Self-awareness is the lazy man’s get-out-of-jail-free card.
That is, if you’re the first to say you’re bad at something, no one can accuse you of it. This is a technique with which I am intimately familiar from a childhood spent expertly parrying critiques of my terrible speed, stamina, hand-eye coordination with the loud claim of how bad I was at sport. If only I could have parried a rounders ball with such ability, things might have been different.
Anyway, this all comes to mind because I did not like Family Life – Akhil Sharma’s semi-autobiographical novel of an Indian family who emigrate with high hopes which come crashing around them when their bright eldest son becomes brain-damaged. I did not like it at all. I had specific objections to it: its faux-naive child narrator style, a flattened emotional stuntedness and a lack of plot. So imagine my surprise when I came across this article by the author explaining that these were the very challenges he was aware of, that he set out to overcome:
I struggled especially with three technical challenges. [One] The novel is told from the point of view of the younger child. The danger of taking on a child’s P.O.V. is that children mostly don’t understand things… This gives the narration a flattened quality. Reading novels told from the P.O.V. of a child, you often feel like you are on the surface of events. [Two] There is also a danger to representing the physical horror of the situation that is at the heart of the novel… a central aspect of illness, the physical horror, must be kept at a distance. [Three] The story I was planning to tell had very little plot…Real life is plotless, but the experience of reading books that replicate this can be irritating.
Yes, Akhil Sharma, yes! It can! So why didn’t you stop yours from being that way?
Sharma explains in the article the cunning things he did to skirt these issues, but I’m afraid I found he failed comprehensively. Maybe it was reading 2 books on the trot about caring for debilitated family members (previous book: We Are Not Ourselves). But maybe it was more about this irritating child narrator, who is a void of emotion. All of the novel’s emotion is based in the mother – but she’s such a secondary figure, and is mediated through such a deadened narrator that it doesn’t come to life. And how about the wasted opportunity of the richness of the immigrant experience?
Of course, this is against the point of the book, which is the bleakness, the deadening, of having a tragic accident permanently change the shape of your family, and the emotional damage inflicted on the narrator by the parents’ reaction to this event. But if your only way of communicating dead-inside is through dead-inside narration, you’re losing the hope or contrast that makes this bite. Others do not agree with me on this – one raving review posited: “Sharma’s plain style, its gaps and fissures and mighty sense of lack, is both proof of the inability of words to render grief and a demonstration that they can do exactly that.” The same review also rightly points out the “The unspoken story is the telling one” – which is essentially the heart of my problem. The one that is told isn’t very telling – and certainly not very feeling – at all.
This reaches a climax in the strange closing pages which suddenly whisk the protagonist to riches and success – fulfilling everything ever wanted from his brother – only to find no redemption, family happiness, or fulfilment.
In a novel where the whole point is a lack of an emotional heart, you have to inject your own emotion and humanity to form the compassion and counterpoint. But it’s tough to find the incentive to do that in a flattened piece of prose. So though the author had high ambitions of his narrative moving “like a rocket,” I can only imagine that would be through stinging contrast with your hopes and dreams for the narrator – but my passions never were stirred to do this. Unfortunately the self-awareness that made Sharma so aware of the potential pitfalls of this project was not enough to effectively avoid them – so instead of rocketing, this novel insteads oozes sadly along, like cold, oily grease heading towards a plug.
PS: Never fear, I LOVED the book coming up in my next post…