Submission by Michel Houellebecq

The story of a spiritually barren Francois. But, not just. His story is set in what MH sees as near future France: the 2022 national elections are fast approaching. The change in political climate is so rapid that the society’s intellectuals completely miss the key milestones of the transformation this election unleashes.

That a part of this struggle might actually have played out in the latest French elections #2017 is a testimony to MH’s prescience… but more of a good reading of what’s going on in Europe. In ‘Submission’, 2022 elections have two favourites facing off – Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Muhammed Ben Abbes of the nascent Muslim fraternity.

So far, two things in the current reality of the French society concur with the what the story says: The impact of the minorities on the ‘French way of life’, and French votes moving from Left and Left-of-centre to Centre-left (Macron, maybe?) and far-Right, which Le Pen represents.

That Michel Houellebecq has chosen Francois, a professor and an intellectual hit by mid-life crisis as the voice of a rapidly changing French society already says a lot. France, just like Francois, is living an excruciatingly confused reality.

Apparently, Francois’ most important work has been his dissertation on the works of a 19th-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, which he defended in 2007, to get him his professorial job. Completion of his studies at the university gave way to the typically French existential crisis: ‘I would have to see about entering the workforce.’ And, typically so, he explains, “the prospect left me cold.”

Francois is least prepared for a career as a prof of literature, a career he has analysed with these words: the academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 per cent of the time.

As with academics, so with personal life. String of girlfriends, nights spent at one’s place or the other’s, and then within a year it is over, usually before the start of a new academic year. A lot of these women happened to be his students, especially now that he was no longer young. The book has the required French staples – the use of sex to define dark longings for a “connection”, the expected laundry list of ‘ennui’-causing acts but those which are also a staple because well, without it, how to keep going?

And then, the elections are just three weeks away. Although, Francois’ comments on democracy are interesting: “Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.”

Francois sees but unsees the signs of change enveloping his reality. The election is crowded with Marine Le Pen, the socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood. She loses. The other two come up with power sharing agreement, with Muslim Brotherhood having the upper hand.

That’s when things change drastically, for both France and Francois. In a way that was previously only talked about by Marine Le Pen and her coterie.

Francois ponders how women in the Western societies had it rough: Hidden all day in impenetrable black burkas, rich Saudi women transformed themselves by night into birds of paradise with their corsets, their see-through bras, their G-strings with multicoloured lace and rhinestones. They were exactly the opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favour of clothes that were loose and shapeless. If Francois seems to be making women and their sexuality a cornerstone of his understanding and comment of social landscape while being a liberal intellectual, this is certainly not a coincidence.

Finally, it happened. Muslim Brotherhood calling the shots meant the transformation of Francois’ university into an Islamic-style institution, as the society itself started responding to the new political landscape appropriately. Francois loses his job. His Jewish on-again off-again girlfriend leaves for Israel for good. Francois hits the road to trace his literary hero Huysmans’ journey, alone and lonely. A few restless months here and there and Francois finds himself being courted by his peers back at the college who have completely modified their lifestyle to suit the demands of their current masters, finding that they were actually flourishing like never before.

Women in workforce had been replaced by men. So, more jobs around made men happy. Those who wanted power, converted. Francois was alarmed to see his former colleagues and seniors who had more than one wives, some of whom were half their age. They had breathtaking houses, money, and of course this.

If you are anything like me, you’ll find the biggest surprise the author deals us is to see Francois tempted.

Read Submission for a scathing comment on the present state of liberal thought and priorities.

 

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson

Mark Manson is a superstar in the blogiverse.

The only thing that previously kept me away from picking up this book was his use of the F-word in the title – for hasn’t someone said that the use of swear words means you have run out of good arguments? I’ve always made a scattered use of swear words myself due to what I have called time and again ‘circumstances’ but have generally felt bad about it later because of my belief in what I just quoted. This actually became my feedback loop from hell. What’s a feedback loop from hell? Read the book.

So, as in this case, what do you do when an argument starts only with the F-word? You read on. Because, this book isn’t just immensely readable, it’s something I’d recommend to everyone except my worst enemies (in case they exist) – or maybe not, for I hope they learn to stop giving a fuck about me. Maybe this is getting to be too much. Yeah, maybe 🙂

Oh, and by the way, a lot of people call it a self-help book. Traditionally, the usual culprits under this section would be stuff like ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘The Secret’ and the ‘Who Will Cry When You Die’ and the ‘Monk who Sold His Ferrari’ and the ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ – which was more of a tome than a book really, and the ‘Chicken Soup For The Soul’ Series. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck is so anti-self help it is the one book that might get you to stop giving a fuck about self-help books altogether. I, for one, certainly stopped giving a fuck about putting the F-word in black & white, even if it is just for this one blog post.

