In 'Serious Men', his first novel, Manu Joseph has brought together a small group of well realized characters and set them at each others throats in the age old context of class warfare, Indian style. The conflict is set in motion through the machinations of the protagonist, Ayyan, who is motivated by an unrelenting hatred of privileged people, all of whom he sees as Brahmins. He is Karna pitted once more against the Pandavas, and this time he means to win. Ayyan, the Dalit, is a modern day picaro, all hate and no humor, with a plan to sabotage windmills rather than tilt at them. Even an Iago, perhaps.
The Hindu, one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in India, has given its Best Indian Fiction Award of 2010 to 'Serious Men'. From this first notice I became envious and wanted to know more about the book and its author. I came across a glowing review , and heard from the author himself in a Huffington Post interview. What was not to like? A respected journalist-editor; an intriguing story; a theme of guaranteed appeal; original characters whom readers can love or hate with no in-betweens; Bollywood potential - nay, Hollywood potential. Aspiring authors would kill for such a winning conflux of graces. And yet ...
By the end of day one of my read I was beside myself. The book offended my sensibilities and I took a hi-lighter to mark its infelicities. Buckets of bile bubbled in my innards. My friend showed up for dinner. I raged at the book. She grew apprehensive. I read out to her all the snippets I had marked. My voice grew hoarse. She bid me stop, "Narayan, you're going to have a conniptionfit!" In another hour I returned to a semblance of normalcy. "Can you not overlook all this and just read the book for its story?" she said. Apparently all the touts of 'Serious Men' had done just that. The short answer to my friend's question was, "No, I can't". Neither can the Leatherstocking Tales be read this way any more; to bring some sanity to my rage and simplify matters, I invoked Mark Twain's critique of James Fenimore Cooper's novels of colonial America.
Here is Mark Twain enumerating eighteen rules that Cooper violated; they require :
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. That the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it.
3. That the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
4. That the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. That when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
6. That when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
7. That when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.
8. That crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale.
9. That the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
10. That the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
11. That the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
In addition to these large rules there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:
12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
Most of these are coldly and persistently violated in 'Serious Men' as I demonstrate in the appendix.
Thinking to simplify my assessment, I sat up all night seeking ways to categorize Joseph's literary offences. I hope I have succeeded in my choices in the spirit of Twain. The evidence is appended to this article for interested readers. Twain asserts that Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in 'Deerslayer,' and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record. Much as I am tempted, I promise not to make such exaggerated claims.
So why the bile, you ask? Right off the bat I'll admit that bad reviews can be the sour-grapes of would-be writers, and I am not immune to the fantasy of being a published fictioneer. It is The Way of the World : the envy of Nature's oafs by Fortune's fools (or is it the other way around?). Touché! Setting this aside, I ask : why the award? why the tributes? why the glowing reviews? Here's a sampling :
== elegantly describes - novelist of serious talent - fine literary art
== Joseph’s writing has an unmistakable assurance and intelligence, and he steers almost completely clear of the contrivances of plot, infelicities of style, stereotypical narrative arcs, and oddly ingratiating manner found in so many contemporary Indian novels in English.
== If there is one novel you must buy this year, whether or not you have the slightest interest in South Asia, make it this one.
== The assurance, wit, and compelling storytelling make this a debut to treasure, and the book will take its place amongst the great comic novels that through the comedy shine a light on their times.
The unanimity, in this instance at least, suggests a mutual admiration society of literary shills - writers, journalists, editors, publishers, book-sellers, and paid reviewers - Pied Pipers to a trusting Indian readership - collectively, an army of lemmings.
Outside this conclave of vested interests stands a lone dissenter. Commenting on an obscure blog, the anonymous Annie complains of "a bitter aftertaste", and, "Oparna, Oja, Lavanya - the basest that women can be made out to be; the male gaze of the writer all through the novel. I also wonder how a journo has grabbed the best fiction award instituted by a journo-house." Brava, Annie!
From the author himself we have another clue : "Joseph joked that a high-profile prize in the UK might alter the way the book is perceived at home. 'In India, the novel is being received very well. As long as it doesn't win the Booker ...' he said." My, my! Could these be sour-grape varietals from a rival vineyard? Indians now have a champion to front them as they take pot-shots at the last three compatriots who won the Booker prize. All have been marginalized already to degrees - Roy for her activism, Desai for her narrative, and Adiga for the sin of inauthenticity - as if good language and a respect for idiom, idioma y idiotismo, did not matter.
