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The amazing escapades of a “dreadful human being”

Marketed as “a deeply unworthy book about a dreadful human being”, Worst.Person.Ever. is actually not that unworthy. Written by Douglas Coupland, a very prolific Canadian writer and visual artist, this is a book that is written in the Biji style; a genre of classical Chinese literature that reads like a notebook of a person recording incidents of the believe-it-or-not variety.

Raymond Gunt, our protagonist (who, for the most part, acts like an antagonist) has enough incidents of the believe-it-or-not kind around him. He is an unemployed, middle-aged, B-unit cameraman who is about to be kicked out of his apartment when he is offered a job; to shoot a Survivor-styled reality show in Kiribati. Not only is he offered a job, he is given the option to bring in his own minions. As none of his acquaintances would have agreed to play his minions, he chooses a homeless person with whom he was in an altercation a few days earlier. Here enters Neal, a homeless man who lives in a Samsung cardboard — he is impressed with the quality of Samsung TV boxes and considers them the best form of shelter for homeless — on the streets outside a Russian massage parlour. He always carries a valid passport, though, for a chance like this. Despite being dirty and homeless, Neal is a bit of a ladies’ man and a diehard The Clash fan. Together, they board the flight from London to L.A. and then on to Honolulu and Kiribati for a journey filled with one spectacular misadventure after another.

Gunt is quite horrid; he kills a man — albeit accidently — by calling him fat multiple times and offering him his share of food, causing his blood pressure to hike during a flight. He is also the only literate man on the planet who misspells Harry Potter’s name and writes it with an ‘e’. He is not too big on tipping waitresses either. Though he does not seem like a godly creature, he writes letters to “The Gods” in his head, often complaining about the things that are happening to him.

It is evident from the very first chapter that in addition to being the “worst person ever” Gunt is also the most politically incorrect person and mocks everything from Duran Duran to reality TV to Billy Elliot to vitamin supplements and airline food. In addition, he hates hybrid cutlery and would rather stay hungry than use a sporf (sporf = spoon + fork + knife), a knork (knorf = knife + fork) or a spork (spork = spoon + fork ).

cutlery

yups, the book came with illustrations and captions

For a presumably polite Canadian, Coupland has written Raymond Gunt, a potty-mouthed Brit with enough mastery. Critics may say that this brand of irreverence is not new; after all we are living in the age of Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy and The Hangover’s many child-like men. I find this book and its characters a lot more endearing, however. Despite being a jerk, Raymond Gunt suffers from healthy doses of self-doubt, which make him more real and relatable. Neal has absolutely nothing but his confidence makes him almost fantastical.

The novel comes with neat little boxes throughout the text, explaining people, things, countries and music bands to the uninitiated, in a mix of Wikipedia-style language with a touch of sarcasm. There is really not much to the plot. The novel is more about the narrative, the dialogue and Raymond and Neal’s escapades along the way. Those who liked the British film Withnail & I and would understand this kind of storytelling, though it is a lot more lewd than Withnail & I.

Though the book is a fun read, it is a little too packed. There is so much happening at such an alarming speed that if you put the book away for a couple of days, going back to it and recalling everything that has happened before would be a tad difficult for some readers. Perhaps I am easily entertained or partial to typically profane British witticisms (I have spent far too much time admiring Malcolm Tucker and his inventive insults in TV serial Thick of It and the film In the Loop), but I find this book funny. I believe most readers will find it funny if they can disregard the gratuitously vulgar language. Funnily, I am not the type who normally overlooks linguistic vulgarity but everything that Raymond and Neal said did sound funny enough to ignore the expletive-laden language. In any case, flawed characters with their own sets of peculiarities — though Gunt has more peculiarities than Sachin Tendulkar has centuries — are a lot of fun to read.

