Monday, April 28, 2008

Greetings from: Delhi Train Station

I consider myself to be relatively adaptable; given a situation, I can generally figure out how things work and adjust accordingly. When given over to the Delhi Train Station by my auto-rickshaw driver, however, for the first time, I felt completely out of my element. I’ve read that deadly stampedes occur with some regularity at Indian train stations, and now I see why. First, the crush of vehicles is almost incomprehensible; the auto-rickshaws and cars and cycle rickshaws compete for every inch of available road space, and pedestrians pick between them, deaf to horns, exhaust blowing at their ankles. Second, at the ticket counter itself, a huge mass of people, organized only roughly by lines. Women with their luggage lean against columns, unmovable. People don’t cut in line as much as they simply jut in before you, right at the ticket counter. Whoever gets his money into the ticket slot first wins. When I finally made my move, I kept my elbow firmly against the ribs of the man formerly behind me, now adjacent to me. Tickets to my destination -- Shimla -- were sold out, however. But I think that’s probably for the best, as I wasn’t able to communicate that I wanted an advance ticket for Monday. Somewhat defeated, I made my way back to the hotel. On my way, I passed a car polka-dotted with flattened cow patties, drying to be used as fuel later.

Lonely Planet says that there’s an International Tourist Bureau at the train station, but I was unable to locate it. It said that main building, but I didn’t see anything that looked anything resembling main, and I was too flustered to ask. Therein lies my traveling weakness: I believe that I can figure it out, when I probably can’t. I’ll try again later.

Round 2: I discovered the problem: there are two entrances to the train station, the east and the west. I approached from the east, which means that I was on the other side. The travel guides warn about ticket touts who’ll sidetrack you and send you to your doom, but I was surprised that I hadn’t been accosted by any earlier. Now I know why: they’re also on the west side.

As soon as I came upon the right area, helpful faces came up to me: You looking for tourist bureau? I was handed papers and pens, told to get into an auto-rickshaw and pay no more than 10 Rs. for the ride, go now or office will close! Being Asian gave me a buffer, since I could pretend that I didn’t understand English. After being diverted the first time, I re-entered the building, whereupon a man grabbed my arm and insisted that I couldn’t enter without a ticket. He instructed me to go to Connaught Place, since the tourist office had shut down because of the Metro construction. Pay no more than 10 Rs. for the rickshaw, he told me. It’s because I’m not Indian that people will try to rip me off. You don’t say.

I found the International Tourist Bureau. I can see how people get sidetracked -- the staircase to the 2nd floor is difficult to see, especially with entire families spread across the floor. The bright saris and their colorful, playful stitching are a diversion, an opening to get swindled. As it turns out, although regular seats for Shimla are likely sold out, for monied tourists, there is always availability.

Greetings from: Red Fort, Chowri Bazaar… almost

If Le Meridien and New Delhi were a bubble, then Hotel Broadway and Old Delhi is the pinprick. The streets are narrow and packed. My window looks upon an alley where children are playing cricket with a plastic bat and a tennis ball (gully cricket, they call it). They use a paving stone as a wicket. A sheep wanders in and out of view. I decided to plunge solo into the madness headfirst; madness indeed, since I chose to walk to the Red Fort from my hotel, a 1.5 km trek. Monstrously overpopulated city versus guileless young Asian boy: let’s go! As soon as I stepped out, a rickshaw wallah approached me, but after a few quick shakes of the head and a few strides forward, I continued on. Indeed, I found that if I walked on the shaded side of Netaji Subhash Marg., I traveled against the flow of traffic, further discouraging potential rides.

Before you enter the Fort complex itself, you must pass through a shopping arcade. It’s like having the gift shop as a prerequisite to the museum.

At the Red Fort, I was surprised to see not just security guards, but soldiers with guns. One manned a checkpoint just outside the entrance, his machine gun propped up, he looking ready to fall asleep. But it makes some sense: this is a militaristic monument; the Indian War Museum on the grounds showcases weaponry from the ancient to the current (including a bewildering display of “Fuzes”). Soldiers also sat in the shade of the monuments, far behind the plastic ropes meant to keep out the public.

A man asked if I needed a guide. Since I was flying solo, I said no. Thus my knowledge of the Red Fort: red sandstone. Inlaid marble. Columns, Persian arches, minarets. I got the sense that this was a place for picnics; Indian families sat in the lawn on blankets. Some slept. Couples canoodled, reclining into one another in a rare public display of affection, while small chipmunk-like rodents boldly snuck up to their opened potato chip bags to see if they could grab anything.

At one end of the complex, an archeological museum, filled mostly with Mughal manuscripts and some Persian calligraphy. At the other end, a teahouse restaurant with low seats. I asked for the saffron kheer. They were out. I asked for the tomato and mint soup. They were out. I asked for the cucumber raita. That, they had. But it was salty and lacked any cucumber. My new motto: India: Live with it.

