Tag Archives: drugs

Booker Prize 2015: New Histories

The historical novel has always done well in the Booker. The last three winners (The narrow road to the deep north, The luminaries, Bring up the bodies) have all explored history in surprising ways. The two novels here both take a lesser known part of history as their starting point for stories that try to fill the gaps in our knowledge about what happened before us.

Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-American author, takes an historical document as her starting point. In 1527, the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez and a crew of 600 men sailed from Spain to the Gulf Coast of the United States to claim “La Florida” for the Spanish crown. While the mission was a complete failure, four men survived, one of whom was an unnamed Moorish slave. When the official histories came out, he was whitewashed out of them. In The moor’s account, Lalami imagines his story.

There’s such scope here to really examine two linked concepts—the colonisation of an entire continent by Europeans juxtaposed with man who has been on the receiving end of that colonisation—and Lalami makes an attempt to explore both. Thought the main narrative of the novel concerns itself with this horrifically failed mission in Florida, the first half is also interspersed with flashbacks to Estebanico’s life before he became a slave. What is interesting about this history is that Estebanico chose to become a slave—he sold himself into the trade to give his family the money to survive after his own businesses . In some ways, then, he is not a typical slave—he is not the result of a conquest, but of a failure of the colonial system to provide for its subjects.

Perhaps this, then, is why he cannot seem to see that the mission he is on is not only doomed, but morally questionable. His entire account is so dry, so lacking in emotion, that it feels like we are reading a history as opposed to a diary. I’m not sure this is a deliberate choice on Lalami’s part, but it does distance the reader from the story, and results in a failure to make you care about what is happening both to Estebanico and his fellow travellers. Instead of making the history come alive, it is reduced to a series of events—some things happen to these people, but there doesn’t seem to be any emotional investment in what happens to them.

Marlon James, too, takes an obscure piece of history—the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston in 1976—to begin his novel. But while The moor’s account becomes dry and stale, A brief history of seven killings brings to life a world full of colour, passion, drugs and death.

The first thing to note is that this schizophrenic novel is long. With a cast of hundreds, James takes us through the lead up to the event, as well as the ripple effect of it, with a chorus of voices that weave in and out of the narrative, sometimes for decades, and others for just a day. Despite this, each and every voice has its own strength, and it’s easy to pick up the threads, even if you are coming back to a perspective after several hundred pages.

The greatest strength of the novel is the first 250 pages, which tell with impressive detail the story not only of the people who decide to kill the Singer, as he is known here, but the people around them trying to make sense of Jamaica in the 1970s. There are the two warring gangs, Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes, who are terrorising the streets, and finding themselves more and more involved with politics. There’s Nina, out of a job and obsessed with the Singer. Alex Pierce, Rolling Stone journalist trying to file the greatest story on the Singer anyone has ever read. As each of them circle closer towards the big day, James show us a huge cross-section of people who call Jamaica home, and what this place is like as the Cold War rages on around them, and as Jamaica is pulling itself towards something resembling democracy.

Once the assassination attempt happens, though, these players scatter around the country and the continent, living their lives and moving on. Alex Pierce, the journalist, cannot help but continue investigating the story: who were the people who tried to kill the Singer? As he does, though, he finds himself drawn into a world he cannot handle.

It is here that Josey Wales, the deputy of Copenhagen City, comes into focus. This second half is really his story, as he becomes leader of the Storm Posse, an international drug trafficking organisation that goes between Jamaica and New York, cutting down all those who dare to get in its way. This gang becomes slowly more intertwined with both the characters from before the event, and Jamaica itself, as it tries to find a way beyond the gang violence and drug trade that defined it in the past. The big question, though, is whether this is possible when the relationship between the politicians and the gangs is so close.

A story so rooted in place could not be told in standard English. From Nina’s attempts to sound more posh to Josey’s refusal to speak anything other than Jamaican English, via a frighteningly large vocabulary of uniquely Jamaican expletives, James experiments with English in a way that no other novel on the shortlist does. This experimentation adds another layer of authenticity, and reminds the reader that, though this is history, it is a history that was experienced, and is still alive.

There’s no doubt that A brief history of seven killings is an impressive piece of work. It’s probably a little too long for its own good, and while the latter 350 pages don’t quite live up to the blisteringly good first 250, it is nevertheless a painfully intense novel that examines the people on the periphery, those who are caught up in a pivotal moment, and how their lives are shaped by it. It’s not perfect, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good.

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Anatomy of a Night (2012) – Anna KIM

I’m a big believer in translating fiction, for a variety of very boring reasons. I’m always happy, then, when a new publisher pops up to specialise in translated fiction. And while Frisch & Co. do not yet have any Asian fiction on their list, they do have an impressive line-up of writers from European languages. One of these is Anna Kim, a South Korean-born Austrian writer, who steadfastly refuses to write about her roots, a decision I applaud heartily.

Each year in Amarâq, a town in Greenland, there is one night in which a series of suicides takes place. They are not planned or discussed beforehand—they simply happen—and no family in the town is left untouched. Anatomy of a Night takes us on a guided tour of Amarâq, and asks us to question why this horrific event keeps happening.

