When you start reading a book

in translation and as you pass through the first pages you realize with a sunken heart that you walk among the ghosts of the source language and the shuddering testimonials to the translator’s unwillingness or inability to invent an original English equivalent. Bummer.

(This post may or may not be related to my reading of Herbert Lomas’s translation of Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story.)

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Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Offill, Jenny, Dept. of Speculation, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-345-80687-1

If you think back on the final two pages of Michael Chabon’s sophomore novel Wonder Boys, you’ll remember it ends with the writer-protagonist jettisoning his monstrous manuscript, “the whole exploded clockwork” – he calibrates his “writerly perception of depth” and sets out to write a book that “sounds true,” written in the rhythms of daily domestic life and not the writerly obsessiveness of his previous alcohol fueled existence. This – the recalibration, the rejection of an unwieldy manuscript failure, it has a mirror in Chabon’s own life, who, after his jaunty little debut novel, spent some years on a large manuscript that he eventually abandoned. This is all to say that Jenny Offill’s own sophomore novel Dept. of Speculation has a similar sense. Offill’s narrator-protagonist, the nameless “wife,” works at a college, and is struggling to complete a second novel, constantly fielding requests by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to produce this difficult second book. At the same time, Dept. of Speculation is, in some sense, that second novel, published 14 years after Offill’s debut. And much as Chabon wove a fictional narrative around the personal struggle to produce a good second novel, Offill’s book tells a story of a disintegrating relationship.

It starts uneventfully, describing academic life, a lovely marriage and an “evil” but adorable child. Things go a bit off the rails when the husband turns out to be an adulterer, but Offill fills even the lovely charming early portions with shadow and doubt. Being a writer and being a teacher and being a wife and mother are three different kinds of being, and she never feels quite adequate to all of them. Offill’s style is flat, in the way many contemporary ‘experimental’ dullards are, but she rises above them by making the flatness a part of the narrative. The structure, full of short sentences and short paragraphs, seems fragmented, but it isn’t really. It’s sequential and coherent, but the paratactic perniciousness of the book creates a distance, makes us follow the narrator into her own stressed, unhappy, distracted mind. As, towards the end of the novel, things go bad, the narrator switches to talking about herself in the third person, further increasing an effect that has been part of the novel all along. This is a surprisingly rich novel, for all its straightforward elements, and the various detailed kinds of flatness in it. The first time I read it I read it in one sitting and it’s hard to imagine the book working when broken into multiple sittings. The book’s intense coherence would fall apart and all you’d be left with would be some angsty statements in short sentences and short paragraphs.

Dept. of Speculation is interesting in how it uses form without abandoning emotional significance. There’s the instrumentalized flatness of course, which the book uses well, in contrast to some other widely praised, intensely dull recent prose works. She also uses our narrative expectations in undermining our readings. As I said, the switch from first person to third person, with no accompanying stylistic change, seems to be done in line with the other attempts to create some distance in the book. At the same time, Offill fills her novel with doubt. There is the narrator’s side gig of being a ghost writer for a failed astronaut businessman (failed as astronaut, not as businessman). It’s a curious insertion into a book that doesn’t stray that far afield with other details. Offill’s narrator is economical with details. We don’t even get names for anybody involved, there’s not a lot of extraneous description, the book obsessively circles the same topics: writerly impotence, anxiety, love and some details of domestic life. Offill is exceptionally disciplined, so the ghost writing seems strange. One obvious effect is to show the difference between writing about one’s own life or follow one’s own inspiration on the one hand, and just lending your words to someone else’s life, someone else’s partially imagined experience. Another effect comes later. There’s a scene where her husband writes a short story and files it among her class work. The details remind her of her own life, but she assumes a female student who recently attempted suicide, is behind those words. This is a kind of ghostwriting too, but while in ghostwritten books, the real author spends their existence behind the curtain, in this case, the narrator becomes the audience.

Clearly the novel is preoccupied, outside of the details of the story of domestic bliss and upheaval, with the authenticity and directness of writing, and while we may assume that the narrator at some point starts talking about herself in the third person, which reflects her increasingly troubled state of mind, an equally plausible possibility asks us to question our assumptions regarding narrator/protagonist/writer. I will admit, this is the second time I started this book. First attempt, last year, I abandoned the book because I was bored. But I think I was wrong. This book is actually quite interesting, and it uses its limited palette, and its humdrum plot in order to do something with plot and narrative. In many ways it reads, once you resolve to read it this way, like a very classic postmodern work from the 70s, but without the now-boring irony and laid-back chuckle at life and people.

