The Gathering by Anne Enright

It’s not evil to describe a flaccid penis – The Gathering by Anne Enright

The narrator is Veronica. She is middle-aged, married, with kids, and says penis a lot. I wouldn’t have noticed the last detail had I not been warned by a friend, asking me to count the word penis. Not that the narrator is sexually deranged, it just so happened that she watches her husband sleeping naked and describes it, and remembers her brother Liam peeing an arched piss and describes it. There is nothing sexually notorious, except for one wriggling memory that may have affected her brother’s behavior before he died.

And this memory is something that Veronica could not even conjure without raising the demons of doubt altogether. No, it happened this way. No, it was like this. No, I am not sure that it happened.

Liam’s death necessitated the gathering of the eight surviving siblings, including Veronica. In this novel, Veronica rethinks her life to find out the truths that ultimately led to his brother’s death. This did not prove to be an easy task, and whoever said that it’s nothing, it’s fine, must not be a living organism.

For a while, I practised with my own wounds and scabs, and was taken, each time, by the brightness of the red on the white toilet paper I used instead of Ada’s tea towels. Children do not understand pain; they experiment with it, but you could almost say that they don’t feel it, or do not know how to feel it, until they are grown. And even then, it seems we always feel pain for the wrong thing. Or so it has been with me.

The first pages of the book might make the reader a little suspicious, for Veronica states that she wants to write her story and her brother’s story, and something that has, or has not, happened when they stayed at her grandmother’s house. A sign of unreliability, you might say, but give it the benefit of the doubt.

Throughout the novel, the narrator keeps on revising the details of her past. She would go on to say that this is what happened. The next chapter, she would start and say, no, that is not what happened, this is what really happened. I was sometimes annoyed because I was trying to formulate my own conclusions, and at the flick of the page, she would invalidate the facts. It even got to the point that I hurled my mass market edition just to breathe.

Just think about this: Veronica’s unreliability could be just the most reliable virtue that she has. In rethinking and doubting her memories and herself, we understand that she is trying her best to come up with the most truthful account of the best to the best of her abilities, or lack thereof. This could backfire though, because the impatient reader might just give up on the novel and look for something else to read.

But this book is rewarding. The narratives are alive with descriptions that seem like they are your own memories. It’s either that or the words are just too precise to evoke the right image. Truth is, there isn’t enough action going on in the present. Liam dies. He drowns himself. His body is sent to the household. Father and mother and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews gather.

And really, that is not what we are looking it. We watch Veronica’s perfect life crumble as the past joins in the reunion. She realizes a lot of things about Liam, to whom she is closest with, and about herself. She escapes from the presence of her husband and her daughter to take long drives, to drink maybe some whiskey, and to mull things over. The past sends shockwaves and unsettles her so much that she re-examine her life, her pains, her demons.

And this death, Liam’s death, is not the novel’s main attraction. When a person dies, the drama unfolds around the people nearby that person. That’s where the attraction is, and that is what the novel tackles. And funny, we almost always have this need for a change when death occurs, particularly the death of a loved one. Hence, Veronica’s story.

4 star - really liked itIt annoys me that some readers hint at this as softcore porn. There is nothing pornographic in it. I will defend it against the haters, although there will be too much defending to do because I noticed that the book has a lot of haters, based on the average ratings at social book networking sites. I even raised my rating a notch higher as a sign of my appreciation for this novel.

And going back to the innumerable mention of penis, I doubt that this stems from a strong sexual desire. I think that Veronica, and Liam for this matter, are merely looking for love. Veronica wouldn’t be struggling too much had she been comforted by love. Liam’s cause of death, surely, is his inability to find that elusive pure love. So why are people bothered when Veronica mentions her husbands dead penis and its purplish scrotum?

Oh well, Veronica takes in a lot of details. This can be a tiresome attribute, but they are nice details anyway. They can be funny, scathing, pointless, bittersweet. And these details, thoughtfully picked up, when put together, produce a sense of harsh displacement that wanes, and wanes, and further wanes until the inevitable revelation.

I like the fifth plan

In the countercurrents of the Pacific – Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I am currently reading this with two friends, LS and Maria. We are now halfway through it, at least I am, and I’ll just post my daily inputs for the first three days to make things easier for me.

