Archive for the ‘books/art’ Category

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was magic in the air?

October 18, 2005

David Mitchell’s number9dream was unputdownable: the first book that I didn’t have to struggle through in a long time (I had to endure the slow first pages of The Plot Against America before it became wonderful). From start to end, Mitchell creates a beautifully textured piece whose plot is nailmasticatingly exciting (plot! what an overused word! and exciting! how dare plots be exciting, now that we are in the world of modern literature, where nothing is supposed to happen, ever!) and whose quality of language is amazing.

number9dream is about the quest of a young Japanese man’s quest to find his father. Twenty year-old Eiji Miyake was abandoned on an outlying Japanese island, with his twin sister Anju, by their unstable alcoholic mother, who begot them in an affair with a married man. In the background of the quest is Tokyo, megapolis and megalomaniacal capital of Japan, whose streets pulse with their own life. Along the way he manages to fall in love, meet the world’s best hacker, get caught in yakuza gang-battle.

All the while Mitchell impresses with his linguistic pyrotechnics. Morphing nouns into verbs (‘I cockroach back to my seat’) and stringing together sentences of terrific vitality and imagination, Mitchell paints a sordid and beautiful picture of Tokyo, gargantuan and soulless (‘there are no distances and everything is above your head’), and creates a narrative voice that is at once distinctly Japanese and wholly believable.

And while the action of the novel may seem too farfetched for most, and the coincidences too startling, even for fiction (for example, the numerology involving 9), Mitchell issues a challenge to the reader (à la Brecht’s distancing effect) to consider that life may in fact be a confluence of coincidences. Or perhaps not: perhaps we make the coincidences up; we give life meaning. But just like Eiji’s meaning of life up to this point – to search for his father – ends in bathos (the dad turns out to be a womanising, cursing, anti-paternal figure) and his grand-uncle’s meaning of life – to search and destroy the Americans in his kaiten missile, a sort of underwater version of the kamikaze pilots – ends tragically in death by suffocation (the TNT detonator fails, and the whole affair ends not with a bang but with a whimper), Mitchell points rather nihilistically to the fact that what we seek, what we pursue, what we define ourselves by rarely turns out to be just exactly what we expect it to be – ‘I feel sad that I found what I searched for, but no longer want what I found’ says Eiji, towards the close of the novel after having found his father. In this sense the book conforms to the stock notion of the quest-novel: the quested is revealed to be less important than the quest itself. It is fitting, therefore, that Eiji loses a father (or his idea of it) but gains a mother (or a strange approximation, as their meeting at the end reveals the mother-son relationship to be strained and more of a friend-friend relationship) and perhaps a wife (in the form of Ai, who has the most perfect neck in the whole of creation, and who is somewhat unsubtly named after the Japanese word for love). His closure to the past leads on into the future.

Interesting also is Mitchell’s portrayal of modern Japan. Tokyo’s inhabitants are ‘drones’, bureaucratic to the nth degree. Tokyo’s youth are videogaming fanatics who exist in their virtual reality. ‘These are days,’ says Eiji, ‘when computers humanise and humans computerise.’ The thunder-god of rural Yakushima has faded from the minds of the Tokyoites, and is fast fading away from the minds of the islanders. Against this postmodern age of disbelief and soullessness, Eiji and Ai try to imbue meaning into their lives and find something to cling to. Says Ai, who is of exceptional wisdom (and humour), ‘Maybe the truest difference between people is exactly this: how they see why they are here.’ And that is why, despite Eiji’s bastard origin and chainsmoking and his at times impossibly wet comportment (just say you like her already!), and his grand-uncle’s misled belief in sacrificing himself for the emperor’s victory in World War II, they are still far more sympathetically portrayed than his father, who’s goal in life is to make millions and have sex with as many women as he can afford.

The novel has its failings of course, especially when Mitchell becomes too preachy. ‘Why,’ Mrs Comb (the talking hen [yes, talking hen] from the story within the story) wonders, ‘did humans despise what was beautiful and good? Why did they destroy the things they needed the most?’ Or, of course, when his prose becomes too futuristic and acquires a gimmicky tone: when rings become ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing’ or ‘ringinginginginging’, when strange symbols are used to denote swear words, when the font changes to show that an email has been sent, when bang! is used as punctuation during the video game sequence, when the number nine becomes irritatingly repetitive and annoying. Or the endless red-herrings thrown about in the course of the novel – Mitchell becomes almost as annoying as the biker-pizzaboy-aspiring magician Doi, who keeps tricking Eiji with his party pranks, cutting off this thumb, poking out his eyeball, tomato juice as blood, coffee-creamer as eyeball goo.

