Problems by Jade Sharma

problems

I kept wondering while I was reading this novel whether there are other novels about drug addiction and kicking the habit out there that feature a female protagonist.

A couple of examples about alcoholism came to mind immediately, but none about drug addiction, and as Maya, the protagonist says once when she compares her drug habit with her husband’s alcoholism, drinking is much more accepted socially than doing drugs. Add to this the fact that drinking is much more accepted when it’s a man who drinks, so if you think about a woman doing drugs, then it’s something truly and absolutely inexplicable and unacceptable.

I’ve never read about this topic before through the eyes of a woman. If I bring up my memories about drug novels, they usually only feature females in minor roles, for instance, there might be some junkie whores in a drug novel, or something like that. And who would think that those junkie whores are also persons? They are.

There’s Maya here in this novel – a female addict who’s initially still on the surface of things despite being a junkie (in fact, I would argue she’s way above the surface: she has her own flat; she has an extremely patient – though alcoholic – husband; and she even manages to hold down a job), still, the problems are just waiting to happen, and when the problems come, they come from all directions at once: Maya suddenly finds herself in the face of a marital crisis, a job crisis, and an increasingly loose control over her addiction.

And it’s interesting here, whether her problems arise because of her addiction, or whether her addiction was an answer to the problems in the first place (or a way to run away from them). My guess is the latter because Maya’s troubles started very early in her life, and if I want to simplify things (a lot), they arose because Maya never learned to exist alone, and she’s never had the chance or ability or desire to develop an individual personality. And from all this you can get (not necessarily in a straight line, but in a weirdly logical line nevertheless) to the concept of always depending on something – be it a husband, a lover, drugs, or useless but at least still living parents.

So in the end it seems to me that this is in fact not a drug novel, but a feminist novel; all the addictive behaviors and dependencies displayed here are only symptoms, and the real question is how to learn to be a separate – well – independent person if you’re a woman (and whether it’s possible at all).

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

bricklane

There are all kinds of layers and themes to this novel. It deals, for example, with the difficulties of immigration and integration (turns out that moving to a new country is especially difficult if you have a very different color, religion, and cultural background than the majority of people living there); with the family ties and social background that can determine what you do and what you can do with your life; and then with a bit of contemporary history, and Muslim and non-Muslim tensions (9/11, demonstrations and anti-demonstrations).

I think the story-line that deals with history and with the tensions of society is the weakest one in the novel. I noticed already a few years back, when I was reading In the Kitchen, that Monica Ali is much better when she concentrates on individual lives and expresses big and important ideas through those individual lives than when she writes about intangible, faceless organizations, like in this novel – all I can make of this Muslim and non-Muslim story-line here is that a group called Tigers and another group wage a pamphlet-war in the neighborhood and organize who-knows-what-kind-of demonstrations and marches, with a pretty much unknown goal in mind.

But all this is just an aside, because what made me endlessly intrigued here was the story of the novel’s protagonist. Reading her story often reminded me of Kate Chopin’s Awakening, and it made me realize that not much has changed in the past 100 years.

The protagonist is Nazneen, a village girl from Bangladesh, who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man from Bangladesh living in London. Nazneen is a good and obedient daughter with a strong desire to do her duty, and with an equally strong belief that everything is controlled by Allah/Fate, so everything that was meant to happen will happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

There’s an interesting contrast between Nazneen and her younger sister, the beautiful Hasina, who decides to take her fate into her own hands (which leads to catastrophic results, by the way, as we learn from the letters the eternally absent Hasina sends to her sister). Hasina, who violently rejects the mentality that we’re here on this earth to stoically withstand the amount of suffering that was destined for us, leads an entirely different kind of life than Nazneen, but her successes and failures don’t indicate that, after all, Nazneen’s road was the better choice. And they don’t indicate, either, that Hasina’s road was better. (Fortunately, there’s very little moralizing in this novel.)

The story is basically about how the ever-obedient Nazneen very slowly gains her independence and learns (and accepts the responsibility) to lead her own life. Nazneen’s slowly awakening desire for independence and her first small independent actions are very natural, there’s no big breakthrough or anything dramatic here. Nazneen isn’t exactly a feminist, her husband is not an abusive brute from whom she is forced to run away, and if we only look at the surface, her life in London isn’t bad at all – so theoretically, there’s no reason for her to rebel. And yet – there’s a curiosity in her, and a small (and then bigger and bigger) desire to see what she can do on her own. Which is wonderful and very human.