In standing up to all this I must again shelter behind Mark Twain. Speaking as a reader with no Eng. Lit. credentials - a Dalit of the book world - it seems to me that it was far from right for the Brahmins of the publishing business to deliver opinions on Joseph's novel without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read 'Serious Men'.
Far from being a great novel, 'Serious Men', despite its vaunted merits, is junk writing in the tradition of Bulwer-Lytton and high-school prose. The Hindu has bought itself a pig in a poke. Silk purses and sow's ears come to mind, as does gato por liebre. Caveat Emptor!
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> [Sample the Appendix for a few chuckles] >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
To his credit, every time Joseph attempts dialog, especially involving the Dalits, most of his deplorable authorial vices disappear. These scenes are commendable - the voices ring true and the author graciously withholds comment. I relished them and found myself cheering for Joseph and his characters, as when Oja asks "Who is Adidas?" This is the classic victory of showing over telling. In contrast, exchanges among the Brahmins generally sound stilted, but this may be intentional - the author's prerogative. You will note that all the examples I have adduced are from Joseph's telling, which occupies 95% of the book.
Page numbers and my comments are given in brackets when significant. A few of the category headings are stolen from "How Not to Write a Novel", by H.Mittelmark and S.Newman.
Sig Freed & the Countess Morianna Badunofna-García
[The good guys, Dalits, have two syllable names, which is a blessing for western readers : Ayyan, Oja, Adi. The baddies, Brahmins, wear three syllable names like black hats. Acharya is a hazard since westerners can't seem to get their tongue and minds around the 'rya'; I should know - it's my own surname. But I have a real beef about the name Oparna Goshmaulik. Being a journalist, Joseph has no excuse for this choice; he would not be published if he had an American character named Aasker Jaansun, however correct a phonetical rendering this is. No self-respecting Bengali would foist that spelling upon her daughter - it is Aparna and I'll brook no argument on this score. As for the name Gosh, which is only ever spelt Ghosh, Joseph must be as impaired with aspirated consonants as westerners are in this instance - evidence his spelling of a song title 'Joot Bhole ...' for the phonetically correct 'Jhooth Bole ...'. I am inclined to believe that Joseph has a thing about Bengalis since the only gratuitous ethnic slur in the book is directed at them] Historically ... the only just punishment for a Bengali male has been a Bengali female [delivered, fittingly, by a character of Joseph's own ethnicity.]
Loaded Dice - The Wise Dalit / You're too good to be troo-oo
[Ayyan, a peon with minimal education, is all-knowing and sees through everybody. The conceit of the novel is a hoax he initiates by bribing a journalist. Either he has discretionary income in abundance for such a bribe, or journalists must come cheap in Mumbai (Joseph is one). The extended hoax requires a suspension of disbelief that I cannot sustain, what with the bile, the rising gorge, and the stitch I have from laughing at his bloated language and ham-handed imagery] / [Ayyan lusts after the unattainable, upper-caste, foreign-educated scientist Oparna. Fair enough. But ...] Oparna G was an enchantment that was always beyond his fortunes, but despite the unscalable rungs of society, there were only so many types of people and once upon a time he had rumbled with the type of Oparna. [Joseph immediately reveals that a decade ago Ayyan, besides visiting the prostitute quarter, had managed to grope typists, secretaries and shop attendants - you know the type - chicks with Stanford degrees. Later, we learn of assignations with married women who are termed 'wives', which made me do a double-take thinking Ayyan, momentarily, to be a polygamist. Perhaps this properly belongs in the Duh! section.]