There can be no question as to who the main character of this novel is. Amarâq is fictional town in which Kim sets her novel, and it is Amarâq that gives us the most material to examine. It is bleak, it is depressing, and there are almost no redeeming features. Kim populates the city with grey people—not in a literal sense, of course, but in their unrelentingly bleak outlook on life, and their resignation to a life that will never come to anything more than being able to eke out a living amongst the detritus of other people around them.

Amarâq is not just the city; the surrounding landscape also becomes a part of this setting that takes people in and spits them out. Though some people venture out of the ramshackle collection of building that forms the settlement, they are invariably attacked or eaten by a polar bear, and made to return.

I’m not sure if this comes off as slightly off, but it’s interesting and fascinating to see the collision between traditional Greenlandic culture and contemporary life, particularly when it comes to suicide and death. Each of the suicides seems somehow inevitable. Some people with Inuit heritage see their lives as continuing after death, and the allure of a place where material poverty becomes immaterial, a place where they can be reunited with their loved ones, is more tempting than the

Though Kim never explicitly states it, much of the troubled state of Amarâq can be traced back to the original sin: the colonisation of Greenland by the Danish. Wilfully ignored by the central government. It’s not a new story, but Kim’s evocation of a town gone to the dogs because of policies that have been designed with prejudice in mind is careful and deliberate.

All of this is wrapped up in a writing style that marks Kim out as unique among a chorus of voices writing about the postcolonial context. Cormac McCarthy would be proud to see another write take up with gusto the follow-on sentence: Kim’s words flow across the page, never-ending, in their glorious descriptions of place and character. Full marks to her translator, Bradley Schmidt, who had managed to wrangle the German into gorgeous English.

Anatomy of a Night is not an easy read. It is complex, and demands both patience and intelligence from its reader. But if you are willing to take the plunge, to dedicate some time to it, you will be rewarded tenfold. Beautiful and horrific in equal measures, this novel marks Anna Kim out as a talented writer, and Bradley Schmidt as a talented translator. It is a novel I look forward to revisiting in the future.

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Gold Rush (1998) – YŪ Miri

I’ve read some of Yū’s work before, though mostly in Japanese, and mostly skimming through it for thesis preparation. So it was nice to find a whole novel in the library translated into English so I didn’t have to think about it. Yū is a third-generation zainichi Korean writer (click the link for an explanation), though most of her work doesn’t really deal with race or ethnicity in any meaningful way. What she does seem more concerned with, though, is gender roles in contemporary Japan, and the ways in which men and women react to one another.

Kazuki is heir to Vegas, a huge chain of pachinko parlours. His father, Hidetomo Yuminaga, runs the company like a mad-man, but dotes on his middle-son, who is the only child capable of taking over the family business. His eldest son is mentally disabled, and his youngest is a girl. But this free reign has meant Kazuki has lost sight of what it means to be normal – for him, rape, drugs, and violent outbursts are the norm. One day, though, he does something so outrageous in his quest to take his father’s job, nothing will ever be the same again.

I want to start this review by briefly mentioning how I read this novel. I know I just said that Yū is not interested in race in her work, but it’s hard to avoid when you have a Korean name written in Korean characters plastered on your books in an otherwise Japan-friendly Japanese bookstore. Everyone who reads Yū in Japan knows she is ethnically Korean. And I came into the novel with that baggage: I know that, on average, Koreans in Japan are poorer, face more discrimination, are more likely to join gangs, more likely to run pachinko parlours etc. So while it is never explicitly stated (except for one passage where someone refers to Kazuki’s father as Chang Yong-chang – a Korean name if ever I’ve seen one), I think we’re all supposed to understand this to be a Korean family. Just something for those not as invested in Japanese cultural history as I am to think about.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read any other novel that explicitly described an under-age gang rape scene less than twenty pages in. And that’s really the base-line for the sex and violence in this novel. If you are faint-hearted, this is not for you. Fortunately, it almost never seems gratuitous, which is good, because I’ve seen Yū compared to Bret Easton Ellis, whose work I have always found to be gratuitously pushing boundaries of good taste. Yū manages to give us a protagonist who watches his friends gang rape a girl, who sells drugs to his friends, who kills his own father, who beats a dog to death with a golf club, and yet still comes off as almost sympathetic. Almost.

His most redeeming feature is the love and care he shows towards his older brother, Koki, who suffers from Williams Syndrome, which for the purposes of this novel comes across as something on the Autism spectrum. Like all 14 year old boys, Kazuki wants to be treated like an adult, and he thinks that acting like one will get him some respect, Unfortunately, the only real role model he has – his father – is less than ideal. This is the angle Yū pushes as an explanation for Kazuki’s abhorrent behaviour, though it takes her almost the entire novel to really make it explicit, leaving me at least to assume that, for most of the novel, Kazuki is actually just a dick.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of poverty and dirtiness that anyone who’s spent more than five minutes outside the tourist traps of Tokyo will instantly recognise. There’s a delightfully seedy history of gambling, prostitution and other well-regarded under-world activities in Japan’s big (and small) cities, and Kogane-chō is one of the best. It’s perhaps an ironic background, considering just much money the Yuminaga family have, but perhaps that’s the irony here – the rich are getting richer by screwing those addicted to the, quite frankly, ridiculous past-time that is pachinko.

I’ve spent some talking about poverty and money in this novel, and while it certainly is important, gender plays at least as important a role here, too.

