The Corporate Slacker
Essays. Reviews. Books. Movies. Fiction.
Monday, 6 March 2023
Why Writers' Wink and Authors' Angst, but mostly a Reviewer's Rant
Sunday, 12 December 2021
TWO DUNES, A BOOK AND A JOKE
TWO DUNES, A BOOK AND A JOKE
|Poster for Dune (1984)|
David Lynch’s Dune is a joke.
That statement is kind of a given. If you’re enough a Film Buff to know a bit more about movies than merely what’s playing in theatres this week and have the curiosity to have read about film rather than just viewing it, you would know that David Lynch’s Dune is a joke.
There are reasons why it is considered so. It famously made just under $31 million against a production budget of $40 million. This was in spite of being released at a time where the film-going market was clearly accepting of Sci-Fi (I know, Star Wars is more ‘Space Opera’ than Science Fiction, but the distinction is blurry from a marketing perspective), and being based on a novel that was hugely popular. Audiences at the time termed it incomprehensible, too dense, and simply found much of it rather camp.
And yet, the fact remains that, where a disaster like Dune should have seen its director sink into oblivion, Lynch only went from strength to strength, and is now commonly considered one of the greatest creative minds of his generation.
Talk to any adherent of Lynch, and they will point to any of his other works rather than Dune as an example of his art. Mulholland Drive, that failed TV pilot that became a film that is routinely considered the best English film of this century. Blue Velvet, a near-perfect ode to small-town ugliness. Twin Peaks, which basically took television as it existed, threw it out of the window, and re-shaped it in its own image. Even Lynch’s idiosyncratic weather reports on radio and YouTube are more likely to be mentioned than that one time he had a massive budget and a guaranteed blockbuster on his hands.
But what about the film itself? Severed from its director’s reputation, removed by the passage of decades from its commercial failure, and given what is considered the best fan-edit it is likely to ever get from Spicediver (a faceless person, who may well just be a simple man trying to make his way in the galaxy), how does it stack, as a film and as an adaptation?
David Lynch’s Dune opens on the ethereally beautiful visage of Princess Irulan (Virginia Marsden), delivering exposition, explaining to the audience what the political system of the Galaxy is, and the central importance of the substance called ‘spice’, and the planet where it is mined, ‘Arrakis’.
|Princess Irulan explains...|
A lot of people would say it only goes downhill from there.
In Spicediver’s edit, there is a lot more exposition to come, which is missing in the theatrical cut. The Head of the Bene Gesserit order, its Reverend Mother, delivers some of it. The Reverend Mother of the order of the Sayyidina delivers more. And then, the protagonist, Paul Atreides (Kyle Maclachlan) watches a film-book that delivers even more.
In fact, much of the first hour is just that—exposition.
When the Atreides family arrives on Arrakis, the story finally makes a move forward, and the events that make the core of Herbert’s novel are set in motion—assassination attempts, betrayals, daring escapes, and the harsh desert. We are shown the designated villains, the Harkonnens, played with an insane, gleeful menace by Kenneth MacMillan as the Baron, Jack Nance as Nemud, Sting as Feyd-Rautha, Paul Smith as Beast Rabban and Brad Dourif as Pitor. We see the Fremen, the mysterious natives of Dune, living a nomadic desert-adapted life. And we are shown Dr Kynes (Max von Sydow), the Imperial Agent whose true loyalty lies to the planet, not his Emperor.
Thus far, the film still holds up. But if the first hour is a slow but enticing journey, the second is fraying a little. The pace has picked up, but things; important things, as far as the story goes, are being left out.
|Paul and Chani (Kyle MacLachlan and Sian Young)|
And then the last section hits. An entire half of a large book compressed into maybe forty minutes of screen time. Character arcs left out. Character development ignored. Phallic sandworms bow to a dreaming Paul Atreides. Chani kisses him, Stilgar embraces him and a lot of things happen…but yet, some of the book’s most important themes eliminated in favour of a more conventional narrative. The pace is breakneck now, and all the main characters assemble on Arrakis for the final confrontation, bringing Paul face-to-face with the Emperor and the Harkonnens, before ending in the edifying sight of Kyle MacLachlan and Sting leaping at each other with knives while Jose Ferrer as Emperor Shaddam and Princess Irulan watch, and Baron Harkonnen floats into a Sandworm.
|Paul and Feyd-Rautha (Sting) duel as Irulan watches|
It is a joke.
