Monday, July 2, 2012

Second Novel Blues

This appeared in yesterday's Sunday Guardian.

One of the characters in Rupa Bajwa’s second novel happens to be a novelist unable to make progress with her second novel. Any resemblance to the author is, one supposes, purely co-incidental. As Taylor Antrim wrote in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, “Is there anything worse than writing a second novel?...It's a standoff between creative depletion and rising ambition, the desire to attain more combined with the creeping fear that everything you had went into that first book”.

Moreover, if the debut novel is acclaimed, the burden of expectations can make the second one even harder to finish. It was nine years after The Virgin Suicides that Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex appeared; it was ten years after The Secret History that Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend was published.

Sometimes, though, getting a first novel out of the way can allow the author to discover a subject and style that sets him or her off on a new direction. Such was the case, for example, with Salman Rushdie, who went from the unheralded Grimus to the celebrated Midnight’s Children.

Then, there’s England’s Encore Award, which acknowledges the often-neglected achievement of impressive second novels. Presenting the inaugural award in 1990, Stephen Fry said that a first novel “contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair” of the author’s life until then. However, “the second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult”. Among the notable winners since then have been Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, Ali Smith’s Hotel World, Amit Chaudhuri’s Afternoon Raag and Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing.

Two second novels published this year won’t, one fears, be on the Encore Award list. Nikita Lalwani and Rupa Bajwa’s first novels were well-received, and rightly so; their second efforts, however, are a let-down

Lalwani’s The Village is entirely set in an ‘open prison’ in north India – a community of convicted murderers and their families. The central character, Ray Bhullar, a fledgling BBC documentary director of Indian origin, arrives here with a crew to film their lives of the village’s inhabitants. An interesting set-up, but what comes in the way of its development are woolly characterization and awkward dialogue.

The lives of those in the village remain out-of-focus, and the motivations of others who influence the plot, such as Ray’s producer and presenter, remain unclear. There’s also much about India through a visitor’s eyes, which means heat, dust, colours, food and, inevitably, a bumpy camel ride.

Bajwa’s Tell Me a Story is bumpy, too, for different reasons. As with her first book, the protagonist is from the lower middle class: Rani, a beautician in an Amritsar salon living with a quarrelsome family struggling to make ends meet. There is empathy in Bajwa’s portrayal of her limited horizons, and the prose, though occasionally clumsy, comes across as sincere.

Halfway through, though, the scene shifts to Delhi and we’re introduced to Sadhna, a blocked novelist. This is when the enterprise begins to flounder. The shifts in the points of view between Sadhna and Rani are imbalanced, and the conflation of the storytelling skills of the two is uneasy, at best.

Both novels demonstrate what authors attempt to do with sophomore novels:  Lalwani tries to get away from the subject and situation of her first, while Bajwa tries to extend and deepen them. The reach of both exceeds their grasp.

None of this is to suggest that the first novels of these two authors were flashes in the pan. It’s clear that, despite the many weaknesses, there’s enough in their follow-ups to demonstrate talent. The jacket copy of Bajwa’s novel mentions that she’s at work on her next novel; one presumes that this is the case with Lalwani, too. And when it comes to third novels, it was after Dangling Man and The Victim that Saul Bellow wrote the classic The Adventures of Augie March.

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