***

Day 1:

Welcome to Zookeeping 101! The first 50 pages felt like nonfiction. It was fun though. The animal talk is just expected, but what I am surprised about is all this talk about Christian and Muslim and Hindu gods. So how will the author make the reader believe in God if he presents multiple gods? I am a monotheist, and that involves a longer discussion. Maybe this can be discussed later.

During the first few pages, I had a little problem with Pi’s name. Is it pea or is it pie? I’m glad that this is cleared soon enough. Anyway, Pi is quite a likable character. He’s smart and he strikes me as someone who’d rather be alone.

Another problem that I encountered is whether or not this novel is based on real life. It could be metafiction, and I can’t be bothered to check. I’ll try verifying if I remember to do so.

There are two perspectives interwoven in this novel, which are the past and the present. The latter, I didn’t mind much yet. These are the chapters in italics. I wonder how these are depicted on audio?

I like the part where the father of Pi taught him and his brother Ravi an important lesson. It is a harsh one, and do you think Pi, eight years old at that time, is too young to be taught of and to learn it?

***

Day 2:

I just want to love god. That’s what Pi says when questioned why he is practicing three religions at the same time. This is certainly a bizarre behavior, for how can one practice even two religions without renouncing the contradicting beliefs of each other? But given Pi’s answer, we really can’t hold it against him.

This novel is becoming more theological than adventurous. I am waiting for that part where Pi is marooned on a boat with the tiger, but I don’t mind the events that take place before that. Which, if you ask me, are not so much eventful as philosophical.

I also like that part where the priest, imam, and pandit met Pi and his parents. Although it looked a little too contrived, it was hilarious.

I am now at that part where the boat sank. It’s weird because he saved Richard Parker, the tiger. It’s only a bit too late when he realized that he was pulling a tiger toward the boat.

The relationship that Pi and Richard Parker will develop in the next parts can be expected to be at least non-carnivorous because the theory of zoomorphism was foreshadowed in one of the chapters. One detail, about dolphins pushing drowning sailors up to the surface of the sea, touched me.

***

Day 3:

I’m having a difficult time imagining how Pi, the tiger, the hyena, the orangutan, and the zebra all fit in the boat because I can hardly summon an image of a boat. The descriptions are even tedious, with boat parts and dimensions that I couldn’t be bothered to research. I can’t imagine how the tarpaulin and the oar separated Pi from the animals. I can’t also imagine the improvised raft that he created.

Nevertheless, it isn’t as dragging as it sounds. Survival stories are almost always gripping. There’s a visceral quality in them that makes you root for the protagonist and whisper a mantra of hope. Fight, fight, fight!

Currently, the only living things in the boat are Pi and the tiger. But before that, I cannot believe how a tiger can be so utterly silent for a couple of days, even allowing the hyena to feast on the zebra and the orangutan. Very typical of cats: they don’t give a shit whatever happens to their surroundings.

I find the six plans of Pi to survive humorous. But not one of them is sound enough for execution. But in the course of their solitary adventure in the Pacific, a seventh plan is summoned: keep the tiger alive.

***

Date Started: March 25, 2012. 9:00 PM. Book #17 of 2012.

A sea of words and a wave of space

The Font, the Font – The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

Staring at the font size of my edition intimidates me. Sure, I’ve read the gigantic 2666 months ago, but somehow, I was more frightened at the prospect of reading this Booker winner. And reading the mini-bio of the author at one of the front pages further scares me: Murdoch is a philosopher. Most probably, philosophical meanderings are bound to dominate the book, no?

Not really. To start, the writing is quite understandable. Yes, it is physically and metaphorically dense, but it manages to be fluid. Maybe because of the first person point of view. More so, we are actually reading the diary of a retired theater director, Charles Arrowby, who decides to spend his retirement years by the sea. He buys a funny house with an accessible view of the sometimes screaming, sometimes serene sea. He moves, finally, to escape the women of his theatrical life.

But with the conspiratorial forces of fate, he meets not only one but three women with whom he had a relationship with. To top it all, he even finds, after four decades, the one woman he really, truly loved. His first love, and the reason he never married and stayed out of the mysterious fringes of marriage.