Most of the female characters are secondary, and (if I remember correctly) all but one are either violently and horribly abused sexually and physically. It’s not a pretty picture, and I suppose that’s the point – Miho, the younger sister, seems to be a prostitute at the tender age of 15; Sugimoto, the second-in-command at Vegas, is having a violent affair with Kazuki’s father; Mai, Kazuki’s mistress, ends up sleeping with Kazuki, even though he’s only 14, and doesn’t seem happy about it. There’s a lot of stuff here about the role women play in Japanese (zainichi?) society, and it’s clear they are nothing but second-class citizens. From the simple fact that Miho, the daughter of the family, cannot take over the business simply because of her sex, to the treatment of almost every other character as a sex toy, it’s hard not to be confronted and angered by the way in which women are treated. It’s more that misogynistic, and to be fair to mainstream Japanese (and zainichi) society, probably a little exaggerated, but if that’s what it takes, maybe that’s the path Yū has to take.

Kazuki’s mother is the one redeeming feature in this onslaught of unpleasantness. She is everything Hidetomo is not – calm, reserved, and most importantly, relentlessly anti-materialistic. She abandoned her family long ago, realising that the lifestyle she was being forced to live was not doing anything for her mental and spiritual well-being. She provides hope, hope that there is a way out of this cycle of violence and madness. It is to her that Kazuki turns for advice and help in the final act, reaching out from the violent and money-hungry life he has known, in order to find some kind of salvation. She is the antithesis of everything to which Kazuki has previously aspired, and the fact that she (kind of) wins the battle for his soul at the end highlights what I can only assume is Yū’s message here.

Very briefly on the translation style: I don’t like macrons, particularly when they’re used in the names of main characters – it looks funny on the page. But other than that, Stephen Snyder, who also translated The Housekeeper and the Professor, does a good job. (And, having finished the rest of the review, I’ve only just realised I’ve done the same bloody thing with Yū’s name. I’m sorry.)

It’s always seemed strange to me that we don’t apply age ratings to books like we do with films – both contain a wide range of themes and images that can be disturbing to people who might not be ready for them. Gold Rush should come with a warning. It contains intense scenes of rape, drug use and violence. But unlike so many other novels, they all serve a purpose. Yū paints a world where money has corrupted men (and I use that word intentionally here) to such an extent, they have forgotten what it means to be human. Disturbing, confronting, terrifying.

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NW (2012) – Zadie SMITH

It’s been a long time between novels for Zadie Smith – her last, On Beauty, was published in 2005. In her defence, she has been busy having a real life, getting married and having a baby. NW is a return to Smith’s own childhood neighbourhood – the north-west of London (hence the title). It is her shortest work yet, though is perhaps her most experimental work, particularly in terms of formal structure if not in thematic concern.

Leah has been friends with Keisha ever since Keisha saved Leah from drowning at the age of four. As with all childhood friendships, the two have grown apart as they grow up, go to university, get jobs and find partners. But Leah still lives on the council estate they grew up on, while Keisha moved away, changed her name to Natalie, and has become a successful lawyer. When Leah has an uncomfortable encounter with a girl on the estate, the two women find themselves once again drawn into each other’s lives.

I’ve never been to London, let alone north-west London, so I can claim no expertise on whether or not Smith has accurately evoked the neighbourhoods of Willesden. Besides, specific urban geography does not worry me. What does interest me is the concept of these London council estates, in which a true melting pot of disparate groups find themselves shoulder to shoulder, denied access to the mainstream. It becomes something of a petri dish, then, particularly for the authors who portray them, allowing them almost unlimited scope in their quest to explore the three backbones of lit crit – race, class and gender.

The first section, Leah’s story, focuses on gender. Interestingly, just as the recent debate in the US and around the world in regards to women’s rights has been closely linked to questions of control over the reproductive cycle, so too does Smith equate a kind of feminism with contraception. Though Michel is desperate to start a family, Leah is unsure and so, in secret, continues to take the pill in order to prevent her getting pregnant. It is interesting to chart the difference between the genders here – though Leah does not want She finds herself unable to communicate to Michel why it is exactly that she does not want a child. As the section moves to the end, we discover that, in fact, Leah is not even attracted to men.

Threaded through Leah’s life are questions of race. She works as a social worker, having been to university and studied. But she works with women who didn’t have that chance, and as the only white woman in the office, she finds herself the target of what are not doubt intended to be jokey cracks about her perfect life. There is a sense, though, that these are not just jokes – these black women are framing their very real jealousies with humour to make them seem less petty, less cruel. Nevertheless, there is a cruel streak in their taunting, and for Leah, who already seems to be highly strung, her workplace becomes a place of stress.

Moving to the second section, Smith turns her gaze on to questions of race. Felix is a recovering addict, and wants to buy a car. And so we follow him in this seemingly simple endeavour – he has found someone willing to sell him the model and make he wants, so he can fix it up. He meets this posh white university student, and a comedy of errors ensues. But what’s the term when a comedy of errors simply becomes errors? Felix decides to see his ex-girlfriend (and the father of his children), in the hope that she, too, has cleaned up her act. Sadly – for him and for us – she has not. Smith paints this junkie as a figure of pity, but also as one not deserving of our respect. We like Felix – I think he is probably the most likeable of the four main characters – and so we don’t like her. Her inability to see what she is doing to herself, and to the people around her, upsets Felix, who has managed to find a way out of the quagmire that is
a life of drug-taking.