But who is the joke on?
Denis Villeneuve directed ‘Arrival’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’. If he did nothing else, those two would still make him one of the finest Science-Fiction interpreters of our time. ‘Arrival’ is uncanny in its ability to focus upon communication, a niche aspect of alien contact and resist, stubbornly, the temptation to devolve into something more conventional. Blade Runner 2049 is a symphony of violence and scale, somehow true to the spirit of Ridley Scott’s original and yet refreshingly different.
For him to take on ‘Dune’, then, has a sense of justice to it, like a hand fitting a glove. An assembly that must have begun years ago, his vision of Dune brings together a tight script and a cast of well-known faces into a film that is vastly more coherent than the 1984 version.
|Poster for Dune (2021)|
Some of this, of course, owes to the availability of technology. 2021 affords film-makers a scope that goes far beyond what was possible in 1984.
But far more of it comes from things that have nothing to do with technology. Villeneuve’s ability to conceptualise a world like Dune, to execute it in stark greys and brutal whites, is what makes his vision of Dune work. It’s a perfect fit for the times we live in, it’s dramatic shots of sunlight and shadow, its framing of the characters in the screen in a manner reminiscent of paintings.
In this vision of Dune, the story begins not with an ethereal Princess, but with washed-out visuals of the sands, and Zendaya, as Chani, delivering lines that are less exposition and more a mystical statement of conditions on Arrakis. The Atreides family then becomes the focus of the almost the entirety of what’s left of the film, from their homeworld of Caladan, where we see Timothee Chalamet’s Paul sleep in melodramatic poses and get snippets of training from his mother.
The story steps are, naturally, similar to Lynch’s film, with more details and scenes that could be included here, due to the luxury of having two films to fit the story in. The attention to detail in sound mixing is evident and Vileneuve’s attention to detail and the clarity and sheer ‘cool’ of his conceptualisation makes for an at-time exhilarating experience.
|Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) takes on the Sardaukar|
The war scenes are grand, the camerawork making for a battle that has a sense of urgency and reality to it that surpasses the forced grandeur of superhero CGI-fests. The escape of Paul and Jessica is true to the novel, and Dr Kynes gets her (the gender is swapped in this version) moments to shine.
The film’s final confrontation, settling in at about the half-way mark of the novel, is brief but effective, without any forced drama. When the titles roll, one knows one has seen a piece of serious cinema, a film that might have even, as some analysts put it, saved the concept of watching films in theatres for an industry ravaged by Covid lockdowns.
If that is even partly true, the world owes more to Denis Villeneuve and Frank Herbert than we can quite conceptualise right now.
But what of Frank Herbert’s novel? Dune is not just a science-fiction novel, after all, it is in many ways THE science fiction novel, codifying many tropes and taking the genre beyond Asimov and Clarke into a world where a Duke’s son with a Greek name can lead a jihad with desert-based warriors against a Slavic Baron with a nephew named Feyd-Rautha.
|Book Cover for Frank Herbert's Dune|
It is not a book for Tolkein’s lyrical flights or Asimov’s esoteric robot-rules or roman-history-disguised-as-the-future. It’s dense, it riffs on history, of course, but it’s not a history we know well, and its parable to real life is somehow more obvious but also less clear at the same time. There are myriad ways it is off-kilter, disorienting, and intensely uncomfortable.
In many ways, Dune follows a conventional hero’s journey, but this does not account for the many ways it does not, or the continuous self-reflection that inhabits its pages. The characters of Paul and Jessica, and even the likes of Stilgar and Gurney Halleck, are unlike most fictional characters. The Bene Gesserit are an order akin to both the Japanese Geisha and the Amazons, the Fremen are at once the Bedouin of Lawrence of Arabia and the Myrmidons of Homeric Greece, and Paul is as much ‘reluctant Frodo’ as he is ‘avenging Achilles’.
That’s also why it’s been called ‘unfilmable’.
