Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles

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This is such a heart-shattering and beautiful book. Which surprised me a bit – after all, this is supposed to be just another average coming-of-age novel.

In fact, it’s more restrained, more average than a lot of other coming-of-age novels I know: the main character’s, Vim’s family is just averagely screwed up (his parents only divorced and looked for new partners once, and Vim’s stepfather, for instance, isn’t a brutal child-abuser, but a totally normal and likeable man); Vim doesn’t suffer from any – diagnosed o undiagnosed – mental or physical condition (sure, his behavior is often morbid and obsessive-compulsive, he has some inclination towards self-harm, he’s very melancholic and alienated and clueless, and he’s full of teenage angst – but to all this I say [not cynically, but with well-remembered heartache]: so it goes); and his agonizing first attempts at sex and relationships, and his fears of growing up are all well-understandable and don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary.

The initial setup isn’t anything new, either: Vim’s just graduated from high school, he’s going to college in the fall, and in between graduation and college, there’s that weird no man’s land between being a teenager and being an adult – that scary, unsettling period when nothing is certain, where childhood has already ended but you have no idea yet how you’re supposed to play being an adult from now on, and whether it’s worth it, anyway.

The story (which is very fragmented and far from linear – I’ll get into this a bit later) is driven by two emotional forces. One is the hatred and bitterness Vim feels towards his father. His father quit playing family when Vim was still a baby, but he has a tendency to show up from time to time and explain why he was a bad father, and how he plans to be a better father from now on. Vim is less than impressed by his father’s bullshit, and he spends a sizeable chunk of his time pondering why and how he hates his father, and why he feels uncomfortable in his father’s company.

The main story-line is driven by Vim’s almost-hopeless attraction towards the girlfriend of one of his friends – towards Helene, who is way more screwed up than Vim. Vim’s feeling towards Helene is a mixture of teenage crush and lust, the „we don’t know each other but I’m sure you’d understand me” illusion, and the „I want to save you” syndrome, and this curious emotion deeply unsettles the boy’s heart and mind – which weren’t too peaceful to begin with.

All this, though, wouldn’t necessarily be special – a significant percentage of teenage novels deals with themes like these. What makes this novel special is Vim’s voice and narration.

As regards, for example, the fragmented quality of the novel I already referred to: the novel is only about 200 pages yet it has more than one hundred chapters. There are a couple of longish chapters, in which Vim really describes a particular event (a party, a night by the lake, a band rehearsal), but even these descriptive, story-telling chapters are chaotic and incomplete (probably because the events Vim narrates usually involve the consumption of alcohol, therefore Vim’s recollections are somewhat hazy). And there are dozens of micro-chapters (consisting of a single sentence, a couple of sentences, or a single paragraph), which are not directly attached to the main story-line, however, it’s from these chapters we learn the most about how Vim feels and thinks about life and the people around him.

Because on the surface (in his usual human relationships) Vim tends to act like a cynical and nonchalant teenager, and he also tends to react to events with an extremely tiresome, smart-ass kind of humor. As soon as he remains alone with his thoughts, though (which happens often, even during parties, band rehearsals, and so on), Vim transforms into a freely associating, emotional and deeply sensitive poet-brute, driven by rage and passion. The result of this transformation is a beautiful and tangled mess of self-expression which almost brings me to tears. Not because it’s so tragic or painful, but because it’s so precise: being a teenager can be exactly like this.

The atmosphere and poetics of the novel remind me of the music of the Smashing Pumpkins – say, like their song 1979, which – like this novel – always makes me feel that being a teenager is exactly like that. Even if my teenage years had been nothing like that.

And even though the Smashing Pumpkins is not mentioned in the novel (it could have been – the story is set in 1992), a lot of other songs and bands are, Vim himself also plays in a rock band, and the rhythm of the novel is very musical. And I can easily imagine Vim’s poetic and associative flows of words as the lyrics of a more melancholy rock band.

