Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: 'A Yellow-Winged Stranger' by Imran Usman

This is an interesting book and worth persisting with, despite the flaws that I will mention in a moment. It is difficult to allocate it to a genre. I suppose it fits into the ‘literary fiction’ catchall, but that doesn’t say much. There is almost an air of magical realism about the book. I say ‘almost’, because the elements that contribute to this impression turn out to have a logical explanation: for example, a prisoner finding writing upon the wall of a prison cell that relates directly to his own life. For a moment the laws of nature appear fragile. Almost.

The story begins with a family situation, Howard and his parents, which ends with a death. This then segues into the trial of a young man, Ethan, for murder; he is suspected of being a notorious serial killer. The connection between these two parts of the story is not immediately obvious. This then segues into the story of Jack, which is written by Jack himself on the walls of Ethan’s cell. This, then, becomes a first person narrative, whereas the surrounding story is in the third person. Again, the connection of this story with the other stories is not immediately apparent, but gradually emerges. This is a very successful and clever device, despite the apparent implausibility. Then the different strands of the story begin to interact and are skilfully woven together. Even minor characters in the story—a lawyer, a policeman, a forensic investigator—find their place in the back story that emerges.

This is cleverly done, and I think it works, although I did at times find myself a little confused, wondering if the ‘Matt’ (for example) mentioned at this part of the story was the same as the ‘Matt’ mentioned earlier. I think I had it sorted in the end, although one or two nagging doubts about who was who, when and where, remained.

The characters are well drawn and complex. I particularly liked the character of Jack, whose story is written on the cell wall. I am not always a fan of first person narration, but I think this works particularly well. The writing of this particular stream of the narrative was also of a higher quality.

This brings me to the major flaws of the book. In many places the English is very poor. There is poor grammar and incorrect word choice. I imagine that English is not the author’s first language. Several times, particularly early on, I almost gave up on the book because of this, although I am glad that I didn’t. The language at times is excessively flowery, and the characters and narrator are sometimes prone to lapsing into philosophical discourses. This may work well with an Indian audience (the author was born in India) but less so with a Western audience. Although there are still flaws in the ‘Jack’ narrative, I thought the writing was of a higher quality, at times even acquiring a certain beauty.

Many will be put off by the flaws in the writing, or will not have the patience to wait for the strands of the story to be woven together; but those who persist to the end will, I think, be pleased with the result.

I have decided to no longer rate books using the star system. I don't think it is helpful.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

When World Views Clash (and when don’t they?)

The former prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, recently stated in an article in an Australia newspaper: ‘Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.’

Where to begin with the issues raised by a comment like this?

First of all, I want to make some obvious points, which nevertheless are rarely made. What we believe, we believe to be true. A tautology? Possibly. The point is that we believe ‘facts’, accept ideas, adopt values because we think they reflect reality at one level or another. Our world view is precisely that, an understanding of the world, because we think—at least at some level—that the world is really like that. (It is tempting to put so many of these words in quotation marks, because their meaning is so slippery and elusive.) We may not always be fully conscious or aware of our own basic world view, but it is there if we dig deeply enough.

So, if I believe that the world is created by a supreme, divine being who has some purpose for this world and for me personally, it is an inevitable corollary of this that I think those who don’t believe in such a being are mistaken. Their view of the world is inaccurate, inappropriate—in some way ‘inferior’ to mine—if the superiority of a belief system is measured in terms of how accurately it reflects ‘reality’. (Here come those damn quotation marks again!)

If we hold to a particular view of the world (and who doesn’t?) it is, therefore, somewhat disingenuous to claim, for example, that all belief systems are ‘equally valid’. It is, of course, entirely possible to hold such a view, but it must, paradoxically, exclude those belief systems (most of them, I suspect) which don’t share it. We may acknowledge someone’s right to hold a view that is different to our own, but we nevertheless believe our own world view to be correct. At least provisionally correct; the best we can do at the moment. There remains here, at least, the acknowledgement that no world view is actually complete or perfect; that additional information may require us to modify that point of view; and that perhaps, on some issues at least, the jury is currently out. The more one is convinced of the truth (read ‘superiority’) of our own world view—some might say, the stronger our ‘faith’—the less room there is for such tolerance, ambiguity and uncertainty.

The second point I want to make I will pose as a question: what criteria can we use to evaluate a culture or world view? The difficulty here is that we can only do so from within our own. I know of no way to elevate ourselves above all cultures and adopt some entirely objective perspective. Consider the points I made in the previous paragraph. They reflect my world view. I believe that a certain humility vis à vis questions of truth is a good thing. I believe that some ambiguity and uncertainty about the nature of reality is inevitable. This is not true of all things. Some issues I believe to be settled. For me, the jury is not out on everything. With respect to those things about which my mind is firmly made up, I will be less tolerant of divergent opinions. I will acknowledge a person’s right to a different point of view, which is actually code for acknowledging their right to be wrong. But this acceptance of ambiguity and this (limited) tolerance of other points of view are not shared by everyone. There are plenty of belief systems in which doubt is anathema, in which truth is absolute and unambiguous. People hold to those views as firmly as I hold to mine, probably more so. Am I right, or are they right? Of course I think I am right. But is there some higher, objective position from which I can claim this with certainty? I don’t believe so. They probably do, and they call it god (by whatever name). So even the question of whether there is some higher, more objective perspective from which to determine ‘truth’ may or may not constitute part of someone’s world view. Herein lies the path to infinite regress.

