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Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary British Fiction’

One of the books I eagerly awaited this year was Andrew Blackman’s ‘A Virtual Love’. I read his ‘On the Holloway road’ sometime back and liked it very much. So when ‘A Virtual Love’ came out this month, I couldn’t wait to get it and read it. I finished reading it in a couple of sittings during the last two days. Here is what I think.

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‘A Virtual Love’ is about Jeff Brennan and his life and loves. Jeff works as an IT consultant during the day. He spends a lot of time with his friend Jon in the evenings and during weekends playing computer games. The way he spends time is not necessarily by going to Jon’s place – why does one need to do that in today’s online world – but by having video chats with him online. Sometimes Jeff also goes to protests which are organized by another of his friends Marcus, against big corporates. During one of these protests, Jeff meets a young American woman called Marie. Marie works for a home shelter which helps who live in the streets. She also takes part in protests. When Jeff and Marie get introduced to each other after a protest, Marie mistakenly thinks that Jeff is the famous blogger who blogs on political and social issues. Jeff doesn’t do anything to correct that opinion. Jeff and Marie fall in love and after a time start living together. Jeff manages to juggle his different identities and impersonations, and only a few people know about the truth. But then one day suddenly the real blogger Jeff Brennan decides to turn up at a protest. And all hell breaks loose in our hero Jeff’s life. Will Jeff survive this storm? What will happen to Jeff’s and Marie’s relationship? Can Jeff continue to juggle his real life and his online selves and impersonations and deceptions, successfully? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

‘A Virtual Love’ has an interesting narrative structure. Though it is about Jeff Brennan, it is told through multiple narrators who all play important parts in Jeff’s life. One of them is Jeff’s grandfather, whom Jeff visits every weekend. Marie is also one of the narrators and the other narrators include Jeff’s friend Jon, Jeff’s protestor friend Marcus and the real blogger Jeff Brennan. Our hero Jeff Brennan is not one of the narrators and we get to know about him only through what other people think about him. This narrative technique made me think of Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives’ in which also the main character’s life is portrayed through the eyes of his friends and acquaintances.

My favourite narrator and character in the story was Jeff’s grandfather. He is the opposite of the modern, online person – he doesn’t have a mobile phone, he struggles to use the computer, he is not on Facebook, he is able to sit quietly and contemplate for a long period of time, when he wants to write something he never uses the computer but he either uses pen and paper or types it out using the typewriter. He is the kind of character who is the counterpoint to the other characters in the story and I totally fell in love with him.

The book captures the social lives of the people of the 21st century quite well – how most people spend a lot of time online updating Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, blogging, reading and replying to comments, how people buy more and more things – books, clothes, shoes, gifts, food – online thus converting the computer into a marketplace, how friendships are built online, how online friends sometimes feel more real and authentic and intellectually sophisticated than real-world friends, how relationships are nurtured online and how breakups can happen online too. This is the kind of portrayal that a modern reader (who spends too much time online for his / her own good, if I may add – and I am the first guilty party here) will totally identify with. Jeff’s grandfather’s perspective on online life is quite interesting and provides a fascinating counterpoint to what the rest of the characters think and in some ways shows that some things don’t change.

Andrew Blackman’s trademark prose is spare and beautiful and it rises to sublime heights in the chapters which the grandfather narrates (Sorry I can’t stop mentioning my favourite character again and again – his thoughts are wonderful to read). The place where the grandfather says that he likes typing on the typewriter and then putting his written work together and tying it up with a rubber band vertically and horizontally made me smile and think of my own father (my father used to write, not type. But he definitely used rubber bands.).

The conclusion of the story was a little open ended and even sad for me. But it is interesting and throught-provoking in the context of the story. It makes us think and question the online identities we all have and how they might be similar or different to the identities we have in the real world. It also makes us wonder whether any of our identities are real or whether it is all an act or as some might put it, whether they are all valid identities highlighting different facets of our personalities to the world.

‘A Virtual Love’ is an interesting take on today’s world in which online identities of people sometimes submerge their offline ones. I enjoyed reading it. I can’t wait to find out what themes Andrew Blackman will explore in his next book.

