Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review: The Patiala Quartet

(Did this for the Indian Express. I’ve found that I don’t enjoy writing unfavourable reviews as much as I once used to. In my more wanton days I would relish the opportunity to be sarcastic and over-clever about a book/film I didn’t like. But now, with time always at a premium, the thrill of writing a smart-assed, cocky review isn’t adequate compensation for having wasted so much of one’s time on reading something mediocre in the first place.

Another factor is that as one gets drawn into the literary circuit and sees what a struggle the writing process is, one sympathizes much more with writers, even the bad ones: it’s depressing to realise how much sweat and toil can go into putting together even five pages of mediocre prose; how much work writers put into their first and second and third drafts, and at the end of it all produce something that still doesn’t hold together. I’ve experienced this firsthand – I poured everything I had into my first attempt at fiction, a short story; agonised for days over it; and when it was done I could immediately see how dreary and unexceptional it was.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that the reading public must not be warned not to waste their time/money on something that isn’t worth it – but it does greatly diminish the fun of trashing a book.)

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Wading through the drabness of The Patiala Quartet, the question that comes to mind is: why would a leading publisher print this? It isn't exactly a bad book – there's an acceptable story in there somewhere and the writing is okay, a little ponderous at worst – but it's so trite and unremarkable, it's hard to believe it can possibly be any better than dozens of manuscripts that are routinely rejected every month.

Maybe it has something to do with the recent trend involving fiction set in smaller cities, and attempting to capture specific milieus – like in Patna Roughcut, The Sari Shop (Amritsar) and Sikandar Chowk Park (Allahabad) among others. But apart from a few scattered passages, The Patiala Quartet fails to create an involving portrait of a particular place in a particular time – something it sets out to do before it even begins (with the author profile purposefully stating that Neel Kamal Puri "grew up in the erstwhile princely state of Patiala amidst remnants of grandeur and a generation of idle rich still clinging to the past").

The story, such as it is, centres on two sets of siblings - Monty and Minnie, and their first cousins Karuna and Michael - growing up in the Patiala of the early 1980s. We get personality sketches, capsules of information on them and on various members of their families. Contrast is the key: Monty has a penchant for mathematics and for thinking too hard about things, but Michael is "a man of action" and spends most of his time riding around on his bicycle; Karuna is timorous and silent, while Minnie is prepared to face the world and learns that "the best way to confound an opponent is to confront him".

The problem is, rarely does this information flow naturally from the plot; instead, it's presented to us academically. An author can of course establish certain things about key characters when introducing them, but once that's done they have to be defined by their actions within the narrative framework. Here, however, well into the story we continue to get tedious observations like this one (in the context of Michael's love for obstacle-racing): "No wonder Michael felt at home here; from going around in circles on his cycle as a child to doing the same on the bike as an adult offered him a kind of comforting continuity." (The sentence is in parentheses, no less, performing the function of a ready-at-hand footnote.) The narrator pedantically points things out to the reader, the way a teacher might draw a student's attention to what's written on the blackboard.

The story plods on – key elements include the meek Karuna providing the family its first scandal, and Monty being traumatised by a terrorist encounter – but the characters never really come into their own, and it's difficult to maintain interest. The numerous stilted sentences ("All these and more were memories the echoes had nurtured for a while, bouncing them around and keeping them in play till the walls began to peel") don't do much to help.

In fairness, The Patiala Quartet occasionally succeeds in evoking the old-world charm of a setting where young women are chaperoned on their way home from college and young men cycle surreptitiously behind them. There's a funny passage detailing the complications of a "wedding in reverse", and an unexpectedly poignant ending. But these bits are few and far between and you have to get through a lot of dross to find them. It isn't much of an endorsement when the best thing you can say about a book is that it's only 170 pages long.

14 comments:

  1. you've said,

    the question that comes to mind is: why would a leading publisher print this?

    i wonder why we expect our publishers in india to only do potential or real literary masterpieces? why is it not acceptable to have the less that epiphanic kind of stuff out?

    there must be--and there are--millions of mediocre manuscripts and i suppose the only way a publisher would decide one one over the other would be on the basis of topicality or a variety of inky-pinky-ponky.

    this is not to say that you as a reviewer ought to recommend a bad read.

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  2. I would think writing unfavourable reviews would be more fun because it gives reviewer more freedom and space to give arguments and then defend it by giving examples from the books (as you do in this review although it is too brief) or make some general comment about literature on which the present work doesn't fair well.

    If the arguments are well made and are based on close reading i don't see why the authors of the original work should have any problem with the negative review and as a corollary, why the reviewer should feel guilty about writing it.

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  3. I haven't read any of Peck's reviews. But this article analyses the art of negative review very well. Perhaps you have already read it.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17241

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  4. Jai, As a reader I appreciate a categorical review much better than one which hides behind politenessses like 'well intentioned' or 'worthy'.
    Your opening line in this review ,for example, defines for me exactly what sort of not-worth-reading book this is , and how i'd be better off reading ( or re reading )The Raj Quartet instead.
    PS- Really enjoyed the review vs blurb piece . Serendipi(tously ?) reading The Subtle Knife , I turned it over and lo and behold - it said Pullman . Is he the Best Story Teller ever ? a strangeness I'd sort of glossed over , being as one is in a mild stage of exasperation at the treacliness of book blurbs. But there definitely is ( as i read recently somewhere, was it your post ?) a strange sort of masochistic mesmerisation with reading bad writing ... so putting the blurbs together was lot of fun ...