Loaded Dice - The Clueless Brahmins
He did not know the Institute had cleaners [Acharya, the head of a research establishment, must believe in fairies. Nor does he know his maid's name. After a long sojourn in Princeton, he doesn't know what polka-dots are] / [At a one-on-one meeting he has with Oparna to discuss her research, she is shown engrossed in a scientific publication while he is reading a louche comic-book] / [Acharya, in his sixties, is enviably priapic. He has a joyous swelling, a youthful swelling, and finally, mercifully, an erection. Well over six feet in height, he tries to hide his joyous whatever on the way to the bathroom by pretending to read a newspaper. A word on the dimensions of The Times of India would have helped this image. He then proceeds to impress his subordinates by taking a piss with his hands behind his neck, his back arched, and overshoots the urinal. Holy climacteric! Does Joseph know what will hit him when he gets to the 'advanced age' of sixty? The angle of the dangle won't be what it used to be; he might even be dribbling into his Depends] / [Elephant symbolism is used severally to describe Acharya. I cracked up at one point where he is shown, waking up in bed, as a 'mammoth infant' - perhaps Joseph meant 'infant mammoth'.] / [Ayyan claims he is a member of Mensa and to have an IQ of 148, and his bosses just take his word for it, as any Brahmin would!] / [Acharya, reminiscing about ...] the first beautiful months of their marriage. And their love that they never ever called love. Because it was not necessary to name it then. [Hold it right there Buster! This comes dangerously close to the turning point in The Crown vs. Wilde, when the prosecutor asks "What is 'the love that dare not speak its name'?" Oscar Wilde temporises in answering, but the court ultimately dismissed it as a euphemism for pederasty and sentenced him to two years hard labor. Whether Joseph knows this or not, this is egg on his face] / [Acharya's wife, Lavanya, is the novel's greatest missed opportunity. She ends up being a stick figure with no inner life, coming and going to no clear purpose. It's a shame. She has no portrayed reaction to her husband's infidelity]
The Dirty Parts
[There is but one sex scene in the book and it is as erotic as, say, a lecture on the mating habits of nematodes. The setting is a basement lab long after the workday. The scene opens with Oparna sitting on the floor by her desk in near darkness - we shall never know why because Joseph wills it so. Because of the foreshadowing I was in a hurry to get to the dirty bits and didn't notice her on the floor until I read that Acharya's knee was at her shoulder. Even that opportunity is allowed to escape (you can see that I have a dirty mind). A hundred and fifty-five pages of preparation and the act is over in less than a page - talk about extended foreplay and ejaculation praecox!] In less than a minute, he fell on her breasts ... He did not know such pleasurable violence was permitted outside the myth of pornography [Myth is a word the author misuses often throughout. Eight pages of conversation follow in which the following feature : A's navel (belly-button) and the lint therein; A's wife; O's sexual experience; fingers, thumbs and the decimal system as pertain to the counting of former lovers; a physics conference and what A did not say at it; the state of physics and its future; Benjamin Libet and his research on the existence of free will (2 pages); a childhood experience that stretches credulity (2 pages); the meaning of life; the creation of star systems; bras. I don't know about you folks, but in my distant memory, post-coital intercourse has never come anywhere near inertial nav systems, GPS and Kalman filters - things I know of - let alone the meaning of life. Too bad not a single character in the book smokes. Such a cut-and-dried treatment of vital congress between man and woman, to my mind, can only be the work of a writer bankrupt of humanism. In the time it takes Acharya to go home and change into dry clothes, he is scuppered. His wife finds his belly-button lint missing, and the idiot confesses to an affair - not a night-stand or a fuck - an affair! Should I rage at him or his creator? I have a vested interest in the credibility of my namesake!]
Men are from Cliché, Women are from Stereotype / Gratuitous Savaging
the banality of academic society : those austere men and grotesque hairy women / the unmistakable insanity of formidable women who longed to crumble / the wails of undead whores / her demented mother / Her hair was dishevelled, and her long top looked so terrible that she felt like some sort of activist [Arundhati Roy, no doubt] / the insubordination of women ... is often a consequence of infatuation / She was wooing a fat old man. She must be ovulating. / [Young girls in the rain] giggled and skipped and ran, as if they were in a sanitary-towel commercial [Yowza!] / [Oparna, a Stanford educated woman, hates the sexist ways of Indian men early in the book, later loves Indian men because they are cute and have begun to wear narrow shoes. She dresses sexily or demurely at the author's whim, has breasts of reasonable size with nipples that harden easily, and succulent buttocks. Always characterized as arrogant, her eyes are often downcast (in the Indian expectation of women) even in the presence of a peon] / fat women in some kind of ludicrous aerobic activity / shrunken ancient mother in a costume that would have branded her a whore in her youth / She wondered how women would have handled this situation. What if the jury had been comprised of menopausal women? ... They would have butchered her in a minute. [such thinking by an educated modern woman is incongruous and suggests that the author is projecting his own thoughts onto Oparna] / Newly betrothed girls went with long strides to abolish fat before the bridal night when they might have to yield on the pollen of a floral bed to a stranger bearing K-Y Jelly [from the last page of the book!] / [and much, much more]
Duh! / Deathless Prose / Say What?
