Odyssey of Ten Thousand Lifetimes: A Review of Reincarnation Blues

I have always envied the people in bookstores, the ones who can pick a book at an impulse and not think twice about their purchase. They are the risk-takers, the ones with the courage to free fall into stories without a second thought as to whether they are any good. Ever since my childhood, I have suffered from the dread of dying someday, my one regret being that I shall run out of time to ever read the wonderful books that are being written, or the ones published already, because I had spent too much time in a bad book, stubborn as I am prone to be to finish something that I have started.

Perhaps that is why Reincarnation Blues was a change of scenario for me. I had been listlessly strolling across the humongous Round Rock Library in Texas on one cold wintry morning, when I had been spellbound by just the cover of a book, with all its patterns of blues, and reds, and yellows. And for what had felt like the passage of a dreary lifetime, I had stood there, just gazing at that beautiful hardcover and trying to muster up the courage to take a chance. And so I picked up the book, and came home, settling under the covers while winter raged outside my window, snow and winds twirling in tandem.

Reincarnation Blues spins the tale of the oldest soul in existence, a man named Milo, who has lived almost ten thousand lifetimes, and still not achieved what is referred to as Perfection—emancipation, if you must. And he only has a handful of chances left, a handful of lifetimes so to speak, before he is obliterated from existence permanently, if he cannot achieve Perfection. To further add to his list of problems, he is in love with a personification of Death, a woman who goes by the name of Suzie. And so the story begins with a motley of his lives lived, and the ones he lives from then onward. Michael Poore, the author, takes you on a journey thrown across lifetimes, across the construct of Time itself, across universes, and planets, and pasts, and the present, and the plethora of futures to show you a single man’s journey to find himself.

Reincarnation Blues is an ambitious novel. It may have been borne from the vast infinities of imaginations in a single man, but it reads like the admixture of a thousand voices speaking to the reader at once, thwarting them with information, and still being gentle in the process. Michael Poore, with what can only be described as something akin to a miraculous ingenuity, has successfully achieved the quality to make and break a character sketch of a protagonist. With every sifting lifetime of Milo, he has strove to create a new character, even if the backlog of the initial character existed in the core. And in doing so, he has minutely weaved the memories, and the touch of the previous incarnations in the newest life of Milo. Each chapter thus reads like a new short story, only with the added bounty of being an extension of something lived prior.

And so the author spins tales and anecdotes, sewing in information and realization on the same beat, and still maintains a symmetry in the act itself. He weaves in thousands of years worth of philosophies, and sometimes breaks said ideals to portray a level of evolution in Milo himself. From lucidly describing nihilism in more ways than one, through each of Milo’s lifetimes, to actually thwarting the idea itself through a sense of nirvana, Poore has actually taken you into the flesh-and-bone journey of showing the development and thus, the evolution of Milo. For this form of writing, some of the chapters that still rivet in my mind include “The Hasty Pudding Affair”, “Lifting Elephants, Juggling Water”, and “Buddha in Winter”.

Another little detail that I admired in Poore’s storytelling was the development of Milo’s ladylove, Death herself, in Suzie. Unlike what is often observed in singular-narrative storytelling, Poore takes it upon himself to not refrain from showing the character sketch and thus development of Suzie herself. That a personification of a phenomenon or an idea itself can be made to go through the nerve-wracking process of character development has already been done by the likes of Neil Gaiman in the Sandman graphic novels and Markus Zusak in The Book Thief. Taking a page out of their literary oeuvre, Poore crumbles the iron curtains of surrealism and magic realism to actually approach Death as a character and not as an idea. He puts flesh and bones on her, makes her almost human, without the use of sentimentality and inessential vulnerability, and still makes her appear as stranger, just outside the edges of reality. Hence, Suzie’s observations of mortality, although not holding the same magnanimity of Zusak’s Death, is characterized more through a bystander phenomenon, rather than the all-powerful omnipotence of an universal overlord. And although the proclivity of inconsistency in the narrative, thanks to the motley of realizations that go hand-in-hand with the actual actions of the novel, may be a letdown for certain readers, it does not actively harm the passage of the story in general. Moreover, it paces the way of the stream of consciousness throughout the narrative frame.

In the end, as I sit writing this review, bombarded as I am with the voices of the other customers speaking at Starbucks, I realize the essence of Reincarnation Blues, of how a chaotic mind is the beginning of a singularity. And I remember one of the many memorable quotes of the novel, “It’s dangerous, applying hindsight to something as complex as why someone wrote a poem, because the temptation is to try and make it make sense. We can apply reason, but what we can’t do is apply the storms and variations that govern a human mind moment to moment.”

And I cannot help but think that maybe the storm is the passage of a lifetime, that silence means the end of something, until beginnings take you somewhere again, in some new story, in some new universe where you shall be born free.

