I'm reading a bit of a big book at the moment, so in the meantime...
Monday, 30 June 2008
I'm reading a bit of a big book at the moment, so in the meantime...
Tuesday, 24 June 2008
De Niro's Game
by Rawi Hage
The Impac Dublin Literary Award is literature's richest prize. €100,000 (almost £80,000) is not to be sneezed at, and when a début novelist beats off big-hitters like Roth, Atwood, Updike and Pynchon I'm interested. If it hadn't been for the prize there's little chance that I would even have glanced at this book which, with its hideous cover, looks like one of those airport murder/thrillers. You'll notice the crack that runs to the bottom of the page and which reminded me of Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth at Tate Modern. She said that the fissure she opened in the Turbine Hall's floor represented the danger of crossing borders; the danger of rejection and racial hatred, which is a useful parallel to have with Hage's novel.
Set in Lebanon during the Civil War of the 70's and 80's we follow the trajectories of two childhood friends Bassam and George. The early pages describe with cinematic flair the exuberance of their youth, even in this city destroyed by 'ten thousand bombs'.
Then we hopped back on the motorbike and drove under the falling bullets, oblivious. We drove through the noise of military chants and a thousand radio stations all claiming victory. We stared at the short skirts of female warriors and drove beside schoolgirl's thighs. We were aimless, beggars and thieves, horny Arabs with curly hair and open shirts and Marlboro packs rolled in our sleeves, dropouts, ruthless nihilists with guns, bad breath, and long American jeans.
Not knowing an awful lot about the conflict myself, Hage shows in simple detail the divisions between Muslim and Christian, the various factions in the battle for power and the States that stand behind them but he focuses on the individuals. Bassam dreams of leaving the war torn streets for Rome, whereas George finds himself drawn into the Christian militia. The two of them work together initially on a scam at George's workplace involving poker machines. With this Bassam hopes to fund his flight to Europe but it ends up becoming the leverage a local militia leader needs to enlist George, a willing participant at a time when the only way to command respect and ensure your own safety is with a gun in your hand.
These are men inured to violence because of their familiarity with it. De Niro's game is of course Russian Roulette (from The Deer Hunter) a game of chance which serves as the perfect metaphor for the situation in Beirut. When lives can be lost so cheaply there is very little these young men can think to do apart from escape or take part. Even when his own mother is killed by a falling bomb Bassam finds himself feeling release rather than sadness. Maybe this accounts for the rather deadened tone to Hage's writing. It is a curious mixture; the filmic quality early on making some passages read with the black and white simplicity of a screenplay but every now and then Hage will add a poetic flourish. These flights of fancy increase as the novel progresses and with decreasing effect. I'm not sure that the world was crying out for a poetic description of urination (I stood above the toilet, undid my belt buckle, and slowly, urgently, I let the metamorphosed red wine burst and flow in the curve of a single yellow rainbow).
Bassam will eventually make his escape, to Paris, where his rebellious leanings find ample expression in the city synonymous with revolution. It is here he comes face to face with racism and finds himself resorting to the only form of defence he knows; attack. Here he also meets George's half-sister Rhea, who is desperate to know as much as she can about George from his closest friend.
I skipped many things about George, and when I saw how happy she was I changed names, I planted trees, I painted the concrete houses in our old neighbourhood in tropical colours, I made people dance and laugh, even under the falling bombs.
But he can't pretend forever. Bassam begins reading a copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus whose hero is man not unlike himself. In the same way that Mersault is awakened from his disconnection by killing 'The Arab', Bassam will confront his past in order to make any progress into his future.
I wanted to enjoy this book more but Bassam is a character with very little capacity to connect, which makes for a frustrating narrator. The prose an be either too simplistic or too florid and the plot begins to stretch credulity as it develops, especially when we reach Paris. However, Hage's descriptions of Beirut and the corrosive effects of war and violence are spot on and he creates some fantastic images. The games we play as children can take on a hideous dimension in conflict, and the human angle that Hage shows provides a sobering aspect to the images we see everyday on the television from war torn cities around the globe. Just as many people saw the images of 9/11 as clips from some Hollywood movie these two boys find that violence, even when it happens right in front of you, can be banal and clichéd.
