By Blood

Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, Feb. 24, 2012

Pythagoras said the world was made of numbers; Democritus insisted upon atoms; Empedocles, four primordial elements — fire, air, water, earth. But Plato loved triangles. In his schema, matter was made up of triangles in kaleidoscopic configurations, triangles themselves divisible into tinier triangles. Triangles begat triangles. They were the essential unit.

Literature, I’d hazard, would agree.

The triangle has been the essential scaffolding for the novel; from its wobbliness emerges such productive instability. Take away the triangle, and Adam and Eve would still be simple-mindedly tending to their garden; Oedipus would leave mom alone; Vronsky wouldn’t stand a chance; and Freud would be out of a job. And literature would be bereft without the love triangle in all its variations — one party dead (“Rebecca”), oblivious (“Othello”), mad (“Jane Eyre”) or a pile of old letters (“The Aspern Papers”).

Despite this abundance of triangles, some still have the power to surprise. Such is the case with Ellen Ullman’s smart, slippery “By Blood,” which features a triangle so odd and improbable, it’s almost a riddle. Explain how a man can become fixated on two women without (a) seeing them, or (b) being seen by them.

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

By Jeanette Winterson

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum Magazine, February 2012

Isaiah Berlin split intellectuals into two groups: foxes, who know a great deal about many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing. But I wonder if there isn’t a third type, too, mysterious and misunderstood: the individual who knows a great deal about one thing—and that thing is herself. Narcissism has nothing to do with it. This is a specialty that usually signals deprivation: In the absence of other people, the self was all there was to study.

Such is the lot and genius of Jeanette Winterson. Her novels—mongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentation—evince a colossal stamina for self-scrutiny. In her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she returns to the source, her grim girlhood in a sooty English industrial town in the 1960s, to tell her story more forthrightly than she has before. But because this is Winterson, naturally she begins by taking a truncheon to the form.

From the first page, it’s clear that this isn’t mere memoir. It’s too stylish and stylized. Horror and camp commingle. Here’s our introduction to Winterson’s Gorgon of an adoptive mother: “She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father.”

Winterson is as concerned with aesthetics as authenticity. Style is king when you’re trying to wrest control of the narrative. And narrative, in the Winterson household, was contested territory. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against [my mother’s],” she writes. “Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives.”Continue reading “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”

Salvage the Bones

Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 30 2011

“Salvage the Bones,” the 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale. Think of Noah or Gilgamesh or any soggy group of humans and dogs huddled together, waiting out an apocalyptic act of God or weather. It’s an old story — of family honor, revenge, disaster — and it’s a good one. As Arnold Schoenberg said, “There is still much good music that can be written in C major.” And Jesmyn Ward makes beautiful music, plays deftly with her reader’s expectations: where we expect violence, she gives us sweetness. When we brace for beauty, she gives us blood.

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A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal

Parul Sehgal, The Millions, December 16, 2011

There were many books I admired this year, books I read and reread and recommended. Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is. And there were groundbreaking narrative nonfiction books about India: Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (out in Feb. 2012) are works of profound witness, kinship, artistic achievement, and moral necessity.

But only one book left me breathless.

I didn’t read — I succumbed – to The Journals of John Cheever. I picked it up one evening after the guests had gone, after the ashtrays had been emptied and the dog walked. I was lightly drunk and working on getting more seriously drunk (the Cheevering hour?); I idly opened the book — and let it have its way with me all weekend in the spare room.

It’s a disheveling, debauching book. Even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate — even embrace — your corruption. These journals, posthumously edited by Cheever’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, are a 40-year chronicle of wanting health but plotting, ardently, self-destruction. Of struggling with alcoholism and bisexuality. Of wanting very much to love one’s wife and only one’s wife — but falling gratefully into the arms of any stranger who will have you. Of the soul as irredeemably “venereal, forlorn, and uprooted.”

Cheever had a brain and body so responsive — “touchy like a triggered rattrap” — everything he sees turns him on, makes him cry, turns him rhapsodic. Desire stains everything. And it isn’t airy, “Chopinesque longing,” no — it’s itchy and inconvenient, “as coarse and real as the hair on my belly,” he writes. “In the public urinal I am solicited by the man on my right. I do not dare turn my head. But I wonder what he looks like. No better or no worse, I guess than the rest of us in such throes.”

Continue reading “A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal”

Into the Woods: PW Talks with Arundhati Roy

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly Sept. 30, 2011

In Walking with the Comrades, novelist and activist Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) travels into the forest with India’s Maoist indigenous communities at war with the government.

How did you earn the guerrillas’ trust?