Mitchell’s prose is good enough not to have to rely on this tricksiness to keep us amused. number9dream is a wonderful read, crafted wtih superb imagination. Like Tokyo itself, the book is a sensory overload which begs to be enjoyed.

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the plot thickens

September 6, 2005

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a mind-bogglingly chewy work in historical fiction. Allohistory has never been a particularly useful form of historical thought, but Plot is more than just a peculiar historical experiment. It is a powerful piece of writing, and is testament to the immense good that democracy was in the world of yesterday, and in the world of today.

The Roths are a family of Jews living in Newark. They are subjected to waves of insidious social engineering redolent of the pogroms (and on an unrelated note, the ‘mixing’ policy undertaken by Singapore’s HDB), even as Charles Lindbergh (well-known aviator and infamous for his Nazi inclinations) takes control of America and surely heads it towards the far right.

The most impressive aspect of the book is, as in all of Roth’s books, that the politcal never overtakes the personal, and tension is created and marvelously sustained through the delicate intersection of the public and the private. The book may be about how America might have been taken over by Fascists (and read, rightly, as an indictment of anti-democratic means and ends) and might have succumbed to the myth of the ubermensch (and seen, rightly, as a warning against the personality cult tactics of certain regimes); it most certainly is about how a family is torn apart by external forces, how the fears of a certain young boy (the narrator, Philip Roth) – it is this which imbues the book with a fearsome immediacy. Read in this way, Plot remains relevant even today when the spectre of Nazism-Fascism looms so far in the distant past: and speaks much of what is happening in the United States at the moment, with so many opposing forces and interests threatening to force the country apart.

The convenient twist at the end of the book makes the historical line flimsy; this is a small quibble and in fact does not detract much from what the book says, or is trying to say. This is Roth at his very best, essence of Roth distilled: his humour and wit and perspicacity of all the previous books boiled down into four-hundred pages or so of gripping fiction. Roth has truly sealed his position as America’s foremost writer for this quite marvellous piece of work, which shows how politics can intrude on the simplicity of familial life, and which enthralls with the tale of how a boy who struggles to find his identity (and on a more basic note, to ensure his family’s and his own survival) can become, quite evidently, a hero of magnificent proportions, greater than any politician could ever be.

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the wait is over

July 17, 2005

The latest instalment of J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular childrens’ series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was released today. No doubt millions of readers around the world have already finished it, barely hours after its release. And with good reason. Half-Blood Prince, despite its rather silly sounding title, is the darkest and most intense of its siblings, and perhaps, the most beautiful.

As usual, Rowling is resplendent with turns, twists and her usual tricks. But we suspend our disbelief – after all, these are books for children, or so they say. In this suspension lies a thrill so incomparable to anything else: the imagination. And so we encounter love potions, concoctions that bring luck, flying cups, ghosts, vampires, centaurs, gigantesque spiders feeling affection for half-giant-half-human creatures, spells, broomsticks – reawakening the chidish joy in believing in things impossible.

Which makes the book, basically, a lot of fun. Rowling’s touch is this time more subtle, and the interplay of humour and irony more delicious. One gets the feeling that she is taking herself far less seriously this time around. The verbal and situational comedy that was sorely lacking in instalments 4 and 5 has returned, with a vivacious vengeance – ‘probity probes’ are stuck into places where they do not belong to ascertain the veracity of certain persons, Harry’s tongue is sharp and acidic, teenage (so adult, and yet so childish) yens are whimsically sketched, Luna Lovegood’s mad conspiracy theories continue in mad abundance (for example, the Aurors are trying to take down the establishment with ‘a combination of Dark magic and gum disease’).

