Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (2004)

Sometime during my teenage years, my mom started listening habitually to NPR. In fact, if you were to walk through her house today, I guarantee that you would never be out of earshot of one radio or other tuned in to some human interest story about a guy who has built a solar-powered wildlife shelter for tuna...or something. Now, as a young lad I just wanted to jam to punk rock, and I had no time for BBC News and Talk of the Nation, because those things were obstacles to me listening to And Out Come The Wolves 50 times a day.

But a few months ago my iPod ran out of batteries during my commute and by some masochistic impulse I switched on the radio and tuned into NPR, and it's since gotten its grimy hooks into me. What was an unbearable ordeal to me as a rambunctious youngster has turned into a daily ritual: listening to NPR while driving.

Why on earth am I telling you this? Well, the other day there was a news piece on North Korea and one of the commentators mentioned, in passing, Guy Delisle's 2004 autobiographical graphic novel Pyongyang. I was so blown away by the premise that I went out immediately and bought a copy.

Here is an interesting tidbit that you can casually throw into conversation at a cocktail party: a large amount of conventional (non-computer) animation for Western firms is done in North Korea, including Disney blockbusters like The Lion King and Pocahontas. The (maniacal) North Korean state owns several animation companies that do a lot of the "grunt" work for large foreign companies. It's very similar to most industries, really. Our Nikes, for instance, are designed in Oregon and sold in Chicago, but they're stitched together by toddlers in Kathmandu, or wherever.

Anyway, the Western companies send liaisons and conceptual artists to North Korea to oversee production. Guy Deslisle is one of these. A Canadian animator, he traveled to North Korea to work at SEK Studios, one of North Korea's largest animation companies, on behalf of his Canadian employer. As opposed to the incredibly railroaded and brief visits of some American journalists that you may have seen (like the Vice Magazine report), Delisle was given a surprising amount of access, since he was A.) an employee and not a tourist, and B.) not American. He had to be accompanied by a guide at all times, like all foreigners, but he didn't bring a camera with him and thus he had a lot more leeway to wander off than would be given to a journalist. However, as an artist, Delisle was able to later draw clear depictions of what he saw from memory, and these drawings became Pyongyang.

I am so in love with this premise that I was willing to overlook several things that would otherwise have been obstacles to me enjoying the book. For one thing, I've never liked comic books. This is strange, because I've been a dork my entire life and I've always proudly displayed all the figurative badges of dorkdom -- Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Magic: The Gathering, etc. I just never connected with comics. It wasn't a lack of exposure; growing up in the Chicago suburbs it is literally impossible for a boy to not own a few comic books at some point. I just never really felt like they provided a logical path for my eye to follow, and generally just found them visually confusing. It didn't help that most superhero-oriented comics have pretty weak stories. I had a vivid imagination as a kid and even back then I found most of the stories overwrought and pointless. I got into chapter books at a pretty early age (not to brag or anything), and so I never really had a use for comics, and thus never formed the sort of lifelong attachment to them that a lot of men my age seem to have.

On that score, I subsequently never got into the whole "indie" "graphic novel" scene, and in a lot of cases I find that sort of thing a bit repellent. Keep in mind this is just my personal prejudice talking, and I have no doubt that there are artists creating worthwhile works of power and beauty within the medium, but the basic line drawings and overly-confessional tone of most of the indie comics I've perused seem almost knowingly infantile. A bit cutesy, to put it more simply. When an artist makes a conscious decision to make his main character's face a couple of lines and dots, they are generally removing much of the visual medium's potential for emotional nuance, and that means it falls to the dialogue to explain a bit too much to the reader. And given that a few small panels are in their own right a space-limited forum in which to express ideas, the finished product usually comes out facile and overly simple, thus giving off a childish quality, whether intentional or not. Essentially what I'm saying is that indie comics aren't really my bag, baby.

However, Pyongyang is a fascinating case where the medium is a natural consequence of the creator's real-life circumstances (wanting to depict the weirdness of life in North Korea without the use of a camera), and its interest is dependent on that. This book undeniably works best as a graphic novel, and for that I am duly impressed as a non-comics fan. In many cases, the surreal facts of living in the world's most viciously totalitarian state are softened by Delisle's gentle, spare visual style; much of this imagery is the definition of "politically charged" and the fact that it is delivered in this form takes much of the edge off and allows for more rational analysis.