Ayyan's perpetual knowledge that a box of condoms in their home outlasted a jar of pickles / At the school gates, Ayyan feasted on young mothers / Even here, she told herself without malice, everything is a kind of penis [a man has just said that Pluto is too small to be considered a planet] / He looked at her in disgust, but she was not wearing her glasses / He inhaled a lot of air and looked at her [just what the doctor ordered with his stethoscope to my chest] / 'Yes, Sir, Yes Sir,' Basu said many times. It was a private dialect of bureaucracy, and it had no other words / The smile reminded Acharya of the arrack drinkers who used to fall defeated in the paddyfields of his childhood [you had to be there!] / the banal way in which medieval no-talent writers finished their moral fables - the great triumphing over the petty [and the purpose of a moral fable is ... ?] / 'If I strum your head, there will be music', he said / [a look] at once hopeful and melancholic. Like light was both particle and wave. [ya don't say!] / Old women were unfurling their umbrellas with a wisdom that did not have a clear face. It struck him, how complete, how final, an umbrella was. As a technology, it would not evolve further. [I should treat mine with more respect then] / He saw an old man jog to a bus shelter, dribbling his swollen testicles on his frail thighs, like a footballer during warm-up [That old Tijuana trouper! I wondered where he went] / [Acharya trying to subdue his erection ...] It might have been unprecedented, he suspected, for a man of advanced age to kill such a serendipitous unmedicated vigour, the pursuit of which, even among the young, was a billion dollar industry. He briefly remembered Nicolaus Copernicus, at a moment in history, throttling his own heliocentric theory and conceding to the Vatican that the Earth was indeed the centre of the universe [thus rendering useless a half-century worth of baseball statistics] / The swelling that has subsided grew again and was now leading him down the path, like the proboscis of a foolish rover on Mars that was right now searching for water and beasts [is that why they sent it up there, down the garden path?] / And he metamorphosed from a sudden cult on the pathways into a subterranean legend / In the back lanes of the academic world the news of Acharya's discovery was greeted with joy, and with the inadvertent compliments of skepticism. But in the real world of regular people for which science pretended to toil, the even went across the day like an invisible epoch. Between the news of the stockmarket upsurge and Islamic terror and a man stabbing his lover twenty-two times, The Times hurriedly summarized an epic scientific labour. Rather as an epitaph tells the story of a whole life in the hyphen between two dates [RIP, DEP and Amen] / [Crass stupidities, wouldn't you say?]
The Byzantine Latinate / The Penis-like Sausage
perpetual drunkards / inopportune Madras filter coffee / Pavarotti was his ethereal accomplice [he ain't heavy, he's my brother] / triumphantly thumbed the play button / an importune moment of clarity / munificent eyes [Christ's benevolent eyes] / no-talent pigeons [as opposed to clever and mean crows] / the officious parabola of the oval table / [drank coffee] with urgent enthusiastic sips / animated students / foolish pigeon / [With innumerable risibly queer qualifiers like these, one gets the feeling that Joseph cannot let a noun, verb or adjective go without burdening it. In almost every instance this serves as ball-and-chain upon the prose, and ultimately, upon the reader. Books on effective writing universally warn against this syndrome - one is aptly titled "When you catch an adjective, kill it!" Joseph should invest his award money in a few how-not-to manuals.]
Coitus Interruptus / Pull That Punch, Please / Words Fail Me
She had done reasonable research / the unremarkable silence of men / a pretty girl, somewhat preoccupied with her long hair / almost beautiful / he looked apologetically at the reasonable mounds of her breasts / a denim skirt which had a flower, or something similar, embroidered around the thigh [is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?] / crows chased colored birds [Makes me yearn to hear my nieces greet the verdure of spring with "Ai la! So green-green, no?"] / [Vagueness abounds. In addition to his adjectivitis, Joseph is plagued by indecision. He feels no duty as an author to render his showing and telling in concrete terms. His favourite escape is in words like something, somehow, somewhat, slightly, usually, often, almost, some sort of, something like it, so, very, believe, suspect, probably, with no supporting explanation. Every opportunity for descriptive showing is squandered in favor of unenlightening abstractions]
moist lips / a silver plate full of moist fruits [as opposed to dry-fruit] / fat man with moist black lips / succulent royal lips / wet earth / loose flesh shuddered like water in the immoral pink beds of Tamil films / [The wet, damp, moist imagery continues through the book in keeping perhaps with its Mumbai setting with its four months of rain. Crucially, this obsession fails Joseph at a critical juncture in the book - the sole sex scene has no words of lubricity!]