You can find Delia’s review of the book here.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Of course, I am accustomed to mobile phones by now, but the idea of them ringing in my own house still bothers me. It diminishes my role as host. I’m used to the idea that in my own house everything is under my control. If the phone rings while I have company, I can decide whether or not to answer. Now it’s out of my hands. You bring your own world into my front room, and I am reduced to the role of a passive observer.

      Since it was the first Sunday of the month, I’d spent the morning cleaning. As usual, I started with the toughest task. It’s an old, unbreakable habit, instilled by my father from an early age. ‘Face up to the devil, and the rest is child’s play,’ he used to say. He would constantly ask me my worst fear and make me confront it immediately, whether it was a spider, a girl, a history essay or a bully at school. The old man wouldn’t let me rest for a second until the toughest thing in my life at that particular time had been accomplished. In cricket practice, he used to rip out two of the stumps, leaving only one to bowl at. ‘It’ll be easy when you come to matches,’ he’d say. ‘Having three to aim at will feel like child’s play.

      He was right, of course, and I would later thank him when I became, for a time, one of the most feared medium-pacers in the north London leagues. But somehow, no matter how many tough tasks I faced, there were always more awaiting me. The golden age where everything was finally child’s play always remained my father’s broken promise. After the bullies and the girls and the history essays came work, tax returns, marriage, a baby, a mortgage and a thousand other tough tasks. I threw myself at all of them, patiently waiting for everything to seem like child’s play, but the easy life always remained tantalizingly just around the corner. Finally I focused all my hopes on retirement, feeling sure that then I could finally ‘put my feet up’, as everyone said. But after a brief respite, I found myself once again paying bills, worrying about my pension, filling my life with tasks. And then Daisy got ill, and my arthritis got worse, and our only child died, and tough tasks seemed to take up the majority of my life once more. Now I am well aware that life will never seem like child’s play. But a habit is a habit, and so I still handle the toughest tasks first.

Anybody who saw the inside of the clock, the elegant machinery of springs and weights, wheel trains and escapements all intersecting in perfect harmony, would understand why I could never let it be sullied by dirt from the outside world. When I am cleaning it, I slip into a trance. Time stops, my thoughts fly away, the world around me fades, and all that exists is the familiarity of the movements. My hands seem to act from memories of their own, without the need for conscious thought. I always remove the parts in the same order, squirt on the same cleaning fluid to remove solidified oil, use the same cloth to wipe the metal clean, and apply the same amount of fresh oil in the same places, before slipping everything firmly back together in the reverse order. There’s a neat circularity to it, progress of a kind. The metal gleams brighter than before, the parts have been checked and the possibility of a catastrophic failure averted. That’s about the only kind of progress I can believe in these days.

Have you read Andrew Blackman’s ‘A Virtual Love’? What do you think about it?

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I got Andrew Blackman’s ‘On the Holloway Road’ by mail a few days back and as soon as it arrived I dropped whatever I was reading and started it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

‘On the Holloway Road’ is narrated by a writer called Jack. Jack is working on his big, complex literary novel but it is not getting anywhere. One evening while he is having dinner at the kebab shop near his home, a man walks in and comes and sits at his table, uninvited. Soon the two start a conversation. The new man is called Neil. Before he knows Jack becomes thick friends with Neil and both of them go back to Jack’s home. The next day they pack their stuff in Jack’s car and leave for a long drive to the north – to Scotland and beyond to the North Sea – in search of adventure. They meet some interesting characters during this trip. But more interestingly, they have long conversations on life and its meaning. Do Jack and Neil find adventure on this trip? Who is this mysterious Neil? Does Jack find inspiration to complete his novel? And in today’s world, where stepping back for a moment from life, means giving up one’s position in the race, does going on this long road trip adventure end well for Jack and Neil? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the book.