How is it anti-self help? Sample this: “But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice – all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time – is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasises them for you.” 

This book is like that much-needed no-nonsense chat you get from someone who has your interests at heart, who walks into your home in the middle of afternoon to say, “look buddy, I think you should know this”. And he cuts through the fat and calls a spade a spade, which is you. It’s honest and unpretentious and somehow, just what you need.

Some of my fav passages:

Everyone and their TV commercial wants you to believe that the key to a good life is a nicer job, or a more rugged car, or a prettier girlfriend, or a hot tub with an inflatable pool for the kids. The world is constantly telling you that the path to a better life is more, more, more, – buy more, own more, make more, fuck more, be more. 

And,

The key to a good life is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Beatty Refuses to be a Sellout to Satire

Paul Beatty refuses to be The Sellout of the modern literary world.

4 days after I finished reading The Sellout and wrote about this Man Booker-winning fiction branded the world over as ‘homourous’ and as a ‘satire’, came this interview By Amrita Tripathi at Jaipur LitFest, in Scroll.in with Paul Beatty, the author. And he had a few things to say about his work being perceived as a ‘satire’ (by the Man Booker jury, major print media, that gang), which I find completely dishonest and unfair.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is not a satire. It’s an inquiry, a literary critique of the society he lives in in context with its history of racism and privilege. I don’t understand why grown-ups on panels such as the Man Booker jury and reviewers in various major newspapers turn their backs to such honesty of emotion and find it difficult to accept the work on its own terms without reducing it to something that is simply not there – Satire. Yes, you find satire eddying around some places in the story but that’s not what the whole book is made of.

Take this excerpt from his interview:

You’ve spoken about being uncomfortable with The Sellout being labelled a satire. Can you tell us why?
What’s weird is I don’t read a ton of contemporary fiction…man, maybe I don’t read the stuff that they would label satire. But It’s kind of a word that hasn’t been thrown around lately much. This book is not much different in terms of tone and stuff from anything else I’ve written, but the word “satire” never comes up (for those). So I think that word is somehow tied to whatever the zeitgeist is right now in the States. It’s like a counter-point to something, not just to Trump or whatever, but also to this kind of progressive rhetoric. Sometimes, yeah, the book is definitely about that, but it’s not satirical, really, to me.

And the other thing is, there’s a…y’know, people were talking about humour earlier today. You can just hide behind that word. You can say something is a satire, okay, but what does that really mean? Where’s the invective? It’s an easy word to just hide behind and not have to really deal with or confront, whether, as a reader or as a reviewer, one is implicated or not. It’s a word that’s like this shield.

It’s funny, I taught this course on satire – of course I had no idea of what the word means. The students were giving really good examples of where that word gets used. I had one student – the guy’s a fantastic writer – whenever he says something that makes people really uncomfortable with, he’ll go like you know, that’s all satirical, as an excuse, y’know what I mean. You know, I don’t want the book to be that.

Seeing Nabokov talk about Lolita, and seeing that book initially, some people had called it a satire. If you think about it, I’m not trying to equate or do something tantamount to that, but you know this book and that book and whatever, they make people very uncomfortable, not necessarily in a bad way.

But you know what I mean? You got this paedophile and whatever is going on there, and then people go “satire” – almost as a way of making it a little more palatable. I’m just really uncomfortable with that word. Because it also limits, maybe, what people think I should be doing next. Because it’s hard for somebody to be a satirist and then write something, I can’t let that happen.

It allows people to not engage with some of the difficult…
Yeah but then it also sets another level of expectations that I don’t give anything about.

However, note that when Amrita Tripathi asks him this:

It would be interesting to know how Indians read your book – we’re also ridiculously racist, skin colour and…

Paul Beatty says: Of course, yeah, that’s everywhere though.

And that’s the point. It is everywhere. Racism. Because it’s not just in the head of the perpetrator. It is also in the head of the one that’s at the rough end of the stick. Often in a much more powerful way. And The Sellout is perhaps an expression of that.

The Sellout: Paul Beatty

‘They’ called it hard-hitting, blistering satire of America. And, after Trump got elected President, they added ‘especially in these times.’ Maybe they were pointing at America’s switcheroo from ‘Yes we can’ to ‘Make America Great Again’.