And the way Monica Ali describes Nazneen’s awakening right from the beginning is very subtle. For example, once Nazneen goes for a walk in big and sinful London, she gets lost, she has to pee, and anyway, she’s just a Muslim woman who isn’t even supposed to walk about on her own – so of course, Nazneen panics, but then she manages to solve the difficult situation, she’s proud, and she’d like to share her moment of triumph with someone. Or later on, she gradually discovers her body and she even entertains wild thoughts about shaving her legs. And still later, she becomes bold enough to open her mouth and say what she wants.

And this whole story of awakening is drawn very sensitively and gently – and it doesn’t for a moment seem that there’s a fixed end to it.

And just by the way: this is a very funny novel, too, with a bunch of great characters who look like caricatures yet remain alive, authentic and understandable, and it’s also a novel with a lot of smells and colors, which make me want to walk down on Brick Lane.

Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee

lifeandtimes

Michael K is a perfect nobody, and even though he’s spent his life shut in and shuffled between institutions of one kind or another, it’s still as if he didn’t even exist.

The novel is about how Michael K gradually disengages himself from everything that’s institutional, moves away from the world and puts a distance between himself and reality with which – he claims – he has nothing in common.

First he quits his job, and then he quits the city in order to fulfill the last wish of his ailing mother and take her back to her idolized rural birthplace, and then, after the death of his mother, he slowly quits his own institutional self, too – he loses his documents, and partly intentionally, partly incidentally loosens then tears forever the few ties that tied him to society – that made him real in society’s eyes.

Everyone in the novel tends to think that Michal K has a screw loose, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his mental faculties. His passivity, silence, and dumb acceptance of every wrong done to him is just the surface.

Is he really passive? He isn’t. If he makes up his mind to get his mother away from the city, he does it. If he wants to achieve something, he takes action.

Is he really silent? He isn’t. He speaks when he has something to say. He speaks when the thoughts he harbors inside are expressible. And he knows perfectly well that there’s so much that’s impossible to express – and then he doesn’t even try to express those things.

Does he really dumbly accept everything? He doesn’t. If he’s fed up with the way he’s treated somewhere by someone, he ups and disappears.

The oft-mentioned Kafkaesque quality and the references to Kafka’s works are quite obvious but not particularly intriguing to me. I’m not sure if there’s a hidden importance to the fact that the protagonist is called K and that he’s moved around at the whims of others in an absurd, cruel, and bureaucratic nightmare of a world, or to the fact that a mysterious Castle is mentioned here once or twice. Sure – the significance of these details is that they make the novel Kafkaesque, but I’m not convinced whether they signify something else besides this.

There are other parallels here, though, which are more interesting and rewarding for me. First, Michael K’s simplemindedness (not in the sense of feeble-mindedness but in the sense that he is really only concerned with a simple thing: living on and from the earth, as the most natural thing in the world, freely, without leaving a single track after himself) reminds me of Thoreau’s Walden. Michael K wants so little. So little to give and so little to take. His simplicity, his lack of needs is un-human, humanless – it doesn’t allow for deep human bonds – after all, what kind of bond would be possible with someone who doesn’t want anything? And because of this, I was also often reminded of Camus’ The Stranger. Michael K seems to feel a little more deeply towards his mother than Meursault, still – the relationship tying him to his mother feels like an artificial bond, an institution forced upon him by the world, and life’s burden feels lighter after the mother is gone.

And ultimately all this is awfully unsettling – I always end up feeling terrible when I read such distant-sounding, impersonal, unapproachable, reclusive novels. Of course the way I feel is a judgment not about the quality of the novel, but about its effect. And Coetzee sure can write deeply unhinging novels.

Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

bloodandguts

Kathy Acker’s book is a lot of things at once: a nightmarish, surreal collage/novel/text/drama complete with drawings and doodles; the life story of a bodily and emotionally damaged, brutally exploited girl, told sometimes in the first and sometimes in the third person; a whole lot of social criticism and analysis, mostly from the perspective of power and who has it; and connected to this last one: an exploration of all the (possible) ways a woman can be vulnerable (with abundant, extremely graphic details).

