Review 1754: Narcopolis

The narrator of Narcopolis arrives in Bombay in the 1970’s or early 80’s after he’s been thrown out of the United States. He finds Rashid’s opium den, where he meets such characters as Dimple, a hijra, or transsexual woman, who prepares the opium and works in a nearby brothel; Rashid, who has the best opium in Bombay; and Rumi, a low-level criminal. The novel is made up of linked short stories that follow the various characters until returning to the narrator many years later.

Pimps, pushers, and junkies are not my favorite subject matter, and I would not normally choose this book to read, but it is part of my Booker prize project. By around page 50, when the narrator attends a ridiculous lecture by a poet/artist named Xavier, I realized I had no idea what was going on and almost quit reading. However, soon I was taken up by the much more interesting stories of Dimple and Mr. Lee.

I was jarred to find one Goodreads reviewer referring to this gritty book as nostalgia, considering it mostly deals with drug addiction and sexual exploitation. Still, by the end of the novel, which takes place closer to the present, things are so much worse that I got his point.

I felt that the characters’ speech, when philosophical, sounds like it comes out of a textbook, and in other moods is unrealistic in other ways. I also thought that there was no reason to subject readers to such things as Xavier’s speech, the entire plot of the book written by Mr. Lee’s father, most of the characters’ dreams (I hate reading about dreams in fiction), the long description of a new form of poetry, and so on.

Did I like this novel? Not very much.

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Day 1164: A Brief History of Seven Killings

Cover for A Brief History of Seven KillingsI have so many thoughts about A Brief History of Seven Killings, but not many of them are positive. The novel is based around an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, the reasons behind the attempt, and the ramifications for 20 years later. It is about political skullduggery and the drug wars.

The novel begins days before an election in Jamaica. The political parties in the country have connections with gangs running specific areas of Kingston, and the areas of the city belonging to the wrong party get no services. So, an election is an excuse for an outbreak of violence.

Bob Marley, though, has been working with the dons of the two biggest gangs to bring about a peace concert. The CIA is worried about Jamaica turning communist if the JPL party is elected. One of the first narrators is the ghost of a politician who has already been killed in the battle for power. Out of what seems to be chaos comes Josey Wales, an enforcer for one of the gangs, who is more interested in getting involved with Columbian drug dealers than in following his gang’s agenda. The price for allowing him an in with Medellin—kill Bob Marley.

Although this beginning results in the flood of cocaine and crack into U. S. cities, I expected this novel to fit together more cleanly, a bit like Leif GW Persson’s trilogy about the assassination of a Swedish prime minister. It was much messier than that.

The novel was written from the points of view of many characters, most of whom are thugs. Much of the narrative is in Jamaican slang and a little hard to understand. All but one of the characters are abhorrent, and I had great difficulty reading the novel even though I was interested to see what would happen. The novel is brutal, the thoughts and conversations of most of its characters disgusting, and loaded with sexism. A lot more people are killed than seven (in fact, I wasn’t even completely sure which seven the title referred to), and at almost 700 pages, the novel is anything but brief. (I believe the title is meant ironically.) Occasionally, when reading some character’s narratives, especially the heroine addicts, I felt like screaming.

One Goodreads reviewer said the novel is not for the faint of heart. I am not generally squeamish, but I found the novel an agony to read, even though its subject matter is interesting. This novel was the 2015 winner of the Booker Prize. I am fairly sure that when it comes time for my article about which book I would have chosen, this won’t be it.

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Day 648: The Snow Queen

Cover for The Snow QueenAlthough The Snow Queen is marketed as Michael Cunningham’s reworking of the classic fairy tale, the novel actually alludes to it more than rewrites it. Tyler Meek gets an ice crystal in his eye as does the main character of the fairy tale, so we know he will not be able to see clearly. The Snow Queen herself is the drugs Tyler takes.

The novel begins with Tyler’s younger brother Barrett walking home through a snowstorm. He has just been dumped by his lover by means of an abrupt text and is wondering what he did wrong. In his mid-40’s, Barrett, although a Yale graduate who had a seemingly bright future before him, has been unable to settle to any one thing. He has lost his apartment and now lives with Tyler and his girlfriend Beth and works as a clerk in a store.