And I repeat: his voice – it disarms me.

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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It took me a long time to get around to this novel. One reason was that I didn’t want to exhaust the life work of Eugenides too quickly, because no matter how much I love re-reading, and no matter how quickly I forget (meaning that after a few months or years I can read something again almost as I were reading it for the first time), I can only really read something for the first time once, and I wanted to wait for the perfect moment for my first reading of this book.

The other reason for my procrastination was that I looked at this novel somewhat suspiciously. I found its topic and the (literary) opportunities dormant in it intriguing, and generally I would be happy to read even the laundry list of a person who can write such a mesmerizing novel as The Virgin Suicides – still, I had my doubts. One of my several phobias is an inexplicable aversion to family sagas, and this is a saga for sure.

The novel follows the lives and times of an inbred Greek family, and starts off with Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides (who are third cousins and siblings, and also married to each other) leaving for America from Smyrna in 1922, and moving in with a relative. As the years go by, children are born both to them, and to their relative, the lesbian Lina (who has a husband), and the children of the new generation, not being aware of their fragile genetic makeup, follow the century-long tradition of marrying their close relations – to the utmost horror of Desdemona, who – understandably – spends her time worrying when a freak will eventually get born into the family.

The years pass, the first grandchild is born, and after still more years, in 1960, the true main character of the novel is finally born. She’s Calliope Stephanides, a beautiful little girl, who apparently has nothing wrong with her. As Calliope enters puberty, though, she notices more and more weird details on and within herself, until a fateful day reveals that Callie is in fact a boy. (I won’t go into the genetic details – Eugenides does that, and that’s enough.)

The extremely detailed, complicated story is told by the now-adult, 40-something Cal (not Calliope anymore), who’s been living as a man since his teenage years. To give you an idea about the detailed quality of the novel, suffice it to say that a few hundred pages pass before the main character is even born. However, Cal – in the thoroughly enjoyable manner of an ironic-omniscient narrator – knows all there’s to know about his forebears, even things they don’t know about themselves – but when it comes to knowing himself, his knowledge is limited since until the age of 14 he doesn’t know himself for who he is, and even as an adult he constantly struggles with the problem that sometimes he feels like a man, and sometimes like a woman – even if both officially (genetically) and according to his own evaluation he is a man.

The main theme of Middlesex is fantastically interesting. Eugenides examines the eternal questions: what makes a person who he is, and what does our definition of our identity depend on? Is it genetics that defines our identity, is it our upbringing, or something else entirely? And what if there’s a conflict between our genetic identity and the identity that came into being through being brought up one way or another? Can we then freely decide which one to keep? Of course Cal’s case is less than ordinary, consequently, he has a hard time deciding what to call his identity.

I won’t go into details as to why, in the end, he decides at the age of 14, blessed with a man’s genetic makeup and a woman’s identity, that he wants to be a man from that point on – it’s enough to say that the process of choosing (or finding) an identity for himself is deeply human and beautiful – I read with nothing but wonder about the stages of Cal’s journey towards himself. Partly because the journey to the self is always exciting (though of course dangerous), and partly because Eugenides – as usual – writes with such tenderness, poignancy and delicacy that all I can do is sigh and be glad that such beautiful things as his books do exist.

Despite all this, I was a bit disappointed upon first finishing the novel, and I felt as if roughly 500 pages were missing from it. After perusing the elaborately detailed backstory and Cal’s first 14 years of life, I felt as if Eugenides had forgot something: namely, to write about one thing I was extremely interested in: what happened to Cal between the ages of 14 and 41. After a while, though, I realized that of course Eugenides knew what he was doing – because whatever happened to Cal after his decision at the age of 14, that already belonged to his adulthood, and not to the period of defining his identity. And that would be an altogether different story. (A story I’d still be deeply interested to read.)