We are taken then to Natalie, whose story is told in fragments – tiny chapters, most no longer than a few paragraphs. This is the kind of writing I can get behind, and certainly the one to which I reacted most positively. Just as I loved it in Chinaman, this fragmentary style allows witty, as well as emotional, asides to act as a counterpoint to the main melody of the narrative that is Natalie escaping the shackles of her class upbringing. It is this drift – away from the council estate of predominantly non-white poor people, towards the moneyed white upper-classes – that provides the most friction between the two women. Though she has moved off the estate, and is now comfortably middle-class, Natalie still wants to be seen as a, if you’ll forgive the cliché, a strong independent black woman. In a world of milk-white skin, she provides local colour, and is often used for political gains by people around her. The question of her taking silk, for example, rapidly becomes a question of whether the bar is ready for a non-white, non-male silk – it becomes less about her abilities as a lawyer, and more about her race, gender, and to a certain extent, class. She has the perfect middle-class family, a husband, a son and daughter, but there does seem to be something missing. One cannot help but wonder if there’s anything to be made of the fact that both of the women here view motherhood with suspicion. Leah is so desperate to avoid getting pregnant in the first place, and for a long time, Natalie cannot deal with her children, relinquishing control to a parade of nannies.

I mentioned a little while ago that I appreciated the use of technology in Michelle de Kretser’s new novel, because I don’t think authors explore it the kind of seriousness it deserves. But it comes up again here, as Natalie, in an attempt to escape the inanity of her life, finds solace on the internet. It is perhaps the only part of the novel that veers away from the hyper-realist tone set up by Smith. Natalie doesn’t only find solace on the internet; she finds solace in late-night hook-ups with strangers from the internet, a past-time that comes to a head when she offers herself as the token woman in a threesome with two much, much younger men. It it, to say the least, a strange scene, but it does set up the final sequence.

The blurb of NW, as well as many of the reviews, make reference to the novel following four characters. I have only mentioned three so far. The last, Nathan Bogle, remains little more than a ghostly figure for most of the novel – much referenced and discussed, but little seen outside of a few mentions of him smoking pot and getting high. His is the last section, and for me to say much about it would be to ruin much of the ostensible plot of the novel, so I’ll try to keep it brief. He and Natalie find each other, and in a gorgeous evocation of north-west London, find themselves wandering around their old haunts. This is their land, and they know it well. No one can take that away from them.

It would have been easy for Zadie Smith to write another thick, hysterical realist novel and for us to all be happy with it. But experimentation with form and theme is the sign of a great writer. Smith’s dip into modernism is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. It allows her to explore her pet themes – the collision of race, class and gender in a very specific part of contemporary London. Hopefully this is the beginning of a beautiful new phase of her career.

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The Casual Vacancy (2012) – JK ROWLING

There’s no question that The Casual Vacancy will be the most talked about book of 2012. JK Rowling’s first foray into writing for an adult audience, we’ve now known about the existence of this book for years. And the fact that almost no one was allowed to get their hands on a review copy, combined with an international embargo, meant that excitement and anticipation for it was whipped up into a form that caused several members of the public to swear at me when I refused to sell it to them before the embargo. So is it worth the wait?

When Barry Fairbrother, a likeable member of the local council, dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm, the small town of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. Without the seemingly irreplaceable Barry, the town begins to turn on itself, pitting resident against resident as an historically divisive issue rears its ugly head. As secrets come out and lives irrevocably changed in the superficially peaceful town, events are also forcing change in the neighbouring council estate housing. Nothing will ever be the same again.

A word of warning – if you don’t like books with unlikeable characters, this is not the novel for you. Just as Tsiolkas’ The Slap exaggerated unappealing characters to prove a point about contemporary Australian society, so too does Rowling populate Pagford with people I hope I never meet. Howard, the ostensible mayor of Pagford, treats his daughter-in-law like a piece of meat, despite having a wife watching him. Gavin, Barry’s best friend, has been stringing along a social worked from London who has moved to London with her sixteen-year-old daughter just to be closer to him. Krystal, the local wild girl, has a heroin addict for a mother and a violent temper that has resulted in several lost teeth at school.

I assume everyone who’s read the book has an opinion about who is the worst character in the novel, but there was no contest for me, and I will fight you all if you disagree. I’m not sure I can recall a time when I’ve felt more anger towards a fictional character than when I was reading any passage containing Simon Price, father to Andrew ‘Arf’ Price, ,husband to Ruth. This is a man who torments his youngest son Paul by constantly referring to him as ‘Pauline’; who calls his son a “fucking little shit” on too many occasions to count; who beats his entire family when it is discovered that their new computer is stolen. Paul is on the receiving end of these attacks so often, he develops nosebleeds on the way to school because he is so stressed.

