Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A novel of a Pakistani man, educated at Princeton, employed at a prestigious consulting company, who has a post-9/11 meltdown, paired with a love affair gone wrong, who may or may not end up a terrorist and who may or may not be telling his story to a CIA agent in Pakistan, who he may or may not kidnap or kill.

This has probably been the most financially successful of the post 9/11 novels, and it's not hard to guess why. Well, actually the cynic in me guesses it's because it's short, but also because of the wisely chosen title and the fact that this is the only 9/11 novel written in English by a Middle Easterner (as far as I know). (Full disclosure: I knew Mohsin casually from my freshman dorm and from a creative writing workshop)

There was a lot that I liked about this spare novel --the inside view of a foreigner at an Ivy League institution, the inside view of one of those NYC banking-consulting-big business firms that so many of my classmates joined after college, the inside view of the room in the airport where they make you take off your pants if you don't come from the right country... But the thing that interested me most is the form. It's a first person novel told directly to another character. It's a really awkward form compared to the typical first person novel, in which the narrator floats above the text without a temporal body and therefore without a need to address where and when s/he is as s/he tells the story. But Hamid has to include lines that would never be spoken by the average person, like "Look here comes our waiter now" and "My what big arms you have" (I paraphrase) in order to reveal that the narrator is talking to someone he clearly believes is a brawny CIA operative in a Pakistani restaurant. And it made me think about how un-real first person really is.

A lot of students will express how hard it is to reveal the narrator in a first person work because people don't go around explaining what they look like and so on. But I say, for one, yes they do, and two, the whole premise of a first person story or novel is unnatural in the first place, so why are we pretending that it's more suited to realism than a third person narrative is. Of course, we all speak in first person, but we don't go around telling our life stories in scene and exposition. So embrace the falseness of it all, I say. I tend to think if you've chosen first person it should be stylized, made different somehow than the generic first person voice of so much writing, and I think, too, that a first person narrator can say anything they want. Including, what big arms you have.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

A novel set around 9/11 by the master author of White Noise and Mao II.

I've become attached lately to the idea of having a central image that echoes throughout a novel. And the Falling Man of the title, a performance artist who bungee jumps off of buildings in front of unsuspecting New Yorkers and then freezes in a falling pose, an echo of those who jumped from the burning World Trade Center towers, is just such an echoing image. And it was the one part of the novel that worked for me. The sadness of the image--a man falling--paired with the cruelty of his art--people think he's really a suicide jumping in front of them--is so complex emotionally and intellectually. It casts a great shadow of meaning and feeling over the book.

But the rest felt pretty uninteresting to me. I know the book pulled quite a few raves off of critics, and I guess I'll reread those reviews to look for what they found, but it felt to me like DeLillo relied too much on 9/11 to supply the complexity to his novel and never developed the characters or the narration enough. In my favorite DeLillo novel Mao II, he uses historical events throughout the text, but it's the narrator's thoughts on these events as well as the characters actions in juxtaposition with them, that make the book feel rich and complicated. With Falling Man, DeLillo seems to assume that since all of his readers experienced the event for themselves (and he seems to assume we all experienced it as New Yorkers did), he need say no more. But the reason to read a DeLillo is that he's smarter than I am, that his reactions to such an event, should help me decipher my own.

Libra, DeLillo's novel of Lee Harvey Oswald, also makes use of a historical event that quite a few of his readers would remember, but by creating Oswald as a character DeLillo gives readers a view (invented, admittedly) that the newspapers didn't give. With Falling Man, the details feel pulled from the news rather than the imagination.

We live in interesting times and quite naturally those times will and should make it in to fiction, but it's worth examing, how do you write historical fiction about history that isn't yet in the past.

The Curtain: An Essay in Nine Parts by Milan Kundera

A nonfiction book on reading and writing novels by a master of thought and form.

"Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional--thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious--is contemptible."

Easy for him to say.

But he's a little bit right too. I think ambition is often considered either ugly or egotistical among young writers, published and unpublished, but I think that's why we too often settle for good rather than great. Interestingly students often reward good work in workshop, without pushing the student-author to be great, but are very reluctant to acknowledge great work in the reading I assign. I suppose it's a way of finding hope and even inspiration--to mythologize their peers and de-mythologize their published predecessors.

In the novel My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk has his characters argue whether a great artist is one who can copy exactly the work of his great predecessors or one who finds his individual style and in so doing changes the very nature of what is considered great work. Kundera makes clear that history has come down on the side of individual style. The books that get remembered are the ones that change what has come before. And so great books only achieve their greatness in the context of history. That if someone wrote a Shakespearean play (not one of those rewrites but an original play in the voice and style of Shakespeare) it would not be considered great, at all. It would be anachronistic, imitative and a step backwards. But this may be an academic view more than a popular one. People might really like a new Shakespeare play... but the make-up of courses and theories of art as tied to periods of history (British Novel of the 20th Century, etc) doesn't really allow for such a work to be important.