Which is not to say that the book has lost its serious touch: far from that. In abandoning the top-heavy, faux adolescent-angsty tone that dominated Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, Rowling throws the dark aspects of the book into relief. It is when she adopts a ‘Harry is sixteen and therefore can have no fun because of all the hormones in his blood’ line of thought that the book becomes flat and unbelievably boring. For example, Rowling’s treatment of teenage crushes and puppy love is, at best, cringeworthy, and, at worst, retch-inducing. Adolescents turn various shades of pink, eat each others’ faces out in attempts to ‘snog’, get together, break up, cast longing glances and – get this – a creature in Harry’s chest, presumably his heart, threatens to jump out each time he catches a glimpse of the very pretty and very popular Ginny. Blah and blah and blah: Rowling isn’t breaking new ground with her inventive use of language, or with an accurate or moving portrayal of how crushing crushes can really be, so why all these bloody diversions?

I mean, these people are being hunted down by the bloody evillest, vilest, most powerful wizard of all time, and yet they find time to bloody snog each other in corridors and let their emotions get in the way of, say, survival – Harry doesn’t bother with Dumbledore’s instructions because he’s too darned busy sorting out the creature in his chest and the creatures in the chests of Ron and Hermione, who are trying to spite each other mutually by making out with and dating different people.

Which ruins an otherwise interesting story – the plot, as they say, thickens, as all becomes clear, and all becomes not-so-clear. Questions are solved – how did Voldemort attain immortality? what is his final game-plan? is Snape good or bad? Questions are yet to be solved – how will the final challenge between Harry and Voldemort turn out? who is this R.A.B. person? how will ‘love’ overcome all the powers of the Dark? why do we have to wait another bloody two years before we can read the next and final book in the series?

Of course, Rowling’s preachy ‘love will conquer all’ moral gets a bit irritating, but that does not detract from the general sinister quality of the entire book (the shadow of Voldemort is never far) and some deeper issues that are posed: for example, young Draco Malfoy actually becomes a Death Eater – and we finally get to pity him as he tries valiantly to redeem the family from incipient doom and certain shame. The genuine friendship between Dumbledore and Harry is touching, as is the final goodbye – if a bit rushed (as the ending was).

All in all a very good read: as I have mentioned, we should all be eagerly awaiting the last book. And hopefully Rowling will outdo herself, once again, and prove that she really is, saving the best for last.

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woe of the worlds

July 3, 2005

Steven Spielberg returns with the blockbuster War of the Worlds that stars big names like Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning.

Let’s try that again:

Steven ‘Subtlety of an Elephant’ Spielberg returns with the blockbuster War of the Worlds that stars big names like Tom ‘I am in love with Katie Holmes’ Cruise and Dakota ‘I’m such a cute child star’ Fanning.

Throw in a script involving aliens and pretty much you’re in very safe Spielberg territory. Which is not to say that the movie wasn’t, as a whole, enjoyable. I was chilled to the bone and scared pretty much shitless (a feat even for flatulent me – ok haha joking!). But as with Spielberg, the good ideas are never fully developed, and the endings seem far too convenient to give the movie a sense of closure. Issues are thrown up but not explored, loose ends are left flapping.

But along the way Spielberg manages to impress. With an astoundingly light touch towards the middle of the movie, he shows how so much fear and suspense can be created by what is not seen rather than what is seen – a Hitchcockian twist to the alien theme. And when Spielberg does bloody he really does bloody – no gore is spared, no bone left unburnt. The cold and alluring beauty of cityscapes are transformed into a steaming and compelling dystopian nightmare. The robots are fearsome, serpentine collosi which stalk and spurn the earth, vaporising humans and destroying buildings in their wake, spitting blood over the ruined land. Spielberg has an eye for excess, no-one else without his venomous visionary could even attempt Wells’s classic.

Tom Cruise gives a convincing performance as a dull divorced dad whose children hate him. The journey from New York, where the ex-wife has left the children with him, to Boston, where she has gone to visit her parents, becomes a sort of pilgrimage, a spirit-quest, a soul-searching, during which he may redeem himself and finally earn the love and trust of his children. Cruise is sultry-sulky as he plays the irresponsible cad who must rise to the occasion and become the responsible dad, and brings much to Spielberg’s production. This is not their first successful collaboration: Minority Report also starred a desperate Cruise on the run, to great effect.

Dakota Fanning is the perfect phobic clingey daughter, whose upbringing in the WASPish maternal side of the family immediately puts her at odds with her father. Imbuing her whines with extra whinge or her screams with extra shrill, Fanning proves herself to be one of the most talented young actresses of this age, and is becoming a starlet to watch.