The story is very fragmented, but mainly it’s about ten-year-old Janey, who lives in an incestuous relationship with her father until he chases her away from home. Janey then goes to New York, where later on he gets imprisoned by a Persian pimp who turns her into a whore. Finally Janey somehow ends up in Morocco, and she dies not long after.

The story is, by the way, strangely impersonal – I can hardly find a word for this quality. Janey, for a long time, hardly even possesses a sense of self or an identity of her own, because her identity has always been defined by her relations with men, and she has mostly come into contact with men who were eager to tell her that – being a woman – she’s even lower on the hierarchy of beings than animals.

There is, however, a kind of development in the novel – as time passes, Janey slowly awakes to herself and she wants to get out, wants to get away from – from men, from capitalism, from mechanical sex – but she doesn’t stand a real chance, and she cannot be (is not allowed to be) other than what she is: a totally dependent and vulnerable girl/woman who is forever denied even her most basic needs (food, shelter, love), a woman who channels all her desires and needs into sex because that’s the only thing she’s known from time immemorial and the only things she’s always been given – but only until the men in her life realize that Janey uses sex to express and experience all her emotions. As soon as Janey’s elemental need for love surfaces (and this doesn’t take long, usually – she’s unable to control her emotions), men even deny her the relief of sex.

The text – like Janey’s life – is often full of vulgarity, there’s a whole lot of cocks and cunts here, Janey’s mind is constantly filled with erect penises and violent sex, but I think the reason for all this is that Janey only has words for this. It’s not detailed, but it’s very probable from the text that Janey’s been a victim of sexual abuse from a very early age. What we learn is that her mother died when Janey was one year old, and from then onward she depended on her father for everything and used his father to fill all the roles – friend, boyfriend, brother, sister, father – in her life.

Throughout the story, by the way, Janey learns a language, too – a different one from the language of sex – this is also a part of her development, her increasing self-awareness – and the most unsettling part of the novel for me is when she writes/translates poems for the Persian pimp with whom she falls in love, for lack of a better option. Her poems are filled with rage, pain, desire and destructive love – they are devastating and beautiful.

And as regards the whole book: it’s unbearably real, brutal, upsetting, and extremely sad – reading this was a similar experience as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

adele

I had a secret dream when I started reading this novel. I was hoping that perhaps it’s going to be as good as Macrae Burnet’s other novel, His Bloody Project, which was one of my favorites last year – I was starving for something to really blow my mind because I haven’t read anything like that yet this year.

And there’s no sad and dramatic turn coming here, because this novel did manage to blow my mind, and I dearly hope that Macrae Burnet will write many more novels, because I could read any number of books by someone who can write in such an intelligent and darkly funny way, and who knows the possible ways humans work this well and can write about these ways with such sensitivity, precision, and effect.

So, as for the novel – like His Bloody Project, this novel also seems to be a simple (not really) mystery novel, set somewhere in the countryside, far from the noise of the world, in a secluded environment.

The protagonist, Manfred, is an eternally awkward outsider, he suffers from all kinds of repressions and he’s completely at loss when it comes to any kind of casual (or other) human interaction. Manfred is following a routine in every moment of his life, and he’s convinced that the slightest diversion from the routine would immediately be noticed by everyone and would throw the shadow of some dark suspicion on him. It’s not as if anyone suspected him of anything originally, and it’s not as if Manfred (who is, by the way, a well-groomed and respected office worker, but not of the Patrick Bateman but rather, the Meursault kind) was doing anything wrong – still, he struggles with an eternal sense of guilt, and he’s forever waiting for the moment when someone – anyone – will accuse him of something – anything.

The moment of a sort-of accusation arrives when Adèle, the waitress of a bistro frequented by Manfred, disappears without a trace, and the detective investigating the case interviews Manfred. The detective’s only doing his job, and he doesn’t really accuse Manfred of anything. Yet, for a reason that only becomes clear(er) later on, Manfred lies to the investigator, and from this moment on, his paranoia goes into full swing – after all, he’s really kind-of guilty now, and he’s really kind-of pursued by someone now.

