Fiction Brief Round-Up

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, Christina Stevenson, Allison Tait, and Vazira Zamindar

As if the arrival of Public Picks earlier this month weren’t enough, our new round-up of four brief reviews of recent novels offers that many more suggestions for intriguing summer reads: from unlikely friends from Boston with ambiguous relationships to exotic lands, to the “ordinary horror” of living through Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence; from vampire-on-witch romance in Elizabethan England, to a gritty self-help guide for “you” in “Rising Asia.” Dig in!


— Ragini Srinivasan, If “You” Were a Rich Man

— Christina Stevenson, In Friendship and Wealth

— Allison Tait, In Love with Love

— Vazira Zamindar, Memory and War in Bangladesh




IF “YOU” WERE A RICH MAN

Ragini Srinivasan

 

Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia unfolds as a 12-step self-help program. Each chapter offers a maxim for getting rich, like “move to the city” and, in a winking reference to Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), “focus on the fundamentals.” The novel charts the rise of a nameless “you,” addressed throughout in second person, from “my-shit-just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty to which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence.” Early on, the “impressively fit” teenage boy protagonist meets an androgynous and dark-skinned “pretty girl,” whose nontraditional appeal resides in her approximation of a Western billboard image. She is a fellow traveler with whom he has his formative sexual encounters and whose rise from salon assistant to boutique owner parallels his own ascent as bottled-water titan. In between, boy becomes man, marries, and has a child who leaves for North America, despite the trappings of filthy richness his family enjoys in Asia. The protagonist, now an elderly man, is left to endure the vicissitudes of success—debt, betrayal, a coronary—although not without the final, redeeming comforts of laughter over card games with a friend.

Hamid’s is the latest entry in a decade-old genre of novels announcing and critiquing the rise of modern Asia. These novels depict the entrepreneurial subjects of the new global East as they negotiate the twin pulls of tradition and modernity. A number of them employ the form of self-help as a narrative device. Chetan Bhagat’s pulpy One Night @ the Call Center (2005) exhorts readers to reflect on their fears, while narrating the dispositional evolution of its title’s employees from assertions like “nothing about me is great” to “I can do whatever I really want.” Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger (2008) opens with a former driver, now business owner, expressing disdain for American self-help books—“They’re so yesterday. I am tomorrow”—even as he offers his own programmatic lessons in entrepreneurial “self-appreciation.” Tash Aw’s forthcoming Five Star Billionaire (2013), set in rising Shanghai, will be yet another example of what Pankaj Mishra has termed the “literature of boosterism.”

Hard work and risk-taking, it becomes clear, are not sufficient for “you” to cash in on the fantasy-promises of rising Asia.

In each of these novels, violence is key not only for the entrepreneur’s self-preservation but also for his self-appreciation, in both senses: for him to value himself and to increase his net worth. Hard work and risk-taking, it becomes clear, are not sufficient for “you” to cash in on the fantasy-promises of rising Asia. Bhagat’s call-center workers exultantly manhandle their exploitive boss, Adiga’s protagonist bludgeons and slits his employer’s throat, and Hamid’s “you” enlists a bodyguard to shoot a “boyish gunman” who is as desirous as the protagonist of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. But while Adiga’s critics read him as a Western killjoy who, like Danny Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), brought the literal and figurative shit into the story of “India Shining,” the Pakistani Hamid is credited with accurately depicting the lives of millions of transnational strivers for whom the requisite drive-by is just another one of “the ruthless mechanisms and built-in injustices of capitalism” and a step on the journey to self-realization.

