“Anything’s possible in Human Nature… Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite joy.”
Of the four things that were Possible in Human Nature, Rahel thought that Infinnate Joy sounded the saddest. Perhaps because of the way Chacko said it.
Infinnate Joy. With a church sound to it.
The more I think about The God of Small Things, the less I like it. As I’ve now thought about it quite a lot, and still really, really like it, that’s actually a compliment.
My copy comes complete with page after page of praise at the front. It’s effulgent, it truly is. It makes it out to be the great masterpiece of our age. I thought it was, the first time I read it. I think it works best at the first reading.
The truest comment in the praise is from John Updike, who says that it creates its own language. Surprisingly, this is actually true. It’s what’s great about the book – and also why I didn’t like it at first, when I was trying to read the beginning of it.
The closest explanation I can manage is that Roy is a Minimalist writer. Reading her novel was like listening to something by Steve Reich. Every time I turn on Vermont Counterpoint I am repelled by it, like diving into a very cold pool. Everything about the music is alien to me: it’s harsh, it’s repetitive, it’s simplistic, it’s obvious, it’s wholly impermeable. But I keep listening to it, and by the end, I love it, and hope it won’t end.
Like Reich – better yet, like Taverner or Pärt – Roy uses repetition as a device to create a womb-world of envelopement, a self-supporting aura, an almost religious awe, a sanctity. I know, that’s a poor explanation.
Elements – from styles to concerns to specific words and phrases – are hammered into us again and again and again, merely re-arranged a little, or very slightly altered, or combined in various ways. At first, the effect is alienating and ugly: but like the slow intonation of a mantra, what at first seems peculiar gradually encloses us in an attitude in which everything makes sense.
The initial rejection is tempered somewhat by the dual nature of the narrative. The God of Small Things employs a non-linear structure, in which two distinct but codependent ‘stories’ are told, with frequent interconnections between the two, and modulations into other time-periods. On central story is the story of Rahel, a thirty-odd-year-old woman returning to the house of her childhood, in Kerala, after a long period living in America. Her house is decaying, inhabited only by her repulsive great-aunt, a housekeeper, and more recently by her silent “two-egg” twin brother, from whom she has been separated since they were both children. The second story, which takes up most of the book, is the story of what happened to destroy their childhood together, when their cousin came to visit them from England. Diversions tell us the stories of various secondary characters, such as their great-aunt, their grandparents, or how the parents of their cousin first met.
The two primary stories alternate chapters, although not strictly – some chapters move between the two time-periods. They start the book together, diverge as we move into the middle of the book, and then come together again at the end: the structure mirroring Rahel’s return to her memories and her attempt to come to terms with them. In addition to time, there is a considerable stylistic difference between the two storylines: the adult line is narrated largely in a very sophisticated, arguable over-written voice, while the childhood line is told in a simplistic, almost patronising, infested-by-childishness manner. The first line: “May in Ayamenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.” Next paragraph: “The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation”. From a child-section a few pages later: “They also believed that if they were killed on a zebra crossing, the Government would pay for their funerals. They had the definite impression that that was what zebra crossings were meant for. Free funerals.”
When the distance is greatest, in the middle, the effect is stronger. Near the end of a child-section:
“Estha and Rahel had to sing in English in obedient voices. Breezily. As though they hadn’t been made to rehearse it all week long. Ambassador E. Pelvis and Ambassador S. Insect.”… “Their Pre NUN sea ayshun was perfect.”
At the beginning of an adult section:
“The sound of the chenda mushroomed over the temple, accentuating the silence of the encompassing night. The lonely, wet road. The watching trees. Rahel, breathless, holding a coconut, stepped into the temple compound through the wooden doorway in the high white boundary wall.”
