Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
1997, 340 pp

On the very first page of Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize winner, the inventiveness of her language reaches out and beats you over the head. The cover of the book is crawling with praise from John Updike about an entirely unique voice, and if anything Updike is guilty here of understatement. The God of Small Things is almost relentlessly devoid of cliché, both in content and in style. It contains similes like nothing you have ever seen. In the Kerala of Arundhati Roy, blood “spills out like a secret,” churches “swell like a throat,” insects “appear like ideas,” and insanity “hovers close like a waiter at an expensive restaurant.” As a teenager, I once had the distinct misfortune to read the following sentence: “His brows knotted into a furious knot.” Observe the skill with which Roy avoids this disaster and turns a tired cliché into a starting visual: “A man with a red flag and a face like a knot.” Even cloud descriptions, which at times seem to this reviewer as tiresome and obligatory in novels as Frank Capra films at Christmas, are made fresh in Roy’s deft prose. In her world, clouds are “like substandard mattress-stuffing” and the rain from them falls continuously, which she manages to turn into a splendid metaphor for memory which “bombs a still, tea-colored mind” just as the rain pulverizes the tranquil surface of a pond. Roy is almost distressingly hyper-aware of details and is particularly skilled at conveying them with swift literary economy. I am slightly terrified by the idea that somewhere right now Arundhati Roy is observing things in this kind of detail.

Aside from the inventive similes, Roy has an interesting habit of combining two words into one, usually making a noun or verb inextricable from an otherwise invisible adjective. Stephen King used to do this sort of thing as well, but with his particular brand of down-home Americana which originated words like “lunchstink.” It’s a useful way for those of us who never made it past the words “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead” feel terribly Modernist. For Roy, the words are most often related to colors or sensations, and add to the general impression that the narrative voice is one derived from the consciousness of her seven-year-old protagonists. In a trick shamelessly stolen from Martin Amis’s review of an Iris Murdoch book, I made notes of these words as I read and an aggregate of them indeed provides a decent impression of the book as a whole:

Dustgreen mossgreen oversmiling sariflapping goldringed softsounds dullthudding thunderdarkness suddenshudder soapslippery sourmetal oldfood fallingoff steelshrill carbreeze daymoon slipperoily feverbutton dinnerfull sleepsmile chromebumpered sharksmile greenehat brittlewhite deepswimming longago deepblue crumbleblack

Her narrative voice, as I’ve mentioned, is strongly flavored with the precocious wide-eyed youth of her main characters, and (quite reminiscent of Salman Rushdie) is given to clever wordplay combining English and Malayalam and her own invented terms into recurring, slightly childlike phrases which become attached to people, places, and ideas and follow them through the novel. Once she settles on a clever name or description for someone or something, the reader can rest assured that this description will recur again and again. Fortunately, it allows Roy to fine-tune an idea, so that the grammatically annoying “kind school teacher (that sometimes slapped)” on page 165 can gratifyingly cease to be the object of a relative clause and become its subject (“who sometimes slapped”) on page 237. To some degree this habit probably owes its origin to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” and “swift-footed Achilles” which used to provide handy iambic fillers and memory aids to the aoidos, but which also turn up in most magical realist literature—Salman Rushdie in particular.

Rather like Midnight’s Children, Roy’s wordplay eventually overstays its welcome, and since her plot is a sort of clockwork unraveling of a single day rather than a broad national epic, The God of Small Things starts to feel a bit long two hundred pages sooner than Midnight’s Children did. You know by the second chapter that a certain character is going to drown; two hundred pages later you rather wish she’d just get on with it already.

There are a few other interesting parallels to Midnight’s Children: a little white girl is an important plot catalyst, there is an important pickle factory, noses and movies both move the plot along. The narrator, with the benefit of hindsight, is constantly giving cryptic allusions to what is going to happen, before annoyingly doubling back to tell something which happened earlier. There are also thematic similarities: The God of Small Things is essentially a heartbreaking meditation on Rushdie’s point that “children are vessels into which adults pour their poison.”

There are important differences as well. While Rushdie’s book is an exultant, invigorating, energetic, magical trip through a half-century of Indian history, The God of Small Things is the bitter story of the destruction of a family. Roy herself sums it up well: “They tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.” It is a story of love and passion in conflict with tradition, religion, and superstition (those artificial tyrants of the mind) and the way in which that conflict destroys people. The uncoiling structure of the novel allows cause and effect to reveal themselves in alternating, increasingly complicated patterns until, upon putting down the book, you attempt to piece the entire story together and then are struck by the sense that you really ought to go back and read the beginning again. It is the sort of book which is even more powerful and sad the second time around, when the reader can observe the hopeless tragedy of the characters, rather than be pulled along by the clockwork mechanisms of their misfortunes.

Although remarkable in its structure and its language, it is not a perfect book. As I’ve already mentioned, it does slightly go on too long, and rather like with Midnight’s Children, if the narrator would simply tell us what’s happening rather than constantly hinting at what is going to happen, the book would probably be half as long. Even the clever similes get a bit tiresome: by the time someone has shock that “swells like phantom applause in an empty auditorium,” you get tired of trying to figure out what the hell that even means and start to wish she would just say “She was shocked.” By the thirty-ninth repetition of the children’s hairstyles, you want to fly to Kerala and shout at Arundhati Roy that you know perfectly well that one of them has his hair done like Elvis. Perhaps worst of all, when the climactic moment of the plot finally arrives after 237 pages of linguistic invention, Roy’s Thomas Edison similes fail her entirely and she offers up an unforgivable cliché: “She shattered like glass.”

Yet The God of Small Things is a fascinating novel. It is quite persuasive on the particulars of life in Kerala: the caste hatred, the prevalent Communists, the peculiar existence of the Syrian Christian community, and so forth. Roy is almost cruelly uncompromising in the construction of her characters’ misfortune and the bitter honesty with which she depicts the lives and beauty destroyed by petty bitterness and manmade (or more accurately, woman-made) hatred. It is the sort of story you cannot get out of your mind, and which as you contemplate it in its entirety and begin to appreciate the enormity of suffering it contains only becomes more remarkable.

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