And yet, we have two versions of the film, taken on by two directors propelled by heavy doses of courage and quite possibly also alcohol.
|Timothee Chalamet and Kyle MacLachlan|
A comparison between the two would seem to be redundant. Villeneuve’s is superior on almost every metric. The acting is more natural, more believable, the pacing is more coherent, the CGI far superior, and it has stood the most pertinent test—of being commercially successful. Dune (2021) may have saved an industry; Dune (1984) almost killed a career.
The joke, it would seem, once again falls on the 1984 film, and it’s undeniably messy treatment.
Or does it?
Talk to lovers of Science Fiction, and a strange affection for Dune (1984) emerges. It’s not just from the Lynch-ists, the die-hards who watch Twin Peaks every year and write scholarly essays on the significance of Ronette Pulsaki. Those who love the other-ness of the novel Dune, those who revel in the minutiae of the Sci-Fi works, who have experienced the sense of it being a ‘movement’ before it was more a part of mainstream entertainment, point to David Lynch’s Dune as doing something just as significant as Villeneuve’s version—they say it saved Science Fiction.
To understand that claim, one needs to look at cinematic mood in the the year 1984. Coming off the stupendous success of Star Wars, the idea of Sci-Fi was poised to enter the common language of the world. But Star Wars was also intertwined with melodrama—its good guys and bad guys were painted in shades of black and white (they would become greyer with time, but back then, not so much), and it was ultimately commercial, a vehicle to sell toys and comics and make money. But when Lynch made Dune, he fashioned it in his image; with phallic sandworms and psychedelic space travel, fish-men spitting beams of light to fold space and wars fought in pressure-suits. In one stroke, he de-commercialised Sci-Fi while leaving Space Opera intact.
|Dune (1984) action figures|
Had Villeneuve’s Dune been the outcome, in 1984, one suspects that would not have happened. Though the outlook of the 2021 Dune is as serious as could be, it has the ingredients of the Hollywood Epic that Lynch does not even try to replicate. There’s every possibility that we could then have had Gurney Halleck dolls and Duncan Idaho action figures and Princess Irulan sex-pillows. But we did not, because Lynch did not make that sort of film at all. He made a David Lynch film.
Where, outside the Lynch-ian vision, would you find Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck rush into battle with a pug (yes, the Vodafone pug) in one hand? Paul Atreides’ visions taking the forms of floating skeletal bodies? A furless cat as a poison-antidote? A floating Baron Harkonnen whose Doctor speaks only in rhyme? And a hundred other things that make a viewer pause and wonder ‘Did that really just happen?’
The aesthetic, the ethos, the vision of Lynch doomed his version of it, perhaps, from ever being a blockbuster. Perhaps that is for the best. A blockbuster-director Lynch would never have been able to make Mulholland Drive. And Villeneuve might not have got the opportunity to make Dune had that version been successful.
But which vision is truer?
There’s no easy answer. So much that is in Lynch’s film is not in Herbert’s novel, and yet it feels true to the novel. So much is in Villeneuve’s film that is better than in Lynch’s , but the question niggles at the back of the mind—is it meant to be this way? Is it meant to be better? Or is the very ‘wrong-ness’ of what Lynch came out with, integral to Frank Hebert’s Dune.
Lynch’s actors ham endlessly; Ferrer as Emperor Shaddam chews the scenery with great gusto, Stewart’s Halleck delivers his most ridiculous lines with the cadence of a Shakespearean thespian, Kyle MacLachlan’s Paul Atreides wanders about the film like (very handsome) Harry Potter on weed. And let’s not forget Lynch’s skill at capturing women on film—Marsden’s Princess Irulan looks like a Goddess of beauty, Francesca Annis’ Jessica is absolutely regal and endearing, and Sian Young’s Chani is a poet’s dream. By contrast, there is no Shaddam in Villeneuve’s version; Josh Brolin’s Halleck is thoroughly professional, Chalamet’s Paul feels like a sincere student in his freshman year. There is no Princess Irulan at all, Rebecca Ferguson’s Jessica is too spare, too intimidating to be believable as a Bene Gesserit seductress, and Zendaya’s Chani is barely seen at all on the screen. Both Jurgen Prochnow and Oscar Isaac do justice to their Duke Leto’s, of course, and Stellan Skarsgaard’s Baron is certainly rather terrifying, as much if not more than Kenneth McMillan’s. Dave Bautista’s Beast Rabban is hardly seen, though, and there is no Feyd-Rautha. No Sting, glorious as Feyd-Rautha, in an absolutely Lynch-ian scene, emerging naked except for a wing-shaped speedo from a steam-bath, exists in Villeneuve’s vision.
