Category Archives: Book

Questions, Questions

From far away enough, it can pass for a happy book. There is a sparkly fish on the cover. Tattooed on its body are blossoms and waves and variations of fleur-de-lis. But then our eyes stray to the bottom, past a curlicued tailfin, and recognize a most ominous title: Legend of a Suicide. And suddenly, on closer inspection, the fish does not seem happy at all. Angled toward its center are eight pistols, shining a brilliant red, hidden among petals—death where we least expect it.

“Nothing quite like this book has been written before,” a blurb promises. So we dive into it, expectant and curious, miring ourselves deeper into mystery with each section. And afterwards we wonder, What was that? How many deaths are in this book, how many tragedies? Is it six different stories, or are they all part of a larger work? The answer, as always, is on the internet. Officially, Legend of a Suicide is a collection of stories. It has however been packaged to look like a novel for the British market. This sparks an interesting realization: that the ultimate difference between a collection and a novel rests on the thinnest of lines—a mere avoidance of labels, a sequence of numbers atop titles.

Alexander Linklater from the Observer asserts that the shift “damages Vann’s endeavor, which is to change, from one story to the next, not just perspectives, but events themselves.” Certainly that is what Vann does, but—unintended as it may be—I do not think the novel format is “damaging” to the book. Misleading, yes, but it also allows for a reading that more persistently searches for a continuous thread among the chapters. It is, after all, despite myriad inconsistencies, one story, one legend, one pain, one family.

Still, inevitable questions arise. What really happened? Who? When? Where? And the most painful, Why? Here is where form intersects with substance. The confusion we feel upon finishing the book approximates the bewilderment one feels after death, after a suicide. We can never make sense of it no matter how much we try. Loss can never be pieced together; it will always remain a profound mystery. Why? We don’t know, we don’t know.

The book’s structure also toys with ideas of culpability. Because we aren’t sure what happened, we don’t know where to assign blame. Who did what to whom? Jim, Roy, Rhoda, Elizabeth. Our characters revolve around each other, drawn together by the force of their relationships. Jim obviously bears the utmost culpability. One doubts if anyone could have saved the man. But in “Sukkwan Island,” Roy feels responsible for his increasingly remote father. Initially he had no interest in staying on the island but “in fact there was no choice at all.” He could not simply give up his father.

But was it too late already by then? When did it all go downhill for Jim? There is a scene in the same story where father and son try to figure out exactly when “it went to hell” for Jim. They end up with no answer. In the same way, after a tragedy on this scale, it becomes difficult to draw the lines, to connect events and trace a trajectory. When was intervention still possible? At which point could anyone have halted the downward spiral?

In a way this uncertainty can be liberating, because it frees one from the burden of regret, but viewed in another way, it also expands the possibilities for remorse. Instead of mulling over a specific turning point, one regrets a thousand unsaid words, a hundred wrong decisions. In “Ketchikan” and “The Higher Blue” we see Roy still struggling, decades later, to reconcile himself with Jim’s suicide. Is it possible to stop going over and over one’s memories? Is it possible to stop asking Why?

In an interview with the New Yorker, David Vann says that writing the book helped him put his own father’s ghost to rest. Being curious creatures, we cannot help but wonder, How much of this is true? Yes, Vann’s father killed himself, but what about all the other details? The zabaglione? The iridescent shark? Pondering these petty questions, we come to realize the irrelevance of facts in the face of tragedy. Vann calls his stories “legends,” and the book itself is called Legend of a Suicide. What does the word call to mind? Myth, lore, hearsay, rumor—not factual but true in some fundamentally human way. And that is what this book is, in the final account. Not a straightforward tale, but a brave, poignant, wondrous mess.

If Vann had written this as a regular novel or memoir, we would not have these questions to grapple with, these insights to gain. Without legend as the central metaphor, the narrative would never have taken off the way it has. The more we read, the more we realize how crucial form is to the story. Even the simple exclusion of speech marks (fashionable nowadays) makes a related point: Who said what? How reliable is memory?