Most of us, though familiar with our idiosyncrasies and nasty habits, make excuses for ourselves and think that we’re not all that bad. We always blame our road rage on other incompetent drivers. We blame laxity at work on bad bosses or unimaginative work (surely one must not seek creativity in a profession like accounting; creative accounting can land one in jail) and justify reciprocating with cheap gifts because that particular aunt was stingy when she bought our wedding gift 15 years ago. Raymond Gunt, the protagonist of Worst.Person.Ever, is genuinely unaware of any such flaws and firmly believes that he is a nice person. A massively flawed person so honestly unaware of those flaws is actually quite refreshing.

You will either love it or hate it; a middle ground is unlikely here. The book will probably not win any awards, but it will make you laugh out loud if dark comedy is your thing. As a pop culture enthusiast with an appreciation for English absurdity, I loved this book. The text is hilarious, wicked and oh-so-terribly English. What else can you ask from an unworthy book?worst-person

PS: If you wanted something more, there is a nuclear explosion in the mix to get rid of a Pacific Trash Vortex in the middle of that ocean. Yes, that is the American way of dealing with garbage.

PPS: When the book came out last year, someone (probably or a marketing staff minion) came up with a twitter handle of Raymond Gunt but it died an early death when they forgot about its existence after 16 measly tweets.

PPPS: Pacific Trash Vortex is actually a thing. It exists. It is about the size of Texas and some of the plastics in the trash vortex are so sturdy, they will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw that trash.

First published in Sunday Guardian

Jun 20, 2013 - Books, Reading    4 Comments

A coming of age story like no other

Golden Boy

When people have been reading for as long as I have, they develop a way of picking up books. They have genres that they like, certain writers they want to read again and again, recommendations by friends and critics or something as random as an interesting title that they must browse through. I use all of the above methods and they have worked for me most of the time. However, the only reason I picked up Golden Boy was that it was set in England and I like stories set in England. The writer Abigail Tarttelin is not someone I have ever heard of, the title was ordinary and the cover was okay but boy, what a book! I think it turned out to be the most profound read of the year – at least for me.

Golden Boy is the story of Max, a sixteen year old who had everything going for him, he was smart, popular, good looking, gentle, kind, good athlete, wanted by girls, respected by his mates, loved by parents and adored by his little brother. Life couldn’t be more perfect, but all started going downhill after a nasty incident, which made him realize that his life is ruled by a secret and how he must protect it to attempt to live a ‘normal’ life.

I generally don’t like books or movies that are centered on a family or push family values probably because I grew up in a country that is not too keen on individualism and the society presses on familial obligations a little too forcefully. The way traditional family is thrust upon us by popular media is also a major turn off but the way Abigail Tarttelin has woven this story – it is in first person by six major characters – is simply beautiful. Despite being a story of a family and what they had to go through collectively in the aftermath of a shocking incident, it is also the story of six individuals Max, his younger brother Daniel, his parents Karen & Steve, his girl friend Sylvie and Dr Archie Verma, told through their voice so that the reader is not influenced by just one voice and constructs and interprets the story the way s/he wants to.

I am not really a crier. If anything, I am one of those people who laugh at most inopportune times. My friends think I should not attend somber events and funerals because I cannot be trusted not to laugh. I don’t cry at romantic melodrama in films and find most of it cheesy, but I cried – cried a bucket load of tears – for Max the protagonist of this novel and one of the most endearing characters that ever leap out of the pages of a book. How can one not empathize with the Golden Boy who is about to lose his halo and has no clue how he has been wronged and he continues to blame himself for it all.

There is no verbosity or philosophical tone to the text, probably because most of the story is told to us by teenagers and a 10 year old, but there is introspection. And the characters – they just break your heart. I wanted to jump into the book and hold Max’s hand and tell him that he is great and wanted to shelter him from everything. How often do we get to feel that way about fictional characters?