It is unsurprising, then, that Andrew should be the one to initiate the Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother handle that begins to haunt the worryingly poorly secured website of the local council. So outraged that his father would consider standing for local government – and worried that his father’s crazy would become public knowledge – Andrew takes to hacking the website to anonymously vent his rage. Once this enters into the public consciousness, two other teenagers take up the technology with which they are frighteningly familiar, and do the same to their own parents. The trick gets a little old third time around, but the effects remain as devastating as the first time. In fact, the role of “cyberbullying” (a phrase I desperately hate) is examined quite closely here, perhaps highlighting the seemingly never-ending cycle of bullying humanity at which humanity seems so well-versed taking on a new and worrying form. One of the few people in the novel who seems designed to elicit sympathy is Sukhvinder, a young Sikh girl who is bullied mercilessly for her physical appearance, driving her to self-harm. Her mother and father seem blissfully unaware of this, worrying more about their older children getting into university. Her antagonising bully is Fats, the son of Colin Wall, the deputy headmaster, who was good friends with Barry. Fats, incidentally, was one of the many characters in the novel I was on the verge of liking, but then goes and ruins it all by being a complete and utter dick to Sukhvinder over Facebook, and indeed, in real life.

Like all good British novels, class is central to the way in which characters act and react to the events around them. We have to turn to the daughter of a heroin addict for any glimmer of hope in this quagmire of petty and parochial infighting that seems to plague the middle- and upper-class residents of the town. In an interview with Jennifer Byrne last week, Rowling mentioned that a potential title for the novel had been What Do We Do About Krystal? And, of course, this is the moral quandary central to the novel: how do we, as middle- and upper-class people, deal with drug-addicts who have fallen into a hole of substandard living conditions and welfare dependency, particularly when they live next door to us? Most of the people in Rowling’s book simply want to brush the problem away – out of sight, out of mind. Rowling does not offer any concrete suggestions for improvement – and I don’t think anyone should expect an author to come up with a problem to a deeply intractable social issue – other than to ask us for more sympathy, more time to properly understand the underlying issues surrounding these people and their lifestyle.

The novel is not perfect. As with all books over about 300 pages, I think it drags a little, and could do with a little pruning. Having said that, the cast of characters is huge – almost too huge – so without cutting out some of the subplots, I’m not sure what she could do to resolve the problem. The pacing, too, seems a little off. Something like a hundred pages are dedicated to going through the town, examining the reactions of each and every member of the cast. And then the election itself turns out to not be the climax of the novel at all, coming before the third act even begins. Then there’s an exceptionally odd town council meeting which probably could have been the end, but isn’t – by a long shot. And then there’s the end, which actually is quite touching, though I should warn you, in no way optimistic.

It’s been hard to find a review of this novel that doesn’t mention Harry Potter. I’ve tried to redress this problem, but there are one or two points I want to make about it before I finish. Many reviewers seem shocked that Rowling has written a novel that isn’t anything at all like HarryThe Casual Vacancy has sex, a lot of swearing, and a whole load of drug taking. But all of this is superficial. Thematically, it seems like the logical next step for Rowling. Her primary concern in both works is mortality, and she has admitted as much in interviews. I don’t know why people are that surprised at The Casual Vacancy – there were hints of wider concerns about closed-mindedness and parochialism in Potter. All one has to do is read Chapter Two of Philosopher’s Stone to see the Dursley’s lock their nephew in a broom cupboard for fear of his ‘difference’ being discovered by their neighbours. I mean, that’s pretty heavy stuff, even for a kid’s book. No longer shackled by a huge child-oriented audience, it feels like Rowling is letting loose with ideas that have been bubbling below the surface for a long time.

The Casual Vacancy is a blistering and angry attack on the parochial and superficial mindset that seems to infect middle England. It is a confronting novel, and often makes for unpleasant reading. In many ways, though, this is the strength of the novel – slapping its readers in the face with social realism can only make us questions our own views, and start a wider conversation about the kind of society in which we want to live.

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Narcopolis (2012) – Jeet THAYIL

I should start by giving full credit to Mark from Eleutherophobia for pointing me in the direction of Narcopolis. Jeet Thayil is a well-respected Indian poet, whose own history with drug abuse seems to have inspired this, his debut novel. I don’t read a great number of drug novels, for no other reason that it’s not the 1960s anymore, and people don’t seen to write that many? Or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.

In the chandu khanas of Shuklaji Street, Mumbai, opium is the drug of choice. Among the hundreds of dens offering people a good time is one belonging to Rashid, where our story takes place. As we follow the lives of his employees and his clients, we uncover a part of Indian history that many people would like to forget – a time when opium was king and where prostitution was the past time de jour. As time passes, though, other drugs begin to make a move, and everything changes.

There’s a danger, I think, when you write a drug novel that you go too far in trying to make the whole thing kind of like a trip. I worry that Thayil has gone too far in that direction for Narcopolis to have a really punchy effect on the reader. One kind of meanders through some scenes that seem to have little to do with each other, and then all of a sudden, we’re thirty years on, at the end of our journey. Maybe this isn’t just a drug novel problem – I wonder if Thayil’s history as a poet meant he spent more time crafting the (admittedly gorgeous) language at the expense of a clear through line.

Bonus points, though, to Thayil’s evocation of Dimple as a protagonist, though. She is a hijra, a man who has become a woman, and the gender politics at play whenever anyone new encounters her are subtly played, but (I can only imagine) well-evoked. It must be tiring to be asked whether or not one’s genitals are still intact, and Dimple manages to make the best of many bad situations. Though we are introduced to a narrator early on, it is Dimple who quickly takes over the story, becoming out eyes and ears in a world where morality is not quite what we might expect. She has ideas above her station, and her attempts to educate herself in both philosophy and the ENglish language are an endearing reminder as to the dire situation in which all these people find themselves.

It is, as ever, a depressing evocation of a part of India that so many writers seem willing to ignore. It is not hard to read only a few pages, and already feel like you need a bath or shower, the grime from the dirty crack dens and seedy men sleeping with prostitutes somehow coming off the page and into your own life. These are characters that, despite probably being good people, have been sucked into a world where they can do nothing but take drugs and fall into habits that die hard.

There is almost some redemption for some of these people near the end – people find their way into rehab, but it never sticks. One character remarks that the choice between rehab and prison is like a choice between syphilis and gonorrhoea. It’s a charming simile, but it really highlights just how much these characters are addicted to these damaging drugs. There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

A shift in tone near the end sees a particularly poignant scene. We have moved into the twenty first century, an India I find easier to recognise, full of young professionals trying to make more and more money, trying to get rich quick. They have assembled at a party in a fancy skyscraper in their fancy suits and dresses, and they are all getting higher than the Empire State in the bathroom on cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy. Thayil show us that drugs are never going away – they will simply change and evolve with time, and for some people, they will always be attractive, no matter how much they get fucked by them.

In the end, Narcopolis is less than the sum of its many promising parts. The beginning monologue is blisteringly good, and though Thayil’s style is nice, the plot loses some of its way through the middle of the novel. The end returns to the promise of the initial pages, but it ends up being too little too late. A good, but not great, debut from a poet who has the potential to marry a beautiful prose style with some deeply unbeautiful subject matter.

I also heartily approve of the Colin Hay cameo.

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River of Smoke (2011) – Amitav GHOSH

I was both excited and annoyed when I found this novel on the longlist of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Excited, because I had wanted to read it long before its appearance, but annoyed, because I had planned on waiting until the third in the Ibis trilogy – of which River of Smoke is the second, and Sea of Poppies is the first – had been released, so I could do them all in one go. So it was with some trepidation that I began this novel, hoping I wasn’t ruining a rather anticipated reading experience.

Coming in as someone who has not read Sea of Poppies, it was somewhat dismaying to read the opening sections, which appeared to deal with the events of that novel. Fortunately, that sense of displacement doesn’t last long, and Ghosh pushes us head first into what is the bulk of the novel: the degradation of the relationship between the British and Chinese Empires, the beginning of the First Opium War, and the eventual creation of Hong Kong as a British outpost in South East Asia. And once Ghosh gets the story proper going, though – wow. Perhaps the thing that struck me most about the entire endeavour was that is was clear he has done a vast amount of research into this time period, with even the most basic details of everyday life for this group of foreigners living in Canton clearly and vividly presented.

Ghosh provides an exhaustive list of references at the end, but it is his gift that, apart from one or two passages, you do not feel like you are reading a dry history textbook about the period. He really makes each and every character come alive, and in this instance, I am including Canton as a character. There is a real sense of place here, from the sights and sounds of the bustling boats moored to the docks, to the food consumed at every meal. It is clear Ghosh is something of a gourmand, because he really does go to great pains to make you want to eat the meals provided.

Canton, too, is a place to be celebrated. A truly international trading city, the melting pot of ethnicities who make their living in the shipping industry provide a huge cast of characters and caricatures from which Ghosh can draw. Here are the early signs of globalisation, or internationalisation at work – a combination of early free trade capitalists, bringing their business to an Asian nation that is still unwilling to make full concessions to the new ways they are being strongly encouraged to adopt. It could be anywhere in Asia in the 21st century, but here it is, a good 170 years early. The only mutually understood language by all of these people is a kind of Creole, formed out of the marriage between Cantonese and English, and it is a testament to Ghosh that he not only uses this for huge chunks of dialogue, but makes it easy for his audience to understand.

Our two main characters – Bahram and Neel – are Indians caught up in the opium trade. Bhram is the master of a company that ships opium into China, and Neel is his newly acquired assistant. Between the two of them, we are allowed a glimpse into the ways in which foreigners (by which I mean, the British Empire and the Americans) were conducting the opium trade. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the fact that opium was not a Good Thing, having banned the stuff in their own lands, but they were more than willing to exploit the Chinese market, and sell it there, despite the trade restrictions. I love the indignation of everyone – including Bahram – when the Chinese do an about face, and tell them that, actually, those restrictions will be enforced, and if you don’t comply, heads will roll. Literally. There’s a nice poetic justice to it, though as it turns out, it is not perhaps the best news for Bahram, who is already deep in debt with his investors in India.

I don’t know if Paulette features heavily in the first novel, but in River of Smoke, she seems little more than an excuse for Ghosh to write the letters of Robin Chinnery. I am not really complaining, because these letters are absolutely brilliant, but it does mean Paulette does get sidelined fairly early on in the action. From her promising start as a cross-dressing botanist, to her burgeoning friendship with Fitcher Penrose, a charmingly gruff Scottish botanist, she very quickly disappears off the page, and her name is reduced to nothing more than a destination for Robin’s letters.

