A book on the Otherside

I walked into the bookshop. The first row of books had a label on it saying ‘Recommended’. I never touched those books. They were always too mainstream, and populism never read well. Instead, I was adept at finding books that had found mention in some article, review, conversation, somewhere. A book that had caught someone else’s fancy was the book I would find and take home. But today, I decided to find a book that would catch my fancy, a book that would help me start my own conversation instead of helping me join someone else’s.

Soon enough, I found a book in the ‘Fantasy’ section: The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris. And not just Joanne Harris, but Joanne Harris ‘The Bestselling Author’. Hmm. That’s always fishy. I mean, it’s a nice suffix to have but too many authors have that these days. If the author hadn’t been bestselling on some obscure list, then he/she was likely to have had a bestselling book a decade or so ago, or a book published in some other unrelated genre.

But I decided to step past that and moved on to the next part of the review – the blurb. It said the book narrated the events leading up to Ragnarok from the Norse god Loki’s point of view (Loki was never trusted by- you’ve watched Thor: The Dark World, of course). Amazing. I immediately told myself a case could be made for more books such as The Gospel of Loki to be published. The rise of the masses in the 21st century had fortunately united the world on many issues but then had also managed to convince many people that some of those issues had no grey areas. But the grey areas persist and there are all too often stories of redemption as well.

But back to The Gospel. So that was one downvote for ‘The Bestselling Author’ and one upvote for the choice of story. Next up: the foreword. Many of the best books I’ve read either have a foreword by a famous person or one by the author him/herself. I prefer the author to have written the foreword because such a choice reveals the vantage point from which the author has decided to look upon the characters (One of my favorite forewords is by Steven Erikson for his book Gardens of the Moon). However, the discomfiting thing about Joanne Harris’s foreword – which she’d written herself – was that she’d written it as Loki.

What’s more, it interpreted ‘history’ as “his story” and ‘mystery’ as “my story”. What were they? Were they puns? I wasn’t sure. But more than that, “his story” and “my story” showed Joanne Harris had traded in sophistication for… tackiness? It might’ve sold the book for someone else but not me. Then again, it was after all not “his story” but “my story”, Joanne Harris’s story. Penultimate check: price: Rs 399. Ultimate check: opening paragraph. It was about how the world was created out of chaos.

I love creation myths in fiction. Ah, what the hell. Sold. I picked it up, and decided to continue having a look around. I definitely didn’t want to pick up more than the one book – I didn’t care if I’d have the time to read it or not. I didn’t have much money. So I tried my best to keep my glances cursory, my attention desultory. Now, The Gospel of Loki made it harder for me to stop paying attention to the other books. Here in my hand was the sort of book I usually didn’t pick up. It was a book I told myself I’d have to read, in which I’d have to identify something stellar – a character, a sub-plot, even a paragraph – without knowing if it was there or no, which I’d have to judge not against the backdrop of a conversation or even a literary zeitgeist but as a piece of writing of and by itself.

I wasn’t sure if I had the time to just read a book – and one with tacky phrases no less. I tried to think of my last such purchase (An Uncertain Glory) and if I’d read it and kept myself from talking about it (I had, and I had), and if I’d thought it had been a useful experience (again, it had). I asked myself if I’d be able to get the same out of Joanne Harris’s book. I wasn’t sure. And An Uncertain Glory had been by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. Who was Joanne Harris?

I’d have googled her but realized the Internet pack on my phone had run out. Drat. The book was starting to make less sense. An unknown author, an apparently interesting plot based on the other hand on an old and time-tested story, at a not-exactly-affordable price. Was I doing the right thing? After all, I only had about Rs 600 in my pocket. But what was I doing?! I’d finally picked up a book that had until then lived only in the fringes of my social universe, and now I was already thinking about keeping it back. If I did end up putting it back, I knew I’d never pick up another book of its kind again and go home with it. Because, apparently, nothing was good enough. I’m going home with this and that’s that, I told myself.

And now that I’ve made my choice, let me have a better look around and maybe take home a recommendation for my father (he loves Erle Stanley Gardner and the likes). I spotted Stieg Larsson, Anthony Horowitz, someone branded as the Japanese Stieg Larsson, Robert Ludlum, Arthur Hailey, Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell… nothing – or nobody – very new. But all this looking around wasn’t helping very much. The Gospel of Loki had started to weigh heavy again, and I was doing all I could to keep from looking at the dreary Vonneguts, the unreadable Pynchons, the wishy-washy Murakamis.

Did nobody write great literary entertainment anymore? They could invent splatterpunk but not entertaining literature? I supposed that they had, and that they were the ones mistaken for being repetitive, the ones who were easily mistaken for the one-hit-wonders: Chuck Palahniuk, Arvind Adiga, Yann Martel, Joseph Heller… ah, Joseph Heller. I immediately walked over to ‘H’ and found his books stacked toward the left. Everyone had read Catch-22 and recalled how the senility of its titular hiccup had seeped into the lingua franca.

But I loved Joseph Heller for John Yossarian, Catch-22 the complication’s instrument of enlightenment. There wasn’t a lot on the shelf to go on – Catch-22 (which everyone had read), Closing Time (which I’d read just for more of Yossarian), and one called Something Happened. Weighing as much as a small mountain now, The Gospel of Loki almost fell back into where it had jumped into my hand from. I picked up Something Happened in its stead.

I knew what its author had been ‘The Bestselling Author’ for, I didn’t care for the blurbs or reviews, and I skipped the foreword. I knew a part of me had manipulated me to picking it up, and I also knew I’d probably never pick up para-conversational books again. But at the same time I wouldn’t talk about Something Happened either. The two other books of Heller’s that I’d read were neither conversational mainstays (who wanted to talk about Yossarian?) nor exercises in obscurity. If only for not having to start conversations about “my story” but the hope of finding another Yossarian, I paid for Heller’s book, forewent dinner and walked back home.