The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

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I have no idea how Jennifer Egan does this. I can get it if someone has the wonderfully eerie ability to instinctively understand human emotions and tangled relations, and all the ways things can be awesome and things can suck – but this ability combined with the talent to be able to write it all down is something rare and precious. Jennifer Egan is in possession of both the ability to perceive and the ability to put her perceptions to paper – and I’m thoroughly amazed by her.

I have no idea, either, what Egan’s teenage years felt like (she was born in 1962), but I have a strong suspicion that the 70s were quite a memorable period for her. The reason for this suspicion is that – just like in her Pulitzer-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad – the main (almost living) characters of this novel are the 70s and time in general – time wasted, time lost.

The novel explores several other themes but I don’t attempt to write about all of them – I’ll mostly focus on time here. But first – a few words about the story.

The heroine of the novel is 18-year old Phoebe, standing on the brink of adulthood. But Phoebe doesn’t care either about adulthood, or about enjoying her teenage years – all she’s interested in is her late sister, Faith, who died 8 years earlier, who was loved and admired by everyone who knew her, and whose death Phoebe cannot get over. While the rest of her family, and the old friends and old loves of Faith are all more or less living their own lives already, Phoebe still sleeps in her sister’s room, idolizes every small memento left behind by Faith, and devotes her life to understanding (and following in the footsteps of) her sister. The „following” bit is mostly theoretical, though, given the fact that Faith was the quintessential hippy of the end of the 60s, while Phoebe (as she’s well aware) is just an average, screwed-up teenager.

At the beginning of the story, Phoebe decides that the only possible thing for her to do is to travel to Europe and visit the places Faith visited 8 years earlier – from London through Amsterdam through Paris, all the way to a small Italian village, where Faith’s journey ended.

Phoebe is hoping to find peace, hoping to find certainty on her journey, but – of course – her attempt to find Faith is also an attempt to find herself – and Phoebe’s journey towards self-knowledge is a beautiful, unsettling, and very exciting coming-of-age story.

But like I say, this is a multi-layered novel – not a simple coming-of-age story. And it feels to me that the main theme of the novel is not even growing up, or finding ourselves – but the way we exist in time, and the way how most of the time we are not even at that time where we are in reality.

One way the perpetual sense of being at the wrong time is manifested in the novel is the constant nostalgia for events, for selves we had never experienced, had never been. In this case this is the nostalgia for the end of the 1960s: hippies, world peace, and world-shattering changes. Some characters were there then; some were there but were too young to grasp the meaning of what’s happening to them. And in the end it doesn’t really matter because in 1978, the present day of the novel, all of them feel as if they hadn’t been there – as if they had only been looking at those days from the outside, even when they were living right through them.

And the way the novel starts is just perfect: Phoebe is heading to a 60s-revival festival, but it turns out that she’s a day late for the event. And it’s not only her – it turns out that half the posters had the wrong date printed so hardly anyone turned up at the festival. This is typical of the novel: the feeling of being late, and not just the feeling – really being late, which is all the more terrible, all the more frustrating because the characters only realize too late that they are late for something, that they missed something for good.

The other side of being at the wrong time is depicted in the way the characters relate to the present and the future, the way they step from one into the other – for example, they tend to imagine how they will look back at the present moment from the future, when the present will already be past – therefore it will most probably be much more charming than the future present.

It’s often mentioned about Phoebe, for instance, that she doesn’t expect anything from the future and doesn’t even imagine anything about the future – and there’s nothing cynical in this, Phoebe is hardly a cynical teenager – and she lives her present in the past. All this changes – for a while – during her European trip: during that trip, Phoebe really exists when she is. Being in the present never lasts long, though, as made obvious by the following quote (which is one of the most beautiful moments in the novel):

“Phoebe felt herself hurtling forward in time until she was looking back from an imaginary future at these days with Wolf, at this very moment. My time with Wolf, she would think, those first days with Wolf, and pictured even now how the memory would break across her, a longing catch to the throat as she recalled their compulsion and wild tenderness, her worries about fate and whether their affair would last. This vision tumbled over Phoebe with the force of revelation: she would stand somewhere and look back, she would live a life. Until this moment she had never truly believed it.”