Later on, though, Adèle’s disappearance becomes more like an excuse than a main plot driver because Macrae Burnet is, again, less concerned with the investigation as such, and more deeply interested in what goes on in the characters’ mind. Slowly, therefore, we learn some details that can (partly) explain where Manfred’s awkwardness, alienation, paranoia and eternal distrust stem from – but Macrae Burnet is an extremely smart writer, and he doesn’t make the mistake of using some cheap pop-psychology to establish direct connections between Manfred’s youthful traumas and his behavior as an adult. And this is immensely enjoyable – that the author leaves questions open, that he dares to fill his text with delicate ambiguity and multiple possible meanings.

Moreover, his writing is amazingly alive and visceral. Even though he uses a third person narrative, he manages to give the illusion of being inside Manfred’s mind – which is deeply disturbing, because Manfred’s inner monologues, doubts, fears, and conspiracy theories follow a very strict and rational logic, and they are so convincing that after a while I also start developing my own conspiracy theories, and start to entertain weird fears about what my colleagues would say behind my back if the next day I went to the kitchen for my morning tea not at 8:10 a.m., but, say, at 8:13, thereby disrupting a well-oiled routine.

As you can guess, this novel is not action-driven – the plot hinges on the characters, and the most important one is, of course, Manfred. But all the other characters are sharply drawn, too, and it’s a relief that the focus sometimes shifts to them – if I had to see everything through Manfred’s eyes only, I would end up being even more paranoid than I am now.

The most interesting character besides Manfred is the detective working on the case – he’s also an eternal outsider, forever worrying about what others might think, forever battling with a bad case of impostor syndrome. Like Manfred, he also tends to envision apocalyptic scenarios in his mind, and he’s also a gently ironic example of the mystery novel convention that the detective must intuitively enter the mind of the possibly culprits or suspects. In this case, the detective isn’t exactly intuitive, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy, either – it’s only that the way his mind is messed up is very similar to Manfred’s own messed-upness.

And I could go on still, and describe how Macrae Burnet again creates intriguing extra possibilities of interpretation by pretending that the novel was written not by him but by someone else. This time he pretends that he translated the cult novel of a French author, Brunet, into English – and this Brunet just happens to be a lot like Manfred, and also happens not to like it when someone assumes that his novel is autobiographical. What can I say – it’s very exciting, dark, disturbing, and weirdly funny. For me, a perfect read.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

belong

Garth Greenwell’s novel is beautiful, tender, and very lyrical – even though it’s about awful sadness and brutality.

The sadness and brutality of desire, and all the emotions connected to and growing out of it, all the emotions the narrator, an American teacher living in Sofia feels for Mitko, the extremely attractive hustler he picks up in a public toilet.

The nameless narrator has an immediate crush on Mitko. This is at first only about Mitko’s body, but the narrator would also like to learn about Mitko’s soul, if it were at all possible (it’s not), and he soon wants to have Mitko forever by his side, wants to save him, redeem him, spoil him – and so on. But – again – this is impossible, a fact which is clear from the very beginning: that no matter how beautiful it would be for a real relationship to develop between a middle-class university teacher from the US and a penniless Bulgarian hustler, this is not meant to be.

For about a million reasons. For one thing, even if their relationship was based on something other than money and „gifts” changing hands, even if there was equality between them, they still wouldn’t understand each other. And it’s not only because of the lack of common language – it’s also because of their wildly different backgrounds and cultural heritage, and because they both want something else, their feelings are completely different, and they use their relationship for different things.

Just one example to show the difference of worlds Mitko and the narrator inhabit: at one point, Mitko thinks he’ll frighten the narrator when he threatens him with revealing that he’s gay. In Mitko’s hyper-masculine world, saying that someone is gay is still a serious insult, it still means something, but for the narrator, who’s already come out, this doesn’t mean anything serious anymore (not that revealing his sexual preferences had been met with universal acceptance, and not that it had been easy for him to get over all the betrayals of family and friends he had to suffer in consequence). So when Mitko threatens him with destroying his life, for the narrator that’s all just a weightless threat.

