confirm that he agrees with me.

~~~~~~~

Why am I feeling obsessed by this? Because I am meeting Mercermachine tomorrow for a coffee and to look at the draft his latest story and to bring something of my own to show to him. And I am therefore running away from this responsibility and am distracting myself with this frivolous post.

Class dismissed.

E@L

* this sort of scientifically impossible stuff turns me off story and films. MMmm, wonder if that 8 years cancer is a metaphor of 8 years with Alex? If so, it’s OK.

[Not saying this is a great review and/or discussion, but E@L enjoyed writing it and wishes he had been able to get so impassioned and have such briliant insights (!) when he was at university.]

[The fact that E@L’s father died when he was young and that his mother never remarried is not to be considered relevant here.]

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Molly Bloom? YES!

Posted in books, coffee, hipsters working in bookstores, literature, wankers by expatatlarge on October 28, 2011

Two guys, P & T, go into a bookstore, browsing.

– I always like to read the last sentence of a book before I buy it. I find that it tells me most about the book, says P.

– Yeah, me too. Most people grab a book and look at the first sentence, or a bit of the first few pages, agrees T.

– Mistake. First few sentences writer dude’s trying hard to grab the publisher’s attention, you know, like publish this book and give money, sorta thing. It’s not actually what the reader would like he’s thinking of, but what he thinks the publisher will think the reader will like. You know how many subsequent classics have been knocked back by wanker publishers? Lots, it’s fucking criminal. The first sentence can be annoying, but the book still amazingly good. Or the sentence good but the book crap, like the stuff you read.

– Ha ha. But yeah, never thought of *why* I do it, but you’re spot on there. The last sentence or two are about tidying up the plot, the characters. Dude’s only trying hard to impress the reader, make the reader satisfied. Well not always of course, but you know what I mean.

They nod. Such perfect agreement between people is rare.

T, a genre fiction addict, recommends to P a couple of science-fantasy-speculative-horror-magic/realism cult books which he thought everyone should read, but P hasn’t.

~~~~~~~

“He never saw Molly again.” *

” ‘Don’t ask me why, old sport,’ said Stoney, ‘but somebody up there likes you.’ ”

“I know nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”

“He walked away and he kept on walking.”

~~~~~~~

And a few others of varying merit.

P, a pretentious autodidact who uses words like “autodidact” in general conversation, recommends some slipstream books which don’t quite fit the genres, as well as some modernist and post-modernist classics which everyone should read but, naturellement T hasn’t.

~~~~~~~

“And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.”

“For a long time there is really nothing to be seen; but after Golgotha’s been burning for an hour or two, it becomes possible to see that underneath the shallow water, spreading down the valley floor, right around the isolated boulder where Randy’s perched, is a bright thick river of gold.”

“And all that is left to me is the sound of snow underfoot.”

“It was summoning all the barges on the river, every last one, and the whole city and sky and the countryside and ourselves, to carry us all away, the Seine too—and that would be the end of us.”

“Now everybody—”

~~~~~~~~

And he picked up one more of the recommended books and held it open in his hands… And he started to read the last sentence.

P paid for his handful of books, had them demagnetized, placed in a biodegradable bag. He waited by the entrance.

Still waiting, he browsed some more new releases that tempted him. The Pale King. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet… He moved his biodegradable bag from one hand to the other, scratched at his groin as a pubic hair seemed to caught over the end of his cock. This irritated him. It was too long since he had last shaved his balls.

He wanted to call out to T to hurry the fuck up, but in a bookstore such as this one in Carlton, it is like a library but with allegedly cool people who have eyebrow studs and ponytails (males) and pierced lips and blue hair (females) behind the counter, and not little old ladies who always recommend Agatha Christie. It is not cool to yell here.

P gives up. Fuck, I’ll go have a long macchiato, he thinks. I’ll met T in the coffee shop he loves, the one next door..

His second long macchiato is down, some biscotti down. Despite his shaking hands, he is in a dream world, reading one of the books he has just bought. It is completely weird; moralistic, simplistic, and funny, and he was hooked by the expression “chrono-synclastic infundibula.” T is still not back. P sighs, pays the black-clad, blue-haired waitress with the stud though her lip and heads back to the bookstore and find T, last seen reading over 30 minutes ago.

T is standing where he left him, still immersed in the book, turning a page.

– Come on mate, I thought you were only going to read the last sentence!

– I am.

– What the fuck book are you reading?

– You recommended it, man.

He turns to book over to show P the cover.

P groans.

