- The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
Faber, 307 pp, £9.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 571 13967 1
- The Haunted House by Rebecca Brown
Picador, 139 pp, £8.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 330 29175 0
- Whole of a Morning Sky by Grace Nichols
Virago, 156 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 86068 774 0
- The Piano Tuner by Peter Meinke
Georgia, 156 pp, $13.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 8203 0844 7
- Tap City by Ron Abell
Secker, 273 pp, £10.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 436 00025 3
Why not a novel in verse? It’s all a question of expectations, and in The Golden Gate the Indian-born poet Vikram Seth single-handedly overturns most readers’ expectations about what can, and cannot, pass as a novel. Whatever the frame of mind in which you begin it, by the end it has come to seem the most natural – and the most accessible, and easily assessable – thing in the world. One takes the poetic dexterity for granted, and begins to see its faults as a novel. Perhaps neither reaction is wholly fair to the author, but it is he who has taken a gamble and broken the rules.
The Golden Gate is written in the stanza form of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, made familiar to English readers by Sir Charles Johnston’s Penguin Classics translation, which Seth handsomely acknowledges. The use of this form to tell a story of contemporary Californian life would have daunted a less determined and self-assured writer – though at least ‘Onegin’ can be rhymed with ‘Reagan’:
How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread molds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The answer is that he can, and does. The chief characteristic of Pushkin’s tetrameter lines is their swiftness. The sonnet form allows for a deft underlining of each stage in the narration. This form has none of the ponderousness of English verse narratives in the Miltonic tradition. It fairly races along with (Seth’s joke, not Pushkin’s) ‘the curt beat/ Of itchy soles and athletes’ feet’.
The Golden Gate is in no sense a pastiche of Eugene Onegin, though both books are concerned with the romantic entanglements of gilded youths. Seth’s characters are not Russian transplants, but Californians seen in their native habitat. We begin and end with John, an upwardly-mobile computer scientist whose work is connected (just how is never made clear) with nuclear weapons manufacture. At the age of 26, John belatedly realises that he is a workaholic with no private life. Jan, an ex-girlfriend, diagnoses his trouble and secretly inserts a heartsearch ad for another lonely workaholic: ‘Young handsome yuppie seeks ...’ The replies from female yuppies (real and pretended) come pouring in, and John meets the significantly-named Liz Dorati.
John’s background is half-English, but we are invited to make little of that, or of any of the presumed contents of his mind. Some lip-service is paid to nanoseconds and megabytes, and in his spare time, we are told, he ‘likes to read/ Eclectically from Mann to Bede’. If so, he reads merely from boredom, since it has no measurable effects upon his life. There could hardly be a more striking contrast with Pushkin’s characters. Onegin and his Tatyana may not have been great readers, but they were steeped in a well-defined cultural and literary tradition stretching from Richardson to Rousseau and Byron. They tended to re-enact the romantic roles that their contemporaries had become so excited about. In The Golden Gate the choice is between a hereditary and pastoral mode of life (Liz Dorati’s parents are wine-growers), the culture of protest and rock music, and the ‘yuppie’ state of mental and imaginative barrenness.