As a writer I am interested in the inseparability of form and content, and this book shows just that. There are just some stories that can only be told in a particular way. Sometimes that means taking big risks. Sometimes that means having to defend your artistic choices. Sometimes that means forgoing certain readers. But if, after weighing all this, you decide to forge ahead anyway—not courting acclaim, not worried about failure—then that’s how you know you’ve got something worth it.

I knew where he was headed, as we all did, but I didn’t know why. And I didn’t want to know.

That Dirty Word

Even on tongues used to scatological and libidinous exclamations, the word politics still leaves a particular acrid taste. A few others claim the same distinction, but hardly any other word remains as persistent and indispensable. In conversation, politics provokes a mostly limited range of sentiments—anger, frustration, suspicion, apathy. In art, reactions waver between two extremes: respect or ridicule. Underlying ideologies either catapult the work into prominence or push it down to the level of propaganda. In any case, with controversy all around, irrelevance is seldom an option.

Ambitious and polemical, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty teeters on the thin lines: terrorism, torture, risk, revenge, war. The film packs the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into 160 gripping minutes, rendered taut by an impressive interplay of information and suspense. Jessica Chastain holds her character well as Maya, the CIA officer whose relentless pursuit of the case leads to the assassination. Her tight portrayal suits the film’s minimalist aesthetic, which it sustains from start to finish despite recurrent gunfire and explosions.

Zero Dark Thirty possesses many admirable qualities, but the one that stands out most is audacity. Its depiction of the ugly side of America has critics shouting from various corners, complaining about its alleged misinterpretation of “fact” and its supposed pro-torture stance. The movie claims to unveil “the greatest manhunt in history,” but the victory it shows is ugly indeed, one borne out of physical and psychological torture, involving innocent casualties and traumatized children. It is a difficult film to watch, dark and heavy and emotionally exhausting. But as we all likely suspect, the truth can get darker than this.

Mark Boal’s script contains many ironic statements, but the one I remember most is “You don’t know Pakistan!”—a charge that Maya lays on her boss. It’s an accusation that rings true on many levels. What do we know about the Middle East? About its people and their struggles, the circumstances that push ordinary men to become “radicals”? What do Americans?

Zero Dark Thirty makes only a passing comment on this issue, but Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist mines it more deeply. As literature, the thin narrative does not hold up to much: it attempts to mask a clear objective, with barely-there characters and a linear trajectory. But its value lies in its capacity to make us think, to make us look over to the other side. Here is main character Changez judging America post-9/11:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

No doubt all terrorist attacks are tragedies. But if we ever hope to untangle these threads of hate, it is not enough to simply see the attacks as catastrophes to which we must assign blame, but as indicators of a larger problem. It is not enough to understand how without understanding why—George Orwell’s words, from his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

First published in 1949, the book also abounds with political commentary. But while it suffers from the same weaknesses of character and plot, the original concepts it puts forward (Big Brother, memory hole, Room 101) make up for it. In the novel, citizens live under the rule of a totalitarian Party, which regulates everything from thought to action to memory, effectively erasing the individual. Our protagonist, naturally, seeks to rebel. During his initiation into what he deems to be The Brotherhood, Winston Smith agrees “to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face” and “to commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people” in the name of the revolution. He agrees that life is not about the individual, that it must be laid down for a greater cause, that victory is in the future.

Why does this sound so familiar? And why does it send a chill up our spines to read it in light of Changez, of the many detainees in Zero Dark Thirty?

There are no good and bad guys, only points of view. This is an easy and perhaps unfair generalization, but it is ultimately useful. If the “radicals” had a Kathryn Bigelow and a Hollywood budget, what kind of film would they make? How much would the narrative differ?

