A Review of “Among the Missing” by Dan Chaon

indexIn 2006, there was a film in Malayalam which became a cult film of sorts. It was called Thanmathra (“Molecule”), and depicted a man’s frightening descent into Alzheimer’s. But what gave the story its poignancy was the bond between the protagonist and his son: the single-minded effort on the part of the former to make the latter an officer of the Indian Administrative Service. Incidentally, the movie also focussed on the relationship between the protagonist and his father.

Speaking on the movie, the director said that he chose the name of the film to represent Indian society. Even if each family was nuclear (an atom, in fact), it was joined to a multitude of other families – each son was a father, each mother a daughter, each son a father in his turn… and so on and so forth. In India, the joint family never died, but formed a loosely structured molecule.

This metaphor stuck in my mind, and I was immediately reminded of it the moment I read the stories in this collection. Because Dan Chaon is writing about a molecule that is fast coming unstuck.

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If I were asked to pick a theme running through all the stories in this collection, I would say ‘family’. Here are fathers, sons, mothers, daughters and siblings, all loving and hating, bonding and drifting apart. I am not familiar with American society, but from the laments I have heard from friends and relatives settled abroad about ‘deteriorating’ relationships, I conclude that the strong familial fidelity that is the norm in India is conspicuous by its absence. This in itself is not a bad thing: it gives a lot of freedom to individuals, and does prevent parental notions of control which can become claustrophobic. But it does remove the safety net below the tenuous thing we call ‘security’.

This is illustrated in the story Falling Backwards. This tale, told from back to front, traces the life of an alienated woman at her current lonely stage in life to her childhood moments of companionship with her father. It ends with the telling metaphor of her father and herself falling backwards willingly from a construction scaffolding, knowing that the net will catch them.

Chaon flirts with horror (he confesses himself a horror fan), but there is nothing supernatural in these stories. What we see are glimpses of the darkness just below the surface. In a way, it is more frightening than ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night: because it is the darkness of the mind that is made visible. In I Demand to Know Where You Are Taking Me, one of the darkest stories in the collection, a macaw becomes the mouthpiece of a convicted rapist for his sister-in-law, who has a love-hate relationship with him. In Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By, a shameful childhood secret keeps on haunting a man, who is not allowed to grow up because his silence might have cost his friend his life. In both these stories, the conclusion is left tantalisingly uncertain.

The fluidity of time (as explored in Falling Backwards) as well as the fiendish face behind the smiling visage are hinted at in Big Me, which could be a frightening tale of a psychotic murderer or an innocent child’s fantasy, depending on how we look at it.

In the title story Among the Missing, there is a telling image of a family which apparently committed suicide en masse by driving into a lake. This story serves as a template, I feel, for all things Dan Chaon is trying to articulate.

Looking at their photograph, you couldn’t help imagining them all in that car, under the water. I saw it as a scene in a Bergman film—a kind of dreamy blur around the edges, the water a certain undersea color, like a reflection through green glass. Their bodies would be lifted a bit, floating a few centimeters above the upholstery, bobbing a little with the currents but held fast by the seat belts. Silver minnows would flit past the pale hands that still gripped the steering wheel, and hide in the seaweed of the little girl’s long, drifting hair; a plastic ball might be floating near the ceiling. Their eyes would be wide, and their mouths slightly open; their skin would be pale and shimmery as the inside of a clamshell; but there would be no real expression on their faces. They would just stare, perhaps with faint surprise.

This image stayed with me, long after I closed the book.

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The short story is an entirely different proposition from the novel, even though both are forms of narrative. The novel is usually a relatively long and leisurely read, and the reader has a long affair with it: there is time for character development, philosophical discourses, interior monologue… whereas the short story wins purely on how effective it is in conveying its theme with the most economy of words. If the novel is a marriage, the short story is a whirlwind affair conducted over a weekend.

The best short stories are those that hit you with the force of a sledge hammer – which the stories in this collection do.

Well worth reading, if darkness does not bother you. If more sunny literature is your cup of tea, better leave it alone.

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What Am I? – A Review of “Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction” by Susan Blackmore

The Self is illusion – so says the Buddha; and Susan Blackmore agrees, albeit with more scientific evidence as backup.

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The Hard Problem

We are sure that there is a world outside, filled with inanimate and live things. However, we can experience this world only through our senses: the colours, the smells and the feels. They are all we have, to form our idea about our environment. However, they are dependent upon the experiences of our brain, therefore by nature subjective – and when we come to abstract concepts like pleasure and pain, they have no existence other than in the mind.

