Tag Archives: fiction

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Thank to Little, Brown for a review copy.

Thank to Little, Brown for a review copy.

Hannah Kent’s début historical novel is set on the frigid farms of early 19th century Iceland. The courts have convicted Agnes Magnusdottir of murder. To save money, local authorities send her to a minor official’s farm. She works there with the family and awaits execution while a young priest attempts to guide her on the Lord’s path.

Her presence creates a scandal in the cold northern valley. Neighbours flock to the farm. Some are afraid while others are curious. Some hate Agnes while others, like Steina, the farm owner’s daughter, seek to befriend her. Still others, like Margret, the mistress of the house, slowly change their opinion of her in the months leading to her execution.

The priest, a nervous wreck named Toti, finds quoting psalms and lecturing on religion ineffective. It’s clear from the start Agnes isn’t interested in spiritual advice. More importantly, she doesn’t feel she’s done wrong. So instead of sermonizing, Toti lets her tell her story. In this way, the narrative of her life as an abandoned illegitimate child as an itinerant servant is interwoven with her life as a prisoner waiting execution.

Iceland’s last case of capital punishment inspires the novel. Agnes Magnusdottir was a real person, as were her victims, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Ketilsson’s brother beheaded her on behalf of the state in 1830, and curious souls can still visit her grave. Kent, an Australian, has lived in Iceland, and she researched her narrative extensively. Yet the heart of the story — how Agnes felt in her last days — is speculative.

Kent’s writing is easy and evocative. She brings 19th century Iceland — with its houses of dusty sod, its frozen fields, and its rocky shores lined with seals — vividly to life. The social context is also fascinating. Denmark rules over the island, and most farmers rent land from absentee owners. Leaseholders hire farmhands and servants to supplement family labour, giving rise to distinct hierarchies — not to mention seasonal romances and conflicts.

The interesting topic, unusual setting, and pleasant writing make this a very enjoyable novel. Ultimately, however, the story fails to build effectively, and Kent’s skill with prose is not strong enough to make up for the narrative’s shortcomings. Enjoyment felt in reading the books first half slowly gives way to worry, and then boredom, as the climax one awaits never appears.

Burial Rites suffers from the ‘premise problem’ — a frequent malady of début writers. It goes like this. You think of a great premise for a book — ‘The last woman executed in Iceland awaits her death at cold northern farm’ — and then, with little further development, you begin to write.

A premise is not a story. It doesn’t involve narrating change, but describing a situation. And that’s what Burial Rites reads like. A long description.

Agnes changes little throughout the novel. In the ‘Author’s Note,’ Kent states she aimed to paint a complex picture of her. She does this effectively, portraying her as much more than a murderess.

But she does nothing else with her. Agnes simply waits at the farm for her death, and then she dies. She is a helpless protagonist reduced to watching other people act and not acting herself.

Hers is a tragic story worth telling. Yet it doesn’t have the momentum to bear 300 pages of text. Combined with a few bumps in the writing — ‘quickly’ and ‘immediately’ shouldn’t appear on the same line; ‘approach’ shouldn’t be used twice in one sentence — and the book is disappointing.

Of course, this critique is set against the massive marketing machine that has promoted Burial Rites to the far corners of the earth. Go into your local bookstore and you’ll probably see it on the front table. It’s not that the book is bad, just that it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Despite its flaws, Burial Rites remains a solid début from a promising new voice. The narrative could use more drive, and its lead characters more development. Nonetheless, it offers a beautiful portrait of a little-known time and place, and a touching profile of a condemned woman who is more victim than perpetrator.

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?

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The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.

Style No. 92: Nature Show

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The species is known to consume these stimulating berries like their life depended on it.

The species is known to consume these stimulating berries like their life depended on it.

These two are a spectacular pair. Rare to see orange ones in the wild, and two males at that. Friendly aren’t they. Brothers perhaps. Marvellous song. The shrill whistle that is their trademark. Only a few billion of these left in the wild now.

