February 12, 2010

Finishing A Suitable Boy

"I hate long books," says Amit Chatterji, Lata's poet-suitor, near the end of A Suitable Boy:
"the better the worse. If they're bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for a few days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch."
It's impossible not to realize this is Seth's sly joke, not at the expense of, but on behalf of the reader who has read this far (page 1371, to be precise) in A Suitable Boy. It closes the self-referential frame begun with the epigraph, a little ditty called "A Word of Thanks," which concludes,
Buy me before good sense insists
You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.
As Seth clearly anticipated, the novel's length is a major feature of any conversation about it. For many, it is a disincentive to even starting it; for some, including me the first time I tried it, it becomes an obstacle to finishing it. Now, having read to the end of its 1474 pages, I feel obliged to address the question whether it needed to be so long: is its bulk a necessity, or even a strength?

Thinking about this question, particularly after Seth's own allusion to Middlemarch, I'm reminded of George Eliot's comment about that novel: "I don't see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly." Middlemarch is subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life," and among its ambitions is clearly coverage of a broad but complexly intermingled portion of English society at a carefully particularized moment in history. Her achievement is enormous, but not, of course, comprehensive, as many critics have pointed out; as I have often remarked to my students, the novel might have been longer still if she had carried her theory through to its fullest realization. As it is, because of her interest in representing so many elements of her story from multiple perspectives, she concedes some horizontal reach in favour of the three-dimensional structure I have inelegantly called the "giant hairball" effect. Here too, of course, the limit on the scale of the text is set only by her not in fact trying to give us everyone's perspectives on everything. "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending," she reminds us in the Finale, and with that principle in mind, we can read Middlemarch as itself revealing as many limits as insights, and leaving us with the challenge of reading the world as it has taught us. The scope of the novel, though, ensures that we realize the scope of the problem and the effort of the solution: though Book 1 is called "Miss Brooke," there's so much more in Middlemarch that we can hardly make the mistake of considering her errors of perception idiosyncratic personal ones, or of imagining she can take some simple, heroic step to find happiness, regardless of historical or social contexts. You need a long book to do these things effectively.
Dickens's best long books also justify themselves by their ideas about the world they depict. One of the governing ideas of Bleak House, for instance, is relationships--often unknown or underappreciated--between people of all kinds in all places, separate by vast differences in wealth and situation, family and education, philosophy and values. That we are all, in effect, one human family is a simple idea but one that increases in potency the more dramatically its reach is extended--from Lady Dedlock, say, brightly illuminated in the glare of fashionable society, to poor Jo the crossing sweeper. To assert the connection is one thing, and Dickens's narrator does this, but by populating the novel so densely Dickens gives his social message emotional resonance.
Thackeray, too, inVanity Fair . . . but you get the idea. Abundance in a novel reflects abundance in life; artfully deployed, it gives us both ideas and feelings about that abundance and our own relationship to it, and at its best, a long book reflects its ideas in the way its abundance is structured into a unified whole. And these are just the intellectual aspects. Despite the popularity of James's infamous line about "loose, baggy monsters," long books can be enormously satisfying, both formally and aesthetically. They also occupy mental and physical space in our lives so that we develop a special relationship with them, with the world into which we go when we read them. Here my chief example would be Trollope: immerse yourself, as I did one sabbatical, in the whole Palliser series, or the Chronicles of Barset, and you feel as if you are living two lives, one with your actual family and friends, the other with your friends in this enormously specific alternative universe (as Hawthorne said, Trollope's world seems "as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of"). Escapism? Perhaps, but another way to think of it is as vicarious living, including plenty of exercise for our moral imaginations.