And most probably, it will be like this. There will be a life – the conclusion of the novel leaves no doubt about that, and it even gives some hope that after her pilgrimage, Phoebe will finally become Phoebe, and won’t be living as/in the shadow of Faith any longer. As for existing in the present time, though – that’s still doubtful.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

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It’s not easy to say anything about a book whose writer is as self-aware as Dave Eggers. Eggers knows exactly what he created (and how excellent a work he created), and he says as much right at the beginning of this novel/memoir. For instance, in his foreword he claims that the first couple of chapters are basically perfect, while the rest is of a somewhat uneven quality. And this is exactly so, even though the uneven quality produced by Dave Eggers is such that almost anyone would be glad to write so unevenly in peak form.

Generally I’m not a great fan of forewords written by writers about their own works, because it seems to me that writers either tend to say lots of silly things about their work, or they tend to speak about it so self-critically that they make me doubt whether I really want to read their book after all.

Dave Eggers is an exception, though. Perhaps because he’s extremely smart, and what he says about his book is indeed right. Or perhaps because Eggers is the child of the postmodern-ironic age, and he knows that it’s almost impossible to create fiction without self-reflection – but also knows that all the usual postmodern self-reflection doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Sure, we all know it already – everything had already been written, every emotion had already been felt, every experience had already been experienced by countless others, and reflecting on this is a very postmodern thing – but it’s somewhat boring. Or more precisely: it can be boring when there’s nothing else besides the reflection. Because even though we know that our emotions and experiences are usually rather ordinary, they are still ours, and it would be stupid to completely hide behind irony and cancel everything we live through just because someone else already felt, already experienced the same.

This is why it’s amazing that Eggers went beyond the usual (let’s say: old-fashioned) postmodern. The way he writes, the way he reflects on himself, the way he talks out of the book – it’s all deeply and fascinatingly ironic (what else could it be around the year 2000), but the irony is not there just for irony’s sake – it means something (and I like it when something means something).

For Eggers, it seems to me, irony and the often very sick, very dark, desperately funny humor are not there because that’s the postmodern way to write and to experience – they are there because using these devices might be the best way for him to endure all kinds of horrors. Because what the novel is about is often horrible and almost insupportable.

One of the main story-lines is about how Dave Eggers, being in his early twenties, deals with the situation that both his parents die within a few weeks’ time from each other, and he inherits the task – still half a child himself – to raise his eight-year old brother. Their story is enough to shatter a heart – partly because of the obvious reasons, and partly because the way Eggers plays the role of a parent, and the way his brother adopts the role of a child being raised by another child is so beautiful and so chaotically zen that it almost makes me cry.

The other main theme is how, parallel to playing a parent, Eggers tries to be an average, that is, a completely out of this world, idealistic young guy in his twenties, someone who rushes head-first into experiences and never considers anything twice. And true, this story-line is somewhat uneven and less than perfectly written – but it’s strong, real, and it’s full of life.

Yes, this is a heartbreaking work, and not the ironic-distant heartbreaking kind, but the truly heartbreaking kind, even if it’s full of irony. And as regards the reference to a genius in the title – I’d just say that Eggers is mind-blowingly talented, extremely funny, and he writes the way I admire the most: without any apparent effort, he makes me believe, anytime, about anything that: I am there.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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This is such a fantastically enticing novel that halfway through I started to worry that I might just finish it too soon if I’m not careful, so instead of continuing, I decided to pursue a whole array of (half-)substitute activities – I went to the movies, finished two other books, went rollerskating, and so on – just so that the moment when I reach the end might come as late as possible. (If I want to perfectly honest, I first started to worry somewhere around page 10, but the danger didn’t seem that imminent then, given that I still had 760 pages to go.)