Having successfully navigated my way to the Red Fort, I figured I could do the same for Chowri Bazaar, which specializes in paper goods. I had a vague map in my head, and some even more vague directions written down. Walk right out of the hotel down Asif Ali Road, turn right into the Sitaram Bazaar (near the Turkman Gate), then right again at Chowri Bazaar. Even though I have a poor sense of spatial positioning, I had an idea of the general direction I should walk.

So of course, I got lost. Along Asif Ali Road, you can smell dark, dried rivulets of urine, hot oil and fried dough, mysterious streams of colored chemicals in the gutter, freshly squeezed limes and sugar cane, grease from a motorcycle shop, and then—sudden, unexpected—incense. I must have turned too early (too late?) because I found myself wandering the Jama Masjid Bazaar, named after the nearby mosque, obviously. I tried not to make too much of a spectacle of myself, but it’s unavoidable. I did feel more like a local however, as cycle rickshaws from behind me yelled at me to get out of the way. At least, that’s the gist of their commands. I realized that spitting in the street is a necessity, rather than simply a disgusting habit, as most Westerners would consider it. Primarily, dust accumulates in your mouth at an alarming rate, and spitting clears out the grit quite effectively. (I suppose you could lug around a bottle of water for a quick rinse, but I have a poor sense of fore planning as well.) More interesting, I kept seeing big globs of bright red sputum. I didn’t stop to examine them closely, but I figured they were betel nuts. An old man, pulling a cart laden down with bags of rice until the stack was twice his size, opened his mouth for a second, and I caught a glimpse of a bright red tongue. I was grateful to be able to spit, the same sort of relief you feel when you blow your nose and find the tissue filled with black snot, an uneasy relief: that stuff is in my mucus and not my lungs. Bicyclists, auto-rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists often tie a bandanna around their mouths.

Certain areas of the bazaar have a specialty: I passed through the car parts bazaar, the dark, oil-stained machine parts, all laid out on blankets. (As I discovered later, I was close, oh-so-close to Chowri Bazaar there.) If I break my glasses, I can go to Katra Baryan, Fateh Puri, where opticians jostle for favor. For jewelry, I can hit Dariba Kalan. If I want a kite, Lal Kuan. I picked my way up to Chandni Chowk, the massive retail artery of Old Delhi, via a network of tiny, dark alleys filled with flies. On either side, tiny stalls—rooms—lit blue from fluorescent lights. In some, large magnifying glasses mounted on lamp arms: jewelers, I assumed. In others: someone sleeping under a laminated poster of their swami of choice. Shops and vendors of all imaginable types filled Chandni Chowk, wares displayed haphazardly; a moment of carelessness, and I’d bump my head against an item hanging above me. I passed a Muslim temple, laid out horizontally. At one section, a man continually poured water out of plastic cups lined up on a marble railing for afternoon ablutions.

I eventually found Chowri Bazaar. But, sadly, only the Metro stop named Chowri Bazaar. By India standards, I count that as a win.

Greetings from: Noida

Suburbia has become mythologized in American culture, so much though that it’s become metaphor: isolation, stifling uniformity, repression. Manicured lawns and white picket fences, 2.5 children, 2.5 cars sitting in the driveway. Such is the image of American suburbia, and that was firmly fixed in my mind as I traveled towards Noida, a suburb of Delhi, with its own sleek, 70s-lettering style logo. Rishi had invited me back to meet his sometimes boyfriend, Sunit, and to watch movies. It could have been any of the Bollywood in his collection, but we ended up with House of Wax, Paris Hilton’s pole-in-the-head death scene abruptly trimmed away by the Indian censors. Rishi’s neighborhood is a block of concrete flats, the buildings shaped like half-played towers of Jenga. At my most gracious, I could call it a planned community; at my most ungracious, I could call it the projects. The entrance to Rishi’s complex was guarded by a small security force which opened the gate as necessary. The first channel on the cable TV system was a live feed on the single security camera pointed at the gate.

Across the (very busy) street was a small strip of stores, including a supermarket. People lived above these stores, and from Rishi’s balcony, I saw their laundry hanging on lines strung in every direction. Inside the supermarket, I was enthralled by brands familiar and unfamiliar. Since when did ordinary life take on the trappings of the exotic?

“Help me find some Tiffins,” Rishi asked me. We stood in the candy aisle, and I scanned the shelves, not knowing anything beyond the fact that Tiffins came in a tin. Moments before, I had stared at a milk-based boxed drink, kesar-flavored (saffron, I found out later). In American stores, the stock is carefully displayed, canisters and boxes in straight, orderly rows. In this store, boxed stock was kept behind the open stock on the shelf, a storage issue, I suspect. “Here it is,” Rishi said, pleased. The tin was neon colored, the cover image of a rollerblading Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Tiffins are like malted milk balls, puffed rice covered in chocolate.

The three of us sat on a futon, eating a pizza from Domino’s. I was disappointed in the toppings; instead of tandoori chicken, mango and curry, we had instead a “Mexican Green Wave,” which had jalapenos, green peppers, onions and tomatoes. Even Indians get tired of Indian food. Or America cultural imperialism has become so pervasive that it now imports its own bastardizations of other cultures -- Italy and Mexico in this case.