~~~~~~~

E@L

[Sorry about that folks – it was just meant to be a three line joke but as usual, I got carried a way. The real Tom, from whom this completely imaginary conversation originated when he joked about the title of this post being on a t-shirt somewhere (or something like that), has neither (all) the characteristics of the hyopthetical T nor (all) those of the hypothetical P, but he is a well-read bastard. Both characters, says E@L, c’est moi.

And there is purely the smug satisfaction of being a wanker dilettante like E@L for those who can tell me which books are quoted above: they are last lines, of course. OK, a candy bar or a Guinness, your choice, if you can get more than five. I’m presuming most people I know will get the book T is reading… If not, I’m getting some new friends.]

* The author added this sentence as an afterthought in order to prevent him from writing a sequel, as in — hey, she’s dead. It didn’t work. (Thanks Paul.)

Toes

Posted in anatomical variants, Bangkok, books, David Foster Wallace, hookers, knees, literature, toes by expatatlarge on November 12, 2010

I was going to write a piece about Thai bar girls’ ugly knees (a Bruce story) and the strange looking toes I noticed on one of my colleagues (on her feet to be exact) – they were long and thin and splay-toed, with buttons of yellow callus on the little toes, gecko-like, Gollum-like, and they really freaked me out – until* I read the opening lines of David Foster Wallace’s Broom Of The System

Most pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metelman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. They’re long and thin and splay-toed, with buttons of yellow callus on the little toes… etc…(No mention of Gollum)

Sigh.

More about The Broom of the System

(Wrong picture – I have the new Penguin Ink edition, cover art by tattooist Duke Reilly)

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Finally, yes, I’ve started to dispel the fog of guilt in which I have been literarily (new word?) lost, never having read Infinite Jest. [And now I’ve purchased BotS! What an fracken idiot!]

When Wallace ended the universe of himself – rope, neck, kitchen ceiling (I believe) [I wonder if he wore shoes when he went, or were his toes exposed? Were they pretty toes or ugly ones?]- a few years back, I thought, heck I’d better read it, in memoriam you know? But immediately he went, all his books evaporated into the libraries of similarly motivated but more prompt aesthetes, and I failed in my epicish (new word?) endeavour to obtain an edition of IJ, indeed any of DFW’s books, in Singapore. Consider the Lobster I eventually found in Bangkok, but still it sits unread on my unread-over-weighted shelves. Then, slippery cerebral circuitry, Infinite Jest escaped from my mind for a while.

I was reading about infinity a while back and trying (failing) to come to terms with the Aleph of infinities proposed by George Cantor in the late 19th century, when I saw in the science/mathematics section Wallace’s book on infinity – Everything And More – grabbed it, read it, but it didn’t really help, only frustrated me more. My fault of course – glazed eyes? you have no idea.

Izzy’s friend Tom (hey dude) is a maths prodigy (compared to me, compared to anyone), and he helped; but he was amazed that I hadn’t read Infinite Jest. So, by now it was far enough away from his funeral for the new editions to have returned to the Kinokuniya shelves, at his insistence I took one home. Unread. Guilt. Fog. Book become invisible.