But after a while I couldn’t put off finishing it any longer, and the self-denial of the previous days took its vengeance: I read the remaining half in two endless reading sessions. This is not the most perfect way to put it, though – it implies effort and suffering, when reading this novel is, in fact, the exact opposite of that. Pure joy and bliss. And what I didn’t experience when I read Tartt’s The Secret History a couple of years back – the most welcome feeling of forgetting myself – now I got this, too.

This complete relinquishing of the self for the time of reading, this most basic, most urgent curiosity (and then what happened? And what happened after that?), this feeling that I want to learn and know everything: all the streets of New York where the protagonist walks; all the pieces of furniture he touches; the deserts of Las Vegas he inhabits; the feverish cold he lives through; that certain magical bench in Central Park; love’s red hair and thousand-colored scarves; the feeling of walking through icy puddles in soaked-through shoes in Amsterdam around Christmas; the self-destructive, murderous anger, doubt, and remorse of the protagonist. Everything.

I think such strong desire to know absolutely everything is only possible while reading fiction – and what luck that in this novel, we get to know almost everything.

Because this is a slow story, one in which there’s time for events to unfold, for the characters to grow up, and also for them to just fool around sometimes and not move the story forward at all – and when there was a couple of weeks’ or years’ worth of jump ahead in the story, I was almost disappointed because I would have preferred to know even those things that happened in the periods not covered.

So what’s this novel about? As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s written so beautifully and precisely, with such perception and strength that it could be about anything, and I would enjoy it.

But anyway: it’s about Theo Decker, a screwed-up, drug-addicted young man suffering both from PTSD and from a hopeless love towards a miraculous, elusive girl. From the (very long) back-story we learn that Theo loses his mother in tragic circumstances when he’s still a child, and in connection with his mother’s death, he acquires a world-famous painting (this is the Goldfinch), which in turn becomes the most important object in his life.

That piece of art, beauty, reality, purity and bliss to which he can always return. That object he can think about in times of distress because even the thought of its existence is enough to fill his life with something other than pure terror and anxiety.

One of the chapters opens with a quote from Nietzsche: „We have art in order not to die from the truth.” And if I wanted to simplify it, I could say that this whole novel is a beautiful and heart-wrenching illustration of this sentence.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

TheMagicToyshopI used to have this fallacy that I like Angela Carter only with my brain – I used to think that she was a writer whose works provided the perfect pretext for any enthusiastic English major student to talk about symbols, metaphors, intertextuality and all kinds of gender-stuff. I really liked both of her books I read so far (this one, which I first read during my university years as compulsory reading, and The Bloody Chamber, which I read a couple of years later, just because I wanted to read it), but I liked both of them only in and with my mind – I didn’t love them because I thought they were much too cold. Anyway, I re-read The Magic Toyshop this year, and I no longer have this fallacy – now I love Angela Carter with all my being.

I guess I mentioned a couple of times already that I absolutely love coming-of-age novels, and without the least bit of planning, I always happen to read a coming-of-age novel every two or three months, because I like (and need) to re-learn (or re-experience) what it’s like to grow up. And The Magic Toyshop can also be classified as a coming-of-age novel (of sorts), but it’s completely different from any other teenager-novel I know. The coming-of-age novels I know usually concentrate on the changes that happen to a young person’s mind when he’s growing up (even if these novels also deal with first dates and first kisses). But The Magic Toyshop is such an incredibly bodily novel that I find it breathtaking and scary even as a grown-up.