Barrett notices an odd light above him in the sky and feels that it is looking back at him. This experience seems so extraordinary to him that he half fears he imagined it and doesn’t at first tell anyone about it.

At home, Tyler awakes to find the room full of snow because he and Beth left the window open. Tyler, Beth, and Barrett live in an ugly apartment in a shabby neighborhood in New York City. Tyler’s dreams of being a musician have ended with him working as a bartender and being allowed to play a couple of nights a week.

Tyler is trying to write a song for Beth for their wedding. Beth has liver cancer, and she presently is getting no better or worse. Tyler obsesses with the song and with the impending 2004 re-election of George Bush rather than trying to get himself off drugs, as he promised Beth. Now, he has begun lying about the drugs.

For a few months, Beth gets better. Barrett attributes her recovery in some part to his exchange with the light and begins attending church. Tyler, who has been good at taking care of Beth, feels a bit like he has lost his purpose.

Cunningham has written an intimate portrait of the two brothers in his masterly style. He forces us to examine our notions about success and failure and insightfully depicts Tyler’s growing dependence on the drugs. However, the story about the brothers and their friends isn’t really compelling, and the female characters are deficient. Beth is a palely drawn angel, and the only other important female character, Liz, looks too much like her opposite. Other characters seem to be there just to populate the novel. After the stunning The Hours, I found The Snow Queen disappointing.

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Day 498: The Hour I First Believed

Cover for The Hour I First BelievedThe Hour I First Believed is described on its jacket as an exploration of faith, and as such I didn’t think it would be very interesting to me. But it is really more about a man’s struggle to face the problems of his life and his own demons. It is an extremely interesting and affecting work.

Caelum Quirk is not always a likable protagonist. He has anger issues—went after his third wife’s lover with a wrench—can be withdrawn and drink too much, says the wrong thing quite often, and earned my personal disregard at the beginning of the novel by referring to two different women as a ballbuster and a nutcracker. Lamb had to work hard to get my sympathy for his character after that, but he did accomplish that by the end of the novel. Still, whether I liked Caelum or not, I couldn’t tear myself away from his story.

Caelum is trying to salvage his marriage after the wrench incident, so he and his wife Maureen decide to move away from Three Rivers, Connecticut, the town where his family has a lot of history, and get jobs in Colorado. They are settled there and are doing okay, although still having relationship issues, when Caelum is called back to Connecticut because his beloved Aunt Lolly has had a stroke. She dies shortly after he returns, and Maureen is making arrangements to come for the funeral but decides to work one more day at the high school where Caelum teaches English and she is a nurse. Unfortunately, the high school in question is Columbine, and the school day she works is the day two students go on a rampage.

Maureen would normally be out of the area of trouble, but that day she decides to help Velvet Hoon, a troubled drop-out, fill out some papers in the library. Although she is not killed, she hides in a cupboard for hours before she is found, and subsequently suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that barely allows her to function. She also struggles with an addiction to uppers.

Caelum and Maureen move back to live on Caelum’s family farm, a place for which he has mixed but mostly negative feelings. His father was a drunk of whom he was ashamed. He remembers his grandfather as judgmental and his mother as cold. Only Lolly seemed to care for him.

Troubles are not over for Caelum and Maureen, but I don’t want to reveal more about that. Caelum must also deal with his feelings about his family. His great-great grandmother was an early fighter for abolition and women’s rights, and she was instrumental in establishing the women’s prison down the road from the farm. It had a long history of treating the women with dignity and had a low rate of recidivism until its values were changed by modern tough-on-crime politics. Caelum’s great-great grandmother’s papers are in a spare room of the house. When Caelum is forced by financial circumstances to rent part of the house to a couple evacuated from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina, the wife, a women’s studies graduate student, asks if she can examine them. This and other events lead Caelum to several discoveries about his family.

This novel is sprawling, even a bit messy, because it seems to want to deal with everything. It features large events such as Columbine, 9/11, and Katrina, as well as the inequity of the American justice system, PTSD, drug addiction, grief, love, trust, religion, infidelity, and other issues. It is interesting, frustrating, and ultimately worth reading.