One thing both films have, though, are soundtracks that are memorable. If Hans Zimmer delivers a desert-infused rhapsody, Toto’s soundtrack was a rock-and-roll symphony.
Which version of them is the right one?
We might actually never have the answer. For Lynch’s vision was never brought to screen. Executive meddling famously led to the release of a film that he never intended to release. Six hours of film, intended to be made into a four-hour, maybe a two-part film, was released clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes. Even later, after he spoke of making a Director’s Cut, the studio had another insult to deliver Lynch, by making a TV movie of it with no inputs from him at all. Lynch would have his name removed from the credits and never speak of Dune again.
In short, the joke was never Dune (1984) at all. The joke was on us, perpetrated by the producers.
Remember that Virginia Marsden was contracted for three films; which meant that the entire series was at least vaguely planned to be brought to film by Lynch. Remember that Frank Herbert himself said that Lynch’s version, which he saw before the producers got to it, was very close to how he had imagined it. Remember that every actor on the film swears that the output they expected was so much different and better than what it eventually became. And consider that a world could have existed where the madness of Lynch could have truly embraced the madness of Herbert and think of what might have been.
But we do not have that. And there were times that Villeneuve’s Dune, superb as it is, felt just a little colourless, a little devoid of that uniqueness that Lynch had brought.
And yet…and yet…we never got those sequels from Lynch. Perhaps we never even really got a single Lynch film, given what we know of its history. What we do have, is a Villeneuve film that is absolutely grand, and I, for one, am grateful for it.
A vast vision has been brought to life, at last, and we are all the richer for it. For that, we should thank Frank Herbert, the man who had the vision in words, David Lynch, the man who gave it the flavour but had it taken from him and shown only in a flawed way, like seeing something through a stained glass, and Denis Villeneuve, the man who looks like he will, finally show it to the wider world as it should be, in stunning contrast and clarity.
But some of us will miss that flavour.
And that’s the real joke.
Monday, 31 May 2021
Dracula and the Hurricane (Drabble #7 - Come and get it)
DRACULA AND THE HURRICANE
He’s Ray Reardon. He used to work in the mines. He used to be a cop. He really only took snooker seriously when he began to make decent money from it. You were still in your diapers when he won his first tournament.
No, that’s not it. He’s the best. He’s fifty years old, and he’s the top-ranked player in the world. He’s old-world, he’s polite, he’s loved by the club audiences. A pillar of the community, is Ray Reardon. Upstanding guy, Ray Reardon.
He’s got a superb long game. He’s got an outstanding defence. Do what you want to do, Reardon will outlast you. You can work your ass off, chipping away at his game, but Reardon will still be standing, with his slicked-back hair, his broad smile, and his sharp cue, ready to finish the frame and win the match, like an immortal figure, undefeatable, unkillable, unknowable.
Maybe that’s why they call him Dracula.
He’s won this tournament before—four years in a row, six times overall. This is the lion returning to his turf, this is Ray Reardon, the King of the cue-game, the King of Snooker, and he’s here to take the trophy he no doubt thinks belongs to him.
You’re Alex Higgins. You failed out of school. You tried to be a jockey, but you failed at that, too. You never could hold down a job. When you won your first tournament, you were homeless.
But you’re good.
Snooker, you see, is the one thing you haven’t failed at. And oh, they hate you for it. You’re brash, you’re unpleasant, you’ve got a foul temper and a foul mouth, and the snooker establishment doesn’t know what to do with you.
But when the cue’s in your hand, when the balls are flying around the table, when the clock is ticking, when the world is watching, there’s never been anyone quite like you. You see angles no one else sees, you try shots no one else dreamed of, and for every time you pull it off, sure, there are three times you don’t—and no one remembers those three times, do they? When you do your thing, you terrify your opponents, who don’t seem to know what just hit them.