The novel’s protagonist is Melanie, who, during the 15th summer of her life, slowly realizes that she’s no longer a girl – she’s an almost-woman now. Melanie spends the last innocent-idyllic summer of her life with discovering herself and her body, and with day-dreaming about a perfect man – a phantom bridegroom who will step out of a fairy tale (or a glossy magazine) one day and to whom she will lose her virginity (or better to say: she won’t lose her virginity to him – she will give it to him, gently, in between fluffy-white pillows and cool sheets). Melanie’s daydreams and her games of make-believe are weightless, and they are without consequences, but everything changes when – because of the sudden death of her parents – Melanie and her younger siblings are forced to move to one of their late mother’s relatives, Uncle Philip. Philip is a toy-maker, and he’s the owner of the titular magic toyshop. However, he isn’t your typical benevolent, jovial uncle – instead, he’s a ruthless tyrant who terrorizes his family in every imaginable way. And his toyshop isn’t your typical Disneyland-like, merrily-magical place – instead, it’s a place where magic is dark and destructive; where the toys are so lifelike and perfect that it’s just too uncanny; and where human beings are forced to act as if they were lifeless toys.

And it is here, in Uncle Philip’s magic toyshop that Melanie – who grew up as a spoiled child, and whose days so far have been filled with the dreams and concerns of a child – starts to learn about the nature of the „real” reality – she’s forced to learn about this. Partly because Philip doesn’t let her stay in her childhood world any longer, and he uses Melanie to act out his dark and violent fantasies on/with her (not literally, but metaphorically – but in his world, metaphors and symbolic deeds carry way more weight and meaning than any real act). And partly because Melanie gets to know Philip’s family: being accepted into the family circle of Philip’s wife, Margaret, and Margaret’s younger brothers, she observes and experiences such intense, passionate, undisguised, both enticing and repulsive feelings and relations that all her childish ideas about life, emotions and – most importantly – about physical attractions and repulsions are shattered for good.

In just a couple of months, Melanie learns that sexuality isn’t always like the way she imagined – it’s not necessarily pure-beautiful-nice. In the course of her coming-of-age, Melanie has to realize that it may easily happen that the other is filthy, or less-than-gentle, and she has to realize that the (possible) future/consequence of having to raise a herd of unruly kids in a dingy, murky flat, as the wife of a grumpy man is always already present – even when she and Margaret’s brother, Finn have kissed only once.

Finn, by the way, isn’t the oh-so-strong man of a romantic novel; he’s not a man who can make a woman swoon by simply looking at her. Oh no – Finn’s presence and his clumsy-yet-knowing advances aren’t so deeply unsettling and uncomfortable for Melanie because he’s – say – frighteningly masculine – but simply because he’s real, and he’s unlike any phantom bridegroom out of a magazine Melanie used to dream about. (Actually, Finn repeatedly scorns Melanie for speaking as if she were quoting from a women’s magazine, for instance, when Melanie tells him something like this: „I’d love to be in love with you, but I don’t know how to do it.”)

I have to add, though, that there’s hardly any actual physical intercourse in the novel, but every single detail (the objects, the settings, the food, the toys) carries a whole lot of erotic potential – to the extent that it’s frightening even for an adult, let alone for a 15 year-old girl, who’s a virgin. (I don’t know if all of Angela Carter’s novels are this physical-sensual. All I know is that The Bloody Chamber is also like this.)

But despite all its darkness, this is an extremely vivid, exuberant, vibrant novel. And above all: it’s beautiful. And now I don’t see it as the work of a cold-headed genius – but simply as the work of a genius.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

brightEvery time I re-read this novel, I love it better. I used to like it mainly because of the second-person narrative, but I’ve read several second-person novels and stories since the last time I re-read Bright Lights, and now I don’t automatically swoon if I see something written in this narrative mode. The book has to be good in itself, as well. And fortunately this is a good book.

The novel’s unnamed protagonist (oh, no, he’s not unnamed – he’s you) is a young man in his twenties, and actually his life is (could be/could have been) quite good: a nice apartment in Manhattan; a prestigious job; parties every night; a beautiful wife; and everything you need to fulfill the American Dream, 1980s edition. But the novel opens when everything is already falling apart: his wife left; the prestigious job doesn’t seem to be secure anymore; and it seems that the „nursing a hangover during the day – going out to party during the night” routine the protagonist has been pursuing is not a way of life you can keep up forever.

