Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom took me two goes to get into. This a novel of parts: there are five numbered sections, told from the points of view of five different characters, who cross each other at most tangentially. The problem was that I found the first character – a wealthy Indian emigre taking his young, more or less American son on a tour of the Taj Mahal and other attractions – essentially uninteresting… or uncompelling… or that taboo word, unlikeable.
Unlikeable. I’m in two minds about this term, which has become something of a shibboleth in the contemporary book world. For some it’s a good thing – essential, if you want to take your readers with you. For others it’s anathema. How gauche, that you need to like the characters you read about! The way I’d think about it is that, however unlikeable a character, you’ve got to like reading about them.
I prefer the term ‘compelling’. It’s active; it describes what an interesting character does, whereas likeable or – ugh! – relatable are passive, indicating only the capacity to be seen in a particular way. You can like them, or relate to them, or not. ‘Relatable’ also strikes me as being analogous to that awful word collectable, as in the kinds of collectable figurines or commemorative plates you used to get advertised in the back of the Radio Times. Listen, mate, you can collect anything; designating something as such is worse than meaningless.
So: the rich man failing to connect with his son in the first section of Mukherjee’s novel did nothing for me. It wasn’t until I read on, however, that I came to understand that I wasn’t supposed to like him. The next section’s character – a British-Indian designer visiting his parents in Bombay, and the only first-person narrator of the five – is more sympathetic, a well-meaning man trying to square his western morals with his parents’ culturally-ingrained treatment of their cook and servant girl. With each section, in fact, we are moving down the social scale: to an unemployed villager who sets himself up in business with a bear cub he teaches to dance; to a young girl sent into service (who ends up in the apartment of the couple in part II); to the brother of the bear-man, who is working on big city construction sites and who impinges on the father and son in part I… you get the idea.
There was a similar structure behind Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, although this feels tighter, harder to recast as a set of ‘interlinked stories’. Perhaps not so much tighter as denser, more deeply attached to its theme. Egan’s book had a superficial subject, the music industry, and an interest in connectedness; Mukherjee’s has that same structural interest, but the connectedness is linked to an investigation into the strata of Indian society as they currently stand and, through that, the subject set out in the title: freedom. Mukherjee digs deep into his characters’ situations; their place in the book feels earned (apart, perhaps, for the father and son, which is more important structurally than thematically). Winningly, the sections are variable in length, as if they are as long as they need to be, rather than as long as the author needs them to be for the sake of the novel’s structure.
The novel belongs with those that attempt to adapt the Nineteenth Century realist novel for postmodern times. It sees the hidden, sometimes ephemeral connections that cross class and caste boundaries, and it wants to tell the story of the age through individual narratives that respect and embody vastly different life experiences – but it doesn’t try to offer the whole social-aesthetic architecture that would build these characters and these connections into a closed, coherent superstructure. Each character is given a narrative that, naturally, grows social context around itself – the embarrassment of the Westerner who imposes himself on his family servants’ lives, the Maoist rebels who drift in and out of the forests around the poorest, most remote villages – but the connective tissue that would be needed to show each character present and correct in a fully embodied structure is cut away, until those connections have almost to be inferred. It’s to Zola as Giacometti is to Rodin.
This month was a month of two Sparks: The Ballad of Peckham Rye, which I have read before, and The Mandelbaum Gate, which I have not. I’m not entirely sure how much I got out of The Ballad…this time around. The style, of course, is perfection, a studied nonchalance with regards to character that makes me think of a grandmaster politely playing a game of chess with a house guest while at the same time filling out their tax return. But how much is going on underneath? The lower-class satire of the factory workers and managers thrown into chaos by a Scottish graduate set on bringing the arts to the unlettered feels dated; it takes too much for granted. Dougal Douglas is no Jean Brodie.
The Mandelbaum Gate is a different matter. Set in Jerusalem in 1961, when the Eichmann trial was in progress, it follows a British half-Jewish Catholic convert (shades of Spark, obviously) who crosses over to the Jordanian-held part of the city as part of a pilgrimage. She falls in with a slightly comical, fusty British diplomat, who persuades her to conduct her pilgrimage in disguise, as her Jewishness could put her in danger, which she does in a full Arabic veil, pretending to be the old maidservant of a young Jordanian woman – who happens to involved in a spy network, and who also happens to fall into a romantic entanglement with Freddy, the diplomat. Although much is made of Spark’s debt to the French nouveau roman, especially in terms of her determinedly ironic attitude to characters, this book is far closer to a Graham Greene entertainment. Characters are given, as the rather archaic saying goes, their head; they are about as credible as Spark characters get. There is tension, and danger, and even the close threat of death – compare to poor Joyce Emily Hammond, from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, whose death in the Spanish Civil War is distant and bathetic rather than tragic. It’s the biggest Spark novel I’ve read, at 300pp, and rather against expectations – I hadn’t expected her to carry it off for so long – one of my favourites. (That said, I’ve got rather a poor track record with rereading Sparks. The Driver’s Seat, Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Public Image: none of these improved particularly on second reading. Only Jean Brodie gets better each time.)
Another writer that I had a hard time with in April was Cees Nooteboom, some of whose books I have loved immensely (The Following Story, Rituals). I took the latter with me on a writing trip to Amsterdam (my next book is set there), together with In The Dutch Mountains, which I’d never read. Dutch Mountains I reallydidn’t like: a strange fable about runaway circus performers with little grip on reality. Worse than this, however, was that I couldn’t get on with Rituals. This is probably the fourth time I’ve read it. Maybe I need to give it a rest.
Also on the Dutch trip I bought a first book, for me, by Tommy Wieringa, A Beautiful Young Wife, a slim novel about a brilliant 40-something biologist (working on cures for bird flu and the like) who has, as the title hints, a wonderful younger wife. The first half of the book, that shows them falling in love, is fine, but then when they have a child, against his wishes, things go off the rails, but in a confusing, unsatisfying way.
A fabular book that I did love was Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, which I read on the recommendation of a student at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach. I wrote about it here.
My best find of the month was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I finally got around to buying after reading her piece ‘The Body That Says I’m Here’. I haven’t read all the stories yet (incidentally, see this, from Mavis Gallant), but what I have read, I love. It’s fiercely intelligent in its formal experimentations, but it bends back and back to the communication of real, or credible, experiences.
And then, at the end of month, I received two quite splendid books: Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina, about her experience as part of Pussy Riot, and Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, with a lovely evocative introduction by Olivia Lang. I can’t believe I hadn’t read this book of Jarman’s – I’ve read At Your Own Risk and Chroma, as well as Blue – but it’s an absolute beauty, his diaries of Prospect Cottage at Dungeness and of the aftermath of AIDS. It’s a bath book par excellence. A book to dip into, time and time again, and to luxuriate in.
Thanks to Penguin for the copy of Riot Days and to Vintage for the copy of Modern Nature.