Periodically, the power would go off; the whole block went dark. I could still see outside -- the full moon -- and on the side of the streets, fires flared up: pavement dwellers. Then the power came back on, the A/C kicked back up, and life continued as normal.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Greetings from: South Delhi

Can I call it? A different Mr. Singh. Today, at least, I’ve learned (by learned, I mean “finally read through my Lonely Planet”) to speak confidently and to pretend that I’ve been here before.

The designated day of shopping with Rishi and Robert. Robert wanted “authentic Indian” gifts to bring back home. Do Indians import their cultural souvenirs from China? In any case, our first stop: Dilli Haat, in South Delhi. From my new digs in Old Delhi, an auto-rickshaw ride to Dilli Haat cost 80 Rs., which stings because you can mentally deny you’ve been ripped-off until faced with the real cost of things. Alas. The auto-rickshaw does leave you exposed to the heat, but the moving air kept oppressiveness. Without humidity, the heat is simply… hot. Small constellations of sweat formed and faded on the driver’s gray shirt. As well, the rickshaw also leaves you more open to being approached by beggars. At times the road swarmed full of these green-and-yellow auto-rickshaws -- the world as ruled bye 7Up.

Dilli Haat is an outdoor bazaar featuring handicrafts -- think a flea market where each stall tries to lure you in with the promise of pashmina. Robert had some difficulty making up his mind; he wanted saris for his friends, yet didn’t know what color, what material, what cost. “As cheap as you can get it,” he said, which meant that Rishi assumed on the role of official tourist bargainer. One dealer explained the difference between needlework and hookwork in decorating the saris, and Rishi, a fashion stylist, pointed out flaws (uneven edges) and steered Robert away from dreadful color choices. Rishi demanded that a vendor bring out the Indian color combinations, rather than the European palette. So away went the grays and metallic edges; in came the saffrons, the turmerics -- piles and piles of them as the dealers unloaded the saris out of plastic bags, unfurled them, and showed us the careful stitching that Indian children’s hands can do. An emaciated British gent sat haggling for a sari, a skill that I leave -- for better or worse -- to my mother.

Rishi then took us to Greater Kailesh (commonly referred to as GK), home of the Fabindia store. Robert decided that he wanted some Indian clothes for himself, so Rishi and I watched as he tried on shirts of different sizes and clothes, pajama bottoms with extra cloth meant to gather at your ankles like bangles, regular straight leg pajama bottoms. The small, slim fits -- even in India -- are too big on me. Upstairs from a trendy clothing store was Le Café, where, Rishi informed us, the socialites and Page Sixers of Delhi liked to congregate. Indeed, at one table, a large group of Indian women (of a certain age) had gathered, as if they were the steering committee for a charity event. We met two of Rishi’s friends at the café (a young woman in a bright yellow dress that showed off her décolletage and a young man who could only be described as a prototypical stoner), and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the young, upscale professionals of Delhi are no different from those in the United States. They’re always looking for diversions. And they find them: drinking, marijuana (which I understand is illegal to sell but not to smoke or possess in small quantities), art, drugs, sex. The favored catchphrase: “What’s our POA (plan of action)?” Urban malaise: the new global phenomenon.

Finally, with Robert shuffled off to the airport to catch his plane to Dubai, Rishi had business of his own to conduct. He took his hired car (cost $100 a month, including driver) to Lajpat Nagar, a street in which I was the only Westerner. Both sides were lined with clothing stores, women in bright saris walking in and out of them. Rishi and I walked into one, and the variations of colors were overwhelming. You know how, as a child, you’d buy the biggest box of Crayolas, then tilt back the cardboard top simply to take in the chromatic assortment before you? You’d pull out certain colors just to learn the names: periwinkle, cornflower, terra cotta. Imagine that, but with silk, the colors so varied that they no longer have names, but rather numbers on a swath card. As we walked back to his car, my first adventure with street food: a green coconut, its top hacked off to expose the sweet water within.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Greetings from: Connaught Place, Chanakyapuri

I keep mispronouncing it. The emphasis is on the “naught” rather than the “con.” In a manner of speaking, that is. I got to experience the “con” part earlier, usually in the form of taxis. The Lonely Planet describes different taxi scams—depositing you at certain shops, you pay what you feel, new mysterious “charges”—and I’ve experienced all of those today.

First: Mr. Singh (Cab #2998), originally tasked with taking me to the US Embassy (I was late; they close at 1) then proceeded to drive me to three different souvenir shops. Carved Ganeshas, carpets, pashmina shawls. Look at the quality! Let me unroll one for you! The goods reminded me of things you’d find a flea markets: ties in mylar sleeves, t-shirts featuring camels and the Taj Mahal, pajamas. The shopkeepers followed me, persistent. I was relieved to see some other Westerners there with me; I wasn’t the only one getting the shaft. And I, being of weak-will, broke down and bought stuff. Not regretfully, of course, but more with a sense of let’s get this over with, the first in a series of painful vaccinations.