While following the desperate, grieving, nameless hero (or nameless ourselves) among the sharply shining skyscrapers of Manhattan, through the elite clubs and bright-or-dodgy streets, you learn what you can of course learn from a whole lot of other novels, but for me, this theme is inexhaustible: you learn how very easy it is to screw things up; and also that there are periods when you can’t see anything clearly because your dreams – which will never come true, or not the way you want them to, or not at the right time – simply blind your vision; and also that being in your twenties can be an awfully melancholy, angry, clueless life period – even if you pretend that you’re having a helluva lot of fun.

And this is not a good novel because the second person narrative somehow brings all this close to me. This is good anyway – sad and beautiful (I just realized now that McInerney can often write with the poignancy and tenderness of F. Scott Fitzgerald); clever and funny; and oh-so-true. It speaks to me more than ever before.

Heliopolis by James Scudamore

heliopolisThe easiest way for me to describe this novel is to compare it to a couple of other novels. First of all, Heliopolis reminds me of Aravind Adiga’s Booker winning novel, The White Tiger, whose protagonist is an extremely lucky kid who manages to avoid the fate of hundreds of millions of Indians, and rises high from a life of abject poverty. While we follow him on his road to success, we also get a glimpse into the life of those hundreds of millions who are not so lucky. (I wasn’t exactly crazy about this novel, and I don’t mind at all that in Heliopolis, only the theme is similar, but there’s very little of the anger and the „seriousness” of Adiga.)

Then Heliopolis also resembles several (South-)American magic realist novels, mainly Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate in the sense that food and magic instilled into food play a very important role here, too.

And then it also reminds me of Jay McInerney’s beautiful, uplifting-melancholy novel about being young and lost in New York: Bright Lights, Big City. Bright Lights is about a screwed-up man in his twenties whose life could (or could have been) just great, but there are dreams which don’t come true, and sad-tragic things will always happen which make life seem pointless – for a while anyway.

Put these three novels together and you get something like Heliopolis: a novel set in a huge, dangerous, filthy, fascinating city; a novel which doesn’t dig too deep (which is absolutely fine with me in this case), and doesn’t want to change the world; a novel featuring a little bit of magic, a little bit of dirty realism, and a whole lot of cynical/smart comments about being young in a big city. And in the end, I find this mixture amazing. I’m not sure why – maybe because it makes me feel that everything is just so full of life, and this is a great feeling. (Another comparison: as regards its effect, Heliopolis reminds me of my all-time favorite movie, American Beauty – strictly speaking, there’s nothing in this novel which should make me feel great, but it still does make me feel great.)

And to give you a couple of details about the novel itself – Ludo, the protagonist, was born in a slum in São Paulo, but as luck would have it, he and his mother were saved from their slum-life by a wealthy businessman. Ludo is raised on the farm of this businessman, where he eats well, studies well, and makes good friends with his benefactor and his family. Later on, the family legally adopts him, and as an adult, Ludo leads a life which would have been completely out of his reach, had he been raised as a slum-kid.

The adult Ludo works at an advertising firm, and he makes good money for little work. He also drinks a lot, ponders a lot about the life he would have had as a slum-dweller, and he also keeps thinking about his father, whose identity his mother never revealed. The plot-line set in the present is about Ludo in his twenties as he tries to come to terms with who he is, and the other plot-line, set in the past, is about the way Ludo-as-a-child ended up being Ludo-as-an-adult. Both plot-lines are intriguing on their own, but of course they converge in the end, and a couple of secrets are revealed. Granted, these are not exactly mind-blowing secrets, and you can guess about halfway through the novel what the main twist will be, but this is no problem – this is still a very enjoyable novel. It’s hard to pin down the reason for this – it simply works, and it’s good to read it.