That is not to say that the content of this book is any less bizarre and shocking. The only way you wouldn't know about the North Korean regime's sadistic draconian grip on the whole of its population would be if...well, if you lived in North Korea. This final bastion of brutally severe Stalinism is the most closed and secretive society on the planet, and to catch even a glimpse of its daily goings-on is to see unadulterated surrealism. There is a pervasive cult of personality built up around Kim Il-sung, the North's founding dictator who, despite the disadvantage of being dead for 17 years, is still officially President. Nearly meeting him in (short, pudgy) stature is his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, celebrated psychopath and horror film enthusiast. Together they form the world's only communist familial dynasty.

An interesting theme that Delisle explores is this sort of extreme conversational opacity that I experienced many times during my stint in China. When talking to somebody about politics (I used to try to talk to my coworkers at my dad's office), it's generally like having a conversation with a very polite brick wall. If you ask someone a relatively straightforward question, like "Don't you think it would be nice if you could express your dissatisfaction with something your government is doing?", you will most likely get an extremely circular and convoluted answer that winds up proclaiming that the state is amazing, God bless the state. It's this weird mixture of propagandist cultural programming and extreme Asian politeness that runs the gamut from coming across as naive to being viciously passive aggressive. In Pyongyang, Delisle depicts this sort of exchange quite deftly, and in varied situations. I was impressed with his ability to capture the essence of its weirdness.

Another recurring motif is the limited resources of North Korea and the bizarre hierarchy of priorities that dictates how those resources are used. Take electricity, for instance. Much of the 50-story hotel Delisle lives in during his stay is completely unlit. At night the city is plunged into darkness, as rationing does not allow the citizens to even light their own apartments. However, when foreign delegations stay at the hotel, the entire thing is brightly lit for the duration of their stay to give the impression that energy conservation isn't an issue. When Delisle is given a tour of the elaborately pointless Pyongyang subway system, it too is completely illuminated. Issues like this are tied up with the general Asian cultural feature of "saving face", twisted up with bizarre North Korean logic and social control.

In much the same vein, Delisle is taken on many "impromptu" (they are very carefully timed and arranged) visits to various North Korean cultural landmarks, like a visit to a museum that is full of gifts to the Dear Leader from governments around the world, which range from comically everyday items like forks to gold to elephant tusks. There is also a museum featuring paintings of American soldiers forcing a child to drink motor oil. Everything that is shown in North Korea serves a dual purpose: to deify the elder or younger Kim, and to undermine the global powers that threaten North Korea's supposed hegemony. The gap between this internal image of North Korea and its leaders and the opposing reality is so bizarre that it's funny, and Delisle capitalizes on this absurdity frequently.

Any foreigner living in Pyongyang must inevitably confront feelings of guilt. After all, foreigners live like members of the government's ruling elite; they eat piles of oily food each night while people mere miles away are literally starving to death. I thought Delisle could have done a more thorough job exploring this particular avenue, but he does reference these guilty feelings a few times and the human mind, after all, is adept at normalizing strange circumstances.

To that end, Delisle injects quite a bit of wry humor, if not outright fun, into the proceedings. With not much else to do, he often gently pokes fun at his omnipresent guides, and the jokes are made much funnier by the simple fact that they are obliviously humorless throughout. To rise to a position where one becomes the face of the country for foreigners, a North Korean must distinguish themselves as being a fanatical ideologue, and this unwavering devotion to the regime is actually quite funny in its strangeness. It would be tempting to portray these particular people as inhuman freaks, but Delisle's depictions are really quite affectionate, and he takes pains to suggest that they're simply the product of environment.

Although the book is autobiographical, I thought its weakest point was that Delisle spends a lot of time focusing on the details of his animation job and explaining non-Korean related things about the animation industry. I couldn't figure out why I was supposed to care about this stuff. His job is often a springboard for weird interactions and experiences, so I understand that he must give a cursory overview of what he's doing, but there are a few times where he simply talks about animation and it is unrelated to his treatment of North Korean society. I found these instances disruptive and self-indulgent.

