Saturday, May 31, 2014

A book about book-lovers - on The Collected Works of AJ Fikry

[Did this review for the Sunday Guardian]

The protagonist of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Collected Works of AJ Fikry is a man who lives, literally and otherwise, on an island. AJ Fikry runs a bookstore – the only one on Alice Island, off the coast of Hyannis, Massachusetts – and has very specific tastes and a clear sense of what he will and will not stock (no postmodernism, magic realism, vampires, or memoirs by little old people whose spouses have died of cancer). Only once in the book is it mentioned that his real first name is Ajay and that he is partly Indian – this information is tossed off lightly, for there are more important things we need to know about Fikry. Having lost his wife in a road accident a year and a half before this narrative begins, he is withdrawn and depressive, and generally cut off from human company. One of the few people he spends time with is introduced thus: “He amuses AJ to an extent. This is to say, Daniel Parish is one of AJ’s closest friends.”

But two significant things now happen to Fikry: first a rare, enormously valuable edition of an early Edgar Allan Poe work is stolen from him; and a few weeks later, someone leaves a two-year-old baby girl in his shop (“she weighs at least as much as a twenty-four carton of hardcovers, heavy enough to strain his back”). The single mother, a suicide, wanted little Maya – an unusually bright child – to grow up in a place surrounded by books “and among people who care about those kinds of things”. And so, AJ’s life story takes an unexpected twist, even a genre-bending one: Maya’s advent leads to a degree of (reluctant) socialising, the setting up of local book clubs for mothers and even for cops, and the commencement of a romance with a woman named Amelia Loman, a publisher’s sales rep whom AJ had been rude to when they first met.

At this point in the synopsis, a reader wary of maudlin, life-affirming stories may back away a little. And I won’t pretend that this novel is not, in its own way, sentimental. But it is also a literate, thoughtful work about the often-shaky foundations of very meaningful relationships, about the happenstance that can change lives and shape personalities. (“Once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything,” AJ thinks as he considers the effect his love for Maya has had on his life.) Some of the ideas expressed here – such as “your whole life is determined by what store you get left in” – can feel trite depending on the sort of reader you are and the mood you happen to be in. But then a key thing in this novel’s favour is that it understands readers and writers very well.

In a nerdy, unselfconscious way, this is a book about book-lovers: people who judge new acquaintances based on their reading tastes (without always realising how much one’s own feelings may change as one grows older or accumulates life experiences); people who delight in literary references and wordplay, not just to show off to others but even while having conversations in their own heads (AJ decides to give Maya a bath because he doesn’t want to take her to the social services department looking like “a miniature Miss Havisham”); people who feel that with the loss of record stores and now bookstores, “all the best things in the world are being carved away like fat from meat”. It doesn’t feel weird to encounter within these pages a kid who might bunk school for a month not so he can hang out with his rough crowd, do drugs and get into trouble, but so he can sneak away to read David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest without being disturbed. This is a story about how excessive bibliophilia can be isolating and corrosive (and misleading too, if you come to love a particular book so much that develop fixed ideas about what its author must be like) – but can also, in the right circumstances, facilitate generosity of spirit. It is about the escapist, armchair reader facing the complications of the real world, and perhaps being surprised by hidden streams in his own personality.

Most of all, despite its apparent simplicity of plot, this novel is sharp enough in the actual writing to evoke some of the literary tropes and devices that its characters discuss. Thus there are little shifts in perspective, gradual revelations that make us rethink something we read a few pages earlier, even a twist in the tale. Each chapter is introduced by Fikry’s notes – addressed to Maya – about a particular story, ranging from Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” to Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” to JD Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, and we see how the story finds a subtle echo in the contents of the chapter, in the characters’ shifting arcs.

And given that this book is so insightful about the links between the lives we lead and the art we encounter, it feels apt to indulge myself here with a personal aside. Things about AJ’s personality were already resonating with me by the time I was halfway through, but then came a more specific coincidence that seems suited to the reading of a book like this one: I came to a passage about a high-school student’s story titled “My Grandmother’s Hands” at exactly the point when I was sitting in a hospital room, awaiting news of a seriously ill grandmother, reflecting on how frail she had looked in the ICU bed; a reference in the story made me think about how her ancient hands had looked like tissue paper. This coincidence could – to channel one of Fikry’s more cynical monologues – have made me feel like a character in a bad novel, allowing my own thoughts and feelings to be manipulated by someone else’s template of clichés. Or it could (as it did in this case) make me feel a kinship with the book I was reading. One of the best things about The Collected Works of AJ Fikry is that it keeps both possibilities open for the reader.


  1. Seems like an interesting book. I too have imagined myself as a character in tragic situations in novels when times are rough. It helps in having a slightly more objective view of the situation to an extent. At the same time, when I am in a situation which is just terrible, I feel how little even the best novels came close to my experience or may be my reading altered them. Post such bad experience, when I read novels about deaths, crimes and other sad things, they seem to be unable to touch me the way that experience had. How much of it is my fault and how much a writer's fault, it is tough to say. I think I read on your blog only about a writer who once said, "Language, at its best, is an inferior tool"

  2. Beautiful Piece. Thanks.

    - Puneet

  3. A very short while after paying my respects to Mrs. KD Singh who spoke about how the BookShop had closed for just half a day after Mr. Singh's passing since the shop was the place most people came to pay their respects to him and based entirely on your recommendation (I DO NOT like movies or books like Bridges of Madison County. In fact, I count watching that film from the front seat in Priya as possibly one of my worst days of college life), I picked up the book. Until I finished the book, I didn't get the serendipitous-ness of the anecdote above.

    As a book reader, how could I not love this book even if it was from the tearjerker department? It had every readers favorite premise of being left to grow up in a bookshop. So, finished it in half a morning, wiped a few tears, thought the Daniel and Ismay backstory was awfully pat, couldn't understand why everyone in the book was from an Ivy League college (don't the rest of us read?), basically loved it. I loved the Infinite Jest story and Fikry and Lambaise were such perfect heroes, so much more than Darcy or Heathcliff! I'm not sure I like the title ('The Storied Life'made so much more sense).

    Now, I've got to go read more of her books, which isn't a great idea when my room and house are already overflowing with other books I need to read, sigh! Thanks a ton, J

    1. Thanks for the comment, dillikidiva. I only discovered a few days ago that Mr Singh had passed away. Didn't know him personally even though I saw him a few times at book events, and of course bought books from his store once in a while when he was behind the counter. Very sad.

      Glad Zevin's book worked for you despite it not being what you would think of as your "type" of book. Personally speaking, I think that's a great, revitalising experience - to read a book (or watch a film) that you think you wouldn't like and to then be surprised at your own response to it.

  4. A regular reader-lurker of your blog, and have picked up a few books after reading your reviews. This is the one though, that made me come out of my invisibility cloak to say that I loved it and thank you for writing about it.