Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Reaching the end of the line: Vikram Seth's Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy

Vikram Seth© 1990 Aradhana Seth
The Golden Gate
After Eugene Onegin, I turned to Vikram Seth's novel in verse The Golden Gate (Random House, 1986), which is written entirely in the form of Onegin stanzas. And I mean entirely, from the dedication and table of contents to the "About the Author" note.

It's an astonishing homage from one writer to another, and an amazing performance in its own right. The Golden Gate's stanzas are fluid, witty, and follow the intricate Pushkinian rhyme scheme (see Pushkin's Eugene Onegin) while rarely landing with a thud on an obvious rhyme or stretching too far for a groan-worthy one, unless it's with an implied wink to the reader. (Seth does display a Nabokovian love of puns and wordplay, which he—just—manages not to overdo.)


The book is also filled with the texture of everyday life, or at least everyday life as experienced by highly educated young professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1980s. (Seth attended Stanford, where he studied economics and creative writing, so he was obviously drawing on some first-hand experience.) References abound to real-life bars, radio stations, streets, places, events, and political issues: several of the characters participate in an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration at "Lungless Labs" (a thinly veiled allusion to Livermore National Laboratory, where atomic weapons are designed and where a series of nonviolent blockades took place in the early 1980s). So Bay Area readers (or, at least, Bay Area readers of a certain age) will regularly experience a little frisson of recognition.

Those who have previously read Eugene Onegin will also experience that frisson, and not just because of The Golden Gate's verse form. The main character in Seth's cast is John, whose description is very Onegin-like:
Gray-eyed, blond-haired, aristocratic
In height, impatience, views, and face,
Discriminating though dogmatic,
Tender beneath a carapace
Of well-groomed tastes and tasteful grooming...

A passionate man, with equal parts of
Irritability and charm..." [1]
And like Onegin, John winds up in a serious quarrel with his best friend.

The book does so much so well and so cleverly that it feels a little churlish to complain that the romantic travails of its privileged characters simply aren't that compelling. John, in particular, seems (like Onegin) to almost wilfully destroy his own happiness, but utterly lacks Onegin's tragic dimension. Ultimately, despite its many virtues, The Golden Gate feels slighter than it should.



A Suitable Boy
There's nothing slight about Seth's next novel, A Suitable Boy (Harper Collins, 1993): it weighs in at nearly 1500 pages and close to 2 pounds (and that's the paperback edition). Set in northeastern India a few years after independence, it's the story of several families connected by marriage and friendship. It has more than two dozen characters, but its temporal scope is surprisingly limited: the action seems to take place over the course of a single year.

I have to confess that I'm writing about the book while I'm still immersed in it, so all of my judgments are necessarily preliminary and contingent. But it seems to me that so outsized a novel has to justify its length, as least if it wants me to be one of its enthusiastic readers. The reviewer's blurbs printed in the book compare A Suitable Boy to Dickens, Trollope, and Eliot. But while the novels of those writers are indeed lengthy, every scene (even most of Trollope's notorious hunting scenes) furthers the narrative or expands our sense of the characters. The events described at such great length and detail in Seth's novel instead often have the messiness, and one might say the pointlessness, of real life. Something happens, and then another thing happens, but it's not always clear why we are being told about it.

If such a multi-focal novel can be said to have main narratives, they are chiefly the college-age Lata Mehra's attempts to fend off her mother's endeavors to arrange her marriage to "a suitable boy," and the dissolute Maan Kapoor's unhappy love affair with the singer Saeeda Bai. Along the way we witness a demonstration that ends in violence, a rural hunt for wolves, a court case surrounding the Zamindari Abolition Act, and a stampede at a Pul Mela religious gathering (based on the 1954 Kumbh Mela tragedy). Many of these incidents seem to be included to provide Seth the opportunity to write set-pieces, rather than because the structure of the work demands them.

Of course, sprawling sagas don't need justification if the incidents are of sufficient interest and the writing doesn't tax our patience. But the writing in A Suitable Boy often feels slack, full of needless detail. At one point Haresh, one of Lata's suitors, invites her and her mother to his place for lunch, and for no discernable reason we are treated to the entire menu:
First there was tomato soup. Then fried fish for everyone except Mrs Rupa Mehra, who had vegetable cutlets. There there was chicken curry and rice with fried brinjal and mango chutney (Mrs Rupa Mehra had a vegetable curry.) And finally there was caramel custard. [2]
Perhaps this recitation says something about the tastes, economic standing or cultural background of Haresh which is too subtle for me to understand. Or perhaps this is intended as a kind of cinematic montage, where the flat description of the succession of dishes emphasizes the void of conversational silence that surrounds them. Or perhaps it's meant to add some local flavor, as it were. But scenes like this one lead me to suspect that Seth simply didn't know what to leave out.