“Mind” – the fateful word! What is it? Even if we are not read up on philosophy, we assume that it exists independently of our physical body. That is, most of us subscribe to some sort of dualism. All the world’s religions, other than Buddhism, posit an indestructible “soul” (although there is a difference between the Hindu Atman and the Levantine soul, a point which I shall touch upon later).

The best-known duaFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descarteslist theory about the mind is the one proposed by Rene Descartes, the famous Seventeenth Century French philosopher. According to Descartes, the mind is non-physical and resides in the pineal gland in the centre of the brain. However, the problem of the interaction of the non-physical mind with the physical brain is not so easily solved, therefore most scientists and philosophers prefer a monistic explanation – either the mind being fundamental, or the body. Modern science takes the materialistic view that the mind arises from mental processes.
But this does not solve the problem of how a physical brain, made purely of material substances, can give rise to conscious experiences which scientists call the ‘qualia’, the indescribable experiences. This is traditionally called the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, a term coined by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers in 1994.

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What does being conscious mean? For example, is my computer which takes inputs from me, interacts with me, and provides output in some way conscious? Most of us would instinctively say no: we are conditioned to think only biologically “live” entities as conscious. But then, is a tree conscious? It is born, lives and dies: reaches towards light, and uses its roots to feed itself. Again, most of us would say no – it has no brain. But then, is a bat, which has a brain, conscious in the same way that I am conscious?
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“What is it like to be a bat?” – This question was made famous by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel 1n 1974. He said that if there is something it is like to be the bat, that is, if the bat is self-aware of being itself, then it is conscious: otherwise it is not. Nagel was using this argument to challenge materialism: since consciousness is subjective, we can never know objectively what it is. What we are talking about here is phenomenal consciousness, which is where self-awareness comes from – which is to be differentiated from access consciousness, which we use for thinking, acting and speaking.

So here is the million-dollar question: is consciousness an add-on to the physical brain, something which arises out of neural activity yet independent of it (the ‘ghost in the machine’)? Or is it intrinsic to complex brain processes and inseparable from them, and the idea of an independent consciousness an illusion?

Blackmore subscribes to the latter viewpoint, following the path of the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. This book is devoted to proving that the self is an illusion, based on the findings of scientific research.

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The Theatre of the Mind and the Stream of Consciousness

Susan Blackmore says we more or less view our mind as a theatre, where the self sits, seeing the show through the eyes, experiencing smells through the nose, and hearing sound through the ears – our daily 4D movie show. Also, we add the time element to it, experiencing it as flowing like a stream (hence the term ‘stream of consciousness’). According to Dennett, this is all bunkum. There is no centre point in the mind where everything comes together – it is all processed in parallel.

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Image courtesy: Jennifer Montes

The amount of scientific research the author manages to bring to the table to prove her point are impressive. First, the human brain is analysed in detail, how various parts are related to various activities of the consciousness – also how damage significantly changes human perception in weird ways. Having linked mental processes firmly to physical activity, Blackmore attacks the concept of ‘stream of consciousness’ by establishing that the events the brain processes do not enter consciousness at all unless verbally probed – that is, we become aware of doing something only when we introspect. So there is no ‘stream’ as such, rather multiple processes which are gathered into a coherent stream later on.

The Grand Illusion

Still there must be something like a consciousness to do all this activity. Blackmore does not disagree – we do feel a ‘conscious self’, but in scientific terms, it is an illusion. She presents an extensive list of interesting experiments to prove that perception is largely subliminal. Even if we are not “aware” of what we perceive, the brain functions just the same. The self, instead of an entity, is a ‘bundle of sensations’, to borrow the words of David Hume. This is also very near to the concept of the ‘Anatman’ – the ‘not-self’ – posited by the Buddha (a man much ahead of his time, it seems!).

However, Blackmore goes further in denying the self – she refuses to equate it with any brain process. Quoting Dennett, she says that the self is a total illusion created by the way we use our language:
Daniel Dennett

Finally, a completely different approach is provided by Dennett. Having rejected the Cartesian theatre, he also rejects its audience of one who watches the show. The self, he claims, is something that needs to be explained, but it does not exist in the way that a physical object (or even a brain process) exists. Like a centre of gravity in physics, it is a useful abstraction. Indeed, he calls it a ‘centre of narrative gravity’. Our language spins the story of a self and so we come to believe that there is, in addition to our single body, a single inner self who has consciousness, holds opinions, and makes decisions. Really, there is no inner self but only multiple parallel processes that give rise to a benign user illusion – a useful fiction.

It seems we have some tough choices in thinking about our own precious self. We can hang on to the way it feels and assume that a persisting self or soul or spirit exists, even though it cannot be found and leads to deep philosophical troubles. We can equate it with some kind of brain process and shelve the problem of why this brain process should have conscious experiences at all, or we can reject any persisting entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self.