 

I loved ‘On the Holloway Road’. At one level it is a ‘road-novel’ and describes the adventures of Jack and Neil during their trip from London to the Outer Hebrides. At another level it is a meditation on life and its eccentricities and on the tussle between freedom and the desire to conform. It is also a commentary on modern times when everything is planned and regimented and spontaneity is absent most of the time. Some of my favourite parts of the book are where Jack talks about the writing process – on the way novels are structured these days based on publisher’s requirements or the latest fad, on how it is easy to write hundreds of blog posts but difficult to write one novel, on how aspiring novelists leave fulltime, dead-end jobs to write their magnum opus but then discover that inspiration which seemed to be ever-present has suddenly taken flight and the days and months pass in a rapid sameness one after the other. The first three pages of the last chapter touched my heart deeply and are some of the most beautiful that I have read. Andrew Blackman’s writing is beautiful and my highlighting pen didn’t stop working. I could identify with most of what the main character Jack thought and said. I also liked the character of Jack’s mother and two of the characters who come later in the book, Eileen and Nicola. There were a few sparks between Jack and Nicola – or rather they were not really sparks but the warmth that envelops two people when they sit in front of a fire on a winter evening having a glass of wine and talk about books and literature and life – but unfortunately, things don’t end as expected. The ending is sad, not just because of what happens, but because of the situation that Jack finds himself in. It feels very real.

 

‘On the Holloway Road’ is one of my favourite reads of the year and probably one of my favourite books of alltime – up there with Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Razor’s Edge’, Hermann Hesse’s ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’, Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ and Linda Grant’s ‘When I Lived in Modern Times’. I think I will read it again – atleast my favourite passages. I can’t wait for Andrew Blackman’s next book to come out – ‘A Virtual Love’ which is slated for release next year.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

If you are particularly foolish, you will become one of those writers or artists who spends their whole career trying to describe or recapture that fleeing glimpse, which everyone gets once but only once, and like Shakespeare and Van Gogh and Schiele and Steinbeck and Nadas and Hendrix and Borges and Soyinka and Cervantes, you will fail to describe anything but a small individual corner of the vast reality you thought you saw. All your work will be a pale shadow of what you know to be possible, and when you realise it you will either wish yourself a shopping drone like the people who shuffle around you or, like Hemingway, you will kill yourself.

 

…I thought of my long half-finished novel sitting on my laptop and it seemed worthless junk, a mass of zeros and ones entered at great cost and being stored for no reason. My novel bore some relation to other books but none to life, and it swayed uncertainly between stubbornly esoteric intellectualism and slavish aping of the latest publishing fads, depending upon how desperate I was for publication at the time I happened to write each section. The result was an incoherent mess, self-righteous on one page and craven on the next. It needed massive revision, but first it needed to be finished, and how could I finish something so confused?

 

“It’s about praxis, Jack,” he continued. “I was reading about it the other day. No thought without action, no action without thought. That’s the problem. Too many people just acting without any thought at all, eating, shopping, working and dying without ever wondering what it was all about. That’s not life, Jack. That’s prolonged death, a long slow painful suicide from a poison that spread through the body the minute that person decided, some time early in life, to give up on fruitless dreaming and just be practical. And then the people who are examining life, the priests and philosophers and gurus, are not living it, so they can’t possibly understand it either. So our quest, Jack, is to live and dream and examine at the same time. Thought and action – combined and inseparable. Praxis. It’s hard to do, but the alternative is death.

 

Neil did quite literally talk in the same breath for minutes at a stretch, not leaving even the slimmest of cracks between each word, so that a conversation with him seemed like just one long word running on for mile after mile and containing all the elements of a fully rounded story.

 

I thought about all the moving parts in each of the ferries and each of the cars, and how many people had been involved in making that little scene possible, from forging the bolts in the ferry’s hull, to drawing up the timetable, to putting petrol in the cars at some distant station in the Highlands, or even back in England, and the possibilities soon multiplied beyond comprehension. I started to think about who had delivered the petrol to the service stations, who had drilled for the oil, who had built the car, who had designed the car, who had invented the petrol engine, and so on and on until I realised that if I stood on this dock for long enough I could cover all of human activity across the world both at this moment and throughout history. And I could show how it all was necessary for this one little scene at a remote highland ferry terminal to be playing out as it was. Change one element and you change them all: the cars look different, or they arrive later or earlier, or they are not cars at all but some alternative means of transport that runs on betel juice.

 

Have you read Andrew Blackman’s ‘On the Holloway Road’? What do you think about it?

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