I was going to start the 2021 newsletter with a contemplative, deeply rooted book that has made a strong impression on me…but I haven’t finished it yet. It’s one of those books that requires savoring and digestion, and as we all know, this is a year where thoughtful attention takes longer than usual. [Insert lesson about learning to surrender expectations to the vagaries of life, or what have you.] Luckily, I’m usually reading about 600 things at any given time so you will not have to go without.
A Burning, Megha Majumdar
This is one of those books that’s deeply infuriating because you know how it’s going, and how it will likely end, and still you hang on to the hope that individuals won’t be crushed by systems of power. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but…don’t get your hopes up.) The characters are all driven by the human impulse for self-preservation, acting in ways that are devastating to one another but, in the context of survival, make perfect sense. It’s a book that demands you suspend judgment as you watch people teeter on the edge of tiny, life-changing decisions, wondering what moral code you would follow in their place, or even if one exists in which the right decision can be found.
Oh right, the plot? A truthful and ill-advised Facebook post leads to Jivan’s arrest for a terrorist attack on a train, and the people on the fringes of her life are forced to choose between their loyalties to her and their own forms of survival. Jivan lives in Kolkata, trying to work her way into the middle class and teaching English to her neighbor Lovely, an aspiring actor who occupies a difficult, liminal space as a hijra, simultaneously sought out for blessings and rejected as an outcast. (This oscillating treatment is not exclusive to marginalized groups, but it does feel rudely exacerbated in them. See also: the fetishizing of the ‘gay best friend’ in the early 00’s, that gay olde era of casual homophobia and continual pushback on gay rights.)
Some of the book’s strongest moments are in the detailed indignities of Jivan’s treatment in jail and the bigotry Lovely faces. They are imbued with a deep and complex empathy rather than the trivial condescension that is typically expressed by someone pulling a sad face before shrugging back into the accustomed attitude of ‘but-what-can-we-do’ ignorance. It’s the kind of writing that brings dignity to the experience of indignity, and demands humility of both author and reader.
Majumdar’s characters insist that we embrace the complexity of humanity: the fact that our strengths can become our flaws, and vice versa. There’s Jivan, whose impulses, though good, prove to be her downfall; her former gym teacher, who overrides his more reasonable instincts to excuse his own complicity in violence; and Lovely, who by turns selflessly sacrifices herself and sacrifices others on the altar of her ambition. There’s no individual villain, because no story is really as simple as that. We appreciate when they are, because that makes it easy for us to categorize, close the book, and sleep easy at night. It lets us sweep away the ashes from the pyre without feeling the heat on our own skin.
A Burning makes you question each person’s role in the telling, recording, and judgment of a story. It’s a forceful reckoning with our own complicity in simplistic narratives of events, and with the idea that we can ever fully understand another person’s motives and experience.
If you like it
For another character-driven story, try The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami. The desert setting is an integral part of this narrative about a hit-and-run death that exposes tensions around race, class, and immigration in a small Mojave town. Multiple-perspective stories can be tricky (and some voices do resound stronger than others), but Lalami weaves them all together in a way that keeps you engaged to the inevitable conclusion.
If you don’t
If you want a side of silliness with your existential angst, try Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems, the long-awaited follow-up to her brilliant webcomic/book Hyperbole and a Half. I’ve long admired Brosh’s ability to capture the broad experience of emotional reality, from hysterically funny childhood memories to the nihilistic stages of depression. Life is brutal and funny. Brosh is both.
Recommended books on Bookshop.org (new year, new list!)
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