I think that intellectually we have to take this last path. The trouble is that it is very hard to accept in one’s own personal life. It means taking a radically different view of every experience. It means accepting that there is no one who is having these experiences. It means accepting that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction and not the same ‘me’ who seemed to exist a moment before, or last week, or last year. This is tough, but I think it gets easier with practice.

In the same way, Susan Blackmore also negates free will. Quoting an interesting experiment by Wegner, she argues that the same unconscious impulses give rise to the action and the thought behind the action: only thing is that the thought occurs a fraction of a second before the action, so we conclude that we have willed it!

(This is a truly radical approach. I must confess, even though it is argued flawlessly, it is a bit hard for me to accept. But I must admit that I have lived with this consciousness for such a long time that it is very difficult to let the chap go!)

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This is a good book, which talks on a difficult subject in a readable manner. The author’s erudition and credentials also cannot be faulted. However, a couple of caveats:

Firstly, this is not an introduction to the subject – it is an introduction to particular theory of consciousness. History of scientific and philosophical research on the subject is largely ignored, and competing theories are presented only so that they can be refuted. I am definitely interested in the subject, and shall be reading more – and not just Dennett’s theory.

Secondly, materialism and monism is taken as a given. True, the Levantine concept of an indestructible soul occupying the destructible body cannot be treated scientifically (though it’s a valid religious concept)– but the Hindu concept of Atman and Brahman is slightly different.

The Mandukya Upanishad talks extensively of consciousness. It posits four ‘Purushas’ (we may think of them as various types of consciousness). The first one, which is outward-looking and connected to the waking state, experiences the ‘real’ world. The second one, which is inward-looking and connected to the dreaming state, experiences the phenomenal world. The third one, which is connected with dreamless sleep, experiences the real and phenomenal worlds at the same time. And the fourth one, the most profound, goes beyond all these experiences and transcends the phenomenal existence. I guess it is here that the Atman identifies with the Brahman.

The concept of the Brahman in Hinduism can be most closely approximated as ‘un-distilled sentience’: a sort of cosmic consciousness of which each and every atom of reality is but a part. The individual Atman is but an imperfect reflection of the Brahman: the realisation that it is part of the big whole is said to be the whole purpose of enlightenment.

At the present level of scientific knowledge, materialism seems to be the only valid worldview. But in the light of quantum phenomena, is the concept of reality as sentience wholly off the mark? I don’t think so.

Susan Blackmore could have dwelt a bit more on the philosophical aspects of the question also, I feel. But maybe it’s unfair to expect it from a book which is basically scientific in nature.

A Review of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga

white-tigerBefore I begin my review, a statutory warning to all my patriotic Indian brothers and sisters… this is India-bashing, large scale. If you are the sort of person who gets all worked up when any aspect of India is criticised, this book is not for you.

That said, Arvind Adiga bashes India where it has to be bashed. No honest reader will be able to dispute that the picture of India he paints is a false one. You will find the majority of Indians embarassedly changing the topic when Bihar (the state Adiga names “Darkness”) enters the conversation. Most of the things he mentions are not only possible, but probable and even likely. You only have to read any Indian newspaper over the period of a week to know it.

But I believe the author fails in the creation of Munna alias Balram Halwai, the protagonist, because his voice is totally out of character with the person. It is the supercilious voice of a Westernised Indian, detached from his home country by education and station in life that comes through. The street smart Munna who murdered his employer and set up his business in Bangalore will talk in an entirely different way (for example, he will never say “five hundred thousand rupees” – he’ll say “five lakhs”). Here, the character just becomes a mouthpiece for the author.

Secondly, Adiga goes overboard in criticising India, so that some of his examples become rather extreme (the immediate one that comes to mind is the schoolteacher boozing and sleeping in the classroom). In some other cases, they are downright silly (Balram buys a dosa and throws out all the potatoes before giving to Mukesh, whereas he could have bought a dosa easily without the potatoes: these are two varieties). It also confirms the opinion I formed of Adiga from his bio that he is that type of Indian Lord Macaulay wanted to create: Indian only by birth but English in spirit.

Lastly, the story failed to hold my interest. Take out all the social criticism and it is nothing but a hollow shell. And the gimmicks, like framing it as a letter to the Chinese premier, are trite to the point of being nauseating.

The only thing that impressed me about this work is some of the pithy statements Adiga makes about Indian society. Especially the ones about how caste-ridden India was a zoo, with all animals in separate cages when the British let them all out, so now only the ones with the big bellies and the ones with the small bellies are left; about automobile horns during a traffic jam joining together to form a single wail like a lost calf wailing for its mother; and the one about how the major diseases India faces are cholera, typhoid and election fever (though I would also include cricket).