OK, so. What about the length of A Suitable Boy? Does the novel satisfy the standard set by these illustrious predecessors of the doorstopper form? Do its ends justify its means? I would say, mostly yes. Of the novelists I have named, Trollope seems closest in spirit to Seth, whose reach, like his, is primarily horizontal. The novel's principle seems to be inclusivity: in brief, Seth hates leaving things out. The relatively large number of major characters in the novel is itself a bit startling, though the family trees provided are helpful here. But then there are the relatively minor characters, dozens of them, and the crowds of incidental figures, and, literally, the crowds. Then there's the historical detail. There isn't a lot of straight exposition, but there are long sections of political wrangling, most of which require at least some contextualizing (though one striking feature of the novel, I think, is how much it opts not to explain). And there are details of other kinds, too, crowding the book: clothes and books and food and drink (lots and lots of food, and many, many drinks) and religious rituals and holidays, both Hindu and Muslim. And cricket. And shoe-making. And curriculum wars in the English department. And singers and songs and musicians--and their instruments. Of course, any novel interested in time and place has to include details, but the overall impression of A Suitable Boy is of crowds of them, not noisily clamouring for attention, but filling every available space, as if somehow the book is a tangible object, like Meenakshi's lacquered box, overflowing with sights and sounds and smells (the tanneries!). Did it always seem artistically controlled? No, not always, but I would be hard pressed to single out any expendable piece: once begin trimming and tidying, and where to stop, after all? Life is cluttered: why can't that be an artistic rationale?
With so many characters, plots and stories, too, are abundant. Here Seth's control is more overt, as the story of Lata's quest (or, more accurately, her mother's quest) for "a suitable boy" provides a unifying structure used, I thought, to lovely dramatic purposes at times, as when the three top contenders--Kabir, Amit, and Haresh--meet up, quite unaware of their status as competitors for her favour. The rituals that open and close the novel also show its underlying tautness: major events (birth, marriage, death) do give shape to our lives, much as we like to insist that plots are all impositions, and yet life itself presses on, as does the momentum of the novel even as its central mission is resolved (how, I won't tell you--read the 1474 pages for yourself!): "You too will marry a boy I choose," says Mrs Rupa Mehra on the first page, and "You too will marry a girl I choose," she says on (almost) the last one. (Would I read A Suitable Girl? You bet I would.)
As I neared the end, though, the unity I felt the most strongly, and found the most poignant, was precisely the one best supported by the risky choice of putting so much into the novel: that principle of inclusivity is itself, I think, a theme of the novel, perhaps its main idea. Everyone is in it together. Seth's inclusivity reflects what the novel shows as the greatness but also the curse of India (India as he depicts it, of course). Often, people in the novel are, or feel, deeply divided by their differences: the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, including some horrifically violent ones, are the most serious examples, refracted much more delicately through Lata's lingering conviction that Kabir can never truly be "suitable." Others are good friends in spite of their different religions--Maan and Firoz, for instance. That difference seems insignificant to us and them, until they are caught up in larger events that remind them (and us) that it means life or death when they are among those who define their communities by exclusion rather than inclusion. Many scenes in the novel--such as the ultimately disastrous attempt by the Raja of Marh to raise the Shiva-linga and install it at the new temple being built basically right beside the Alamgiri Mosque, or the earlier riot sparked by the same awkward proximity, or the painful memories of Partition, which haunt Hindu and Muslim characters alike--evoke the human cost of intolerance, even as the same neighbouring sites of worship have the potential to represent the peaceful alternative. By the end of the novel, the relationship I felt exemplified its most cherished possibility was that between Mr. Mahesh Kapoor and the Nawab Sahib, though I can't point to its key moments without giving away some of the more dramatic events of the novel. Their story reminds us forgiveness is essential to friendships that persist over time and in the face of violence and difference, an idea that is easily extended from their particular case to the larger context.
As for Lata's final decision about marriage, well, you don't think I'm going to give that away, do you? After all, one of the most important reasons to read 1474 pages is to find out what happens. I will say, though, that I was surprised at first, and then pleased. Her choice is not conventionally romantic, or unconventionally heroic; it's not a triumphant conclusion for her, but she rides away into a future that felt true to what she had learned from participating in the complicated panorama of A Suitable Boy.

1 comment:

Rebecca H. said...

Okay, I'm making plans to read this some summer, when I have the energy to concentrate on something so long. Thanks for the review!