Then on Tuesday (this Tuesday, last Tuesday I mean, a few days ago, remember?) at a pub quiz – beers, pizza, imminent victory, jaws, defeat – the conversation inexplicably turned to DFW. Did I start it**? Maybe I did. Two of the guys, one Welsh (another mathemetician) the other American, went quasi-orgasmic over Infinite Jest. They seemed to have read everything of his, but they didn’t know which week Thanksgiving falls in! So again me, with guilt/inadequacy. Fog. Shuts up. (But I read today – I should be working, not blogging or reading interviews, I know – in an interview with Arundhati Roy that she hadn’t read any William Faulkener, so hey… [oops, neither have I])

So now, two days later E@L is about fifteen pages into IJ; autistic/savant tennis players, dope fiends… and skipping around about too, to sample what’s ahead.

EVERY SENTENCE IS AMAZING and requires you to think and puzzle, find the joke and the wit and the genius, but somehow it is enjoyably readable (once you let it flow, as you have to do with Proust). At one point while browsing ahead, I hiccuped into spontaneous laughter – fat woman’s buttocks inextricably wedged out the window of a bus toilet! One minute hyper-intense, 60 seconds later slapstick.

And I only have 1000 pages of this stuff to go!

More about Infinite Jest

It took the below footnoted David Eggers a month to read it he confesses in the intro to my edition. Ha! That’s what my McSweeney subscriber said as well. As I struggled and wanked my way for fifteen years to eventually get over Gravity’s Rainbow, (somewhere, oh that’s right, in Phuket) I doubt I will be that rapid in my reading…

E@L

* the “I was going write”, not the freaked out bit

** Oh that’s right, I had mentioned McSweeney’s in a facile attempt to make me sound smart (iron, Eiffel tower, who woulda thunk?) a propos who the frack knows what, but one of the guys had been a fracking subscriber to McSweeneys (embarrassment, curl up, ball), and then the question (not from the pub quiz) as to who was the editor of McSweeneys (I thought Rick Moody, but fortunately kept my mouth shut) and then up (on my Google phone) came David Eggers and he subsequently led us through the garden of fracking allusional (new word?) paths of semi-drunken one-up-manship to the topic of the works of one David Foster Wallace (deceased).

UlyssesSeen / BloggerNotSeen

Posted in adult content, blogger, bloggers, Bloomsday, censorship, comic, James Joyce, literature by expatatlarge on June 16, 2010

Dublin, June 16th 1904.

A comic book version of James Joyce’s Ulysses hits the ether/cloud…

UlyssesSeen.

Apart from being free on the triple-W, this awesome effort is also available for free download from iTunes to the iPad and other iProducts… but only now that Apple has rescinded its directive to remove all images containing nudity from the comic book version of the novel. Apparently (in an updated version of the NYT article which I’ve only seen on the TimesReader edition), it now seems that Ulysses is “not obscene” after all.

There’s a revelation.

Prior to its publication as a comic for the iPad, Joyce’s stately, plump book was more often carried ostentatiously through university campuses than actually read. Now just carrying a iPad around is all that is required to evoke mixed feelings of jealous rage and supercilious dismissal in their fellow university layabouts.

Some would no doubt say that Ulysses is more famous for being banned than for being best-sellers – a la The Girl Who Really Knows How To Treat Rapists. Also in this category are that good gardening guide, Lady Lovely’s Chatter and that medical textbook, The Topic of Cancer, amongst others

Can’t argue there. Nothing like a controversy to boost sales.

There is a fascination tale behind the publishing history of Ulysses.

First published in Paris in 1922, it was banned until 1933 in the USA and in Australia until 1937, only to be re-banned in 1941, which tells you something about how we do over artistic creativity down under.

One wonders if Steve Jobs’ asshat morality guerrillas used the same criteria to assess the comic that Judge James M. Woolsey used in his famous overturning of the USA ban:

— It did not give him an erection, therefore it was not pornographic, therefore it was not obscene. —

Fair call in those heady(npi!) pre-viagra days of course.

Didn’t fuck up the sales too much either.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

These too are the guys who temporarily popped an “Adults Only” rating on the iPhone book-reader Eucalyptus because you could download the Kama Sutra to it. That fact that the Kama Sutra is available for download to ANY book-reader or computer because it comes from Project Gutenberg appears to have been neither here nor there. This version doesn’t even have the highly illustrative, um, illustrations with it.