Hamid has avoided the criticisms leveled at Adiga in part through his use of “Rising Asia” as the novel’s only named place or character. “Rising Asia” is a construct at the nexus of a geographical and cultural imaginary, always in process, always on the verge of arrival. It exceeds the terms of national identification, enabling Hamid to reposition India’s and China’s putatively exceptional stories in relation to Pakistan and a broader public discourse on Asia’s rise. The coinage signals Hamid’s riposte to writers of the post-American world, including Fareed Zakaria, Edward Luce, Nandan Nilekani, and Siddhartha Deb, whose neo-Hegelian accounts of Asia’s “return” have aroused both admiration and anxiety in the declining West. In this world, the drivers and chai-wallahs of the East are all potential entrepreneurial agents, for, as Hamid’s narrator intones, “wealth comes from capital, and capital comes from labor, and labor comes … from calories in chasing calories out …” Like the once-mythologized Japan of the 1970s and 1980s, the new rising nations have supposedly enabled even their lowest classes to calorically fashion themselves into an economic resource by offering just the right amount of statist interference, neglect, and support for a hepatitis-afflicted “you” to seize his destiny.

Or so the story goes. As Hamid’s “you” stumbles, his possessions reduced to “a single piece of luggage,” it becomes evident that this, like every story of rising Asia’s self-helped entrepreneur, is really a counterfactual narrative of a fall. If the book we are reading had been a better guide, the narrator suggests, “you” would have stayed filthy rich. If this had been the story of Asia’s rise, it would have risen. Ultimately, Hamid’s novel succeeds as a response to both celebrators and detractors of the Asian century. His story of Asia’s new “you” refreshingly exposes how old the story of Asia’s newness has become. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia notes that “every book ever written [is] offered … as a form of self-help.” This metafictional aside underscores that Hamid’s offering is not actually a program for getting rich but rather a guide to writing the bildungsroman of neoliberal Asia. Move to the city, avoid idealists, be prepared to use violence. As pundits prepare their post-mortems of the economic tiger and Asia’s genuinely filthy rich withdraw into their own versions of Antilia, the 27-story personal residence of businessman Mukesh Ambani, readers and writers intent on depicting “the rise” might follow Hamid’s lead and take a narrative exit from the hype.


Jump to review by:

Ragini Srinivasan, Christina Stevenson, Allison Tait, Vazira Zamindar




IN FRIENDSHIP AND IN WEALTH
Christina Stevenson


Joanna Hershon’s fourth novel, A Dual Inheritance, follows the evolution of ambition from adolescence to middle age, to ask what finally determines a successful life: good works or much wealth? Spanning the second half of the 20th century, the novel follows the friendship of Ed Cantowitz, a working-class Jew who works his way up to a penthouse apartment thanks to risky financial investments, and Hugh Shipley, a Boston Brahmin who eventually opens and operates medical clinics in remote areas of Haiti and Tanzania.

The strength of this unlikely friendship—born at Harvard, nurtured in Connecticut, abruptly ended in Manhattan—stems from the discovery that their differences in birth and temperament add up to an elective affinity, a chemical attraction whose bond seems to defy common sense. At the end of their first meeting, Ed reflects that “whatever profound awkwardness he’d been feeling, whatever definitive wrongness, mysteriously tapered off and, like the halting of a violent storm, what was left felt akin to good fortune.” The thread of the men’s friendship wears thin, but their daughters eventually form a stronger tie when they become friends in boarding school some twenty years later, unaware of their fathers’ former relationship.

The novel is a patient study of friendship, which becomes the lens through which to examine the private struggles of the nuclear unit. Hershon largely steers clear of dramatic events, comfortable instead to wander along the divergent paths taken by Hugh, Ed, and their daughters, Vivi Shipley and Rebecca Cantowitz. The sensual language of the narrator gives body and movement to characters and landscapes, especially when Hershon takes her characters to exotic lands: “Everyone was sweating, and everyone was dancing, except for Mr. Shipley, who remained standing, a tall still tree amidst a field of waving, twisting reeds, and Rebecca was one of them.” The fluid descriptions make for an effective counterpoint to the terse but telling dialogue:

 

“You okay now?” asked Vivi.

