Sunday, November 02, 2008

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Quite simply one of the best books I've read in a long damn time.

If you're the type of person who's likely to initiate a conversation with me by asking "so what are you reading these days?" you've inevitably been bored by the response I've been giving since about mid-June: "still slogging through that book about Bombay." Despite being employed in the publishing industry (or perhaps because of it), my reading habits are ridiculously erratic, and, even though I've been eager to check this book out since I first read the wonderful interview with author Suketu Mehta in the February 2008 issue of The Believer on the plane home from visiting my brother in San Francisco, I had a hard time tackling this 556-page behemoth. Partly, it was because of the book's structure: nearly half is dominated by the front-loaded section entitled "Power" that focuses on riots, gangs, cops, politics, Muslim vs. Hindu tension and other sensitive issues that inspire such brutality on the city's streets. It's fascinating stuff, and insanely well reported, but just not all that inherently interesting to me. It was only when the book finally opened into part two, "Pleasure" (and then beyond that into part three, "Passages"), that I felt myself becoming truly drawn in. Of course, the deeper I got into the book, the more I realized how ingenious the structure actually is. Like some sort of journalistic interpretation of Zeno's dichotomy paradox, it makes its way across this incredible distance by dividing itself in half, then in half again, then half again. And, much like a too-long, too-much Bollywood movie, with every chunk of prose that Mehta churns out, giving you pages and pages about a character or an issue, not exactly numbing you as a reader, but lulling you into a false sense of placid receptivity, he'll then cap the section with an incredibly potent paragraph or page that cuts to the juiciest, bloodiest part of the heart of the matter. I got somewhat addicted to that wonderful feeling of being intellectually punched in the throat, feeling more than a little breathless with emotion, marveling at his pacing and his ability to give you the exact punctuation that you didn't even know you needed. The book is littered with these gems, and if you look at my copy of the book, you'll see dog-eared corners marking them (beginning, yes, about halfway through), like little winks or high-fives, to myself or to Mehta or maybe both of us, I can't quite tell. Earlier this year I picked up the Jane Jacobs classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and, um, failed to finish it. Not for lack of interest--I'm sure I'll go back to it again one day, perhaps sooner rather that later--but it just wasn't the right book for me at the right time. It's polite and wonderfully sensible, and even a bit droll in places. But, with my recently renewed and reconfirmed passion for cities and the type of life it's possible to live in them, I think I wanted it to be more like Maximum City: absolutely pulsating with life, crying out in extremes of despair and ecstasy and every possible recombinant variation of the two, a profound meditation on the atomic essence of people, places, and things at their most raw and unfiltered. Highly, highly recommended, kittens.

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