Sunday, November 24, 2019

Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling.

There are two ways to immortality.  One of them is earn the kind of achievement that people will talk about forever.  Mahatma Gandhi provides a good example of this first type.  The other is create such a scandal that your name has no choice except to survive forever as an example to be avoided.  Rudyard Kipling is a rare and exotic breed.  He seems to managed both tricks in the space of a single lifetime.  At least, I think that's what he did.  Part of the hesitation stems from a number of interlinking factors.  Part of it is that all you have to do is mention The Jungle Book to call up whole film reels of childhood memories.  The catch is that just because most viewers are familiar with Walt Disney's last animated feature film, that's still no guarantee the majority of them will ever know that the film's author even existed.  Fewer may even realize that The Jungle Book was, in fact, an actual text.

The result is I can't say I know just what kind of reputation Kipling has in this day and age.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he's a fossil relegated to the darkest corner of a nursery that's escaped our memories.  I'm willing to go far enough in believing maybe handful of book types might remember who he is.  Even if that's the case, there's still a problem of having a notorious reputation.  The closest thing to a basic consensus I can find is that Kipling is regarded in much the same light as H.P. Lovecraft.  He's a great talent lodged inside a troubled and troubling personality.  Like his Providence counterpart, Kipling is seen as the great Imperial Apologist.  He's a man with a blind loyalty to Queen and Country, right or wrong.  Even his best works are alleged to be thinly disguised propaganda.  If he isn't cheering young British boys to throw their lives away for an unjust cause, then he's urging them to keep the "others" in their proper place.

At the same time, he's something of a childhood favorite.  Aside from the Mowgli stories, Kipling is responsible for filling our world with the likes of a mongoose christened "Rikki Tikki Tavi", a street urchin named Kim, and a "Man Who Would Be King".  Each one of these tales, taken together or separate, have since won recognition as genuine classics of both fantasy and adventure.  Still, there is the nonsense drivel known as "The White Man's Burden".  "And so it goes".  You can't admire Kipling.  You can't just bring yourself to throw him away either.  The worst part is the odd, almost schizoid quality that seems to live in his work.  The "Burden" doggerel is some of the most shallow and insensitive waste of good ink ever committed to paper.  Then, if you go from there and read about "The Man Who Would Be King", the strangest result happens.  It's as if the author of that tale were another man who, after reading the poem, got inspired to dash off, as in a white heat, a story with a clear anti-imperialist message at it's core.  The message in that short story is not just true, it's almost downright prophetic in the way it narrates the slow decay and downfall of British rule in India.  An ending that was written by none other than Gandhi himself.

How does one reconcile such a dichotomy?  How can two men live in the same head?  Are we dealing with a Jekyll and Hyde personality?  Does the right hand truly have no idea of what the left is doing?  What gives with this Kipling guy, anyway?  Is he some sort of elaborate fool, or just plain crazy?  Charles Allen is one who author who has at least made a valiant attempt to find an answer.  The question is what kind of writer does historical examinations turn up?  That' the question at the heart of Kipling Sahib, which details RK's exploits in the land of his birth, and how it shaped the writer he became.  It sounds like a standard enough approach, yet the writer uncovered by Allen is not the one I was expecting.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Silkworm (2014).

Part of the stated goal of this blog is to ask questions about the nature of creative writing, in addition to critiquing the finished results of this same process.  That's why it's gratifying to know that a number of writers out there are just as obsessed with the subject as I am.  I suppose it's kind of an honor to discover that one of those authors is J.K. Rowling.  That a writer like her should be concerned with where the stories come from (much less whatever they might mean or not) is one those ideas that might strike an average person as puzzling, if not outright pointless.  What does a success story like her have to be concerned about?  Isn't she rich enough to the point where she can leave that sort of thing to the hired help?

Even if I'm willing to grant that a lot of artists take just such an attitude to their work, the impression I've got from Rowling's books is that she's not the phone-it-in type.  If you can manage a deep dig into her Cormoran Strike novels, for instance, what you'll find is the craftsmanship of a woman who takes her day job too seriously to be lackadaisical about her art.  That's a particular impression I get whenever I turn my attention to her second performance in what is turning out to be a whole series of detective novels, The Silkworm.

It's the second book to be released detailing the exploits of a private detective who's set up shop right in the heart of Denmark Street in London.  Together with his professional colleague, Robin Venetia Ellacott, each novel in the series plays out the by now familiar formula of the Mystery novel.  A crime is committed. Someone consults Rowling's amateur sleuth about it, and together he an Robin start their investigation until the search for clues points them toward the guilty party.  For such a standard setup, it really is amazing just how well Rowling is able to pack almost all of her novels with incidents.  Her writing is able to accomplish two things in these stages.  On the one hand, she always manages to find a way to hook the attention of her readers and lead them into the pages of the mystery.  She does something a lot more important than that, however.  She is able to hold that same attention span for the entire length of the narrative in such a way that you've got to keep turning the pages in order to see what happens next.

With Silkworm, however, Rowling is interested in just a bit more than spinning a good yarn (although she never loses sight that this is the main goal of her book, or the novel in general).  She flat out wants to investigate the art and craft of writing in the same way that her detective is always eager to sink his teeth into a new puzzle to solve.  The way she does this is by creating a mystery with a novel within a novel at its center.  This make-believe text is more than just a prop.  It's probably the closest thing that her actual book has to a guiding symbol.  In addition to this, it also serves as a very useful macguffin that helps drive both the action and conflict of her story.  To understand why the whole thing works, though, is the job of this review.

It will help to make a few caveats before this article gets down to business, however.  The approach of this review is perhaps a bit more involved than normal.  If this should become a problem anywhere down the line, all I can do is point to the author and say, "Don't look at me, she started it".  The reason for this has to do with the way Rowling composes her work.  She's the type of author who always manages to write layers into her novels.  You get them every now and then.  Her technique is very similar to Vladimir Nabokov in this respect.  He was one of those artist who wrote in such a way that often the finished work was a simple looking book on the outside, while on the inside, one theme and meaning was stacked upon another like an intricate birthday cake.  What this means is that a lot of times there are several aspects to be unpacked in just a single text.

The biggest layer of importance is of course Rowling's thoughts on the creative process itself.  This shall be the main subject to which this article will build up to.  Before we can get there, however, there is also the matter of the main character's over-arching narrative.  In addition to the mystery-of-the-week, Rowling's new Mystery series is similar to TV shows like Monk, where every stand-alone story must share space with the series' main plot.  In shows like this, the main plot can often revolve around an unsolved mystery or trauma in the backstory of the detective's past.  For TV's Monk, it was the murder of his wife.  For Rowling's protagonist, it all revolves around the death of his mother Leda.  It's one of those cases where the coroner ruled suicide, while the detective remains convinced it was really homicide.  I suppose the setup is stock-in-trade enough for the Noir genre.  If that should be the case, then what matters is how Rowling chooses to fill in the form.
I have some ideas about the nature of the series back story that we'll get to in a moment.  For now, I should stress that in some ways I probably don't have much business talking about the back story.  The reason why is because a lot of it is pure speculation, with little to go on except for a few hints and clues that may just be red herrings.  I don't know if this is a less professional way of looking at a book or not.  I am certain that, on the whole, I'd be a lot more comfortable just standing back and letting the author do her own thing.  That said, it has to be admitted that part of the fun of mystery thrillers is that it pulls you in by inviting you to speculate on what comes next.  If that aspect can lay claim to being a legitimate part of examining any given work of fiction, then at least I can say it has its place in the critic's toolbox.  With all these caveats in mind, I'd say it's time we begin.