Sunshine and Loss: A Review of Summerlost

 

“The night was shadows and wind and the smell of a storm on the way, for crying until the tears were gone but the ache was left. A night for imagining that you could step out onto the windowsill and say hello to the dark, say I am sad and have the wind say I know. You could say I am alive and the trees would sigh back We are too. You could whisper I am alone and everything ends and the stars in the sky would answer We understand. Or maybe it’s ghosts telling you all these things, saying. We know, we’re alone too, we understand everything and nothing ends.”

Summerlost, Ally Condie

 

Somewhere in between the childlike innocence of a twelve-year-old’s narrative of loss and belonging, Ally Condie uses the voice of Cedar Lee to speak the above monologue, of storms and shadows and winds and stars in the night befriending you, holding you, and although the sense of loss is never truly gone, it is shared.

 

I started reading Summerlost last night, and soon, there was this bludgeoning ache inside of me to finish it by today. And even if the novel is set in the beautiful summer haze of Utah, far away from the hustles of overpopulated cities, when I closed the book after the last words, I couldn’t help but say hello to the gray gloom that it leaves behind, as if even in the mist of melancholy, loss can be perceived as something beautiful, tangible and bearable.

 

Summerlost is about a child’s journey to deal with loss, the absence of family, death and newly found friendship; it is about the hollowing gap that only the loss of a loved one can leave behind and the repercussions of the same.

 

The story begins when Cedar, along with her mother and younger brother Miles as they settle in the small town of Iron Creek, after the deaths of her father and youngest brother Ben, in the summer months at a new house while the Shakespearean Summerlost festival commences. Befriending the quirky “nerd-on-a-bike” Leo Bishop, the two friends start working in the concession stand, selling candies and programs to the visitors of the festival before the plays begin every evening.

 

Alongside, bonding over loss and silence, Cedar comes closer to her brother Miles, as the shadow of Ben looms overhead, while her borderline neurotic mother concocts newer schemes of revamping the house to deal with the loss of a child and her husband.

 

Ally Condie merges past with present like beads on a string as the novel pushes forward, using the fictional memory of the life and times of an actress who made it big in Hollywood before dying under mysterious circumstances. Initially used only as a recurring symbol of memory overlapping time lines, Lisette Chamberlain, the actress, slowly merges into the plot itself, as if her growth traced in the story is a mirror image to Cedar’s own character alignment throughout the events of the novel.

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But what outshines every other factor in the novel is Condie’s lucidity in using everything, from trees to bad soap operas to turkey vultures and little things left on Cedar’s windowsill, as an imagery of loss and new beginnings. The juxtaposition of every symbol over the underlying sense of loss is not fleeting either, it persists across pages, sometimes only found as the most thwarting of one-liners and in others as a monologue that rises and dwindles rhythmically to the beat of its words, making Summerlost a book which is better left perceived rather than read word by word.

 

Another brilliant use of language is the characterization of Ben, the late youngest brother of Cedar, who throughout the book has been described with suffering from symptoms of autism, without actually mentioning the term itself. Contemporary young adult novels have used mental illness as an ongoing plot motif throughout the scale of the story, sometimes going in for page by page descriptions of the illness in depth. Yet, Condie uses the innocence of Cedar’s childlike narrative to describe an almost inscrutable disease in the simplest of terms. That itself is quite an achievement.

 

The only spot in the sun is the climactic end of the story, perhaps considered anti-climactic by many. However, I feel I must defend that too, because a novel like Summerlost doesn’t necessarily need a bombastic climax to weave together its plot as a whole. It should beat, drift and dwindle by her own terms, leaving only a promise to return after.

 

I enjoyed Summerlost thoroughly, and one might say it is one of the best books I have read this fall. It was a speedy read, yet also touched with the weight of soulful realizations and melancholic half-smiles in the flow of its words, leaving only an aftertaste of the memory of loss and future promises behind.

 

The Library or the Prince?

The first time Woody Allen realized he was different was when the boys in his kindergarten fell for Snow White and he found himself infatuated with the Evil Queen.

I never found that strong a calling, but when I was five, still crying buckets over Mufasa dying, I found myself conflicted between choosing the library or the prince in Beauty and the Beast.

I assure you, I was no reader back then. I honestly started reading seriously when I was twelve. Before that, I found reading to be a lonely exercise, a wasted one too. I would rather have had my feet strongly settled upon the hardness of reality than let myself be swayed into fantastical lands with gentle beasts and cruel humans.

My tale of reading is just as common as every other Bengali in this city. With my father taking me to the Kolkata International Book Fair, and asking me what I would like to read. Considering myself different from the dreamy and delusional girls in my class, I had picked up Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, because, hell, what could be realer than a murder in a ship?

