Sunday, August 25, 2013

Against Loose, Baggy Monsters

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

One of the books on my tottering unread pile is Shamsher Rahman Faruqi’s The Mirror of Beauty which is, by all accounts, well worth reading – but I quail at committing myself to its over 900 pages.  It’s not the only recent novel longer than the norm. In a piece for the Guardian last week, novelist Kirsty Gunn commented on a recent outcrop of  “big books”, mentioning David Peace's Red or Dead (720 pages), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (832 pages) and Richard House’s The Kills (1002 pages), with the last two longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Reading Gunn’s piece caused dismay: most novels nowadays are too long for their own good, without there being more loose, baggy monsters being unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.

She speculates that economics might have something to do with it. In a recessionary time, such volumes provide heft and spectacle, reassuring us that we’re doing OK. I suspect it also could be something to do with beleaguered novelists being told that reading and fiction don’t matter as much as they used to, and defiantly taking a stand by composing volumes of Victorian length.

Gunn goes on to point out that the three novels she mentions have “a whiff of the avant garde” and aren’t conventional triple-deckers, a welcome relief. The longest, The Kills, comprises four connected narratives each of which earlier appeared separately online, and there’s also a website with hours of video content related to the novel. This approach reminds one of the iOS app The Silent History, which calls itself “a new kind of novel” and consists of a series of linked first-person testimonials. These two, then, could well be canaries in the coalmine of the novel’s future.

To return to the contemporary long novel as we know it, not all of them can be the next Infinite Jest, Underworld or A Suitable Boy. Tedium sets in as the pages accumulate: more and more characters’ lives are delved into, subplots proliferate, details abound and eyelids droop.  As Somak Ghoshal recently wrote in an otherwise appreciative review of Shovon Chowdhury’s The Competent Authority: “Sub-plots seem to spiral out of control, characters get forgotten, and loose ends are tied a little awkwardly.” (Where are editors’ blue pencils when you need them?)

An argument often made for novels of greater length is that their bulk allows for more immersion in a fictional world. While this may be true to some extent of SF and fantasy, such engagement doesn’t necessarily call for a greater number of pages. Take the novels of Franz Kafka. Or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, less than 200 pages.

The impact of a well-crafted novella is another reason to look askance at large novels. As I’ve written before, the best of them emit radiance and sparkle far beyond their size. Look at Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to name a few. The titles from independent publisher Melville House’s ‘Art of the Novella’ series provide more excellent examples. For some time now, ambitious novelists have been using the laser-like focus a novella allows by thematically linking some of them together to create a larger whole. Richard House’s The Kills apart, there’s David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example, as well as Colum McCann’s Transatlantic, another title longlisted for this year’s Booker.

Several estimable European novels, too, are much shorter than their American and British equivalents, while leaving as much if not more of an impression. Swiss writer Peter Stamm recently said that he likes “reduction, concentration, clarity” in writing, and the same can be said of many of his Continental counterparts.

These days, long novels have to earn their stripes, and only a handful do; the vision of a Karl Knausgaard is uncommon. Randall Jarrell is often quoted as saying that “a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”. Well, the longer it is, the more that can go wrong.

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.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Fiction To Frighten The Status Quo

My Sunday Guardian column.

One of the more credible stories of how the Egyptian capital got its name comes from the order of the 10th century Fatimid caliph al-Mu'izz li-din Allah, who instructed his military commander to march into the country and build “a city that would vanquish the world." Thus was created the Vanquisher, al-Qahira, known to us today as Cairo. Ironically, Cairene writer Sonallah Ibrahim writes, it “never vanquished anyone but its own people, for invaders from all places and of all races succeeded one another in it”. He goes on to call it “one of the most impossible cities in the world,” and recent events certainly seem to bear out his assertion.

Ibrahim’s first novel, That Smell, offers a bleak, penetrating look at the life of one of Cairo’s vanquished citizens, and is now available in a new translation, one that hews closer to the original than before. Ibrahim started to write it in his late twenties, after he was released from the prison where he, along with others from Egypt’s Communist Party, was confined for political conspiracy after the military coup that brought Nasser to power. (The present translation also includes a selection of Notes from a Prison, vignettes written on cigarette papers during his incarceration.) When published in 1966, That Smell was proscribed immediately – further, as translator Robyn Cresswell puts it, “local critics [were] almost as unwelcoming as the censors”.

That Smell is not, as one might imagine, a novel that concerns itself overtly with politics. Rather, it is written in a self-consciously minimal style, creating a world that can be seen as one in which politics has done its work and moved on, leaving only broken remnants behind. It tells of the travails of a disaffected young man recently released from prison for an unnamed offence, who spends his days catching up with friends and relatives, reporting daily to the police as well as rediscovering Cairo. His daily routine, his furtive glances at his neighbours, his trips around the city and his visits to former compatriots establish a repetitive rhythm. He smokes, masturbates and tries and fails to write an unspecified text. A sentence early on in the book just about sums up his life: “I stayed stretched out on the bed without sleeping. I smoked a lot. In the morning I got up and dressed and went out.”

All of this is laid out in chunks of paragraph-less prose broken by italicised flashbacks, in a style markedly different from the floridness and classical realism that marked fiction from Egypt at that time. As the narrator sarcastically says at one point: “I picked up a magazine and there was an article in it about literature and how it should be written. The writer said that Maupassant said that the artist must create a world that is more beautiful and more simple than our world. He said that literature must be optimistic and alive with the most beautiful sentiments.”

“Affectless” is the word that J.M. Coetzee used to describe Ibrahim’s prose and that is indeed the mot juste.  It’s an iceberg style indebted to Hemingway in which little is shown and much concealed. Ibrahim, however, eschews Hemingway’s macho bluster. At one point, the narrator is pushed by friends to visit a prostitute, a dalliance he is unable to consummate, and one way of reading this is as a comment on the impotence of the average Egyptian when faced with a brutal regime.

The preface to the original edition of That Smell contained a self-important charter spelling out the effect that Ibrahim was trying to produce: “If you do not like the novel now between your hands, the fault isn’t ours. It is instead the fault of our cultural moment, dominated as it has been for many years by works of shallowness, naïveté, and conventionalism.” The novel, then, is a brave stand against such attitudes that still prevail in so many parts of the world. Creswell has felicitously described it as “a fiction to frighten the status quo”, and it’s a pity that more novels don’t do the same.