Sunday, December 17, 2017

Desolation Angels [1965]

Beat pioneer Jack Kerouac once famously stated, “When I'm done… it will cover all the years of my life, like Proust, but done on the run, a Running Proust”, while speaking of his sprawling, crisscrossing, deeply autobiographical bibliography. While the statement’s veracity is immediately evident from the series of books he wrote using the persona of Jack Duluoz – the so-called ‘The Duluoz Legend’ – nowhere is this perhaps more palpable than in the absorbing work Desolation Angels, given that large sections of it he’d also covered in his fascinating non-fiction collection Lonesome Traveler. Stoical, serene, rambunctious, messy, hilarious, reflective – this freewheeling and highly episodic volume was an mesmeric amalgamation of varying moods and tones as he traversed across the breadth of the United States, and beyond, both with and without company. It starts off with his stream-of-consciousness account of the 2 months that he spent alone as a fire-lookout on Desolation Peak; he followed that up with his trip through Seattle to San Francisco where he spent a week of madness and chaos with his idiosyncratic friends (Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg, Grogory Corso, Orlovsky brothers et al) drinking, doping and swinging to bebop jazz; he then heads to Mexico City where, after a brief-while alone writing, he’s again joined by his crazy pals, and they together have a gregarious time along with a cackling morphine-addict HG Wells aficionado before taking an insane ride to New York; after a hysterical few weeks there where he hops from one apartment to another, renewing old acquaintances and falling in love, he makes the big trip by sea to the opium dens of Tangiers, to meet William S. Burroughs, and thereafter to Paris and London; the book ends with a cross-country ride on Greyhound buses with his mother, from Florida to Frisco and back. Filled with profound observations on life, freedom and death, an insatiable desire to “dig” people, places and experiences, oddball characters and quirky episodes, the book might easily qualify as one of Kerouac’s most breathtakingly ambitious and personal works.

Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Semi-Autobiographical Novel/Roman a Clef/Road Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Man in the High Castle [1962]

Philip K. Dick, despite the enormous legacy that he left behind in the world of sci-fi literature and on contemporary pop-culture (due, in no small parts, to various filmmakers – Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, Richard Linklater, Steven Spielberg, etc. – who either directly adapted his books or were heavily influenced by them) through his prophetic works, won only a solitary Hugo Award for a book which, though considered by many as his most influential novel along with Ubik, is difficult to classify as science-fiction. In The Man in the High Castle, Dick created a deeply discomfiting piece of Alternative History – a ‘what-if’ scenario where the future has ended up getting shaped differently vis-à-vis what we know and/or have experienced, as much on account of historical forces as due to certain choices made by people – where the Axis Powers have won World War II, and most of the world, and some planets too, are now either colonies of Nazi Germany or of Imperial Japan or both, as in the case of the US where the West Coast is governed by the latter and the East Coast by the former. Disquietingly, despite the dystopian nature of its premise, the historical and political developments have been shown as normalized, and mundane everyday existence, while being aware of nefarious developments elsewhere and the sinister possibilities even at one’s backyard, has managed to adapt to it and even live with it. Dick presented this complex fabric through multiple, loosely connected storylines and characters, incorporating metafiction (a book within the book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which has chronicled victory by the Allied Powers, but where, ironically, history has again turned out different from what actually happened, formed a key trope), political intrigue (tussle for power between Goebbels, Goering, Heydrich et al upon the sudden demise of Bormann, who’d assumed Chancellorship upon Hitler’s affliction with syphilis), metaphysical beliefs (the ancient Chinese text of I Ching features heavily), and adaptation of life to the volatile, Cold War-like power structure.

Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Political Drama/Science Fiction/Alternative History/Dystopian Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Feast of the Goat [2000]

Latin America in the 20th century has been a hot breeding ground and melting pot for authoritarian, power-drunk dictators, and consequently Latin American literature abounds with dictator novels. Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, as evidenced by 2 of his incredible works that I’d read before, viz. the deliriously brilliant Aunt Julia & the Scriptwriter and the bleakly polemical The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, has had the formidable power of imbuing his books with daring formalism, political immediacy and narrative edge, and The Feast of the Goat is yet another powerful elucidation of that. Set in the Dominican Republic, it is centered on the tyrannical regime of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, with his assassination in 1961 being the central hinge around which the sprawling and ambitious narrative has been woven. The storyline has three inter-related arcs structured in the form of 1-2-3 – in the first strand set in 1996, Urania, an accomplished New York lawyer, has returned on a whim to her hometown Santo Domingo after 35 years to see her father, a former Trujillista who fell out of the Generalissimo’s favour, and who she has avoided contact with all these years on account of a horrifying secret which had led her to flee to the US; the second and the third strands, dizzyingly populated with fictionalized representations of real people and historical references, are set on the fateful date of 30th May 1961, with the second focusing, in intricate details, on the last day of Trujillo’s life leading to his assassination, while the third centered on the assassins as they await the arrival of the Goat’s car so that they can ambush him. It was only near the last third, in depicting the bloody carnage and subsequent change in power structure that followed in the aftermath of the assassination, that the three strands collapsed into one; but until then they played out, tonally, almost like three distinctive novellas – a gut-wrenching tale of memory and loss, a tar-black political satire on the banality of power, and a slow-burning thriller from multiple points-of-view, respectively.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Political History/Roman a Clef/Historical Novel
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Miami Blues [1984]

