Wednesday 24 May 2017

Literary Chimping

So Chimping is a term used in Bangalore quizzing circles (or maybe Mumbai or Pune, doesn’t matter). Quizzing folklore goes that a guy asked a question like “Which species of primate can <something something>”, and the question held no clues about the answer. So essentially each team had just just guess one or the other species of ape/chimp/monkey, and hope it was the one. This is a bad quiz question because you have no way to deduce the right choice from a small set of equally probable answers.

Something similar happens in thrillers and detective novels that don’t develop their characters. As a reader you’re invited to guess the outcome/villain in these books. Typically there’s a small set of possible outcomes: the bad guy gets caught, bad guy gets away, the hero lives, the hero dies, the heroine/supporting character is the bad guy/girl… For detective novels the outcomes are pretty much, “the bad guy is A/B/C/D”, because you need to have a limited number of characters, all suspicious.

Now if you don’t develop the characters to make them feel like real people - to make the reader develop an understanding for this or that person, to root for the detective or the wronged female, then all that’s left is a set of plot points that unfold one after the other. Because there are no hints to tilt the reader towards or away from some outcome, she’s just going to “chimp” - guess at all the possible outcomes one by one. Whichever one happens, there's no "aha", or sense of deduction from the character-clues that came earlier.

As a writer you need to do one of two things: either set up expectations for the characters and then fulfil them in unexpected ways (so Lee Child basically), or else set up expectations and destroy them in an unexpected way (so basically, Tamil tearjerker movies where the hero dies pointlessly). Either of these requires the reader to empathize with the characters first. If your reader is able to label the characters as “The Hero”, “The Love Interest”, “The Bad Guy” and not really care about them, you’ve failed. Don’t let the reader be reduced to Chimping.

PS. This is where the movie Se7en played with the genre and really managed to shock viewers.

Friday 12 May 2017

Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

A few thoughts about Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

So this is one of those thriller novels that everyone gets recommended eventually. “You HAVE to read this!” They’ll say, “it’s really weird, but totally engrossing! It’s about this Thai cop, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who’s a Buddhist, believes in reincarnation, and solves murders in Bangkok.”

A good enough pitch to draw you in, if you’ve read enough thrillers set in Europe and America and crave something different. And the very beginning of the book serves to hook you in: an American marine, being trailed by Sonchai and his partner, is killed by setting loose a bunch of cobras and a python in his car. If nothing else, that’s a unique murder weapon. To make things worse, Sonchai’s partner and best friend is killed by the same cobras. Naturally, Sonchai decides he has to kill the murderer to take revenge.

So far, so good. But then the story seems to get bogged down. Pages and pages of Thai society, about the intricacies of the prostitution business, of drug addiction, corruption, and so on and so forth. Maybe it wasn’t that long, but it feels like way too much. I was on the point of putting down the book in boredom, but thankfully the story picks up again about 2/3rds of the way through. Or maybe you just get used to the pace…

The climax is a typically “Oriental” style one, with an appropriate justice being served to the culprit. Come to think of it, the whole book drips with the exotic scent of the orient. I can see how that would be a draw for the intended target (western) audience, but it seemed a little off-putting to me, even though I’m not a Thai. I mean, even these current Japanese novels (The Devotion of Suspect X, Six Four, and so on), are set in a Far-East country but they don’t make a big deal of it. It’s not even possible to say “but other than that exoticism, the book is good”, because it’s so entwined in the plot - which is a good thing, by the way. I imagine the Inspector Ghote books feel the same way… haven’t read them yet.

One thematic thread that must be mentioned here is Gender - we have a transsexual as a character and there’s a good deal of discussion around sexuality, prostitution, and how men treat the business differently from women. It’s interesting to compare the approaches taken to the topic in this book versus my previous read, Cut Like Wound, by Anita Nair. Burdett (or rather his interpretation of Thai culture) takes a cheerfully pragmatic approach to the whole thing, portraying it as “everyone eventually gets what s/he wants out of it, so why worry?”

Overall, an all right one-time read, if only to indulge the friends who keep recommending it. Would I read the next few books in the series? At this point, probably not. But I can sense the possibility of my mood changing at some point in the future, so we’ll see.

Monday 1 May 2017

Black Water Lilies, by Michael Bussi

A few thoughts about Black Water Lilies, by Michael Bussi

I read Michael Bussi’s After The Crash (ATC) and liked it enough to want to read this one, his next translated book. The only drawback I thought of that book was the “literary chimping” (more on this in an upcoming post), but that’s something very hard to avoid in thrillers these days. Never mind; on to Black Water Lilies (BWL).

