Monday, September 19, 2005

Quick books update: Zadie, Roth and others

Not much reading is happening these days, and the Books to be Read list is growing at a frightening rate. I’m talking not about the perpetual backlist (which continues to lengthen anyhow) but the books that have to be read for work, and inside of deadlines – for reviews, columns, author profiles. Etc etc. Am halfway through Zadie Smith’s On Beauty now, and though it’s engrossing enough in the way you’d expect a novel by her to be, I haven’t so far been floored by its brilliance or anything. Incidentally, it’s a hommage to E M Forster, specifically Howards End, which I haven’t read – but I can see the parallels already, from Merchant-Ivory’s lovely film version.

In the queue also are And the World Changed, an anthology of contemporary stories by Pakistani women, and Kavery Nambisan’s The Hills of Angheri. Kalpana Swaminathan’s Bougainvillea House (which I’m actually looking forward to, having enjoyed her previous book, Ambrosia for Afters) should be on the way as well. Am also trying very hard not to think about the fact that the new Vikram Seth is due soon.

And barely had I started to contemplate all this when I received an uncorrected book proof of this new thing called Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Book One of yet another fantasy trilogy, this time billed as “a comic bestseller of Artemis Fowl proportions”). Doesn’t seem too promising at first glance (the most convincing thing I’ve heard about it so far is that it’s backed by a 75,000-pound PR and marketing campaign, including “consumer advertising, consumer competition and media stunts”. Movie rights sold to Fox. Ah well), so will set it aside for now.

In between, foolishly deluded that I’d have some time to read for pleasure, I picked up Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Philip Roth’s The Breast from Khan market, both slim books that wouldn’t take up much time (and I’m familiar enough with Fight Club anyway, because of the film). Managed to get through Roth’s novella in just over an hour yesterday: it’s about a man (Professor David Kepesh, one of Roth’s infrequently recurring protagonists) who wakes up to find himself transformed into a 155-pound female breast. There are the expected nods to Kafka and Gogol, and Roth does some interesting things with the premise. But I was also slightly disappointed for reasons that Martin Amis had once articulated in a fine essay: “He is a comic genius,” Amis had written, referring to Roth’s early work (of which The Breast, published in 1972, is one), “so where does he get off not being funny enough?”

I felt that way too, because for all the serious observations Roth makes in this book (on sexuality, the use of coercion in relationships, the connection between literature and life), it’s also clear that he intended it to be a comic novel in tone - and somehow it just doesn’t work from that perspective. There are no sustained laugh-out-loud moments, certainly nothing that approaches the brilliance of Portnoy’s Complaint. But it’s still Roth, and no one raves like he does. Here’s an excerpt:

“Now, with Dr Klinger’s assistance, I was trying to figure out why of all things I had chosen a breast. Why a big, brainless bag of dumb, desirable tissue, acted on instead of acting, unguarded, immobile, hanging, there, as a breast simply hangs and is there? Why this primitive identification with the object of infantile veneration? What unfulfilled appetites, what cradle confusions, what fragments out of my remotest past could have collided to spark a delusion of such classical simplicity? On and on I babbled to my father and then, once again, joyously, I wept. Where were my tears? How soon before I would feel tears again? When would I feel my teeth, my tongue, my toes?”

And I just realised I’ve been writing this post in what was meant to be my reading time. So now I’ll go.


  1. Jabberwock: begin with you may want to add Howard's End to the list of books you HAVE to read. Somewhere near the top, I think. I mean, the movie was nice and all, but it so did not do Forster justice.

    Know what you mean about the Breast. It felt like Roth was so impressed with the basic premise that he felt that was funny enough to last the entire novella. Also, I wish he'd not used David Kepesh for the story - I think the fact that it's David ties him down, because he's tempted to bring in the more serious elements of Kepesh's character, instead of just writing an out and out funny novel.

  2. Falstaff: Forster will have to wait, I have dozens of things on my To-Read list that I’m far more enthusiastic about. (Also, one of the downsides of my job is that contemporary stuff has to be given priority; very rarely is there time to turn to a classic one should’ve read before.)

    About the film not doing Forster justice: I don’t really think that’s a requisite anyway, I usually judge movies and books independently of each other. Admittedly though, that’s a little tougher with Merchant-Ivory films, because they take such pride in their literary source, and because their films aren’t cinematic in an obvious way.

  3. Well, I pretty much came in to say what Falstaff has already said.

    I understand you dont have the time now, but DO read Howards End at some point, it's quite brilliant.

    And Falstaff is right, the film doesnt even scratch the surface of what the book is - though it's perhaps rather good on its own. It's a very political book, touching on the parallel oppressions of women, the invisible colonies and the 'people of the abyss' in England of the time.Do put it on the list and remember it for later.

  4. You complain about being classified as 'pornography' and then go and mention the word 'breast' about fifty-two times in a single post. What do you expect these poor blighted net monitors to do, hunh, actually understand that it's all literary stuff and has nothing to do with well-endowed Brazilian models?

    Oh, yes, must add my exhortations to read Howards End. It was one of the most enjoyable reads in my MA syllabus. I like it much better than Room with a View.

  5. dear jabberwock,
    have been reading your blog for nearly six months now.
    Was just wondering, with the amount of books you read and movies you see, if you have anything resembling a social life!

    Rahul S

  6. SOCIAL LIFE?! When one can be reading E M Forster instead? Where are your priorities, man?

  7. P.S. Reading my blog six months continuously? Or with social breaks now and then?

  8. Lol, Jai. The man HAS a social life, he so does.

  9. yeah, why would you need a social life (shudders at the meer thot) when you can engage with the society thru others' vision.... ?