Oh how incredible — a Shawl-Crested Hideygran! Many safari-goers dream of seeing one, but chances remain low even here with this nervous species. When you consider the crowd of nature-lovers gathering in the distance, it’s a miracle she’s here at all.

And I’m not sure if you can see it, but behind them through the trees stands one of the more common animals found in this vast wilderness — the Know-Eyed Strangeman. Certain biologists have raised concerns about their growing numbers, and there has been recent talk in government circles about a cull. Better snap your photos while he’s looking the other way before this one’s dispatched by animal control.

 

Review: ‘Love and the Mess We’re In’ by Stephen Marche

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Thanks to Gaspereau Press for a review copy of "Love and the Mess We're In," Stephen Marche's experimental work of concrete fiction.

Thanks to Gaspereau Press for a review copy of Stephen Marche’s experimental work of concrete fiction.

Love and the Mess We’re In is like nothing you’ve ever read. I don’t mean that as the usual figurative praise on how good a book it is, but as simple fact. This is different.

What makes this work unusual– and I don’t know what to call it if not a ‘work’ –is its application of concrete poetic techniques in fiction. The result is something quite remarkable.

We’re all familiar with concrete poetry, whether it’s early 20th-century works like Apollinaire’s Calligrams or the more recent poems we all had to read in high school English class. The idea of manipulating how words fall on the page to enhance or alter meaning is an old one.

What’s new is applying this in fiction. It’s a clever idea that produces some startlingly powerful effects.

But let’s step back and look at exactly what we’re discussing:

In case you were wondering, that’s the Buenos Aires rain running down the page as Viv, the protagonist, waits to get into Clive’s apartment so she can cheat on her crazy husband with him. And this is not an exceptional sight in Love and the Mess We’re In. The right-hand page is actually pretty tame compared to the rest of the stuff you’ll come across. The book is a wild and intriguing ride.

These creative structures generate interesting possibilities that Marche explores to great effect. (And it’s not just Marche that deserves the credit — the book was designed and typeset by Gaspereau’s own Andrew Steeves, whose blood, sweat, and tears must be in here nearly as much as Stephen’s.) Particularly in the extended sex scene, “Life of Flesh,” that makes up chapter 3 of 5. When you’re used to book pages carrying 300 words and then you’re hit with a tiny 12-point “No” and a vast sheet of white space followed by a massive “Yes” that claims the entire next page, it’s striking. There’s really something there, something that gets at the feeling Marche tries to put across (in this case an orgasm) in a manner rarely achieved by conventional means.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Marche is a damn good sex writer. He’s also adept at probing emotional undercurrents rarely voiced in our daily lives — things like the guilty, shame, and need that surge up when a best friend and a wife fall in love when the friend/husband goes insane.

And that’s the basic plot. Tim and Clive are best buds. Tim meets Viv and they get married, but within a couple years he loses his mind. Viv sticks with him a long time even though he’s been institutionalized and stands little chance of recovering. Finally she relents in her devotion to a man who’s arguably no longer there, and flies to Argentina for a night of love with said best friend.

It’s a simple story, which is all Marche or any writer could manage in this format. While the book is 260 pages long, it’s really a mid-length novella because there are so few words on each page. This is a plus if you don’t feel like reading 100,000 words of concrete poetry.

Which you’d be justified in, because although this is a fascinating book it does have lulls. The dinner conversation between Viv and Clive from pp. 62-139 is a case in point. Here Marche employs an ingenious structure of columns so readers can simultaneously take in what each character is both saying and thinking (often completely different things). But while this is interesting and amusing, much of what Clive and Viv think is banal (e.g. “Out the window, brothers squabbling with Italianate hand gestures about their mother’s habits”).

It’s already jarring to have to jump between columns to navigate thought and speech (many of the pages in Love and the Mess We’re In have multiple elements with no clear reading pattern). But when the reward for struggling to decode Marche’s message is something as pedestrian as, well, a pedestrian, you just feel like hugging Jonathan Franzen for believing good literature doesn’t have to mean arduous reading.