Despite all the allegations, Zero Dark Thirty is clearly skewed on the US side. We after all follow the CIA, and most of the violence we see is shown as the work of terrorist groups. But the most contested scenes show agents torturing detainees to extract information from them. We can never find out whether this actually occurred; what we can do is argue about how the film depicts it. Here is Orwell on the topic:

On the battlefield, in the torture chamber, on a sinking ship, the issues that you are fighting for are always forgotten, because the body swells up until it fills the universe, and even when you are not paralysed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.

I’ve been sitting here for some minutes flexing my brain muscles for the tough work ahead, but my fingers did some Googling and found this on the Huffington Post. Here, Michael Moore presents an excellent and engaging case on why Zero Dark Thirty is, in fact, anti-torture. Essentially he says that not only is torture morally wrong, it also leads to inaccurate confessions. But even without that detail, just looking at those scenes—where a CIA officer uses waterboarding on a detainee—it is easy to see where our sympathies lie. It is not difficult to realize the inhumanity of torture, and that this is exactly what the director intended for the audience to feel when she shot those scenes.

Zero Dark Thirty explores very real problems posed not only by counterterrorist methods but also about the natures of war, ideology, vengeance, means and ends. It’s a powerful movie, with a soul-searching effect that lasts long after its runtime. If there is one thing common to Maya, Changez, and Winston Smith, it’s that they all become broken in one way or another. Zero Dark Thirty also leaves us broken in a small way. As viewers we are left to ponder moral issues and evaluate them for ourselves. The script ends with a question directed at Maya, something we also ask ourselves as we leave the theater: “Where do you want to go?” Where indeed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.’

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

‘It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.’

Zero Dark Thirty

‘In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.’

The Sandman series

Superfluous. That’s the word for it. How else to describe this Sandman review, two decades late and a mere sprinkle atop its high pile of awards and accolades? I obviously got into this game late, and might’ve stayed unenlightened for much longer if not for TJ. He started me off with Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman’s 2003 follow-up to the series, which features gorgeous art by Milo Manara (“What I’ve Tasted of Desire”) and Frank Quitely (“Endless Nights”). But apart from Desire’s story, nothing else gripped me in this collection, and I disliked the overdone portraits of Despair. Preludes and Nocturnes provides a much better read. By turns horrifying and intriguing, it introduces the dark world of Sandman through a retrieval quest that wraps up satisfyingly, despite a few rough patches that appear, at most, awkward amid a deftly handled overall arc.

It all goes uphill from there. Perhaps most obviously, Sandman is an adventure epic that draws heavily from existing mythologies. Gaiman dexterously constructs a world that supports, reinvents, and deconstructs other myths, some of them the average reader will never have even heard of—until now. We see Thor, gallant and heroic in the Marvel movie, drunk out of his mind and making not-so-subtle references to the size of his hammer. It’s all wildly entertaining, and surprisingly accurate. Even then, Gaiman was not afraid to take on grand scales, an impression I felt most strongly when Lucifer abandons his realm in Season of Mists. I remember staring at that two-page spread of Hell’s main gate and thinking, Holy, this is something else. And it is. Subsequent issues make certain of that. A Game of You marks a turning point in my reading not only because of Wanda, but also because of the subtlety with which Gaiman handles the volume’s themes. He could have easily described the Cuckoo as pure evil, but instead calls such moral demarcations into question: “She acts according to her nature. Is that evil?” By the end of that fifth volume, I stopped liking Sandman. I began to love it.

For all the adventure it provides, the most important conflicts in Sandman aren’t physical, but rather internal, emotional, existential. In The Doll’s House we see the solitary Morpheus striking up a once-a-century friendship with Hob Gadling, and in Dream Country we discover a moment of self-doubt in our usually assertive protagonist: “Have I done right, Titania? Have I done right?” Dream of the Endless is not human, but he is after all man-made (a trope dreamed into existence), and the few glimpses we are allowed into his unerringly humanlike core are made all the more poignant by their rarity. But it is not only Dream whose psyche we explore. Sandman provides us with a plethora of characters who come alive within the span of a few panels. Not least of these are the Endless, among whom Death is the most popular. The conversations between her and Dream comprise some of the most memorable in the series: a socially inept brother and his sensible older sister—who just happen to be incarnations of the universe’s most recurring echoes.

