I finally saw the movie “The Namesake.” Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, it is a story about the struggles of a young Indian-American man, born of immigrant parents, growing up in America. What lends freshness to this tired old theme is the particularity of the story, and the fact that it doesn’t cater to stereotypes. I thought the movie was pretty good, but a bit thin on substance. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, an immigrant story, a story about belonging, identity and maturity, done rather well. But it (the movie, not the book, which I haven’t read) reminded me of a comment my mother had once made, years ago, upon starting to read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
The Vikram Seth book is apparently a multi-family saga, centered around a family’s search for a groom for their daughter. It is a doorstopper of a book. My mother’s point was – why write a novel (and such a fat one at that) about ordinary, everyday things that happen in so many families? What’s so special about that? Where’s the story?
Some people have compared Seth’s monumental work to Tolstoy and Dickens. I will read it at some point when I have enough time to tackle a tome that voluminous. I don’t want to detract from its virtues, which are spoken of as many – suffice it to say that the amount of drama in my family, particularly the maternal branch, is enough for a dozen novels that would put most fiction to shame. This is kind of where my mother was coming from when she made that comment.
Nevertheless I want to pursue the notion of story from various perspectives based on my personal encounters, viewpoints, eccentricities, and sets of assumptions. When we say “that was a good story,” and shut the book reluctantly, with a sigh, what are we saying? How might personal quirks, cultural and other assumptions determine a ‘good’ story for one person and a bore for another?
The stories I grew up with were epic, filled with drama – gods and demons confronted each other on a cosmic stage, dying water-bearers cursed kings, princesses ran away with their lovers and battle-lines were drawn. The notion that children should only read stories about other children didn’t exist then. Whether told by grandmothers or seen on the big screen, the stories I experienced were intricate melodramas and complex morality plays, often peopled by talking animals (serious characters in their own right, not Disneyesque caricatures) and supernatural beings. The Hindi literature I read growing up, much of which consisted of the works of Premchand, was more modern in the sense of being concerned with the struggles of ordinary humans against social injustice, but here was drama too, although on a miniature scale. Here a boy’s dignity pivoted on the imaginative play he could give to a pair of tongs bought at a fair, there an old, ill-treated aunt found a shocking way to get at the food she craved, to the shame of her nephew and his family. In a country where dramas were enacted all around you on a daily basis, a story you read, or saw on the big screen had to be more than a mirror of real life – it might offer commentary, venture into the imaginative realm, or frame the ordinary in a way that brought out some overlooked extraordinariness.
For me, not much has to happen in a story, plot-wise, to satisfy. I love good plotting as much as anyone, but there are things that can happen psychologically/ metaphorically in a story without much happening in a physical sense. A richly textured, well-written tale that takes me to some other place, where I can walk in the shoes of others and forget myself – when, after I close the book the story still reverberates in my head, when my view of the world is changed in some way as a result – now that’s a good story. An essential characteristic for me is texture, by which I mean a lack of flatness – the story is layered, speaking to me in symbols and metaphor as much as it does in terms of who does what. This is one reason I love certain kinds of speculative fiction, but this richness of texture doesn’t have to be solely the province of spec fic. In the so-called mainstream literature, what I prefer to call the realist or mimetic genre, there are some wonderful examples. New Zealand author Janet Frame, in her collection Prizes, engages the imagination in stunning ways without a single supernatural or science-fictional trope. The Hindi writer Nirmal Verma’s stories are expeditions into the fantastic country of the human psyche. A friend of mine, a very good writer of creative non-fiction and memoir, has a piece in which an ordinary object, a cup, becomes, in one single act, transformed into a symbol — a power-shift that takes back the dignity, not only of an individual but of a race. After reading that I was reminded of the fact that we interact not just with humans but with objects – a cup may be just a cup, but it has the potential to be something more. A rose, Gertrude Stein said, is a rose, is a rose. But tell that to the rose in The Little Prince.