Seth's writing can also be surprisingly sloppy. Fifty pages in I came across this sentence: "But despite Professor Mishra's open-armed avuncularity, his Falstaffian bulk and charm, Pran detected something dangerous: his wife and two young sons were, so it seemed to him, afraid of their father." [3] If this wordy, awkward, and ambiguous sentence (Mishra isn't his wife's father, thankfully) was an isolated instance, it could be overlooked. But clunkers like this crop up regularly throughout the book. To take a few more examples at random:
"'No—no—I have to go—' Varun found his voice at last, and almost fled from the hall without even laying a bet on the next race." [4] Does "almost" refer to Varun's precipitate exit from the hall, and if so, does "almost fled" mean "did not flee"? Or does it refer to his betting, and if so, does "almost...without even laying a bet" mean that far from leaving hastily, he stopped to make a bet on the way out? Indeed, when he is spotted a few minutes later he is celebrating his winnings on the race, so he must have bet. So what is this sentence intended to mean?

"Lunch was presided over by Miss Mason, a desperately ugly and lifeless woman of forty-five...the lifelessness of Miss Mason succeeded in freezing most of the conversation." [5] I would imagine it might. Although "lacking in energy" is one of the meanings of "lifeless," when applied to persons the far more common meaning is that they are dead. Perhaps Seth was anticipating by a decade or so the rise of the zombie as a cultural referent; or perhaps he should have chosen another modifier.
"[The room] was full of heavy furniture...and at the far end of the room...hung an oil painting of an English country scene containing cows. Mrs Rupa Mehra thought of their edibility, and was upset." [6] Again, "their" is grammatically ambiguous: while of course it is intended to refer to the cows, it could also refer to the heavy furniture and oil paintings, which indeed aren't very appetizing.

"For today she had no wish at all to talk to Kiran or anyone—least of all to Mrs Rupa Mehra." [7] The character on whose thoughts we are eavesdropping is Lata Mehra, Mrs. Mehra's daughter— would she really mentally refer to her own mother by her full name and honorific?
These are all the sorts of minor errors and awkwardnesses that are easily committed in the heat of inspiration, but which rewriting, and the careful attentions of copy editors, should eliminate. But on the evidence of what wound up being printed, it seems that A Suitable Boy didn't get very many drafts or much copy editing.

My judgment is undoubtedly premature and unfair; after all, I've only read two-thirds of the book so far. And if I come to feel differently after completing it, I will happily modify these comments (watch this space!). But at page 1018, A Suitable Boy feels as though could have been a superb novel—worthy, perhaps, of the comparisons to Dickens, Trollope and Eliot—if only it were shorter.

And this is where my train of thought reaches the end of the line. Thanks for bearing with me on this journey from Tim Kreider to Vikram Seth via Nabokov, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, but I can't pretend that all of what I experience or seek out is as carefully connected as this sequence suggests. It's great when it happens, but I also try to leave myself open to serendipitous discoveries or just the randomness of everyday life. While I've been writing this series, I've also been reading the novels of Javier MarĂ­as, watching the postwar films of Jean Renoir, listening to superb recital recordings by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Janet Baker, attending operas by Boito and Verdi, and anticipating the pleasures of Shuddh Desi Romance, Chennai Express, Phata Poster Nikla Hero and Ram-Leela. So have no fear: randomness will be reasserting itself with my very next post.

Last time: Eugene Onegin - The Duel 

Update 4 November 2013: The last third of A Suitable Boy confirms the mixed impressions made by its first part: we are treated to more lengthy digressive set pieces (Parliamentary debates, legal arguments, election speeches and a cricket match), underelaborated incidents, and clunky sentences ("The Chief Secretary's eyes drifted across his table" [8]; I hope he was able to recapture them before they flew out the window)—not to mention a preemptive self-comparison to Middlemarch.

At the wedding that (of course) concludes the novel, there are hints of a sequel: "'You too will marry a girl I choose,' said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger son [although her daughter isn't marrying a girl she chose, so where does that "too" come from?...never mind.]...'A suitable girl, and no exceptions.'" [9] And indeed, it was recently announced that, having missed a June 2013 deadline for the delivery of the manuscript of A Suitable Girl to Penguin, Seth was negotiating a deal with another publisher. The novel is now expected to be published by Orion in the fall of 2016. Let's hope the additional time allows Seth and his editors the opportunity to avoid some of the faults of A Suitable Boy.

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1. Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate, Vintage Books, 1987, p. 5.
2. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy, HarperPerennial, 1994, p. 621.
3. A Suitable Boy, p. 54.
4. A Suitable Boy, p. 476.
5. A Suitable Boy, p. 621.
6. A Suitable Boy, p. 621.
7. A Suitable Boy, p. 634.
8. A Suitable Boy, p. 1053.
9. A Suitable Boy, p. 1467.

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