The mastery of the writer is amazing, even when she is quoting stuff from Wikipedia in the book – and she did it twice I think – the heart of the story makes up for it. She wrote about Maltesers and STDs and autumn in the same line and somehow made it melancholic and heartrending. Tarttelin has discussed things like motherhood, loneliness, identity and the quest for someone of your own, the idea of ‘normal’, the insecurity of living under the perfect older sibling, the inability of parents to make decisions about their children, the fondness of an older sibling for the younger brother with utmost honesty. Above all, she has created a coming of age story like no other. She has created a world so real that you not just know what each and every one of them are going through, you actually get it.

I read Golden Boy in four days, could have read it in a lot less time but I took breaks in between to cry, to muse, to assess my life until now and think about the choices I have made and to wonder if I was in situations like any of the characters how would I behave. Yes, this book hits you so hard that you are compelled to pause and ponder.

The book taught me the value of empathy and compassion and how badly we need it without even knowing it. I am one of those people who give books to others – usually younger people – when I want them to think about things that I consider important. From now on, Golden Boy would be the book that I would recommend to everyone because we all need to open our hearts a little more, accept the other and unknown and just be gentle and kinder in general. The book affected me in a way very few things have; it made me want to be more open hearted, more loving and a better human being.

Way to go Abigail Tarttelin, you have created an amazing piece of literature that will profoundly affect a lot of your readers and you have done it at the tender age of 25. I cannot recommend this book enough; seriously, go buy your copy now.

 

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

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As a reader, I am not particularly fond of the term ‘coming of age’. As a writer, I try not to use it at all because what can be more clichéd than using the phrase ‘coming of age’, but if one reads Mohsin Hamid’s latest book “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” one is forced to use a term as corny as this.

Let me start by saying that there is no love lost between the author and I. I found his first book rather ordinary. Hamid was descriptive in Moth Smoke and his protagonist was odious, obsessive and had no redeeming qualities. He became introspective in The Reluctant Fundamentalist; the tone was improved greatly and the monologue in which the novella was written dominated the reader in such a way that it required great effort to see beyond the protagonist’s point of view. With ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ Hamid presented his readers with a prose that is beautiful, lyrical and profound.

Guardian called him Pakistani Fitzgerald – I would not call him that because the respect I have for Fitzgerald is the kind that is reserved for dead people who are way out of your league. Mohsin Hamid is not that – for starter, he is alive, a fellow countryman and much closer to me in age. But he sure is in a league of his own – heads and shoulders above most other sub continental writers who put far too much emphasis on the story and a lot less on nuance, tone and style.

The book is about an unnamed character that moves from an unnamed village to an unnamed city, attends an unnamed university and falls in love with another unnamed character in Rising Asia. The defining feature of this book perhaps is the fact that it is written in second person.  The writer talks to ‘You’ in the book and you are not really sure if he is talking to ‘You’ the protagonist or ‘You’ – the reader. It engages the reader in a way that they feel like a part of the narration – at times even a character.

The appeal of the book lies in its style for its story is fairly common – there is rural urban migration, boy meets girls, boy falls for girl and of course there is that rags to riches element as well. The style transcends the story, its characters, its period and its location. The characters did not have names or addresses which gave the text a whimsical feel and brought the reader – no matter what their age, location or the reality is – closer to the protagonist.

The characters are believable, relatable and it was perhaps the only book I have read where I – the reader – had empathy for each and every character of the book for there were no heroes or villains. The woman who wanted to be with her husband in the city, the boy who was sent to work as an apprentice at a spray paint shop to supplement the family income, the girl who escaped her family, the boy who understood the loneliness of his widowed father, the widowed father who did not know what to do with all the spare time he had and the woman who wanted to win the affection of her husband and then completely lost interest in him are all real people – even the minor characters are dynamic and have many sides to them.

There are three main female characters in the book and though they all belonged to different generations and approached life differently, the common factor was that they were braver and ballsier than a lot of men around them. Women in Hamid’s book are such amazingly fierce and independent characters that you cant help but root for them – even when you do not agree with their course of action.

