Sunday, October 27, 2013

Father, Sons And Everything In Between

My Sunday Guardian column.

“Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons.” That’s a sentiment explored in many works of fiction, from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons to Hemingway’s short story of the same title down to Siddhartha Deb’s The Point of Return – to mention just a handful from an ocean of stories. This is the theme that David Gilbert also takes up in & Sons, his ingenious new novel from which the quotation at the start of this paragraph is taken.

The father in question is A.N. Dyer, a Salinger-like novelist who, now that he’s approaching 80, calls his sons home for a reunion. There’s Richard, a drug counsellor and aspiring scriptwriter in Los Angeles; Jamie, a maverick filmmaker in Vermont; and Andy, who’s much the youngest at 17, being born when his father was in his early sixties. A.N. Dyer’s first novel, Ampersand (yes, Gilbert’s title is very clever), was a critical and commercial success: “It seems to me,” a character says,  “you have Catcher in the Rye people and you have Ampersand people…To me Salinger is a stray dog you want to adopt, but A.N. Dyer is a different beast altogether”. The beast in question went on to write more than a dozen other novels, the last published ten years ago; now, shaken by the death of his childhood friend Charles Henry Topping, he tells his sons: “You should know my goal as a father – and I swear this is true – my goal was positively Hippocratic, to do no harm, and look where that got me. You could sue for malpractice. I am a reckless scalpel.”

This makes the novel sound like a study of writing and the family – but it’s a lot more. Too much more, in fact.  It begins and ends with a funeral, and is narrated by one of Topping’s sons, a character who, we soon realise, is making up much of the actions and thoughts of the rest. Throughout, first person swoops into third and then back again, in a wily feat of legerdemain. Gilbert's capacious act of imagination, then, is itself structured as an act of imagination. "I have always had an unfortunate tendency to spin myself into alternate universes," the narrator says, later spelling it out: “Maybe I was imagining myself as a ghost, invisible in this world, trying to understand the family I would haunt for the rest of my life.”

Then, there’s much space devoted to sending up different cultures – aspiring moviemakers on the West Coast and the shenanigans of high society in NYC's Upper East Side, for example, or the glittering set piece revolving around a high-profile book launch party, peppered with metaphors drawn from the solar system. (There’s an abundance of metaphors in the book, some delightfully apt, others stretched too far.) Further, Dyer’s revelation about the birth of his youngest son halfway through the novel is quite at odds with the rest: “How could anyone believe this nonsense?” the narrator confesses. “It seemed something concocted by Pynchon doing his best impersonation of Barthelme.”

To further gild the lily, Gilbert includes text messages, extracts from novels, e-mails and letters. Various tonalities blend together, sometimes uneasily, to create a work that sprawls more than it should.

Fortunately, there are rewards for persevering with & Sons. Gilbert’s prose is, for the most part, a worthy handmaid of his ambition, and can be supple and sinuous, mimicking the registers of thought. It can also sometimes capture characters in a sentence; here, for example, is Topping on his father: "He grew up shy, then aloof, then distant, his feelings best relinquished from the palm of his hand – a firm grope, a pat on the back, a semi-ironic salute."

Inside every fat person, it's nastily been said, is a thin one struggling to get out. You could say the same of many novels, and Gilbert's & Sons, with all its meretricious charms, would have been the better for being slimmer.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Maps Of Nepal

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Read some of the more acclaimed short story collections of recent times, and you’d be tempted to think that the influence of Chekhov is on the wane, despite Alice Munro’s recent Nobel win.The gothic, comic sagas of Karen Russell, the revealing bravado of Junot Diaz, the black humour of Sam Lipsyte and the sardonic vision of George Saunders, to name a few: none of them can be described as belonging to the camp of quiet realism. Others such as Deborah Levy stray even further, with surreal vignettes and ice-cold prose. Even the recently-announced winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Sarah Hall, tells the story of a woman who turns into a fox during a woodland walk with her husband.

Perhaps a reason for this is that the world they write about has already been mapped so closely by those who came before that a startling new vision is necessary. Other parts of the world, though, remain comparatively undescribed, and it is here that the lessons of the Russian writer make themselves apparent.

It’s in this context that Prajwal Parajuly’s The Gurkha’s Daughter ought to be seen. This collection of eight stories was earlier long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (along with Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land) – and was also shortlisted this week for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the titles on which were described by Peter Stead, chair of the prize, as “young writers going for the big themes”.

Almost all of these stories are set in Nepal and its environs, and are marked by character-driven, open-ended plots delineated in simple but never simplistic prose. This is not to say that Parajuly doesn’t display ambition. To begin with, he explores the consciousness of a wide variety of people, from a Kathmandu servant girl to an unemployed Darjeeling graduate to a Bhutanese refugee to an IT professional in New York and more. (Chekhov: "It's easier to write about Socrates than about a young woman or a cook.") There’s ambition also to be found in stories such as ‘A Father’s Journey’, which sums up the shifting, decades-long relationship between father and daughter. Further, there’s deft use of craft in ‘The Cleft’, with intercuts between past promises made to a set-upon domestic worker and her present predicament. Clearly, then, these aren’t tales of the aroma of Darjeeling tea or glimpses of Mount Everest – as one of the New York-based characters wryly states, these are the things that people ask him about when he tells them where he’s from.