Arbitrary, inconsistent and often contradictory are most people on the extremes of the moralistic universe.

Of course, Eucalyptus then became THE $10 eBook reader to have on your iPhone after this.

Controversy = cash.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And please don’t ever forget the case of the immensely amusing David over at his once obligatory site for farangs in Thailand, MangoSauce. He lost his GoogleAds account for no good reason at all. Many of his posts are as classics in the expat genre, and thankfully his site is still up.

Oops. Controversy = no cash.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Speaking of arbitrary and unjustified censorship of free speech (no, not here in Singapore – we love Big Brother, and I don’t mean the TV show), over the last week, Blogger and Google had taken down both Canadian blogger MJ’s site, The Infomaniac (and locked her out of her Gmail account) and Spanish blogger Leni at Escritora y peligrosa (not a debilitating skin disease). For about five days MJ was in cloud limbo until Google apologised and reinstated her account. Leni was knocked out for most of Sunday.

WTF? The shivers have been going up Blogspot bloggers’ spines.

A lot of Southern Kerfuffle was righteously raised by one of E@L’s bestest blog-friends, that sweet person and ever-popular Savannah, her support bringing this unjustified and unjustifiable (to coin a phrase) injustice to blog-light.

Mago chased up Leni’s case as well and it all came to a head!

Their efforts at raising online awareness of these cases presumably helped Google/Blogger to right their wrongs.

[Sav mentions in the comments here that eros den was the main guy to push Blogger in these cases.

As Leni reports, the procedure for getting one’s blog back seems complicated enough – a 5-step process that calls for a review request, an appeal, etc… but I imagine it would be even worse if you no longer have an email account, as in MJ’s case!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Why did this happen? Neither blogger is outrageously controversial or frankly obscene (not telling you what happened to my willy) though there might be a bit of flesh here and there or some stories about bits of flesh there and here.

Hell, nothing outrageous. Nothing to explain it at all. Leni talks about being slightly harassed by some religious nutter, but that may not have been the case. Blogger have not told her what happened, and same for MJ, although in her case they did apologize.

Interestingly, Leni’s, MJ’s, and even Savannah’s (!!) blog now have the Blogger “Content Warning” when you go there, as you have should have seen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There is a hesitancy with which many people are viewing the seemingly arbitrary censorship. Hell some people are blocked just for fucking swearing!

Like both Savannah (personal communication) and Mago (new site here), I have taken the anti-conspiratorial precaution of backing up and (half a day’s work!) exporting all my posts and some (but not all, it seems) of my comments over to a mirror blog using my WordPress account. I’m not migrating completely just yet, but I’ll let you know if I decide that I will.

Depends how skittish we all get with the arbitrariness of the Hidden Ones at Google.

[Addendum 2: Don’t foget that I lost MY old blog TWICE – when hackers used it to send phishing emails out. You still can’t read my old blog in some places, like the BA business lounge at Heathrow. ]

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Oh, yeah, where did this rambling post start? Happy Bloomsday.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Don’t get yourselves banned without a back-up.

E@L

Boring Chess Trivia

Posted in chess, literature by expatatlarge on May 10, 2010

There are 20 possible first moves in chess for white and 20 possible first moves for black, giving 400 possible combinations already, for just the bloody start.

Each player has 27 options for his or her second move, bringing the total number of combinations for the game thus far up to 71,852.

After the third move this jumps to around 9,000,000 possible game situations.

After the fourth move, 315 billion.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sigh.  Thinking three moves ahead or several billion?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Estimated possible games – 10^126.

Estimated number of electrons in the universe – 10^79.

OMG, no wonder I can’t win.

E@L’s  Gameknot.com ranking is in green. It looks like the stock market on Thursday…  Interesting thing is that as he played more and more on-line tournament games against higher rated opponents (gray line), or more appropriate opponents such as those of his purported ranking, his took a nose-dive… Funny that.