Saturday, 21 June 2008
Sigur Ros - Góðan daginn
Sigur Ros have always ploughed their own furrow, creating soundscapes imbued with the cold and unworldly atmosphere of their native Iceland. With heavy reverb and the unmistakable falsetto of lead singer 'Jonsi' Birgisson the band have always made a virtue of the slow burner, the track which seems to take an age to develop, and have since found their music used in everything from trailers for the BBC's Planet Earth series to Queer as Folk. But that kind of amorphous, post-rock comes with its own problems. How to develop? The invention of a nonsense language, Hopelandic, on 2002's enigmatically titled () led to a repetitive album of, well, nonsense and with the follow up, Takk, things seemed to be stagnating. So the cover of their new album (trans: With A Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly) bodes well. Clothes discarded, with a definite summery tinge to the picture we have people streaking across a road and something tells me they didn't stop, look and listen.
The fantastically titled Gobbledigook gets us under way with acoustic guitars and hand claps reminiscent of flamenco, spurred along by thumping drums. It's a vigorous start which is continued by the glorious piano led Inní mér syngur vitleysingur (Within me sings a lunatic). This track is the one illustrated best by the album's cover, filled with explosive energy and a sunshine melody, easily the best track on here. A bit of research reveals the lyrics to be 'My best friend, whatever may happen/I swallow a tear and breathe in your hair/Making a ruckus embracing, we cry/When we meet, when we kiss/Lips burning, holding hands/I see you awake, I see you naked/Inside me sings a lunatic.' Or something like that. It's followed by the beautiful Góðan daginn (Good day) which shows Birgisson's voice in all its glory. Við spilum endalaust (We Play Endlessly) actually sounds more like a conventional indie-pop song, think Polyphonic Spree, with more of that positive sounding energy. The mammoth Festival is one of those slow burners, relying on an almost hymnal vocal for its first half before a thumping bass guitar starts the build into a crescendo which finally gets there.
It's at this halfway point that the album seems to lose all of that momentum and energy. The next few tracks are pretty enough but it ceases being the mould breaking album it could have been. Ára bátur enlists the services of a boys choir and 67 piece orchestra but it only succeeds in highlighting the relative weakness of Birgisson's voice. Even the first foray into English lyrics isn't enough to get excited about (I want him to know/What I have done/I want him to know/It’s bad). It's not a bad album but it's hard to imagine it replacing any of their others in your affection. It'll be interesting to see which tracks get picked by the advertisers.
Friday, 20 June 2008
by John Burnside
In his novel Living Nowhere John Burnside managed to find great beauty in the new town of Corby (or perhaps more accurately he manage to write with great beauty). His ability to find wonder in the mundane made his tale of violence in an industrial town a fascinating read. His next setting was Coldhaven, a coastal landscape with history and legend, and with the same beautiful prose he created a modern folktale with violence again at its heart in The Devil's Footprints. With his latest novel Burnside has managed to combine the strongest elements from those two books and in doing so has created his most unsettling work since his debut The Dumb House.
We are in an industrial landscape once again and Innertown, '...now nothing more than a ghetto for poisoned, cast-off workers', where an abandoned chemical plant is slowly decaying, is a landscape poisoned and dying . For its inhabitants 'the ghosts and ruffians of Innertown' it is a living hell; strange illnesses, aggressive cancers and rumours of mutant animals are just the beginning for those unfortunate enough to be close to the plant. Burnside creates an eerie atmosphere; this a place that nobody ever seems to leave, like a sinister version of The Truman Show. It has a fable like quality, the name Innertown (with the salubrious Outertown that surrounds it) the 'poisoned wood' where children dare not play and mysterious characters that hover around the edges. Layered on top of this is the terror that everyone is trying to ignore. For the last few years boys have been disappearing. The authorities claim that they have simply run away but no one knows for sure where they are or whether they are alive or not. Although that isn't strictly true. The town's one permanent policeman, Morrison, does know something, but it is a secret he's forced into keeping.
For the children there is little to do but amuse themselves with casual acts of violence and sex. Tooled up with improvised weapons they hunt the rubbish strewn landscape for prey, always under the heavy cloak of fear that they may be the next one to disappear. Amongst them is Leonard, marked out as different by his intelligence and sensitivity and in no small part by his avid reading of the classics of literature. On the back of a friendship with his librarian he seems to have covered them all from Moby Dick to Anna Karenina (he is currently working his way through Proust) and whilst this is far from impossible there is something that doesn't quite ring true. There is no definite time setting in the novel but with some modern references seeming to locate it near the present day Leonard's choices of Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Lamour when describing beautiful or glamorous women show the author's age and character coming through a little to clearly. But this is a minor quibble, Leonard is a beautifully realised character, his near silent relationship with his ill father encouraging first his friendship with the librarian and then the Moth Man, a visiting ecologist who offers Leonard conversation, confidence and a hallucinogenic tea and who, with his fairytale name, will become an increasingly important presence in his life.