Both storylines are kept blurred by a lack of temporal focus, in particular by the drone-note of the tragedy of the Loss of Sophie Mol – and although this doesn’t occur until near the end of the novel, I’m not spoiling anything, because the funeral occurs in a flash-forward/flash-back on page four. Throughout the book, we know what is going to happen at the end of it – as the novel says, “the secret of Great Stories is that they have no secrets[…] they don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know you will die, you live as though you won’t.” We don’t just know that Something Terrible Will Happen – we’re told it again and again. The only thing we don’t know is exactly how it will happen, and part of the point seems to be that exactly how does not really matter. The characters of the novel are only pawns in the unstoppable progress of history, the manifestation of an eternal storyline.
“His feet walked him to the river. As though they were the leash and he were the dog.
History walking the dog.”
Although the repetition of what is about to happen is at first annoying, it does have a purpose – it creates an air of horrible, beautiful tragedy. It is in tragedies, where we know that the ending will be hideous, that we most fully latch on to the moments of beauty.
And, no mistake, The God of Small Things is a beautiful book. It is… baroque. An ocean of baroques. Every sentence is a rare, misshapen pearl. The prose is often excellent, and the imagery is cutting, true, and innovative.
It is also a very real book. It feels as though it is about the world, not something apart from it as polished literature sometimes does. It has things to say, and it says them with great humanity and subtlety. Most of all it talks about love: not so much romantic love (though it does several types of infatuation, some of which may be construed as love) as familial love. Ammu’s tender, martyred love for her children, and Rahel’s silent, impotent love for her estranged twin are both touched on delicately enough to draw tears. Also noteworthy are the reflections on modernity and tradition, in which a new resort for Westerners is portrayed as a double-edged “Heart of Darkness” in the midst of a sea of Indian ‘cultural flavour’.
[The novel has been called post-colonial, but I don’t buy it. It’s true one character muses on the negative consequences of Imperialism, but to me the motivating forces in the tragedy are all deeply Indian (while the fact that the main characters are Syrian Christians (a sect imported from the Middle East nearly two thousand years earlier) rather undermines the notion of an Indian/Western dichotomy); if anything, the sin of the West (both through the Empire and through Marxism, both of which cast significant shadows in the book) seems to have been to fail to dismantle the native social systems, in particular the atrocity of caste, that they found there; and while the Heart of Darkness and the thinness and superficiality of culture that it embodies are certainly condemned – and indeed the small parts in modern America hardly show the West in a good light, though the Oxford sections are more neutral – to me it seems the sought of condemnation that is very native to the West. It is a critique of consumerism, capitalism, social anomie, alienation – all things that the West produces its own critiques of, and all things that characterise a later era than that of colonialism.]
So: it successfully builds tension, it is meaningful, and it’s affectingly written. What DON’T I like about it?
Well, let’s start with the prose. Yes, it gets better as you get used to it – but it’s still overdone. In the child sections particularly, there’s a Limit to how Meaningful you can make a Sen Tence by Adding Capitalletters and Joiningupwords. And Breaking Sen Tences. Into little Fragments. They’re fine techniques, and they work, but they’re employed too monotonously. The adult sections are less blameworthy, but can still be tough going in places, because every damn noun has to have a damn adjective of some damn kind.
And not just the words, but the meanings! Please, please, let us just know what’s in the room without a page of metaphors and similes every single time? Some of the metaphors are brilliant. Most are good. And I LIKE writing full of metaphors. That’s how I like to write myself. But this is an object lesson in why I should try for restraint, because dear heavens it was annoying by the end.
More generally: Roy has little regard for conventional pacing. The pacing of events is fine, but the pacing of prose is not. Every sentence feels, as I say, like a pearl, very carefully, very precisely crafted and laid in a long string of other, very precise pearls. At the beginning of the book, this is a little boring, and by the end, when we really want to know what’s going on, it gets far too frustrating. I don’t know how much of this is intentional and how much is accident – after all, it’s her first novel.
Precise is one word – I’m tempted to say “precious”. At times she seems to care more about the delicate writing than about the plot. Most frustrating of all are the times when she feels the need to use half a page of five-word little paragraphs to flesh out the description of something perfectly well described already. It’s like being dared to skip ahead.
