I’d had this static in my head for some time. I don’t know if it is the fasting or the need of a vacation or what. Fasting doesn’t normally affect me that way. Whatever the reason, I’d had it for a while now, a distractedness, a listlessness. Only when I found myself out shopping with my wife for her new specs and found myself in front of a bookstore did I realize I need a book. I need a book. I strode inside and went straight to the fiction section.

I hadn’t read a novel in I don’t know how long. I do almost all my reading online, come to think of it. I read the newspaper daily online, the New York Times, and get most all the information I feel the need for from links and forwards from somewhere or other. But reading online isn’t the same as paper. I think it’s mostly because of the nasty flickering of my cheap monitor that does it, that gives me that tired and defocused feeling after a period of reading online. But maybe there’s something about the medium itself. I don’t know. Reading a book on paper is soothing and calming. I’d forgotten that.

I went straight to the fiction section and browsed through the limited selection. There’s a few books I’ve marked mentally as wanting to read, if I ever came across them, but I scanned the shelves and none of them presented themselves. I finally settled on a book called “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. I’d never heard of him, but the book was set in India in 1975, the year I was born and a few years before I arrived there. I bought it. I finished it in two days. It was just what I needed. The book itself was just all right, nothing spectacular. It follows four people thrown together for a year during Indira Ghandi’s Internal Emergency. The book has great detail; it brought back lots of memories, of beggars, of supercrowded buses, of the market, of a trip we took to a scheduled caste village. The characters were good too, sympathetic and believable. But the ending was just awful. Here these four people are, struggling to get by as their economic position, their future is chipped away at, even as their situations go from bad to far far worse, they can make it through their kindness to each other, their incredible adaptability. But in the last few pages, for really no apparent reason, one of the four just can’t take it anymore and throws himself in front of a train. The End. It’s like the author ran out of ideas and tied off the story the easy way. I think any story that ends in suicide in the last paragraph is by definition a crappy book. It’s not that I can’t handle tragedy. The majority of the book is far more tragic than that. It’s that it is so unexplained, and so incongruous with what I’ve experienced of Indian culture. It’s like the author deliberately refused to give the book meaning, even though the story up till then was suffused with meaning. But instead, no, meaningless death. I always read the last sentence of any book I’m about to buy. If I had read the last paragraph, I wouldn’t have bought it. Nonetheless, reading a novel was just what I needed, even one that ended badly like that.

The day after finishing it I went to the local university library, which had an even more woeful selection, except with more Shakespeare, and checked out “Underworld” by Don DeLilo. You’ve probably heard of it, since it was a national bestseller. It also got a lot of publicity after September 11 because the cover shows a gloomy shot of the twin towers with a bird banking toward the towers that could be a plane if you squint. The book came out years before; it is obviously a coincidence, but just like the $20 note that you can fold to look the towers, it got a lot of buzz because of it. I’m still in middle of it. It is a strange book in that there is hardly a narrative at all. It’s more like a series of vignettes or short stories with just two or three themes barely stringing them together. But it is still a very captivating book, because the vignettes are so moving. Each one evokes a different picture or idea to chew on. And the writing is very distinctive. He writes in idiom, with lots of sentence fragments, and mixed tenses and made up words, not just in the conversation but in the author’s narrative too, really loose and free. I especially like the made up words and the words that don’t technically fit the meaning but the sound of them still works. I find my own writing terribly stiff and boring, so I’m hoping to draw a little inspiration from this one. I go on holiday officially on Wednesday (I’ve been on holiday mentally for two weeks now); I’ll probably finish it up then.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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1 Comment

  1. About awful endings: I felt the same way about The Magus, by John Fowles. It wasn’t a fantastic book but it was intriguing. It was building up to a great ending and then….*poof* it just ended.
    I’ve seen A Fine Balance on the shelves so many times and was often tempted to pick it up, but never got around to it. Maybe I’ll skip it! 😉

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