But the first seeds of my love for words germinated in the heart of an enormous animated library, when the Beast had taken Belle to a world of books. The sheer magnanimity, and perhaps the majesty too, had blown me to bits until I found myself muddled in another object of affection—the Beast himself.

For a five-year-old, the world was still colored in only black or white. There weren’t grey complications in between. Lions were gentle majestic beasts, not conniving and incestuous, and wolves were bloodthirsty, cruel creatures that ambushed Belle and the Beast in packs, instead of waiting for winter.

Life was simpler, fantasy, simpler still. Before fiction, came non-fiction, or rather, studying people with the gods they worshipped, ergo, Greek and Egyptian myths (thanks to Brendan Fraser being my swashbuckling hero).

But that story shall be retold later. For now, I need to face the dilemma that has confounded me for the last decade or so: Will I choose the library or the prince?

I have always prided myself as a realist, someone who is calculative of all the steps she takes, and even though the world may see me as a impulsive creature, perhaps I too have used that as a layer of my being, portraying the person I wished for them to see.

Perhaps I complicated my stories myself; even before all hell actually broke loose.

If you ask me now, I would choose the library in a heartbeat. I would spend hours, watch them turn into days, months, and years, until I could infuse myself with the endless wealth of knowledge that library must have had. I still romanticize a certain motion, a montage of fantasy really, of me seating on a regal antique chair, books scattered around me on a mahogany table, while candles light up the words. I see the wax melt and smile, counting the hours I have spent trying to lessen the distance between me and the words on paper.

And perhaps that is all it is—a fantasy of a child of five that grows more details by the day.

But it is still the most beautiful one I have till date.

And like every other self-serving intellectual, I have studied, dissected and interpreted my fantasy in a hundred other ways. My chair symbolizes my need for stability, the table a symbol of my raised stature, and the scattered books show my thirst of knowledge. Finally, the trickling wax of the candles shows that I am always, always, running out of time.

It has always been a race really. Now that I think about, when did I ever remember to breathe?

But my little fantasy has its secrets too, conniving little secrets that shove me into my decade-long dilemma.

In that little montage, somewhere far off from reality, as I spend my hours reading, lost in the world of words, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I presume I will be scared by the sudden interruption, but I am not. I smile, and when I turn, I see the Beast. Mind you, never the prince. I see the Beast instead.

And I don’t mind as I usually do in my reality, I don’t mind being interrupted from my reading. I am not even a little miffed. A part of me realizes that I welcome this interruption.

And that is also when I know it is fantasy.

But our fantasies, our dreams, the books we read, the words we choose to convey our thoughts, all of these are our mirrors. Only through them can we actually see the kind of souls we really are.

So, perhaps I do want the candle-wax to trickle away, reminding me of my mortality. Only, if only, in the end, someone would interrupt me, take me away from my books, even for the spell of a moment.

Belle fell for the Beast, so did I. And maybe that was why I could never stand the thought of him turning into Adam in the end. I didn’t want a beautiful prince, not when I was five, not when I am twenty-three. I wanted a flawed being, a human who perhaps didn’t bathe in his blemishes but was accepting of them, maybe of mine too. He wasn’t supposed to be a god, not even a humble one, but just that, a beast. Someone who has his scars, his regrets, his sins, his cynicisms, his cruelty, and underneath all of it, his humanity.

The Beast embodied all the souls I have loved, unearthed, seen, and still embraced. Be it seventeen, or twenty, I have found myself falling for the dark spots, the grey limbo, the uncharted waters, and the forbidden fruits. And not for a moment, did it make me want to run back to the prince, to the perfection. I was happy in my misery, I was in peace in my chaos.

So, perhaps the real dilemma never really lies between choosing the library or the prince.

Perhaps it only exists between the audacious hopes of finding a beast with my destined library, and the knowledge that I shall never have it all.

But, c’est la vie, mon ami. After all, it is all about the journey, the trickling candle-wax, and humming while reading secret stories.

All I can do is keep repeating Doris’s words in a litany, wishing someday, in some place between fantasy and reality, I will collide into a Stradivarius that still plays the tunes of Tale as Old as Time.

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More Than a Need

When I was seventeen, something cracked inside.

And seven years since, my story holds no context, no gift.

Only a tidal wave that had once wrecked my shores,

Wrecked my shores enough to make you a forbidden shelter.

Because only when I was really broken, did I see what my shattered bits, what I looked like.

I am a concoction, of steel and love and hope and anger.

Of faith and belief, and my edges are sewed tightly by the ribbons of doubt.

I am made of secrets, sometimes they leak through my skin, break free into the air, and recollect into forgotten old pieces, until those remnants spill out through words.

Sometimes, I would make a home for those words on these blank sheets,

And sometimes, they would only persist through a strike through, or a caricature made over them with ink, so as to hide who I really am.

Who am I then?

A woman who hides herself, craving to dissociate herself enough to spill forth out of the pandemonium called my mind?