A Review of “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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“The world was silent when we died.”

This casual statement he once heard is used as the title of a book written by one of the characters in this novel, in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie chronicles the birth, short and tortured life and death of the State of Biafra: born on the 30th of May, 1967 from Nigeria and forcefully annexed back by the parent state, after a bitter war in which a million died, in January 1970.

Most of us, I suspect, do not know about this short-lived country. Even Wikipedia calls the war between Biafra and Nigeria a “civil war”, thus denying legitimacy to the erstwhile nation: even though a number of countries recognised it. Since history is always written by the victors, the voice of the losers are often submerged in the general background noise.

I listened to a talk by the author – a very impressive one – about the danger of the “single story”: the one that has been foisted on the world by the erstwhile colonial powers and called “history”. These are opinions which are taught as facts, which tend to show an uncivilised “third world”, and the West’s “civilising” influence. This is so much bovine excrement. The colonial powers went into Asia and Africa to loot, and when the loot was finished, exited leaving miserable poverty and the flames of mutual hatred in the minds of people. This is the story which is not told.

Ms. Adichie also warns us about the “secondary story” in the speech; that is, starting the story from the second chapter, ignoring the first. Examples are plentiful – Palestinians attacking the peaceful state of Israel, without mentioning the death and displacement of thousand of Palestinians to create the said country; mutual hatred between India and Pakistan, without mentioning the hatred fomented by the British which resulted in the partition; endemic poverty and tribal violence in Africa, without mentioning the years of occupation by the West which created them. Up till recently, world history was made up of these secondary stories, which served as the “one story” which the former colonial powers wanted to propagate.

It is heartening to note that things are changing. People like Chimamanda are using the most powerful medium available to humans since the dawn of civilisation to bring about that change: the medium of the narrative. And it is here that the defeated people have an immense power which cannot be suppressed.

The world was silent when many died. But now it will have to listen, as the dead tell their story from beyond the grave.

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As the British colonists left Nigeria, they did what they were expert at doing: drawing artificial national boundaries and inciting hatred in the minds of the people they ruled. So after a period of uneasy calm, Nigeria erupted in riots. The powerful Hausa people massacred the Igbo minority, whom they considered to be enjoying more benefits than was due them (see anything familiar here?), and the Igbo declared independence from Nigeria, and the state of Biafra was born. However, Nigeria could not let go of the oil-rich south: so war was declared. In a bitter battle which lasted two and a half years which left a million dead and the country devastated, Biafra was subjugated and wiped off the map.

Ms. Adichie passes the harsh white light of history through the prism of individual experience to create overlapping rainbows of narratives. In this, her style is similar to that of Paul Scott; however, whereas Scott’s narrative is an Indian tapestry where one has to search among the intricate coloured strands to see a pattern (or multiple conflicting patterns), Chimamanda’s work has all the blunt beauty of African art: the uncomplicated lines and the simple patterns which makes the medium all but transparent so that the narrator is talking directly to the listener. Scenes of utter despair and brutality are described very matter-of-factly, in almost Hemingway-esque prose. We are all sitting around a metaphorical campfire, listening to the author telling her story in uncomplicated prose.

But it does not mean that there are no nuances. The name, Half of a Yellow Sun, itself signifies separation, a paring; the fact that it is a reference to the Biafran flag makes it all the more significant. One of the three main characters through whose viewpoints we experience the tale, Olanna, is one of set of fraternal twins. Like twins in a fairy tale, the sisters are of diametrically opposite natures – Olanna is beautiful, revolutionary and optimistic; while her sister Kainene is plain, cynical and pessimistic. Of course, things are not so simple as they seem, and the sisters’ characters unfurl as the story progresses: showing us more and more layers, as the siblings move through their lives, facing love, hatred, betrayal, separation and loss against a nation that is slowly coming apart at the seams.

Another character through whose eyes we see the tragedy of Biafra is Richard Churchill, Kainene’s lover – an Englishman who has “gone native”. Richard is interested in Igbo pottery, and is ostensibly researching it. He is also trying to write a book which never seems to take shape – like character from a Kafka story, Richard plods on, reaching nowhere.
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But for me, the character who holds the novel together is Ugwu, houseboy of Odenigbo, Olanna’s boyfriend. As we move across the Nigeria of the early sixties to the Biafra of the late sixties and then again, back to a unified Nigeria in 1970, Ugwu grows from child to man – in more ways than one. In the end, he becomes Richard’s spiritual heir of sorts, telling the story of the Igbo people of Nigeria, which Richard could never accomplish.

The story goes on.