“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

“Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea” by Adam Roberts (2014)

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“On the 29th June, 1958, the submarine vessel Plongeur left the French port of Saint-Nazaire under the command of Capitaine de vaisseau Adam Cloche.”

The oceans of the Earth remain the last unexplored frontier of the planet. Humanity has always been sort of captivated by the seas, but also terrified of them, and often reluctant to play around with them too much. We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the ocean floors. What is lurking down there, we can only guess. Every so often a craft descends as deep as possible and brings back photos and videos of alien creatures and whole ecosystems that have never known the sun or the sky. But what if, as Adam Roberts proposes in his book, the ocean is perhaps much deeper than we thought?

It’s 1958, and France and India have teamed up to build France’s first nuclear submarine, Plongeur. Unfortunately, on its maiden voyage, something goes wrong with the vents and the sub begins to sink far deeper than the crew had planned for. And then it keeps going, and going, and going, and going…

Reaching a depth that defies the laws of physics in any number of ways, the crew have many questions. Why haven’t they been crushed by the water pressure? Where are all those breezes coming from? How can they reverse Plongeur‘s direction and head back home? When the sub seems to reach a depth that is even greater than the Earth’s diameter, things become desperate.

Trapped and sinking ever lower, the twelve men on board the ship begin to turn on one another, each with an apparently different motive and idea as to how they should solve this problem. Madness and violence set in, as they wonder if this ocean even has a bottom, and if it does, what they’re going to do once they get there…

The suspense builds nicely, and as the characters begin to turn against one another, it becomes difficult to quite know who to root for, giving us an extra layer of confusion. Only a few of the characters are particularly distinct, with some of the minor sailors merging into one. Alain Lebret, who is a non-military observer becomes quite important and it’s not always clear where his morals lie. I also enjoyed Captain Cloche, who doesn’t want to know what’s going on because his mission is to get home and that’s all he can focus on, and Jean Billiard-Fanon, the ensign, is engaging if entirely mad.

Each chapter is also accompanied by a very beautiful illustration, one of which is on the left, here. They are very simple and really show very little, but the emotion they convey is spot on and very deep. There’s an intensity to them that’s very captivating, and they don’t interfere with the story at all, just give you a better grasp of what’s going on. I like a book with a couple of pictures, and they really help present the weirdness of the situation and the vastness of the oceanscape.

Without giving too much away, there is a resolution and it’s quite a good one too in it’s own way, but as always with these things “nothing is scarier than something”, so as soon as you find out what’s going on, it loses its edge. The greatest scenes are those that focus on the submarine’s descent, as well as the growing madness among the crew. And then it all basically ends on a particularly laboured pun which made me laugh and groan simultaneously like nothing else has for a long time, and I include all the scripted jokes on The Great British Bake Off in that..

But don’t let that put you off. It’s worth reading and a really tense, engaging story of claustrophobia, insanity and fear. One thing’s for sure, you’ll think twice about getting in the water next time you go to the beach, and it won’t just be the cold putting you off.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga (2008)

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white-tiger“Neither you nor I can speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.”

I don’t have much truck with many awards, and I usually find that whatever ends up winning an Oscar, Man Booker, Emmy, Brit, and so on, I’ve never seen, read or heard. One of my friends thinks this is because I like to shun things that are popular, but that doesn’t take into account my obsessive love of Harry Potter, among other things. I think generally it’s because the sort of books and films that win these awards generally never really appeal to me. They seem to have been created for the award and the award alone.

In particular, the Man Booker Prize is something that I’ve never really paid attention to. I have, however, read three of them. Well, two and a bit. I started The God Of Small Things at university and despised it, giving up after a few chapters. I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it. And this brings us to the third Man Booker Prize winner I’ve ever read – The White Tiger.

This is the tale of Balram Halwai who grew up in a poor caste in a dirty village of India. Despite his caste being sweet-makers, his father was a rickshaw puller, having had his destiny stolen from him. Attempting to make something of himself, Balram is employed by a local rich man and his family, and becomes their driver.

Balram is a honest, hard-working servant who comes to struggle with his position. He realises that the caste system once so prevalent in India has been replaced by a much simpler one – the haves and have nots. He sees himself as a white tiger, a rare beast that comes along once in a generation and cannot be tamed. His employers begin asking more and more terrible things of him, and as things come to a head, Balram decides to do something drastic to free himself from this life that he doesn’t believe he deserves.