There is so much I could say about this extraordinary novel but I don't want to spoil it for you, I want you to read it. In her novel The Secret History Donna Tartt, quoting the Greeks, said 'Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.' In this book Burnside creates an atmosphere of such unease that I felt terrified in a way I haven't been by a book since reading House of Leaves. If you have already come across Burnside then hopefully you too have been impressed in some way by his writing. If you haven't then you are in for a treat. Burnside is a writer at the height of his powers. A total writer who, with a poet's skill, fills every page with a striking image, an arresting phrase, something that might just take your breath away.
I'd always felt something out at the chemical plant, no matter where I went. You could call it a spirit, or a genius loci - why not? ...It was there pointing to something I should know about, something I should have seen beyond the things I was seeing but it wasn't concerned with what you could say in words. You get a huge moon in an indigo sky, floating over the dusty water by the docks, over the rusty cranes and the old boat eaten away by rust, you get that big moon over the harbour and you can hear owls calling from the woods above - what words are you going to have for that?...Sometimes the whole world points to something you can't see...sometimes, it's just that things are beautiful, only what you mean by beautiful is different from what people usually mean when they say that word.. It's beautiful and it's terrible too. It takes your breath away, but you don't know if that comes from awe or terror.
Thursday, 19 June 2008
Aimee Mann - Stranger Into Starman
Aimee Mann is one of those artists who quietly produces songs of real quality without really troubling the press or being lauded as the next so-and-so. Even providing the soundtrack for P T Anderson's mammoth movie Magnolia wasn't enough to make her more widely known over in the UK. Even I, who had enjoyed her work, had let her fall off my radar recently, only to find that her latest is another well crafted collection of West Coast melancholia; it's title, with deleted expletive, should make it clear how she feels about those with a sunny disposition (and I'm guessing there's a fair few of those in LA).
The album opens with the familiar sounding Freeway, containing everything you might expect; male backing, a catchy tune and chorus, which makes the next track, Stranger into Starman, a bit of a shock. Just piano and her voice sounding better than ever before a simple arrangement fleshes out this tiny track. Lovely. Mann's voice for those that haven't heard it is like a combination of Karen Carpenter and Chrissie Hynde, deep and rich and surprisingly sweet given the bitter tang to some of her lyrics. A song like Phoenix is a good example, with its lovely string accompaniment even whilst she sings about leaving her lover, telling us 'I know love doesn't change a thing'. 31 Today is another track typical of her outlook ' I thought my life would be different somehow/I thought my life would be better by now/But it's not, and I don't know where to turn'.
It's Over is the album's big number, with a far more optimistic outlook, encouragement to make the most of life, ' cos everything's beautiful, every day's a holiday'. There are some clear musical influences; Borrowing Time, as another reviewer has pointed out, has clear echoes of Iggy Pop's Passenger, Little Tornado is very Simon and Garfunkel and True Believer is imbued with the spirit of Elliot Smith. All in all it makes for very pleasant listening but I'm not sure that this album is going to get her any closer to being a household name on this side of the pond.
Tuesday, 17 June 2008
The Welsh Girl
by Peter Ho Davies
In his début novel Resistance, the Welsh writer Owen Sheers imagined a Wales occupied by Nazi troops and in one particular valley, deserted by its men, who have taken to the hills, it is the women who have to learn to live with the real meaning of occupation and the cost of survival. In Peter Ho Davies' own début there are German troops in Wales again, this time as prisoners of war, but these are still two cultures learning to live in close proximity and questions arise about loyalty, honour and identity. Whilst Sheers' novel had the advantages of immediacy and confrontation, Davies' novel creates an equally strong sense of place with subtly nuanced detail and beautiful structure. Both books provide a unique perspective on war and whilst Davies gets off to a slow start the three strands of his narrative come slowly together, the tension increasing between them as he ties up the loose ends.
The Welsh Girl of the title is Esther, a 17 year old growing up quickly whilst frighteningly naive about the world around her. Having turned down a proposal of marriage from local boy Rhys she is subjected to a violent assault from one of the English soldiers building a new camp nearby. In fact she is raped but she herself is confused by the nature of the attack.
If she had to call it anything, she thinks now, groping for the word, she'd call it a misunderstanding. He meant one thing, she meant another.