But it’s not just the prose. It’s the plot as well. I don’t like to sound callous, but not enough happens to merit the air of excruciating tragedy. Some bad things, yes, but… I think the biggest problem is that, despite the idea of implacable history and everything playing its part, it just doesn’t hang together. She seems to want to hang guilt on everyone and no-one as though all are implicated – but the blame can be assigned too simply in some places, and at other times it all seems down to random chance. Not even ironic chance. If you compare this book to the truly great tragedies, so finely and subtly plotted, it seems too haphazard and straightforward. It makes the atmosphere of tragic lament and foreboding seem undeserved – as though she’s trying to make it more powerful than it really is. As though she’s trying to intimate a symbolism that didn’t, to me, seem merited. It’s hard to say why – why does one story seem symbolic of the human condition, while another seems like just something that happened? I think that the lack of cohesion is particularly problematic in this novel because the foreshadowing tells us what will happen – all that remains are the details, and fundamentally the details don’t matter. We want to find out things that matter, the little missing links that explain things – but here, the details don’t explain it. We know as much at the end as we did at the beginning.
Part of it is the characterisation. Rahel, her brother Estha, and their mother, Ammu, are beautifully and sympathetically drawn. But everybody else? They’re flamboyantly described, made very clear – like background characters. I didn’t get the ‘why’ of their lives, I didn’t have them live for me like the main characters. Which is important, because these background characters – and there are quite a lot for such a simple, familial novel – are all powerful forces in the plot. In the absence of their own animacy, they can seem a little too much like authorial puppets. [Worst offender: Chacko. I know why the author thinks he would act as he does, but I don’t feel why. And it needs a pretty big why. It’s a really obvious why, and I know many if not most people would act like that. But characterisation is about more than being justified, it’s about being vivid, like reality but more so.]
And alongside that (perhaps explaining it): everyone’s horrible! The children can’t really be blamed, and I like the adult Rahel, maybe the adult Estha (it’s hard to tell). Why wouldn’t anyone like them, they have no flaws? Huge, gaping problems, sure, but no real flaws. Ammu is understandably under pressure a lot, and doesn’t deal with it perfectly, but is otherwise unimpeachably likeable. Velutha is flawless, and, in the one scene we meet him in, his half-paralysed brother seems likewise. Everyone else is fundamentally unlikeable. Pappachi is horrible, Mammachi is horrible but slightly to be empathised with in places; Baby Kochamma is nightmarish (again, while I understand her life-motivations as explained by her backstory, I still don’t empathise with them, fundamentally because I don’t believe the author does either); Chacko could be likeable in a well-meaning mild-mannered way, but he is too weak, too stupid, too selfish, too blind, too egocentric and too pathetic, as though she’s layering on reasons not to like him; Margaret Kochamma is bland, and though her backstory is quite benign, the author goes out of her way to give her greater flaws than virtues; Comrade Pillai is a villain through and through; the police are all bastards; pretty much every passer-by or spectator is a bastard, and so on. Rahel, Estha and Ammu: VICTIMS. Everyone else in the world: VILLAINS. Oh, sure, she doesn’t condemn them all, she tries to explain their actions… but it’s just unrealistic to me that so many seemingly likeable people should really act in such immensely blockheaded, petty, selfish and spiteful ways, without any opposition. I know that that CAN happen, but it must be warranted, it must be purchased, by making it make sense, emotionally as well as intellectually. Instead, often it feels as though the author presents one fact (what has happened to a character, often long ago) and then another fact (how they behave), as though the juxtaposition, and the intellectual knowledge that one fact can lead to the other, it’s been demonstrated before, we all know it, is a substitute for seeing how one fact actually organically grows into the other. It feels sometimes as though they’ve been written like that for plot reasons, with the backstory-justifications tacked on to prevent complaints. They don’t feel like central characters. In the case of the central characters (at least, Rahel and Ammu) the same thing is done, but more thought is put into showing how one thing leads to another. It’s still not entirely clear (particularly for Rahel, where the important parts of her life are missing from the novel), but it feels true. For Chacko, or for Baby Kochamma, it just doesn’t. And for background characters, that’s fine – but too much of the background is happening right in front of the camera.
