Here is a little family

Amit Chaudhuri

  • After Silence by Jonathan Carroll
    Macdonald, 240 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 356 20342 5
  • The Law of White Space by Giorgio Pressburger
    Granta, 172 pp, £12.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 14 014221 5
  • Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali
    Chatto, 240 pp, £14.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3944 7

The narrator of After Silence is Max Fischer, the famous cartoonist. At the Los Angeles County Museum, where his work is on display, his life collides with that of Lily Aaron, a divorcee with a son called Lincoln. Lily shows a womanly sophistication and cynical maturity that one presumes must come from her past experiences of ‘things not working out’, and a disarming, sentimental girlishness which surely must have betrayed her into a bad marriage in the first place. She is independent-minded, ‘very feminine and adult’, but eminently rescuable: the divorced mother with a child (one thinks of Superman III) is no longer a figure of despair but of a peculiar virginal charm, pulling at the heartstrings. And Max Fischer is charmed. He is genuinely in love with the idea of ‘family’, and Lily Aaron and Lincoln promise him the opportunity of having one without confronting the nitty-gritty of finding out, through marriage, what marriage is about, and what raising a child means. Here is a little family, already magically complete, and only in need of a man. The charm and potential eeriness of this situation could not have been possible fifty years ago: for then there were too few divorces, and when they occurred, they were, reassuringly, too much of a disruptive force to enter in quite such a deceptively innocent and romantic way into a novel. But After Silence is an utterly absorbing exploration of the disturbing complicity, even interdependence, between innocence and terror in America, between comic-strips, home-movies, Chinese restaurants, ‘being famous’, monster outfits, pizza parlours, Disneyland fantasy, fast-food shops, and private paranoia and public violence.

Contemporary American literature is where we go for the most delicate descriptions of the everyday, for the random magic of small-town and suburban humdrumness, and also for chronicles of the passing away of that treasured way of life, with its stable marriages, television sets and cartons of milk. One thinks of Garrison Keillor, David Leavitt, and John Updike, whose most luminous descriptions are located in ‘the post-pill paradise’ of pleasure, estrangement and divorce. Thus the ‘normal’, whether a word, a category or a quality, loses its Larkinesque dullness and takes on an impossibly romantic resonance in a country of sexual and racial ambiguity. With great novelistic skill, bringing together detail and movement, Carroll evokes, through the reminiscences of his narrator, his own version of the surreal everydayness of American life. In the Crowds and Power restaurant, people of various races tell each other jokes. Here, Max courts Lily; he makes friends with Lincoln and his greyhound, Cobb; they all become pals, and as Lily’s confidence in Max grows, the two take off for a holiday to France after, of course, they have had this refreshingly unself-conscious exchange:

  ‘Don’t you want to hear what I said to Lincoln?’

  ‘That’s a dangerous question.’

  ‘You know you’re dying to know. I told him yes, I’d be sleeping with you after you’ve had an Aids test ... Lincoln’s very paranoid about me getting Aids. He watches too much TV.’

In Carroll’s everyday America, conversations like this take place without anxiety; one hears in them, in fact, a cheerful practical-mindedness, even an unexpected affection. To the narrator, everything – baseball games or Aids tests – appears interesting, natural and essentially American. This happy acceptance of all the strands that are woven into American life enriches the first half of the narrative, while making it peculiarly disquieting.