Maybe that’s why they call you, The Hurricane.
You’ve won this tournament once before—ten years ago. You were barely twenty-three. Everyone was sure it was a fluke. No one could play that fast, that well, and keep it up. But you did keep it up. Through the smoking, and drinking, and drugs, and women, you did keep your game up. People who had never thought of seeing a snooker match before come to see you play. You took the game out of the pubs and clubs and into the Television, for the ratings shoot up when you come to the table. Yeah, they call you the Hurricane, but the name you prefer?
‘The People’s Prince’.
And you’re here to take that trophy for the people.
And so, as you stare down the table at him, at old Ray Reardon, with his immaculate style and contented smile, his unflappable face and shiny black hair, you know there’s only one thing you can do as you both pose with the trophy only one of you will take away, after 33 gruelling frames played over two days.
You stand there, next to it, a moment longer than he does, wait till the photographers’ bulbs have stopped flashing, and say,
“If you want it, you’ll have to come and get it.”
Ray Reardon (L) and Alex Higgins (R),photographed before their
World Snooker Championships final, 1982
Friday, 22 January 2021
A Reading Retrospective on 2020
A Reading Retrospective for 2020 should have, ideally, been put up in 2020, or at worst in the first week of January this year. But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the best laid plans of mice and men, go oft aft agley, or something like that, and so here we go, twenty-two days later, or however many it will be by the time this goes up.
Thankfully, this won’t be very long; I did not read all that many books this year, which, I suppose, has at least this silver lining.
So here it goes, in no particular order:
Romantic Guerilla, by DS Kumar
You know how you sometimes get this inexplicable craving to eat a vada pav? But you’re miles away from your regular vada pav guy (everyone has a vada pav guy, right?). It’s hot, you’re in an unfamiliar corner of some godforsaken suburb, and there’s a chap you can see selling the stuff. It’s greasy, messy and there’s no other customers. You don’t really want to, but you know you’re going to do it anyway. And so you shell out the money and take it in your hand and take the first bite, hating yourself already and—it tastes like vada pav. Not particularly good vada pav. You wouldn’t want to confess to your regular guy that you ate this. But it…is kind of all right. There’s potato. There’s besan. There’s a pav. The chutney has a tangy taste. You eat it all in a daze, knowing you may suffer unfortunate digestive after-effects, but in that moment, you know you could have done worse.
I guess I could have done worse than ‘Romantic Guerilla’, an unfiltered outpouring of wish-fulfilment fantasy that occasionally borders on pornographic. And that’s because the writer is quite unabashed about it. There is a plot. The characters, such as they are, are consistent in their behaviour. Even the misogyny is undisguised and unapologetic, it’s just…there.
It’s the story of a start-up founder who gets into a corporate battle with a billionaire, and predictably loses. However, putting together a rag-tag team of people the billionaire has hurt in some way in the past, he exacts increasingly ridiculous retribution. Ultimately, when it’s over, you know you need not have read it, and probably should not have, but for what it is, it…just is.
Beren and Luthien, by JRR Tolkein
Granted, it's more of an editorial commentary in parts than a single coherent narrative, and weaves back and forth between earlier and later drafts and poetry and prose, but this is still a shining showcase of JRR Tolkien's near-magical ability to transport a reader to an alternate universe using nothing but the written word.
The tale itself should be familiar to anyone who's read the Tolkien works beyond the most obvious two. Even if not, this story is referenced in Lord of the Rings by Aragorn on at least one occasion.
This is, then, that story—of the first union of High Elf and Man, of the renegade Beren and the half-Maiar Luthien and their chance encounter among the hemlock flowers in the realm of Doriath. Of Thingol's impossible task, which Beren dared to do for the love he bore for Luthien, and how she defied her father to go after him, how they, together with Huan, Prince of Dogs, faced and threw down no less than Sauron (in an earlier draft Sauron is a Huge Cat, by the way. Make of that what you will), and their confrontation with Morgoth himself.