When the Indian government declared war against the Maoists, Indian liberals, for the most part, took a very safe, neutral position: “The government is bad, the Maoists are bad, the poor people are sandwiched in the middle.” I am no Maoist, but I thought that was a profoundly dishonest position. It elided the fact that the government had secretly sold lands belonging to indigenous tribes to mining and infrastructure companies. This is illegal and unconstitutional, and yet it was being done brazenly. Hundreds of thousands of paramilitary police were closing in on forest villages to clear the land for the corporations. About 600 villages had been emptied; some 300,000 people had fled their homes and had either moved to police camps or were hiding, terrified, in the forest. Many had joined the guerrilla army and were fighting back. The government and the media, campaigning for corporations, labeled them terrorists and called for them to practice Gandhian nonviolence. I wrote that Gandhian nonviolence was political theater that could be effective provided it had a sympathetic and empowered audience; how could people in remote forest villages, far from the gaze of the media or a hostile middle class be Gandhian while they were being raped and murdered? How could the starving go on hunger strike? How could those with no money boycott goods? My writings made their way into the forest, and one day a note was slipped under my door, inviting me to walk with the comrades.

What surprised you most about them?

I believed that when people take up arms, the violence would inevitably turn against the women in the community. In the forest I was disabused of this notion—45% of the Peoples Liberation Guerrilla Army is made up of women. Many of them joined after watching the brutal attacks of the police and the government sponsored vigilante groups on their villages. Others joined to escape the patriarchal practices of their own tribal society. The Maoist party has been a very patriarchal organization; the women within it still have major battles to fight (like women everywhere), but in the forest, I was in complete awe of the women I met. There was a lovely moment when I went down to a river with some women guerillas to bathe, while others kept guard. I remember thinking to myself, “Look at the women in this river—writers, guerrillas, farmers—how very wonderful.”

You write about India’s poor and disenfranchised, but you do so in English (and with a fairly sophisticated style, to boot)? Who do you write for?

Continue reading “Into the Woods: PW Talks with Arundhati Roy”

Hemingway’s Boat

Parul Sehgal, The Plain Dealer, September 18, 2011


He’s been labeled a brute, a bully and a bore. A heartless seducer of women and a closeted homosexual. An absurd cartoon of hypermasculinity and a transvestite. His critics and rivals, his children and grandchildren have had their say in memoirs. His fiction has been combed for clues. His bones have been picked clean. But one little mystery remains. And her name is Pilar.

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Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Sept. 16, 2011 

Rehan Tabassum is in a bad way. Although, strictly speaking, the trouble isn’t of his making. He’s just got that kind of family — prone to falling in love with the servants, scheming against one another, messing with the wrong fundamentalist and leaving sensitive home videos lying about. The Tabassums, owners of a telecommunications empire in Pakistan, are a brutal, blundering clan grown crooked and strange after years of bending to the will of their autocratic patriarch. Their methods are medieval, but they’re punished for their excesses and brutality in distinctly modern ways: they’re blackmailed via text messages and pilloried in the comments of Internet articles.

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The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum Sept/Oct/Nov 2011 

India’s economic ascent has launched a flurry of books, most of them touting neoliberalism’s power to not only propel the country out of poverty but to chase away its unsightly caste and class divisions, its nasty penchant for pogroms and female feticide. Siddhartha Deb’s very fine The Beautiful and the Damned tells a darker story, focusing on the boom’s seamy side: the scoundrels and profiteers, and the millions of farmers and migrant workers crushed beneath the juggernaut of “progress.” “The modernity of India,” he writes drily, is “an ambiguous phenomenon.” His point is that even as India has seen an increase in middle-class “aspirers,” “the poor have seen little or no improvement,” and he makes the argument with singular ease. Much of his reportage—on India’s villages, “cyber-cities,” and luxury malls—is done on foot, and his book possesses a gait of its own, achieving a contemplative, rambling rhythm that absorbs passing sights and sounds into anecdote, knits anecdote into analysis, and then analysis into advocacy.

Deb’s inquiry begins with the beautiful people, the architects and beneficiaries of India’s gilded age: entrepreneurs, engineers, and their acolytes—“an army of Gatsbys, wanting not to overturn the social order but only to belong to the upper crust.” It’s a moment with its own name (“India Shining”) whose mantra is that you’re only as small as your ambitions (an ethos Deb nails in his observation that India’s evolving ideals have been mirrored in the career of actor Amitabh Bachchan, who went “from playing thin angry young men in the seventies to corporate patriarchs in the new millennium”). Deb strips away the myths to reveal a much harsher reality. The lives of computer programmers and call-center employees, whom Americans depend on for technical support and customer service, are as much about isolation and displacement as high salaries. Meanwhile, Arindam Chaudhuri, the wealthy and enigmatic founder of an international “management institute,” has been celebrated for making higher education more accessible—but Deb digs a bit deeper and finds evidence that the program might be a cleverly designed Ponzi scheme. (When it appeared in India, the chapter, originally published in The Caravan magazine, inspired Chaudhuri to file multiple libel lawsuits—against Deb, his publishers, and, for its role in distributing the information, Google. For this reason, the chapter in Indian editions is slightly altered.)

