Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thoughts on 'A Visit from the Goon Squad'

Orginally published in Nazar.
Picture: Wolf Gang
You chip away and you chip away. You write and you re-write. Keep chipping away. More polish needed. Yeah, it’s just about right now. No wait, chip away, take it out. Yep, good enough. Maybe.


Rinse and repeat for 13 chapters.


Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer winning ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ is a guide to aspiring writers. It’s also quite unconventional. There’s a shift in time, location and point of view as you move from chapter to chapter which makes it hard to name one key character that drives the story. Bennie Salazar, executive at Sow’s Ear Records, seems to be the closest to a traditional protagonist. He forms the central link that binds the rest of the characters to each other and to the world of music that forms the backdrop in most chapters. He takes on different roles in the book – employer, father, husband, band member of punk rock group Flaming Dildos – and moves in and out of the spotlight as characters around him deal with their self-destructive and insecure tendencies.

Egan’s stylistic flourishes vary from chapter to chapter but many of them are so subtle (the anthropological observations in chapter 4 (Safari) being a notable exception) and well-crafted that you don’t notice them until you make an active effort to decipher her genius (or as in my case you take a writing class with really smart people who point them out to you). Each chapter can live on its own (and some do in a few literary magazines) but the Ah moment when you link the ‘fat fuck’ that no one cares about in chapter 7 to the nutcase guitarist in his prime in chapter 10 is a delight.

Egan seems to have an array of literary techniques at her disposal and I can imagine her using them at will, attaining an effect that great composers achieve by carefully inserting new and different sounds a couple of layers beneath, à la A.R. Rahman in Dil Gira Dafatan, that you pick out only if you’re really listening. Personal experience, however, convinces me that it took her numerous re-writes, tons of head bump marks on her desk and caffeine-pumped sessions to make it all ‘just work’. I’m sticking to this image of her – the hard-at-work writer using all that she’s internalized by reading the masters of literary fiction to craft her own magic.

In the book, Egan sometimes indulges herself with in-your-face style sophistications — blatantly using unconventional methods to slow down the reader’s advance to the end of the chapter. In chapter 9 (Forty-Minute Lunch), she uses footnotes to let the point of view character ramble, a technique that I didn’t really warm up to when I read David Foster Wallace’s ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’. It’s a huge risk, asking readers to step back from the action and allow themselves to be taken through an internal monologue only to be dropped back to the story’s present which is on its own mission. I don’t see Forty Minute Lunch working as wonderfully though without the footnotes:

Thought 1 (at the sight of Kitty dipping her finger and sucking it): Can it possible be that this ravishing young girl is coming on to me?
Thought 2: No that’s out of the question.
Thought 3: But why is it out of the question?
Thought 4: Because she’s a famous nineteen-year old movie star and you’re “heavier all of a sudden – or am I just noticing it more?” (– Janet Green, during our last, failed sexual encounter) and have a skin problem and no worldly clout.
It’s my favorite chapter.
In chapter 11 (Good-bye, My Love) she plays around with language beautifully:
Ted became aware of a subterranean patter around him, an interplay of glances, whistles, and signals that seemed to include nearly everyone, from the crone draped in black outside the church to the kid in the green T-shirt who kept buzzing past Ted on his Vespa, grazingly close. Everyone but himself.
And in chapter 13 (Great Rock and Roll Pauses) Egan flaunts convention readily by using a PowerPoint presentation to tell a story. She keeps the reader’s attention by punctuating paragraphs with stellar lines (“He’s usually looking at Alice, so I can watch him as much as I want.”) and is okay with the risk of losing it by favoring a switch in point-of-view every so often. She carefully tweaks the narrative distance — she’s got you looking at the world she’s created from a safe space and all of a sudden inserts you right by the central character, making you watch the action unfold as if you were right there. Zoom out, zoom in.

Jennifer Egan exhibits mastery over language and the courage to experiment throughout a superbly written novel. What you get is an extremely rewarding read.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

5K

On Friday, I paid money to run 5 kilometers around a park. This is a strange condition that we humans have, giving up something of value in order to experience dehydration, blurry vision, foot pain and an insatiable need to spit. The counter-intuitiveness of it all struck me as my feet began to protest this brain-addled exercise at around the 1.5 mile mark. A 7 year old was also whooping my ass at this point, bruising my ego some. My inner voice which was yelling “LET’S DO THIS!’ at the start line had now switched to a sad “why?”. I gave up the slow jogging and joined the rest of the ‘it’s-not-about-winning-it’s-about-finishing’ pack. 

