Thursday, February 25, 2010
A regular good versus evil story with a little bit of magic thrown in.
No bad words - isn't scary enough for children above ten.
The book opens up with a bleak picture – a small and almost abandoned town called Hopewell in Illinois, which is burnt down and in ruins. There is no semblance of life anywhere and the people still in town are a dejected lot. We then realise that we were inside John Ross’s nightmare while he was travelling in bus. He had been sitting alone, perhaps because of “the mantle of weariness he wore like the ghost of Marley did his chains” or perhaps “it was the eyes, the way they seemed to look beyond what everyone else could see, at once cool and discerning, yet distant and lost, an unsettling contradiction.” The author ends the prologue with: “You leave as many empty seats as possible between yourself and death”.
Oh boy. At this point, I wonder at the advisability of reading this book through. But it came with a high recommendation and promised to be a fast read. So, I decided to go ahead. I suffice to say it was a bad decision.
The book is divided into sections, each corresponding to one day, which in turn is divided into chapters. The first section starts with July 1, which is enough for us to surmise that something big can be expected on the fourth of July. (The story is, after all, set in America).
John Ross follows his dreams and lands up in Hopewell. He is the knight of the word, servicing the Voice of the Word (don’t even ask ”what” – Lets assume Word is God and voice is a very beautiful woman).
Nest Freemark is a 14 year old girl staying with her grandparents. Her closest friend, (apart from her group of human friends) is a Sylvan called Pick. He was a six inch tall wood with vaguely human features stamped above a mossy beard, with leaves instead of hair and twigs instead of hands; a smaller version of Ent of Lord of the rings. He was the caretaker of Sinnissippi Park and kept the balance of magic in check. That doesn’t make his saying “Criminy!!” at the start of every sentence any less annoying.
Nest along with Pick and a mysterious wolf-dog named Wraith, fought the feeders that lived in the park. In Pick’s words, “Feeders devour people”. To put it in perspective, feeders are similar to Rowling’s dementors, who fuel the depression of a person and then, when they are at their weakest, devour them. Nest could destroy them with a single glance – “Nest hissed at it furiously, caught its eye, and stripped it of its life with a single, chilling glance”.
Her grandmother Evelyn is cynical and unhappy with her life and had taken to drinking and smoking. She is, however, very fond and protective of Nest. She is incidentally the only human who knows (or believes) that Nest has magical powers. Her grandfather, Robert Freemark, is, needless to say depressed with his wife’s drinking, her constant retorts and the loss of his daughter (Nest’s mother) Caitlin. “He felt emasculated by Evelyn, helpless in the face of her fortress mentality, adrift in his life, unable to change things in any way that mattered”. Retired after 30 years in Midwestern Continental Steel (MidCon), he takes particular interest in the 107-day long ongoing company strike . The present workers of MidCon are tired of waiting with no jobs and are planning on going back, to fellow employee Derry Howe’s disgust.
The demon had come to Hopewell with a purpose which will be made clearer in the end. Meanwhile, since he is supposed to cause death and destruction wherever he goes, he influences Howe to sabotage MidCon’s reputation by an “accident” that would result on the loss of many lives.
John Ross purposefully runs into Robert and saying he is Caitlin’s friend, invites himself over for dinner. Over dinner, while conversation revolves mainly around Caitlin, Nest asks him about her father, much to her grandparents’ distress. By this time, we have enough clues to know that Nest’s father is a source of mystery for her and a bone of contention for her grandparents. Ross also knows who the father is. A normal 6th grader would have figured out who the father was by now.
John Ross is then taken to see an old oak tree, which was the prison of Maentwrog. A Maentwrog was a soul-eater, consequently leaving any living being hollow and consumed with madness. It had been imprisoned inside the oak tree for many years, but now the magic was weakening. It was attempting to break free, despite Nest and Pick covering up the splits in the tree with tree-seals. Ross is helpless in the face of this new development.