Paul Beatty didn’t like his work described as a humorous satire. No wonder.

Beatty is not okay being called a satirist and a satire his book ‘The Sellout’ most definitely isn’t. It’s another matter that he said he wrote the book because he was broke and he slam-dunked a Man Booker.

With writing such as this comment: ‘Not surprisingly, there’s nothing to do at the Pentagon except to start a war.’

And such critique: ‘This whole city’s a Freudian slip of the tongue, a concrete hard-on for America’s deeds and misdeeds.’

and such satire – Ever been to Reno, Nevada? It’s the shittiest Little City in the World, and if Disneyworld was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-saharan African nation like Detroit.

And such linguistic analysis: Allahu Akbar. Shikata ga nai. Never again. Harvard class of ’96. To protect and to serve. These are more than just greetings and sayings. They are reenergising codes. Linguistic chi that strengthens our life force and bonds us to like-minded, like-skinned, like-shoe-wearing human beings. What is that they say in the Mediterranean? Stessa faccia, stessa razza. Same face, same race. Every race has a motto.

And burning social critique: Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot niggers on sight.

And stinging critique on gender equality: ‘I can’t think of a more despicable word than ‘nigger,’ I volunteered. “Like what?” “Like any word that ends in -ess: Negress. Jewess. Poetess. Actress. Adultress. Factchecketress. I’d rather be called ‘nigger’ than ‘giantess’ any day of the week.” – kinda like a double take on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Woman is the nigger of the world’.

And critique of financial affairs, even if citing Mike Tyson: I once heard Mike Tyson say, “Only in America can you be bankrupt and live in a mansion.”

A critique of history: That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (relationship advice!!!)

A critique of women at workplace: College wasn’t for her, because to her mind the workplace turns black women into indispensable, well-paid number threes and fours, but never ones or twos.

A critique of modern-day marketing: “But if you really think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn’t Jewish people, homosexuals, or urban Negroes, it’s traffic.”

A critique of religion as we know it: The Indians, who were looking for peace and quiet, ended up finding Jesus, forced labor, the whip, and the rhythm method.

As well as,… “A look that said, It doesn’t matter if you’re too stupid to understand God’s love. He loves you regardless, just hand over the women, the distance runners, and the natural resources.”

There. That’s a critique. A literary critique of how America is and how it got where it currently is. Calling it a satire would be like turning a scene of heinous crime into an art installation. It puts a gilded frame around scathing critique which should push and prod us to do something about it, only to be hung up on the walls of a museum – in this case the Man Booker hall of fame – as a blistering satire. As if saying, you wrote a real book, now we give you the Man Booker, good job done. Moving on…

I don’t know if the Man Booker and such literary prize panels are consciously on the lookout for pieces ridden with angst which they can pretend to then address it by decorating the cover with a coveted prize. A book is a product of a mind that is going through a life. It’s a live, throbbing mechanism. It’s not a thing. If history is not the pages it is printed on, a satire isn’t the pages it is printed on. Nor a critique.

The society would imperil itself by looking at The Sellout as a satire that attained its unintended goal – The Man Booker. The book is not ‘funny’, as a judge on the Man Booker Prize panel said among other big things. And no matter what the literary panels think, Beatty is not a comic genius that gave us the year’s ultimate humorous satire.

The Sellout is a critique. It happens to be the nickname of the protagonist who had an unconventional upbringing who goes on to do horribly unconventional things on the very edge of racism such as slavery and bringing back of segregation into his town of Dickens in the present-day America, things which were, of course, once disturbingly normal. The book is a brilliantly written solid piece of literary critique of a society that has changed its stars but not its stripes and I’m glad my 2017 started on such a great note.

Note: The featured image is of an ad I found on my FB feed with the following caption: A historic advertisement to sell slaves dated 24th July , 1769 AD- 260 years before [ who were caught in Africa ] and loaded in cargo ships to America for slave trade ……Later great and brave American President , Abraham Lincoln started fight against slavery and Civil war started in 1861-65 , between pro and against states [ Confederate and the Union ]. This civil war continued for almost four years and Abraham Lincoln Army [ The Union ] won the war but later , he himself was assassinated . Kindly note that 7,50,000 soldiers died in this civil war [ much more Americans than in first or second world war.

2017 is here

Where is your list of books to read?