She will spend the rest of the novel dealing with the fallout from this event whilst at the same time looking after Jim, a young evacuee. For both of them, the building of the new prisoner of war camp brings the war very much to their doorstep, forcing them both to think honestly about the real differences between themselves and the men on the other side of the wire. For the whole village in fact, the arrival of first the English soldiers and then the new prisoners gives rise to different expressions of nationalism.
Rotheram is a young German in exile now working with British forces and sent to interrogate Rudolf Hess. The question: Is he sane enough to stand trial? Hess is quick to spot the Jewish heritage of Rotheram and so a dialogue starts between them about identity.
'We have something in common, you and I. The same dilemma. Are we who we think we are, or who others judge us to be? A question of will perhaps.' He glanced over Rotheram's shoulder, and then back, meeting his eyes. 'How can you hope to judge me, Captain, if you can't decide about yourself?'
The Hess episodes are a small part of the whole, bookending the narrative, but Rotheram will appear again to interview one of the German POW's being held in a new constructed camp. Karsten Simmering, having surrendered from his position during the D-Day landings, is subjected to abuse from his fellow prisoners as well as putting himself through the ringer.
It comes to Karsten slowly that their surrender wasn't that one moment already past, at the mouth of the bunker, but somehow will go on and on. He wonders what more they'll have to give up before it's over. Everything but their lives, probably.
From the camp the prisoners are watched by a group of local boys who are fascinated by these new arrivals. They grow in confidence, edging ever closer to the wire to hurl their insults and make fun of the internees. It is here that Karsten is able to befriend Jim, hoping to learn first of the all the name of the young girl he has seen him with. His first gift, a pair of planes, crudely crafted from bed slats with propellers made from gun casings are well received.
For a slow moment Karsten feels bereft...But when he sees the boy running uphill, the planes whipping over the long grass, banking around the tree trunks, sailing towards the crest, it comes to Karsten that this is what he has wanted all along, for the planes to go where he can't.
A moment of opportunism will bring all of these characters closer together and force Esther to make her biggest steps into the adult world. Crucial to this book is a single word that Esther's father teaches her whilst tending their sheep; cynefin, 'the flock's sense of place, of territory' This sense, passed down from mother to daughter (with male lambs being sold off it is the females that remain in place) is emblematic of what many of the characters realise during this turbulent period. Esther will come to realise that cynefin 'is the essential nationalism, not her father's windy brand, but this secret bond between mothers and daughters, described by a word the English have no equivalent for.'
Thursday, 12 June 2008
by John Cheever
It's difficult to find the time to read when you have a baby so, for once, I opted for short stories as the perfect accompaniment to a bus journey into town and to give my addled brain a rest. Those lovely chaps at Crockatt and Powell (recently voted No.1 in the best book shops in The Independent) had a copy of Cheever's collected stories when I popped in a while back and I've been slowly working my way through them. At almost 900 pages with over 60 stories I thought I'd post my thoughts gradually so here's part one.
In his preface Cheever notes the embarrassment of having his immaturity documented in some of these stories. For us reading them now they're more like documents from a lost world, not so much innocent but certainly a New York from a different time entirely, with social structures and hierarchies as clearly delineated as the grid work of streets that mark it up. The photo on the cover shows a lift attendant and in a few of the early stories he uses the attendant or building superintendent as a perfect tool to show us this structure. It isn't just the difference between the attendant and those that live at the top of the building he shows but with the traffic in between floors we see the movement of those rising in the world, those holding on by their fingertips and those making the slow and shameful journey to the ground floor and out of the door onto the street. One notices the hole in the ladies gloves or the repaired rip in a dress which shows those struggling to stay up a class, living beyond their means and courting catastrophe because it is the only means of survival.
The Enormous Radio (the title story of his second collection) is a striking modern parable which is extraordinarily prescient in our age of reality TV. A man buys an expensive radio for his wife's enjoyment but she finds that as she tunes through the stations she can overhear conversations from other apartments in their block. After her initial shock she is captivated by her aural voyeurism and when her husband falls asleep that night she goes back to the living room and turns on the radio. She is comforted that her own life isn't as unhappy as the lives she tunes into but the next day it isn't conversation she hears but arguments and violence and she pleads with her husband to call a man to fix it. 'Our lives aren't sordid, are they, darling...we are happy, aren't we?', she asks and her husband reassures her. The expensive radio repair causes him to argue with her the next day and in this short outburst he vents every secret of their life together making them just another shocking instalment in the drama of real life.