But those letters – oh, what a gift they are. There is nowhere else in the novel that highlights the kind of mastery Ghosh has over the English language. Through language alone, he manages to conjur up a (hilariously) camp artist from the 1830s, whose love of men is at once flamboyant and tragic. His quest to find Paulette’s golden camellia sends him on a wild adventure around Canton, meeting a wide variety of people outside of the merchant houses that form the somewhat claustrophobic setting of the other two narrative strands. It also provides him with several potential “Friends”, as he so coyly calls them, and his retellings of his attempts to woo them actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

There’s no point in me banging on about how wonderful this novel is any more. Suffice it to say, I’m sold on the Ibis trilogy. I’m sad that I didn’t read them in order, but I will now go out and find Sea of Poppies (once John Murray have given it a better cover), and devour that, too. And I have now joined the long list of people eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy, whenever that may arrive. Needless to say, I hope (and suspect) River of Smoke will make its way onto this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist.

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Less Than Zero (1985) – Bret Easton ELLIS

No doubt, Bret Easton Ellis is most famous for writing American Psycho, a novel that carries an R18+ rating in this country, and I believe is still illegal to buy in Queensland (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). But his first novel, this one, was written when he was still in college, at the obscene age of 21, which rather makes me feel like I’ve achieved nothing in my life, since I’m now somewhat older than that.

Clay has returned home to Los Angeles after his first semester at college on the East Coast. Catching up with old friends, he falls into his past life with ease – going to parties, doing gratuitous amounts of drugs, sleeping with boys and girls. His old girlfriend, Blair, wants to know if they can get back together. His best friend, though, has been busy while he’s been away, getting deep into the LA drug scene, to which he quickly introduces Clay.

It’s difficult to empathise with characters who are so very, very rich, and so very, very oblivious to that fact. To say that all of these kids are spoilt little rich kids would be something of an understatement. They all drive Mercs or Audis, have parties in their giant houses, take a LOT (and I mean, a LOT) of drugs, don’t do any work, and seem to barely attend university. It’s like the whole conspicuous consumption philosophy of the 80s has been distilled into one suburb of LA, and intensified. I appreciate what Ellis is trying to do here, though I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with it in any meaningful way. Some books age well, and some don’t. Less Than Zero is one of the latter. Ellis is really pushing the idea that rich kids are just as disaffected with life as poor people are, which is fine, but the problem is, 25 years later, I like to think we all understand that money doesn’t buy you happiness. We’ve all seen how Paris Hilton and her brigade act – maybe I’m just too used to this kind of thing to be shocked.

Less Than Zero is also very repetitive. A large amount of text is given over to describing conversations where absolutely nothing meaningful or significant is said. Or even though, really.  An aside to this – the novel would have been much shorter were it set in contemporary times. So much time is dedicated to people playing telephone tag with one another, if they’d all had a mobile, I reckon about half the scenes could be cut.

And so we kind of plod along like this for most of the novel, doing drugs, having meaningful silences with friends in restaurants, and generally being bored with life. Then Ellis pulls a fast one, and shit gets weird. In the last third of the book or so, the whole thing gets turned upside down. All of a sudden, important things happen. Julian, Clay’s best friend, turns out to be a prostitute, and him pimp is, shall we say, less than ideal. There’s a sequence between Julian, Clay and the pimp that is deeply unpleasant to read, because of what this man is forcing these two kids to do. And then, just when you’ve recovered from that, we get to a sequence where a 12 year old girl is raped. I just – I don’t know how to talk about that without being absolutely disgusted, so I’m going to move swiftly on.

So why the sudden jump? Perhaps Ellis is highlighting the chance for these things to get out of hand very quickly? It seems like something of a stretch to assume that all people who do drugs are going to go on to become prostitutes or rapists, though maybe that’s the take-home message here. I don’t really know. There’s a tension between the vacuousness of the bulk of the novel dealing with the disillusionment of rich kids who spend all their time partying, and the actual grittiness of rape, murder and paedophilia that are thrown in at the end. Unfortunately, while this may be effect Ellis is going for, it means that you don’t get a chance to fully comprehend the true horror of the sequences at the end.

I don’t have a fundamental problem with novels that deal with rape and drug use – Loaded, for example, is fantastic, as is Bright Shiny Morning. I do have a problem with the way Ellis constructs his novel, and the seemingly arbitrary nature in which he makes links between recreational drug users, and hardcore bad people.

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Lights Out in Wonderland (2010) – DBC PIERRE

DBC Pierre’s other novels, Vernon God Little and Ludmilla’s Broken English, are pretty nuts. Though, when you consider Pierre’s pretty insane upbringing, perhaps one can begin to  understand why he writes fiction like this. I didn’t even know he’d released a third novel, but when I saw it on the shelves at work, looking for something different to read, I knew nothing could be as different as this.

After escaping rehab, Gabriel Brockwell decides he’s going to kill himself. With this in mind, he decides on a final party to celebrate the occasion – a last hurrah. He goes to Tokyo to rope in his childhood friends, Smuts, who is working in a high end fugu restaurant. His journey continues, and he finds himself in Berlin, where he grew up. But trying to find the best place to party is turning out to be a lot harder than he ever imagined.

The opening pages of Lights Out in Wonderland are some of the best I’ve ever read. What a wonderfully insane concept – I’ve decided I’m going to kill myself, so it doesn’t matter what I now do. To be able to release oneself from any kind of law or morality by deciding to kill yourself, it really allows you to take your characters into places other authors may not be brave enough to go. Unfortunately, though, I feel like Pierre didn’t take it to quite the level he could have. Writing about a character that, before this decision, was already pretty irresponsible and amoral kind of makes you wonder why he has suddenly decided this in the first place. Had Gabriel been a strait-laced business man or something, I think the fall could have been even more interesting.

