Love, Money, and Mammachi

There are few moments in the novel that we get Mammachi’s perspective and one of the most striking to me was on page 160-161 where she slips Margaret Kochamma money and the author recounts her history with Chacko and the women he slept with. Even though Margaret is English, Mammachi looks down on her and considers her below her son as her father was a shopkeeper. However, she also hates Margaret for stealing some of her son’s affection from her. After Chacko saved her from her husband’s violence,

Mammachi packed her wifely luggage and committed it to Chacko’s care. From then onwards, he became the repository of all her womanly feelings. Her Man. Her only Love.

Even though Chacko continued to have sexual relationships with women from the factory, Mammachi chalks it up to a Man’s Needs and to further separate their relationships from love, she slipped them money so that she could consider their time with Chacko a service payed for and Needs met rather than something more complicated would end in a feeling of replacement. She attempts to do the same with Margaret Kochamma and since Margaret never finds the money or tries to give it back, Mammachi can consider her “just another whore” and resents less her son’s attachment to her.

In this passage, Roy continues her capitalization of improper nouns like Men’s Needs to emphasize that just as the children place utmost importance on adult concepts they don’t understand, Mammachi has created something that, while important enough to deserve capitalization in her mind, maintains its air of mystery.

The passage also further characterizes Mammachi and illustrates the importance of money to her. Every problem she faces is confronted with her wealth or social status, including the way that she feels betrayed by her son. However, it is interesting that unlike many more wealthy people in the US that view Marxism as a direct affront and threat to their livelihoods, neither Chacko or Mammachi treat it that way. To Chacko, it is a romantic notion to be considered in theory while he enjoys the comforts of his home and his “feudal libido”. Mammachi considers it dangerous in the wrong hands but of course in her beloved Chacko’s it is acceptable.

Finally, I think that Margaret Kochamma’s obliviousness is also an important facet of a continuing theme in the novel of her willing ignorance of the culture of the people she is staying with. It also makes an interesting parallel with the hotel guests’ response to the Kathakali dancers in a later chapter. The guests and Margaret Kochamma are both missing the vital conflicts going on around them and unwilling to go beyond their narrow concept of Kerala and its customs to understand either the great ancient drama unfolding before them or the complicated family relationships they are being wrapped in.

This passage furthers so many ideas and themes present throughout the rest of the novel and illustrates the complex relationships between Mammachi, Chacko, and Margaret Kochamma. While it is only a couple of pages, it is in my opinion packed with meaning and context vital for the rest of the book.

An Ode to Hypocrisy

In the song, “Rät” from her Public Void album, Penelope Scott airs her feelings of disappointment and betrayal stemming from her disillusionment with “the tech cult that is Silicon Valley.” The song, originally debuted in its stripped-down acoustic version on Tik Tok, was initially called “Elongated Muskrat” as a reference to Elon Musk, one example of the Silicone Valley scientific community that the speaker had looked up to. Through the song, Scott conveys the experience of idolizing scientists and innovation before feeling betrayed and used after being exposed to the selfishness and greed endemic among the people she had once looked up to.

While she begins the song with a whirlwind of complex words and allusions delivered at great speed, when she reaches the chorus, she slows down and puts more emphasis on each simple word. The juxtaposition gives the impression that she is initially using her education and the complex tangents she goes on to circle around her feelings. However, during the choruses, the simplified language and repetition suggests that the speaker is confronting the brutal yet simple truth of her feelings, that she was fooled and used by the people she considered heroes.

I loved you

I loved you

I loved you

It’s true

Scott also uses allusions to famous scientists in the past and in popular culture to help express her feelings, such as Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Selmers of the video game “Night in the Woods.” For example, she sings,

I bit the apple cause I trusted you, it tastes like Thomas Malthus

Your proposal is immodest and insane

And I hope someday Selmers rides her f—–ng train

First, she references the story of Adam and Eve from the Bible, suggesting that that the person that she is talking to convinced her to do something wrong. That thing “tasted like Thomas Malthus,” a man who famously suggested that feeding the poor would be futile because it would lead them to reproduce and ultimately to more people to feed. His “scientific” ideas were used to justify a lack of assistance for the poor for many years, incorporating an example into the song of a scientist attempting to solve one of humanity’s major problems while instead callously writing off the deaths of the less fortunate as the price to be paid for the continuation of bourgeois society. The “immodest proposal” likely refers to the rebuttal to Malthus’ “A Modest Proposal”, a satire intended to counter his argument. Selmers, in “Night in the Woods”, is infuriated by the growing inequality in Silicon Valley of millionaires making millions more, while wages remain stagnant and the price of living rises. She talks about wanting to ride a train to Silicon Valley and burn it to the ground, which the singer seems to support. While the audience may not be familiar with all of the subjects Scott alludes to at first, when they are considered together, they incorporate even more stories of selfishness and pain caused by people who claim to use their minds to better the lives of others while instead disregarding those whose lives most need bettering.

Lastly, Scott uses a specific audience to make her arguments more personal. Instead of specifically naming the tech industry or the scientific community, she rages against a “you” that betrayed her after convincing her that they were going to change the world with the creations of their mind. While it is present throughout the song, the most prominent example of this is in the chorus, when she repeats that she “loved you”, but it is also displayed to effect when she sings,

So f–k your tunnels, f–k your cars, f–k your rockets, f–k your cars again

I can’t believe you tore humanity apart

With the very same machines that could have been our brand new start

And the worst part is

I loved you, I loved you, I loved you, it’s true

The listener gets the sense that the speaker is talking to a person rather than the greater community that the song is directed at and the experience of the betrayal that they are experiencing through the song feels that much more personal. By using the word “you”, she can convey the same message while simultaneously conveying the idea that a specific person broker her heart and showed their selfishness after promising her the world. The clear jab at Elon Musk in the song’s title and the references to him throughout the song also help to personalize the song because listeners can connect the ideas presented in the song with his story, especially through lines such as,

When I said take me to the moon, I never meant take me alone

I thought if mankind toured the sky it meant that all of us could go

This line seems to be a reference to Musk’s sale of commercial flights into space for the extremely wealthy and serves as another example of resources that could be put to the betterment of humanity being spent on selling one-of-a-kind experiences to the incredibly rich. The references to Musk give listeners a person to connect the song to and make the song more personal and easier to connect to as a listener.

