The Mag This Week

Reviews of Pao: The Anthology of Comics Vol 1 by Joanna Lobo and my review of Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died A Lot. The latter is the latest adventure in the life of the literary detective, Thursday Next. I’d hoped to put this review next to a review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth since both books are about spies who go about doing literary things. But then the Booker shortlist came out and I had to shuffle things around a little.
There’s also an interview with Jeet Thayil, which is mandatory this week if you’re an Indian publication. If it wasn’t for the fact that he’s actually been shortlisted for the Booker, I suspect some of us would find it in ourselves to feel sorry for how many same-sounding questions Thayil’s had to answer. I’m among those journalists who are extremely grateful that Thayil made an effort to make his answers sound different.

The text of the interview and my book review are given below (in that order).

Interview with Jeet Thayil

He’s been described as a poet, a musician and a performer. Now, he’s also a novelist who has the distinction of his debut novel, Narcopolis being included in the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker prize. Thayil describes himself as a writer, “because that’s what I do on a daily basis.” Years ago, Thayil had written mockingly about his own work in a poem titled “Malayalam Ghazal”: “Jeet, such drama with the scraps you know.” The “scraps” in case of Narcopolis are the tales and lives of junkies who gathered at Rashid’s opium den in Mumbai’s Shuklaji Street back in the days when the city was Bombay. It’s a dark world, infested with slippery menace, shifting shadows and long sentences.

Was it a challenge to write Narcopolis? Did your experience of writing poetry help?
It helps because writing poetry is about reticence and compression. It makes you examine every thing you put into a sentence and it makes you take things out.

For me, Narcopolis seemed to be a poet’s novel because the storytelling lingers more on the telling than the tale. Would you talk a little about your use of language and plotting the novel?
I don’t know if I agree that it’s a poet’s novel. For one thing, it does not dismiss conventional logic and chronology. It takes the logical and chronological on, but in an original way, or so I hope. And there is certainly a storyline in Narcopolis, though the line digresses in the manner of a nineteenth century Russian novel. In that way it is absolutely conventional. It’s only unconventional when you think of it in a purely Indian context. It is a novel that makes sense in terms of structure only when you get well into Book Three. It is a challenging book: it expects the reader to put in some work. Which, in today’s context, is a risky thing to do, but there you have it.

You’ve said in past interviews that there are parts of Narcopolis that are based on reality. Do you think knowing there’s a plinth of reality helps to appreciate the novel?
It absolutely does. Even a dream sequence should stand on the reality plinth, otherwise it’s just language, and I don’t think you can sustain a book of 300 pages on just language.

Did you have a reader in mind while writing the novel?
If I have an ideal reader in mind, it’s a reader like myself. I’ve been a reader my whole life and I’m not interested in the easy read, unless I’m on a plane, in which case all I’m interested in is thrillers. I like language with some meat, I like vivid atmosphere and characters, and I want to be able to discover something new when I read a novel again.

Is it satisfying to see Narcopolis getting this kind of appreciation?
Considering the initial, uncomprehending Indian reviews, yes it certainly is.

Are you writing another novel?
I’m almost done. Working title: The Book Of Chocolate Saints.

Book review: The Woman Who Died A Lot

Well before Ian McEwan came up with MI5 operative Serena Frome and entangled her in a bundle of stories, Jasper Fforde had created a parallel world, the star of which was the literary detective, Thursday Next. She was a literary detective whose job involved preserving law and order in the world of literature, or Bookworld. While some may argue that it really isn’t fair to compare detective work in literary fiction with the dramatic possibilities of the comic fantasy genre, we must confess that, fond as we are of McEwan, our hearts and bookmarks belong to Thursday Next.

Thursday was introduced to readers in The Eyre Affair, which tells you the real reason there was a fire at Mr Rochester’s home in Jane Eyre. Over the next five novels, Thursday had rollicking adventures in Bookworld, sorting out plots and saving the world within and outside books.

If you haven’t read any Fforde before, rejoice because a whole new world of puns, wordplay and comic genius awaits you. If you have read Fforde before, then you’ll be happy to know that The Woman Who Died A Lotshows Fforde is as cuckoo as ever. Also, he seems to have had his fill of Bookworld. This time, he’s anchored the story firmly in Swindon and dropped hints about a new realm called DRM, or Dark Reading Matter, which is also the title of the next Thursday Next novel.

For now, though, to Swindon we go, where Thursday lives with her family. Since her last adventure left Thursday with a walking stick and many aches, Thursday has a new job: she’s a librarian. This means her deputies include a woman who dresses in library camouflage gear (pants and a jacket with bookshelves printed on them) and a man who, as a result of bomb blast, has paragraphs from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel permanently inked on his face (“at least it gave him something to read while shaving”). However, there’s more than unreturned books and library fines upsetting Thursday’s routine.

The evil Goliath Corporation wants Thursday dead and has sent an army of highly-intelligent android killers after her. Thursday’s son has got a letter in the mail informing him he’s going to kill someone in a couple of days. God has said he’s going to send a pillar of cleansing fire in order to make an example of his divine awesomeness and, despite the damage this will cause in Swindon, He is not open to negotiation. (Ultimately, it falls upon Thursday to solve the smiting problem as well.) As if all this wasn’t enough, Britain is facing a crisis: “The nation’s stupidity — usually discharged on a harmless drip feed of minor bungling — had now risen far beyond the capacity of the nation to dispose of it in a safe and sensible fashion.”

In a nutshell: there’s not a boring moment in The Woman Who Died A Lot.

This, however, doesn’t mean the novel is a breezy read, particularly if you are not familiar with Fforde’s version of the world. Even if you’re armed with the background, The Woman Who Died A Lot can be confusing at times, especially since most of the characters are themselves confused by the events. Three parallel plots run through the novel and it’s a wonder Fforde’s mind wasn’t scrambled. Clones, memory stealers, dodos, neanderthals, illegal drugs — they’re all here in Fforde’s Swindon. Take your time and don’t be shy of going back a few pages to figure out what the hell is going on. Because for all its bizarre antics, this Swindon is a wonderful place and Thursdays is a delight.

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