Five Star Billionaire

Some time ago – I forget exactly when – I decided that I would one day be very rich.

Iedereen is met elkaar verbonden door hun wensen voor een perfecte toekomst. Shanghai is de stad waar het allemaal moet gebeuren en net zoals de stad, zijn de verhalen van deze mensen luid, ongemakkelijk, vol detail en hoop.  De lezer volgt vier – vijf karakters die de stad gebruiken om hun leven te verbeteren, naar een hoger niveau te brengen. Sommigen zijn migranten, anderen zijn verantwoordelijk voor het familiebedrijf of een popster image.  En geen van allen past in de ruimte die de mensen en de stad voor hen gecreeërd hebben. Als puppet master is er de miljardair uit de titel, die – naast de stad – ook met allen een verbinding heeft. Naast het keiharde leven in Shanghai, is hij de andere bad guy van het verhaal.

Een bad guy die de karakters niet eens nodig hebben, want ze zijn mensen en ze maken (domme) fouten. Tussen de slechte beslissingen door, toont Tash Aw waarop ze zijn gebaseerd. “Er is geen verleden in deze stad”, zegt een karakter. “Er moet altijd maar vooruit gekeken worden”. En wanneer mensen dat doen, maar falen om ook vooruit te komen, worden ze er op afgerekend. Op deze manier wordt op een subtiele manier de hele andere (oftewel niet-Westerse) cultuur opgevoerd.

Dat is ook één van de redenen dat ik dit boek fijn om te lezen vond: stad en cultuur zijn onderdelen van het verhaal op een manier dat niet vaak gebeurt in Westerse romans. Five Star Billionaire is een showcase van hoe omgeving bekende verhalen (de zogenoemde American Dream bijvoorbeeld) kan beïnvloeden en veranderen.

Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw, Fourth Estate 2013

Communion Town

Do you remember how you came to this city, Ulya?

I could have added nine more first sentences because Communion Town is a collection of (short) stories. Each of those has a different protagonist, but the city is such a strong character that it never gives you the feeling of completely starting over with every new chapter. The people pass by, the city will stay forever, unchanging.

Magic realism doesn’t cover this, it’s somehow more and less than that. The abnormal is added in small details, in an effortless way without it ever being thrust into your face. The stories are fragile, scary, sweet but almost contained. No flowery prose, no Big Messages. Each story was a small peek into another exciting world.

Communion Town is really a world contained between two book covers.

Communion Town – A City in Ten Chapters, Sam Thompson, Fourth Estate 2012

Wolf Hall

‘So now get up.’

This wasn’t a novel, this was a ambitious biography about every breath Thomas Cromwell took, every move he made. Yes, that makes Hilary Mantel extremely devoted and A+ for her research (how much of it was research and how much fiction?) but it doesn’t make a readable book.

This story is of the rags to riches kind. He seems to have a sixth sense for where he needs to be, who he needs to talk to and what decision to support. That’s impressive. After another and another success story it starts to get a bit boring. Yes, he’s the right time right place right connection man. Singlehandedly keeping the kingdom in one piece. Fine.

The kingdom is the one of Henry VIII, not the greatest ruler, too busy with trying to get rid of one woman (Katherine of Arragon) and marry another (Anne Boleyn). His kingdom is ruled by advisors and councils and slowly by Thomas Cromwell. If I hadn’t been browbeaten by musings over paints and favourite meals, I might have had energy left to be impressed.

Now it only gave me a bitter determination to finish this book and forever be done with it. I don’t know what I missed what made others rave about Wolf Hall, but I was glad to leave it behind.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate 2009

The Yips

Stuart Ransom, professional golfer, is drunkenly reeling off an interminable series of stats about the women’s game in Korea (or the Ladies Game, as he is determined to have it): ‘Don’t scowl at me, beautiful..!’ -directed, with his trademark Yorkshire twinkle, at Jen, who lounges, sullenly, behind the hotel bar.

What a fucking mess. I took The Yips from the library because of the title, the cover and the back text. It sounded absurd, but in an amusing way. Oh dear, how wrong I was. The only laughter that escaped my mouth was out of sheer disbelief. I disliked every character in various degrees, yet somehow still managed to finish the 550 pages.

The Yips is about several characters, all connected some way or the other. There is an over-his-peak golfer, agoraphobic tattooist of pubic hair, orthodox Muslims, a guy who survived seven cancer diagnoses (which is mentioned every time he shows up), a kid with no lower jaw and so on. They all lead miserable lives. About 80 percentage of them says everything that’s on their minds. Sex scenes exist out of comparisons with pudding and whipped cream. And for most of the time it seems like the author looked back and thought “This sentence needs to be more bloated!”.

I tried to look at it from a different view. Isn’t this one big commentary on capitalism, feminism and the obsession with eternal health? Should I spend more thought on how drink water is used to hydrate golf courses and what environmental disasters those courses are? And if I should, why is it covered by mentions of everything that happens?

The Yips is an example of about everything I don’t want in a book.

The Yips, Nicola Barker, Fourth Estate 2012