Tag Archives: suicide

Book Review: Everything You Know by Zoe Heller

Title: Everything You Know
Author: Zoe Heller
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1-250-00374-4
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 203
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

There is always a good time to take you out of the reader’s block situation and for me that book in the recent past was “Everything you Know” by Zoe Heller. I remember the one and only book I had read by her earlier – Notes on a Scandal, which I was enthralled by. The writing style, the setting and the plot of the book was beyond great.

Zoe Heller’s book, “Everything you Know” is actually the first one written by her and I was not surprised by the beauty of the language at all. It just gave me an idea of the lucidity that came through in Notes on a Scandal. Everything you Know is about Willy Muller and his life. Willy Muller is an unusual character, someone who you might meet and stop and think about. He could be distasteful and yet he is just like you and I in most ways.

Willy Muller is recuperating from a heart attack in Mexico, and trying very hard to write a script of a celebrity’s memoirs – the writer’s block emerges and he cannot write. His girlfriend Penny, one of the plastically enhanced women and not too bright, is with him. One fine day he receives a call from his sister in England, informing him that their mother is dead. He rushes to England and the ghosts of the past haunt him all over again. Willy had to leave England with a bad reputation of being indicted for killing his wife in a domestic fight. He appeals and is set free. His daughters think he was responsible for their mother’s death. The second daughter commits suicide and leaves a diary. But of course Willy reads it and his life begins to unravel – one piece at a time. His answers and his questions merge and he wonders more, seeking answers, finding a way to live.

It is not easy to write a novel of this kind and accommodate everything in less than 300 pages. The writing is in your face and doesn’t let up for a single bit. Knowing the plot, it is depressive at times, but a fantastic read. Zoe Heller uses her craft very intelligently – without giving away too much and making readers think for themselves.

This is just one example of her superlative writing: “If I am a shit, I used to tell myself defiantly in those days, so be it.”

Zoe Heller has a linear style of writing. The jumping of past to present and back is sometimes overwhelming but works for the plot in most ways. The dialogues are perfectly tuned to the plot, the supporting characters play their part when needed fantastically and the plot is something else – from madness to crime to getting a grip on reality. Everything You Know is a great read that tells a lot about the human condition and the answers we seek, when sometimes they are right there in front of us.

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Book Review: Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

Title: Damned
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House UK
ISBN: 978-0224091152
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256 pages
Price: £12.99
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always loved Chuck Palahniuk’s books. Yes they are dysfunctional and yes sometimes they can only get weird, however most of the time, there are lines in his books that take my breath away and only make me realize that what he says is most often just a reflection of the times we live in – Drastic, On-the-Edge, Ever-Changing and most of all Confused. A world that doesn’t know what it is all about and why is it here in the first place.

Chuck Palahniuk’s characters are weak. They know they are weak and most of the time they only want a better life – much like Richard Yates’s characters. Be it the Messiah in Survivor (or so he thinks of himself to be) or be it the Trans-gendered beauty queen of Invisible Monsters – they are running away to find themselves. For all these reasons and more, Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favourite writers. So I was very pleased to have received a copy of “Damned” for early review. The book will be out only in October 2011.

Damned is said to be a Young Adult book, however it isn’t like that at all. It is a book for adults, which I am sure adults will take to very easily, since the language is not complicated like his recent books.

Damned begins with Madison Spencer, a chunky silver-tongued thirteen-year-old who is the daughter of a way-into-herself film actress and billionaire daddy. After a marijuana over-dose (why I am not surprised?), she wakes up in the wrong side of the afterlife within the confines a scummy jail cell in Hell. She compares this experience to The Breakfast Club, a sort of permanent detention in which you’re stuck with people who are nothing like you in a place you don’t want to be. Madison, of course, plays the basket case a la Ally Sheedy while others fill the role of The Jock, The Nerd, The Cheerleader, and The Burn Out. And true to Breakfast Club form, a particular amount of emphasis is put on the question “Why are you here?”

It’s when these five characters start their tour of Hell and learning the ropes that Damned becomes a real joyride. Palahniuk truly has no rules to play by in this one, so rather than the reader having to suspend their disbelief in regards to the porn industry or special agent foreign exchange students—his version of Hell, and all the sights and sounds he provides us—they’ll hit just as hard as his infamous Guts short story while taking regular cracks at your funny bone with its satire.