Then: a different Mr. Singh (Cab #2603) transported me to dinner (the United Coffee House, where I was only one of a few Westerners—does this make it authentic?) and back, and rather than securing the cost beforehand, he simply told me to give him a good price. Fine, then: 200 Rp. Now all I need is someone to throw dung on my shoes and then offer to shine them for me. I could be more vigilant in guarding myself against scams and frauds, but the truth is: I really can’t be bothered. Some people enjoy haggling, of fighting tooth and nail for each last rupee. My mother does it with aplomb. But not me. I’m a walking profit machine. Rupees fall out of my ears. I also had my first beggar experience. An old man and a child came up to the taxi and banged on the window. The man pulled up his sleeve to show how skinny his arm was, how he had a patch of discolored skin on his wrist. The child kept knocking on the window. The second Mr. Singh looked away, and I tried my best to ignore them. But, oh man, did I feel like a bastard. Western liberal guilt for the lose.

Finally: a third Mr. Singh (no cab number given on his card) deposited me at Peg N Pints in Chanakyapuri—south of the embassy district, roughly—for the infamous gay night. Infamous because it’s only advertised by word-of-mouth and surreptitious Google searches. I told Mr. Singh that I’d be there about one or two hours. The bar was dark—so dark that you could barely make out faces except when someone sparked a match to light a cigarette or had his face caught in the light of the mobile texting screen. I guess having smoke-free clubs back in the States has spoiled me; my eyes began stinging almost immediately. From the second level, overlooking the dance floor, burning cherries waving up and around. A man named Irwan—moustache, yellow t-shirt, glasses as round as his face— introduced himself to me, but I could hardly hear him (Everything But the Girl was playing) and when he tried to continue the conversation, I couldn’t understand him whatsoever (the DJ was rough and reckless with the cross-fader). He sat next to me for a few minutes, his arm on the back of my chair. I leaned forward and steadfastly ignored him, and after a while, he left. The crowd seemed in good spirits—a cross-section of the middle-class gay scene in Delhi, I suppose, a mix of ages and temperaments. They drank 1 liter bottles of Kingfisher, which seemed ridiculously large to me (then again, since I don’t drink, it may simply have been a throat soother). The waiters (including one waiter who I could have sworn looked Chinese) picked them up and carried them off, assiduously avoiding contact with the patrons. At first, only one or two people danced (if I were ten years younger, that may well have been me; age has instilled a more thorough sense of shame), but soon the floor was filled. One boisterous man danced in front of me wearing a grey wifebeater—he reminded me of a younger, overweight Ron Jeremy—hooting and having the time of his life. Around midnight, a tall drag queen came in, looking like Lisa Marie from Mars Attacks!, along with some actual, biological women. A drunk in a white silk shirt stumbled down the stairs and out the door. During the day, two men holding hands or walking with their arms around each other would simply be an expression of friendly affection, but here, it developed into full-on snogging. I would have been content to watch the action—the bar had a single, green laser light, but given its size, more would have caused sensory overload—but a young man named Rishi said to me, “You don’t dance much, do you?”— a challenge if ever I heard one. He seemed to be the social director for Peg N Pints; he seemed to know everyone and was happy introducing everyone to everyone else. Through him, I met Rajev, Anut, Derek (who I believe was Japanese) and Robert (a doctor from Philadelphia, Korean). House music is still the lingua franca of the gay world; I never expected, however, that Shakira would be its goodwill ambassador. When the DJ put on popular Bollywood remixes, people cheered and sang along, and even though he didn’t have any idea of how to work a pitch shifter, when he hit pause on the CD player, the crowd roared back, “Om Shanti Om!” At least he knew his crowd. I didn’t leave until 2:30, and Mr. Singh #3 was asleep in the cab. When he finally deposited me back at Le Meridien, he insisted on an additional 200 Rp. “waiting fee” (50 Rp. per hour) even though I’d already given him 400 Rp. for the ride and back—generous fee, I thought. Again, I couldn’t be bothered to argue, whereas Robert, a few minutes earlier, had Rishi argue the cost of an auto-rickshaw down for him to 100 Rp.). I gave him another 90 Rp. “You pay me the other 100 tomorrow,” he said. I’m sure I’ll have a completely different Mr. Singh.

But the fee was almost worth it: on the way back, the windows rolled down so that a cool breeze—in Delhi?—blew across my body, a lone cow walked across an empty street, followed by two forlorn, feral dogs, teats engorged and hanging low to the ground. But the cow seemed not to have a care in the world. It couldn’t even be bothered to turn its head to moo.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Greetings from: DELHI, Indira Gandhi Airport, Le Meridien

True story: as I tried to rest back in the steerage compartment of the plane, a tall, dark-skinned man (pilot? co-pilot? flight attendant?) crouched down and snuck up behind a middle-aged female flight attendant and whispered, “I’ve got a weapon.” She turned immediately and said, “Lance!”—perhaps in genuine surprise, perhaps in shock that he would make such a tasteless joke. I wonder: have we reached the point where we can comfortably play these pranks on each other? 9/11—always good for a larff.

