- 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.
Luckily, John has some non-yuppie friends. Alternative lifestyles, civil disobedience, the problems of single parenting, and the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality, all play their part in the story, which at times threatens to become a forum for discussing contemporary ideas, and at other times a relaxed soap-opera in verse. There is a scene or two on the Golden Gate Bridge, but by the end the Dorati family’s vineyard and the nearby ‘clapboard church with the white steeple’ have come to loom much larger than anyone could have expected. Thanksgiving at the Doratis’ may fall short of Christmas at Dingley Dell in some respects, but it is here in a harvest festival atmosphere that John’s real claims on Liz’s affections (the two have been lovers, of course, ever since she answered his ad) are conclusively weighed in the balance. It is his best friend and rival, an anti-nuclear protestor called Phil, who is chosen. The golden gate in this novel leads not so much to the Pacific Ocean as to a durable marriage.
Liz Dorati is a lawyer. During the period when John is her lover, the gates to her innermost heart are symbolically guarded by Charlemagne, her cat, who is John’s bête noire but one of Seth’s more appealing characters. John is a ‘linkless node, no spouse or sibling,/ No children’ – nor does he keep pets – but Phil is the single parent of a small child. If we add that he is the first man to offer her a really sound contract, it is clear why legal Liz should find him irresistible. ‘I’ve found,’ Phil tells her,
That love’s a pretty poor forecaster ...
Passion’s a prelude to disaster.
It’s something else that makes me sure
Our bond can last five decades more.
The gate to a Golden Wedding? Morally, The Golden Gate is surprisingly simplistic, and apart from the idea that both sexes can now sow their wild oats, its message for the 1980s would have sounded old hat in 1880. The cost of writing a verse novel, it would seem, is to turn a blind eye to virtually all that Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence and their successors have done in prose. The result is a strange blend of racy, colloquial literary enterprise and static neo-Victorian values.
Despite its neo-gothic title, The Haunted House betrays no hint of anachronism. Rebecca Brown explores a daughter’s fantasies about her father and mother, and the manifold emotional damage they have caused her, with poetic feeling and a sustained and controlled intensity. Robin Daley’s father was a US Navy pilot, constantly away from home and the victim of his grand obsessions with flying and drinking. Known as ‘The Commander’, he was fun to go out with (‘I’ll fly, you navigate,’ he would say to his daughter on their rare excursions together), but a disaster on the domestic front. The author’s talent for hair-raising comic scenes is exemplified in the description of a horrendous Christmas day when her younger brother, Robin and her mother and father open their presents in strict rotation. Each of her father’s parcels, meticulously chosen and wrapped by her mother, turns out to contain a bottle of liquor. The Commander takes the hint, and ‘kisses off’ the next morning. Robin’s mother then shows herself as equally obnoxious in her new life as a famous movie-star. It is likely that her mother’s second career as a Hollywood actress is all Robin’s fantasy, but with so much in this novel on the edge of the believable, even the publisher’s blurb-writer appears to be confused.
The Haunted House falls into three loosely-related parts, each of which develops a particular aspect of Robin’s experiences to the point of panic and delirium. (She herself, it soon emerges, has inherited her father’s liking for liquor.) Parts one and two, exploring her relationships with her father and mother, each end in a phantasmagoric plane crash which is the appropriate metaphor for her upbringing and her parents’ marriage. The third part, ‘The Haunted House’, develops the neo-gothic motif of things that go creak and bump in the night in order to suggest the impossibility, for Robin, of settling down and forming an adult relationship. The Daleys had never had a home, since their life was a perpetual sequence of moves from airbase to airbase. Robin as a young woman takes a lesbian lover and sets out to rebuild a little house on the prairie as their home. The couple work hard as decorators and renovators, but to no avail. Once the house turns out to be haunted they are as helpless as any of the more traditional gothic heroines. Finally the house collapses. We are led into each of these dead-end fantasy sequences by the author’s crisp and accurate prose, never naming anything that isn’t there but always hinting at an inexpressible anguish beyond what is said. The Haunted House is a very talented first novel, as vertiginous as Jean Rhys, drawing us into the imagery of the heroine’s private nightmares. It is a poetic evocation of smashed lives, rubble, debris, unopened parachutes and emptied and discarded duty-free bottles.
Grace Nichols’s Whole of a Morning Sky is a very much more straightforward portrayal of a disoriented childhood. The setting is the former colony of British Guiana during the early 1960s, during the run-up to independence. The forces of disintegration experienced by Gem Walcott, the protagonist, come from outside the family unit. The novel shows the Walcotts moving from the verbally and visually exotic tropical village, where her father has been a schoolmaster, to Georgetown. Here their aspirations to an orderly middle-class life are at the mercy of the language and postures of global politics. The Duke of Edinburgh comes on a visit, and is duly cheered and waved at. The country’s first general election returns a Marxist government, and the opposition, covertly supported by the CIA and the Colonial Office, declares a general strike. The constitution is gerrymandered so that, once independence is granted, the Marxists cannot return to power. All this is a thinly-disguised version of the supersession of Cheddi Jagan’s government by the People’s National Congress of Forbes Burnham. Grace Nichols delicately suggests the way in which these events impinge on an ordinary, middle-of-the-road black family on the margins of politics.