Of course, it may not be fair to evaluate Love and the Mess We’re In on fiction’s terms. (Although it is marketed as such both by Gaspereau and the bookstores. Head to Chapters and you’ll likely find it on the New Fiction table.) But really, that’s Marche’s innovation with this book — stealing concrete poetry from the verse-writers who’ve been hogging it for centuries and smuggling it over to the fiction folks.

Considering this innovation, it would’ve been grand if he’d made more of a splash storywise. Instead, the book is more about expressing the feelings brought up by a challenging scenario (in this case adultery perpetrated against a madman whom both culprits love deeply). It’s a slice-of-life work. In that regard this fictive apple hasn’t fallen far from the poetic tree.

All the same, Marche’s latest effort is a bold exploration of fictions formal frontier. It’s quite simply a marvel that the book was produced at all, given recent trends toward conservatism in publishing. And while it’s not a perfect book — sometimes Marche’s wordiness goes too far — it’s certainly an inventive piece of art that goes a long way in showing the potential scope for typography to impact the reading experience.

If you like concrete poetry, this is for you. This is the bees knees, this is your mandatory assignment due at the end of class tomorrow in a blue duotang. If you like gorgeously fabricated books printed on paper so good you could eat it, this is also for you. And if you’re gunning for some nuanced explorations of love, loss, and guilt, you might also want to pick this up before you hit your next counseling session. On the other hand, if you recoil at phrases like “Sounding and astounding / Resounding and running and rousing / Slivering and silvering and spilling and slippering / Raining and running and rushing / slumping and slouching,” then consider yourself forewarned.

Style No. 88: Ninja

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Generally ninjas can only be seen by infrared.

Generally ninjas can only be seen by infrared.

It was gusting and frigid, and the type of storm was brewing that was liable to end a man, but my orders from the shogun were clear. I was to inure myself to the orange vassals at once in order to make them loosen their tongues and spill the secrets of their vile master, Mr. Kojikasu, so that he could be disemboweled before his knowledge grew too great.

I had very little time. Stories of Kojikasu’s knowingness were already whispered in roadside inns from here to the barbarous isles of the north. Even the lowly garlic-eaters of Korea now laughed up their sleeves at the shogun’s expense, such was their confidence in the powers of Kojikasu-san. Little did they know they would all be boiled for their insolence. But first things first.

I entered the storm in the night’s deepest hour wearing the straw hat of a zen monk to mask my features and give me a reason to climb the western foothills: a pilgrimage to the great temple of Norimitsu. My bones ached and the skin around my hands grew tight, but I took heart for I was reminded of the days of training and how I’d sat with Sunomono-san beneath the Great Falls for many hours in the weeks before it turned to ice. Poor Sunomono-san, frozen in our mountain camp. At least he’d passed honourably. His children will not have to slice their bellies open for shame.

When I heard the cry of birds I stopped. I’d walked all through the darkness and the sun was heaving itself over the mountains behind my back. I knew from my training that the cry was false, and so I found a grassy plinth on which to meditate. From there I scanned the forest for those who courted death with their deceitful song.

There was nothing to be seen and the forest again grew quiet as the cold light of morning filtered through the leaves. I knew, however, that a strange presence lurked nearby and so I held tight to the hilt of my shortsword as I feigned meditation. Having thoroughly scanned the forest floor I’d just begun to watch the canopy when I saw them: two small flashes of orange in the foliage. Kojikasu’s vassals toying with me from the sky.

Before I could properly identify them, however, I spied an old woman cresting the hilltop. “Old woman,” I said. “Why go you alone in this wooded country. Thieves and shinobi populate these parts and may disembowel you for a trifle.”

“I am grateful of your prudent counsel, sensei,” spoke the old woman, who wore a strange headdress of monkey fur. She bowed deeply as she passed, and I noticed she was sweating. This woman is nervousI thought. And she is hiding something under her monkeyskin hat. Fearing an ambush I sliced off her arms with my shortsword and looked to the canopy.

The orange vassals were gone, but behind the trees now stood a curious man. “Kojikasu-san,” I said. “I have seen your plan to destroy me, but I cannot allow it. For I belong to the shogun, and to end me would be as to dismember our great master. I fear not for my life, but I cannot let you debase yourself in such rebellion, nor can I permit you to offend with your insolence the very ground on which we walk, itself an embodiment of the shogun’s majesty. And so I must disembowel you at once.”

