Tag Archives: black comedy

A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too

A review of Serious Men, by Manu Joseph

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In his debut novel, Indian magazine editor Manu Joseph takes on the caste system, Big Science, love, marriage, and sex, corruption in government, the news media, office politics, loyalty and betrayal, the¬†Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,¬†and the fate of the Universe — yet it all hangs together somehow. This is Black Comedy, Indian-style.

Serious Men — the book’s satyrical title — refers to Aravind Acharya, the world-famous cosmologist who directs the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai with its numerous minions. All are high-caste Brahmins. Acharya’s deputy and most of the other scientists in the Institute seethe under the dictatorial and dismissive director, who sequesters all available funds for his project to prove that extraterrestrials “seeded” life on earth as microbes arriving on meteorites — and continue to do this to this very day! Acharya is, of course, quite mad, and apparently has been so throughout his very long life. As he gradually loses control and lets slip the mask of sanity that has shielded him for decades, the Institute’s deputy director and the cadres of radio astronomers who follow him stage a coup and seize the directorship once Acharya has fallen desperately in love with a beautiful young astrobiologist, the Institute’s first female researcher.

However, it is Acharya’s secretary, a Dalit (“Untouchable”) named Ayyan Mani, who is the protagonist of this richly woven novel. Ayyan, we learn, has an IQ of 148, clearly higher than that of most of the Institute’s researchers, and boils with resentment toward high-caste Brahmins with a consistency worthy of a revolutionary. As the drama unfolds in the Institute, with Ayyan recording every revealing conversation through a phone line left open into Acharya’s office, the secretary applies himself to a clever plot to convince the world that his half-deaf 10-year-old son is a scientific genius. The principal action shifts among three sets: the Institute, the adjoining Professors’ Quarters, and the filthy, run-down “chawl” (high-rise slum) where Ayyan ekes out a bitter existence with his son and his fearful and superstitious wife.

Humor aside, Serious Men abounds with insight about India today in all its dynamism, its contradictions, its promise, and its sad, pervasive poverty. Manu Joseph is a writer worth watching.

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Filed under Humor, Trade Fiction

The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte

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@@@ (3 out of 5)

Meet Milo Burke, as inept, unstable, and self-doubting as any anti-hero who’s ever walked the earth. A failed painter whose sophomoric delusions of grandeur have long since drowned in waves of self-pity, Milo is employed as a fundraiser at what he insists on calling Mediocre University in New York City. His job is to snag egotistical, self-interested rich prospects and sweet-talk them out of large sums of money to fund arts projects of highly dubious value. Milo is totally inadequate to meet this challenge, as he is at everything else in his life, and in the space of one short novel he is fired twice.

Milo’s life off-campus is at least equally tragicomic: his 71-year-old mother has come out as a lesbian and appears to be sharing a tent in the living room of the family home with a loopy partner; his unresponsive wife is sleeping with a gay co-worker at her marketing job; their 3-year-old son is more attached to his mother’s lover than to his father; and for reasons never explained other than to hint that it possesses vast symbolic value, Milo is obsessed with a Spanish dueling knife his philandering, drug-addicted father gave him shortly before his death.

If this isn’t a set-up for black comedy of the classic variety, what is? In fact, Lipsyte’s rich, often elliptical style brings laugh-out-loud humor to the story from time to time. Other readers have found the book hilarious from cover to cover, but I didn’t. Who knows? Maybe Milo’s inner dialogue hits a little close to home.

Although The Ask is ostensibly the story of a fundraiser — a university development officer — it is by no means an instruction manual for those who labor to raise money for worthy institutions. I’d picked up the book because I have spent three decades as a fundraiser. After all, there aren’t that many novels written about us and our work. But The Ask doesn’t come close to doing that. Milo and his colleagues break just about every rule in the fundraiser’s book. And maybe, after all, that’s why I found much of the novel unfunny.

Like Milo Burke, Sam Lipsyte was born in New Jersey and lives now in New York City. The Ask is his third novel.

ISBN-10: 0374298912

ISBN-13: 978-0374298913

ASIN: B003A7I23C

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Filed under Contemporary Themes, Trade Fiction