At the 2 mile mark, I spotted the 7 year old kid taking a water break. “WATER IS FOR THE WEAK!” my inner voice now suggested and I decided to push for the finish. I began running and a random assortment of Queen songs began playing in my head. One by one I moved past tired, sweaty competitors. “ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST!”. People ahead of me now parted to make way as I used my arms to propel me forward. ‘ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST!’. At the 2.5 mile mark, the familiar feeling of ‘holy-mother-of-what-the-shit-my-feet’s-on-fire’ returned and my pace slackened. The kid caught up and soon enough was ahead of me, clearly unaware of the ego-killing he was effecting all around him.

Near the finish line I saw a person dressed like a chicken cheering me on. This was weird. I crossed the line just as volunteer photographers captured the pained look on my face. As I collapsed to the ground, unsure if I would ever get up again, I saw the 7 year old chilling next to a person dressed like a chicken.

In retrospect, I realize that I’m not made for long distance running. Even as a kid, I would restrict myself to short sprints around the hallway. A milk break would be necessary soon enough following which the short sprints around the hallway would continue. I also didn’t have friends as a kid.

There are people who would say that a 5K does not constitute a ‘long distance’. And then there are people who take the elevator one floor up and say stuff like  “why walk when you don’t have to?”. I am one of those people.

Time for my milk break.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Café Tales V

He brings his car to a halt as the signal turns red. He looks over at the convertible, a 6-series BMW, parked besides him and sees his wife's hand resting on the driver's crotch. He keeps staring till the convertible drives away. He glances at the worn out briefcase lying next to him, the sheaf of coupons, unpaid bills, parking tickets peeking out from underneath it. The stench of wet shoes left in the trunk overwhelms him. He steps on the accelerator and doesn't let go. His right hand moves towards the volume knob and his left works on cranking down the window. No, he hasn't forgotten to steer. The sound of The New Pornographers is no longer confined to the interiors of his car.

As the thrice owned Mitsubishi Galant climbs on the railing and takes its first and final leap, he closes his eyes and resides in the comfort of knowing that the dark, desolate road is coming to a dead end.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Café Tales IV

It’s an orange with a straw stuck through it. I’ve never noticed the Tropicana logo before. Or maybe this was a new logo and hence the stopping in my tracks. A bit unnecessary, you might say, stopping in one’s tracks to look closer at the logo on a juice box. I agree, a tad unnecessary, but it happened. Trust me, I speak the truth. I thought about the design process that was responsible for this logo. “We want people to know that Tropicana is fresh and natural!”, I can hear an excited 27 year old marketing wizard yell. And then I wonder why someone would get so passionate about orange juice. A tad unnecessary. “I get the message, though” I tell the marketing wizard. I’m sure she heard me.

I look at the jug of Simply Orange nearby. It’s a dollar cheaper, so I pick it up and walk towards the milk aisle.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Wankhede Dreams

Not one person in the vicinity is sitting. We can sense the moment coming. Kulasekara runs in, the crowd’s “Dhoni, Dhoni” chant lowers in volume as the Sri Lankan pacer gets closer and closer to the crease. And then madness. Dev and I, amongst 33,000 other fans in the stadium, see the ball sailing in the air. Hugs everywhere. I find myself hugging 4 people at once. I look at the guy who tried to take one of our seats earlier in the day and we laugh together in joy. I look towards the ground and I see Bhajji running on to the field, waving an Indian flag as he meets his crying team-mates mid-pitch. More massive hugs. I turn back towards the ground again and I see Sachin. The big screen captures his jog towards his team-mates, his child-like smile lighting up his face and ours as fireworks light up the sky.

wc champions

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Virat Kohli utters the quote of the decade, a quote that easily overshadows his crucial 35. The crowd roars its approval.

Dev mentions that the man is our age. Everything is surreal at this point.

----

We walk out of the stadium at around 1am. The cops and army personnel slowly allow themselves to entertain high five requests from fans. There is an outpouring of gratitude towards the security team, the unsung heroes of the night.

---

The streets outside Wankhede are a sea of blue. I am confused, unsure how to celebrate. Some chant, “Jeet gaya bhai jeet gaya, India jeet gaya!”, others congratulate each other. Some take pictures to show off to their friends, others dance to the honking tune of car horns. I, well, I do all of these. And then I run around waving my Indian flag until I see a guy with “Shekhar” on the back of his jersey. Picture is taken.

wc shekhar

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We’re starving. During the India-Australia quarterfinal, we didn’t eat during the second innings and India won. So.

I see Tamil actress Namitha sitting in Shiv Sagar, lucky enough to get a seat in the packed restaurant. Dev grabs a bottle of water and we continue on our quest for food.