Other boring numbers trivia is from…

More about The Immortal Game

~~~~~~~~~~

White(Murphy)
1. P–K4 (b) …

(b) The primary cause of all of White’s subsequent difficulties.

Samuel Beckett, Murphy, Novels of Samuel Beckett I, pp145-6.

Love that quote. From the very word go we are doomed to ever escalating complexity…

As in chess, so in life.

E@L

Recommended Reading (Updated)

Posted in literature, Singapore, WWII by expatatlarge on April 23, 2010

1. “The Singapore Grip”, by J.G. Farrell, 1978. Available in a NYRP edition these days.

What is this Singapore grip thing exactly? It becomes a bit of a running gag in the novel and you don’t find out until near the end, but it’s worth the wait.

More about The Singapore Grip

Here is a Great Book of the new old-school, teeming with immense human insight and dark humour. And bloody interesting (certainly to me) information about Singapore in the year leading up to the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. Robber rubber barons and communist mata-haris mix it in the tropical humidity. Yet for all its proselytising and the wealth of opinions espoused by the various characters, the style is easy and relaxed, with a classical feel, perhaps because of the clarity of Farrell’s descriptive powers. It’s one of the few Oriental books where the literally exotic (ex- out of, otic – the east) scenery doesn’t seem to get in the way of the essential plot(s). It’s something like reading Joseph Conrad at his best, but much more funny and obviously with a slightly more modern tale. If only more books were as ‘gripping’ (ho ho) as this.

So, you’re of the It’s Not Set In New York So Fuck It school of literary appreciation, and you don’t give a fuck about the street number accurate depiction of pre-war Singapore and its snobby, foolish British elite, or the bungling pig-headedness of the unprepared British and Australian military, or the exact methods of exploiting the Malayan rubber workers? That’s OK.

Read it instead for it’s universal theme of sexual intrigue. There is the incredibly amusing story of the (perhaps overly) naive, idealistic Matthew Webb who is fresh in town from the collapse of the League of Nations, as he fends off the romantic advances of the pretty white girl, Jean Blackett, the daughter of his deceased father’s partner (who wants to lock together the firm of Webb and Blackett for one more generation and for more profit.) Meanwhile Matthew’s once best-friend is trying in vain to interest Jean in himself by bowing to her every outrageous whim, which of course only makes her respect him less. Then there is Matthew again, instead learning the Chinese way of Yin-Yang sex. Upstairs, cramped in a dark, smoky, tiny tenement in Chinatown with the half Chinese, half White Russian (maybe) femme fatale (feel my breast) Vera, he puts on his glasses and brings the lamp closer to get a better look at her “pearl in a jade sea”… This is one of the unable-to-stop-smiling-and-chuckling jokes with which this book is teeming!

Read it also for the war-drama of the inexorable approach of the Japanese army down the Malay peninsula, for the terror of the soldiers, both Japanese and Allies in the fog of night-time battle, and for the desperate heroism amongst the tragedy of the fire-fighters battling raging infernoes as bombs fall on the Singapore docks – you can’t help but think of the 9/11 fire-fighters at this point.

One of the key themes of the book is how nothing ever really changes in itself, no matter how much it is altered on the outside. Certainly this books raises most of the issues I continually rage about concerning Singapore; exploitation (of maids), nepotism, etc… except maybe for taxi-drivers.

To highlight this, Farrell tells the fable of some King or other (can’t find it now, forgot to bookmark it) returning from the Battle of Arles [sic?] approached by a fisherman (or something) who asks, “Did we win?” “What does it matter to you if we won?” replies the King. “You’ll still be a fisherman.”

Mmm. Singapore is still Singapore.

The book ends as the Japanese march the surrendered westerners to the Changi internment camp. This is where many Singapore war books start.

I loved it, maybe because I haven’t read a book with such high drama mixed with such dry irony and wonderful humour for a while. It’s one of those big tomes (598 pages) that you can’t stop reading once you gather up the gumption to start yet you don’t want ever it to end (yada yada).  Big though it is, the style is tight, plot motivates all the action and it’s not overloaded with crap unrealistic dialogue or bullshit diversion like many “novels” these days seriously in need of an editor.*

Note: Ayn Rand would not like this book. Which can only be a plus to my (and Matthew’s) way of thinking.