I spoke these words with a gravity that tends to strike fear in the hears of impudent traitors. But Kojikasu was different. He did not even deign to look in my direction, instead gazing the other way. Indeed, I thought, becoming nervous myself as I heard the distant sounds of a crowd gathering, which could only mean more danger for my mission. His knowingness is strong. 

Despite these misgivings I sprung to my feet. The element of surprise had been lost with the arms of that aged spy-woman, and now it was incumbent upon me to destroy this foul creature here on the slopes of these western hills. I charged into the wood ready to cleave the head of that vile betrayer Kojikasu and be done with my work, the better to rejoin the shogun and set about disemboweling his myriad remaining enemies in other lands.

But as I reached the spot where he’d stood amidst the darkened greenery of the wood, I found him to be gone, carried off like the mind in a deep reverie. I glanced in all directions but saw nothing. He had disappeared without a trace, along with his young vassals. Very well, I thought. He shall return. When he does I will be here, and I shall cut him down like rice at harvest. And so, climbing a tall spruce, I resolved to wait. As the nervous woman’s moans echoed faintly through the trees, I knew I would stay until Kojikasu had reaped the bitter reward of his effrontery. Or, at the very least, until I fell to the forest floor, gaunt and withered like the dry leaves of winter.

Review: NW by Zadie Smith

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NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, takes its name from the postal code for northwest London where the novel is set, and where Smith herself grew up. This part of London is a fragmented world, one where stark differences define the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants  — poverty against riches, black against white, law school graduates against crack-addicted criminals. The writing here, virtuosic as ever, reflects this fragmentation. It paints an off-kilter and open-ended portrait of its two protagonists, Keisha/Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell, as they struggle to find success and happiness without knowing exactly what either of these are.

The narrative follows these two girls from birth into their mid-thirties, when these women are themselves facing the decision of whether to have children of their own. As children they are best friends, but as they age their divergent personalities and social circumstances take them in different directions.

Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie after high school in order to better fit into the upper-class world she enters via law school and a rich husband, is a high-achiever who pulls herself from the margins of London into its chic centre, only to wonder whether she wants to be there at all.

Leah is a more freewheeling person and follows the opposite path in many ways. While she too has a university education, instead of leveraging it for all the social and financial capital it’s worth, she works at a job in her home neighbourhood that doesn’t require her to have a degree. Indeed, she’s the only person there who has one. And unlike Natalie, whose romantic life develops along conservative lines, Leah’s sexual world is more chaotic and experimental, full of flings and lust and anal sex. In this way, the two women reflect two fundamental approaches to life on the socioeconomic edge: hunker down and work your ass off for a “good future,” or take things as they come and avoid the anxieties about the future by enjoying life in the present.

Yet despite these divergent life trajectories, the women find themselves facing remarkably similar existential problems as they exit youth and approach their years of critical fertility. Both are anxious about the prospect of children and about their ticking biological clocks. Both find themselves in good circumstances by common standards — they have loving partners, and while Leah isn’t as wealthy as Natalie, she and her husband enjoy a decent standard of living.

And yet they both find themselves railing against the passage of time, and finding life to be a confusing series of events that moves along too fast. By her early thirties Natalie has “made it” in life, but all the same she has little idea of who she is and what she really wants. Leah is also facing an existential crisis, and wonders why it is that people like her and Natalie should lead successful lives while childhood friends should wind up as drug-addled street thugs.

If this all strikes you as true to life but lacking the typical trappings of a story — namely, protagonists with clear problems who are altered by the forces against which they struggle until their problems are resolved for better or worse — you’d be right. NW displays all the anxieties of modern society — just like its protagonists, who experience life as an ambiguous, open-ended business, the story in Smith’s latest effort equally lacks forward momentum. This is because the characters who populate this pocket of London don’t know where forward is; their world is disorienting. As soon as they get where they’re going (often following normative pathways like graduating from law school or getting married), they find they’re not sure they even want the benefits they’re set to reap. And never mind what they’re striving for — just exactly who are they, anyway? And what’s this existence all for, and why is it so unfair, and why is time so unrelenting? Yes, NW is that kind of book.