BWL is a much more ambitious book than ATC was. It combines three parallel narratives of three women, each of which are heading towards some sort of tragedy. Everything is set in Giverny, Claude Monet’s village in France, and Bussi peppers his plot with details of the painter’s life, his legacy to the village, and his influence on the inhabitants. More than just Monet, the subject of painting, impressionistic painting in general, is explored quite a bit - nearly all the characters are obsessed with it.

So, the plot. The narrator is an old woman who lives in a watermill and who sees and hears everything of importance to the plot. The second relevant woman is Stephanie Dupain, a beautiful schoolteacher married to a jealous husband. The third is Fanette, a precocious child who’s an excellent painter. And the destabilizing event (or so we think) is the murder of a doctor in the village, and the arrival of the dashing young police inspector. Inspector () falls in love with Stephanie the moment he sees her. In the meantime, Fanette is working hard on a painting, inspired by Monet’s Water Lilies (of course), that will let he escape her life of poverty and win an art scholarship.

So the book starts off like a normal murder mystery - the doctor’s death and the investigation. It ends in a very different place, however. You will not believe how hard I’ve worked on that preceding paragraph not to give away spoilers. Because even more than ATC, this book has everything turned on its head in the very last two chapters - the timing, the characters, the sequence of events, and even the beginning of the book itself. It makes you want to go re-read the whole thing again.

The reason I did not, is that the “mystery” and the “solution”, are not created and resolved by the characters of the story - they’re done by the author. It’s important to make that difference. So for example, if you take The Devotion of Suspect X (and I highly recommend you should, because spoilers are coming in this sentence), although Higashino, the author, is playing with us to some extent by hiding the day-shifting, it feel like the cleverness comes from the protagonist character, Ishigami, and not from the writer Higashino. In Gone Girl (SPOILERS!!!), however, the alternate placement of Nick’s story and of Amy’s diary is clearly a writer’s trick to lead us astray. Had it not been done well, the book would have fallen flat.

Similarly, in BWL, the very deliberate placing of the multiple strands in the book leads us astray, and then again, the very deliberate placing of clues pulls us back on track. This is not the planning of any character - it’s Bussi. Like Gone Girl, the fact that it’s done well has saved the book (but GG did it even better!)

One last thought for those of you who have read the book: what genre is it? It’s not the genre it professes to be.

Worth reading? Yes, once at least, just for how well Bussi incorporates the field of painting, the culture around Monet, and for the neatly set up climax. 

Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh

A few thoughts on Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh…

TL;DR right at the beginning: Literary Thriller. Loved it. Slow paced if you’re coming to this book from Lee Child, but right up the alley for all the Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson fans.

I first heard about Eileen, as most others have, from the Man Booker longlist. Subsequently, it was explained as “Thrillers too can be longlisted for lit prizes,” so that immediately hooked my interest. The plot is relatively simple: Eileen is a 24-year-old girl with numerous neuroses and a scary amount of self-obsession. She lives with her rapidly-deteriorating-of-dementia father, and works in the admin section of a juvenile prison. All this is told to us as a flashback - the entire book is a flashback - because sometime during the book, Eileen is going to run away from her small town to New York, change her name, and start a new life. Why will she do that? The clues start collecting in trickles as you go, but the inflection point is a surprise worth it, so I won’t reveal it here.

The book is written entirely in first person with the older Eileen talking about herself. She professes to be much more “normal” now, but personally I have my doubts. But it lets Moshfegh indulge in foreshadowing on every opportunity. It also let her play with the concept of the “destabilizing event”, so beloved of literary-critic types, which is supposed to trigger the plot. After more than 50 pages of describing a normal day in her life, Eileen just says cheekily, “Nothing much happened that day, I just thought of starting the story from there!” ( :) Paraphrased of course.)

Mosfegh also plays well with the Chekhov’s Gun idea (see my earlier post on the topic; it feels like she’s read it too!) The red herrings she lays out are so well done you don’t mind them; indeed, they turn into character building by the time you realize what they are.

None of these plotting tricks would work well if the writing wasn’t good - which it most definitely is. The stress in this literary thriller is squarely on the Literary. Small references turn into important plot points, offhand quotes by Eileen reveal big things about her nature. I stopped at multiple places, trying to find a better word than the deliberately-off-kilter word Mosfegh had used in the text, and couldn’t come up with one.