The Tokyo sections are fine but, unlike those set in London and Berlin, don’t seem to evoke a great sense of place. Berlin, in particular, comes alive in this novel, and (I assume), it is clear that Pierre has spent some time there, working it all out in his head. I particularly love that he finds Berlin’s second, dilapidated airport, and turns it into a stage for most of the action. By moving us away from the centre of Berlin, which is well defined, Pierre is, like his characters, creating his own playground, where anything could happen. It’s not outside the realms of possibility, this nightclub of excess, but just on the outskirts of the city. Food for thought for his readers, no doubt.

There is a lot of anger in these pages, too. Pierre is clearly fed up with the materialistic, consumer culture that we have all been sucked into. But so are many other writers, so the question then becomes, does he say anything new about it? In some ways, yes, I think he does. I love the idea of a whole load of rich people wandering around the globe, trying to find the most outrageous party they can, and outdo each other with more absurd tales of exoticism. On a far smaller level, this is, I think, what a lot of us in the Western world – but to have people who own jets and companies doing this, you end up with feasts that have milk fed tiger as the main course. Completely ridiculous.

Gabriel’s thoughts about the state of the world are clearly an exaggerated version of what Pierre thinks, though in some places, they get a bit too ranty. His conversation with God (just roll with me here), though, puts a lot of things into perspective. Whether Pierre got this idea from Rowling, I have no idea, but there are definite parallels to be drawn. His decision, in the end, to not kill himself is, I think, a nice inversion of what we would all expect to happen. I like that he manages to find some kind of happiness, some kind of reason to live, by the end. I suppose, though, having lived through the hedonism of this novel, had Gabriel not been fully aware of the wonders of humanity, he’d be very blind indeed.

Ridiculous is the best word I can use to describe Lights Out in Wonderland. The heightened sense of reality, the exaggerated caricatures of people, and the sheer unbelievability of what happens are what make this book. Pierre has said this is the last in a loose trilogy (the other two being Vernon and Ludmilla) about contemporary consumer life and what not. If Lights Out is anything to go by, I think Pierre has faith in the modern world. Or maybe cautious optimism. At the least, he is willing to be like the rest of us, and revel in the spectacle that is modern humanity.

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Loaded (1995) – Christos TSIOLKAS

Now that everyone’s going crazy over The Slap, I figured this was a good a time as any to finally finish off Tsiolkas’ backlist. Which is weird, ’cause this is his first novel, meaning I’ve pretty much done it backwards. There you go, though. This short novel was the perfect escape from my exams, which will be over in two days!

Ari is nineteen, not at university, and not in a job. He lives (sometimes) with his parents, and goes out at night to get wasted, stoned, and fucked. He’s not proud that his parents are Greek, but he doesn’t think of himself as Australian, either. He’s tired and frustrated with the world, but lusts after almost everyone he sees. His nights are full of clubs, parties, sex in club toilets, and his friends are just as gone as he is.

It’s interesting to plot Tsiolkas’ career as a writer, having now read everything. This novel is full of anger and frustration, and it’s nice to see that he’s calmed down a bit – though it’s clear that much of it still remains. While family relationships are vital in The Jesus Man and The Slap, here, they are simply degrading and unimportant. Ari seems to hate his parents, and the feelings are, though not fully returned, mutely mutual. There is this constant deconstruction of the family throughout Loaded – Ari’s parents are clearly no good, his friend Johnny’s dad sleeps in the same bed – and so young people are forced to look to each other for company. Well, each other, and gratuitous amounts of drugs.

This novel feels like one big trip. Not that I have any experience in this field. But still, I imagine were I to take drugs, my nights would be like two thirds of this novel. In fact, it’s not until you get to the final section that you realise all this crazy stuff that Ari gets up to takes place in the short space of one night. Insane! I actually lost count of how many people he got off with, and just how many pills he’d taken. Instead of plot, this novel reads more like a giant angry rant at the world, with Ari constantly telling us how shit his life is. But that’s ok – the writing is brilliant, and the novel has so much pent-up energy, it doesn’t feel particularly depressing. There’s so much feeling, so much – well, enthusiasm’s not the right word – fervour, maybe, that you can’t help being drawn into totally believing him to be correct. It’s damning indictment of modern society, but it’s all the better for it. There’s no wallowing in self-pity – just a reason to go out and get fucked.

Even though this novel is short, it packs quite a punch. There’s so much hatred and anger (and drugs) in here to fill a novel ten times its size. And yet, that’s what makes it so powerful. There’s little plot to speak of, the secondary characters are intresting, though uninspired, but Ari and his philosophy are genuinely enthralling. It’s amazing that one young man can find so much dislike for the world around him, but there you go. There is almost nothing he seems to find beauty in, and that’s what makes this novel so brilliant. It’s almost as though Tsiolkas has taken Eliot’s philosophy – the degradation and destruction of the modern world, where morality and humanity have been pushed into the dirt – to a contemporary audience. The story he tells is dirty, gritty, and altogether unpleasant, but it is brilliantly focused and on message. I think this may be my most favouritest Tsiolkas novel. That’ right, you heard it here first.

Also, sorry for the swearing in this post. I guess Tsiolkas will have that effect on you.

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