“Yep,” said Rebecca. “Totally fine.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“I’m moody,” said Rebecca. “I realize that.”

Vivi nodded.

“And you’re not.”

“No,” said Vivi. “That’s true. But I’m other things.”

 

Haunting the novel’s attention to character is Helen: Hugh’s wife and Ed’s would-be lover; Vivi’s mother and Rebecca’s rival. Helen completes the love triangle that brings the two men together and tears them apart. The narrator never adopts her perspective, as it does for the four other characters. She functions instead as the hazy materialization of the ghostly mother, the lost object of Ed’s and Hugh’s respective childhoods. As in many love triangles, the female figure works less as a fully developed character in her own right and more as the expression of homosocial love and competition between male protagonists. Helen mediates Hugh’s relationship with Ed while also offering an outlet for their unspoken affection for each other. While her role in the relationship between Vivi and Rebecca is less fully explored, there is the suggestion that the queer bond between the fathers is reproduced more successfully in the love shared between their daughters.

This silence feels awkward in a book whose protagonists appear to want to respect encounters between strangers.

The more unsettling ghosts, however, are the peripheral territories that serve as background to the novel’s central setting, the upper-class dwellings of the American Northeast. In an interview, Hershon explained her novel’s relationship to travel as an interest in “the moments of self-reinvention and self-discovery that travel can bring. How, while going far outside of our daily life, we can sometimes find a deeper sense of self.” Because of this focus on interior life, a tension begins to emerge between the development of fully realized characters, whose wealth and interests transport them around the globe, allowing them to plumb their desires and realize their dreams, and the muted figures that make this realization possible. The histories and inhabitants of Dar es Salaam, Haiti, Shenzhen, or Dorchester cross the novel as largely speechless figures. This silence feels awkward in a book whose protagonists appear to want to respect encounters between strangers. Hugh, as an anthropology major at Harvard, studied the failings of Western intrusions into the Global South. And Rebecca’s brief stint in Tanzania, distributing mosquito nets to fight malaria, provokes a revelation: “In the face of kids dancing and singing over mosquito nets, one’s ego really did look like a gleaming turd.”

But this revelation is not about saving Tanzanian kids, it’s about saving Rebecca’s future, and her maturation into a less egotistic woman. She learns more about herself than about the people she helps: “After they’d delivered the nets to eleven villages, after Rebecca had discovered and then grown used to the idea that she liked standing up in front of the crowds, the boat docked back at the lodge.” Everything outside of Connecticut and Manhattan are opportunities—for performing good deeds, regaining one’s financial acumen, reassessing one’s life choices—rather than real places, resistant to the whims of American desire. The initial confrontation between WASP and Jew that begins the novel ultimately resolves itself in a unified American affluence pitted against the silence of poverty.


Jump to review by:
Ragini Srinivasan, Christina Stevenson, Allison Tait, Vazira Zamindar




IN LOVE WITH LOVE
Allison Tait

Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night is both a love story and a love letter to the 16th century. This hybrid of historical fiction, fantasy, and romance tells the story of a centuries-old vampire, Matthew Clairmont, and a modern-day witch, Diana Bishop, who travel in time to Elizabethan England. There they encounter the School of Night, an early modern group composed of intellectual luminaries such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, and Thomas Harriot. Those men form the nucleus of the protagonists’ social circle after they leave behind modern-day Oxford’s libraries and laboratories in order to escape their enemies and search for the lost pages of a Renaissance manuscript about alchemy, rumored to contain the secrets of the origin of both vampires and witches. In this volume, the second installment in Harkness’s All Souls trilogy, we learn that Matthew, whom readers of the first volume know as an alluring Oxford don and lovestruck vampire in the present, is none other than Matthew Roydon, a literary figure of the Renaissance past, and himself a purported member of the School of Night.