I heard the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say the other day, with regard to diversity: ‘The elements on which we are similar are far greater than the elements on which we are diverse.’ I don’t doubt that this is true, in simple, quantitative terms. Nevertheless, it is always the differences that loom largest in our minds. We may agree about 99% of things, but it is the 1% about which we disagree that occupies our time and attention. Qualitatively, the one per cent comes to matter much more than the ninety-nine per cent. Is this something deeply ingrained in our psyche over the course of evolution? After all, it is precisely the differences between organisms that drive the process of evolution. Psychologically, I think it is very difficult to focus on the ninety-nine per cent and not be constantly drawn back to the one percent.

I always fall back on this position: while I cannot give definitive answers to questions such as these, I think it is important that they be raised. We need to bring questions like these to the forefront of our minds whenever we are considering the important issues with which the current social and political state of the world confronts us. We need to be aware of our own world view and its limitations. We need to acknowledge our own areas of doubt and uncertainty. At the same time, we need to be aware of the issues that are, in our mind, unambiguous and non-negotiable. We need to be aware of what constitute, for us, absolutes, while at the same time acknowledging our inability to justify their absolute status. In doing this we acknowledge the limits of our certitude without necessarily abandoning it. We need to be aware that we cannot transcend our own perspective. No matter how many steps we take along the infinite regress towards objectivity, we always remain securely ensconced within our own limited point of view.

Life is always much simpler for those who live in certainty and are guided by absolutes. Unfortunately, the world is also made more dangerous by them. As long as they live exclusively within a culture which shares their world view—they imagine such exists—everything is just peachy. When they come up against a world view that is different from theirs, war is inevitable.

If for no other reason than that it may help to avoid war and promote the survival of our species, I will advocate for uncertainty and ambiguity every time. This means, of course, that uncertainty and ambiguity are among my absolute non-negotiables. What happens when my belief system clashes with one in which these very things are totally anathema? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to be at a dinner party with Tony Abbott and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At such a dinner party they might find themselves surprising allies against me.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Filter Words

What are filter words? These are words we, as writers, use to place a character as a filter between the reader and the experience of that character in the story we are writing. There are a whole host of such words and expressions, and the best way to understand their importance is to give some examples.

As she climbed over a pile of timber she noticed a sudden movement, which made her jump; then she laughed again. She saw a cat shoot out between her legs and run off into the distance, its left front leg dangling loosely. Near her, she watched one of the men begin to pull away bricks and lengths of timber and twisted metal. Kate watched him with intense interest. Then she saw another movement from the corner of her eye. A few feet in front of the man, she realised that some of the debris had begun to stir and fall away. Kate moved in that direction. From a small opening in the rubble she watched a hand emerge. Then an arm and a head. She thought it might have been something human. She decided to step towards it, watching curiously. She stared as the arm grabbed hold of a wooden beam and began to pull. Gradually she saw a body emerge, bloodied like a newborn. Then she watched it begin to crawl over the rubble towards her. The man who had been digging came over, pushed Kate aside, and knelt beside the figure, cradling it gently.

The shaded phrases in this passage are examples of words that act as filters. What does that mean? It means, first of all, that the experience of the reader is filtered through the experience of the character. The reader does not experience the event directly, but experiences the character’s experience of it. It means, secondly, that the attention of the reader is directed towards the character, rather than towards the scene. The reader is watching the character go through these experiences, rather than going through them him- or herself vicariously. ‘She saw a cat shoot out between her legs ...’ The reader is watching her see the cat, rather than watching the cat.

Here is the same passage without most of those filter words/phrases. Apart from anything else, the passage has 28 (14%) fewer words:

As she climbed over a pile of timber a sudden movement made her jump; then she laughed again. A cat shot out between her legs and ran off into the distance, its left front leg dangling loosely. Near her, one of the men began to pull away bricks and lengths of timber and twisted metal. Kate watched him with intense interest. Then another movement caught her eye. A few feet in front of the man, some of the debris began to stir and fall away. Kate moved in that direction. From a small opening in the rubble a hand emerged. Then an arm and a head. It might have been something human. She stepped towards it and watched curiously. The arm grabbed hold of a wooden beam and began to pull. Gradually a body emerged, bloodied like a newborn. Then it began to crawl over the rubble towards her. The man who had been digging came over, pushed Kate aside, and knelt beside the figure, cradling it gently.

In many cases, these filter words are simply redundant. ‘I felt a shiver run up my spine ...’ or ‘A shiver ran up my spine ...’? ‘He decided to go to the shops ...’ or ‘He went to the shops ...’? If a character goes to the shops, the reader can assume that at some point he decided to do so; the reader doesn’t need to be informed of this.

Note that filter words and phrases are used in first and third person narratives alike.

Avoiding these words and phrases should not be regarded as a hard and fast rule. There are sure to be places where their use is fine or even desired. I would simply encourage writers (1) to be aware when they are using these filters and (2) to ask if, in this case, they are necessary or desirable.

Here is a list of some of the words that can be used as filters. I’m sure you can think of others.
to see
to notice
to hear
to think
to touch
to wonder
to realize
to watch
to look
to seem
to feel (or feel like)
to decide
to sound (or sound like)