I have 72 of them on mine, having got a headstart with Deep Work (Cal Newport) and The Sellout (Paul Beatty); yes, I read multiple books.

Also reading during cooking breaks: MAD. Plain and simple.

Hope great books find me this year too!

Tech onslaught on ‘Work’

It’s a happy coincidence to start my blog dedicated exclusively to books with a book that is teaching me to take a new look at the business of thinking, writing, reading, working deeply in this tech-crazy day and age.

Or, I could just say the book is having its impact on me – it is Deep Work by Cal Newport.

The tech age or the Internet age or the Digital age is essentially an age of distraction. Even as I write here, I’ve found out that Shah Rukh Khan is going to skip some bash Salman Khan is throwing. Pushing this distraction back and coming back to Deep Work, this age of Distraction has spawned a new categorization of work – deep work and shallow work. 

Shallow work is what a large majority of desk workers like us do while Deep Work is: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Oh, and this just in: L K Advani feels like resigning. Also, RP says Hi, Wassup? 

So, I have two decisions to make: Whether to retweet LKA’s noble thoughts and whether to engage RP in what seems like a routine but not urgent friendly conversation. Tough calls both. In this hyper-connected world, I take about 100 such decisions daily, over and above all the truly necessary ones – masala uttapa for breakfast or sada dosa? Coffee now or later? Must order a kitchen gadget – now or later? which brand? what price? So yes, whether all of this counts as work, and of course, some of it does, but is it deep? Most certainly not. 

Finally, thank God I’m not a surgeon. Now going back to Deep Work,

Deep Work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. 

Intellectual capacities of most of us are being severely challenged by this onslaught of technology. I have noticed that for some time now I have been finding it difficult to retain a lot of what I’m reading. In my case, I’d think measles on my wedding day a less painful prospect. And the reason is that… MK Stalin wants a White Paper on Jayalalithaa’s death. Again, decisions to be taken: Read it first and then continue writing this? Just like and RT? I could become the first one to do so. It goes on.

Newport elaborates on the idea of Deep Work and its significance by citing the working style of Carl Jung, Michel De Montaigne, Woody Allen, J K Rowling… all of them stalwarts in their respective fields. They are people who recede into their corners to ponder and to come out with something that impacts the world.

While J K Rowling largely stays away from Social media and sticks to pen and paper (her last book was penned in ink and was flown to the publisher under the strongest of security arrangements), Newport clarifies that Deep Work does not have to be a result of technophobia, citing how Bill Gates also conducts “think weeks” twice a year, to isolate himself and think and read big thoughts. Ditto Neal Stephenson, the acclaimed cyber-punk author, on whose official website is this explanation Why I am a sociomediapath when you try to reach his social media handles.

The reason is right here with us: Knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work because of network tools.

I think it’s not just deep work, we’re now becoming incapable of deep anything. Our IMs, news updates, chats, emails, messages, etc have invaded everything from movies at the cinema to breakfast with friends, to shopping, to watching a favourite serial on TV, everything. Even sleep.

It’s not just work that has become shallow, as Newport has pointed out. Every thing has become shallow. Just this morning, my yoga classmate had chosen his cellphone to accompany him on his yoga mat. He had thoughtfully put the phone on silent mode but it did buzz thrice and each time it did, he went off-pose or off-asana to un-buzz it. It’s not really that it disturbed us, that it did so even if it didn’t ring, it certainly did him a lot more harm: interrupting his practice – I’ll bet every time his phone buzzed, he thought of what the person might have to say to him at that early hour. It took him – and us – away from the regular flow of things.

That moment was a learning for me. So many times, I’m like that guy.

I hope to do more to get into the deep of things more. You?

 

That’s too much reading

I’ve always loved books. Books have nurtured my childhood as much as my parents and the grown-ups around me did. It’s a big deal when I say this because I belong to a state where the intellectual way to live is through being a ‘foodie’, and books aren’t exactly something you brag about at any stage in your life. A Gujarati child being into books outside of academic coursework is a ‘waste of money’, if you’re an adolescent and like to spend time reading books you’re trying to impress others, especially elders, and if you’re older and still reading books, you probably don’t have enough friends.

I may be exaggerating a bit but growing up Gujarati is fraught with peculiarities, but I’ll keep these for later. This blog is primarily about books. It’s going to be an ongoing comment on my journey with my books. This is a precious one, for I feel we don’t pick books, books pick us 🙂

Currently reading: The Sellout by Paul Beatty 

As well as, Deep Work by Cal Newport

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