As I first stepped into the Delhi air—thick, but not oppressive—I noticed the haze, an opaque curtain that caught the orange sodium lights everywhere and made the city glow nuclear. It may have been dust; even at 10:30 in the evening, workmen walked along the exposed girders and half-formed concrete walls of the airport expansion. My taxi pulled away, and men with 2x4s on their shoulders interrupted the flow of the traffic circles that rule the city.

Delhi is circular. The traffic rounds dizzy; cars weave in and out of each other: you cut me off, I cut you off. Luckily, the cars here are a third the size of American cars, such that two lanes of traffic can accommodate three cars and possibly several bicyclists as well. Driving is less of a recreation and more of a full-contact sport. The Indians take pride in their vehicles as much as Americans do: the drivers of a small Mitsubishi Zen stickered with Ferrari decals of various sizes took umbrage with me staring at their car, and quickly merged away from my taxi. Along the road, signs with incomprehensible acronyms—and these were the ones with Roman letters. I suppose it’s the equivalent of being a foreigner and seeing directions for the DMV, the PO, the Cracker Barrel, only one of which serves a useful function.

To reach the entrance of Le Meridien, my driver had to navigate a circular driveway that seemed to go on forever. It was as if we were ascending to the Moonraker colony. Outside the door, men in crisp white Mughal outfits stood at attention. The staff was solicitous, as you would expect from a luxury restaurant. Inside, a young man wearing brown socks on his feet asked something of the guest services desk; a French couple chatted idly at check-in. A blue glass sculpture rose from behind check-in—beam me up! Indeed the modernist Le Meridien seems as if it’s not a part of the city at all; it’s a spaceship with hardwood floors and marble bathrooms, disgorging aliens to explore the locals.

I only brought a barely-packed carry-on and my laptop bag, yet they insisted on bringing them up to my room, followed closely behind by a pot of masala tea kept warm by a cozy. And cookies! A sugar-fennel cookie which I’m sure I’m going to have to try to make at home, and two other cookies of unknown origin, since my sinuses still haven’t yet cleared.

There’s nothing like a luxury hotel to make your life seem like shit. Just two nights in Le Meridien will cost me nearly $1000, but I’ve got two 42” plasma TVs that have a surfeit of Indian music videos and coverage of cricket matches. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a music video in which the dancers are dressed as cricketers. It’s simply another colonialist fantasy among many; here I am, filling a tub with hot water, where just two hours ago, I passed women sitting cross-legged in the small patch of green inside of a traffic circle. On the sidewalk, a male dog hovered over his bitch, lying on the ground. I’m extracting the land’s resources for my own comforts, having a dark-skinned young man insist that I sit on the sofa and watch CNN while he pours my tea and sets it down in front of me. “Sugar?” he asks, and I say no, because obsequious servitude makes me feel bad. And while I don’t feel guilty enough to take a quick shower instead of a luxurious bath, I feel just guilty just enough to make it a short bath. When I drain the tub or rinse my mouth out in the sink, I hear the water gurgle in the other part of the bathroom. Yes, the other part.

Across the street from me: Shangri-La. It rises stories into the night, klieg lights at its base shining up. I could reach it if I wanted.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reading: Tobias Wolff

I’ve read plenty of theories about the differences between dog and cat people. Most of it is psychobabble, of course -- forwarded emails skewed towards the animal of the writer’s preferences -- but I wonder, however, if there’s a qualitative difference. Tobias Wolff, for instance, is a dog writer. That puts him in the same field as Amy Hempel. At his reading last Thursday, he regaled the audience about the books which changed his life -- a series of collie-related adventure novels. As well, he read from one of his newer stories, “Her Dog,” in which he channels a dog’s voice. (It was a ruff night.) I, by proxy, am a cat writer. Which puts me in the company of, say, Rita Mae Brown.

That aside, of course, more bonds us together as writers rather than our respective pet choices. When he spoke about his revision process -- how he loves to revise, but finds the actual writing process daunting -- I found sense that many in the audience agreed. Lots of younger listeners in the audience (post-college aspiring writers, perhaps) but there was also a gaggle of high school students -- probably a nearby school, assigned reading. Behind me in the signing line was the Mid-Atlantic sales director for Knopf books. I tried to make a good impression via small talk(because you never know), but only managed to ask if he had ever met Chip Kidd. All in good time, I tell myself, all in good time.

The feeling of accomplishment that comes with the idea of having written, rather than the idea of writing, makes revision a pleasing feeling. The act of creation is difficult enough, but the act of refinement -- I often tell myself that this is where writers truly reveal themselves. In his talk, Wolff spoke about the various incarnations his stories had taken, how he added characters or deleted scenes and pruned and cut and shaped as necessary. He spoke about trying to achieve a certain emotional truth in his stories -- and I’m inclined to agree: His prose isn’t showy -- one could argue that it’s relatively unadorned (dirty realism is the term critics apply to him and Hempel). But even if cat writers are more prone to flights of fancy and wordplay (this, of course, is a horrible generalization), it’s the sharpness of our claws, rather than the play itself, which is important.

