Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How I Became a Famous Novelist: I know you are, but what am I?

Peter Tarslaw is a professional deadbeat who overachieves only in the area of expressing his disdain toward things. Although he read constantly when he was young, TV not being an option in his house, he decided to stop altogether after college, when his mom gave him a copy of one of those books at the end of which “you’re supposed to feel weirdly sad, and perhaps cry, but not for any clear reason.” YOU know the ones.

But now he’s been laid off from his cushy job writing other people’s college admission essays, and he has to find a new way to make a living without doing anything very taxing. When he sees a televised interview with the filthy-rich and platitudinous author of the latest must-read literary fiction novel, it dawns on him that all these famous authors are just manipulating the masses and there’s a simple formula for writing a best-selling book. If he can crack it, he can join the ranks of the literary elite.

How hard could it be?

His goal in all this, aside from becoming rich and famous in just a few easy steps so he doesn't have to work anymore, is to show up at his college girlfriend’s wedding and be so awesome that he essentially ruins her day and also her happiness forever. And she deserves this because . . .
Polly Pawson was cheating on me. With the LSAT. That whole time she was secretly working on her law school applications. Those times when she told me she was taking a second nap—a second nap! Think of how I loved her!—she was working.
Peter Tarslaw is not a nice man.

But even though he’s immensely unlikable and makes you watch as he pokes fun at everything you hold dear—publishing houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald, book blogging, readers in general, my job in particular ("My friend Lucy told me to get a job like hers. She became an assistant at Ortolan Press in Manhattan. But I knew they’d find some twisted assignment like making me edit textbooks.")—you’re somehow still rooting for him. I mean, you don’t want him to ruin Polly’s wedding, but you want him not to self-destruct too magnificently.

And you kind of do want to see him beat those hoity-toity authors at their own game, just a little bit. Plus, it's really fun when high-profile authors get together and argue about who's more pretentious.

Thanks for sending me this book, Alice! I will treasure it always.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lowland: Shhh…the literary fiction is talking

Maybe this is A Thing with lit fic or Pulitzer Prizewinning authors or Jhumpa Lahiri (I haven’t read enough of any of these to say for sure), but The Lowland is QUIET AS HELL. From beginning to end, it’s saying all these huge things, but it never raises its voice above a whisper.

The story focuses on two brothers growing up in 1960s Calcutta, separated in age by only 15 months and inseparable in just about every other way. But while one is often mistaken for the other around the neighborhood, their personalities are starkly different, as I’ve heard sometimes happens with siblings.
Udayan was the one brave enough to ask [the actresses] for autographs. He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors. But Subhash strove to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass. (p. 16)
As the boys enter young adulthood, the civic-minded younger brother, Udayan, gradually becomes a passionate participant in the Naxalite rebellion, which I wasn’t super familiar with before and am only moderately familiar with now. As I understand it, the movement began as a noble battle against inequity and poverty but, with the catalyst of an iron-fisted, violent government backlash, exploded into an equally violent rebellion (I find myself wanting to compare the Naxalites to the Black Panthers, but that might just be because I was getting an American History X vibe from the dynamic between the brothers, and yes I know Derek Vinyard was a skinhead, which is basically the opposite of a Black Panther, but more importantly WHY did he have to be so attractive?).


Subhash, the older brother, chooses the quieter pursuits of academia, which lead him to a college in Rhode Island and add physical distance to the emotional distance already growing between him and Udayan.
You’re the other side of me, Subhash. It’s without you that I’m nothing. Don’t go.
It was the only time he’d admitted such a thing. He’d said it with love in his voice. With need.
But Subhash heard it as a command, one of so many he’d capitulated to all his life. Another exhortation to do as Udayan did, to follow him. (p. 47)
While Subhash is deep in his postgrad studies in Rhode Island, he receives word that something has happened to Udayan. He rushes back home to Calcutta and to his grieving family, which now includes Udayan’s young wife. The rest of the story can be filed under “Aftermath: Emotional and Otherwise.”

And now, at the risk of sending the collective literary community into a spasm, I want to mention that The Lowland kiiiind of reminded me of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

But that’s only because it includes a big setup that has elements of something your typical Nicholas Sparks novel might introduce early on and then spend the rest of its pages squeezing dry for maximum emotionally manipulative impact. After the initial setup, though, these two hypothetical paths in the scenic New England wood diverge to create the crucial distance between that $1 box in every bookstore and the Pulitzer Prize winners’ list.

Such wisdom in one so young

To illustrate my point while endeavoring to sidestep spoilers, when Subhash returns to Calcutta and meets his brother’s wife for the first time and she is quietly attractive and intelligent, yet chronically misunderstood, you might smugly think to yourself, “Yup . . . I see just where you’re going with this, because I’ve ingested the Nicholas Sparksflavored Kool-Aid.” Well, Lahiri will tell you just what she thinks of your preconceived notions, and you will be upset initially, but then you'll thank her for valuing you enough to be honest.

Then you’ll hug.

Just shut up and hold me, Lahiri.