Brief Lives presents more of these fascinating characters, indeed portrays different sides of them; it’s a real family affair. There is just so much humanity in this, in my opinion the best of all the volumes. For the first time it is not external factors that drive the story, but the Endless themselves: Despair and Delirium, who long for the company of their brother; Dream, who denies change even as he undergoes it; Destruction, who has understood the brevity of all lives; Orpheus, whose only hope is to die. “Father? I wish that things had been otherwise.” It still makes me want to cry, remembering it. Intelligent, subtle and painfully human, Brief Lives showcases the best of Sandman. The adventure arc isn’t as well-defined as in Preludes and Nocturnes or Season of Mists, but here we delve into another kind of conflict altogether. Gaiman is preparing us for the ending.

From Volume VII onwards, it becomes apparent that Gaiman knows where he is taking us. The script included in Dream Country reveals him as a conscientious writer; still we are startled by his grasp of continuity, the way he refers to previous episodes and makes sense of them, long after we have moved past that point. The Kindly Ones, for example, forces Morpheus to consider the same choice that, at different times, plagued both Lucifer and Destruction: “Perhaps this is the ultimate freedom, eh? The freedom to leave…” All this looping back in time and theme gives Sandman the enviable quality of possessing an entire universe of stories, which Gaiman takes full advantage of this in his story collections. Fables and Reflections ranks as my favorite of the three. Bursting with myth and history, it demonstrates the sheer flexibility of the Sandman universe, the extent to which stories can be bent and altered, recast and retold, depending on one’s vantage point. The last story, “Ramadan,” is absolutely marvelous, but I am not unique in this opinion. Like everyone else, I adored the whole concept, of preferring to burn permanently in memory rather than flicker brightly for a while then fade into nothingness, into an Ozymandias-like obscurity. Of course, P. Craig Russell’s stunning artwork also makes the story a standout.

It is to my everlasting regret that I did not grow up a comic book fan. Watchmen I did read, but it is only upon perusing Sandman that I understood comics as a collaborative medium, dependent on its artists as much as on the writer. And the artists who worked on Sandman are truly brilliant. Several panels have lodged themselves in my memory—Morpheus feeding a flock of pigeons, flowers sprouting from Orpheus’ blood, Destruction under a sky of stars. I also appreciated the artistic risks they took, in the stylized outlines they employed in The Kindly Ones, in the calligraphy-inspired shapes and text of “Exiles.”

That story belongs to the tenth volume, the last of the Sandman series. After the emotional exhaustion demanded by The Kindly Ones, I just felt so empty, reading the testimonies in The Wake. But every so often I would come across a word or a phrase, and I would suddenly feel like crying, like I’m mourning the death of someone I knew. It’s not at all an eloquent way to put it, but—he just felt so real. They all did. I laughed at Merv’s antics, wept for Wanda, grieved for Fiddler’s Green. “Why?” we ask, despite ourselves. “Why?” Matthew asks, echoing our voice of unreason. Lucien, always the wise one, repeats the answer we already know: “Sometimes, perhaps, one must change or die. And, in the end, there were, perhaps, limits to how much he could let himself change.”