“Rät” is a complex song completely stuffed with poetic language and meaning and these are only my favorite of the strategies that she uses to support the experience of the song, of idolizing a community and an idea that reveals it greed and selfishness, leaving the speaker feeling betrayed and used.

Never-ending Sentences

When most of us think of a sentence, we think of it as a simple subject and a predicate. However, in Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, some sentences take on a life of their own, meandering for whole paragraphs at times. In some books, this could lead to the reader being confused and feeling removed from the story. However, for Hamid, they are instead an opportunity to convey complex emotions and situations, making the reader feel even more present in the narrative.

One example of a diffusive but effective sentence occurs on page 163 when tension between migrants and nativists is rising and then falling as Saeed and Nadia are in London. Of the two full paragraphs on the page, the first describes the rumors of violence against migrants and the many different versions of events swirling around as the soldiers advance. That paragraph is actually only one sentence, though it doesn’t feel that to the reader. It’s not meant to actually convey any events that happened as not even the characters in the story have reliable information, it is simply there to convey the sense of uncertainty and fear present in the house of migrants.

Alternatively, the next paragraph on that page contains a multitude of different sentence lengths, some short and basic, some long, as the tension lessens. This paragraph isn’t about wild rumors of murdered children circling through the migrants, but the actual business of survival. The varied sentence structure gives the reader a feeling of normalcy after the panic of the last paragraph while still maintaining the sense of conflict generated previously. While children are no longer being murdered, the migrants are still running out of food.

These sentences together form a small but powerful segment of the story and bring the reader closer to the narrative rather than confusing them and Hamid uses this strategy throughout the novel. The long sentences serve to represent nerve-wracking moments or difficult decisions or the many possibilities that characters consider and they all help establish tone for the novel.

Is Mersault a Stranger or an Outsider?

We know Albert Camus’ book, L’Etranger, by its American translation, The Stranger, but when the book was published in the UK, it was published as The Outsider instead. The word “etranger” in French can be translated into both the outsider and the stranger as well as the foreigner, all of which fit Mersault’s position in the book to varying degrees and for different reasons.

Being a “stranger” is a good way to describe Mersault as not only is he a stranger to many of the most consequential characters in the book, but he is also a stranger to his friends. While he has friends and intimate relationships over the course of the novel, none of the people he is with ever truly understand his seemingly detached nature. Some, like Marie or Raymond accept it or choose to ignore it, but the majority of the people that Mersault meets over the course of the book consider him strange enough to be threatening or simply guilty. In addition, Mersault is a stranger to himself until the last pages of the book. He spends the rest of the story being apathetic and confused, simply reacting the world around him without truly making his own decisions until his confrontation with the priest pushes him toward understanding. In the last paragraphs of the book, he finds the meaning he has been searching for in life, but before that, he is a stranger to himself as well.

Mersault is also an “outsider” in the sense that he is outside of the emotions and constructs that rule the minds of the other characters in the story. From religion to marriage, Mersault does not seem to understand where others derive meaning in these things, to the point that he views them with derision. Not only is he an outsider who is misunderstood by the people around him, but he is where he wants to be. He believes that things like religion and marriage that characters like the priest and Marie care so much for are at best pointless and at worst actively hiding the prospect of a truly meaningful life from them.

While I think the titles are very similar and both very suited for the content of the book, The Outsider is my favorite because I think that it gives a better representation of Mersault’s role in his world and is also the title that he would pick if he could. He is proud of his place outside of the societal constructs that he deems worthless and detrimental and I think that he would rather be though of as a man who willingly pushed himself outside of those things than one who was simply a stranger.

The Man Behind the Curtain

Whenever I read an intriguing (and perhaps sometimes perplexing) book such as The Stranger, I often like to learn about the person behind the story I am experiencing. In this case, that person is Albert Camus. According to the bit of research I’ve done, this is his story:

One of France’s most famous authors was in fact not born in France, but in Algeria, the same location that The Stranger opens in. His father died not long after his birth at the First Battle of the Marne. The five remaining members of his family moved to a two-room apartment in Algiers that Camus would leave fifteen years later after the first of many severe bouts of tuberculosis. He decided to live on his own, supporting himself by doing odd jobs and eventually finding a career as a reporter for the Algiers-Republicain and eventually as the editor of a daily newspaper in Paris, where he would remain until 1947.

As he matured, Camus studied philosophy, wrote and produced plays, read classical French literature, and even reviewed some of Jean-Paul Sartre’s early works for the newspaper. After the war, he became a literary figure with an international reputation through works such as The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. A little over a decade later, he won the Nobel Prize for literature at the young age of 44 and died less than three years later in a car accident.

In my opinion, both the straightforward writing style he learned as a journalist and the musings of a philosopher are mingled in his book. In order to explore a new philosophy, he writes about a character that does not experience a strong desire to changer or arguably even to live his own life through his own agency. For example, when proposed to by Marie, he agrees to get married if it would maker her happy. When asked if he loves her, he says that, “it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so,” (35).