While we're on the subject, however, I'd like to give my take on Delisle's drawing style. Despite the fact that I spent some time up front emphasizing that I'm not a huge fan of this kind of DIY-style comic book, I think Delisle's intensely personal, "small-time" drawing style works incredibly well within the context of this material, because it emphasizes the unbalanced power dynamic of the individual running up against a monolithic state. While this type of drawing is typically used in confessional, whiny stories about romantic relationships and the like, here it is transposed onto a much larger and more dramatic stage, and it is interesting to see how Delisle exploits that. A statue of Kim Il-sung, for instance, looks suitably huge. and it is drawn in this interesting three panel page:

The motion of the reader's eye, top to bottom, is against that of Delisle's eye, which goes from the shoes up to the face. This sort of visual conflict would simply not be possible in any other medium, and once again it is nice to see Delisle take full advantage of such opportunities. And although much of the book is simple line drawings (but very nicely shaded line drawings), Delisle includes full-page chapter-dividing drawings that are beautifully composed and evocatively drawn. It is in these drawings that he best captures the loneliness, sadness, and strangeness of the country. In an empty, half-darkened banquet hall, for example, the scene is made more powerful by the depiction of Delisle sitting alone at one of its many tables. Because although the invisible majority of oppressed common people are kept off-limits to Delisle and thus are not really depicted in the book, it is in the emptiness of the lavish banquet hall that one can feel their presence, through their absence. The reader can feel them there because they are excluded, both from Delisle's interactions and consequently from the drawing itself.

Although I've tried to give an overview here, the truth is that this is a book that works on its own terms, and the only way to experience it is to read it for yourself. I will say this about it: if a non comic reader such as myself was completely transfixed by it for the three hours or so it took me to read it, I would say that it is a work of considerable power. It is a completely novel approach to the persistent difficulty of conveying the reality of life in North Korea to outsiders, and as such it is also a work of importance and significance. Understanding North Korean society will continue to be relevant well into the future, even if/when the regime topples, because it is an almost pure example of the power of social programming. Pyongyang, I feel, captures the essence of this dynamic in a way that has been impossible to accomplish with more traditional forms of media. It is a fine work, and to top it off I had a lot of fun reading it, so you should too.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sonatine (ソナチネ) (1993)

In my review of Takeshi Kitano's take on the traditional Zatoichi mythology, I touched on the absurdist elements of that film, and the reactions they generated amongst viewers. Audiences have been conditioned over time to expect that every component in a film should have some purpose relating to plot. To a casual observer, Kitano's signature divergences from plot may seem incongruous or even foolhardy. The truth of the matter, however, is that Kitano's body of work is among the most deliberate and meticulous I've ever seen, and a close analysis of his films uncovers the deep thematic exploration that resides within his sometimes jarring style.

After watching Sonatine, Kitano's 1993 masterpiece, those absurdist scenes in Zatoichi make more sense within the context of Kitano's creative world and are, in addition, even more pleasing to me. Sonatine is a thoroughly existential work that makes full use of cinema's potential to bend its own "rules" in order to strike at the heart of an emotion or idea, regardless of how it alters narrative structure.

The film centers on tough middle-aged yakuza Murakama, played by Kitano himself (who also wrote and directed the picture). Murakama, a Tokyo family boss (the Japanese yakuza differs from the Italian Mafia here; "clan" is the umbrella term for a large organization, whereas "family" denotes the smaller fragmentary gangs), is dispatched to Okinawa by his superiors to help a clan affiliate who is engaged in a turf war.

Murakama has all the traits of a man who has grown tired of his routine, his career, his life. He is cold and irritable. He is insolent towards his superiors. In one scene, he openly questions his boss's motives, while the man looks on with forced regal detachment. Murakama is right to question his boss, however. His family's operations have become lucrative and the boss is sending him and his men to Okinawa to get them out of the way so the boss can take over. Because he has stopped caring, Murakama goes. "I'm worn out," he admits to his lieutenant and personal confidant, Ken.