Meanwhile, Nest had also had a run-in with a native American called Two Bears or O’olish Amaneh. He is mysterious, as Indians usually are, and invites Nest to watch the summoning of the spirits of his ancestors in Sinnissippi Park. Through the spirits, she finds that her grandmother was once very wild and used to run with the feeders and play with them. On confronting Evelyn about it, she admits that it had made her feel good, before realising what they were. She had also fallen in love with the demon without knowing, and when she did, put an end to it.
Exactly at about this time, the grandparents suddenly seem closer – Evelyn starts bushing; Robert realises he loved her and thinks he was losing her; Robert calls her dark eyes, and consequently “all the hardness went out of Evelyn Freemark’s face, all the lines and age spots vanished and she was young again”.
We can safely assume that one of them is going to die. I mean, the only saving grace of the book, if overdone, was the squabble between these two. Since even that is taken away; there has to be a purpose.
To continue, by influencing one of her school enemies, Nest is kidnapped and dumped in a cave. The demon comes and taunts her that no one would come to help her. Contrary to his belief, Robert rescues her. Evelyn realises that this was a ruse to get her alone by the demon. She prepares herself for the confrontation and in the event, the expected happens.
On the Fourth of July, all these incidents show their respective colors. The “fireworks” by Howe happens, though the sabotage itself is a failure. There is a confrontation between Ross, Nest, the demon and Maentwrog. Thankfully, as an afterthought, there is a surprise in the ending.
What made me want to throw the book away was not the fact that the book was unbelievably boring (Unbelievable because it is fantasy fiction – seldom are fantasies boring). The fact that this was one of the least imaginative books I have ever read in terms of content, characters and write-up played a major part. The total lack of suspense was what got to me. Brooks made sure that he didn’t leave anything to be guessed. For instance, When Robert confronts Howe on what he is planning to do on July fourth; Howe talks about the unpredictability of fireworks and asks him to keep away from them. So when the big plan of destroying MidCon is brought to fort, there really isn’t any iota of surprise left.
There was probably one mystery left which we wouldn’t have guessed in the end. But at the end of the day, it failed to make its impact since it lay invisible in a very dull and lifeless book. The book of course ends with Cross walking towards the horizon for his next quest. But there are no questions left unanswered here (no obvious ones, and I don’t want to find answers for less obvious ones); so there really is no motivation for reading the next one.
Spare yourself. This book is definitely not worth it. It will not entertain surprise or amuse you.
Monday, February 22, 2010
A take on the fictional character T.S.Garp's personal life, and its influence on his professional one.
Has adult content in all sections.
In this dirty minded world, you are either some body's wife or somebody's whore - or fast on your way to becoming one or the other
There are few complaints this book can create (and rest assured, there.will.be.complaints) - changing tones, vulgarity, surreal, dramatic. For me all these worked in favour of the book. The cover and the title of the book were so uninteresting that I had almost given it a miss. When I did pick it up, I couldn't stop reading or thinking about it. When I completed it, I still kept going back to it to read "that one line" or "that incident."
"Garp's mother, Jenny Fields was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre." - The book begins simply enough, coaxing us to assume that Jenny would be a typical upright and maybe slightly eccentric mother. Irving slowly unravels the different layers of her character. Through Garp's running autobiography ("my mom", Garp wrote, "was not romantically inclined) and Jenny's autobiography ("I wanted a job and I wanted to live alone. That made me a sexual suspect. Then I wanted a baby, but didn't want to share my body. That made me a sexual suspect too."), we are surprised and amused at each new hitch in her character.
Working as a nurse, Jenny Fields was, as Garp put it, a "lone wolf". While she did want to have a baby, she did not want to get married for that. After many equally interesting and surreal anecdotes (the glass full of cloudy liquid gave me many a shivers), she finally finds the perfect candidate - Technical sergeant Garp, who after a brain injury, is admitted as a terminal case. Shortly after Jenny gets pregnant, she is fired from her job. In a semi conscious state, she names her new born son T.S.Garp.