The book opens with Matthew and Diana landing in 1590s England and proceeds at a leisurely pace that allows Harkness, a history professor, to exercise her eye for detail. Diana, also a history professor, learns to write with a quill and ink and to wear two sets of sleeves and a ruff. Interactions with members of the School of Night and the Elizabethan court reveal facets of Matthew’s temperament that had remained hidden in the first volume: his generosity to Kit Marlowe, his political savvy in dealing with the Queen, his successful friendships with Lord Northumberland and Sir Walter Raleigh, his fraught but surprisingly touching relationship with his father, Philippe de Clermont.

Diana becomes what she was not in the first book—Matthew’s equal—and the reader is rewarded with a corresponding shift in their romance.

The book finds its stride, however, when Diana ascends the political stage. As she grows more accustomed to her new surroundings, she acquires the skills to navigate courtly machinations and megalomania. At the same time, with the help of Goody Alsop, an experienced witch, Diana learns that she is a weaver—an extremely rare and powerful type of witch who can create spells rather than merely cast them. Here, Diana becomes what she was not in the first book—Matthew’s equal—and the reader is rewarded with a corresponding shift in their romance.

In the first volume, the developing romance between Matthew and Diana relied heavily on the conventional vampire narrative, with Matthew cast as the brooding scientist-vampire in love with a woman needing his knowledge and protection. Matthew was the typical vampire of contemporary fiction—possessed of a large fortune, blessed with classic features, and mysteriously well connected. He was also a predator who could barely control himself around Diana and who killed to protect her. Only at the very end of the book did Diana begin to come into her own supernatural birthright, coached by her witchy upstate New York aunts.

This second volume turns to the narrative conventions of fantasy fiction about witches: Diana gains in self-understanding and female empowerment as the extent of her abilities is revealed and she learns how to weave diverse threads of existence into a spell. Diana also takes it upon herself to toy with her now husband, slyly pointing out to a playfully indignant Matthew that he runs the risk of turning their relationship into a stereotype: “Sex and dominance. It’s what modern humans think vampire relationships are all about. … Their stories are full of crazed alpha-male vampires throwing women over their shoulders before dragging them off for dinner and a date.”

Balancing genders and genres, Harkness moves between reproducing and analyzing the novelistic conventions of vampire and witch fiction more successfully than one might expect. Ultimately, however, she remains most committed to a third genre: the romance novel. Once Diana evolves into Matthew’s social and supernatural equal, the book becomes a charged romance that happens to take place against a backdrop of royal espionage, bewitched manuscripts, and supernatural relations. Matthew and Diana are a hero and heroine defined by difference but also well-matched as sparring partners, and Harkness hews to the conventions of romance novels when she chronicles how these two people come to value and love one another despite obstacles both external and internal.

The progress of love is measured, as it often is in romance novels, by the couple’s sex life, which goes from nonexistent in the first book to smoldering in the second, as Matthew and Diana make their way through a baroque set of encounters and rites. The couple achieves true union when Matthew drinks blood from the vein above Diana’s heart and Diana finds a way to know Matthew’s heart by weaving a connection between them:

 

That night marked the true beginning of our marriage. … We didn’t make love every time he joined me in bed, but when we did, it was always preceded and followed by those two searing moments of absolute honesty that removed not only Matthew’s greatest worry but mine: that our secrets would somehow destroy us. And even when we didn’t make love, we talked in the open, easy way that lovers dream of doing.