The book is more enjoyable because of its contradictions. This is a novel but it is written like a self-help book with appropriately titled chapters such as “Move to the City”, “Don’t fall in Love” and “Have an exit strategy” and it does not let go of any opportunity to mock the self help genre. It praises the vitality of youth but has just as tenderly dealt with old age, frailty and mortality. There is a subdued longing for a love that got away and admiration for a spouse in a marriage of convenience. There are dreams tinged with pragmatism and practicality laced with romance.  It values the connection that a person has with his clansmen and with his land but it also appreciates the anonymity that comes with abandoning the roots and relocation to a bigger city.

Some books start well but loose the plot later, some peak in the middle and some have great ending. This one starts with a promise, maintains the momentum throughout and ends just as well as it started. Last paragraph of the last chapter has dealt with death not as something morose or romantic but as a transition that is keenly anticipated because the life before that death was well lived.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia satisfies a reader like very few books do. It is a love story; it has action, drama and elements of political thriller. Most refreshing is its moral ambiguity, everything that is produced in Pakistan is sermonized to the extent that all joy flies out of it, Hamid’s characters are as free of such restraints as they can be in Rising Asia.

The first lecture of Creative Writing 101 would tell you to write about what you know best. Most writers do that and excel, they deviate from what they know and do not do too well. For instance, Afghan American writer Khaled Hosseini was in great form in The Kite Runner because the book had traces of a life he has lived but he fell flat in A Thousand Splendid Suns and his characters became a sad combination of cliché and caricature – if that is even possible. Hamid is amazing because he is at his best when he writes about something that is quite far removed from his own life experiences. His background is urban and cosmopolitan – unlike his nameless protagonist – and he probably has never set a foot inside a public university in Pakistan where getting a room in the boys hostel means bowing down to the student wings of the political parties yet he nailed the details, the aspirations, the fears and the emotions perfectly.

Though a novel, ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ did become a self help book for me for it tells me how to write a poignant story and how to be ruthless with one’s own work because it is fairly obvious that the writer has written a lot more but chose to present his readers with this edited version. Such restraint is admirable in anyone but more so in a writer. I was a reluctant reader and read Mohsin Hamid’s first book three years after it came. He got me interested in his work with the second one and completely won me over with the latest offering. Needless to say, this one comes highly recommended.

Originally written for The Friday Times, this is the unedited version

 

A world without The Alchemist

A friend Raheel shared this graph which lists top 10 most read books in the world on Facebook. As expected, there were some usual suspects in the list like ‘The Bible’ and ‘The Harry Potter series’. Raheel appeared to be a little bummed that the list also features the Twilight Saga and thinks that if anyone is looking for a snapshot into why the world is so fucked up, they need to see what the world is reading. In other words, if too many people are reading about angsty vampires, werewolves with pedophilic tendencies and insipid pinning girls then something is NOT right in the world. 
I am sure Raheel has his reasons for being sick and tired of the Twilight Saga but I think there are other entries far more worrisome than the tales of a teenager who alternates between necrophilia and bestiality. 
For starters, the world can do with a little less religiosity and a lot more compassion but let’s just not go there because I have no desire to be lynched by that overwhelming majority that reads all the religious texts.
Secondly, twilight is not dangerous because it is mostly read by the prepubescent teens (and their older sisters with stunted mental growth and their moms who wants to do all things their little girls do) with absolutely no delusions of grandiosity. If they are happy reading about undead old creeps who look like sparkling teenagers then let them be – in their own little bubble. 
Far more dangerous are those who read absolute shite like ‘The Alchemist’ and think they have had this spiritual and/or philosophical and existential awakening which kinda gives them a license to pontificate according to their heart’s desire. Not only do they want to expound their new found wisdom to any poor unsuspecting soul that comes with the radius of 200 meters, they also think they are doing the others a huge favour by sharing their profundity. It is at times like this one agrees with Scott Adams and blames it all on the Gutenberg press for spreading the pop philosophy mumbo jumbo to the masses. The world would have been a better place had there been no ‘Alchemist’ in it.
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