Friday, August 28, 2015

Portnoy's Complaint [1969]

Portnoy’s Complaint, included by both Time and Modern Library in their respective lists of ‘100 Best English-Language Novels of 20th Century’, immediately elevated its author Philip Roth to the pedestal of a literary showstopper, a counter-culture icon and the voice of a generation. Considered a seminal work in Jewish American literature and also a major controversy upon its publication as it broke a number of frontiers and conventions, the book was fascinating in its frank, ribald, satirical, hilarious, and at an overarching level, deeply perceptive and affecting portrayals of guilt, anxiety, insecurity, neuroses and angst that are quintessentially associated with the Jewish-American landscape, and thus formed a terrific companion piece to Bellow’s sad, funny and masterful Herzog, or for that matter, to the best of Woody Allen’s filmography. In an ingenious stylistic choice, Roth composed the book in the form of a long, continuous and rambling monologue, narrated, possibly over various sessions, by its protagonist Alexander Portnoy, a brilliant, intellectual and politically liberated but deeply neurotic, conflicted and guild-ridden Civil Servant, to his psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel. It, consequently, comprised of a free-flowing narrative which seamlessly transitioned temporally from Portnoy’s childhood through his teenage years and adulthood, spatially from Newark and New York, where most of the tale is set, to various American towns and even Israel, and most vitally, between dreams, fantasies and reality. The formal audacity was however exquisitely juxtaposed by its self-deprecatory, subversive and splitting humour, contributed in large parts by the protagonist’s deliberately exaggerated depictions of the key characters in his life – his control-freak mother, his constipated father, and his relationships ranging from a libido-fueled but unstable girl-woman to a sensible and rule-breaking lady and a highly conservative girl. Apart from its vibrant tapestry on Jewish-American diaspora, it also covered such themes as mother-son relationship bordering on Oedipal Complex, the tussle between respectability, morality and impulses, the brewing Sexual Revolution, complexity of historical baggage, existential and identity crises, religious dogmas, social hypocrisy and so forth.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Stream of Consciousness/Existentialist Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Down and Out in Paris and London [1933]

Eric Blair, better known by his pseudonym George Orwell, attained his most lasting legacy through his last 2 works, viz. Animal Farm and 1984 – one a scathingly satirical novella, the other a bleak dystopian novel, and both powerful indictments against power and totalitarianism. The seeds for his great political books, and the associated social consciousness, however, were clearly discernible in his first full-length literary work Down and Out in Paris and London, even if, at that point, he was still some way off from reaching his crescendo as a writer. Written in workmanlike prose, with a distinctively left-leaning stance of an author who was transitioning from being an essayist to a novelist, it chronicled in vivid details of poverty, deprivation, hardship and social injustice. In a rare and classic elucidation of the clichéd phrase ‘walking the talk’, Orwell spent considerable time living the bohemian life of a tramp in London and that of a lowly dish-washer in Paris, before jotting down his experiences – first into a volume of essays which was rejected by multiple editors (including T.S. Eliot), and then into this episodic non-fiction. The book, therefore, was part memoir and part social experiment, as, even though the events recounted here were true, he was essentially living a life of penury and hand-to-mouth existence by choice rather than by compulsion or bad luck. It was filled to brim with idiosyncratic characters of divergent nationalities, backgrounds and personality traits – cooks, waiters, mendicants, street artists, misers, fellow travelers and so forth; affecting pictures of blue-collar life with all their small joys and ever persistent struggles; and fine depictions of the two titular metropolises – juxtaposing the lively chaos of Paris with the wan discipline of London. But, more than that, it stood out for its lucid yet deep commentaries on slave-like existences of casual laborers on one hand, and the oppression and humiliation that marks the lives of the beggars and the jobless on the other, along with humorous asides like what a typical day in a Parisian back-alley looks like or the evolving slang vocabulary among London’s working-class.