It's a story of bravery and love, of pride and betrayal, of the shifting tides between good and evil and though the fact that it hops between drafts and formats would make it difficult to follow, it remains a stirring work of art; one of those whose beauty is often in what it doesn't explicitly say as much as it lies in what it does.
And some images, indeed, stay with me—
Of Luthien on cat's back, jumping from terrace to terrace of the Cat-castle;
Of Beren entering Nargothorond, his father's ring held high,
Of Luthien's song in Morgoth's Halls, one elf contending against the mightiest creature on Middle-Earth,
And of her dance in the silvery moonlight among the hemlock-flowers, which set in motion, in-and-out of the fictional world, the events that led to the War of the Rings.
Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes
Of Don Quixote itself, I shrink from saying too much. This was my third time reading this masterpiece, and each time, I think, the book told me different things. The first time I read it, back when I was twenty, it told me of a madcap Knight and his ridiculous squire going from one ridiculous adventure to another; the second time, it gave a social commentary on Spain at the time as well as the noble and plebian people who inhabited it; this time, it told me a near-tragic tale of a world that laughed at idealism that seemed to work as well in this century as it did when Cervantes wrote it.
I did not much like the translation I read this time, however, and would suggest either the Edith Grossman version or the classic Wordsworth Editions translation.
The Plague, by Albert Camus
Reviewed in detail, giving this classic the space it deserves, here
Albert Camus’ chronicle of a plague breaking out in a coastal Algerian town might have felt too topical a book to read during the Covid pandemic, in Mumbai, but perhaps it was the only time such a book could be read without realising it was meant to be an allegory for fascism.
Or, given we live in a country where comedians are jailed for jokes they might have made; where film-makers are prosecuted for creative choices, and every person who has the guts to call the reigning government what it is, is held guilty of treason by an online lynch mob (if lucky), but an actual lynch mob, if not, perhaps it will be the perfect time to read The Plague at any time while we remain under its thumb.
The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag
My grandfather gave me my first Corbett when I was about 11, and I’ve read nearly all of the hunter-turned-photographer’s writing since then. Perhaps this is because Corbett never wrote like a hunter, but rather like a naturalist. His joy never seems to be in the hunt itself, nor is there any exultation about the kills he makes. As far as I could tell, Corbett took a stand early on that he would hunt only man-eaters, and even that he did with a resigned forbearance.
But whether he was a good hunter, or a great one, as a writer about hunting and the Indian forests, he is hard to match. And in Rudraprayag, he writes some of his best work. The story unfolds almost like a horror novel, with the titular man-eater’s impact on the people of Kumaon meticulously documented and portrayed. Corbett does not shy away from documenting his own several failures either, freely conceding that the leopard outsmarts him, and indeed there are occasions when he is lucky not to have become one of his victims himself.
Given that he could not have written all that he did if that had happened, I suppose we should consider ourselves very lucky as well.
Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola
Emile Zola's 'Therese Raquin' is one of those novels that reminds you that not all literature written in the 19th century was, well, like what you imagine it to be.
Over it's relatively-short length (under 250 pages), Zola writes a psychological study of crime, sexuality and passion.
Madame Raquin is a widowed shop-owner who has spoiled her sickly son, Camille, and married him off to her orphan niece, Therese.
Their married life is marked by a general lack of passion and extreme repression on the part of Therese, while the mollycoddled Camille lives a blissfully oblivious life. The appearance of Camille's old schoolmate, Laurent, inflames passions in Therese and Laurent is only too pleased to reciprocate, and they embark upon an affair that leads to disastrous consequences.
Through the course of the novel, Zola examines, under a harsh light, the impact of repression, guilt, and psychological deterioration. And yet, a lot of the work seems to be written in a hurry, with the characters being essentially placeholders for their passions, doing what the plot requires them to do in order to prove Zola's theories about his subject matter.
The descriptions are superb, and in the translation I read, (Penguin, 1965) the literary style is bold and unabashedly natural, touching on female sexuality in a manner that must have been unusual even for the French, back in the 1860's when the novel was published.
The ending feels rushed, almost as though the author, having completed the dissertation, and made the points he needed to make about his subjects - the urban middle class of France, adultery, crime, guilt and passion - decided to wrap things up so as to get it to the publishers in time to start his next novel (the rather more celebrated series, Les-Rougon Macquart).