[Perhaps the problem is just ambition. The fact that the backstories are provided suggests that the author knows these characters need some strong grounding – but there’s really not enough space to give them all enough life to function properly. It feels as though it ought to be a sprawling, dynastic family sage (it does cover four generations!) but in fact it’s a simple snapshot in only 340 pages, which isn’t a lot when you cover nearly a century from start to end and three continents and a dozen characters and want to throw in some local political, social and religious history along the way!]
That’s why this novel isn’t brilliant.
Adrenaline: 3/5. By the time I was halfway through, I was hooked, but not viscerally. My pulse was mostly unaffected. The end could have been more exciting, but the author’s refusal to up the tempo of the prose shackled the adrenaline.
Emotion: 5/5. I was on the verge of tears repeatedly, even if they never actually fell. And not all the emotion is negative, either. There’s a lot of… well, “Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite Joy” in the novel. The ending, in particular, is a long way from sad, though there is sadness behind it. No criticisms here.
Thought: 3/5. The novel depicts a complex society and deals with difficult issues, and as such requires a degree of cogitation. However, there is little overt or innovative consideration of the themes and little moral complexity regarding the background characters, while the continual repetition of the foreshadowing takes away the element of wondering-what-will-happen (although curiosity regarding the details can remain).
Beauty: 4/5. I have to compliment it on its prose – it’s very dense and hit-and-miss, but the misses are not calamities, and the hits are devastating. What’s more, it feels a lot lighter than it is – for prose so rich and thick, it’s suprisingly accessible, perhaps because so much is written from a semi-childlike perspective. However, it isn’t perfect: she doesn’t know when to prune back a little, she overdoes the foreshadowing, and the plot lacks the beautiful composition we hope for from a tragedy. Likewise, the background characters lack a little subtlety, and it all feels a bit forced. Then again, some scenes are beautiful, particularly those dealing with love and hope.
Craft: 4/5. Inventive imagery, reliable writing, more tension than you’d expect from something so simple, and an admirably light-feeling novel for how much content is rammed into it; a sophisticated structure that really works with, not against, the plot. However, as may be gleaned from the above, there are also flaws. These flaws can mostly be considered to spring from the slight lack of judgement expected from a first novel.
Endearingness: 4/5. Fundamentally likeable; I’ve recommended it to many people. Approachable yet deep; moving, with central characters you can reach out and touch, and a little agony in it that makes you never quite forget it. On the other hand… it’s not quite right. It feels a little bit too much like being lectured at, or listening to a woman’s therapy sessions (apparently, many details are autobiographical – my edition even provides a photograph of the author, to compare to the identical description of the main character). I think what I miss is a sort of sense of connexion between the author and myself, some collaboration; it feels too distant from myself. Not written for me, just in front of me.
Originality: 4/5. Innovative structure and prose, a distinct and real perspective on the world from a non-Western (or semi-Western) viewpoint. But no character stood out as unique to themselves, nor any events, nor any images or devices. “Indian post-colonial novel dealing with family tragedies and the injustices of Indian society, heavily influenced by magic realism although not actually magic realism itself”… doesn’t describe it completely, but it describes it too well and too formulaically for it to score a 5 for originality.
Echo: 1/2. If you remember, this is the category for how a book shakes my state of consciousness. This book did that to some degree… but only to some degree.
Overall: 6/7. Very Good. First time I read it, I thought it was brilliant. Second time, some of the lustre is gone. Nonetheless, it remains an exceedingly good book, and an astonishingly good first novel. I earnestly await the second!