The success of an old man lies in not wishing for company [would that it were that easy] / It was important to be young. Only the young can love, because the imbecility of youth is the only spectrum of love. He could see it so clearly now. Like every ray of light with a wavelength of 700 nanometres is always red, everyone who is in love is young [but it takes real maturity to say a frequency of 4.286 Terahertz] / It's not only the sad who go mad, my child, it is also the happy [I'll be sure to steer a middle course] / The mascot of real joy he had always imagined was a simple human smile, but now he suspected that a smile was actually very frivolous. The face of true deep joy had to be an impassive grimness. [who'd-a thunk!] / the sound of the sea was another form of silence / [Here we are again in Duh! territory]
Le Mot (in)Juste / Idioma y Idiotismo
crumpled clothes [wrinkled] / her silver-grey Baleno [car] lay on the side of the driveway [well then, pick it up dammit!] / he plundered her [violated] / stood behind a fat beam [pillar] / unscientific [non-scientific] / attic [loft] / drunkard [drunk] / she had grown to unmarriageable levels [height] / the incipient guitar piece of Hotel California [prelude] / Oparna was now a carnival [Samba incluso?] / his wife for forty years / proceeded into / As the regime sat in uneasy calm [staff] / tense rope [tightrope] / broken tiles arranged in a pattern [mosaic] / [An official who informs Acharya that he is in breach of security is called an informer] / language newspapers [vernacular] / [It is as if Joseph had said "No Diction-aurus for me, thanks. What do you take me for? I'm a journalist!"]
See You Later, Alliterator!
her succulent buttocks that were hoisted by high heels [and were do urricanes ardly hever appen?] / when he had seen, for the first time, a fish die. The final frantic palpitations of the fish ... he heard faraway phones / a boy's first foreboding of life / dedicated the million melancholies to the memory of a boy /he tried desperately to search for a distraction to abolish this distraction [fighting fire with fire are we?] / some fell festively into the open homes / [How-to books on writing warn against this as distracting except in works of humor. Joseph is innocent of this axiom and goes out of his way to seek strained alliterations every chance he gets.]
These are a few of my favourite words
moronic mirth  / moronic missions  / moronic benevolence of keeping in touch  / daughters keen on finding a moron and leaving  / moronic city  / a man on a bike ... riding like a moron  / maths was fundamentally moronic  / moronic pride  / [There are many more moronic words that Joseph uses over and over again : diabolic, insane, demented, melancholy, etc. Most are gratuitous put-downs and the rest are bummers or inappropriate.]
Ich bin ein [sic] Indien
Ganesha ... the elephant god [The family Elephantidae would hardly concur, since one of theirs was slaughtered to provide a head for Parvati's (read Penelope) son, who was beheaded in a fit of rage by his father Shiva (read Ulysses). Westerners who mention Ganesha follow it unfailingly with 'the elephant god'. For an Indian to do so is unforgivable in my book. Joseph sucking up to western readers?] / [Salwars (pajama bottoms for women) are said to be modest or revealing when such terms can, ipso facto, only apply to the Kameezes (the tops) that almost entirely occlude the bottoms] / [The connection between Dalits and Buddhism is hinted at but not explored. It's a pity since the principal Dalit Buddhist temple in Mumbai is located in Worli, where Ayyan. Religion is largely unexploited by Joseph; perhaps his knowledge of Hinduism does not extend beyond the caste system]
liquid gel in her joints / intelligent nods of incomprehension / [There is a host of other jarring inconsistencies and unintended oxymorons in situational passages too long to cite here, all should be obvious to a careful reader]
Repepetitions / Redundant Tautology
He steered his trousers around his waist [33,57,102,257 and more] / jaundice-yellow walls [5,87, and other shades of yellow] / pink bald head [more often than needed] / [and many more]
Crepitating Parasols & Crepuscular Handbags
reverential books / a paranormal fax machine / the terrified hair-band / the curtain ... went up in somnolent folds [twice] / opportunistic saris / the face of Ayyan tried to evaluate the situation / furious silver hair / [manic anthropomorphisms galore]