Author: George Orwell
Genre: Memoir/Non-Fiction
Language: English
Country: UK

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Comedians [1966]

Greene loved setting his tales in troubled times and places, making his best works an irresistible mix of the personal and the political. Through his professional association with the Foreign Service, he travelled to various countries around the globe. The Comedians, culled from his experiences in Haiti, is a fascinating tale of love, friendship and crisis of faith, with the repression, brutality and corruption that pervaded the “Nightmare Republic”, the moniker he’d given to the totalitarian regime of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier governed with the aid of his thuggish secret police Tontons Macoute, as its richly textured political backdrop, thus making this dark, bitter and deeply cynical tale reminiscent of his post-WWII Vietnam-based masterpiece The Quiet American. And, like the latter, it was also a tale of despair, jealousy and failure, filled with dark humour, and spoke of a world going astray. The superbly structured and paced tale comprised of three marvelously etched protagonists who were the “comedians” of the story – Brown, the narrator who he based on himself despite his claims otherwise in the preface, is a middle-aged drifter who has made the once swinging but now increasingly decrepit hotel Triannon, which he fortuitously bequeathed from his mother, and located at the gloom-laden world of Port-au-Prince, his home, and is entangled in a self-destructive affair with Martha, the striking wife of a South American ambassador; Smith, a naïve, patronizing and wealthy American, who, with his headstrong wife, is on a crusade to propagate vegetarianism around the world; and Jones, a smooth-talking hustler and slippery conman of mysterious origins, untrustworthy disposition and highly ambiguous motives. Greene imbued the story with corrosive humour, biting irony and deep fatalism. These, along with the bristling storytelling, moody atmosphere and a terrific sense of ‘here and now’, elevated the proceedings to grand farce despite the pervading currents of melancholia and existentialism it was laced with.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Thriller/Existentialist Drama
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Big Nowhere [1988]

The Big Nowhere was the first chapter in American crime-writer James Ellroy’s so-called ‘Dudley Smith Trio’ – this was followed by L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, and featured the gleefully and brazenly violent, racist, thuggish and unscrupulous Irish-born LA cop Dudley Smith – and the second chapter in his larger and acclaimed ‘L.A. Quartet’ – this was preceded by The Black Dahlia. Based at the turn of 1950, the sprawling, blazingly fast-paced tale, with an exceedingly intricate plotting, comprised of two basic storylines that, understandably, eventually converge – a series of incredibly grisly and sexually motivated murders by a seemingly psychopathic assailant, and an elaborate post-‘McCarthy Witch Hunt’ investigation on latent Communist affiliations within Hollywood as a lead-up to a grand jury trial along the lines of HUAC. The tale comprised of three principal protagonists – Danny Upshaw, a brash, brilliant, loner and young Deputy who becomes obsessed with unravelling the brutal psycho murders; “Mal” Considine, an ambitious Lieutenant on the verge of making Captain who’s assigned, along with Dudley, by the D.A.’s office to lead the witch-hunts, while, simultaneously engaged in an ugly custodian battle for his adopted son; and Turner “Buzz” Meeks, a smart troubleshooter  working for Howard Hughes who joins the anti-Communist taskforce despite the bad blood between him and Considine, and who, against his better judgements, gets involved in a reckless affair with the mistress of the notorious LA-based gangster Mickey Cohen. Oftenqualified as a post-Noir along the traditions pulp literature, the book was decidedly lacking in black humour or cynical wisecracking; rather, the tone was, nearly always, grim, edgy and angry. The narrative was structured in the form of ABCABC, with each chapter presented from the point-of-view of each of the three key protagonists, though written in third-person mode. The book’s overly plot-heavy nature, with increasingly bizarre twists along the way and everything neatly tied up at the end, however, made it a bit of a dampener.

Author: James Ellroy
Genre: Crime Thriller/Political Thriller/Police Procedural/Detective Novel/Mystery
Language: English
Country: US