I woke up next morning to an instant sense of a changed world. The awful feeling was less, and there was a new extremely anxious excitement and a sheer plucking physical longing to be in her presence, the fierce indubitable magnetism of love. There was also a weird hovering joy, as if I had been changed in the night into a beneficent being powerful for good. I could produce, I could bestow, good. I was the king seeking the beggar maid. I had power to transform, to raise up, to heal, to bring undreamt-of happiness and joy. My God, I had come here, to this very place, and against all the chances I had found her at last! I had come here because of Clement, and I had found Hartley. But: is she a widow?

Halfway through this, the pace will pick up at an amazing speed. We all have troubles starting new novels. We try a best to get a good grip on it so that we can drive our reading with delight. In this case, it was a slow start. We read about Charles describing the sea and giving some details of his childhood. He also takes about his family, which is just a small crew composed of his parents, his uncle and aunt, and his lone cousin James.

He also talks about the food that he eats, the problems that he has with his house and surroundings, the quiet village, the hostile and sarcastic people, the theater and the people with whom he had connections with. All these may drag the reader, but as soon as people from Charles’s past enter the scene, one will realize that it’s worth the effort.

Besides, it’s not dragging in the sense that the writing is unwieldy. The descriptions are rich and colorful. The sea is such a beautiful backdrop for a novel and a magnificent metaphor for life. I remember John Banville’s The Sea. That one is very good, and this one is proving to be just as good, and it may even end up better.

Date Started: March 21, 2012. 09:00 PM. Book #16 of 2012.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Prozac Nation – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Not really Prozac, but Soma. Not exactly an anti-depressant, but a drug for instant gratification.  This is a novel about a society peopled with drugged and genetically engineered citizens. A dystopian novel, yes, much like another version of 1984 where the future is speculated. What happens if the state manipulates the society using the advancements in biology and genetics? What happens if people relentlessly wallow in gratification of all sorts? What happens if an outsider is brought inside this society?

Before all, I have a need to say that this may be a further or accompanying read to 1984, but I don’t think it’s better in terms of writing. My edition has an introduction of the author, explaining that yes, this is far from a brilliant novel. However, he’d rather not wish to harbor to guilty feelings for the gaping holes that are found in it. Let it be like that, untouched and unchanged, for in the process of undoing the imperfections, his theme and his art form will change considerably.

Let it stand for what it is. I don’t really know if this is a defense to the more vicious of the criticisms that the novel received, but hey, I agree.

Helmholtz shook his head. “Not quite. I’m thinking of a queer feeling I sometimes get, a feeling that I’ve got something important to say and the power to say it–only I don’t know what it is, and I can’t make any use of the power. If there was some different way of writing … Or else something else to write about …” He was silent; then, “You see,” he went on at last, “I’m pretty good at inventing phrases–you know, the sort of words that suddenly make you jump, almost as though you’d sat on a pin, they seem so new and exciting even though they’re about something hypnopaedically obvious. But that doesn’t seem enough. It’s not enough for the phrases to be good; what you make with them ought to be good too.”

As I’ve mentioned, the inhabitants of this futuristic society are manipulated. Moreso, reproduction is strictly controlled through artificial means. Giving birth is akin to sin in this world. Ironically, the state encourages sex, promiscuity even. Women have their reproductive systems frozen or totally scraped to avoid the possibility of conceiving.

And people who date exclusively are weird, almost a threat to the society.

The characters that I remember are Bernard, ugly yet intelligent; Helmholtz, handsome and intelligent; Lenina, the lead woman but I’m not too sure if she’s ugly or not; and John, the savage. I think the latter is the lead character here although he appears much later in the novel. We first read about this world where Bernard, Helmholtz, and Lenina live. It  is worry-free. If you start to feel something bad, you just pop a Soma in your mouth. And the world will spin without a care in the world.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should we rather shy away from the harsher truths in life or face them squarely? The state believes the former. If people are happy, very, very happy, order in the society is attained. To make people happy, they have to be conditioned to detest things that can revert happiness or to engineer them to feel happy about themselves.

I mentioned engineer. In this state, test tube babies are uhm, manufactured. While the future people are in the test tube stage, they are assigned their castes. So you see, if the test tube baby has bad genes, he will be assigned to a lower caste, say a factory worker. In the future, he will be conditioned to hate intellectual things, say books, and he will, through the same methods of conditioning, learn to love being a factory worker. This way, he will no longer think about higher aspirations, making him avoid the depression of being stuck as a factory worker and making him perfectly contented. And happy.