---

A kind restaurant owner helps us get a table faster than expected and we share it with a couple of guys who’ve flown in from Dubai to watch the game. Over food, we discuss the match, our lives outside cricket, the greatness of Sachin, the boldness of Dhoni, joining in for a couple of India chants before bidding each other good bye,  congratulating ourselves on the victory.

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marine drive people

Marine Drive is packed with people. Songs are being belted out from car stereo systems while fire crackers are burst at an amazing frequency. I chat with some fans who couldn’t get tickets to the stadium but had come over to Marine Drive to revel in the post-match celebrations.

I stand facing the sea, taking it all in. I see the Queen’s Necklace shimmering.

Life is beautiful.

---

We take a cab back to Dev’s at 4 in the morning. I fall asleep in the cab, exhausted.

But this time, I don’t have to dream.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Greatest Gift

Do you remember that straight drive Sachin hit three years ago, a bewildered Lee looking in awe, the ball smashing into the advertising boards, all the while Sachin retaining that pose of artistic perfection? I watched that shot thousands of miles away at Jester auditorium in Austin, bowing down to the projector screen, asking for more. Yesterday, I saw Sachin hit a straight drive for four at Wankhede. There are many older than me who claim that the birth of their first child is the greatest moment of their lives. They have probably not been 100 meters away from a Sachin Tendulkar straight drive for four.

When Sachin walked back, caught behind off of ferocious, deadly Malinga, I sat quietly for a bit with my face buried in the flag I was waving around just a minute ago. Had I just seen his last one day inning? I slowly rose to my feet and applauded, and so did the rest of Wankhede. He said a couple of words to the incoming Virat Kohli before continuing his walk into the pavilion. Virat Kohli carried Sachin Tendulkar on his shoulders later that night, “well, he’s carried the burden of a nation for 21 years, it’s time we carried him on our shoulders”, he said. Last night was poetry in action.

There are these fleeting images – Yuvraj, Kohli, Raina egging each other on, Harbhajan dismissing Umar Akmal and shaking his head in wild, unbridled joy, Yuvraj roaring into the night after vanquishing Australia, Zaheer yelling, “Come on!” after breaking up a partnership with smarts rather than speed , Dhoni’s calm smile after hitting Kulasekara for a world cup winning six. These images will live with me forever.

This Indian team, these men in blue, looked to the accomplishments of Sachin Tendulkar to motivate them, to see pressure in the eye and use that as a catalyst for greatness. This Indian team has conspired to win the cricket world cup, to provide Sachin a joy that had eluded him for far too long. But when you look past the trophy, you realize that they’ve shown the little master that they can win without him. And that to Sachin should be the greatest gift of them all.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Theater at Its Finest

Packed into the West Pavilion stand with throngs of people seated on red plastic chairs and tons of others filling up the aisle, I saw theater at its finest. There were 22 characters on the field trying their best to stay alive on a journey that most remember with pain and anguish. But there were way more in the stands, invested deeply in the actions of these men on the field, who brought to life a tremendous game.

The West Pavilion stand at the Sardar Patel stadium in Motera has little going for it on first glance – it is dark, muggy and cramped. The seats are hard to sit on and, as the guy in front of me found out, are incapable of withstanding heavy set men. All this can be forgiven, or rather forgotten, once the drama on the field starts. ODI cricket does itself no favors with inconsequential bouts (as India-Sri Lanka ties have painstakingly proved) but this time, oh boy this time, we finally had a game that mattered.

Clearly, we could not afford to lose. Losing would mean that the greatest one day cricketer would leave without the format’s ultimate prize. We could not lose. This is for Sachin. This is for India. In that order. Imagine 50,000 people in the stadium channeling that energy, imagine all your personal demons popping up simultaneously, imagine a team in yellow that’s been there and done that. Imagine. How did the men in blue not crack?

I would like to think that we in the crowd helped. We sang the national anthem with a pride that made ‘Jaya he!’ reverberate all around Motera’s concrete cauldron of heat. Uncles forced to lead dignified, routine lives on the outside bent their backs and swiveled their hips to the DJ’s tracks, cheering and pumping up the more self-conscious sections. The gyrating uncles did not give up even when smacked with cups and signs by those whose views they were blocking with their moves. Dot balls were cheered like they were wickets and wickets like they were match winning boundaries. The Aussies’ DRS review against Sehwag with the DJ playing pounding heart beat sounds in the background was intense. The consensus from the crowd being “Out! Not out! Edged! It swung! Cheaters!” only to end in hugs of joy when the screen screamed what we wanted to see.