Worth reading? Hell, yes. It’s a slow burn, but the writing is delicious, and purely as a character study, Eileen is a memorable girl. Fair warning: don’t expect anything very dramatic to happen in the first 3/4ths of the book. 

Night School, by Lee Child

A few thoughts on Night School, by Lee Child

I think I’m growing used to Lee Child and Jack Reacher. The clipped sentences. The logical leaps. The physical invulnerability. The pure goddam luck that Reacher has in getting sex partners and in clues, both.

Night School is the 21st instalment in the Jack Reacher series, and it starts with an interdepartmental group being set up under cover of a training session (the “Night School”). Reacher, along with a few other officers, is put on the trail of a mysterious American who has asked for a hundred million dollars to provide a service to some unsavoury characters in the Middle East. What service? We don’t know. What American? We don’t know that either. When? Nope. Where? All we do know is the trail begins in Hamburg.

Starting from this admittedly vague premise, Reacher builds his case piece by piece until he gets his man. Not breaking any suspense here, because we all know Reacher always wins. The story seems meandering till about 2/3rds of the way through, when it begins to sink into you in characteristic Lee Child Style. The last 1/3rd is pretty good, and the ending is vintage Reacher.

There’s a neat bit of plotting I want to talk about here, with a little bit of spoiler. Reacher’s quarry has made fake ids with German names, and the team knows two of them. Throughout the book, it has become clear that the villain comes from a specific town in America. Now the team needs the third name. Reacher guesses it, correctly. It turns out that the first two names were very important town founders for the native town, and the third one is similarly, a  prominent businessman from the same town. Through the book, Child has been dangling this name of the town before us, but the connection between the names and the town is not made clear to us until Child shows it to us. Not that the typical reader is going to know of the town (I didn’t), but it’s a neat way of setting up a deductive win for the hero. Did Child choose the town because of the three Germans associated with it? Or did he make up this legend just for the book? We don’t know, and frankly we don’t have the time to think about it.

In case you're interested, this book is set in the 90s, from when Reacher was still in the Army. So going by the settings of the other books in the series, this is a sort of flashback, unlike Make Me, which was set in the "present".

Anyhow: what did I think of it? A 3 out of 5, probably. If you like Jack Reacher, you should definitely read it. It’s also not a bad book to start the series with, though not the best one.

Butter Tea At Sunrise, by Britta Das

A few thoughts about Butter Tea At Sunrise, by Britta Das

A friend of mine bought this book from a bookshop in a hill station, as a souvenir of her trip there. “A year spent in Bhutan”, is the tagline. Descriptions of mountains and local customs, etc. What’s not to like?

Britta is an Orthopaedic doctor from Canada who volunteers to work in a small hospital in Bhutan, the “last unspoiled country in the world”. The story is set in mid-2000s. The book chronicles the year she spends there. Not to break any suspense (since it’s mentioned in the author bio), she meets her future husband, an Indian, during this stay.

As a book? I didn’t personally like it too much. Britta doesn’t seem to see much good in the place she’s living in, talking endlessly about the poverty and how the people get by on so little. When she visits the homes of acquaintances, she only briefly mentions the topics of conversation and the psyche of her hosts, focusing on the threadbare appearances of the homes instead. Her future husband several times talks of the spiritual beliefs and the customs of Bhutan, which she never explains in detail. Instead, those passages are devoted to how he held her hand, how they looked at the stars, how he seemed gentle and vulnerable… you get the idea. Paul Theroux she isn’t.

About her patients, she sees and describes them through her own western lenses. One young woman, suffering from a back disorder, decides to leave for home midway through the treatment because her family needs to harvest crops. Britta is horrorstruck - how could someone leave her treatment like this? No thought is given to the idea that if that harvest fails, the family will have no food to eat for the year. In another case, a young boy seems developmentally disabled. Britta diagnoses the problem correctly (though it isn’t her domain), but doesn’t reveal it to the mother for fear of frightening her. Later on, the mother takes the boy to a well known hospital (in India) and get the same diagnosis. As far as I can make out, the only purpose this whole section serves is to highlight how miserable the local peoples’ lives are. The upward struggle, the fight to improve their lives, is neither seen nor captured in the book.

Maybe I’m too harsh here. Possibly I should be judging the book on its merits, whatever they are. Unfortunately, the taste it left in my mouth (as an Indian reader who identifies with the subject of the book and not the writer) was too much for me to ignore. Would not recommend this book to anyone. 

Given the subject matter and presentation, it will continue to be sold at places in Asia where foreign tourists gather. Sigh.