Jenny then moves on to becoming a school nurse in steering school, an all boys' school. As is expected at this stage, Jenny and Garp are a part of many . A noteworthy character at this stage is Stewart Percy, the school secretary, who took a pleasure in wondering who Garp's father was. Stewart and his wife, Midge, with their constantly expanding white-haired family inspired Jenny to come up with a nasty rhyme:
What lies in Midge Percy's belly,
so round and exceedingly fair?
In fact, its really nothing,
but a ball of distinguished silver hair"
Jenny took up almost all the courses at the steering to make sure that Garp, when he grew up, could make an informative decision. Garp becomes dependant on Jenny for making as small a decision as which sport to choose. After meeting the wresting coach Ernie Holm, Jenny advises Garp to take up wrestling. That is when he develops a crush for Holm's geeky daughter, Helen. When he learns that Helen would only marry a writer, he decides to become one. His initial attempts are severely criticised by Helen, who later advises him to move to Europe. To his consternation, Jenny decides to join him and start writing too.
They move on to Vienna, where they stay in more than a dozen pensions before settling into an apartment. It was probably this very experience, that prompted Garp to come up with his first story, "The pension grillparzer". Again, like Atonement, we get a glimpse of what goes on in a writer's mind. The pension Grillparzer was "inspired" mainly a seeing a four-member circus troup and his time at the different pensions.
Jenny on the other hand, despite initial hiccups finally gets the mood right for her autobiography Sexual suspect. The book is brought out by John Wolf, and is an instant success. She becomes a household name associated with feminism, and she develops a steady stream of admirers and companions following her around.
One of them is an Ellen Jamesian. Like a online networking social “Ellen Jamesians” was a cult society of sorts, whose members cut off their tongues to support eleven year old Ellen James, who was raped and then had her tongue cut off. The mildly sarcastic approach Garp (and Irving) takes to these needless display of histrionics is applicable to what happens in the real world - though admittedly, at a lower level. The "join a cause" groups in facebook and orkut are the perfect examples for that.
His mother's life keeps Garp amused and at times, frustrated, while he struggles with his first novel, procrastination. He gets it published through Wolf, but is not very satisfied with the reviews, as they had focussed more on his connection with Jenny rather than his story itself. After that, he tries unsuccessfully to find his old rhythm back. With his family of two boys, and his extra-marital affairs, Garp reaches a writer's block, and mimicking his current lisping mistress, “thtops”. Glimpses of his creativity keeps us riveted to the book though. For instance, the dog and the chain story, and the unravelling of its creation makes us wonder on what inspires any good writer.
It is the time when Garp is at his most devoted to Helen, that Helen inadvertently, ends up having an affair with one of her students, Michael Milton. Sensing he had competition (though he believes it is literary rather than physical), Garp starts working on his next story in frenzy. As is expected from a story with a dubious motive, it is poorly written, and is not liked by Helen, who is blunt to the point of being cruel in telling him so.
When Garp does find out about the affair, he is uncharacteristically angry about it. As one of the other readers noted, Garp up till then could be characterised as creative, carefree, broad-minded and even anti-social. The typical possessiveness of a man for his wife is just not expected out of Garp, who had, at one point, swapped partners with Helen's colleague. His sudden outburst at Helen to break it off could only be attributed to his love towards her, although that makes a very unconvincing reason(!).
It is fair to say that the tone of the book changes significantly at this point of time. Helen's break-up with Milton and its resulting events are, I believe one of the most beautifully narrated parts of the book.
The post-Milton-serious-Garp comes up with his next novel, “The world according to Bensenhaver”. Though Garp later admits that it was “his worst work”, he forces Wolf to publish the story.
John Wolf is believed to have a sixth sense about the success or failure of any book – partly because he was good at his job, but mainly because of his cleaning leady, Jillsy Sloper. Jillsy hated most of the books, and the ones she liked were instantly successful. She read mainly to find out what happens next. In her own words, “There surely ain’t no other reason to read a book is there?”.