The story it tells, despite what I think is some intense postmodern tomfoolery, is still moving, still emotionally resonant. And that is no small feat. Overall, I think, Offill walks a very thin line here. It’s playful and interesting, but also written with substance and purpose (unlike, for example, the Luiselli novel which I didn’t find sustaining beyond its levels of playfulness). It’s emotional and direct without being drab and dull. What I most appreciate is how Offill pulls off this flat style without joining the ranks of all the bores like Blake Butler, who I think is a better editor than novelist. I’d like to repeat this: I think this book is fundamentally interesting, and I will likely return to it at some point to look at it from yet another angle. There’s other books I read this week and might review, like Brit Bennett’s debut novel, that I found so uninteresting, I considered getting rid of my copy. Bennett’s book is maudlin, clichéd, socially and formally conservative. It’s also much less of a tightrope walk. Whatever Bennett does, it does so forcefully, with all possible risks smashed out of the book by an MFA reading group. Offill takes a risk, I think. And for a slim book like that, it offers a bunch of angles to its readers, all of which involve rereading the whole book and its details. The student who attempted suicide, for example, is given quite a bit of space, and her inclusion raises questions of genre and representation, that I cannot go into here.

One interesting aspect of the book that I want to mention in closing is that in some ways the novel functions like a funhouse mirror of John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which took both book nerds and the wider reading public by storm when it was republished in 2008. I have some…issues? I guess, with that novel, but that’s maybe for a different post or a different venue. It’s curious though, that it’s always these kinds of books that do well upon being rediscovered. Stoner, and the work of, what’s that Hungarian called? Sándor Márai, that’s it, and who could forget Hans Fallada’s unfortunate resurrection, after he was correctly buried by German critics in the 1950s. But, again, that’s not the point here. What I did want to say is that Dept. of Speculation feels in so many ways like a companion piece to Stoner that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was partially intentional. I mean, obviously the campus novel has a long tradition, and one wishes that some novels in the genre would be reread more often, like Jarrell’s funny novel, but in many ways Offill’s book feels like a direct reply to Stoner. And I don’t merely mean in the way the two novels employ gender. Offill’s attitude towards realism and representation, which I think I sketched earlier, also feels like part of a communication with John Williams. Or maybe not. It’s a good book, is all.

 

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Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life

Bhagat, Chetan (2008), The 3 Mistakes of my Life, Rupa
ISBN 978-81-291-1372-6

I don’t often read genuinely terrible, awful, no-good books. When I read a book I consider bad, it’s often “just” mediocre. It’s just – look, my reading habits often filter out the truly awful. So when I say that Chetan Bhagat’s novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life is a truly terrible book, I don’t mean: bad like Paul Auster, or bad like Daniel Goetsch. I mean bad like the essay you wrote in high school, bad like that movie you found on an old VHS in the ruins of an abandoned blockbuster starring Zachary Ty Brian. I mean bad. To be clear: Bhagat is, from what I can tell, a spectacularly successful Indian novelist (I recommend this post for an excellent analysis of his appeal), and this book is interesting for a variety of reasons. None of them are literary. This is not a good book. By comparison, Dan Brown is a genuinely competent novelist (he’s not) and Paulo Coelho erudite and clever (he’s not). If we exclude the thousands of pages of epic fantasy I’ve read in my life, Bhagat’s novel ranks among the worst books I have ever read. It’s a 250 page book structured into 210 pages of mind-numbing banalities and 40 pages of harrowing, grim, brutal action, which coalesce into a half baked strange political point and end in the writer’s autoerotic epilogue. This is bad. And yet…

And yet – I am so used to reading Indian literature in English, often by writers who do not live in India, like Rushdie or Mistry, or writers like Amitav Ghosh or Arundhati Roy, who are, at least partly, writing for a commonwealth audience, for readers who are not Indian. Bhagat’s novel is clearly directed at Indian readers, making small in-jokes about cultures, cities and communities, constantly relying on the reader’s sense of how certain things work and how certain historical backgrounds function. That makes for an extremely interesting reading experience. There’s room here to consider this book in connection with some postcolonial thinking, about the extent of colonialized speech. There are curious notes on religion and race, as well. If only the book’s core wasn’t the story of a couple ofi nsecure-but-boisterous boys, confused about and dismissive of women, and if the prose didn’t resemble that first draft you write at 4 in the morning after a bender just to get the idea out, maybe there would be something here? Following Gayatri Spivak’s essays on the archives (“The Rani of Simur” still holds up today) and on the subaltern, there was always a mildly disquieting element in the way Indian writers were received and perceived in the West, part of a traveling community of writers who Rushdie described well in essays collected in one of his best books, Imaginary Homelands.

Describing, speaking about India in English has always been an inherently tricky business, and the Western appetite for essentialist, dubiously fetishistic narratives of India has only fueled that. When Rushdie, after the stunning Grimus, recalibrated his writing under the influence of Grass, Desani, Marquez and others, his use of a specific tone, almost a genre of writing, a mode of how to speak about India in English to a Western audience, is clear and palpable. Particularly among the fêted but clearly weaker writers, like the inexplicably Booker winning Kiran Desai, the use of generic markers is obvious, and deserves interrogation within Spivak’s parameters. Chetan Bhagat is a completely different kind of writer, and I don’t just mean that he’s an incompetent boob. His book is written in English, but it makes no allowance for English readers by explaining, contextualizing, explicating terms, words or descriptions. His audience knows what he’s talking about, and the experience for me as a reader is fascinating. One encounters these things in translation, obviously, but there is a specific context for Indian literature in English, and within that context, reading Bhagat can be a puzzling experience.