The danger presented here is that people are dehumanized. They are only humans in form, but really, they are robots. Once they are done with their factory work, they will line up for their daily dose of soma. And they can have a good time during their days off. And so on.

So when John, the savage, is brought to this world, he is amazed. First, he is astounded with the new things that he sees, building all around instead of the thick jungle foliage of his previous home. Soon enough, the feeling dies out. People in this brave new world are shallow. People here do not read Shakespeare. People do not experience pain, suffering, love, enlightenment. People do not know what is life and how it is to live it.

3 star - liked itWe now have the major themes of the novel: the dangers of an all-controlling society and the effects of induced happiness. I’ll stop there because I can no longer think of any other themes. Really, I can’t remember much aside from things that might spoil your reading of this, so I’ll proceed to the writing.

The narrative is terrible. There is an abundant use of clichés. I’ve often encountered “straight from the horse’s mouth,” which isn’t so bad if used sparingly and if used to depict a character’s mannerism. But no. It was abused to death that I cringed every time I pass through that phrase. There were even moments that I anticipated the phrase, and this was not in vain.

Perhaps this is one of the things that the author is talking about in his introduction. As far as themes are concerned, this is a must read. Read it for the insights that you will be able to formulate. I remember reading this with some of my friends at our book club. One of them is a teenager fresh out of high school, and I have to admit that she was able to glean better things than I did. I was very much impressed and satisfied that people in their teens would pick this up during their summer vacation.

That satisfaction that I had is indeed counted as true happiness.

Yes, that is a whole chapter

Don’t ask why – Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

People ask Maria, Mar-eye-ah, what makes Iago evil. She doesn’t know, because she never asks.

That is sort of paraphrasing the first line of this novel. She then proceeds to tell us a little about herself. An actress, early thirties, married, divorced, one kid named Kate. And then a few more things that meander through her decadent life. And then two more characters introduce themselves: Helene, a woman whose role in Maria’s life I cannot pinpoint yet, and Carter, Maria’s husband. Future ex-husband.

And then the novel starts, restarts, at Chapter 1. In episodes.

“I want a very large steak,” she said to Les Goodwin in a restaurant on Melrose at eight o’clock that night. “And before the very large steak I want three drinks. And after the steak I want to go somewhere with very loud music.”

“Like where.”

“I don’t know where. You ought to know where. You know a lot of places with loud music.”

“What’s the matter with you.”

“I am just very very very tired of listening to you all.”

That’s the entirety of Chapter 26. The novel is bereft of embellishments. Maria wants to eat a heavy meal and go to a club. Very matter of fact. And very hazy. It’s like catching the conversations of strangers on a long train ride. You seem to know these people; otherwise you wouldn’t be listening. You don’t know the people they are talking about. You think you know the things they are talking about. You don’t have the details. You do have a vague sense of what’s going on in their lives, of how sad they are, how lost, how empty.

In this novel, we don’t ask why Maria acts the way she does. She doesn’t ask herself, so why should we? So we read the sparse chapters, some of them filling half the page with white space, just like the chapter above.

Instead of answers to whys, we are given a lot of facts, certain facts that can mislead us. And why do we bother with these facts that can be misleading? I don’t know. And I said don’t ask why.

It’s almost like poetry because it uses so little words and yet, you know that this is a scathing story of a troubled woman who appears to have a few acquaintances, who is forever pining for her daughter locked in a hospital, who is sporadically wondering what happened to her mother the last time she took the car for a drive, who is always told by her husband what she has to do, and who, in the middle part, the part where I am already on as of this writing, will stop listening and start doing what she wants. The events are strung so tightly that the narrative is a little restrained lest the strings break directly and lash on your face. All your senses have to be open while reading this.

The challenge to a novel with economized storytelling is that it can be very dubious but very insightful. After all, I might be just overanalyzing. The facts can be misleading, right? So let’s just play, I mean read, it as it lays.

And if I finish this novel heavy with dread and pushing people to read it, don’t ask why.

Date Started: March 18, 2012. 07:00 PM. Book #15 of 2012.