And in that respect it’s brilliant. If you’re looking for 300 pages of incisive commentary on the psychological problems plaguing contemporary urbanites who grew up in economically depressed neighbourhoods, this is it. But don’t expect closure, don’t wait for build-ups to produce payoffs. Entire subplots are literally dead ends — the subprotagonists simply die, never claiming an important place in the narrative or contributing to the main story in any supratangential fashion (even if a fifth of the book is devoted to them).

Such narrative nebulae notwithstanding, NW is an entertaining and moving book. Keisha and Leah are incredibly well-drawn, and the unusual techniques Smith uses to bring them to life (including a fair bit of concrete poetry) are compelling and innovative.

That being said, at times Smith’s experimentation goes off the rails and staggers toward opacity. The first 85 pages (in the section entitled “Visitation”) are the worst offender in this regard. Here readers face an uphill battle against unattributed dialogue, conversations starting mid-sentence, and a deluge of fragments. But those intrepid readers who make it into the novel’s second section will be rewarded for their labours with writing that remains edgy while having the added feature of being comprehensible. The remainder of the book is a pleasure to read, and powerfully animates a corner of London heretofore neglected in literature in a style that is challenging but not burdensome.

The highlight of NW comes in the second half, in a section entitled “Host,” which comprises 185 numbered vignettes spanning 110 pages. These short pieces, which chronicle the life of Keisha Blake from birth to childbearing to marital meltdown, operate like a photo album. As they are generally less than a page long, each is like a snapshot of a moment in time — 185 windows onto key experiences in a young woman’s life. This section, to speak plainly, kicks ass. It’s incisive, heartfelt, funny, and distinctive. Indeed, this part of the novel is what elicited many readers’ interest in NW in the first place, as it was featured in condensed form in The New Yorker in July 2012, and is an exceptional stand-alone piece that figures among the best published by the magazine in recent years.

“Host” is all the more a treat to be savoured as the rest of the book is composed in very different styles, the whole text being marked by a haphazard eclecticism. Indeed, in an interview Smith noted NW was written without a plan and was conceived “as a collection of found items.” This is consonant with the reading experience, which lacks the coherence expected in a novel, and instead comes across as an impeccably drawn series of short pieces on Keisha and Leah’s inner lives.

In the end, NW is a difficult work to pin down. Readers who make it to the end will likely be amazed, frustrated, touched, and disappointed all at once. For those devoted to language and how form and sentence structure can be reconfigured to chart the unexplored corners of experience, NW is a lesson you can’t afford to skip. Anyone concerned with the struggle of women to make sense of their professional, sexual, and familial lives on the margins of a big city like London will want to pick this book up immediately. Those, on the other hand, who are expecting the familiar novelistic package of rising action-climax-denouement might want to stick to White Teeth.

Style No. 81: Mathematical

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1. One orange boy (A) passes air through a whistle (B) at a velocity of 2 metres per second (C). Factoring in the curvature of his friend’s arm (D) and the angle at which his eyes glance at the distant crowd (E), determine the hue of their shirts (Hint: somewhere between red and yellow). Show all work.

2. When grandmother (M) moves along the Y axis at a constant speed (S) with a polynomial (P) hidden beneath her headshawl (H), at what point will her nervousness (N) approach its limit, given the gravity (G) of the peculiar man whose knowingly look (K) transects her path from behind? Half-marks will be awarded for proper graphs.

If the man's bag (B) weighs 5 kilos and he's already hungry, which is why he's on his way to Nizamuddin (N) for lunch, calculate how many grams of beef korma (K) he will need to ingest in order to be pleasantly sated.

If the man’s bag (B) weighs 5 kilos and he’s already hungry, which is why he’s on his way to Nizamuddin (N) for lunch, calculate how many grams of beef korma (K) he will need to ingest in order to be pleasantly sated.