Well, let's declare this metaphor dead.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Book: "Out Stealing Horses" by Per Petterson

Lest people accuse me of being insufficiently highbrown -- and, let's face it, I consume a lot of crap -- let's return to a recent novel by Norgewian author Per Petterson. Out Stealing Horses received considerable praise upon its appearance last year, winning, among other prizes, a spot as one of the New York Times' Best Books of the Year. That's a lot of hype to live up to.

Out Stealing Horses is, above all, a novel of place. The narrator, Trond, an old man living by himself in the woods of Norway, recounts a memorable summer near the Swedish border with his father. Petterson's descriptions of the landscape are lush, vivid, and nearly overwhelming: from the sensation of the fields to the smell of the pine forest to the mist rising off the nearby river, Petterson creates a definite sense of place -- seemingly idyllic, full of adventure and mischief for a fifteen year-old Trond.

The first part of the novel moves slowly -- be forewarned. Petterson's pacing is languorous, his sentences long and rhapsodical. He evokes not only a landscape, but an unhurried way of life, wherein the narrator's thoughts are allowed to double back on themselves, to question assertions as quickly as they are uttered. For readers reared on a steady diet of modern fiction (myself included), the apparant lack of action may become grating. Well, until you get to the accidental shooting of a pre-pubescent young man.

Out Stealing Horses is a cumulative novel, where event and language slowly accrue. It doesn't climax, necessarily -- the central tension of the novel (the disappearance of Trond's father, his involvement in the World War II Norwegian [!] Resistance) grows in the second half of the novel, as present-day Trond and fifteen year-old Trond share the stage -- but it slowly enraptures the reader. The rhythms and cadences of daily rural Norwegian life slowly reveal class and sexual tensions, as well as a sunny bonhomie. Seemingly superfluous details in the early sections of the novel take on greater meaning in the second half. The title itself lends itself early to the visceral thrill and pain of two young boys actually stealing horses but also later takes on greater metaphorical meaning.

The narrator's voice is so distinctive that it feels awkward when another character -- namely Trond's grown daughter (introduced near the end) -- uses that voice for her own. Instead, it works as contrast better with Trond's father, who is masculine and stoic in the way we all expect our fathers to be. Indeed, it's this stoicism that gives the final line of the book its peculiar gut-punch. Even as the book ends with Trond and his mother -- our first, good look at her -- the father still lingers heavily on with Trond. And the painful consequences of that relationship? Well, that, the reader gets to decide.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Movie: Tooth and Nail

If there's anything better than mutants, it's cannibal mutants. And even though the bad guys in Tooth and Nail aren't, technically speaking, mutants, they sure do derive from the Road Warrior school of fashion. When the clothes are little more than scraps of leather and metal studs, you know you're in a post-apocalyptic world. In particular (as the helpful voice-over informs us), the world has ended because... well, because we ran out of gas. Certainly, the explanation seems plausible enough if you don't think about it too much. And if you do, this movie probably isn't for you to begin with.

Needless to say, there are survivors, and there are predators. Our particular survivors (let's refer to them as the Munchies) are a scrappy lot, living off of Red Cross rations in an abandoned Philadelphia hospital. In a strange move, they've all adopted the names of cars: Ford, Dakota, Yukon, Nova, Viper etc., except for the leader, Darwin. The world has fallen apart; quick! everyone pick a nickname! Darwin has been designated the group's leader and brainiac, so he's not going to make it far; it probably doesn't help that he's played by Robert Carradine, best known for his role in Revenge of the Nerds. After all, horror movies tend to privilege men of action. Nerds, not so much. The predators (collectively known as Rovers) and they enjoying picking off their victims one at a time. That way, the meat stays fresh and doesn't get stringy. I guess in the future, curing meat has become a lost art. The Munchies take in a new member, the two groups meet, and dinner is served!

Tooth and Nail doesn't try to make the "guess the non-eaten" game difficult. The victim characters are sketched rather thinly; I doubt they'd make a substantial meal. Nonetheless, the roles of fodder are played convincingly enough. Pity poor Rider Strong, who in recent memory has been: infected with a flesh-eating virus; smacked around with a spiked club; and sacrificed to a Santeria cult (the last two just within the 2007 After Dark Horrorfest alone!). Rachel Miner, a Horrorfest alumna, puts in a sharp turn as the mysterious newcomer Neon, who reveals the big twist two-thirds of the way through the film. (It comes right on cue, following the scriptwriter's formula perfectly.)

Nicole DuPont plays the post-Darwinian leader, Dakota, rather impassively. I suppose DuPont was trying to convey her frail mental state, but the intensity of the Rovers (particularly the manic energy of Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones) demands an equal amount of intensity from their would-be victims. When she finally takes revenge (after using her noggin, pleasingly enough), the director seems to attempts to make her savage and cold and somewhat impractical. Don't waste those bullets! Don't squander those arrows! If the world is running out of resources, it would have made more sense to deliver the coup de grace with a rock. Who wants to dull their sharp blades on vertebrae and sternums?

