Saturday, September 15, 2012

American Destinies

This appeared in today's Indian Express.


There aren’t any live tigers in Liza Klaussmann’s debut novel, Tigers in Red Weather, which comes as something of a relief given the number of such creatures popping up in fiction of late. The title instead is a line from a Wallace Stevens poem, one that privileges a life of the imagination over the mundane. Mundane is a word that can’t be applied to the lives of Klaussmann’s characters as she follows them over the decades, from bright, shining promise to coming-to-terms with what remains.

The novel opens in the wake of World War II, as cousins Nick and Helena spend a hot September in their family house in New England, a location that they and their future families will return to over the decades. Helena’s first husband was one of the war’s early victims, and she’s getting married for a second time, to an aspiring Hollywood director. Nick, on the other hand, will soon travel to meet her own husband, a naval officer returning home from England, and they will start their married lives in a poky cottage in Florida. With the optimism of the young, both look forward to “houses, husbands and midnight gin parties”.

The novel follows their destinies over the decades, from 1945 to 1969, shifting between five points of view: those of Nick and Helena; of Daisy, Nick’s impetuous daughter, and Ed, Helena’s secretive, spooky son; and of Hughes, Nick’s husband. While Nick and Helena struggle with the roles that society and their marriages demand of them, a young Daisy tries to balance needs and desires; Hughes, meanwhile, comes to terms with an earlier affair while Ed’s early life moulds his nature into strange shapes. 

A large canvas, then, and Klaussman does it justice with, among other things, an artful cross-hatching of the same incidents witnessed by different characters so that the full picture emerges only gradually. On one too many occasions, however, her characters learn about secrets by simply happening to be in the right time and place to conveniently eavesdrop. The dialogue, too, can veer towards the lush: “I feel like a stranger in a house of the good and the golden and the heavenly. Which makes me the devil, I suppose”.

One of the considerable strengths of Tigers in Red Weather is that the characters are portrayed warts and all, with their conflicting desires and aversions on display, which makes them realistic and convincing. Then again, the discovery of a body by Daisy and Ed halfway through seems to pull the narrative into the grid of plot, and away from character development and exposition.

A clear influence is the work of Scott Fitzgerald, but despite one character being called Nick and another Daisy, Klaussmann’s prose and treatment aren’t up to Gatsbyesque standards. Throughout, clothes, perfumes, cuisine and music are carefully described, being markers of changing tastes as well as of status over the years – but other historical signposts are simply tacked on, such as a token mention of the Kennedys or of Alabama civil rights activists.

At one point in the novel, Nick tells an aggrieved Daisy: “It’s so hard to be young and have all this wanting”. Young or old, it’s their wants that drive the characters of Tigers in Red Weather to make the choices that determine their lives, and Klaussmann – who, by the way, happens to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville -- delineates these in a smooth, polished manner familiar to adherents of conventional narrative fiction.

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