The ebb of flow of Damned follows the group tour of Hell while going back to Madison’s time on earth, examining her home life and the circumstances leading up to her untimely demise. We’ve seen this move before: Chuck giving you past and present events in a steady rotation, and the move still works.

Damned has a sense of urgency about it, almost forcing the reader to tear through it in order to get that next titbit of Madison’s back-story or another Hell-related factoid, i.e. – the role of demons and which celebrities reside in the flaming deep. I easily tore through this one within the day.

The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe

Fractal designs, such as used to be popular twenty years ago, have the property that any part of them replicates the whole in miniature. If you zoom in on even the tiniest detail, you can reach an understanding of the entire shape. This analogy occurs to me after reading THE CHANGELING by Kenzaburo Oe, a late work by the Japanese Nobel Laureate, and so far the only thing by him that I have read. Where most novels have a linear narrative behind them, this one reads as a series of one-sided conversations, thoughts about literature and other arts, buried memories, and some bizarre incidents — all generally minor in themselves, but each seemingly endowed with immense hidden significance, each a clue to some overall design that only gradually emerges as the various details replicate and mirror one another.

Despite its abstract content, the book is easy to read and its framework simple. Kogito Choko, a celebrated writer, is listening to some tapes sent him by his brother-in-law Goro Hanawa, once his childhood friend and now a famous film director. At the end of one of the cassettes, Goro remarks “So anyway, that’s it for today — I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Immediately after, Goro throws himself out of the window of his high building. Kogito (an obsessive thinker, aptly named by his father from the phrase “cogito ergo sum”) engages in months of conversation with the dead Goro, playing snatches of the tapes, stopping them for his own response, and then continuing to hear his friend’s answer. When his wife suggests he needs to get away, he accepts a guest professorship in Berlin, where Goro had himself lived a few years back.

As an example of Oe’s method, take the chapter in which Kogito is being interviewed on television in connection with the Berlin Film Festival. There is a long section about how he gets to the interview, or almost doesn’t get to it: crossed wires with the person picking him up, confusion at the hotel where this is taking place, description of the technicians setting up the equipment in the hotel ballroom, the physical arrangement of the chairs, backdrop, camera, monitors, all in obsessive detail. And then, without further preamble, Kogito is shown a number of film clips on the monitor: samurai fighting off a peasant army, and a modern game of rugby football. He recognizes it as scenes from a book he had written, entitled RUGBY MATCH 1860. In the novel, he had used the battle and the game as metaphors, but he intrigued by the decision of these filmmakers to film them literally, with an acute feeling for the Japanese atmosphere. He is told that what he has just seen is the only footage from the project so far shot, but the young filmmakers have run out of money; would he be willing to concede them the rights for free? Kogito’s translator warns him that he is being ambushed, but he agrees, and the chapter ends.

The core of this chapter, I believe, lies in one of its smallest details, the samurai film clip. Certain aspects of it reflect other images we encounter involving Kogito’s father, who appears to have been something of a philosophical leader of an ultra-right-wing movement opposing the Japanese surrender to the US. Kogito’s own politics, on the other hand, are liberal, so perhaps he is the Changeling of the title? (Or one of them, along with Goro.) One begins to see that the whole novel is about change. In the background, there is the reconstruction of Japanese society after defeat. But this is worked out in terms of ideas — translation between languages, translation of one medium into another (writing into film or opera), and perhaps (as the example above would suggest) the handing over of ideas from one generation to another.

The fractal metaphor works on the personal level as well. From what I can gather, this novel reflects themes from every other book that Oe has written, and these in turn reflect the author’s life. His brother-in-law was indeed a famous film director, Juzo Itami, who committed suicide in a similar way. Like the fictional Kogito, Kenzaburo Oe has a son who was born brain-damaged, barely able to communicate in words, but who eventually found success as a composer. All Oe’s novels contain such a character, and the writer has spoken of his aim to give his son a voice denied to him in life. While the composer-son plays a relatively small role here, Oe shifts the relationship back a generation, as Kogito tries to understand the legacy of his own father and the huge changes between the Japan of his time and that of the present. The themes of rebirth and the passing of the torch between generations become clear only at the very end, but after so much mind-play they bring a lovely touch of simple human emotion.

Changeling, The; Oe, Kenzaburo; Atlantic Books; Penguin Group; Rs. 999