Tooth and Nail, while it doesn't wow you with any spectacular set pieces or thoughtful commentary on the state of humanity, does at least provide a smooth thrill for its running time. The film uses the long, dark corridors of the hospital to great effect. We get shots of people running; we get shots of people hiding; however, without an idea of the layout of the hospital, the viewer is never quite sure of the distance between the chaser and chasee. Is everyone even on the same floor? Luckily, cannibal mutants can transcend spatial considerations. Must be something in their diet.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Movie: Nightmare Man

It's my own fault, I suppose, that I expected the films in the After Dark Horrorfest to have achieved some level of professionalism and polish. Part of the appeal of bad horror is its utter cheapness. So far, so good. But for that cheapness to get a theatrical release -- even as limited as Horrorfest was -- seems absurd. I mean, the opening credits seem as though they were programmed with a Commodore 64. The music was so generic that I'm surprised it didn't come from a brown paper bag. The movie reeked of straight-to-video.

And yet... at some point, I stopped being annoyed with the movie and let myself enjoy the utter cheesiness. That's not to say that I surrendered to its charms; rather, I said, Screw it. In the words of Bill, a Brazillian version of Bruch Campbell but without the self-deprecating charm, "This whole ordeal will be over before you know it." So, before three minutes of the movie have elapsed, we get a side boob shot. Before four minutes, we get complete nudity. This is a blessing in disguise, because since for the rest of the film, this actress varies between two lines: "No!" and "I need my pills!"

The story (such as it is) revolves around Bill and Ellen, a married couple who hope to spice up their romantic life with an African fertility mask. That's like having a Zuni fetish doll in your house. (This begs the question of why indigenous artifacts always bear some sort of evil curse. Damn you, colonialism!) Needless to say, Ellen becomes haunted in a most uncomfortable way and shakes herself into the dreaded it was all a dream" sequence. As it turns out, Ellen's now on her way to a sanitarium with Bill when their car mysteriously runs out of gas. As Bill goes off to find help, Ellen is terrorized by a mask-wearing fiend while huddled in the car -- echoes of Penny Dreadful from 2006's Horrorfest -- and she wisely chooses to abandon the vehicle and stumbles into a cabin full of young lovers playing "erotic truth-or-dare." If it sounds bad written out, just imagine Ellen's flight from a knife-wielding pursuer cross-cut with scenes of a black lingerie striptease. Don't even get me started on why someone would go into the dark woods wearing only a bra and panties and wielding a crossbow.

The movie seems to be a showcase for up-and-coming scream queen Tiffany Shepis -- Jamie Lee Curtis needn't get her guard up. Whereas Ms. Curtis chose roles in which she could be vulnerable, Ms. Shepis seems to prefer roles where she's a smart-ass or naked. Or both! Her pan-sexual portrayal of Mia means that Shepis gets to spit out choice one-liners with relative gusto and not an ounce of believeability. I can see how this is manna to a certain demographic -- but how about something for the rest of us?

Like I said, at some point, I just let myself enjoy the film -- but I could only do so up to a point. Nightmare Man never attempts to be scary and revels in its own campiness; it just wants to entertain. That's why I'm disturbed by the sexual violence. The demonic Nightmare Man enters into Ellen (and, later, Mia) by rape. And for a movie that's trying to be lighthearted, the subject of rape jars terribly with it. Indeed, as the teenagers discuss Ellen's sanity (or lack thereof), a kind, good-natured (and doomed) blonde girl raises rape trauma as a very real explanation for Ellen's behavior. So when Mia's clothes are ripped off by the demon (actually, a CGI effect that reminded me of a fireworks sparkler -- but an evil fireworks sparkler), it's meant to tittilate. But it comes off as exploitative, sleazy, and cheap in a way that has less to do with budget constraints and more to do with a lack of imagination.

Movie: Mulberry St.

Every so often, I gorge myself on horror movies. There's no rhyme or reason to it; it simply happens. The last time this occurred was coincidentally during the theatrical release of the After Dark Horrorfest, wherein I watched three films, one good, the other two not as good. So much like any other monster movie sequel, I'm back for the survivors.

I really had meant to see Mulberry St. in the theater—the premise sounded like an novel twist on regular zombie gutmunching lore. Instead of undeath-spread-by-bite, you have the zombies instead becoming rat-human hybrids. Or, essentially, actors with extra patches of hair and pointy mouth prosthetics. And while it sounds somewhat ridiculous—and, let's face it, it is—Mulberry St. turns out to be actually good. The contagious, anthrophagous, rat-people are the donné; the strength of the movie lies in its characters.

No, I actually said characters. Instead of the usual cardboard cut-out post-adolescents who live to die, Mulberry St. takes the time to craft down-to-earth characters; instead of focusing on the rich and beautiful, the tenants of the apartment building on the titular Mulberry St. have unglamourous jobs (bartender! pensioner! handyman!), have scars and flaws, and have conflicting desires. Worse, they seem to be well into their thirties if not older! Indeed, two of the characters are elderly and slightly debilitated; one is attached to an oxygen tank and mentions that he used to be a munitions expert. Gee, you think that'll play a role later? And even though some of the characters seem to play towards a certain type (Coco, for instance, is a black drag queen, which means his survivability rating is near nil), the actors bring life and nuance to them. Thus, when people start becoming rat chow, their deaths have an emotional impact.