The Okinawa clan affiliates welcome the hard Tokyo gunmen with soft drinks and ice cream, in a brilliant scene where Kitano lets a shot looking out the front window of a bus linger, and linger, and linger. Although the Okinawa boss assures the Tokyo men that the whole thing will blow over, the rival clan (who remain, notably, unseen) notices their arrival and takes it as a declaration of war. There is a series of brutal slayings, shootings, and bombings, and the surviving men, including Murakama, retreat to a vacant beach house to lay low for a while.

The bulk of the remainder of the film follows the characters in this pastoral setting as they ruminate on life in a series of brilliantly staged scenes. The film shakes off its plot without much concern, and becomes an existentialist study. It is done quite elegantly. In their time at the beach, the characters are given a window of reflection that their counterparts in other action films can never fit in between shootings and car chases. It is fascinating to see what they do with their downtime, these men whose lives are overfilled with the business of violence.

This portion of the film is devoted to scenes of almost unprecedented whimsy, with the gangsters playing games on the beach, reading comic books, and singing with each other. I expect that many viewers, expecting a fast-paced yakuza shoot-em-up, would find this section of the film extremely jarring. Going back to what I said at the beginning of this review, audiences cannot help but bring a certain level of expectation into a film, particularly a genre picture. In what is ostensibly a yakuza action film, Kitano devotes lengthy sequences to silly games shot with his signature lingering camera style.

Like that old jazz music cliche about the importance of hearing the notes the musician doesn't play, it is crucial to keep in mind that these playful sequences, which at first seem almost obscenely diversionary, are bookended by extremely terse and brutal sections that depict quite a lot of death. The point, therefore, is that while the gangsters play, the shadow of death both past and future is hanging over the proceedings. Most of the games (shooting a can off a friend's head, sumo wrestling, Roman candle fights) are simply reworked versions of real-world violence that is depicted elsewhere in the film. These connections between two things that are very visceral and "real", play and death, (similar in that they are both purely experiential) underscore Kitano's theme of life and death being intertwined and at times indistinguishable.

Consider this pivotal exchange that takes place about halfway through the film, between Murakawa and Miyuki, a woman who becomes his love interest:
Miyuki: It must be great to not be afraid of shooting people. Not being afraid of killing people means not being afraid of killing yourself, right? You're tough...I love tough guys.

Murakawa: If I were tough, I wouldn't carry a gun.

Miyuki: But you can shoot fast.

Murakawa: I shoot fast because I get scared first.

Miyuki: ...But you're not afraid of dying.

Murakawa: When you're scared all the time, you almost wish you were dead.
It may seem strange, given the nature of this conversation, that there is upbeat music playing in the background, and the lines are delivered with smiles and chuckles. Like much of Kitano's work, the atmosphere here is decidedly playful. Kitano rose to fame as a comedian, and even in very serious pieces like Sonatine, his unique comedic outlook permeates through gloomy subject matter. In other words, it takes a certain kind of person to get the joke of life.

Among the many intriguing devices Kitano employs, one of the most fascinating is a sort of time compression that occurs, pointedly, twice in the film. Early on there is a scene where Murakama uses a crane to dunk a man into Tokyo Bay; a mahjong parlor owner who had insulted him earlier. After dryly agreeing that a person can hold their breath for about two minutes, Murakawa tells the crane operator to dunk the man for two minutes. Rather than letting the two minutes pass in real time, however, Kitano simply cuts and the man is raised spluttering and clinging on to life. This is repeated immediately, with the lost time again unaccounted for, only this time the man comes up dead. Murakawa turns from a conversation he is having and observes unconcernedly, "Wow, we killed doesn't matter. Cover it up." Then he walks away.