Which makes the premise so very promising: this could be a very interesting family-parable, where a broken family works through its family history to become whole again. Or it could be a mad condemnation of ‘fighting-spirit’ type films where the hero triumphs by facing his enemy, no matter how madly stacked against him the odds are (as in, The Sands of Iwo Jima): a clever inversion, sometimes the bravest thing is to run. It could have turned out to be an indictment of the unilaterally powerful America. It could have been a statement against deprivation and desperation (the most powerful image, in my opinion, was everyone clamoring for the only functioning car remaining, that belonging to Cruise’s character). It could even be all of the aforementioned.

But not. The convenient biological ending reduces the movie to a sort of darwinist statement which vaporises the flesh from the film, leaving only a hollow dusty skeleton. I would have liked to see Spielberg tackle the tough issues, instead of relying on his typical aw-shucks feel-good formulas which he pulls out of his convenient bag-of-tricks. Can anyone say ‘Blue Fairy’? Does anyone remember the happy ending in Minority Report?

Which kind of makes the film a metaphor of itself. The journey from New York to Boston is so wonderful; the audience is at the edge of their seats just dying to know how they escape. Yet when they get to Boston the robots have gone out not with a bang but with a whimper. Just as the magical journey of the movie could have been so much more satisfying, but by eventually choosing to skirt around the important issues he has thrown up, Spielberg comes up with a movie whose course is properly exciting, but whose ending is, ultimately, soulless. A spectacle in every sense of the word.

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Batman Begins

June 27, 2005

Yes, Batman’s back with a suitably alliterative title. After 3 instalments that can at best be described as blah (dear god above, that anatomically correct suit, replete with abs and nipples!), finally we have a Batman that is decidedly decent. Director Christopher Nolan (of Memento) has created a Bruce Wayne whose humanity is striking and raw, and a Gotham whose decadent decrepitude is too close for comfort.

Christian Bale is wonderfully dark as the caped crusader. (He is also quite a tasty morsel, but that’s beside the point.) His portrayal of a fearful creature who must become the feared is beautifully believable. His need to excise his guilt provides an interesting counterpoint to the wider questions posited, those of justice, inequity, iniquity, revenge.

Wonderful also are the performances rendered by Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman. Caine is the impossibly stiff-upper-lip butler Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s closest confidante. His deadpan delivery hits the spot, and throws into relief the possibility of loyalty and friendship in a world torn apart by selfishness and self-interest. Liam Neeson is wholly credible as the evil Ras Al’Ghul: his wonderful sneakiness coming to a head at the end of the movie. Morgan Freeman, like Caine, deadpans his way through the movie and provides the necessary comic relief to punctuate and puncture the suffocating darkness of the movie.

Batman has always been the darkest of all the DC/Marvel comic superheroes. Without superpowers, he is merely human, and must needs rely on his cunning, his strength, himself, even as he contends against demons without and, more imortantly, confronts the demons within. Batman Begins has done well in illustrating this struggle of not only external evils but internal ills. And in this day and age of America looking outwards to guard against the unseen enemy, but not retreating inwards to solve the Gothamesque problems of poverty, crime and deprivation, it is time for us to take notice of what this movie implies.

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presenting Mimi

June 27, 2005

As we all know, I have been a secret Mariah fan for years now. So when The Emancipation of Mimi hit the stores, I was faced with an existentialist crisis. Should I support her despite her Glitter days in the gutter, or just not bother since, well, after that low point there wasn’t any point anymore. (Okay, fine. I lie. I don’t exactly think it was a low point, since Glitter had Through the Rain, which wasn’t all that bad, and Lead the Way, which was quite nice I think.)

So, I decided to be very clever-clever and download the album first to see if I liked it! Very perfect-information and all. Hail the internet.

Okay. It’s a great album. So I bought it in the end.

Now it’s great in the Mariah sense, i.e. it has nary a hint of irony and Mariah’s diva-madness shines through and through (and through the rain). A sample of lyrics include, from the first single released, It’s Like That: “I came to have a party/open up the Bacardi/feeling so hot tamale” and “it’s a special occasion/Mimi’s emancipation/a cause for celebration” and (this is the most indecipherable) “them chickens is ash and I’m lotion”. Very helpfully, she has included a dictionary definition of ’emancipation’ on the CD sleeve, which should be helpful to all those (such as, perhaps, herself) who did not originally know the meaning of the word. One up for Mariah spreading the joys of the vocabulary of the English language. By the way, Mimi isn’t, as one would expect, her kabbala name (e.g., Esther-Madonna), but her childhood name most intimate to her. So in effect, she’s making her comeback by showing us her most private side. Somewhat tautological.