Continue reading “The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India”

Beautiful Monsters: A review of The Art of Cruelty

Bookforum, Summer 2o11

Take an apartment. Trash it thoroughly. Strip. Smear yourself with blood, bind your wrists, and bend over a table. Wait for your friends to discover your “corpse.”

Too much?

Take a city sidewalk. Take a bucket of “blood.” Splatter. Hide. Look at people looking at the “blood.”

How much is too much?

This is the horror art of Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-American performance artist; the scenarios are taken from 1973’s Rape Scene and People Looking at Blood, Moffitt. Mendieta is one of the battalion of painters, filmmakers, and novelists analyzed in The Art of Cruelty, an earnest but scattershot book by poet and critic Maggie Nelson. Nelson writes about artists for whom cruelty is the medium and the message, the subject and the method: Think Francis Bacon’s slabs of meat and hacked-open faces, the parlor inquisitions of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, the antebellum nightmares of Kara Walker, the variously bludgeoned, humiliated, and carved-up “heroines” of Lars von Trier’s films. Mendieta is, Nelson writes, “drawing attention, via horror, to a horror that had been inadequately attended to. But her compulsion to re-enact [the rape piece] (not once but twice!) and to terrorize an unwitting audience (not once but twice!) complicates any simple look-at-how-bad-rape-and-murder-is feminist gesture.” It’s this complication, this ritualism, the oblique motivations and skirting of sadism, that fascinate Nelson and make Mendieta’s work “so formidable.”

This is a book born of a particular time. The photographs from Abu Ghraib are very much on Nelson’s mind. In a world where cruelty is so commonplace, Nelson asks, why do we go to art for facsimiles? Can seeing sadism playacted teach us anything about cruelty? (Nelson’s response: Maybe.) Won’t prolonged exposure to brutality make us more brutal? (Quite possibly.) Most important, can we come to a definition of what kinds of depictions of cruelty are “worthwhile” and what are gratuitous or downright dangerous? (Absolutely.)

So we enter violent imaginations, into art that is endured rather than enjoyed, whose mere descriptions can terrify (e.g., Jenny Holzer’s series on rape as a weapon of war, “Lustmord”). Nelson makes a stab at organizing her investigations under broad, evocative categories: A section called “Inflicted,” for example, studies why some artists render meaning dramatically, with, in the words of Ionesco, a “bludgeon blow.” On each writer or painting, she is coherent, but the overarching argument is haphazard. “Inflicted” hopscotches from sword imagery in the New Testament and Buddhism through Kafka, Brian Evenson, and Wittgenstein, then moves on to vagina imagery, an analysis of Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, and the contention that the prose of some contemporary female writers is “fiercer in form and effect than that of their male counterparts.” It’s like reading a Tumblr full of tenuously connected posts—a tangle of other people’s thoughts and observations.

Continue reading “Beautiful Monsters: A review of The Art of Cruelty”

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial

by Janet Malcolm (Yale Univ.)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum Apr. 12, 2011

Janet Malcolm is to malice what Wordsworth was to daffodils. In nine previous books, she’s so thoroughly, so indelibly investigated a certain breed of malice—the kind that festers in the writer-subject relationship—that it ought to bear her name. Malice is journalism’s “animating impulse,” she writes as she turns reportage inside out to show us its seams (and seaminess) with trenchant ceremony. Biography and journalism are rotten with exploitation, venom, voyeurism; we’ve just averted our eyes. Like the child who cries that the emperor has no clothes, she announces truths hidden in plain sight. Of course the journalist will pretend to be your friend to get the story. Of course authorial neutrality is “a charade of evenhandedness.”

She’s presided over some very rarefied rows: an upstart Sanskritisit challenging Freud’s seduction theory (In the Freud Archives), a bestselling writer backstabbing his subject (The Journalist and the Murderer), the sotto voce squabbles among the biographers of Gertrude Stein (Two Lives), and l’affaire Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman). But in her latest book, the slender, scalding Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she comes tumbling back to earth to report on a lurid murder case—and we meet a very different Malcolm altogether.

But first, the facts: On a clear morning in October 2008, Daniel Malakov, a dentist belonging to the Bukharan community, a Jewish sect from Central Asia, was shot execution-style in a playground in Queens in front of his four-year-old daughter. His estranged wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, an internist, tried stanching the blood with her hands. She applied chest compressions, and when the EMS arrived and bungled the intubation, she did that too. Malakov died shortly after being brought to the hospital, and suspicions were soon cast on Borukhova. The separated couple had been in the throes of a nasty custody battle; Borukhova had accused her husband of battering her and sexually abusing their daughter, Michelle. Malakov, in turn, accused his wife of turning Michelle against him. A family court judge had recently sided with Malakov and granted him full custody. It was a ripe motive: Had Borukhova slain her husband to avenge herself for the loss of a daughter, as Clytemnestra avenged Iphigenia?

Continue reading “Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial”