Enjoyed reading this essay on how the technique of using footnotes in fiction has evolved over the years. Another example is Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin, a work of pure metafiction in which the footnotes try for a while to dominate and take over the main narrative.
“In fact, what all of these works show—from Nabokov and Wallace to Danielewski and Boully—is that experimentation quickly stops being experimental when it works well, and gives way to progression … Footnotes, once the hallmark of pedantry and pretension, have now entered the realm of craft. More than a trick, footnotes can be technique. We’ve seen how they can be used to comment on a narrative or to create a new one, to overlap separate narratives, to evoke character in new ways, and to dig into difficult parts of who we are. Footnotes, in other words, no longer merely support a story; now, they can be the story.”
Jonathan Russell Clark, ON THE FINE ART OF THE FOOTNOTE
I was a squeamish reader as a child. I still am one. I tend to avoid most genre fiction for this reason, besides skipping strong scenes in any book I read, unless when they are essential to the plot, theme, or premise. Several critically acclaimed and well-written books have disturbed me so deeply that I would rather not re-read them, and shudder when I remember reading them– A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies, Room, Oryx and Crake, Trainspotting…a long list.
But there are exceptions, and many. Here is a list of my top ten books in this category, books with premises, themes or containing scenes or language that are disturbing, and yet have the power hold most sensitive readers within their lines.
Plot spoilers may lie ahead.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita tops the list. Humbert Humbert, the epitome of the unreliable narrator, is one of the most complex and interesting, if not likeable characters in literature. He cites his aborted romance with Annabelle at the age of twelve, as the reason for his pedophilic tendencies, or love for nymphets, in his words. He comes across as a vile monster during the first part of the novel as he embarks upon the seduction of Lolita, but in the second half, after Lolita manages to flee from him, he emerges a shattered man who seems to realise the enormity of his crime and seems to regret it. Later as Lolita stands before him, no longer a fresh, pre-pubescent girl but a worn out, married woman, barefoot and heavily pregnant, Humber proclaims that he loves her, the kind of love that is ‘at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight’. His guilt and remorse and the murder that he commits soon afterwards pronouncing Lolita as his child creates something like pity in the reader’s mind, which is a testimony to the genius of Nabokov. One of the critical essays on Nabokov speculates that he styled each of his novels to fit the theme. And as Lolita was about seduction, he intended the prose to charm the reader. That theory may well be true, for he had me on the very first page.
- Kafka on the shore by Haruki Murakami
A surreal retelling of the legend of Oedipus, this novel about fifteen year old Kafka Tamura who allegedly commits both patricide and incest, has in addition to these, a number of disturbing scenes of sexuality and violence including inadvertent abuse of a schoolchild by his teacher and graphic scenes of torture of cats. But the surreal sentences nevertheless flow in a lucid stream (keeping in mind that this is a translation) that the reader willingly floats through the pages, compelled to go anywhere Murakami wants to take them through the text.
- Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Despite the unusual premise of a couple who deliberately use drugs and radioactive material to produce freak children in order to run their travelling carnival, the themes that come through this strange story are surprisingly conventional – sibling rivalry, the meaning of family, sexual jealousy, the power of autosuggestion and mass hysteria which arises from a cult, etc. Though a number of scenes are bizarre and even repulsive, the narrative is good enough to keep even a squeamish reader turning the pages.
- My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
Though not frequently listed among Dahl’s more popular books, this outrageous novel about Uncle Oswald (who appears in two other of his short stories) is extremely funny. Uncle Oswald chances upon the potent nature of the Sudanese Blister Beetle, armed with a supply of which, he conspires with the beautiful Yasmin to create an illegal sperm bank of the rich and the famous from all around Europe, with a view to selling superior genes in an open market. Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Monet and G B Shaw are among the potential victims whom the pair try to con. In spite of the raunchy premise, the narrative remains decorous and almost innocently hilarious throughout, with a wicked Dahlian twist at the end.
- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
This gem of a debut novel which pulls in the reader from the very first sentence, addresses among other things, the serious issue of child abuse. The spunky heroine Taylor Greer is forced to take charge of a Cherokee baby and in a disturbing scene, discovers that the child has been physically abused. The rest of the novel is among other things, about how Taylor heals the child with love and formally adopts her. A confident and energetic heroine, Taylor flits through the novel like a sunbeam. Her funny and yet warm narrative makes it a joy to accompany her on her adventures as she finally comes of age.
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
A number of dark issues lurk within this mammoth novel with its mild premise of arranged marriage in newly Independent India. Between the stories of four elite and educated Indian families with their polished lives steeped in art, literature, family and culture, lie creepy sub-plots of adultery, illegitimacy, debauchery and incest. But to use a metaphor that the author’s alter ego employs to describe the book, the novel is like a huge, spreading banyan tree. The solid trunk, the sturdy roots, the leafy shade of the branches and the birds singing on them capture the reader’s interest much more than the disturbing sub-plots above which recede to the background.
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Recently I watched the movie based on the book, which left me underwhelmed. The film was not a patch on the novel which won the Booker and the Best of the Booker prizes. But that was to be expected, considering that the visual imagery conjured up by the book is such a rich experience for any reader, that a film adaptation could never do justice to it. The book has several disturbing scenes including explicit violence and torture (the emasculation of the Midnight’s children being one), but the beauty and strength of the prose is such that the novel plays out vividly in the reader’s mind as the pages are turned, compulsively, till the end where Saleem starts writing his story, mirroring the story of his nation.
- The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
An inspired tribute to the gothic novel and specifically Jane Eyre, this is a story which contains many stories within its framework, narrated by a mysterious author who wants to tell the truth after a lifetime of writing bestselling fiction. There are plenty of disturbing scenes involving violence, incestuous passion, addiction, mental illness and torture, but the essence of the book right from the beginning is the celebration of the love of fiction. That, and the powerful narrative made this reader stay on the page, even after the happy ending, mesmerised by the words.
- The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The story of five teenage girls who are smothered by their parents, fall into depression and kill themselves one after the other (no spoilers here, it is given away in the title) is perhaps meant to be disturbing. However, the strong characterization, sense of place and setting and above all, the strength and beauty of the narrative voice (first person plural) makes this a compelling read, both in terms of structural form as well as content.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A dystopian novel set in a time period where firemen burn libraries, the majority of people live in a vacuous state of mind that is kept going by mindless television soaps and the few who dare to read, think or question are branded rebels and forced to choose between conformance or annihilation. Living in this scary world, the protagonist Guy Montag goes from being a fireman to one of the group of people who fight to preserve the written word. This remarkable book written more than fifty years ago has made some chillingly accurate predictions about the future of the human race. A disturbing read at many levels, it is balanced though, by the promise of hope and redemption.
My interview in Techgoss, in conversation with writer and journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan
Chennai techie Indu Muralidharan graduated in Electronics and Communication Engineering at University of Madras and worked in a software product development MNC in Trivandrum and Tokyo before returning to hometown as Senior eCommerce Project Manager in a UK based company. Her word-prowess shows in her debut novel ‘Reengineers’, a coming of age novel with existential overtones.
Indu shares a birthday with noted Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, used to write a column on life in Technopark in the New Indian Express and was a semi-finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008. She is also an avid bibliophile and keen to improve her writing techniques by conscious study. Here’s our conversation.
Techgoss (TG): Could you give us an intro?
Indu Muralidharan (IM): I grew up in Madras as Chennai was called in the nineties, in a very interesting time just before the advent of the internet. I graduated in Electronics and Communication Engineering from the University of Madras and worked in a software product development MNC in Trivandrum for a few years, was posted in Tokyo for about a year in between. Now I am back in my hometown Chennai where I work as Senior eCommerce Project Manager in a UK based company.