The framing device is that the story is told over seven nights in a letter to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. This seems odd, but Balram is keen to tell Jiabao about how India is a country full of entrepreneurs and go-getters. Whether Jiabao ever reads the letter, or even receives it, is never disclosed.

There are so many themes running throughout this story. There’s an ongoing battle for Balram’s independence and his insistence that he is not like other men, which for the most part he isn’t. He discusses the political situation in India, although he doesn’t necessarily get all the ins and outs of it, and he is aware that the people are locked in, what he terms, a “rooster coop”. That is, no one can escape alone from the position they are in, and no one else is going to help them do so. It’s also a tale of globalisation, with Balram’s master Ashok being a fan of America and New Delhi being full of strip malls, call centres and hotels that are all only there because of Western development.

Like Lucky Jim, oddly enough, the biggest theme though is perhaps class. Balram notes that people either have big bellies or they do not, declaring that the divide between the rich and poor is stronger than ever, and hugely obvious to anyone who’s looking.

It’s a darkly funny book, biting and caustic towards the situation in India, and it opened my eyes to what things are like there. Balram is fairly likeable, even with his final acts (corruption is another ongoing theme, one that he first dislikes and later comes around to understand), but I never quite understood how old he was meant to be. It’s never explicitly stated, so in my head he is in his twenties, but may well be older.

Overall, the book served to prove to me that just because it won a Man Booker Prize, it doesn’t mean I should write it off as something I wouldn’t like. It’s a smart book, a brilliant debut and well deserving of a place in modern literature.

“Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings” by Kuzhali Manickavel (2008)

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I wonder if the winged ones mock the non-winged ones...

I wonder if the winged ones mock the non-winged ones…

“The minute Malathi takes charge, the universe begins to sing her name like it is something holy.”

I lack the wanderlust gene that seems to have been bred into almost everyone else of my generation. While my sister is currently trekking across Australian deserts and one of my best friends is glamping her way around southern Europe, I am pretty content in my English environment (although I have just been to Scotland, which is beautiful enough and right on the doorstep). However, none of this means that I have been idle. In the books I’ve read so far this year, I have so far visited America, Germany, the Netherlands, Egypt, the Discworld, Polynesia, Greece and now, I find myself in India.

Last time I visited literary India, it was with The God of Small Things, a novel that won the Booker Prize but, as far as I could tell in the quarter I read before envisioning shoving it in some undisclosed orifice of my university lecturer, has very little merit at all. This time I was back with the lengthily-titled Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings, a title that proves even more problematic for a blog when you’re like me and like writing long sentences anyway.

Pause for a breath. I’ll try and shorten them from now on.

Insects is thirty-five short stories by Indian-American author Kuzhali Manickavel who apparently has a very beautiful mind that can produce some startling images. The stories vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to a maximum of ten or eleven pages, meaning these are very much slice of life stories. In a lot of them, very little is happening. Someone carries a coconut, someone treads on a bug, a door gets stuck. There is rarely if ever any explanation for the bigger picture, instead just focusing generally on the minutia of life.

The stories share some links in that I think all of them reference an insect at least once, or involve insects in some way, and a lot of them have the characters experience very vivid dreams. Some of the stories are more bizarre than others, but the strangest is probably “Some Singular Event” which involves a Captain, someone trying to take a photo of the colour red, and the mention that the characters have been falling for over two weeks. Falling where, why or how is never explained.

Some of the stories I liked more than others, but like a sketch show, anthologies do tend to be a bit hit and miss. “The Sugargun Fairy” is redeemed by the single line, “[E]veryone must keep a box of things they don’t understand and can’t throw away” which I adore, and agree with. The other story I bookmarked was the brilliant “Information Regarding The Two Main Characters”, which is exactly what it says on the tin. No one is named, just labelled Character 1 and Character 2 and they are described not in terms of appearance or even personality particularly, but, for example, in what one of them keeps on the dashboard of his car or the other’s collection of imaginary diseases.

I’m finding it really hard to get a grip on what makes this book so captivating, because despite its length (139 pages) it did grab me. The meaning and magic is as ethereal and hard to pin down as the insects in the title. There’s a charm in the ordinary, even if sometimes it seems that there’s much more than that going on in these stories.

Ultimately, I found the book interesting, very beautiful, but almost entirely incomprehensible.