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  5. Interesting.

    I do think that there's a distinction between a review that's scathing and negative and one that's sarcastic and cocky. I'm with sonya in that I'm impatient of reviews that try to be polite to the author or try to come up with justifications for bad writing. How much effort went into a book is irrelevant - it's whether it reads well or not that counts. Let the author's friends make him feel better about his life, the reviewer's job is to tell it like it is. That said, I do think the rules of constructive criticism still apply - it's easy (and tempting) to make fun of a book you didn't enjoy, but that's just childish.

    It's interesting that the knowledge of the effort it takes to write actually predisposes me to a preference for more, not less scathing reviews. The way I look at it, as a writer (not that I can really claim to be one, but you know) the thing I worry about the most is that I'm just being delusional - that because I've spent so much time and effort on a piece of writing, I no longer have the emotional distance from it to judge it on its own merit, and so I'm looking for honest feedback. If it's genuinely no good I want to know - partly so I can figure out how to improve, partly so I can just stop fooling myself and find a day job. Anything that does not kill you makes you stronger.

    Plus which, call me shallow, but the fact that someone is capable of writing really cutting negative reviews makes me more appreciative when they say positive things about someone's work. If a reviewer's always nice to the books he reviews, I take everything he or she says with a pinch of salt. Praise from someone who's been known to butcher incompetent novels is praise indeed.

    Plus, of course, scathing reviews are funnier. :-).

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  6. Space Bar: I don't expect publishers to only print potential masterpieces. If there is a market for something like Patiala Quartet (and there probably is, because after reading my review yesterday my mother and grandmother both expressed a desire to read the book - something they've never done with any of my favourable reviews!), of course it should be printed. But like you point out, as a reviewer I'll still put down what I thought about it.

    Alok: have bookmarked the Peck link, will get back to it later. Net connection is acting up.

    Anirudh: thanks.

    Sonya: no, you didn't read that masochistic-mesmerisation bit on my blog - but do send me the link if you come across it again, sounds like fun!

    Falstaff: Okay, you're shallow :)

    "Anything that does not kill you makes you stronger"

    Nice inversion of "he not busy being born is busy dying"!

    You make some interesting points, and much as I'd like to I can't address all of them here. But I have to say, some of the reviewers you have high regard for rarely follow the constructive-criticism dictum themselves. Anthony Lane for instance - brilliant writer though he is, I usually get the sense in his scathing reviews that it's more about being clever than anything else. More problematically, too many of the reviewers (especially film reviewers) who are "capable of writing really cutting negative reviews" are genre-intolerant - which really means they shouldn't be reviewing certain types of films/books in the first place. I have a friend, a brilliant writer, who's a bit like that himself, and much as I love reading his reviews I can't take him too seriously as a film critic - because he's inherently prejudiced against, say, Star Wars or fantasy in general.

    Btw I've been accused of being soft on books myself, of looking too hard for the good stuff, and hence not being a "reliable reviewer" (whatever that means). I'm okay with that as long as people aren't second-guessing my motives.

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  7. Jai: Ah, Anthony Lane. Totally agree that he's the last person who could be accused to constructive criticism - the only reason he gets away with it, at least with me, is that a) once you get past the general cleverness he's usually making some really good points and b) well, at least he's funny. Still, I have to say that while I personally enjoy his reviews immensely I certainly wouldn't hold him up as a good role model for reviewers in general.

    Totally agree with you on the whole matching reviewer to genre, etc. The thing that really bugs me is when reviewers pick faults with a book / movie not so much for the thing itself but because of some larger prejudice they have. Have you seen Denby's review of Tristam Shandy for instance? He starts by arguing that the book is unreadable (a conclusion with which I'd strongly beg to differ) so it's no surprise that he finds the movie uninspiring as well. I think a big part of being a good reviewer (if you can get away with it, of course) is to recognise where your prejudices are and stay away from stuff you're unlikely to give a fair trial to.

    never thought about the connection to 'he not busy being born is busy dying' before. Dylan and Nietszche. That's all the philosophy you'll ever need. :-).

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  8. you give yourself FAR too much importance, my stupid punjabi friend.

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  9. You're quite right, Sunnybhai - must be that inferiority complex thing we Punjus have, what to do. Btw, give my regards to Dharam paaji and Bobby!

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  10. terrible! thankfully i didnt have to pay for it.

    moral of the story: keep up with your blog reading.

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  11. First of all I would like to remind you that
    Penguin team is wise enough to decide about
    Which works it should publish. And secondly
    Please let me know what actually has sounded
    “Drab” to you?? Was it Mrs. Puri’s hilarious take on
    Punjabi “desi ghee” or her mock-heroism { she talks of
    The hand which had a language of its own as if it was the god’s
    Hand} or her dexterous comparison where the burden of
    Family jewels become “the burden of inheritance” . I think
    You could understand the universal appeal of the novel
    Where Mrs. puri beautifully but implicitly explains that
    We need to fill the void in our lives and “sift through the past”
    And yes I would love to know what your mother feels about the book.
    RASHI JAIN

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  12. I suppose good links with publishers are also a BIG factor, if you want your work out on the bookstalls.

    I waded through the book and vouch for the authenticity of the setting, the depiction of the rich kaka's who never achieve much in life and often fall into a depressed stupor is quite right. But NKP was not able to invoke the terror of being in Punjab during the heydays of terrorism. The whole novel was so patchy.

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