There are stories, however, whose flatness is deliberate, where restraint is employed as a sculptor might use a chisel. I’m thinking in particular of Alice Munro, whose short stories about ordinary moments in the lives of regular folks won her a Nobel prize. I’ve read a couple of her short story collections and find my reaction to them somewhat complicated. There is no doubt that she’s a genius at teasing out the often-overlooked nuances in human interactions, and the complexity of the human emotional landscape. Her journalistic yet elegant prose keeps a distance from the characters, describing with an observer’s detachment, even if we are inside the head of a character. It is left to the reader to fill in the emotional blank spaces, just as, when looking at a minimalist painting, the observer must provide what the artist has left unrepresented. Still, while I admire Munro’s skill, I find myself going a little crazy after reading several of her stories in a row. The flatness of both style and subject matter (the latter restricted to humans) gets to me. It’s all very well to talk of Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage (the title of one of her stories) but hell, I want a spaceship there too. And I want non-humans, and passion, and unashamedly unrestrained prose. Antidotes I have tried successfully include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” (in translation) Amit Chaudhuri’s “A Strange and Sublime Address,” and Pablo Neruda’s poetry, especially almost anything from Canto General (in translation). Perhaps this is a cultural as well as personal thing, but when I read any of the authors above after a long stretch of Munro, it feels like blessed rain after traveling in a desert. I will grant you that the desert is beautiful, though.
I was curious about Namesake (the Novel) so I found it in the library. I started to read it on the way to the checkout desk, then, abruptly, turned around and put it back on the shelf. Why? Lahiri’s prose is fine, neither too restrained nor particularly passionate, but maintaining some kind of middle path. The thing that put me off was the fact that the entire novel was written in the present tense.
Now that’s just me. I don’t have anything against the present tense per se, having written short stories myself in that mode. Sometimes a story needs to have that sense of immediacy, of occurring in the moment. But reading an entire novel in the present tense makes me jumpy and nervous. My brain gets itchy. I just can’t do it without screaming inside. It’s not that I won’t keep trying, but the list of books in the present tense that I want to read have been sitting on my mental bookshelf for a while now. Sigh.
While I am grumbling, let me add that I hate books that have abrupt endings. I don’t care whether they are part of a series or not. A fine book that ends as if the actual last paragraph was eaten by a monster or hacked off by a maniac makes me want to throw it across the room. I’m not saying the book should tie up all the threads at the end. But, dammit, if the book has cast a spell, one wants to ease reluctantly out of it, not be brought jarringly back to reality with no warning. Decidedly not fair.
Personal idiosyncrasies aside, there are often good reasons to persist in the face of the brain’s resistance. This is particularly true if the book is written by an author from a land, culture, or people strange to one’s own background. After the initial struggle, one might well find a reward in the form of a new understanding or insight. You might change how you think about a short story, a place or a people. Or, if you are reading science fiction, where a story might well be set in a place that humans can’t actually experience, such as a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, you could actually find yourself (if the story is good) unpinned not just from Earth, but from humankind’s various assumptions and prejudices. For the duration of the story you are not just someplace else, but, almost, someone else, something else.
Imagination, the kalpanic realm, to coin a Hindish word, is also what makes compassion possible. To walk in the shoes of another – even if imperfectly – to spend the time to try to understand why the other is what it is – in that extension of self lies the possibility of compassion. This is one reason I am distressed by the plethora of books (especially for young adults) that are black-and-white, with no shades of grey, where evil is simply there, like Mount Everest. You are either a good guy or a bad guy, and the battle of good versus evil is literalized, with all complexity shorn, to just that: good guy and bad guy dueling it out to the bitter end. That sort of bilge prevents or at least slows down the realization of the complexity of the world that should come with growing up, with maturity. I am not saying there is no such thing as evil, but we all carry the potential for it, and it therefore bears scrutiny. To see ourselves (in potentia at least) in the persona of an evil character is to enable us to bring it out in the open, to acknowledge and therefore tame it. And for that we need to fully employ the imagination.
So what makes a good story? There are probably almost many answers to that question as there are readers. A visit to the bookstore or library will reveal volumes and volumes of stuff for which trees were sacrificed in vain, yet substandard writing keeps getting published and read. I have no idea whether Sturgeon’s Law, that 90% of everything is crap, is a fundamental principle or if it is derived from some deeper truth, but it is hard to argue with its veracity when talking about books. Perhaps all one can do is to sing paeans of gratitude (or sobs of relief) to honor those authors whose works transport us elsewhere and elsewhen with such veracity and skill.