Monday, August 13, 2007

In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt

At first blush, this book might be thought to be similar to a Grisham novel, but the author has some serious credibility. Take his name: Theodore Roosevelt had a son called Kermit, who also had a son called Kermit. Then there's the fact that the author is a law professor at U Penn, after working for a law firm and clerking for a Supreme Court Associate Justice. He's written what might be called a law procedural, in that there is much detail of the actual practice of law, and the demands it places upon practitioners: so squeezed are they of humanity that one despairs of their ever being any room for justice within the legal system. Sure, we'll see some of the young associates doing the right thing, but can they last? I doubt it. Life inside this firm is more than a little disturbing for its complete lack of values. Sorry, there is one thing valued: all the workers are valued according to the numbers on their time sheet.

The firm in question is an elite Washington one, Morgan Siler. Those who want to make it have to devote their life to it. So when one of the partners dies towards the end of the novel, the only people who go to his funeral are those from his firm. His colleagues know or care so little about him that they give him a Christian funeral, despite the fact he's a Jew. Senior partner Peter Morgan is as cold-blooded as a deep frozen shark: he manipulates the partnership to have his own father ousted and then, when he wakes up one day and decides he has no further use for a wife, simply changes the locks and doesn't have the grace to mention it to her. She is aware that he has been sucked dry by the profession, and thinks it a kindness not to try to make him see what he's missed out on.

Two cases dominate the narrative: there is a pro bono defence of a death row inmate which has fallen into the hands of one of the newest associates, Mark. He is supposedly being supervised by someone with a little more experience, Walker. He had initially struck me as a decent sort of guy, the account of his time as a Supreme Court clerk were absorbing, but when he is called on to do some actual work, is too busy polishing the article which is his escape route to academia. So Mark is left to fend for himself, with occasional support from the mysterious paralegal who has far more skills than he ought. I did like the portrayal of the way Mark stumbled through this case, completely out of his depth, but trying anyway.

The other case sees Morgan Siler in more familiar territory: there has been an explosion in one of their industrial clients, which saw several people killed. They're not only defending it, but using smart legal techniques to make the client judgment proof even if it is found to be liable. Somehow Mark has time to be involved in this case as well, along with Katja: somehow they even find the time to communicate with each other on a human level, and find something of value and interest in each other. Then there is poor old Ryan: he decides that to make his way at the firm, he has to wander the corridors of power, so everyone knows his face. He has the time sheet beat: he simply fudges the numbers. But it doesn't last: he has a form of revelation towards the end - he's found that men's magazines are no help in generating useful approaches to picking up women, so turns to reading the women's magazines. While he can see it gives him an edge in the pick up scene, he's surprised to find that it puts him off the game completely:
Knowing your enemy may help you in the struggle, but it may sap your will to fight too. For you may come to discover that your terrible enemy isn't so terrible after all; that in fact she's confused, insecure, human like you.
It is a bit of a random blow at the media, the thought that they conspire to put men and women at each others throats when the reality is we're all more or less on the same side, but once Ryan sees that particular light, he doesn't really have the stomach for Morgan Stiler any more.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Mr Hamid was a speaker at this year's Sydney Writer's Festival, back in June. He is of Pakistani origins, but lives in the UK, and tells a great story against himself. For example, he was trying to enter the United States; being dark-skinned and heavily bearded attracted a certain amount of attention from the authorities. They ask what he does: "I'm an author." "Of what?" "Well, it is about this Pakistani Moslem, he's talking to an American in Lahore, after September 11." "And what is it called?" "Erm, The Reluctant Fundamentalist." "Come with us, sir. Now."

He uses an interesting technique: the only voice is that of the narrator. It gives a freshness and simplicity to the story. Through this monologue, he tells his life story while at the same time navigates with the American through the streets of Lahore. Every so often he responds to things the American says, his facial expressions and things they see as they walk.

The narrator could be one of the many "helpful" souls we encounter when we travel; the novel starts:
Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.
Unlike most I have encountered who offer their services, Changez does not appear to be after anything, is genuinely wanting to help this American, although perhaps at the cost of having to listen to him talk near non-stop for what must have been half a day (the book is 184 pages of his non-stop talking). Changez is among the best Pakistan has to offer: he gets a scholarship to Princeton and excels there. "In return, we were expected to contribute our talents to your society, the society we were joining. And, for the most part, we were happy to do so. I certainly was, at least at first."

He joins a prestigious management consultancy, where his job is to place a value on takeover targets. He is very good at it, too. For a while he is pleased at his own sense of accomplishment, at the nice salary his job generates, at his access to expense accounts, at meeting and winning Erica. But he can't help but remember, and start to resent, the fact that while America might be the most technologically advanced nation on earth, those in India and Pakistan had had it all four thousand years earlier, when "the ancestors of those who would invade and colonise America were illiterate barbarians".