TG: Tell us about Reengineers. The premise is very interesting. How did the book happen? What brought the plot to you? How much time did you take to write this?
IM: When I first started writing, I found myself gravitating to the path of writers who have explored and stretched the boundary lines between fiction and reality. I rejoiced every time I reread Muriel Spark’s novels about literary protagonists whose narrative interweaves between fiction and reality in the world of the book while being cognizant at the same time of the reality of the reader’s world outside it. Thus inspired, I wrote ‘The Reengineers’ which blends the metafiction genre with young adult coming-of-age fiction through the premise of a character who writes the story of his author.
In her wonderful book ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’, Anne Lamott wrote about ‘shitty first drafts’ of books which then become more and more and refined with each revision. As I wrote The Reengineers, I discovered that not only manuscripts but ideas too could go through shitty first, second, third and perhaps several draft versions before they take on a solid shape.
The Reengineers grew from a set of disjoint ideas and a few pages of early stories. A few years ago, I wrote a bunch of short stories about a young man called Siddharth who lived with his sister in the remote town of Conchpore. I thought about developing this into a full-length collection of stories called the chronicles of Siddharth. But I found that I hardly knew anything about Siddharth, except that he was very unhappy and wanted nothing more than to get away from Conchpore and his dysfunctional family.
Sometime later, I was writing random paragraphs about three teenagers from Madras in the early nineties who had been displaced into another time and space in a fictional world. I wrote many drafts of the story of these three kids. Somewhere along the way, they met Siddharth and that was the catalyst for the story, which turned into this book.
TG: You were a finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Award, tell us about the experience. Have you been appreciated likewise at any other podiums?
IM: I was a semi-finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008. I finished the first draft of The Reengineers just in time to enter the contest and was surprised and delighted to be chosen as a semifinalist. The semi-finalist’s prize was a review from Publisher’s Weekly which was encouraging, as was the feedback from readers who reviewed the book’s excerpt on Amazon.com. I had wonderful, productive interactions with fellow writers on the Amazon forum, discussing various aspects of writing, editing and publishing. I learnt a great deal from the experience.
I also received some very good constructive criticism from published authors, which made me look at my manuscript objectively and gave me an understanding of where it needed improvement. Based on this feedback, I set about reading a number of books on writing to study the basics of the craft (Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ and James N. Frey’s wonderful ‘damn good novel’ series were especially helpful) and rewrote the novel a couple of times before I eventually got the contract with HarperCollins.
TG: What else have you written?
IM: I have been writing since I was five years old. For a long time my writing was influenced by whatever I happened to be reading during the period. I remember writing my first novel at ten, and another at twelve, and two more when I was in college. I started writing seriously when I started working. I wrote a series of features in the Life Positive magazine, on spirituality in corporate life, management, folk art, travel and lesser-known spiritual masters. For a short while, I wrote a column on life in Technopark in the New Indian Express. My poems, book reviews and short stories have been published in a few magazines and literary journals. However after I wrote my first novel, I realized that I wanted to focus on the form of the novel.
TG: What or Who do you read? You have an active blog where you do book reviews. Tell us about that too.
IM: To quote Yann Martel, the greatness of literature is that in reading about fictional others, we end up reading about ourselves, a self-examination that makes us wiser and existentially thicker. For years, this has been my credo as a reader.
I have too many favourite authors, to list just a few – Muriel Spark, who is one of my greatest influences in writing. I adore her as a writer and as a remarkable woman who knew that her priority in life was her art, and celebrated her life as an artist in her work. Vladimir Nabokov, with whom I share a birthday. Though I was a precocious reader as a child, I stayed away from Lolita for many years due to the disturbing premise. But when I finally read it, I loved it so much that I carried the book with me everywhere for a few days, overwhelmed by the beauty of the prose. I greatly admire Julian Barnes and every once in a while, re-read almost everything he has published (Flaubert’s Parrot is on my top ten of favourite books of all time). Likewise J.D. Salinger, whose four books have been an important presence in my life since my teens.
