Sunday, March 26, 2017

"This is what stories are, experience retold by many tongues . . ." UPDATED

"just as the inhabitants of the city were discovering the true meaning of being without shelter, even though they had always believed themselves to be experts in shelterlessness, because the city they hated and loved had always been bad at providing its inhabitants with protection against the storms of life, and had inculcated in its citizens a certain fierce loving-hating pride at their own habits of survival in spite of everything, in spite of the not-enough-money issue and the not-enough-space issue and the dog-eat-dog issue and so on;"
"protections against the storms of life" caught my attention.  We know about homelessness, because we see tired people sleeping on sidewalks, wandering around with their belongings on their backs or in shopping carts, and, in places like Anchorage, in encampments in the woods along the bike trails.

This passage made me think of people suffering all the other storms of life, the -lessnesses that are less visible.

People walking around loveless, parentless, happyless, hopeless, balanceless, imaginationless, playfulless, friendless, purposeless, skillless, clueless, artless, peaceless, sleepless, respectless, thoughtless  . . . you can fill in your own -less conditions.

They work with us, they live next door, they are doctors, police officers, cashiers, lawyers, politicians, thieves.

These people often can't be identified by their clothing, their income, their vehicle, their education, their tattoos, their dialects.  Some of these -lesses are more detectable than others, but basically these are often invisible burdens.  When we do see symptoms, we often treat them as personal failings.

And though I've used 'they' we are all missing something in our lives.  We're lucky if our gaps don't prevent us from a bit of peace and joy as we navigate life where we happen to live.  And if we are able to accept our gaps and compensate with our other qualities.  And if we can be tolerant of and helpful to those whose gaps seriously compromise their pursuit of happiness.

It's too nice outside to stay in and take this further, but it was a thought I wanted to note before I forgot it.

The quote at the top is from pp. 169 -170 in Salman Rushdie's Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights, which is my book club's topic Monday night.  Rushdie is an imaginative and beautiful writer, but this one doesn't quite work for me.  It feels like there were things he wanted to say - about the state of the world, about wisdom's he's learned over his life - and then constructed a story in which to wrap those ideas.    A thought that comes to mind here - I say it that way because this is again an idea that needs more follow up - is that a good novel starts with the story and the 'lessons' are inherent in the story.  Rushdie spends way too much time constructing this alternative world and explaining all the details needed to demonstrate its plausibility.  And too often I can see the tape here or the nails there holding things together.

For all the stagecraft needed to create the illusions of a parallel world of jinns and the references to the thousand and one nights of lore (the title being another way of counting to a thousand and one), the basic conflict is between reason and emotion;  the main character - the most powerful jinn - has daddy issues.  It just seems like a lot of work for the author and for the reader to go over such familiar themes.  And because the themes are so important to the author and insuring the story doesn't have any loose strings, this reader couldn't just enjoy the adventure story.

That said, there are important insights sprinkled throughout the book and lots of interesting use of English (with a little Hindi mixed in.)   For instance, the post title comes from this sentence:
"This is what stories are, experience told by many tongues to which, sometimes, we give a single name, Homer, Valmiki, Vyasa, Scheherazade.  We, for our own part, simply call ourselves 'we.'  'We' are the creature that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is."  [emphasis added]
And that is probably why Rushdie wrote this.

The quote at the top describes a time when one of the dark jinns as part of his effort to mess up human life, has detached people from gravity and they start floating off into space.

And perhaps if I were more than 2/3 of the way through the book and then read it a second or third time, I might appreciate its intricacy more.  But time and life interfere with each other.  I reserve the right to amend this post if the final pages change my perception.  And then I'll read what others have said about the book

UPDATE - Monday March 27, 2017:

In other great science fiction or fantasy, authors create whole new worlds that are rich in themselves and the audience suspends disbelief where necessary, knowing this is an imaginary world and enjoying the escape into this alternative reality.  The wisdom the authors embed in these other worlds are of those worlds and the readers can find find their own lessons for their own present world.   In Two Years . . .  Rushdie narrates from a distant earthly future about 'our ancestors' who live in the 21st century world.   The fantasy world he's created, borrowing from Persian, Arab, and Indian mythology is our world. Much of it takes place in New York City.  The lessons the readers are supposed to absorb are, at best, barely masked in jinneology.  But there are times when there isn't even a mask, such as this passage on page 240:

[A bit of prep:  'jinn parasites' are lesser jinns that must possess human (or other animal bodies) to do their destruction, thus the 'insider attack' pun]
"In the sealed containers in our restricted rooms we have preserved disturbing images of cannibal jinn parasites eating people's faces in Miami, Florida;  and executioner jinn parasites stoning women to death in desert places;  and suicide bomber jinn parasites allowing their host bodies to explode on army bases and then immediately possessing the nearest soldier and murdering more of his fellows in what is called an insider attack, which it was, but not in the conventional sense of the term;  and crazed paramilitary jinn parasites in charge of tanks in eastern Europe, shooting passenger aircraft out of the sky - but let these few images suffice."
For me, this is rubbing it in the reader's face, assuming the reader hasn't already caught the points he's making.  But then, maybe he's making a point I'm missing altogether.

Turns out the NYTimes reviewer, Marcel Theroux, had a similar take on the book to mine.  Ursula Le Guin, who reviewed it for The Guardian, thought it worked better than I did, but had problems with the conclusion.  

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