After about a third of the novel, Lincoln is seriously hurt in a baseball game. His mother is away, and a panicky Max takes him to a hospital, where Lincoln’s life is saved. Max is overjoyed. By now, he is convinced, in an almost mystical way, that Lincoln is his son. Lily arrives at the hospital, but behaves strangely. She is frightened and angry at Max for having brought Lincoln here. ‘What did you say in there?’ she asks him. ‘What kind of information did you give?’ Her brutally straightforward way of speaking, and her love of swearing, which only a few pages ago seemed vivid and disarming, now sound a little chilling. Gradually and painfully, it begins to become clear to Max that Lincoln is not Lily’s son. Looking through her belongings when she is not in the house, he discovers clues which encourage alarming conjecture. He hires a private detective to find out about Lily’s past; according to the detective’s information a few days later, Lily’s ex-husband, her parents, her college, are all part of an extraordinary fabrication. Moreover, and worst of all, it seems very probable that Lincoln might be a child who had been kidnapped in Pennsylvania nine years ago. Max’s curiosity, which made him such charming company in the first part of the book, now drives him to the Meiers, the couple he supposes to be the boy’s real parents. The Meiers live alone in a huge, melancholy house, a post-modern architectural monstrosity: ‘The room was crowned by a giant cathedral ceiling, parts of which (like patchwork panels) were stained-glass windows through which different colours of light streamed down and carpeted the floor.’ What is most shocking about the novel is not what Max discovers, but what we do: that Max, the man whom we, Lily and Lincoln liked so much, and had much faith in, is actually an untrustworthy narrator, not in the coy post-structuralist sense, but in a more basic and disturbing way. Even our doubts about Max, however, are curiously allayed, rather than heightened, by his engaging willingness to confess his own defects; and the rhythmic, personalised language, full of interjections and caricatural similes, of the American ‘heart-to-heart talk’ (a supposedly private ritual which has been publicly exploited in television and magazine contexts, such as the Oprah Winfrey show), relaxes us where we should be wary:

I am not a trusting soul. I don’t even trust myself. Often I have no idea what I’ll do in certain situations. Who does? If one cannot say I trust me, how can they say I trust you and genuinely mean or feel it? Because of that, people hurt but rarely wound me. When Norah Silver admitted she was sleeping with another man it was a brutal blow to my spirit, but neither crippling nor unexpected. Somewhere in my soul is a two-foot-thick door with a giant Sumo wrestler standing guard outside, not letting anyone in. It’s the door to Command Center, Mission Control, the heart of the matter.

The last section of the novel, called, misleadingly, ‘Bee Hees Forever’, is the least cheerful part of the book. Lily and Max are trying to lead a normal married life, with Max having reconciled himself to the less pleasant bits of Lily’s past. Happiness is not possible, however, for Lincoln, who is now 17, ‘looks a hundred’; he, who used to be Max’s greatest fan, now hates his ‘parents’. Like Salinger, Carroll writes about a society that is adolescent and tender-hearted, enthusiastic about romantic love, heroes, cartoons, sports, Zen Buddhism, psychoanalysis, and the ‘meaning of life’, but whose members are, for all their love of people, essentially uncommunal and shy of life. Carroll’s world, like Salinger’s, is the world of the adolescent male – energetic, imaginative, maladroit, and never too far from the depressive and suicidal. Lily alone, in spite of her shaky beginnings, is sturdily rooted, and Max and Lincoln, mirror-images of each other, move from a state of equilibrium to one of confrontation. Carroll’s novel has a bleakness that is more comfortless than anything to be found in Salinger. One is constantly aware of reading the work of a gifted writer.

Giorgio Pressburger’s The Law of White Spaces is a collection of fictionalised true stories about illness. In the fiction of the 19th century, death and disease were almost literary devices: they were part of a character’s development; death acted as the culmination of a novel or of a characterisation; or it entered the story as a faceless figure with a long shadow. Contemporary fiction’s relative lack of interest in ‘character’, and its curiosity about cultures, languages and uncharted territory, are reflected in Pressburger’s approach to the subject: he sees death and illness as a country that some people inhabit, not known to everyone, one which possesses its own customs, language and climate. In the first story, a doctor finds that he is losing his memory. Although he tries to defeat this illness by the rational means at his disposal, we find it transporting him, almost physically, beyond an invisible line into a foreign country where certain words simply do not exist.

The atmosphere of these stories is never far away from that of myth or fairy-tale. ‘One winter morning Doctor Abraham Fleischmann realised that he could no longer remember the name of his best friend,’ which reminds one of another opening sentence, ‘When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect,’ which, in turn, has some resemblance to ‘So she was considering in her own mind ... whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.’ Illness, like the White Rabbit, makes the familiar, drowsy world a wondrous place. Watching Dr Fleischmann struggle to recall the lost words in his vocabulary is something like watching Gregor trying to manipulate his tiny legs, and make minute, tortuous adjustments with the utmost concentration; if it were possible to imagine an insect knitting its eyebrows, reading the beginning of ‘The Metamorphosis’ would be an occasion to do so. Pressburger, however, lacks Kafka’s equanimity, sense of humour and courtesy, and his grasp of the ordinary. One of the most moving things about ‘The Metamorphosis’ is how little the characters of that story expect from life: extraordinarily, Gregor, even after his transformation, continues to worry with great seriousness about day-to-day problems – losing his job, angering his parents, communicating his dietary preferences – as if nothing had really happened that made these preoccupations irrelevant. What is truly incredible about the story is not so much that Gregor becomes an insect, but the sanity and terrible considerateness with which he behaves even after having become one. In Pressburger’s stories, doctors and patients are always certain that they are on the verge of some revelation, that they are ‘chosen’ – a feeling of uniqueness that somehow escapes Gregor in all his absorption in what to do next with his new body.