Take Bhagat’s nationalism: there are people in the book who are non-Indian native speakers of English, specifically Australians here, and Bhagat’s descriptions of Australians and their language is very clearly that of someone who googled the words “typical Australian phrases” and copy and pasted them into the novel, with only very cursory care for whether the sentences around them syntactically supported the insertions. Bhagat’s characters are proud Indians, saying things like “I don’t want to be Australian in my next life. Even if I have a hundred next lives, I want to be Indian in all of them.” This unabashed, unchecked, clear nationalism, together with the essentialist and ignorant treatment of Australians is a curious fit for many conceptions of the discoursive structure of Indian literature in English. One of Bhagat’s most recent novels follows the foibles of an Indian who attends a British public school and thus invites, maybe, comparisons with books like Rushdie’s (very good) memoirs. But all of this has less to do with Bhagat’s novel, as it has to do with me as a reader and Western traditions of reading and how Indian writers, both those who live in India and those who made Canada, the US or the UK their permanent home respond to those tradtions.

Bhagat’s novel appears, at first, to be about cricket, and about some very odd ideas about love, sex and gender, but ends up making a serious point about politics. The background to the book are the Gujarat riots. As far as I can tell, Bhagat, a public intellectual in India, whose offensively low skill as a novelist appears to be equal to his skill as a public intellectual, is currently, more or less, a supporter of Modi’s government. In the novel, Bhagat strongly excoriates the Gujarati mobs, and offers a multi-cultural vision of India where all Indians are raising the national flag and beat Australians at cricket, because dammit how come that tiny nation keeps beating us! He doesn’t really offer an opinion on whether or not a Muslim mob was responsible for the Godhra train burning (they may not have been), and he strongly suggests that BJP leadership had a role in inflaming and steering the riots, indirectly implicating Modi, who indeed many people have considered complicit. The solution to these issues? Sticking together as a nation, with all resentment directed at foreigners, not Indians. History has turned out differently, and as it turns out, Nationalism is bad medicine. It’s like rubbing hot sauce into a wound. So the novel’s politics are at best naive. Fittingly, every person in the book shares the author’s naivete.

There is the main character, Govind Patel, an aspiring businessman in his twenties who has sex 9 times with a 17-18 year old girl who he’s supposed to tutor and who inexplicably falls for his geeky looks, seducing him on a rooftop, culminating in a sex scene that is both explicit and extremely prudish. Govind may be a big ol’ virgin, but Bhagat himself doesn’t appear to be quite on the up and up about the mechanics of sex, as he has Govind insist multiple times that they had sex with a condom, but then also feel bad for having “unprotected sex” – I’m not sure what kind of protection Bhagat envisions. Maybe it’s the same protection that kept his editor from touching the manuscript, because there is no way anyone edited this borderline random collection of letters and (completely mad) punctuation. There is his best friend Ish, whose sister had protected/unprotected sex with Govind, and who, while fleeing from an angry, murderous Hindu mob, takes a cricket bat to his best friend when he finds out Govind has been tutoring her in very naughty subjects. And then there’s Omi, whose father is a mad priest/BJP politician, who drinks two litres of milk per day and almost faints at the sight of breasts.

But the book’s worst, most unbearable character is a man called Chetan Bhagat. You see, the book is framed by the story of Bhagat receiving an email from Govind who is about to kill himself but uses the time while he waits for the pills to do their work to send off a weird fan email to Bhagat, whose books he loves so much and who, he feels, is the only person who can understand him. So Bhagat finds Govind who has survived his suicide attempt that was clearly as badly planned as everything else in Govind’s tiresome life, and Govind then tells him his story, culminating in murder, fear, and friendships breaking apart during the Gujarat riots. Of course, that’s when Bhagat adds TWO epilogues, because if there’s anything more important than a horrifying event in recent Indian history, it’s pointing out what a nice and helpful person this Chetan Bhagat is, who ends up reuniting old friends and lovers. He’s quite something, this Chetan guy. And so humble! In his introduction/acknowledgements, he explains: “I don’t want to be India’s most admired writer. I just want to be India’s most loved writer. Admiration passes, love endures.” I mean, cockroaches would survive a nuclear desaster, so God knows, Bhagat’s work might endure.

And I can see literary critics in a century reading these books, thinking “surely this is satire” and giving Bhagat a spot in the pantheon of satirical writers, as the master of satirizing bad prose. I had to read parts of this book to people, just to make them aware of the existence of observations like: “The great thing about girls is that even during pauses in the conversation you can look at them and not get bored.” I have never read a book like this, and God willing, I will never again. And yet, even as I go through these pages of terrible dialog, awful descriptions, and embarrassing thoughts, I can’t help but be fascinated by the book as a part of literary discourse. If only it were better.

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