Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

The Blue Taxi by N.S. Koenings

Another piece I did for Patsy Moore's in the late 2000s.

N.S. Koenings' The Blue Taxi (2006)

                                    There comes a moment of realization in every relationship where it dawns on us that our beloved isn't really a swirl of miraculous cosmic love dust that was sent  by divine powers for the sole purpose of making us dizzy with delight; we come to see that they're just another person who burps, passes wind, tells a lie here and there, and has very familiar and common flaws and foibles that we didn't see at first, when we were so captivated and enthralled.  In other words, they're a human being just like everybody else.  All along, on the sidelines, people have been whispering to each other, "I wonder what she sees in him?" - and now comes the time when we must ask this question for ourselves.   This is probably the point at which we discover whether the relationship has any buttress, any real strength, or not.  I think in many cases this kind of realization about the significant other can be brought on by observation of, or social experience or interaction with, other possible mates and lovers.  We observe others in action and their behavior opens our eyes to the way our partner is not; or, conversely, we observe the faults in our partner first and they cause us to actively seek out someone else.  The person caught in an affair is  always pulled in two directions, living in a state of conflict and confusion about what they really want (otherwise they would simply abandon the primary relationship).  Having some familiarity with a couple of  the great novels of our time that examine  this subject entirely from a distinctly male perspective,  Graham Greene's The End of the Affair and Bernard Malamud's Dubin's Lives, it was an interesting shift  for me to experience N.S. Koenings' debut novel, where we are told of Sarie, the protagonist, that

                                                            She knew her husband's body better than she wished to and was, she knew (the Sisters had proclaimed it, like a penance), duty-bound.

Here we receive a very strong female point of view on the issue of marital infidelity, as well as an acute dissection of the processes by which love and marriage disintegrate and change.  On the second page of the book Sarie is said to be "slow to see the obvious."  The remark has a double meaning.  Ostensibly it is about her witnessing a terrible accident, but it also refers to her inability  ( up to now ) to deal adequately with the staleness of her marriage.
                                    A preliminary page sets the time and place of The Blue Taxi: Vunjamguu, East Africa, 1970s.  It is obvious, then, that a such a mise-en-scene is going to be dealing with issues of Colonialism either straightforwardly or in the background, and that it has fantastic possibilities as a geo-cultural document and as a catalogue of a faraway land and its societies and people.  But mostly this is a novel about the human heart, and we can consider it as such here. I'm just going to point out a few observations the principals make about themselves and others because I think this is mainly intended to be a story about individuals, not countries and movements. (This is not to say that the book can't be profitably enjoyed on those other levels, because it certainly can be.  Reading this novel alongside a work of scholarship such as Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, for example, would be a fascinating intellectual undertaking.)
                                    In making his films Alfred Hitchcock used to refer to what he called the "macguffin," meaning an incident that kick starts the plot and then fades into irrelevance as the story progresses forward.  The Blue Taxi makes use of what we might call a half-macguffin, or a semi-macguffin.  It involves a young  local boy, Tahir, who gets hit by a bus in the street and loses his leg. 
A white woman, Sarie Turner, and her daughter, Agatha, witness the horror and spend the next several days wondering about the boy.  Finally, overpowered by curiosity, they visit his home despite being warned that the boy's father, nicknamed Mad Majid, is a crazy man.  Sarie and Majid begin an affair, which constitutes the main action of the tale; the bus accident  thusly serves as the catalyst for their meeting.     Although I say "action," there is very little action as such, a fact that really speaks to the author's ability to practice the craft of writing.  Koenings has an MFA in creative writing.  This is always a good clue about an author because it shows that, at least in part, they acknowledge that there are some things about writing that can be studied and taught; yet at the same time it's obvious that the author is drawing on deeply felt personal experience as inspiration, which is something that cannot be taught.  It has to be lived through.  Consider the following exchange between Koenings and myself:

                                                            QUINONES: Without getting too personal, it seems to me that some of the feelings and thoughts you write about are not really knowable unless you've had them yourself...

                                                            KOENINGS: One general thing I believe is that if something is part of the human experience, any human should be able, with a lot of work and hard thinking and feeling and openness and asking questions, to at least try to imagine what it might be like to live through it.  It's important for
fiction writers to do that... Literally speaking, none of the things in The Blue Taxi have ever happened to me.  In another, vaguer, kaleidoscopic way, of course, all of those things have.


