Book Review: Apocalypse Now Redux

Posted by Nishant Shah at Aug 06, 2016 04:16 AM |
My review for Arundhati Roy and John Cusack's new book that captures their encounter with Edward Snowden, 'Things that can and cannot be said' is now out. It's an engaging, if somewhat freewheeling, political critique of the times we live in.

The review was published in the Indian Express on August 6, 2016.

Book: Things That Can and Cannot Be Said
Authors: Arundhati Roy & John Cusack
Publication: Juggernaut
Pages: 132
Price: Rs 250

The title of the book — Things That Can and Cannot be Said — demands an imperative. It is as if Arundhati Roy and John Cusack, aware of their internal turmoil in dealing with a world that is rapidly becoming unintelligible, though not incomprehensible, are demanding an order where none exists. Hence, they are advocating for certainty and assurance, only to undermine it, ironically, through their own freely associative writing that mimics linear time and causative narrative. This deep-seated irony of needing to say something, but knowing that saying it is not going to shine a divining light on the sordid realities of the world that is being managed through the production of grand structures like valorous nation states, virtuous civil societies, the obsequious NGO-isation of radical action, and the persistent neutering of justice through the benign vocabulary of human rights, defines the oeuvre, the politics and the poetics of the book. Written like a scrap book, filled with excerpts from long conversations scattered over time and space, annotated by reminiscences of books read long ago that have seared their imprints on the mind, and events that are simultaneously platitudinous for their status as global landmarks and fiercely personal for the scars that they have left on the minds of the authors, the book remains an engaging, if a somewhat freewheeling, ride into a political critique that makes itself all the more palatable and disconcerting for the levity, irreverence and the dark sense of humour that accompanies it.

Composed in alternating chapters, the first half of the book is about Cusack and Roy laying themselves bare. They spare no words, square no edges, and put their personal, political and collective wounds on display with humble pride and proud humility. Cusack’s experience as a screenplay writer comes in handy — he rescues what could have been a long tirade, into a series of conversations. The familiar narratives are rehistoricised and de-territorialised, put into new contexts while eschewing the older ones, thus providing a large landscape that refers to state-sponsored genocide, structural reorganisation of nation states, the dying edge of political action, the overwhelming but invisible presence of capital, and the dithering state of social justice that treats human beings like things. Cusack, identifying the poetic genius of Roy, gives her centre stage, making her the voice in command.

Roy, for her part, seems to have enjoyed this moment in the soapbox — something that she has been doing quite effectively and provocatively to a national and global audience — and gives it her all. There are moments when the text feels indulgent, when the voice feels a little relentless, when the almost schizophrenic global and historical references become a litany of mixed-up events that might have required further nuance and deeper interpretation. However, the whimsical style of Roy’s narrative, with her sense of what is right, and her demeanour that remains friendly, curious and disarming, saves the text from being heavy handed, even when it does dissolve into cloying poignancy and makes you pause, just so that you can breathe.

Surprisingly, it is the second part of the book, where the two encounter Edward Snowden along with Daniel Ellsberg, the “Snowden of the 1960s” who had leaked the Pentagon papers, that falters. Snowden had jocularly mentioned that Roy was there to “radicalise him”. She does that, but in a way that doesn’t give us anything more than what we already know. While Cusack and Roy were committed to getting to know Snowden beyond his systems-man image, there wasn’t much that they could uncover, either in dialogue or in discourse, that could have told us more, endeared us further to possibly the most over-exposed person in recent times. However, one realises that the genius of the narrative is actually in reminding us how transparent Edward Snowden has become to us. We know all kinds of things about this young man — from his girlfriends past to his actions future, from his values and convictions to his opinion on the NSA watching people’s naked pictures — and yet, what has been missing in the Snowden files, has been the larger arc of global politics, social reordering, and perhaps, a glimpse of the post-nation future that Snowden might have seen in his act of whistleblowing that is going to remain the landmark moment that defines the rest of this century.

Once you have gotten over the fact that this is not a book about Snowden, the expectations are better tailored for what is to come, and suddenly, the long prelude to the meeting falls into place. Snowden matches Roy and Cusack in whimsy, irony, political conviction, and the sacred faith in human values that make you want to give them all a fierce hug of hesitant reassurance. What Snowden says, what Roy and Cusack make of it, and how they leave us, almost abruptly at the end, breathless, unnerved, and severely conflicted about some of the 20th century structures like society, activism, nation states, governance, communication, technologies, sharing and caring is what the book has to be read for. The tight screen-writing skills of Cusack meet the perfect timing of Roy’s prose, and all of it becomes surreal, futuristic and indelibly real when it gets anchored on the physical presence of Snowden, who, in exile, talks achingly of the home that has thrown him out and the home that he can never really call his own.

And while there are lapses — fragments, translations and evocations which might have needed more explanations to have their pedagogic intent shine through — there is no denying that, in all its flaws, much like the narrators, the book manages to first immerse you in the cold shock of a sobering reality, clearly positioning the apocalypse as the now, and then drags you out and wraps you up in a warm blanket, opening up forms of critique, formats of intervention, and functions of political commitment towards saying things that have and have not been said. The book should have, perhaps, been titled what could, would, should have been said, but can’t, won’t, shan’t be said — not because of anything else, but because it seems futile.