This is not something they can discuss, though – and they can’t discuss anything else – at all. This is not love, after all. This isn’t a relationship in which the partners can talk things over. This is a relationship based on buying and selling, a relationship in which the partners are mutually using each other, a relationship that contains lust and erotic pleasure (from the narrator’s side certainly – and we don’t see Mitko’s side of the story), and a relationship the narrator infuses with emotions, which only cause him pain and suffering. And how would they not – there’s no place for emotions here, but of course they just develop on their own sometimes – and they are the basis for the novel’s beauty.

Because the narrator’s feelings are real – it’s real when his heart is breaking if he thinks about leaving Mitko; it’s real when he’s jealous and angry because on their first night together, Mitko spends the time speaking with his friends or clients on Skype; and it’s real when he’s disgusted by Mitko, when he desires his touch, and when he’s afraid of him.

Reciprocity?

This isn’t a relationship where there’s reciprocity.

And the beautiful title of the novel (which was the main reason I wanted to read this) means this to me. What belongs to you, what is yours is what you feel. And what you remember, what you desire, what you are afraid of. The other person, though – the eternal unknown and unknowable – can never belong to you.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

rosemary

Roman Polanski’s film of the same title is one of my all-time favorite fear-of-the-unknown movies, I’ve seen it several times. While I was reading the novel, I automatically pictured the images of the film in my mind, and for a while I was struggling to decide how good the book is on its own. After a while, though, I concluded that it’s good.

As for the story: young and bohemian Rosemary and her husband, Guy, an up-and-coming actor suddenly get a chance to move into the most prestigious, most elegant apartment building of New York City. This is such a famous and posh apartment building that it’s enough to tell the cab driver: „To the Bramford, please” – and the driver will immediately know what you’re talking about. So yes, living at such an address is surely a much more trendy thing to do than to tell the driver to take you to a nameless street in the suburbs and then guide him carefully among hundreds of identical houses.

Anyway, I’m digressing.

Rosemary and Guy, of course, gladly take the chance to move to this famous address, even though an old friend tries to warn them, saying that the house doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, and many dark deeds had been committed there. And as it usually goes with evil houses, the troubles start shortly after the couple settle in. The tenants of Bramford slowly start to mentally devour the young couple, and when Rosemary gets pregnant, things really start to spiral out of control.

Rosemary’s Baby is a delightfully multi-layered novel. First, it works as a horror/haunted house story – as an urban haunted house story, where hell isn’t the house itself, but the people who live there. (As for me, I can hardly think of anything more terrifying than an old house, with old-fashioned and dangerous-looking elevators and with a bunch of curious and gently overbearing pensioners for neighbors, who keep insisting on inviting you to dinner, and who knock on your door six times a day just to bring you a little dessert and to kindly ask whether you need anything from the shop.)

And Rosemary also starts to find this state of affairs oppressive, she gets suspicious about the oh-so-kind interest and care the neighbors show in her well-being – but the chances for getting away get slimmer and slimmer, and the world out there slowly recedes to a distance that’s completely out of reach.

It’s truly a horror, make no mistake – and we might even just ignore the accidental little detail that the enchanting tenants of Bramford are supposedly serving Satan. (I think this whole occult-mystical-satanist story-line can be interpreted as symbolic, and all the evil practices of the neighbors can be interpreted as some good, old-fashioned manipulative psychological games.)

And the other layer of the novel is just as terrifying: the story of a marriage crisis. Even though Rosemary and Guy look like the perfect couple, their relationship is tainted with suspicion, distrust and quiet frustration from the very beginning. Rosemary’s and Guy’s marriage games are centered around the topic of having children, and there’s everything here you can imagine to make your blood run cold: a wife who wants to have a baby so badly that she’s half-planning to accidentally get pregnant; a suspicious husband who would prefer to postpone the business of family-making for a few more years to concentrate on his career, so he follows his wife’s periods with the utmost vigilance to avoid any nasty surprises, yet, in a weak or remorseful moment says, OK, let’s make a baby; there’s sex with a sleeping/drugged wife; and then there’s a terrible coldness and growing distance between Rosemary and Guy during the pregnancy, coupled with anger, pain, and silent accusations. Like I say – it could hardly get more dreadful than this.