I have read many Gaiman books. Most of them I have forgotten, save for a few gems—Coraline, The Graveyard Book. But it is only with Sandman that I stumbled again on the same magic I first encountered in Stardust, this time to an even greater degree. Here Gaiman does not simply weave a story, but puts together a wondrous world of characters, choices, possibilities. Which is why The Wake comes as a dreaded but inevitable thing; painful, but necessary. Closing that final book feels like ending a chapter in your life. A chapter in which you grow to be more human, find more fullness in life, make room for more sorrow in your soul. What do we say in the face of all these emotions? Even in this, Gaiman beats us to it. We remember the last page of A Game of You, in which Wanda’s death leaves nothing more to be said, nothing more to do except to move on. “And if there’s a moral there, I don’t know what it is,” Barbie says, “save maybe that we should take our goodbyes whenever we can. And that’s all.”

The Doll’s House

‘Love belongs to desire, and desire is always cruel.’

Dream Country

One night, enough of them dreamed. It did not take many of them. A thousand, perhaps. No more. They dreamed… And the next day, things changed.

‘The price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted.’

‘Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.’

Season of Mists

‘We do what we must. Sometimes we can choose the path we follow. Sometimes our choices are made for us. And sometimes we have no choice at all.’

‘Innocence, once lost, can never be regained.’

‘I think Hell’s something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.’

A Game of You

His cloak was blowing in the wind like a patch of midnight, and his eyes glittered like twin stars.

‘I don’t think home’s a place anymore. I think it’s a state of mind.’

Fables and Reflections

‘It is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt.’

‘You shouldn’t trust the storyteller; only trust the story.’

‘We write our names in the sand; and then the waves roll in and wash them away.’

‘You should have gone to her funeral to say goodbye… It is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on. She is dead. You are alive. So live.’

‘You can choose your friends, my love. You can’t choose your family.’

‘It’s the mystery that endures… A good mystery can last forever.’

‘It is unwise to summon what you cannot dismiss.’

Some things are too big to be seen; some emotions too huge to be felt.

Brief Lives

‘There are things not in your book, [Destiny]. There are paths outside this garden. You would do well to remember that.’

‘I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence… They’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments.’

‘We do not always accomplish what we set out to do.’

Worlds’ End

There are just some places where the sky seems so much bigger.

The Kindly Ones

‘Don’t they ever learn?’ ‘They can’t. They’re part of the story, just as I am.’

‘It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor.’

‘How many times can life hit you? When do the blows start to hurt? When do you just…stop?’

‘[Love] makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens your heart and it means someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses. You build up this armor, for years, so nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life… You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They do something dumb one day like kiss you, or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase like “Maybe we should just be friends” or “How very perceptive” turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. Nothing should be able to do that. Especially not love.’

The Wake

‘I used to think [death] was a big, sudden thing, like a huge owl that would swoop down out of the night and carry you off. I don’t anymore. I think it’s a slow thing. Like a thief who comes to your house day after day, taking a little thing here and a little thing there, and one day you walk round your house and there’s nothing there to keep you, nothing to make you want to stay.’

Blindness, Seeing

It begins with fear. Without warning, an epidemic of white blindness strikes a city, turning its inhabitants into hapless creatures without sight or hope. The Government (with Saramago’s capital G) imposes a strict quarantine, but the system bends under the weight of the uncontainable plague, finally collapsing on the day the entire city turns blind. Thus begins Jose Saramago’s popular novel, a modern parable on the illusory value we place on civilization and the tenuous threads that hold humankind together. It is shocking how quickly the unnamed city in Blindness disintegrates into chaos, how the simple loss of one sense undoes centuries of “moral progress.” Suddenly it is every man for himself, and there is “no other solution…but to feed on each other if they [hope] to survive.” This brutal atmosphere, along with the loss of authority, creates living conditions so appalling that the only sighted person left actually wishes that she turn blind instead, to avoid confronting “all the weight of a horror without a name.” But as we soon discover, one does not need to see horror in order to live it.