I see myself as a humanist rather than a feminist but I greatly admire and respect the work of Fay Weldon. Nick Hornby, almost everything he has published (High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked are special favourites). Jeffrey Eugenides, each of whose books are by themselves a study in the craft of writing. Barbara Kingsolver, especially The Bean Trees which is one gem of a debut novel. Alexander McCall Smith is a special favourite – Besides the delightful Von Igelfeld novels, I absolutely love his Scotland Street and Sunday Philosophy Club series of books. Reading his Corduroy Mansions online on The Telegraph online was like being back in the days of Dickens’ serial novels, with the added advantage of interactions with fellow readers and sometimes the author himself on the web page.
Other writers I admire include Amy Tan, Yoko Ogawa, Kate Atkinson, Karen Russell, Julie Otsuka, Diane Setter field, Susanna Clarke, I could go on and on. If I like an author’s work, I try to read everything they have written and I tend to re-read favourite books multiple times.
Metafiction and YA are among my pet genres: Jorges Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Carlos Ruis Zafon, Jonathan Stroud, Alan Bradley (The Flavia de Luce novels), John Green, Neil Gaiman among others. (I adored Stroud’s Lockwood series). I have learnt much about the writing process from Nathan Bransford’s blog and I enjoyed his Jacob Wonderbar novels.
As a technology enthusiast and literature lover, I absolutely loved Robin Sloan’s ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour-Bookstore’. In this context, I greatly enjoyed Vikram Chandra’s ‘Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code’.
The coming of age novel with existential overtones is a favourite subgenre, I think The Reengineers falls in this category. Novels I love in this genre include Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower, Ned Vizzini’s It’s kind of a funny story and the wonderful ‘The Elegance of the hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery.
Among Indian authors, Ruskin Bond, R K Narayan (but of course), A K Ramanujan, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Lavanya Sankaran, Kalpana Swaminathan, Rupa Bajwa, Chandrahas Choudhury (Arzee the Dwarf as well as his literary blog), Jerry Pinto, translations from Bengali literature by Arunava Sinha… once again a very long list. Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions nor Garlic’ is an all-time favourite novel, one that I have gifted to several people. I wish she wrote more.
I enjoy reviewing books, diving deep into the various dimensions of the plot, the premise and the characters. I have not been very active on the blog and social media since last November as the edit of The Reengineers and writing my second novel had taken over all my time after office hours. I am slowly resuming blogging now.
TG: What’s your writing schedule?
IM: I spend two hours every weekday morning, writing or studying creative writing textbooks. On weekends, it is anywhere between four to ten hours, depending on my day job which sometimes spills into the weekends (no complaints for I love my day job and it is common enough in the IT industry to work long hours).
My day job in software complements my writing. I find that the precision, problem solving skills and out-of-the-box-thinking needed to create business solutions and project plans, and the mandate to meet tight deadlines, actually nurtures my creativity and gives me the discipline to pursue my writing and studies after office hours.
TG: What is your dream book, the one that hope to write some day?
IM: There are just too many great books that I admire for various reasons, which have reached out to me in different ways, and there is no way I can choose any one of them alone as a dream book.
I am constantly working to evolve my writing voice into one that is both literary and accessible, and I hope I am able to realise that better in each of my succeeding books. In the writing process, I find that all my thoughts are focused on whatever book I am working on at present, which makes my second novel my current dream book.
TG: What’s next?
IM: I see fiction as a teacher and a guide, as a source of strength and nourishment for the mind. Several books have helped me face and overcome setbacks and challenges, raise relevant questions on my life and find my own answers. Towards understanding this aspect of fiction better, I wrote my second novel, which is currently a draft in revision and am working on a third. I am excited about these books, both of which are about the energy that one finds in books and the healing power of fiction.