There’s no need, after all, for any kind of satanist practices here – if I read this novel only as a possible story of a marriage and pregnancy, it’s already more than enough to freak me out.

And what makes the novel especially good is that it’s not easy (or downright impossible) to decide what really happens, and who is in their right mind and who isn’t. Does Rosemary just go a little crazy during her pregnancy? Is it all in her mind? Is it just paranoia? Or is the house and/or its tenants truly evil? Everything is obscure, deliciously ambiguous here. In the end – it’s a dark delight to read this novel, but delight it is.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster

angels

I’m hardly an expert when it comes to Forster’s works – I’d only read A Room With a View earlier, but at least I’d read that countless times – and this lack of expertise might be the reason this novel was a big surprise to me.

First of all: I’m always intrigued to see how writers develop, how they enlarge upon their main themes and how they improve their favorite motifs from one book to the next. (This isn’t the main point here, so I’m not going into details now, but my theory is that in fact, everyone has only two or three really interesting things to say in their life – but it can take a good while until someone finds the best possible form, genre or mode of expression for that two or three amazing thoughts. And I like to read the experimental, voice-finding pieces of someone’s life work, too, not only the masterpieces.)

And it was interesting to compare this novel with A Room With a View (I don’t mean any kind of deep and involved parallel reading – I only mean that I’ve read A Room With a View so many times that I almost know it by heart), and to encounter a huge number of motifs and themes Forster must have found so irresistible and enchanting that he quickly put them not just into one novel, but two. Just a couple of examples: the charm and dramatic and dramatizing power of Italy; the view (yes!) you can enjoy from the balconies of Italian houses and from the walls of Italian towns, the view that’s more than enough to completely change someone’s direction in life; the purple flowers blooming all over the Italian hillsides every spring; little babies (real or otherwise); and so on. And further, it’s interesting how the same motifs can have such a different effect in different novels.

The reason this novel surprised me is because I had no idea Forster’s writing could be so dark. (I had no idea that A Room With a View is supposed to be his lightest novel, and all the others are way darker.)

And I didn’t suspect anything at first – this novel, too, starts out lightly enough: with two young English ladies embarking on the Big Italian Adventure, which around 1900 wasn’t supposed to involve getting romantically entangled with attractive Mediterranean demigods – but as it is, exactly this happens here, while all the relatives and neighbors back in England watch with horror as the events unfold, and then decide to send a rescue team to save the hapless ladies from the misfortune – a misfortune they got into out of their own free will. (Of course, Italy is attractive only as long as the English tourist can observe and admire it from behind the safe wall of the Baedeker. The approved plans of „learning” Italy never involve any real, non-touristy interactions with the locals, and if any such interaction occurs, Italy immediately becomes a barbaric country whose inhabitants all harbor evil plots to rid the innocent English ladies and gentlemen of their money and good morals.)

Anyway, up until this point, the novel is lighthearted and funny enough – then the mood turns gradually darker, and I don’t even realize how we suddenly get to topics such as gender equality; the cultural differences between countries, and how these differences might be insurmountable; and the possibly mortally dangerous English stiffness, cold blood, and hysterical regularity. To illustrate these points, Forster makes rather brutal things happen to his characters, and he doesn’t stop at being just nicely ironic and gently sarcastic. (He does these, too, of course – and with such wit and charm that he immediately climbs right next to Jane Austen on my fictitious list of top English authors who can make the most devastating remarks while maintaining a perfectly innocent face.)

I don’t mind, by the way, that this novel is pretty sombre. What I do mind a bit is that Forster doesn’t always seem to be in control, and it feels as if he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted with his characters and what road he wanted them to take. (Additionally, it seems he wasn’t sure what the characters want from each other, either.) But perhaps this is again the effect of Italy – that someone who used to be a moderately boring, moderately annoying, not particularly attractive neighbor in the good-natured world of rural England magically becomes a goddess in Italy. It’s possible, I guess – it’s only that Forster doesn’t manage to convince me how these things occur.

(If I ever found myself in Monteriano, though, I’d make sure to look for the places mentioned in the novel because even if Forster seems somewhat uncertain about his characters, he is absolutely sure about the magic of Monteriano. It’s a pity that Monteriano probably doesn’t exist.)