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J.G Farrell won the Booker Prize in 1973 for his previous book, ‘The Siege of Krishanpour’, and in his speech of acceptance condemned Booker-Connell for the working conditions in their plantations in the West Indies. Those were the days, when it was not an attack on the very fabric of the universe to stand up for those who lack the opportunity and means to speak for themselves. This sense of aggrievement for the oppressed and foreign is one of the many things I like (being an armchair socialist myself) about The Siege and The Grip (I’ve read Troubles too, and the naive newcomer character is there, as is the actual Major, but it is not as politically engaged as the others.)

Farrell was swept out to sea while rock fishing in Bantry Bay, Ireland not long after publishing this book. He was only 41. What a great pity. I would have loved to read whatever he was to write next, and you should read what he has already written.

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2. “The Boat” by Walter Gibson, originally published in 1963, I think. 2007, from Monsoon Books in Singapore. (Review copy. Thanks Phil!)

Another interesting Singapore war-time story in a completely different vein, this is a true first person account of how 135 survivors from a boat that was sunk escaping Japanese occupied Malaya (or Borneo? it doesn’t matter – I don’t have the book with me to check some details) try to survive while clinging to a lifeboat built for 28 adrift in the Malacca Straits for nearly a month without enough water or food, apart from sashimi. Terrible things ensue. Four people survived this amazing ordeal, including the only female, a nurse who was immediately captured by the Japanese as she trudged away looking for food and water and sent to a prison camp. Gibson himself had only just escaped from one of those death marches which are all too popular these days (books about them I mean) before he found himself in this new predicament. The writing is, um, not at Farrell’s level, more documentary style, but it is the steeliness of these people’s will to survive the horrors of their “ultimate escape” journey that keeps you reading with gruesome fascination. Despite it being a stark, ultimately sad tale, I felt warmed by the strength of its depiction of such stoic, human perseverance. How would I manage under such circumstances? Really enjoyed reading it, as it gave me a lot to think about.

And it is only 100 pages.

More about The Boat

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[Addendum: a late inclusion…]

3. The City & The City, China Miéville, 2010. Pan.

A murder mystery, corruption thing set in the weirdest cities you’ve ever heard of… Besźel and Ul Qoma are cities with different cultures, different architecture, different languages, different rules… but they inhabit the same geographic space. The towns mesh and weave through each other in the strangest most disorienting ways; buildings on the same street, even on the same side can be in the different city. If you cross a path in the wrong place or stoop to chase your wind-tossed hat you might’ve crossed the border – illegally. You’ve Breached. You’re gone, as in disappeared.  Even to look at the other city or its inhabitants is Breach. There is a border point where, after copious paperwork and baksheesh, you can get to the other city, but while you physically walk the same streets, you no longer are allowed to see the city you just left. You have to “unsee” it, just as you “unsee” that city from the vantage of the other.

Traffic, understandably, is a nightmare as you must avoid the cars, buses, trucks and pedestrians you are not allowed to see. To “unsee” other cars is to automatically filter them from your consciousness while physically getting out of their way as well.

In this sense, it reminds me of the traffic in Vietnam and in India.

More about The City & the City

Another top read.  Will no doubt win some award for something.

E@L

* I started some Laurel K Hamilton vampire-hunter novel once (why oh why?) and gave it up when I noticed it had taken over 5 pages for her characters to move from the car to the house as they discuss some hokum irrelevant bullshit and go through five stages of a relationship. Is she paid per word? Padding!

Quotes Of The Day

Posted in literature, little book of calm, philosophy, quote of the day, writers by expatatlarge on April 5, 2010

The Sage of Göttingen

Physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) is not widely remembered outside Germany — which is a great pity, as his notebooks contain some of history’s most trenchant aphorisms:

* If countries were named after the words you first hear when you go there, England would have to be called Damn It.

* What they call “heart” lies much lower than the fourth waistcoat button.

* What a pity it isn’t a sin to drink water, cried an Italian, how good it would taste.