“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Also, the man with the gun. It does not take him long to assume control of the quarantine facility, to amass a small army and take over the food supply, demanding gold and women in exchange for a meager share. Blindness chronicles the breakdown of moral values that ensues, when right and wrong no longer occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, when rigidly moralistic stands are understood as “opinions belonging to another world, not to this one.” In discussing their predicament, the first blind man opposes the women’s collective decision, “for dignity has no price, that when someone starts making small concessions, in the end life loses all meaning.” To which the doctor asks “what meaning he saw in the situation in which all of them there found themselves, starving, covered in filth up to their ears, ridden with lice, eaten by bedbugs, bitten by fleas.” It is not difficult to be moralistic in an ordered society, where the only sins that go unpunished are those sanctioned by law or otherwise swept under the rug of history. But in a world ruled by fear, moral standards shift from person to person, from one moment to the next. In presenting his characters with choices that no one wants to make, Saramago explores how far humanity can go. “Blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone.”

Despite all this, the most enduring image I take from the novel is that of a woman guiding six strangers across the city, moving from one dwelling to the next, hand in hand. Hope continues to exist in the smallest spaces, in a blind writer striving to record his family’s struggles, in a woman’s promise to give a child her lamp when he regains sight, in the redemptive power of a bath in the rain. Outside, people gather in squares to listen to blind preachers lecturing about the wonders of religion, about the efficacy of human organization—all of which mean nothing in the end, and which pale in comparison to what we witness in the lives of these seven strangers. Saramago renders their stories vividly, in trenchant prose, with the wisdom of someone who has spent years observing humankind—“a true elder of our people, a man of tears, a man of wisdom” (Ursula Le Guin). His characteristic long sentences and shifting perspectives produce images of horror alongside those of tenderness: “there are gestures for which we cannot always find an easy explanation.”

As sequels mostly are, Seeing doesn’t quite live up to the original, but what it lacks in emotional depth it makes up for in wit and humor. Set four years after the blindness plague, it centers on a group of politicians grappling to control a defiant population that keeps on submitting blank votes. It abounds with hilarious political caricatures, self-aware bastards who openly admit, “we’re all up to the same tricks.” We read about the feckless power games they play and the impotent word diarrhea they expel in the face of calamity, which for them is anything unfamiliar, anything beyond the systemic grasp of tradition, never mind if the change turns out to be good for the people. This Government cannot admit the vainness of its existence, “it’s not only when we have no eyes that we don’t know where we’re going.” Saramago’s prose bursts with so much irony that otherwise depressing passages become amusing to read, but we know his words ring true today, so true that they become comical in fiction.

Although definitely more political, Seeing is not without its poignant moments. Here we see the brief return of characters we have known and learned to love since Blindness. We are also introduced to some new ones, notably the superintendent and his two subordinates, who allow us to believe in trust amid a network of suspicion and who show us the significance of small kindnesses. Through them we learn to believe in goodness, in human decency, right until the novel’s painful, painful conclusion. It is nothing short of wounding.


He pursed his lips as if in sudden pain, and felt deeply grateful that there were no neighbours around at that moment, for there and then, were anyone to have spoken to him, he would have burst into tears.

This is the stuff we’re made of, half indifference and half malice.

It is foolish for anyone to ask what someone died from, in time the cause will be forgotten, only two words remain, She died.

Never has there been so much silence in the world.

Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.


I should, yes, I should, I should what. The word was like a dead body he had stumbled upon, he had to find out what the word wanted, he had to remove the body.

One can show no greater respect than to weep for a stranger.

Impossibilities never come singly.

The Matisse Stories

What I know of England, I know only from its writers. Now nearing the start of my year-long sojourn in Norwich, I thought it prudent to brush up on contemporary British literature. What better way to get acquainted with the newest UNESCO city of literature? So recently I went on a Bookay-Ukay spree and brought home Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, Martin Amis’ House of Meetings, and A.S. Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun. (Okay, I bought them so I could get them signed.) The Matisse Stories, a very slim collection, came as a late birthday gift from Danica, who also got me Junot Diaz’s Drown.