 

Gone is the irony of their previous exchanges about vampires and witches, replaced by pure romantic fantasy. In this moment, Harkness delivers the payoff that defines the best romance fiction—two autonomous and individually powerful people attaining absolute intimacy and connection—and demonstrates that the historical romance need not reinforce gender stereotypes. Instead, Harkness uses historical romance to investigate how social circumstances shape individual development as well as the ways in which two people discover and appreciate each other’s worth. The great seriousness with which Harkness approaches this process of mutual discovery, mixed with her loving treatment of the historical setting, makes Shadow of Night a delightful hybrid that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Jump to review by:
Ragini Srinivasan, Christina Stevenson, Allison Tait, Vazira Zamindar



MEMORY AND WAR IN BANGLADESH
Vazira Zamindar

What can an intimate and tender family memoir reveal about a horrific war and the bloody birth of a nation-state? Philip Hensher’s novel Scenes from Early Life, based on the childhood memories of his Bangladeshi husband, takes us through the genocidal violence and political upheavals of the year 1971 in the city of Dacca (later Dhaka) through the lives of an elite, well-connected, and highly cultured family. The novel’s detailed narrative of family life captures the everyday cultivation of national feeling through poetry, music, and food; the terrors of political violence experienced from within the confines of a sheltered life; and the accumulative nature of memories. After all, in the fateful year on which the novel pivots, Saadi, the character representing Hensher’s husband, is only a baby, perpetually stuffed with sweets by his aunts. But the writing artfully reveals how an individual’s memories are not merely a matter of recovering individual experience; rather, they are formed over years through the telling and retelling that become the fabric of family lore, as well as national ones.

“What would happen, people started to ask, if a Bengali were elected president of the whole country—if the capital of Pakistan were moved to Dacca, the first language of the nation became Bengali, and the national anthem became a song of Tagore’s?”

Historians have often turned to fiction to get at sentiments and conflicts subsumed or silenced by nationalism. There is very little unsettling of Bangladeshi national lore in Scenes. The family’s love of Bengali poetry, music, and art transcends religious differences and even accommodates a non-Bengali into its gentile kin network; real indignation is reserved for those who abetted the Pakistani forces. But it also eloquently draws out the ways in which Pakistani, Urdu, army, and mullah are knit together through these years to constitute a people’s experience of cultural oppression and unforgivable violence, a set of deeply felt connections that continue to stir politics in Bangladesh (as evidenced in the recent trial of the Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee).

For Pakistani readers, on the other hand, novels like Hensher’s are very important for apprehending the poetic aspirations to democracy that the war savaged: “What would happen, people started to ask, if a Bengali were elected president of the whole country—if the capital of Pakistan were moved to Dacca, the first language of the nation became Bengali, and the national anthem became a song of Tagore’s?” These questions, which even the narrator worries are “unthinkable,” hold out possibilities that histories of Pakistan still need to confront.

One tends to think about war and political violence in terms of numbers of dead and raped, or through stories of graphic brutality or heroic action. By contrast, the ordinary forms of terror that emanate from extraordinary military deployment and resistance, though more pervasive, are harder to register. For most, this ordinary horror is what living through a war is like, etching its own scars while bringing people together. Hensher’s affectionate novel is largely set in Saadi’s grandfather’s house in the elite neighborhood of Dhanmondi. Yet despite that privileged vantage point, it gives us some experience of the anxiety and humiliation of checkpoints, the fear of patrols, and the need to conceal that fear, to wear the strained cloak of everydayness, for the sake of children and for the sake of those in danger. One of the most poignant moments in the book finds Saadi’s mother gripped by abject terror when her husband goes out during a break in the curfew to help neighbors flee the city. Each hour and minute of his absence carries a burden of years, and nearly breaks her strength, but experiences like hers also demand that family and friends, like nation, gather close to share strength and endure.

Flickr / Shubho Salateen

As a novel based on the memories of a same-sex spouse, Scenes has been compared to Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), although clearly Hensher’s leap of love is far more remarkable, the cultural world he brings to life being so far from his own. As a literary work in English on the 1971 war of liberation, it joins Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age (2007). However, Scenes could also be read alongside Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography (2003)—set during the same war and in an elite family in Karachi, Pakistan—and thus open up for comparison the seams of memory and narration that tore two histories apart, and brought a new nation-state into being.



Jump to review by:

Ragini Srinivasan, Christina Stevenson, Allison Tait, Vazira Zamindar