Cheever creates unease very well. In The Cure, where a man attempts to 'cure' himself of his failing marriage, he is haunted by a presence outside his house which causes him to lose sleep. He doesn't know who it is or what they hope to see but when a friend says that she can see a rope around his neck he realises that this presence is waiting to watch him hang himself. It is the impetus he needs to make things right with his wife. In Torch Song Cheever creates the ultimate femme fatale in Joan Harris, known as the Widow ('she always wore black, and he was always given the feeling, by a curious disorder in her apartment, that the undertakers had just left'), who passes in and out of the life of our narrator Jack. It is only years later when he is very ill himself and she comes to see him, to care for him, that he sees that she is almost death's attendant; the men in her life have all passed away and now she has come for him. He sends her away 'There are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful years ahead of me, and when they're over, when it's time, then I'll call you...and give you whatever dirty pleasure you take in watching the dying, but until then, you and your ugly misshapen forms will leave me alone.'
The Pig That Fell Into The Well is a story about a story. It entices you in with one of those perfect Chekhovian lines:
'In the summer, when the Nudd family gathered at Whitebeach Camp, in the Adirondacks, there was always a night when one of them would ask, 'Remember the day when the pig fell into the well?'
This is the story that keeps the Nudd family together. In the same way that they convene each year in the same place, they need a touchstone to remind them who they are. What Cheever shows so brilliantly is the elasticity of the story. It can, and indeed must, be told differently each time, just small changes but necessary to even out the imbalances in the family. Somebodies role may become larger one year or their virtues exaggerated because they need encouragement. And what the story really helps to preserve of course is the Nudd's picture of themselves, the myth of their perfect summers. And whilst they laugh away at themselves they can ignore their failures and lack of achievement.
Those are a few of the stories that have stood out in the first 400 pages but they are remarkably consistent in their strength. He may well have been embarrassed about his early work when looking back, as we all are, but that says more in favour of what he went on to achieve rather than any deficiencies in his first forays in storytelling. Bring on the next 500 pages.
Tuesday, 10 June 2008
by Marshall N Klimasewiski
In a fascinating article in The Guardian a while back various writers were asked to recommend a novel they felt had been unfairly overlooked. The list was gloriously eclectic with works from 1759 right up to last year. Peter Ho Davies recommended this début novel from the writer he felt was the best member of a creative writing programme he had shared with Ha Jin and Jhumpa Lahiri amongst others, august company and quite a recommendation from a writer who earned critical and commercial success (with a little help from Richard and Judy) with his own début, The Welsh Girl (next on my list).
On the South-Western tip of Vancouver Island is East Sooke, a rural retreat with rocky beaches and summer cottages. Year round resident Cyrus Collingwood has a close eye on the titular vacationers, stalking outside their homes like a voyeur.
Oh it was such a simple native pleasure to sit here and watch the inside world, just to look into lit windows and be with people there when they were alone.
Occasionally he breaks in to scare them.
He never knew what he would scream--- or he tried not to plan in advance, at any rate. Once he heard himself scream, "Who loves you, baby!" but it had had about the same effect.
At the age of nineteen he has reached the stage where he feels his genius is not fulfilled, it is frustrated in fact by where he lives, his relationship with his father and his growing feelings for his friend Ginny.
He intended to have a future out of spite, as a matter of fact. With a family like his, coming from a place like this, no one would expect it of him, but maybe that was reason enough to keep a vague faith.
The yearly visits of wealthy Americans in happy families throw his discontentment into sharp focus and when he spots the arrival of Nicholas, Samina and their young daughter Hilda his voyeurism begins a chain of events. From his spot in the adjoining woods he is immediately taken by the exotic looking Samina and in a startling moment as she carries her daughter inside she seems to see him too, returning his gaze calmly before walking inside. Cyrus becomes obsessed with the young family and their friends Greg and Laurel, ingratiating himself into their company and becoming almost a playmate to the young girl Hilda, seeing perhaps in all this a way out for himself.
A woman like her---the foreign cottager, Samina was a future in and of herself, with all there'd be to learn about her and to tell her.
The relationships between the four friends are complex too. Greg and Laurel's relationship is in dangerous water and the fact that Nicholas has ostensibly invited Laurel in order to probe his wife to see if anything is wrong in his own relationship only adds to the layers of subterfuge. But then a single event occurs which alters everything. Greg and Nicholas go off for a walk together and when Greg strikes out on his own for an hour or so he returns to the beach to find Nicholas has inexplicably disappeared. The rest of the book deals with the fallout as each of the characters examines the others and themselves as blame and culpability fly around.