Maybe, I will never know.

Perhaps these scribbles mean nothing.

Maybe I am searching solutions of a puzzle that will forever be unsolvable.

But then again, even then, the hope sewn inside craves to find one, to find an answer.

I love madly, dearly, passionately, nonchalantly and impersonally.

I love with my skin and bones.

I love through my sinews and blood, until I am a frothing mess of words and fear.

I love, just the same.

Memories lament inside,

In search of the next person they would reveal themselves to.

I fight them once a while, hoping to feel something more than an ordinary human.

Hoping if I kept them caged long enough, they would see me as a mystique, a woman of secrets and longing.

And sometimes, I let the spillage only make me something close to ordinary.

And close to ordinary I shall always be.

I am chaos, after all.

Unchained in your symmetry, roving between the spaces of your mind and soul, sometimes intruding in your dreamlands, begging for home.

I would come as a destitute at times,

Wishing you would give me shelter from the storms.

And in some nights, I become the storm instead.

Perhaps tonight is such a story,

Or perhaps the next night.

But the truth is, I shall be there, waiting, biding my time,

Until you collide into me, memory, dream and reality a clusterfuck of longing,

And beg me to light up your world with my darkness.

And only then, and only then,

Shall I find you, kiss your flaws, and free you of your lonesomeness.

So wait for me until then,

Draw me in your mind,

Color me with your soul,

Dabble the corner of my lips that still bleeds,

And wait, oh wait,

Until I am something more than you just need.

 

Of Lipsticks and Whores

I wear my red stain on the lips, and you fear me. I am a trollop, a harlot and a whore.

I wipe that red stain off my lips, and you crave to control me. I am an innocent, untouched, still fresh.

How easy, is it not? To change from woman to woman from the colour of her lips.

As easy as it is hide under my sari, my burkha, my salwar.

You see, I am covered.

I am covered so that your eyes don’t ravage my skin, bury beneath my bones as they tear through my flesh.

I am covered, I am decent. I did not entice you to rape me. I am saved.

After all, you are the victim, I, your criminal.

And god forbid if I lusted!

If I craved sex, if I wanted to be touched.

Isssssh! Chee, chee! Are you a harlot? Some penny-greedy whore?

Oh no, my lord, I am no whore. I simply am lustful.

Don’t you know that is the devil speaking through you?

Oh, yes. Always the devil. The moment that cursed thing in between my legs gets moist, I am touched by the devil.

Oh, must I be cursed to such fate? That when I close my eyes, when my fingers seek pleasure, I find myself in the proximity to the devil, craving fantasies, craving something more.

I am just the devil’s whore.

I stand on court today, screaming at you.

Screaming until my throat is raw and my eyes bleed blood,

I stand across you, judge, jury and executioner, and I am two women at once.

The one with the lipstick who victimized you.

And the one without whom you thought the devil.

I am the precipice of two choices, dwelling between the edge of the worlds,

Asking you to see, that these desires are not more than me.

I, a woman. I, a mother. I, a sister. I, a lover. I, a wife. I, a whore.

You dress me up in so many roles!

I lose my sanity, and I yell! Who am I?

The minute you touch me without my consent, I am your criminal. I must be the whore who craved your touch, and you, kind sir, you acceded to my silent request.

You turned me into your bitch, because you see, I wore that lipstick! I must have wanted it.

And then, on the night before, when my chapped lips were no longer colored.

When I had whispered sweet nothings, closed my eyes and seen sinful images of another in my arms,

When I was a desert and a rainy afternoon in the same moment,

I must have been seduced by the devil.

I, a woman. I, a mother. I, a sister. I, a lover. I, a wife. I, whore.

I am lost in my roles!

And so I scream, I am more than my desires!

But then again, my words shall always fall upon the deafest ears.

So, take my hands. Hang me upside down and beat the devil out of me.

Leash me like the hounds, good sir! I am a danger even to myself. I have the devil in me.

Exorcise me, clean me, wash me, and if the stench still remained, then burn me.

For I have seen a thousand lives,

A whore with a red mouth, and the devil with her chapped lips, as a loveless wife and a coy mistress.

And I beg you, oh, I beg you,

Now let me be free.

 

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Moments in Infinity

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A Demon’s Promise

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Let me tell you a story of darkness and tragedy. Where bright lights are nightmares and happiness is your enemy.

Storms and Scars

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And in this moment, I become the storm.

Fire

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I am no longer the moth in a daze. I am the fire that shall set all ablaze.

A Merry Little Christmas

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Because Christmas is all about romancing melancholy, touching love and finding hope. And so you see, I hope we find a merry little Christmas, for you and for me.

Scars

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Do not show me your tempting perfections. Show me your scars.

Words

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Because when I am gone, all I shall ever leave behind are these words for you.