18 February 2008

Cheesy Honey

So-called noir or pulp fiction can, at times, seem elusively easy to write. Tips: Make your sentences short, declarative, and firm. Compare vanquished goons to gorillas, and villains to, er, villains. Use words like “vanquished” at exactly the wrong literary moment. Call things by slang terms, and don’t be afraid of contractions. Make sure most scenarios stretch to the absurd, and involve violence, suggestions of nudity, and implied sex.

And make sure the names are absurd. Like “Honey West,” the much-banged-around-but-never-knocked-up heroine of a series of pulp novels from the late-1950s to the 1960s by the couple who wrote as “G.G. Fickling.” In Kiss For A Killer (originally published in 1960, and reissued in 2006 by Overlook Press, along with another in the series) Honey finds herself being framed for a series of murders she didn’t commit, in a tale that is laughable even within this often-ridiculous genre.

Honey describes herself as “...a hundred and twenty pounds... Thirty-eight, twenty-two, thirty-six. Something wrong with that?” (P. 32) If one asks the men in the story, the answer is clearly “No!” The women, however, are less taken. A case in point is “Toy Tunny,” a short, slightly pudgy oft-nudist, daughter of a cult leader named “Thor Tunny,” who seeks to thwart Honey at every turn – including Honey’s attempt get out of a jam by seducing Toy’s beau, Ray Spensor. “No nonsense, Miss West,” says Toy. “Lover is a sensitive guy. You’re liable to shake up his molecules. Down, girl.” (P. 77)

I think “Down, book,” is more like it. Fortunately this one didn’t take much time to read, even if it was a less-engaging literary palate cleanser after my last literary adventure than I had hoped. Still, I like books like this, in part because of their absurdity and artifice, whether the authors wrote them on a drunk, thought they’d be easy money, or invested all of their psychic energy and literary wit. Or all three, as is sometimes clearly the case. Novels like these can reveal a lot at both their best and their worst, about their time, social perceptions across different class and race lines, and about the cities in which they are set.

If Kiss For A Killer is on the latter end of the best-to-worst spectrum, bookstore owner and anthology editor Otto Penzler has been getting a lot of attention for his recent compilation The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age--The '20s, '30s & '40s. NPR’s Morning Edition ran a nice feature on the book, while the New York Times decided that there might be a literary trend worth exploring and mentioned it, too. Go forth, and read.

10 February 2008

In Search of Guilt

Review of The Age of Shiva, by Manil Suri, published January 2008 by W.W. Norton, New York.

As a new parent, this line from Manil Suri’s novel The Age of Shiva struck me solidly: “To be a parent is to be guilty.” (P. 424) My daughter is barely eight months old, but I already understand the meaning, for actions large and small. There was the time early on – she was maybe 2 months old – when I said “Hi!” at a moment when she was zoning out; I scared her; she cried for what seemed an endless time; I felt guilty. She bumped her head the other day, as I laid her down on the changing table – bumped it because she arched her back at the last minute, as I lowered her – and I felt guilty for not protecting her. And so it goes, on and on, and whether I am responsible or not, in my experience, my sense of responsibility also carries a feeling of guilt. We want the best for our children.

Right now, I feel guilty about something else, too: this book. Suri’s novel is the coming-of-age of story of three characters, starting with Meera Sawhney, a young woman whose family fled to Delhi from Rawalpindi during the partition of India and Pakistan; under the strong hand of Meera’s father, known as Paji, the family has reestablished itself and lives a comfortable life. The second principal figure is Ashvin, Meera’s son with her husband Dev; we know Ashvin principally through Meera’s eyes, as she narrates the story from his birth to adolescence. The third character is India itself, through various and turbulent terms of leadership. If he wasn’t past the point of “coming-of-age,” I would count Paji as the fourth principal character, because his presence is a constant; but more on that later.

Nowhere is this book better than in Meera’s descriptions of the environment around her; Suri has a way of taking singular experiences and contextualizing them with a grand sweep that can be richly descriptive, beautiful, and sharp. Early on, Meera attends an Independence day celebration with her sister Roopa, and Dev. At the concluding fireworks, she observes – as if in a dream state – that Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi seem to step out of their postered images, and thinks “And here we are, from the Mughals and the British to Gandhi and Nehru, all lined up for the finale. The scene bursts into Eastman Color, the sky stretches to Cinemascope. The volleys rise into the night, the bricks in the street light up like day.” (P. 30)

Years later, seeking out Ashvin to celebrate Holi with him, Meera reconnects with the teenage son who, she worries, has pulled away from her so much. After wrestling with him playfully, she recalls, “You looked down upon me, your laughter subsiding to a half smile, then flickering behind something else – shyness or uncertainty, I couldn’t tell. We stayed there for a moment, enthralled in each other’s gravity – the moon and the earth, the earth and the sun. Then the spell broke, the grass around us began to reappear, and with it, the buckets and the benches and the people.” (PP. 403-4) Along with such descriptions, the book is enjoyable and moving when describing these complicated families; the in-laws, siblings, and children; the competition, affection, and hatred; the love, both passionate and ambivalent; and the struggle of life during periods of social and political unrest.

My guilt kicks in because despite all this – despite the plot, and notwithstanding Suri’s often-masterful writing – Meera’s character is trite, as are many of the others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her relationship with her father: Paji is domineering, seeking to exert control over as much of his daughter as he can while pushing her into what he believes should be a fruitful, fulfilling, well-educated life. Meera resists or accedes, but in each instance does so obviously, transparently, to the point that the interactions and their underlying dynamic feel clichéd. For example, Paji is rigorously intellectual and anti-religious; knowing this, Meera not only participates in a ceremony that brings him to the edge of frustration but, at a crucial moment, makes the final gesture she had previously sought to avoid: touching Dev’s feet, a sign of respect that Paji finds anachronistic. The moment should be filled with tension for the reader, but it isn’t – because the reader knows that presented with an opportunity to disappoint Paji, Meera will do so.

Were that the sole instance of this dynamic, it might be forgivable, but it is a theme that repeats throughout the book. Where Meera is in control of her life, she is presented with – and makes – unoriginal choices. At another moment in the story, she seemingly vacates her body and relinquishes control, in an odd seduction-cum-rape scene in which it is difficult to believe in either the seduction or the rape . Until the moment of intimacy, she found the man repulsive. How is she now nearing the point of willingly having sex with him – and then, just as quickly, feeling endangered? The choice Meera makes in the first place is neither terribly logical nor (in the literary sense) an inspired one, which limits the reader’s emotional connection to the character and her plight. It falls flat.

Perhaps this is just a nice way of saying that The Age of Shiva is a “coming-of-age” story in which the main character never quite fulfills that destiny. “To be a parent is to be guilty,” Paji writes to Meera. Even as Meera appears to understand this sentiment, which seeks to explain and excuse so much of her father’s behavior, she remains throughout frustrated and disappointed: either unable to seize control, or when she does, making the obviously wrong decision with little in the way of surprise and mystery. To find literary success in predictability, characters need more depth than these.


Readers interested in a novel about a similarly turbulent period in India's history - with terrific characters - might enjoy A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which I reviewed here.


(Thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to review this book!)