The time compression is repeated when Murakawa, taking a walk on the beach in Okinawa at night, observes a rape. A man drags a woman out of a car and throws her on the sand. She is protesting but he holds her down and rips her dress. Cut to Murakawa, who begins to walk casually by. The rapist enters the frame and says, "So you were there the whole time?" Even though we never see or hear the rape, we can assume it occurred, but Kitano cut it from the picture, in the same way he cut the drowning of the mahjong parlor owner. If not for the earlier drowning scene, the viewer would think that Murakawa interrupts the rape before it begins. As it stands it is ambiguous, although he only shows the events leading up to it and the aftermath. Why does he do this?

To answer this, it needs to be pointed out that this time compression device elegantly combines a few of Kitano's main goals with the film. The first is that, while the film's narrative is dependent upon and moved forward by ferocious acts of violence, Kitano doesn't revel in shootings and mayhem. He depicts violence elsewhere in the film, and quite graphically, but in Sonatine violence is always regarded with the utmost impassivity. The film has a number of shootings, beatings, stabbings, and murders, all of them gory and brutal. This is, after all, the nature of such things. However, while an ordinary action film director would dwell on these events by using quick cuts and close-ups, and try to lend them gravity by employing a lot of horrified reaction shots, Kitano conspicuously avoids both of these things entirely. Kitano is known for dwelling on long shots, and even in action scenes he is comfortable regarding them from a distance. Furthermore, during every scene of violence, the faces of the characters are completely unmoved.

The second motive Kitano has in employing the time compression device is his use of mirroring to contextualize "current" events that are happening onscreen as the viewer watches, and to re-contextualize "past" events that have already occurred. By using the technique twice, he gives a greater context to the rape scene that wouldn't have existed without the earlier drowning scene. Conversely, by having Murakawa witness the rape scene, Kitano draws a contrast to the drowning scene, where Murakawa was the aggressor.

As I said earlier, Kitano doesn't concern himself with the gratuity that usually accompanies violence in film. He underlines this point in the starkest manner possible: the climactic gun battle at the end of the film is almost entirely offscreen. The camera regards the building where it is taking place impassively. In a wide shot, the viewer sees the dark upper floor of the building illuminated with the muzzle flash of guns, but the actual fight is depicted for only a few seconds. This partially mirrors an earlier scene on the beach where the characters play with Roman candles at night, playfully staging a mock gun battle. The orange flashes of the real gun battle recall those of the fireworks from the play battle.

A pessimistic reading of these equivalencies might suggest that Kitano is saying that death permeates life, even the diversions we engage in to try and distance ourselves from the inevitable. This may be a bit facile. With this film, Kitano thoroughly explores the themes of existential dread, authenticity, and determinism, in a gleefully implicit and non-didactic manner. Camus famously said that the only real philosophical problem is suicide. Kitano supercharges this idea by temporarily removing a gang of killers from the killing field, and allowing them to examine their own existence. Men who are unafraid of death, who are surrounded by it every day, must after all construct identities that preclude killing themselves. Failing to do so would drive one to the very heart of Camus' problem.

This was an early directorial work for Kitano, and you can see all the elements of his style taking shape. When framing characters, he often centers them in the middle of the shot for an immersive, conversational feel. He uses a lot of very dry reaction shots, something he revisited with Kikujiro. As I've stated several times in this review, Kitano's signature is lingering shots, often wide shots. He uses them to great effect in Sonatine, which is a film that requires the viewer to examine things beyond the surface level, and the lingering shots provide a nice visual metaphor for this. The acting is superb. In particular I enjoyed the performance of Susumu Terajima, who plays the Murakawa Family lieutenant Ken. The character has a nice, gradual arc, with Ken starting as a slick, hard-faced criminal and eventually devolving into laid-back boyishness. The actors as a whole all seem to have a great understanding of the film's dark but not-quite-literal tone, and they are able to develop distinctive personalities.

When I reviewed Zatoichi I called Takeshi Kitano fearless. He is also a genius. There is something inherently romantic and admirable about a man who writes, directs, and stars in his own film. That such a film would be as brilliant as Sonatine seems like almost too much to hope for.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight (2003)

Lately I've been feeling like all my friends have their lives figured out, and I'm the only one who is still unsure of what I want. I'm 26, and whether this sense of uncertainty is a natural phase or some massive personal defect still remains to be seen. Still, I miss being able to sit around with people and have long metaphysical discussions about ideas and values, about beliefs and philosophy and what things mean. Is giving up this kind of conversation one of the costs of being an adult? If so, for me it's a bitter pill to swallow. I almost want to say we've simply moved into a more cynical era, but that strikes me as something an old person would say.