It’s my first time to read Byatt, but I didn’t need more than a few pages to know that I was in the hands of a master. “Medusa’s Ankles” opens innocuously: a Le Nu Rose copy entices a middle-aged woman to enter a salon for the first time. But when she becomes a regular customer, Lucien’s bears witness to her gradual disintegration in more ways than she intended. At 28 pages, the shortest of the three stories, “Medusa’s Ankles” comes across as a very sharp, very tight piece. The setup is fitting, the combination of details symphonic; no description seems superfluous. By contrast, “Art Work” meanders for several pages, introducing us to its characters, slowly, slowly, slowly. We do not even get a whiff of the conflict until past the halfway point; everything before that is just description, backdrop. That hypnotic, auditory opening? That five-page litany of Robin’s color “fetishes”? That’s Byatt setting you up. That’s her anticipating the conflict, laying down bricks for the concluding twist. At times I no longer knew whether some details were integral to the story—and frankly I didn’t care. The writer had already earned my trust, and I had long relinquished the critical stance for the sheer pleasure of her prose, which lilts and dips and somehow always allocates the right word to the right place. Even pox-infected skin occasions a lyrical description: “a wonderfully humped and varied terrain of rosy peaks and hummocks, mostly the pink of those boring little begonias with fleshy leaves, but some raging into salmon-deeps and ochre crusts.”

I do not have a favorite, but “The Chinese Lobster” is by far the most subtle of the three. Much of the narrative revolves around—and is indeed attributed to—an unstable girl named Peggi Nollett. Only later do we realize the story is not hers at all, and plumbs a concern much more delicate than the one she stresses. Byatt’s talent for articulating human vagaries is apparent from the first story, but it is in “The Chinese Lobster” that I find this gem:

Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate. And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, or hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness. The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards without a ripple or quiver.

Apart from Byatt’s adroit handling of language, what strikes me most about these pieces—especially the last two—is how they reflect the author’s uncanny intelligence. Her casual familiarity with pigments often made me reach embarrassingly for the dictionary. Her knowledge and self-assurance create a fertile foundation on which she constructs these stories. As a young writer, I am envious. I cannot even imagine undertaking a project of this scale: a collected ekphrasis devoted to one of the most celebrated painters of all time? The prospect is more than daunting. But then again, we’re talking about A.S. Byatt—Booker Prize winner, honorary degree collector, and international literary giant. I fervently hope to meet her one day. And get that autograph.

Medusa’s Ankles

She came to trust him with her disintegration.

Art Work

They call each other Mrs Dennison and Mrs Brown. They rely on the kind of distance and breathing space this courtesy gives them.

It is possible to feel love and hate quite quietly, side by side, if one is a self-contained person.

The Book of Imaginary Beings

TJ has an awful lot of enviable books. Fortunately, he’s also a generous guy. On our first post-Silliman reunion in Manila, he brought a traveler’s backpack full of books to lend. Apart from Sandman: Endless Nights, I also eyed a hardcover originally intended for Vida, who was deterred by a dog-bit-neighbor fiasco. It was titled The Book of Imaginary Beings, and featured the Buraq on its cover. Fascination and curiosity prompted me to snatch up the volume in Vida’s place. Who can blame me?

The beasts chronicled in Borges’ almanac range from the recognizable to the inexplicable, the delightful to the frightening. A sizable number are amalgams, with a few exaggerated combinations refusing to cohere into a single image. Pliny portrays the Leucrocotta as “a wild beast of extraordinary swiftness, the size of the wild ass, with the legs of a stag, the neck, tail, and breast of a lion, the head of a badger, a cloven hoof, the mouth slit up as far as the ears, and one continuous bone instead of teeth.” Others are easier to imagine, like the familiar Centaur and Kraken. Still there are those that need no further envisioning: “The Hide-behind is always hiding behind something. Whichever way a man turns, it’s always behind him, which is why nobody has ever satisfactorily described one…”

In this smorgasbord, overlaps become downright inevitable. Borges records three names for the island-animal immortalized in Sinbad’s tales: Fastitocalon, Zaratan, Jasconius. Elsewhere, he reports of singular beasts: “The Panther has, on the shoulder, a spot which bears the form of the moon; and that, like it, it regularly increases to full, and then diminishes to a crescent” (Pliny). In all his descriptions, there is no attempt at elaboration; many do not even exceed a page. Likewise, Borges makes little effort to justify myths. Creatures simply are, and they are remembered for just that.