Many of the stories deal with the gulf between the disadvantaged and the better-off, contrasting the dreams of the underprivileged with those “uncomfortable with the vast gulf separating one’s silver-spoon upbringing from another’s fast-improving but modest existence.” It’s a gulf of both class and wealth. An unemployed, impoverished engineer resents having to put up more well-to-do members of his extended family; a Muslim grocer holds his tongue rather than complain about shoplifting by the daughter of a well-heeled customer; and Bhutanese refugees in Nepal scheme to find a better life overseas. Politics enters some stories as an influence on private lives, be it the cause of economic hardship because of demands for a separate state or ambitions of making a living as a politician representing those without a voice.

The later stories are among the more moving, whether exploring the day-to-day existence of an ageing couple whose children have settled overseas, or the plight of a Gurkha family after the British have left. ‘The Immigrants’, set in New York, has a pleasing, gradual inversion of roles between an employer and his maid but is alas a bit too predictable, employing familiar tropes in the telling.

In an essay titled 'Learning from Chekhov', Francine Prose writes: “Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world.” Parajuly, who has a debut novel out soon, seems to be doing just that.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Love (And Murder) In Tokyo

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

I’d heard much about Keigo Higashino’s murder mystery, The Devotion of Suspect X, but I read it only last week, my interest being piqued by the news that Sujoy Ghosh was to direct a Bollywood version. The Japanese film based on the book had earlier done well in its home country but is little known outside it; there’s a Korean remake too, as well as reports that Hollywood has evinced interest.  Inevitable, I suppose that Bollywood would raise its hand, too. To be fair, it’s exactly the sort of plot that would appeal to the person who’s made Kahaani.

The 2005 novel was published in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith in 2011 after it went on to sell a staggering 2 million copies in Japan. It’s the third of Higashino’s “Detective Galileo” books, the detective in question being one Manabu Yukawa, a brilliant, eccentric physics professor who aids the Tokyo police force and whose character traits clearly owe a little something to Sherlock Holmes. He isn’t centrestage during the entire book, however. The plot concerns itself with the predicament of Yasuko, a divorced single mother, and her neighbour and not-so-secret admirer, Tetsuya Ishigami. In a heated moment during an altercation with her bullying former husband, Yasuko finds that she’s strangled him with an electrical cord; the ever-watchful Ishigami then steps in and asks mother and daughter to let him handle the fall-out. No, that isn’t a spoiler: this occurs near the start of the book, with the rest being given over to the intricate web that Ishigami spins to keep the truth from coming out.

The police identify the mutilated body found on a riverbank as that of Yasuko’s husband, and the two detectives on the case piece together evidence that seems to point the needle of suspicion to Yasuko. One of the detectives contacts Yukawa, known as Detective Galileo, who takes a keen interest in the case because he finds that the neighbour, Ishigami, was a former classmate of his with the reputation of being an ingenious mathematician. (“It was odd to hear Yukawa talk about someone even more brilliant than himself.”) Now begins a cat and mouse game between the physicist and the mathematician -- and this, with its twists, turns and mathematical analogies, is one of the chief pleasures of reading the book. There are scarlet herrings, contested alibis and a surprising and innovative twist as Galileo uncovers the lengths to which Ishigami will go to protect those he cares about.

A poster for a 1966
 Bollywood film
Higashino’s prose – or the English version of it – is crisp and clear, gliding along effortlessly from event to event. There’s a great deal of attention paid to pacing and revelation of information in the form of well-structured scenes, and he also shows us the differing points of view of the main characters. (An exception to this is Yasuko’s daughter, who remains something of an enigma.) As such, it’s easy to see why a film-maker would be interested in the material. The transposition of locale is another matter, however. Higashino doesn’t exactly fill his novel with atmospheric Tokyo detail, but there are still several references to low kotatsu tables, bento-box lunches, bars and squatters along the Sumida River, to take just a few examples, and part of the fun of reading the novel is the evocation of Japanese life. (You can't take the Swedish out of Swedish noir, for example, which is why David Fincher set the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Stockholm.) Still, the plot of Higashino's novel isn't culture-specific, which means a change of mise-en-scene isn't unsurmountable. Other details that will probably be changed for Bollywood include Yasuko working as a waitress in a takeaway lunchbox restaurant to which she bicycles daily.

Ingenious and absorbing as The Devotion of Suspect X is, it does dip into sentiment at the very end, to do with unrequited love and sacrifice. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Hindi version was titled Balidaan.