Anyway, a week ago I watched the recent filmed version of The Taqwacores. It was breathtakingly mediocre --if the director had bothered to actually record ADR I think it would have been miles better-- but it was based on a book I enjoyed and it was filmed at a venue in Cleveland where I've seen shows (Tower 2012). I was in Ohio in early 2009 to visit a very dear friend of mine and I made a stop in Clevo to see Empire and Triceratops play the Tower. I remember there still being Muslim punk graffiti on the walls from when they had filmed the movie.

Watching the film reminded me to dig out my copy of the 2003 book. I couldn't find it, the reason being that sometime around 2005 I lent it to my friend Nate, who is supposedly a working class skinhead and shouldn't be relying on handouts (just kidding Nate, I love you). But seeing as how my room is littered with things I've "borrowed" from people over the years, I consider that loss officially cut and I bought a new copy of The Taqwacores to read. This is the digital age, after all, and Amazon Marketplace (One-Click Ordering; I don't fuck around) is what separates us from the beasts.

Speaking of the digital age --and more pointedly, its attendant hyperbole-- this book has been called "The Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims." Damn! The first time I read this (it's printed on the back of the book) I made a sort of "psh" sound, because although I enjoyed the book very much when I first read it, Michael Muhammad Knight is not the most elegant of authors and the novel could do with a good deal of blocking.

However, the more I think about it, I realize that that reaction was arrogance on my part. This book was written primarily for young Muslims, and not being a part of that group, it's not really appropriate for me to make value judgments about what a work should mean to somebody else. In fact, this book inspired an actual, real life "taqwacore" scene. I went through my second reading of the novel with that in mind, and I found it to be an immense help, not least because it made me quash my incredulity at Knight's oftentimes hopelessly naive and romanticized depiction of the punk ethos and aesthetic.

In terms of this review, that is a very important point. This is a novel about Islam that uses punk as a device, not the other way around. The more you know about something, the more difficult it is to accept contrivances that contradict your individual expertise. The "punk" elements of this book are a contrivance. Knight treats the various punk subcultures (street punk, straight edge, skinhead, etc) as if they were all part of a cohesive melting pot of a larger, inclusive "scene." While on some technical level this may be true, there is no way these characters would run in the same social circles, let alone live together. It is more than a bit ironic that, in a novel that attempts to subvert the misconception that all Muslims are ideologues without individual characteristics, Knight simply lumps "punks" together with a similar disregard. But, as I've said, this is the wrong way to read this novel. It's best to accept the novel's contrivances and allow them to take you where they will, because much like a science fiction novel, The Taqwacores' contrivances are an integral part of its ability to explore the human mind and heart.

The book follows a Pakistani-American college student, Yusef Ali, through a year living in an all-Muslim punk house in Buffalo, NY. Populating the house are colorful characters such as Umar, a straightedge fundamentalist Sunni (with "2:219" tattooed across his throat) who is the novel's main antagonist when it needs one; Jehangir, a street punk Sufi mystic who is drunk more often than not; and Rabeya, the only female housemate, a feminist who wears a full burqa covered with punk patches. Yusef is not a punk; he's majoring in engineering because his parents told him to, he's never had a drink in his life, and he shops at Aeropostale. But he is open-minded, if a little bland, and the novel needs him as a sounding board for the wild philosophies of the characters around him.

And there is a lot of sounding off. It is essentially a loosely connected series of dialogues occasionally broken by something more reminiscent of a "scene." What happens to the characters is not nearly as important as the differing ideologies each of them represents and the conversations they have that express those ideologies in great detail. The effect is similar to the dialogues in Douglas Hofstadter's classic meditation on thought process; Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (not that I'm comparing Taqwacores to Hofstadter's book in terms of content or quality): although the ideas in both books could be expressed solely in essays, they are made more vibrant and easily digestible when presented as a back-and-forth conversation between characters.

