Sunday, August 11, 2013

Making Family Skeletons Dance

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Families have always furnished fodder for fiction. From Tolstoy to Austen to Franzen, novels have portrayed them as happy, unhappy and somewhere in between. Such representations are dialled up in the American genre called Southern Gothic, with elevated emotions and oddball characters casting long shadows. Though it flourished primarily in the first half of the last century, its influence continues in works such as Katherine Dunne’s Geek Love and, more recently, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia.
It’s a genre to which Supriya Dravid’s debut novel, A Cool Dark Place, could well belong – only, the ‘Southern’ in this case would refer to the area below the Vindhyas. The novel’s narrator returns to her mother’s childhood home in Madras, “a shambolic Versailliac, moth-ridden empire of despair”, to come to terms with the sorrow that family concealments have caused her.

The narrator informs us that her father committed suicide over a year ago -- only, as her mother reveals, he wasn’t actually her father. Now, her grandfather, the Quixote-like Don, is himself at death’s door. The mother opens up about how Don’s doings have shaped her life, and the daughter ruminates on her growing years, coming to realize how much of it was manipulated by forces she was unaware of. As she puts it: “I wanted to search for pieces that were conveniently hidden under the rug of disguise, because this is a story that is as much my mother's as it is mine, as much the man I thought was my father's as it is mine, as much my family's as it is mine.”

The flamboyant Don and his actions are at the heart of the book, with the plot comprising a series of reactions to his self-serving behavior, ripples spreading out from depth charges. “Don was good at life,” we’re told. “He liked to enjoy and destroy…he was always tipsy and spoke theatrically with his hands, eyebrows and disco ball eyes.” His enthusiasms, his bibulousness, his libido and his urge to control those around him and stack them in neat rows as he does his books make him an over-the-top, arresting figure, and the more compelling portions of A Cool, Dark Place are those in which he takes centre-stage.

Tangled family dynamics apart, what makes the novel distinctive is a tone of heightened realism, unlike much of Indian fiction in English – dealing with families or otherwise – which opts for the more conventional variety. In large part, this arises from Dravid’s rich, coiled prose. “There are pictures that are crowded with the invisible and brimming with the secret memory of lives that once filled up that spot,” she writes, “and now the walls wait sullenly for their return.”

Throughout, she makes use of most of the weapons in the writer’s arsenal of craft. There’s wordplay: “cockaigne” is conflated with “cocaine”; a staring cop is “King Leer”; a clock is stuck at “quarter past rum”; and elsewhere, a person is “as high as the man in the moon”, asserting “I have class and it’s called third”. There’s alliteration (Prozac paradise, a helium heart and a ditsy dolly, among others) and in a case of gilding the lily, there’s also rhyme: a splenetic lunatic, insane in the membrane and not wanting to be a coquette in the pocket.

For the most part, this creates a satisfying sense of the dense, dizzying experience that the narrator is living through. Writers with linguistic ebullience, however, are sometimes prone to over-reach, especially in their debut novels; here, an example would be sentences such as: “Don and my mother made no eye contact and they'd be as incongruous as a pregnant midget amidst a sea of glamazons whose legs were ladders to heaven”.

The narrator of  A Cool, Dark Place, then, undertakes an archaeological investigation into her family’s tortuous past, to enable her to live in the present. Dravid's singular talent lies in infiltrating compacted layers of remembrance, retrieving potsherds of memory and piecing them together to create a unified mosaic. As Bernard Shaw once wrote, if you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.

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