Apr 12, 2012

Notes on The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers (TSB) by Patrick deWitt made it to the Booker shortlist last year, and, while I had no qualms about it not being the finalist, I must admit that it made for very refreshing reading and also broke a lot of myths regarding what constitutes ‘good’ fiction. Never have I come across a novel (save perhaps for Updike’s Rabbit series and Roth’s Zuckerman series to a limited extent) where violence, comedy and a certain air of melancholy mingle so effortlessly.
First, I’d like to mention the book’s outstanding cover which shows the two eponymous Sisters Brothers of the novel in garish, black cartoon outline with a pair of eyes that seem to stare out at you. Once you read the novel you realize the level of detailing and wit that has gone into its design. The eyes sit in a face that belongs to a man who yields the power to disintegrate the fragile bond between the two brothers. Does he succeed? The novel will answer that.
The Sisters Brothers is a western in the manner of Wyatt Earp’s myth and John Wayne’s films, set in the late 19th century, with characters who are not so much grounded in real life as representatives of a way of life which the gradual rise of capitalist America killed. However, one must note that TSB is as much a part of the Clint Eastwood’s western capers as Cormac McCarthy’s gory Blood Meridian. It derives from these works, and also parodies and deviates from them.
The story is fairly simple: this novel follows two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, infamous assassins sent on an errand to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, an eccentric and brilliant inventor who has found a way of distilling gold from the river valley; and who is accused of stealing from their boss, the ruthless gangster Commodore.   However, this unique method of extracting gold doesn’t come without its own risks and in the end leaves none completely untouched by retribution.
As the brothers set out on their quest from Oregon City to San Francisco, they meet a variety of colourful characters and encounter several adventures all of which is laced with a kind of joie de vivre that celebrates rather than condemns unholy relations, dubious characters, ruthless miscreants and unabashed swagger. This is what makes the novel so enjoyable.
The characters in this novel are all brutal, rude and depraved; however, occasionally, one glimpses a stray current of virtue or kindness in them. The brothers themselves are poles apart – Eli, the narrator, is sensitive and has started to question the relentless and unquestioned violence of their life; Charlie, the older brother is cold blooded, nasty and an unrepentant mercenary. As they travel across the rugged Nevada mountains, they banter, tease, argue with each other and also save each other’s skin. These sections are often farcical in a Jim Carey kind of manner, yet they never seem to dilute the strength of deWitt’s narrative.
There is no doubt that Eli is at the heart of this saga. An odd mix of sensitivity and unpredictable violence, sometimes slow witted and occasionally almost spiritual, lonely yet capable of enjoying the small pleasures of a lonely life, the reader stays committed to this endearing character.  While he has chosen a life of evil, one senses that there is something within him that struggles with this life, “My very center was beginning to expand as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?”
As the novel progresses, Eli begins to wonder and wish for a way out of his current life. While he doesn’t exactly evince any great regret or deep seated philosophizing, he wishes for a little warmth, “I had never been with a woman for longer than a night and they had always been whores. And while throughout each of these speedy encounters I tried to maintain a friendliness with the women, I knew in my heart it was false, and afterward always felt remote and caved in. I had in the last year or so given up whores entirely, thinking it best to go without rather than pantomime human closeness.” Such parts make this novel truly rewarding.
Thing is, Eli carries within him traces of a world that has long passed him by. He is not really an outsider in the manner of Randy the Ram, but he is also burdened by a lack of adequate understanding regarding what goes, what works. This is best demonstrated in the episode with his injured horse Tub. As his introspection deepens and the cracks in his character widen, his relationship with the animal changes. He has the chance to swap the slow and wobbly Tub for a new horse, and he does so, but then changes his mind because "he has been a faithful animal to me". All the while, Charlie mocks him as ‘The Protector of Moronic Beasts’.
The truly touching parts of the novel always revolve around Eli, his unmistakable loneliness and his constant efforts to win his brother’s approval and affection, who never misses a chance to remind him what a sentimental bumpkin he is. Despite these bits, Eli never fails to make us laugh, especially with his reactions when he discovers the joys of a toothbrush or the magical powers that a telephone, the “large black horn emerging from the wall beside the bed,” bestows.
In the end TSB is about a journey, from ambition to an acceptance of one’s limitations, from callous disregard to the discovery of a common humanity, a journey from bathos to pathos. It is rollicking as all such journeys are. The journey is as old as time, yet as timeless as any good fable is. As Eli, the narrator, himself agrees, “You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace.”

Apr 6, 2012


They say Time heals all; that Time spares no one and nothing. Time does something much worse – it dilutes and erases the fine ridges and smooth geography of his face; it leaves you confused about the exact shade of his eyes – were they hazel or a whisky brown? It no longer allows you to conjure up the sound of his voice.

After all this time, I cannot tell you the shape of his nose or the slant of his eyebrows, but I remember precisely the smell of his soap, the feel of his thick hair clenched tight in my fingers, and the sound of his voice comforting me, as he held me close and released me, and I clung to him as one would cling to a raft in a raging river. Without real hope, but with desperate relief.

I also remember the feel of his ring. It was sharp and it dug into my cheek as he held my face. Often he would hold me in so tight and for so long that my cheek would get a dent and my breath would stop. I think I was happy to have my breath stop as long as he did not stop holding me.

Now everything starts to resemble a scrabble board where the chips have been hastily scrambled after a long game.

Apr 2, 2012


Came across a fascinating discussion on the Guardian books page on marginalia, or the scribbling down of one’s thoughts/notes while reading a book, where most commentators seemed outraged that any reader would callously maim a book by scribbling on its margins. I disagreed. 

I am a compulsive annotator; most of my books have notes scribbled on their margins; passages of outstanding linguistic virtuosity and sections that have filled me with outrage or immense joy are underlined. I am not in the habit of picking up second-hand books (the market’s dismal in India), but occasionally some distant relative passes on a much-cherished book to me. My collections of short stories of Maupassant and Edgar Allan Poe, and novels of Victor Hugo are all legacies from my mom’s uncle. Some of them have his scribbles in the margins – in faded, beautiful handwriting. When I first started reading Maupassant in class 8, I remember looking forward to what phool dadu had scribbled about a particular story. I guess if I came across a copy of American Pastoral all dog-eared and full of a previous reader’s notes, I wouldn’t mind it at all. I would think it made the book a dynamic object, containing not only the words and ideas of Philip Roth, but also another reader before me. Isn’t that a treasure nonpareil?

Reading is a deeply personal and intense experience – in the confines of your bed or chair, with the ashtray beside you, and the drapes pulled aside to reveal the tree tops outside, you sit absorbing words that a Woolf or a Pamukh took months to pen. The careful reader doesn’t merely read – he looks for clues in what was left unsaid, he looks for subterfuge in what was said, and he makes it a dialogue, not a mere monologue. He scribbles and tells the author about similar experiences he may have had, or similar characters he may be familiar with. He shares with the author things he cannot bring himself to share with any other. He intuits when the author’s heart is soaring as his protagonist tells a 10-year old boy while flying kites, "For you a thousand times over", as also when an author has seen defeat and written about the, “enormous assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.” Can there be a truer soul mate than an intuitive reader? 


Selecting a Reader by Ted Hooser

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will