Undoubtedly, the film strives for populist appeal. Yuppies and gentrifiers (embodied by the good-looking spokesmodel of the Crome Development company) are as much villians as the rat-people. After all, Crome has condemned the apartment building using eminent domain and plans to raze it in favor of higher-rent properties. Sounds like Manhattan, all right. (My friend Sam has written an essay about gentrification and horror which could shed some light on this subject.) But, fear not, the yuppies get their comeuppance. As the rat-people begin to multiply, they find bar-going yuppies particularly easy prey: soft and too loaded down with their own self-worth to run properly. Indeed, even as Manhattan is quarantined and panic overtakes the street, a yuppie couple runs with their baby from the Mulberry St. building, causing one of the aforementioned pensioners to yell after them, "Go back to Connecticut!"

The spectres of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina also weighs into the film. One of the characters, a wounded Iraqi war veteran with unsightly scars on her face has is berated when she leaves her bag unattended, but is also thanked for her service. (On the train, a cell-phone yapping commuter sits across from her, making her self-reflexively try to hide her scars beneath her hair: yuppie scum!) The mayor of New York City—who looks suspiciously like Bernard Kerik—gives live statements from the safety of Bermuda, while the city's emergency response breaks down. The final scene with biohazard-suited paramilitaries storming the city building by building seems reminiscent of war footage. Needless to say, the film ends on a particularly downbeat note.

(Interesting sidenote: on the DVD extras, there's a deleted scene which brings these issues much more to the forefront, with one character explicitly comparing yuppies to rats and another talking about biological warfare. A bit on the nose, I think, and a smart excision.)

Finally, this review wouldn't be complete without a mention of the queer content. Sure, the movie doesn't make a big deal of Coco's sexuality—it's an implicit given—but his relationship to the main character, Clutch, seems particularly ambiguous. Coco is introduced via a series of pictures which shows him, Clutch, and Casey (Clutch's daughter, the war vet) together. This implies an intimacy which is never fully addressed. Clutch seems like a red-blooded male; his attraction to Kay, the Eastern European single mother upstairs, means that he rides to her rescue, and when Coco caresses Clutch's cheek, Clutch rebuffs him away definitively, but not maliciously. Also ambigious: at the end of the film, the rat-ified Kay pauses before her son, sniffing him, but not attacking. It's as if she recognizes him as family. Similarly, the rat-ified Coco does the same to Clutch. Does this imply a closer relationship than we're lead to believe? It's this sort of character-based complexity which helps Mulberry St. transcend its silly concept and become something not just horrifying, but stirring, as well.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Movie: Phone

Of the recent spate of derivative Korean horror movies, Phone stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, though it's not without its own faults. But where Phone succeeds, it succeeds with flair, particularly in its visual style. It also displays some real flashes of imagination and some disturbing connotationsthough not so disturbing to turn off an audience. Unfortunately.

Phone centers around that Asian horror movie chestnut: cursed technology. In this case, a cell phone that rings at inopportune times. The caller doesn't as much say hello as she sort of screams something murderous that causes people to see strange visions, go mad, or generally get possessed. Think of it as extreme telemarketing. Ji-won has inherited the number of doom, and when a friend's daughter answers the call, Ji-won must solve the mystery before it's too late, or the no-call list will grow larger.

Director Ahn Byong Ki keeps a tight rein on his visuals: ghostly occurrences have a distinct blue tint, moments of violence lean towards red/orange tones, and Ji-won's friends, an outwardly "nuclear" family of three, appear almost exclusively in white. Does it matter that their underthings are black? You bet! After the daughter, Yeong-Ju, has answered the phone, she becomes possessed by a spirit that wants to do inappropriate things to Daddy and hurt Mommy. While pre-school seems a little early for the Electra complex, I guess they're more emotionally mature in Korea. After all, Ji-won's big break comes when she writes about an under-age sex scandal, little knowing that her best friends have a little scandal of their own.

Phone raises some interesting issues about motherhood, especially when it's revealed that Yeong-Ju is actually Ji-won's biological daughter (transported via petri dish into her friend Ho-Jeong's womb). Phone tries to make the argument of nature vs. nurture come down solidly on the nature side—but the issue isn't necessarily that simple. When the reason behind the haunting is finally revealed in a jarring POV switch that is supposed to estrange the audience from Ho-Jeong, it actually makes Ho-Jeong seem more reasonable. Also going against Phone is its penchant for cliche—as well as style substituting for actual scares (an elevator opens onto a stairwell: ooo, spooky). Still, compared to some of its compatriots, Phone has a eerie quality to it. It's a ringtone that's all too familiar, but still distorted enough to catch your attention.

Korean derivative cinema equation: Murder by Phone + The Exorcist + Ringu = Phone.