There surely ain’t. In fact, I will sheepishly admit here that of all the stories Garp wrote (except the dog and the chain story), this was my favourite. Like Jillsy, I kept flipping the pages to find out what happened next, which was more than I can say about garp’s story, which had suddenly shifted to a slow-and-dull lane.
The book, as is expected, was a runaway success. Whether it can be attributed to a good story, Jillsy Sloper, Wolf’s intuition or his cheap marketing techniques – we can’t say.
Meanwhile, Jenny gets involved in new Hampshire politics, backing the candidate standing against the current governor. Her controversial support ultimately leads to her being shot to death by a man, while the candidate she supported loses the elections.
Garp hears the news through Jenny’s companion, and despite many objections, attends his mother’s “feministic funeral”. During the journey back, he meets the real Ellen James, who vehemently denies being an “Ellen Jamesian” and admits her admiration for his work. Garp decided to do what Jenny would have done and adopted her.
The extended family finally comes a full circle, and moves back to the steering, where Garp takes up the position of the wrestling coach. As he got more involved in his wrestling team, he also stopped writing, again. One of Garp’s critics puts it in perspective - “As he became more autobiographical, his writing grew narrower; also he became less comfortable about doing it. It was as if he knew that not only was the work more personally painful to him – this memory dredging- but the work was slimmer and less imaginative in every way.”
We can hand Irving one thing at least – he finished what he started. It was a neatly “completed” book, where no character was left hanging in the end. All the characters that were mentioned in the book at one point or the other were seen through till their demise.
At hindsight, maybe that’s not really the best of things. As T.S.Garp wrote, after a key turning point in his life, his “life has felt like an epilogue”. The second part of the book was just that – an epilogue of Garp’s life. From hilarious anecdotes, the second part of the book became a documentary of Garp’s life. From interesting and fun, it became a story on “the last few days of Garp’s life”.
Iforces us to wonder if the change in writing style was intentional. Was it meant to make us believe that till Jenny’s death, the story was actually, through Jenny’s eyes, and after her death, the missing details were filled in Garp’s biographer?
the first 300-odd pages steal the show; should be a definite read to appreciate the art of simple and witty writing.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Once upon a time, there was an ee (for all the tamil uninitiated: ee means fly in tamil) called Onaest. He worked as a police officer in his lane, monitoring all ee-activities and ensuring the right codeof conduct.
Onaest had one weakness - he liked to read. In fact, whenever he took a break from work, he would go to a corner, take out his book and read. His friends, seeing this as the one opportunity to talk to him, would hover around him and start chatting.
That made Oneast very angry. Any normal-ee worth his strawberry should,according to him, know how important reading was. Rejuvenating. Peaceful. Calm before a storm. Quiet before ee-patrolling. But how could he tell everyone to buzz off without hurting them?
Now the writer herself is in a dilemma, is Onaest-ee the best police-ee?
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
We always meet people we can't stand; and at times, we enjoy hating them so much that we keep hating them even if they are actually very nice.
Then there are people we like a lot. We like them so much that when they utter someting downright despicable, all we can do is gape.
I have had 3 back-to-back episodes with such much-liked people:
In the fast lane:
Ex-colleague: " I have lost count of how many dogs I have killed while driving"
Ex-Colleague: "There is no other option. At that speed, you can't really stop!"
Girl 1: " I can't stand dogs."
Girl 2:"I can't believe you don't like them. They are so sweet and loyal."
Girl 1: "I can buy loyalty. But I really can't stand dogs"
She said that while kicking at a dog who came sniffing at her.
Boy:" Yes it is, especially since, while going back, dogs start chasing. Thats why I have stones in my pocket. I chase each one of them and throw at them."
Me (laughing): "You're joking right?"
Boy: "Arre no, they are a menace. In fact this one time, I asked the auto guy to stop and hit every one of them. Now they will not follow me."
The second one especially was a particularly eye-popping and open-gaping episode. I mean, you hear such things in movies right? Who in the right mind says something like that?!