None of the pieces in this collection prepares us for, or matches, the excellent quality of the last one, ‘Choices’. It is about a couple, Eugene and Erna Shermann. Eugene, a typographer, is brought to St John’s Hospital with ‘a very serious condition’. He is 72, and she 65. ‘They had been together for more than forty years. They had got to know each other at a local dance, just after the end of what the history books now call the First World War.’ The magic of the story is not striking and arcane, but humane and provincial. It is not so much the chronicle of an illness as the record of one or two lives: ‘He was a swift worker; no one else could set as many ens per hour as he could.’ The couple have a son, Aaron, who was born from Erna’s ‘only union with Eugene, which took place at the end of the week of mourning’ Eugene’s mother’s death. ‘Union’ had not been possible till then, because, after marriage, Erna had looked after the old woman, ‘who was ill with a bone tumour, helped her to die and the day after the funeral took her place in bed. Until then she had slept on the floor, between Eugene’s bed and her mother-in-law’s.’ Aaron grows up in the womb of his small family:

Those three beings, their lives joined in the belly of that dark building, were visited one day by the poisonous currents of war and persecution. They were taken away, separated, then reunited again. The moment of their destruction, all at once or one at a time, never arrived. They survived the war.

A moment of destruction arrives, in a different way, when Aaron eventually leaves his parents and his unnamed country, and goes to Canada. This loss has small but painful manifestations in the couple’s lives: ‘Although he loved and respected his wife and treated her with a rather clumsy formality, he would now lose his temper from time to time, and answer rudely back at her. When this happened little Erna would stop, wipe her hands in her apron, fix him with her eyes, and say: “Are you crazy, Eugene?” ’ In the end, Erna outlives her husband; she stays on in that unnamed country, ‘with’ her husband; and declines her son’s invitation to join him in Canada. The most wonderful revelation in this piece comes in its second-last line: ‘Erna is 98 years old.’ Like her love for her husband and her son, which Dr Klein, ‘who has been treating her for thirty years for mildly oscillating blood pressure’, calls ‘a memorial’, this story is a ‘memorial’ to its characters.

Tariq Ali’s novel is about a noble family of great renown in Moorish Spain. The lives and culture of this family and its retainers are on the edge of extinction: either they must convert from Islam to Christianity, or die at the hands of the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella. The emotions, conflicts and shifts in this novel are no more complex and layered than those to be found in the exhilarating lyrics of an Arab song about love or heroism, but it is a strangely refreshing work in that it gives us a warm and indulgent picture of a certain section of Islamic life. Though it is set in Medieval times, it serves as a corrective to some of our images of the contemporary Muslim world, and reminds us, for instance, that its culture is made up not only of men with machine-guns in their hands and chequered handkerchiefs on their heads, but of sprawling, extended families, meeting-places, kitchens with their own aroma and cuisine, weddings, and a large number of personable and clear-headed women. On the brink of imminent destruction, courtships continue in the novel, pledges are made, long-winded arguments about politics and tiresomely inexhaustible family anecdotes fill the hours, as they no doubt do even now in Lebanon. It is all a little like peacetime, till one sees these figures from a distance and realises that they have gathered, in that innocent and communal fashion, upon a precipice. Some of the characters are extremely talkative, even boring, but one forgives them because one knows they are to be silenced for ever. Their verbosity has to be seen in the context of the silence out of which it has arisen and to which it will soon return, and of a culture which feels passionately wronged, but often lacks the right words to say the right things. There is a cook in this story, a dwarf, who makes ‘heavenly delights’ for the noble family from ‘secret recipes’ that only he knows. History has completely wiped out that family and their village by the end of the novel: only the dwarf survives, with the secret recipe, which is part of the unwritten history of a people, still in his head.