I need you to imagine the pressure once more. This time add a ‘special person’ to the mix, maybe a little master, a cherubic genius who you’re trying to win this game for. Now add a left arm fast bowler who you cannot read, a set southpaw who has run himself out and a captain who has smacked the ball into the hands of the Aussie captain-in-waiting. Imagine the dust and the heat of Motera – the stifling heat. How does a man not crack under that?

It was the 39th over and a close-up of Yuvraj’s face, tortured by fear, was shown on the big screen. He walked over to Raina before the last ball of that over. I don’t know what they said to each other but the next ball he smacked Tait over point for four.

The crowd that had gone in to silent prayer mode found its voice again when the uppish cut from Yuvraj’s blade beat the third man fielder. Chants of “Ganpati Bappa Moriya!” slowly increased in volume, interspersed with shouts of “LOSER!” whenever the Aussies gave lip to the batsmen. The gap between the runs required and the balls left grew and Raina put the minds of the fans and Yuvraj at ease when he welcomed Brett Lee back with a muscled loft over long-on. Lee, the top of his right eye bandaged, watched the ball disappear into the crowd. This was not subtle theater – the symbolism and the clubbed hits drove the message home. The Aussies, prone to being invincible, had been defeated.

A searing cover drive for four. Yuvraj, on his knees, roaring into the night.

Imagine.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

b.i. 42

“I wear nothing white, not one white thing.”

This is a clip from John Krasinski’s film adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I love his take on this interview, depicting it as a conversation of sorts between dad and son.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Magic of The Oscars

When I was studying in Chennai, I could barely watch all of the opening Oscar monologue by the time I had to leave for school. I remember eating breakfast in front of the TV, watching the celebrities walk the red carpet talking down their chances of winning while congratulating their fellow nominees on their “tremendous” performances. Anything to help cushion the blow.

One of the best parts of the show for me is the opening monologue, Billy Crystal being my favorite host - “I first hosted the show 13 years ago (1991). You know how different it was? Bush was president, the economy was tanking and we had just finished a war with Iraq.” Steve Martin wasn’t too shabby either in 2001 – “Hosting the Oscars is like making love to a beautiful woman. It's something I only get to do when Billy Crystal is out of town.”

Roberto Benigni’s much deserved win for Life is Beautiful and his climb-march-leap towards the stage to collect an award that clearly meant the world to him, foreigners emphasizing the importance of their native tongue by adding to their speeches a dash of the language they are most comfortable in (Penelope Cruz for Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and AR Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire come to mind), actors understanding how relevant their craft is in times of pain (Tom Cruise’s post 9/11 opening monologue: “Should we celebrate the joy and magic that movies bring? Well, dare I say it, more than ever.”) – all standout Oscar moments for me.

Acting is a profession that many aspire to be acquainted with. It takes considerable skill, sacrifice, luck and hard work for an actor to even get a chance to play a role that interests and challenges him/her. But to get that opportunity to have your name called out, to pick up that envelope and statue and thank the people who got you there in front of your heroes – that’s the magic of the Oscars.

Russell Crowe captured the essence of the Oscars best when he said, “For anybody who is on the downside of advantage and relying purely on courage, it's possible.”

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Traveling Troubadour

An excerpt from a really interesting interview with Jason Mraz from the March issue of National Geographic Traveler:

What style of traveler are you? A spontaneous one, with little preparation. I pack light. I don’t feel a need to rush through all the major landmarks. Like, if I go to Paris, I might just take a walk, with no map or tourist site in mind, and end up in a neighborhood coffee shop. I guess I’m a traveler who likes to think he’s not traveling. That’s how I ended up in San Diego. I traveled there and found this great coffee shop that I love to make music in and I ended up staying. I’ve lived there for 12 years now.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Café Tales III

It was visible only under the glow of the street lamp. The darkness of the night may have denied it sanctuary, but under the glow of the street lamp, it fell with grace. Ethereal at times, sometimes frantic, it revered the spotlight – almost trying to show off before disappearing into the vast abyss of black. Its appearance demanded that the night be unforgivingly cold, a requirement that demanded its fans be fools.

She saw snow for the first time that night.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Café Tales II

He was a good listener - he laughed at the punch lines, smiled knowingly when you expressed discontent. He seemed to know just enough about anything you spoke to keep a conversation going. You drove the conversation, yes, but you never felt like you were boring him. He knew when to take a sip of coffee so that a silence never felt awkward. You felt good about yourself because he made you feel like you were the expert, like you made sense.

But then you married him. Shit.