Does for India what Heart Of Darkness did for Africa; uses it as a setting for a tale of unease and terror that could have been set anywhere, really, except that using a third-world setting plays to the western gallery's delicate sensibilities. Oh, it also grated on me that all the chapters have an epigram taken from an Indian writer except the one chapter that lets in a note of hope and therefore has to return to the light of western civilization with a quote from W.B. Yeats.
Thus begins Dan Simmons visceral, violent travelogue through the dark, murderous underbelly of Calcutta. Recently, however, new material purporting to be Das work has begun circulating in Calcutta. Robert Luczak, writer, columnist and our main character, is sent with his family to Calcutta by Harpers Magazine to find and interview Das, verify the new work is authentic and bring back a copy for publication in the United States. Thats the plot in a nutshell, but it doesnt convey the feel of the novel and the dark, deeply disturbing atmosphere that Simmons manufactures with his sense-laden depictions of Calcutta. Thus, fans of Simmons should know going in that Song of Kali does not reach the level of quality and polish of his later works, most notably the Hyperion Cantos.
I felt horrified during a lot of the book, and saddened during a lot of it, but I like the way that it isn't totally and completely engulfed in despair. Though this specific view might have been quite representative of a Westerner's impression of Calcutta at that point in time, I do feel that Mr Simmons could have added a few of the more positive aspects of Hindu culture to balance out the negative aspects that are represented especially by for instance the Kali cults that feature in this narrative. ETA- In retrospect, I do think that perhaps the whole point of the horrific aspects of the situation is that the protagonist originally romanticized his Westernized wife's Indian background, and was totally unprepared and unequipped for the realities of the situation he had to come to grips with in Calcutta.
Dan Simmons is known for his massive novels. Well, it's rare that you'll find a horror author who started out their career with a massive tome as their debut novel. They're all debuts that are around 300 pages long from authors known to write gargantuan books. Then, and only then, will Penguin Random House or HarperCollins allow you to publish that epic horror novel concerning shapeshifting, post-apocalyptic ferrets hellbent on creating a great, stinking plane known as Musk-World, wherein a band of quirky heroes must defeat High Lord Fear-It and bring a jasmine-and-vanilla-Glade-scented freshness back to their once proud land! Because there are several places where Simmons ruminates on the ugliness of Calcutta. In one such section, two men are discussing how Calcutta isn't so much different from some cities in America: Flint, Michigan being one such place. When I got to this crushing chapter, I was sitting in a doctor's office, waiting to hear the bad news about my back (I ended up having my fifth back surgery a week after completing this novel), and upon reading this scene, muttered out loud, "Oh, fucking hell." The people in the waiting room didn't appreciate my outburst. I don't quite know how Simmons pulled off that scene. Such scenes authors spend entire careers hoping to accomplish, but Simmons did it in his debut. He created a pretentious poet of a main character, one who muses that Stephen King novels are "trashy", even though King and Simmons have a great respect for one another. It's nice to see how Simmons has grown since his debut, and I feel I have a greater respect for his journey now that I've read where he started.
* A 300-page diatribe against Calcutta, which city evidently offended Simmons at some point. * His hero, Bobby Luczak, is a coward who behaves stupidly and illogically; he's an effete literary type who one would think would treat his mathematician wife with some respect, but who repeatedly hides things from her and deserts her without reason. * One character, the college kid who gets the plot rolling, tells Bobby a story about the worshippers of the evil goddess Kali.
Song of Kali isn't one of Dan Simmons' best works, but it is a fine example of what makes him one of my favourite writers: his range. Simmons loves history, mythology, authors, writing and reading, and his loves have led him to create one of the most varied bodies of work amongst active writers (although it appears he will soon be challenged for the crown by China Mieville). There's much of violence and its cost running throughout Simmons' work (another reason I love him), but it appears in myriad forms.
To appreciate it you have to cast your mind back to the period when, and the places where, it was formed in the mind of Dan Simmons as a young American liberal and literary intellectual - in the India and the US of the late 1970s and the early 1980s, just as the former looked like an intractable social problem of never-ending poverty and consequent cruelty and the latter was still in or emerging (just) from a recession similar to the one that we are now entering. Maybe that is the one doubt that nags at us tweenty five or so years on - that maybe gangsters, terrorists and insurgents can bring the Kali Yuga to pass. This is a masterpiece that might be read as a companion piece to Ligotti - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24... . It does offer some small hope in a way that Ligotti does not (I cannot say more without spoiling the tale) and it is much better than The Stand (written around the same period as Simmons' book), if only because it is more 'real', but all three are explorations of the dark side of the condition of humanity from a uniquely American perspective. The sense of decay and of impending evil that was felt by some in the age of Jimmy Carter may be coming around again but these books may also be read to show that such fears are both reasonable but also exaggerated and that, unless one's philosophical back is broken like Ligotti's, the dark may, again, be replaced by the light.
And, perhaps, defiance at the world which demands such pain." Dan Simmons, Song of Kali Horror is not my normal territory. I liked the 'Song of Kali'. I'll keep reading Simmons when I want a vacation from the classics or an escape into literary genre fiction, but I don't think I will need to steel my nerves with any tonics or leave the lights on to go to sleep after I close the book at night.
Then again, this is a genre novel, so maybe my expectations were a little off?
Dan received a B.A. in English from Wabash College in 1970, winning a national Phi Beta Kappa Award during his senior year for excellence in fiction, journalism and art. He's always attributed that coincidence to "helping in keeping things in perspective when it comes to the relative importance of writing and life." Dan has been a full-time writer since 1987 and lives along the Front Range of Coloradoin the same town where he taught for 14 yearswith his wife, Karen, his daughter, Jane, (when she's home from Hamilton College) and their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Fergie.