                                    Each of the three principal characters have  their expectations and beliefs about life seriously changed and challenged in the unfolding of the narrative, which is what I would say is the single most important thing to watch for in the novel.  As briefly touched on earlier, readers will also keep in mind the rich backdrop of an East African country making the transition from colony to independent state.  The third big thing to seek here is the author's lush, lavish, wild and inventive use of prose and language.  She writes with an indulgence that is its own justification, that exists for its own sake, and in my opinion too few novelists strive for this - it's a great pleasure to see.
                                    The trio of characters at the center - the Belgian Sarie,  her British husband Gilbert, and the locally born and bred Majid, her lover, could exist in any country at any time.  In that sense the plot is deeply familiar to us all - a woman is bored to tears by her husband and seeks some excitement from an affair.  The initial meeting of Sarie and Majid  is prepared for by means of a powerful, violent opening scene in which Majid's son, Tahir, loses his leg after being run over by the bus.  Sarie and her daughter Agatha witness the event.  The immediacy of the suffering boy is communicated beautifully: "The sounds his body made, delicate and soft, would have - somehow Sarie and the gaspers sensed that this was so - put further screams to shame."  The graphic portrayal of the accident  quickly moves into a scene in Mansour House, in another part of the Kikanga neighborhood (Sarie and her family live on Mchanganyiko Street), where we meet Bibi, her son Issa, and his wife Nisreen.  Their busybody roles quickly become apparent..  Bibi is a neighborhood spy and gossip, and in introducing her Keonings sharply clashes the old ways  of life with the new, the traditional against the modern, by using  a simple everyday object, something that will seem as common to Western readers as  the sea and sky - a telephone: "...there lived a brand new telephone that was eager to be used.  Black, still smooth, not yet gummy from the air's thick oil and grime, the thing sat brashly on a table near the balcony; it was cushioned in high style by a yellow doily Bibi's son had asked his wife to purchase, to make certain Bibi understood the phone was there to stay."  Five days pass between the day of the accident and the day Sarie first visits Kudra House, where Tahir and his father live.  During this time we become acquainted with Sarie and Gilbert and their marriage:

                                                            Gilbert liked to think of himself as a strong man and an able husband. And so he often told himself that Sarie, no matter what she said or did, was a fragile thing, unsure of what she wanted, and that she needed him to tell her what to do.

As the novel plays out its course we see that this line of thinking is completely delusional.  Koenings herself talked about the character of Gilbert to me this way:

                                                            ...the book is very much 'about' gender and masculinity...

                                                            Gilbert, poor guy, has no mooring other than what he thinks people expect of a man (a white man, especially).  That he be a 'husband' and 'father.' He's got no idea how to be a person first, or how to face his wife as a person,
instead of someone whose behavior has to cement his social role.

                                    Majid, however,  does have these moorings in spite of having spent the last nine years mourning his wife and behaving in such a way as to earn the nickname "Mad Majid" around the neighborhood..  After her intial visit to his home, with her daughter Agatha, to see how the boy who lost his leg in the accident is doing, Sarie thinks of Majid: "He has a clock that marches!  And he writes!  He has a girl to bring him up the tea!"   She "felt seen, and cared for."    When the adultery inevitably comes we read that "Sarie had had scant experience with romance.  And so she mimed the movie actresses she had seen in one or two hot films at the Old Empire Cinema."  There is a remarkable scene in which, while Sarie and Majid make love for the first time, the little girl Agatha is on the other side of the door watching the amputee  Tahir sleep peacefully.  The moment brings momentous new experiences for everyone, and at its conclusion Sarie makes another double entendre remark to her daughter - "When we get home, your father will no longer be there."
                                      The seeds of Sarie's restlessness are sown early:

                                                            ...Sarie looked at Gilbert.  She weighed her knowledge of him with her eyes. J' complete, she thought.  Indeed: although he wore a singlet and a shirt, she
knew precisely where, below two ashen nipples, the flesh sagged from his chest. She could have pointed out exactly where the soft mass of his belly was dimpled and where it was not.  She knew without having to look how many ribs he had.  And she was tired of his talk.

                                    The initial meeting between the lovers is presented wholly form her point of view, but later Majid reflects:

                                                            How wild she was with me!  He recalled her as ferocious, nearly in a rage.  He even thought
she'd clawed him. growled a little in her throat.  That ardor!  It cannot have come from that pale woman alone.  Had it been called up in Sarie Turner by something within him, a force he had not known?  This thought pleased and jarred him.

                                    As the affair plays out we meet other characters as well who participate in, and comment on, the plot.  There's Gilbert's Uncle James in England, whom we never meet in person but who is a shaping force of destiny; a Greek named Kazansthakis, known as the Frosty King because he runs an establishment  in town called the Frosty Kreem which was founded by his grandfather;  Hazel Towsom, about whom Gilbert thinks "Didn't she have a way of being there when one just didn't want her?"; and the previously mentioned Bibi, Nisreen and Issa.  All  these, and others, contribute to the canourosness to be found within these covers.
                                    The Blue Taxi is big, ambitiously big - it shoots for a grand outline in many different ways, and it operates with vigor in every department of the fictive art - the prose is  spectaculary inventive; the characters are portrayed with sympathy yet with piercing, even brutal, honesty; important events are prepared for well in advance, and in such a way that what they reveal is as a lovely a process as watching a flower bloom.  But what is really noteworthy is the way Koenings employs the principle of unity and variety.  The construction of all art requires unity and variety.  We expect certain things from a story, and if we don't get them we tend to be frustrated (unity).  At the same time, rote, routine, and too much familiarity tend to be boring, and so a little bit of the unexpected satisfies us too (variety).  This equilibrium is achieved here with complete success.  Every one of us is familiar with tales of infidelity and love triangles and tales that show the lives of ordinary, every day people playing out against the bacdrop of major historical events as they unfold.  I think the constant possibility of seeing such wonted subjects handled in a fresh and unventured manner is actually part of what fires us up enough to constantly explore new vistas.  And The Blue Taxi is an almost inexhaustible new vista.

1 comment:

  1. dear peter: i have wanted to tell you how much i appreciate this article - i came across it again yesterday and i felt hugely thankful for your mind and reading. n.s.k. p.s. i could not find your email.