Red Birds, by Mohammed Hanif
What would have been a clever, perhaps even well-appreciated book had it been written by someone else, ends up being a disappointment because it comes from someone of Hanif’s calibre and track record. It is not that the writer of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and The Case of Exploding Mangoes has not written a good book; Red Birds has some fine passages and touches upon the very pertinent question of America’s culpability in perpetuating terrorism and insurgency throughout the world. But the lyricism, the sensitivity, and sheer beauty of prose and thought that Hanif demonstrated in his earlier works is missing from Red Birds, leaving it feeling like a work of anger that ends up lacking impact.
Red Birds is the story of an American pilot who crash-lands on the Af-Pak border, an entrepreneurial Pakistani kid growing up in a refugee camp, and the latter’s pet dog. The three narratives intertwine as the pilot waits to be rescued, the kid tries to rescue his brother, and the dog looks to do dog things. The mystery at the core of Red Birds is of a vanished US Air Force camp, and while there is a lot of writing about the clashing world-views of the refugees and the Americans, it simply does not have the impact that I know a writer like Hanif can give his work.
Maybe he was rushed by a publisher, or the manuscript ravaged by an editor, but in the end result, it ends up being a disappointment.
La Reine Margot, by Alexandre Dumas
If Dumas lived today, he would have sold more books than Stephen King or James Patterson. Of this, I have no doubt. Sure, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers are considered part of literary canon, but they are also rollicking, entertaining tales written to please an audience. Margot is no different. An out-and-out potboiler of a historical fiction, it portrays the end days of the Valois dynasty in sensationalist, often sordid, tones. Every woman is a beauty, and every man a rogue, swordfights and poetry, poisoning and faith, are all jumping off every page, as the large and varied bunch of real historical figures, held by Dumas’ puppeteering hands, dance across the Louvre and other parts of Paris.
Keeping track of the characters can be a challenge (apparently, every noble in France at the time was named Henri) and Dumas doesn’t bother to make his characters likeable either, but they are definitely not boring. Never boring.
Ahsoka, by EK Johnston
(Star Wars nerdiness ahead; you have been warned)
In creating the character of ‘Ahsoka Tano’, a padawan learner for Anakin Skywalker, Dave Filoni, the showrunner for The Clone Wars had to know he was taking a risk. The Star Wars fandom is famously toxic and puritan, and indeed the early response to the character bore this out.
Nevertheless, he persisted.
The fact that today, Ahsoka’s character is so popular as to have a toxic fandom that fights internet battles over whether she was accurately portrayed in her only live-action appearance so far, speaks volumes for what Filoni and the Clone Wars team accomplished over the course of seven seasons.
The novel is a tie-in of sorts, telling the story of how Tano survived Order 66, her first encounter with an Imperial Inquisitor (Spoiler Alert: She curb-stomps him), and how she realised she could not remain in hiding but needed to do something constructive to try and help the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.
Told in a low-key style that really gets so much right about both the character and the ethos of the Star Wars world, Ahsoka is a nice addition to the Legend that is building around the Togruta who may have left the Jedi Order, but never compromised on its principles.
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
In 2019, I was left astounded by The Age of Innocence, it’s sheer beauty and almost hypnotic ability to sink the reader into the whirlpool of New York’s High Society around the end of the nineteenth century.
In 2020, I was left heart-broken by how Wharton could, in the space of a few words, drag me back there, into a story even of even greater violence and desolation.
The House of Mirth is less about love; and mirth there is even less than in Innocence, but Lily Bart’s story is impossible to put down. I read it in under three days (an achievement for me in these degenerate times), and though it was nearly a month ago, have not really gotten ‘over’ it, if one really ever does get ‘over’ a book like this.
The story of the beautiful but poor socialite who is never asked to, or expected to, be anything but an ornament, and how that fault in her and those around her dooms her, of how a character’s strength can work against them, is heart-rending, and every page exposes a facet of human nature that is as guilt-inducing now as it was a hundred years ago.
Of all the books I read this year, The House of Mirth is perhaps the one I am most likely to keep in mind for the longest, though it is also the hardest to recommend, for it is not for the faint of heart.