Although “necessarily incomplete,” this book renders our attempts at taxonomy laughable, or at least trifling, when compared with the bulk of creatures yet undiscovered, unimagined, lost to catastrophe or history. Perhaps this dearth explains our fascination with animals, real or unreal. There is something about conjuring creatures that makes the heart leap. Of the Ouroburos, Borges writes, “When the Twilight of the Gods shall come, the serpent shall devour the earth and the wolf shall devour the sun.” The prospect is terrifying, but there is beauty in this.

We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination… It is, one might say, a necessary monster…

Sometimes I have the feeling that the animal is trying to tame me. What other purpose could it have in withdrawing its tail when I snatch at it, and then again, waiting calmly until I am tempted again, and then leaping away once more?

…and that tree dreamed by Chesterton, which devoured the birds that nested in its branches and which put out feathers instead of leaves when springtime came.

The idea of a house built expressly so that people will become lost in it may be stranger than the idea of a man with the head of a bull, and yet the two ideas may reinforce one another. Indeed, the image of the Labyrinth and the image of the Minotaur seem to “go together”: it is fitting that at the center of a monstrous house there should live a monstrous inhabitant.

Spunk & Bite

“Don’t be lazy.” It’s an admonition we expect from parents, co-workers, bosses. But another writer? Surely not! Surely other writers understand the pains we go through just to squeeze out a publishable paragraph? Yet Arthur Plotnik chides, “In the editing process…kill, beat, and burn—sniff out and destroy everything that smells predictable, clichéd, formulaic, labored, or lazy.” In the hills of Valencia, the rebuke felt personal. Just weeks ago, I’d penned a sentence I now want to backspace into oblivion. “The days blend into one another,” I’d written to start off a fictional quote. Unoriginal, I knew, but it seemed expedient enough…and I’d felt too lazy to think of something else. Mercifully, Plotnik’s examples show that even the best writers churn out lousy sentences sometimes. The solution? Never settle! “Write in white heat; edit in cold blood,” so the popular mantra goes.

As “a writer’s guide to bold, contemporary style,” Spunk & Bite offers 250+ pages of practical advice, giving logical explanations for considerations that seem otherwise natural to the practiced writer. Tips range from basic warnings about dead adverbs and dangling modifiers to more subjective counsels on semicolon use and sentence fragmentation. Although far from boring, Plotnik’s recommendations mostly passed over my head; I simply could not retain everything. What he did, however, is affirm my longtime suspicion that a good story (essay, novel) is as much about content as it is about form. Tenses matter. Words matter. Punctuation matters. In the end, that is what I took away from this book. Serious writers cannot afford to be lazy, because a good piece rests on the kind of language that comes only with time and effort—perhaps even at the expense of a few brain cells.

True to its name, Spunk & Bite proves itself an engaging read (although I could never seem to finish more than three chapters in one sitting). It starts off as a foil to the classic Strunk and White, but the two cater to different audiences. While The Elements of Style targets those new to writing—students in particular—Spunk & Bite was written for those already equipped with a fundamental command of the craft, but whose writing nonetheless falls short of brilliant. Looking for something to resuscitate a dead or beat-up style? Consult Spunk & Bite. It is a book I benefited from, and one I would happily lend to other writers.

Why do words keep shifting function? Well, why shouldn’t they, considering that users are the ones shifting them, and that words should serve users—not the other way around?