The seeds of his discontent were sown quite early: he is in the Philippines on his first valuation project, when he turns the TV on to see what he thought was a movie:
But as I continued to watch, I realized it was not fiction but news. I stared as one - and then the other - of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased... I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.
He has trouble articulating quite why he feels this way, but when he returns to the USA and is treated as suspicious, both by officialdom and his fellow passengers, it is the beginning of the end of his time in the USA. The other major factor is Erica: she fades away, is still caught up with mixed love and grief for her deceased first love. As his relationship with her crumbles away, so too does his relationship with America. Both were giving way to a "dangerous nostalgia", leaving no place for him. The US led bombing of the Taliban was the end:
My reaction caught me by surprise; Afghanistan was Pakistan's neighbour, our friend, and a fellow Muslim nation besides, and the sight of what I took to be the beginning of its invasion by your countrymen caused me to tremble with fury.
He gets caught up in his own nostalgia, for his homeland: when there are troubles between Pakistan and India, he sees it as imperative that he go home, and despite the trouble it will cause him, grows a beard; the point being that this is all it takes to be branded trouble. We know that he is a smart, kind person yet that does not matter. Having said that, it would indeed be difficult to reconcile him being such a person with his staying in America: September 11 forced a taking of sides.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Stephanie Daley, a film by Hilary Brougher

Stephanie (Amber Tamblyn) is a fairly average sort of teenager - she's pretty, a bit shy, no experience with boys, has a family which is breaking up around her and isn't much support, is worried (needlessly) about her weight
Things get hairy for her the night she and her friend go to a keg party. This fellow follows her upstairs, they start making out, and the inevitable happens. Of course, she never sees him again, and finds herself pregnant. But she goes off on a school ski trip, which endangers her baby - after a couple of falls on the skifield, she actually gives birth to it (at about 20 weeks). The baby dies, and she's charged with some sort of criminal act, becomes the stuff of local gossip as the "ski mom". There needs to be a psychological assessment - which is where Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton) comes in. The movie follows her sessions with Stephanie, with flashbacks to the events she's telling Lydie about. I have to say, that by the end, when I saw the agony the birth was for Stephanie and her account of how the baby died ("It was so tiny. It hardly moved. I did want, hope it would die. I thought it dead, and it died) hardly implicates her in any sort of crime, except maybe the way she disposed of the remains without telling anyone.

This is particularly so when you look at Lydie - her story is gradually revealed, to show a close parallel with Stephanie. She also had a stillborn baby ("not a miscarriage"), the effects of which have wreaked havoc in her relationship with her husband. I would have expected more sympathy, a bit more advocacy on behalf of Stephanie, rather than agreeing that five years jail time sounds about right. She "knew" that things were wrong with her baby, that it would not survive. Stephanie has similar knowledge, yet is not believed. Maybe there is a gender divide: much was made of the sense both women had of being at fault, and Stephanie even mentions the possibility of God punishing her, whereas one guy bluntly says "sometimes things just happen". Her only mistake was that she allowed herself to be seduced, when she wasn't really adult enough to go down that path - which puts culpability on the fellow (he is charged with statutory rape, but that is all we see of him).


Golden Door, a film by Emanuele Crialese

This movie had a bit of a slow beginning, but as it went on, I became engrossed in it. It opens with a couple of guys, scrabbling up a rock cliff, each carrying a rock in his mouth. Why? To appease some sort of deity - at the end of their climb, they drop their rocks, now covered in blood, at the foot of a cross. Life is hard, here in early 20th century Italy (not that the central character, Salvatore Mancuso, even recognises that he comes from Italy - his origin is a remote location in Sicily). They have photographic proof that life is much better in America - chickens the size of pigs, onions that need wheelbarrows to transport them
- and have stories that the rivers in California run with milk. And so the Mancuso family, I have no idea how, gets it together to take passage to America - Salvatore, his mum and his two sons. As they are getting ready to leave home, they encounter Luce - played by the beguiling Charlotte Gainsburg - who inserts herself into the Mancuso family photo. She is an Englishwoman in a spot of bother, and needs a way in to America.

Life on board the boat is not good. People complain about cattle class on the modern aircraft: imagine spending however long it would have taken to get from Italy to America, cooped up below decks in three tiered bunks, stuck so close together that you couldn't move without touching your neighbour, with a strict segregation of the sexes below decks. Despite the difficulties, by the time they get to America, Luce and Salvatore are agreed they will marry. It is all very matter of fact: she makes it clear that he is the answer to her immigration troubles, that she does not love him. He's all "I hardly know you. Love takes time." Quite sweet - despite his peasant origins, he is more the gentleman than those who occupy that status; they're horrible. The best aspect of Luce and Salvatore was the visual - in the early days, he's shy about looking at her, turns away when she catches him, but as time passes, he gets more bold and playful.

Arrival in America is soul destroying; mum can't take it, and insists on being sent back to Italy. The movie actually ends just as the Mancuso family finally completes arrival formalities at Ellis Island - nearly half the movie deals with this. I had to laugh: part of the processing is testing the immigrants to make sure they don't lower the average intelligence of the new world. They do this by asking prospective immigrants to say how many legs are on a goat and a hen, or to complete a simple word puzzle. Salvatore transcended all puzzles: he constructed a house and shed out of his puzzle pieces, and when asked which he would throw overboard in a storm which threatened his survival (bread or gold), he's not throwing anything away. There's a moment of crisis towards the end: his mum and son are being denied entry (the latter because he's apparently a deaf mute, yet dad insists he's just stubborn). Salvatore is asked whether he'll go back with them, or proceed without them.

Men were only accepted if they could fit into the workforce, women if they could find a man to marry them. In an early version of speed dating on speed, the guys would line up in front of the women, and if they liked the look of one, pass her a note. If she liked the look of him, they'd marry.

Oh, and the final thing I learnt from this movie: if you're swimming in a river of milk, and you encounter a lady, proper protocol dictates that you doff your hat.