This book succeeds on so many levels. It is a complex and psychologically rigorous account of love, friendship and loss. Klimasewiski shows extraordinary skill in creating characters that are flawed in uniquely human ways, not even particularly likeable and yet always intriguing, the slow moving plot compelling. With subtle changes in style he shows each character in relief, each of them convincing, with the female characters perhaps lacking the same detail and development as their partners but there is an unwavering attention to detail which means his supporting cast are well drawn too. The imposing landscape of the island is created with similar skill, the cold and dangerously tidal waters that surround it feeling like a character themselves.
It's difficult to know how to categorize such a novel, which is surely a good thing. It would be unfair and limiting to describe it as a thriller, character study or meditation on the nature of biography or even as all of those things. I've barely scratched the surface of the detail and nuance it contains and can only agree with Peter Ho Davies that this is a novel which shouldn't slip you by.
Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Paul Weller - Empty Ring
I was too young to have been into The Jam but I was old enough to know that I didn't really like The Style Council so it was Paul Weller's solo work that initially caught my attention. The first two albums anyway. Then it all went a bit dad-rock and he kind of fell off the map for me. The last thing anyone was expecting was his latest album, an eclectic, creative and dare we say it, exciting opus with over 2o tracks.
The title track is a stomping number with blasting horns and bags of energy, not what one might expect from a man who recently turned 50. It's a good example of the vigour of proceedings which makes this album so impressive. Push It Along is another track bursting at the seams with organs and 'ooh-ah' backing vocals which sound like King Louis' cohorts from the Jungle Book have invaded the studio. Which isn't to say that there isn't plenty of what you might expect from the man they call the Modfather but it's all augmented by some interesting musical choices and the kind of wilful disregard for what people think which can produce really exciting results.
It's not always successful; Lullaby Fur Kinder sounds worryingly like hotel lobby music, the spoken piece God is a bit like being harassed by one of those evangelists on the tube and the instrumental (if that's the word for it) 111 is a little indulgent, but these are small prices to pay to get an album that includes influences from South American tango to English folk.
Sometimes it all comes together. Empty Ring sounds like Weller is being accompanied by The Avalanches whose cut-up all-sample Since I Left You was such an amazing album. Black River has a cheeky-chappy appeal. And Echoes Round The Sun is a reverb heavy number with film score strings that lend it bite rather than making it sound pretty. But there are equally impressive songs like Invisible and Why Walk When You Can Run which, with simple accompaniment, hit the right note by leaving Weller's matured voice to do the work.
I didn't think I'd find myself buying another Paul Weller album but if you've ever had a liking for his work I suggest you do just that. There's life in the old Mod yet.
Tuesday, 3 June 2008
From his first feature, Rushmore, Wes Anderson has had a unique style. Bright colours, deadpan performances and the all important soundtrack have become staples of his subsequent films but the only worry with his most recent outing is that he may just be repeating himself and with less and less effect. After quite enjoying The Life Aquatic, which received some fairly lukewarm reviews, I had high hopes for this far more well received effort. Plus it showcases three of the finest noses in Hollywood!
Three brothers estranged after the death of their father meet in India to undergo a spiritual journey (which actually hides a more practical purpose for one of the brothers). Owen Wilson is recovering from a near fatal accident, Adrien Brody is running away from impending fatherhood and Jason Schwartzman is reeling from his relationship (with a suddenly naked Natalie Portman), which we glimpse in the short film Hotel Chevalier that precedes the main film. Self obsessed and shallow the brother's journey is really only made interesting about half way through when they try to prevent the drowning of three boys in a river. It is the death of a stranger that forces them to confront their own reaction to their father's death and to get closer to the spiritual awakening they hoped for.
But the film lacks substance. The colours may be bright but the film somehow fails to capture the sights and smells of India, too much of it seems clichéd, and even the visual tricks are ones we've seen before in previous films. The performances are predictably low-key but lacking any real character and Bill Murray makes one of the most pointless cameo appearances ever. Even the soundtrack is disappointing with a confusing recurrence of French standards when I'd have thought Wes would've been having a field day plundering his collection for all that Indian influenced music from the 60's.
What's surprising with this film is how well he handles the middle section where it all becomes more serious. Perhaps Anderson has been hiding some real substance under his cloak of design and quirkiness? I'm not sure where he goes from here but maybe he'd benefit from a spiritual journey of his own.