Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mr. Sammler's Planet [1970]

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which won Bellow his third and final National Book Award – he’d won it previously for The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog, was tour de force as a superb narrative work and as a powerful commentary on the farcical comedy of human existence. Like his great masterpiece Herzog, which this often reminds one of, and his marvelous subsequent novel Humboldt’s Gift, this too followed multiple chronological arcs simultaneously – while the central thread was set within tightly defined temporal (couple of days) and spatial (the city of New York) confines, the free-flowing narrative, jaw-dropping in its structural bravura, seamless jumped to various points in the past and back using the protagonist’s memories and subconscious as devices. Arthur Sammler, a Polish-Oxonian Jew and Holocaust survivor, who’s now been residing at America’s financial and cultural nerve-centre – both these tenets, viz. Art and Commerce, played important roles in the book – is a cynical intellectual with only one working eye, an Old School European with an English heart, a wryly amused and detached chronicler of human idiosyncrasy, foibles, hypocrisy, corruption and bestiality, and a very close embodiment of the author himself. He’s surrounded by some of the most oddball characters imaginable – his dopey daughter Shula who’s obsessed with helping him compose his non-existent memoir on HG Wells, the over-sexed, nymphomaniac daughter and crazy, anarchistic son of his wealthy benefactor who’s now on his death-bed, an exasperated Indian scientist whose manuscript on the possibilities of colonizing the moon has been stolen by Shula, a dandy African-American pickpocket et al. Scarring memories of Nazi atrocities, his literal escape from the grave, horrifying experiences of the Six Day War which he, like the author himself, covered by visiting Israel on a whim, the impending lunar expedition, and scathing observations on those around him, imbued the book with bitter humour, scalding irony, foreboding gloom and deep pathos, all at once, making this meditative, tragi-comic tale and perhaps the most “Jewish” of all Bellow novels, a work of sublime humanism and prophetic brilliance.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Existentialist Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Social Satire
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Day of the Locust [1939]

The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s cynical and acerbic satire on the magnetic lure, false hopes and shallow dreams that Hollywood evokes, and the anger, craze, resentments, frustrations, despairs and disillusionments that it leaves in its wake, was his fourth and final novel; he, along with his wife, were tragically killed in a car accident a year after its publication while rushing to the funeral of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, the City of Angels (or, Demons, perhaps?) Los Angeles, with Hollywood-land as its centre-piece, rarely received such bristling portrayals as it did here and in the Raymond Chandler masterpiece The Big Sleep, both of which came out in the same year; I wouldn’t be surprised if Lynch’s nightmarish Mulholland Drive was, to some extent, inspired from this West novel. He populated the book with people residing on the fringes of the Dream Factory – either desperately seeking a foothold into it or destined to remain as outcasts – Tod Hackett, a Yale-educated artist and the tale’s central protagonist, who finds himself in a surreal world of make-believe and hypocrisy upon moving from the East Coast upon receiving a job offer as set-designer; Faye Greener, a shallow, snobbish, self-deluding and fickle-minded wannabe actress whose allure is immediate on the men around her; Homer Simpson, a lanky, introverted simpleton who’s moved to California upon his doctor’s advice in order to regain his health, only to be completely destroyed by it; and a host of outrageous fringe-characters, viz. a dwarf with a violent temper, a cock-fighting Mexican, a dim-witted cowboy, the Madame of an escort-service and parlour for snuff films, a precocious child actor pushed to the edge of his sanity by his lunatic mother, among others. Self-destructive obsession, therefore, was a key tenet here, as the tale aptly culminated into a Kafkaesque and bitingly humorous climax with the entire city on the streets, accompanied with frenzy, chaos and grotesque excesses, during a movie premiere.

Author: Nathanael West
Genre: Black Comedy/Satire/Social Satire
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, January 9, 2016

I Married a Communist [1998]

I Married A Communist, the second chapter in Roth’s seminal ‘The American Trilogy’, is one helluva angry book – a bitter, volatile and raging novel centered on the rabid Communist Witch-Hunts during the aftermaths of WWII. It was a period marked with mass hysteria, repression, betrayals, guilt and personal tragedies, and these facets formed the key thematic components of this trenchant book that alternated between powerful political meditation and barely contained polemic. Roth’s books tend to blur the lines between his character’s life and that of his own, and nowhere is this more evident than here given that this book might have been his way of getting even with his ex-wife Claire Bloom, and in particular her unfavourable account of their marriage in her memoir A Doll’s House. Like American Pastoral that preceded it, this was the story of a Newark-born Jewish American whose life arc is determined as much by his Jewish identity as it is by the socio-political turmoil of his time, and narrated by the author’s singular alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman; however, though both were boyhood heroes of Nathan, unlike Swede Levov, who was a victim of his tragedy, Ira Ringold was very much the protagonist of his fate here. The story kick-starts when Zuckerman, a wizened and ageing man who leads a solitary life, meets his high-school English teacher Murray – the now deceased Ira’s older brother – after many years, and thus begins the chronicling through a mix of the two men’s reminiscences. This was, therefore, the tale of Ira, a 6-foot-6 Abe Lincoln lookalike and a zealous Marxist vocal about progressive causes promulgated by Party lines, who rises from being a troubled and impoverished ditch-digger into a famous radio star, only to crash land at where he started, and worse, upon his tumultuous marriage to the dazzling actress Eve Frame during McCarthy’s virulent anti-Red purges. Stacked with socio-politico-cultures references, this recreation of Cold War-era paranoia was a complex, ideologically-stimulating, and formal exercise, and succeed at reaching incredible heights at times.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Marriage Drama
Language: English
Country: US