Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Dorothy Cole, Jeffrey Lee

JUNE 14, 1999: 

Freedom Song by Amit Chaudhuri, (Knopf, hardcover, $24)

Amit Chaudhuri knows how to set a scene, how to create a mood, and how to transport readers to another continent. What he cannot do, at least in these three short novels, is tell a story.

These are really extended prose poems. Two take place in India -- in the Bengali city of Calcutta -- and the other at an English university. The characters in the Indian pieces, "A Strange and Sublime Address" and "Freedom Song," are well-rounded, believeable individuals, and Chaudhuri gets you to care about what happens to them. His unifying theme, however, is that nothing really changes. This allows for a series of vivid but static portraits of people, places and times of day. Far from getting caught up in wild or unlikely plot devices, he allows the profundity of the mundane details to control each character's progress. Each of these people has a place in society and a role in life that seems, in the abstract, severely limiting. Yet each manages to live in a distinct and interesting pattern, remembering the past without being caught up in regret.

This is less than successful in the English selection, "Afternoon Raag," because the role the protagonist clings to is that of a self-centered jerk. Combined with a way of life that is familiar to any former graduate student, his attitude makes him just plain boring. India, in this case, is a place of the past and future, while the present remains foreign and limited.

The Calcutta sequences, on the other hand, are a revelation. Chaudhuri paints a realistic portrait of ordinary life in that much-maligned locale, without making any claims to middle-class comfort as we define it in the so-called developed world. The class divisions are there; in fact, they preoccupy several of the characters. I'm not sure it would be an improvement to increase the action in these pieces. The city itself, with its people, climate and culture, is a memorable character. Through the observant eyes and receptive senses of its native son, Calcutta is indeed a strange and sublime address.

All Ears: Cultural Criticism, Essays and Obituaries by Dennis Cooper, (Soft Skull, paper, $13.25)

Readers of Frisk and Try -- wrenching fantasies of cute boys and sexual torture -- will understand the wit of Interview assigning Cooper to investigate, in 1990, the then 19-ish Keanu Reeves. Unsurprisingly, he is respectful to an almost touching degree -- though he takes time to admire Reeves' "porcelain upper body" -- just as he is to Leonardo DiCaprio in a later (but pre-Titanic) Detour interview. Cooper's own wit, as in his novels, is so subtle you sometimes have to drag the syntax to find it. But it's all the more gratifying for its wicked unobtrusiveness.

In magazines, Cooper is more of a sharp-eyed voyeur/observer of "youth culture" than he is in his novels, and as edgy a stylist (though there are rare moments of slippage in All Ears that suggest an approaching deadline). The writing is personal, when appropriate, as when he writes about drug use ("I'd hoped to purify my life with love and isolation-induced hard work. But all I'd done was graft my bad habits into a lonelier, more exotic locale: one more American expatriate who thought he was Rimbaud, treating chemicals as if they were alchemical.").

"AIDS: Words from the Front," about street kids, and "A Raver Runs Through It," about rave culture, are also personal tours in quasi-diary form. But happily, perhaps because he's never quite attained celebrity status himself, Cooper's journalism never feels like the slumming, self-important Vanity Fair stuff so many of his showier contemporaries churn out; instead, it's modest, knowledgeable, professional.

It doesn't hurt that he writes about what interests him: music, art, drugs. The subjects in All Ears range from Nirvana to art school graduate students, to Burroughs, Bob Flanagan, Courtney Love, Bob Mould and Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. But "The Ballad of Nan Goldin," Cooper's mixed personal/critical appreciation of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (and later work), is the star of All Ears. Superbly empathetic, it's the most understanding piece I've yet to read about Goldin's amazing, much-misinterpreted photography.

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