Gem’s sister, Dinah, becomes a civil servant employed by the Marxist regime, and the ‘seeds of socialism’ begin to ‘tickle her toes’. An uncle, Lionel, forms a political party, one of the many shotgun organisations springing up as independence approaches. All this is innocent enough, but the aftermath of the general strike produces racial tension, rioting, anarchy and rising public hysteria. The Walcotts’ overcrowded but formerly peaceful area of Georgetown becomes the scene of muggings, arson attacks and unexplained political murders; it is mentioned on the BBC World Service. It could be Belfast, or Beirut, or Soweto. Whole of a Morning Sky sensitively captures the rhythms of everyday life, showing political events from the point of view of the rum-shop owners, the Hindu neighbours, the tripe-sellers. It ends with a feeling akin to the sack of Troy: ‘You feel like a girl in one of those schoolgirl comics. A heroine looking back at her city in ruins.’
According to one of the stories in Peter Meinke’s collection The Piano Tuner, drinks in a certain Paris café come in three sizes: demi, sérieux and formidable. Grace Nichols’s novel is definitely sérieux. Meinke’s own comparatively stylised studies in catastrophe must be accounted as demi. The stories are divided into two groups, ‘Home Thoughts’ (home being the Eastern United States, with a strong Polish immigrant flavour), and ‘From Abroad’. The author’s message to those about to go abroad is, clearly: ‘Don’t. (On the other hand, if you must stay at home, don’t let the piano-tuner into the house.) The book is a collection of bourgeois nightmares. Getting mugged or raped or taken captive by randy monks is the least that happens to his protagonists. What happens next is normally left to the imagination; these stories are nothing if not understated. There are two or three excellent pieces, including ‘A Decent Life’, set in an unnamed Eastern Bloc country. This reads like a Polish joke (of the Polish, not the American sort) rewritten by Kafka. Stefan Broch, a Post Office clerk whose only crime is that he has just started an affair, finds himself summoned to the Central Office where, confronted by a stern-visaged female Party official, he confesses everything in intimate detail. He is ordered to take off his clothes and conducted to an inner office, with a soldier standing guard outside the door. In the room there is nothing but a clock, a bed, and his mistress, similarly unclad. He is given half an hour, with a second appointment the following Wednesday. It is Stefan’s wife who has turned him in to the authorities. The situation is not without its Utopian aspects: ‘What were Authorities for if not to lighten the burdens of their citizens?’ Stefan reflects. Here – for he doesn’t always bring it off – Meinke plays a sharp and subtle game with his reader’s expectations.
Finally, an epic account of a game of cards. Pushkin in Eugene Onegin (Johnston’s version) tries to have the last word on all such diversions:
Pursuits of a monotonous breed
begot by boredom out of greed.
Anyone sharing that opinion is likely to stay clear of Ron Abell’s Tap City, a sports novel offering running commentary on the First Annual Stretch Jackson Seven-Card Stud Poker Classic held at the Taj Mahal in Reno, Nevada. Abell’s novel, however, is not only a must for actual and potential poker addicts. It makes some headway with its reiterated claim that, if you understand poker, you understand human life (and vice versa). The reason is not far to seek. Two of the professionals in Tap City are nicknamed ‘Stretch’, which is presumably short for ‘Stretcher’, not the kind on which you are taken to hospital but the kind of which Huck Finn was such a connoisseur. If you understand bluffing and lies, you understand politics, money-making, human relationships ... or so Ron Abell and his characters would have us believe. Tap City has a philosophy at least as coherent as many more demanding pieces of fiction.
In this book Freud is cited on the subject of compulsive gambling, and Marx is justified by the insight that professional gamblers, like bankers, are ‘intelligent and very goddamned successful capitalists’. The difference between poker and other casino games, Abell explains, is that in poker you are playing not against the house but against the other players, with the house taking a fixed percentage. It is all a bit like the Stock Exchange, or the Marxist view of the labour market. Beyond that, we do not get very far. The novelist Mario Puzo is quoted to the effect that people gamble in search of a lost childhood innocence and out of a desire to be happy; they call the other players’ bluffs in order the better to bluff themselves. Mercifully, in Tap City these ideas are almost wholly integrated with the action. The action is taken so seriously that, at each intermission, the author obligingly prints out the rankings and scores. This is doubtless a characteristic of the sports novel. It is found (if memory serves me) in de Selincourt’s The Cricket Match, and it originates in the Journal of the Plague Year of Daniel Defoe.
The Stretch Jackson tournament pits a handful of rather colourless professional gamblers against Abell’s more fully-rounded characters, amateurs or semi-amateurs who practise some outrageous forms of psychological gamesmanship. Who should we put our money on – the poker-crazed veteran on his deathbed, the traumatised ex-GI trying to get even with his estranged wife and to pay off his debts, the under-age novice on a lucky streak, or the perfectly-disguised transvestite actor? A detective-story kind of interest is created, since Abell hints that the cards don’t matter and the winner will be the player who is most psychologically attuned to the competition. But for the reader a disappointment is in store. In Tap City, as opposed to Stretch Jackson’s tournament, it turns out that there are no real losers. Those who end up losing their shirts are compensated with other things of the money-can’t-buy variety. The interfering hand of the novelist is at work here, choosing between soap-opera and genuine pathos and preferring the former. As one of the ‘railbirds’ – spectators – at the Taj Mahal puts it: ‘One guy leaves on a stretcher, one guy throws a fit, another one turns faggot – they ought to charge admission.’ He’s meant to be describing a poker game, but it has all the marks of a novel – with some stretchers, as I said before.