Charles Willeford had written a dozen novels, three books on poetry and a couple of short story collections, and had tried his hands at a dizzying array of full and part-time jobs for monetary purpose, before he finally achieved tremendous success, at the age of 65, with Miami Blues. This was the book which introduced Hoke Mosely – an astute, divorced, perennially impecunious cop and compulsive loner with full-set dentures, eking out a shabby existence in a decrepit hotel occupied by senile ladies and Cuban refugees – to the pantheon of memorable cops and detectives in the highly fertile world of literary pop-culture; he would go on to write 5 more Mosely novels (including 1 which remains unpublished). This was also the book, as many agree, that added Miami as a city of choice, alongside New York and Los Angeles, in the annals of American crime fiction. With a style that was more matter-of-fact and straight-faced than pulpy and hardboiled – an anachronism for roman noirs and neo-noirs – it pitted Mosely against Freddy Frenger Jr, a “blithely psychopathic” natural-born criminal fresh out prison who’s decided on a change of pasture by relocating from California to the humid, florid, Hispanic, crime-ridden city of Miami. Landing with three stolen credit cards, he accidentally kills a pestering Hare Krishna, and before long enters into a “platonic marriage” with a dim-witted hooker with the body of an adolescent girl and who, incidentally, was the younger sister to the dead man with whom she had an incestuous relationship. Hoke, while trying to solve the mysterious murder in his deadpan, almost casual style, inadvertently rubs the unpredictable and hyper-violent Freddy the wrong way, thus putting the two men on a nasty collision course. Willeford stripped the tale of mystery and twists, and instead resorted to old-fashioned storytelling with darkly comic undertones, and devoted enough time to seemingly mundane details, asides, backstories and brilliant dialogues, and an insider’s view of the city, as the fast-paced chapters alternated between the two intriguing characters.

Author: Charles Willeford
Genre: Crime Thriller/Neo-noir/Police Procedural
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Without Feathers [1975]

Well before Woody Allen became renowned and revered for his masterful dramedies exploring the vagaries of love, urban neurosis and existential dilemmas, he was already an accomplished humorist – dabbling extensively in both stand-up comedy and comic writing. Without Feathers, like Getting Even which preceded it and Side Effects which followed it – brought together in a collected edition sometimes referred to as The Insanity Defense – were compilations of his short humour pieces which he’d churned out for The New Yorker, and remains a fascinating and hilarious expression of Woody’s astounding panache for non-sequitar, absurdist and nonsense humour, parody on religion and literature, comic inversions, deadpan observations, ribald jokes and sharp satire; no wonder he’s often drawn comparisons with the likes of James Thurber and Groucho Marx. Comprising of an eclectic mix of sketches, ruminations, essays, short stories, and even one-act plays, itt would be a tad falsity to claim that all the pieces were equally good; however, suffice it to say, it had enough wit, zany timing, and hilarious build-ups and one-liners, to engage one’s intellect and elicit belly-laughs in equal measures. Two pieces absolutely stood out – in the darkly fabulous inversion of the hadboiled gumshoe persona, The Whore of Mensa, a Marlow-like PI investigates a case of racket of damsels which involves gullible men looking for quick intellectual experience without commitment; and in the brilliant alt-history, If the Impressionists had been Dentists, Van Gogh and his modern art contemporaries like Gaugin, Cezanne, Degas, Seurat et al are revealed to be dentists, in Vincent’s heart-wrenching letters to Theo. The quietly melancholic political satire No Kaddish Weinstein, the hilarious religious parody The Scrolls, the quintessential Woody-isms in Early Essays and Selections from the Allen Notebook, etc. were also terrific reads. The collection also comprises of two zany one-act plays – Death Knocks, an incredibly mad-cap double-take on Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; and God, a meta-meta postmodernist play-within-play-within-play that, in most other writers’ hands, would have seemed preposterous.

Author: Woody Allen
Genre: Comedy/Nonsense Literature/Social Satire/Religious Satire/Short Stories/Play
Language: English
Country: US