Yet she is a reassuring presence on the album, whether judiciously unleashing her trademark airy scream, in typical vibrato, on Fly Like a Bird (yes, the track is unironically titled Fly Like a Bird. As opposed to flying like, say, an aeroplane, or a bat), or lending her vocals to the chill-esque Stay the Night featuring Jermaine Dupri. Mariah’s lungs-of-adamantium are at work once again, but this time she’s got back into the flow by realising that while balladesque un-un-unironic pieces lauding one’s own strength, beauty and courage may have done well in the past, they ain’t going to work now. Consequently she has given us an album full of cool collaborations, slick as it is polished. She hasn’t lost her skills though: as mentioned, her trademark airy scream is still there, as is her quite amazing range (the transposition on We Belong Together is considered conservative), and her neverending lung capacity: thank god for Mariah! Who beats those other teenyboppers hands down. Kelly “Gasp-at-every-opportunity-to-take-a-breath” Clarkson, Diana “Hurricane” DeGarmo, etc etc etc, eat your hearts out.

So yes. Emancipation has received rave reviews all the world over, and for good reason: Glitter was a gutter that no-one, save Mariah, could get herself out of.

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i want it too

June 12, 2005

Rufus Wainwright’s marvellous new album (ok, not so new, but then again I’ve been in NS) Want Two begins with a scratchy sort-of-sound (almost a sound, but not quite?): like someone trying to coax a tune from a violin, or some other stringed instrument, but not succeeding. It begins in frailty, in dissonance, in near-silence. Wainwright interjects with a supplication, it appears that the first track on the album is a gently operatic Agnus Dei, a prayer for peace and repose (which reminds me slightly of Faure’s [with the accent aigu over the ‘e’ of course] Requiem). Full of delicate irony, yet disturbingly human in its cry, the track sets the tone for the entire album, which is quite a startling change from Want One. I don’t think that Two can be strictly considered a continuation of One: although of course it is evident that both have the Wainwright touch.

What impresses about Two, aside from the lovelily (is there such a word? a lovely word, like a love-lily. or something) contrived tunes, is Wainwright’s amazing perspicacity. This is what sets him apart from random other pop/rock/folk/etc singers-songwriters out there: his ability to come up with bits and pieces which are so perceptive and meaningful, bordering on poetic.

In the track The Art Teacher, for example, recorded live and with a raw edginess (one hears Wainwright gasping for breath, the flourishes of the piano), Wainwright imagines himself as a not-quite-grown-up frau dreaming of her first girly crush. Now married to an ‘executive company head’ and actually in possession of the artwork which her first crush, the art teacher, so adored, she, in her ‘uniformish pantsuit sort of thing’ cannot stop thinking of the art teacher, and will never ‘love any other man’. This is Wainwright at his best: comic and tragic, illuminating humanity in all its ennui. Wonderful.

Amongst the gems of the album is the marvelously funny Gay Messiah, an obvious ironic allusion to the previous Agnus Dei, but with a twist: this gay messiah ‘will be reborn/from 1970s porn/wearing tubesocks with style/and such an innocent smile’. Downright dirty and salaciously hilarious, this balladish track, with its soulful tunes and incongruously flippant rhymes, is memorably amusing and, according to Wainwright, has become some sort of a gay anthem already.

Memphis Skyline strikes me as the album’s most beautiful piece: here Wainwright sings of lost love (who doesn’t?), but the hallucinogenic quality of the Memphis sky and the lover in the ‘gaslight of the morning’ sets this apart from many other modern ballads. The simple strains of the piano give way to a delicate movement reminiscent of Saint-Saen’s Swan from The Carnival of the Animals, brilliantly setting off the morose quality of Wainwright’s voice.

Want Two is an intelligent, insightful and thoroughly enjoyable album. Wainwright is never afraid to transcend the boring verse-verse-chorus-verse-verse-chorus-type structure that is so pervasive in today’s pop/rock. Contrasting his very serious/unserious lyrics with unserious/serious tunes, never hesitating to interject with an operatic movement here, a sonata there, a little folk, a little country, he shows how music today can still be wonderfully inventive and exciting without abandoning tradition completely. Support Rufus: don’t download the album, buy it.