There are a lot of ideas thrown around in the book, and I will only skim the surface here. Of all the housemates, only straightedge tough guy Umar adheres to the strict, near-monastic life of sobriety, abstinence, ritualized prayer, and halal dietary laws. A main theme that is constantly pulsating in the background is: what makes a good Muslim? Conversely, what makes a bad Muslim? Is there a prescribed role for women within the community? Is there a place for gays in Islam? Is marijuana strictly forbidden, frowned upon, or permitted? What place do violence, swearing, mixing with nonbelievers, and a myriad of other issues have? I believe Knight addresses and answers all of these questions, albeit to his own satisfaction.

A major issue the book has is its large cast of characters. Some of them are occasionally the impetus for an interesting conversation (The pot-smoking skater Fasiq being one), but generally they feel unnecessary and their presence sometimes derails the proceedings. Do we really need a Sudanese rude boy? A Latino ex-Muslim? An Iranian junkie "skinhead" who is partially homeless? Sometimes it feels like a contrived effort to be inclusive, and frankly the novel would be stronger with a more exclusive focus on Yusef, Jehangir, Umar, and Rabeya. Indeed, the central conflict of the story is that between the dogmatic extremism of Umar and the drunken tolerance of Jehangir. Knight comes down pretty hard in favor of Jehangir, but every character has their say, and as a person who is somewhat prone to judgmental extremes, I think Umar is portrayed quite fairly. That being said, meaningful conflict between these two characters should have happened more often, to the exclusion of the peripheral characters, even if that meant paring down the length of the novel (which, by the way, is a fast 250 pages; I read it in two days).

I have used a lot of space to point out the novel's flaws, and they are many, but the truth is that this is the kind of book that revels in its own flaws. This isn't even a book that was intended for publication; Knight printed out the first copies himself, stapled them, and gave them away for free, zine-style. And although the novel seems a bit clumsy and meandering at times, Knight is writing about a very clumsy and meandering stage of life, both for himself and for his characters. You can't get hung up on specifics when reading this book. Who cares, for instance, that the characters listen to garbage like The U.S. Bombs and Roger Miret And The Disasters? You just need to look past it. (Although I will say that it's criminal that a character like Umar listens to Minor Threat and Youth of Today as opposed to SSD and Judge) The writing can be a little rough (Yusef Ali's responses to a long philosophical soliloquy by another character is typically, "Wow."), but there are genuine moments of inspired creation, like Yusef's first masturbation experience, or a late night trip to a masjid (mosque) where the squabbling characters pray together.

One thing that needs to be pointed out: there are a lot of Arabic and Urdu phrases and expressions thrown around, both in the narration and the dialogue, and unfortunately no edition of the book that I've ever seen has had a glossary. The book is, of course, aimed at Muslims, most of whom I assume are familiar with a lot of these phrases, but for us kafr it is a little frustrating to have to be looking things up all the time.

Despite everything negative that could be said about this book, there are passages that are quite beautiful, and the last chapter or so is simply exceptional. In the final pages Knight breaks from his slightly wrought narrative style into a much looser and satisfying stream-of-consciousness poetic style. If he could have sustained this over the course of the entire novel the book would be unequivocally brilliant. Still, you won't hear me complaining about a thought-provoking book with an outstanding finale.

Do I recommend The Taqwacores? Six years after my first reading, I still found it very engaging, challenging, and enjoyable, but it might have a very different effect on someone that has a different background and values than me. Here's the highest compliment I can pay it: it reminds me of the long conversations I used to have with my friends when we were teenagers, and for me that is lofty praise in the extreme. It reminds me that having an open mind is often better than being sure of oneself. The novel has certainly struck a chord with a generation of young Muslims, and as a means to awaken young minds, you could do a lot worse. Despite being written as Knight's farewell kiss-off to mainstream Islam, at its core The Taqwacores is about individuals finding ways to express their love for their beliefs, and each other, on their own terms. In a society where even our subcultures are constantly trying to pull young people this way and that, I am very happy that Knight's work has hit home with a few of them. 20 year old me would agree.