* A book is a mirror: If an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.

* The often unreflected respect for old laws, old customs, and old religion we have to thank for all mischief in the world.

* It is we who are the measure of what is strange and miraculous: If we sought a universal measure the strange and miraculous would not occur and all things would be equal.

* Just as there are polysyllabic words that say very little, so there are also monosyllabic words of infinite meaning.

* If walking on two legs is not natural to man it is certainly an invention that does him credit.

* It is almost impossible to carry the torch of wisdom through a crowd without singeing someone’s beard.

* Now that education is so easy, men are drilled for greatness, just as dogs are trained to retrieve. In this way we’ve discovered a new sort of genius, those great at being drilled. These are the people who are mainly spoiling the market.

* Can it be that the evil in the world is in general of more use than the good?

* Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinions at all.

The “waste books” were admired by Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud, and even Tolstoy wondered “why the Germans of the present day neglect this writer so much.” He never got an answer.

(This post entirely lifted from the remarkable Futility Closet).

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Love the last one.

E@L

Dunkeln Und Licht

Posted in Brecht, literature, movies, music by expatatlarge on November 15, 2008

Further on the Darkness and Light motif in

Image of The White Tiger

— the often elipsed last verse of Mac The Knife

German:

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht

English translation:

There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight

(from Mystic Bourgeoisie)

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On a related note, Danny Boyle’s new movie Slumdog Millionaire seems to want to put forward the rosy side of having to shit on the street along with 750 million others.

E@L

Back Online – White Tiger

Posted in crash, imac, India, literature by expatatlarge on November 9, 2008

The iMac has been reformatted and lots of stuff reloaded. iPhoto still crashes, but what the fuck. I’ll BitTorrent Aperture at some stage.

Sort of missed today. Was it nice outside? Loading stuff, downloading movies – watched Cloverfield (good idea, Godzilla meets Before Sunset), Tropic Thunder (hilarious!) – and I finished “White Tiger”, Aravand Ariga’a Booker Prize winner.

Hands up if you think this is another magic-realism Merchant-Ivory-Rushdie romance? WRONG!

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Think of this shoe shop…

Then think of one of the guys under the table working to make those shoes.

I’m going to ask you to stretch your imagination – to Aravind Adiga’s lengths. Imagine that one of these shoemakers has written a novel about how he extricates himself from such an impossibly exploitative situation and made it as “an entrepreneur” in Bangalore.

White Tiger is not about a shoemaker of course, I just happen to have these pics, but rather, it ‘written’ by a tea-maker, a clever young boy in “the Darkness” of the slum world of northern India. Balram Halwai (called Munna, “boy”, until a name is needed at school) eventually eavesdrops his way of this, using information he picks up by being practically invisible to the other wealthier classes, to become the driver for a rich family. Here in “the Light” of the rich world, his sense of injustice grows until he commits a horrific crime in order “not to end up in a mound of indistinguishable bodies that will rot in the black mud of Mother Ganga.” It is the only way he can see to get out – a line of poetry echoes in his mind, ironically it is the only poem he knows: ““you were looking for the key for years, but the door was always open.

The conversational tone (I say it is ‘written’ not narrated, because the format is that of an extended letter to Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa!) is captivating and easy to read but the themes and the reality depicted are extremely hard-hitting (or least would be if you thought India was all shagging the sadhus at the 5-star ashram, lovely colored saris and smoking good pot in Goa).

This is about the India that flashes past the tinted window of your Mercedes limousine, it’s about the India I see in the clinics and hospitals. Desperately poor people chronically trapped by corruption that runs so deep it has become the supportive skeleton of the country. All I have seen improve in 10 years that I have been going there is the quality of the rich people’s cars.

“…no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality…”

But it does have entrepreneurs… and democracy!

And murderers.

And great novelists.

E@L