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Why is so much fiction written in our language and why is so much of
what is written of so little consequence?

It's easy to find fault with Blue Shoe, Anne Lamott's sixth
novel.

When the University of Nebraska Press sent my review copy of the
Selected Short Stories of Weldon Kees
with a note asking that I
please accept the book with the compliments of the author

A few months ago, novelist Alan Furst, in one of those New York
Times
"Writers on Writing" pieces, told how, on a magazine
assignment to the Soviet Union back in 1983, he suddenly discov

In 1967 the world-renowned if somewhat Dickensianly named sexologist
John Money was offered a case he couldn't refuse.

"Felisberto Hernández is a writer like no other," Italo Calvino
announced once, "like no European, nor any Latin American.

William Eastlake once gave William Kittredge a piece of advice about
writing as a Westerner. Never allow a publisher to put a picture of a
horse on the cover of your novel: "The people who buy it will think it's
some goddamned shoot-up. And they'll hate it when it isn't."

For more than a century, picking up a "western" meant caressing a myth.
The plot rarely varied. Decent folk who'd left behind the corrupt
world--always somewhere to the east--came to a land of primeval beauty
and promise and set about turning a little chunk of it into a nice,
prosperous garden. But there were a few corrupt souls lurking in the
vicinity, and before long they showed themselves: heedless savages,
horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips. The good folks had no
choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms--often with the aid
of a mysterious and taciturn stranger on horseback. Violence,
regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded. The bad
guys were killed. Our happy homesteaders returned to taming the
wilderness, cultivating their corner of paradise, a little less innocent
but having earned in blood their claim to the land. The taciturn
stranger was saddled and gone by morning, having left neither a card nor
a silver bullet.

Louis L'Amour wrote more than a hundred works of fiction along those
lines, 260 million copies of which are moldering on cheap pulp paper all
over the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century alone,
1,700 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. Our appetite for the
myths of law-bringing and wilderness-taming is as old as America itself.
The pulp western simply spruced it up with big hats, six-guns and blue
roan appaloosas. Hollywood seized on the concept and tinkered with its
variations for more than thirty years; John Wayne had one of the longest
runs of any male movie icon of the past century.

This is the seductive mythology serious writers in the West have to
grapple with as they set out to write the much messier, much less
uplifting story of the true Western experience. They also face an
Eastern literary establishment that is often indifferent or
unsympathetic to their aims. Norman Maclean couldn't find a major
publisher to bite on his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It.
"These stories have trees in them," he was told. And in a snotty review
in these very pages, Edward Abbey was called "puerile" and "dopey" and
was accused of arrogance and xenophobia.

Not that every literary effort to come out of the West deserved
canonization. Kittredge published a collection of stories, We Are Not
in This Together
, that borrowed much from the old myth--except the
happy ending, which leaves a rather curdled vision. Despite a laudatory
foreword from Kittredge's friend Raymond Carver, the stories contain a
predictable mix of unfaithful women, barroom hijinks, cold-blooded
killings, guns and knives and whisky and tight-lipped men who, when they
deign to speak, do so not with or even at but past one another.
"My stories were mostly imitations about old men and wounded boys,
reeking of sorrow and sad romance about the ways love is bound to fail,
and could never have been enough anyway," Kittredge eventually admitted.

Thankfully, in 1978, Terry McDonell of Rocky Mountain Magazine
asked Kittredge to write an essay on the theme of "redneck secrets."
Kittredge said he had no idea how to write an essay. A friend who sat in
one of Kittredge's writing workshops at the University of Montana told
me that Kittredge recounted McDonell's advice this way: Give me five
scenes or anecdotes strung together with your own bullshit philosophy.
Five hundred words of anecdote, 200 of your own bullshit, scene,
bullshit, leading to a summation or revelation. It's that easy.

And for Kittredge, it was; turned out he could bullshit better than
most, and in a rugged, poetic and wholly Western prose style. He's since
written mostly nonfiction, looking at the West as a set of true stories
that deserve telling in all their complexity. Like this, from his very
first essay: "A Redneck pounding a hippie in a dark barroom is
embarrassing because we see the cowardice. What he wants to hit is a
banker in broad daylight."

Yee-haw! Now we're getting someplace.

Kittredge's first essay collection, Owning It All, published in
1987 and just reissued by Graywolf, is one of the quintessential books
to read if you want to understand the ferment of the modern West. He
followed that with Hole in the Sky, a memoir that recounted his
youth and early manhood on his grandfather's ranch in southeastern
Oregon, a backlands enclave in a "huge drift of country...pretty much
nonexistent in the American imagination," where "we knew a history
filled with omissions, which can be thought of as lies." Kittredge took
it as his duty to fill in the omissions, most involving violence done to
Native Americans, and he told his own story with astonishing candor: boy
buckaroo, teenage dandy, self-pitying young man, a ranch kid in a
swampland version of Eden that he and his family ultimately ruined
through a combination of greed, pesticides, overly ambitious irrigation
schemes and an overweening lust for property.

Over something like three decades my family played out the entire
melodrama of the nineteenth-century European novel. It was another
real-life run of that masterplot which drives so many histories,
domination of loved ones through a mix of power and affection; it is the
story of ruling-class decadence that we fondle and love, that we reenact
over and over, our worst bad habit and the prime source of our sadness
about our society. We want to own everything, and we demand love. We are
like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums. Our wreckage is
everywhere.

All of this from a book with a horse on its cover.

Hole in the Sky placed Kittredge in a blossoming tradition of
Western writers who can be thought of as anti-mythological. They begin,
not surprisingly, with women--Willa Cather (read Death Comes for the
Archbishop
) and Mari Sandoz (Old Jules)--and continue with
writers such as A.B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Marilynne
Robinson and Denis Johnson, whose novel Angels is among the
bleakest visions of the urban West ever committed to paper. And that's
merely a few of the white folk from the mountains and plains, a list
that leaves off the interlopers, Texans, Californians, poets, Hispanics
(Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca) and Native Americans (N. Scott
Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich) who have
enriched the region's literature.

Stegner dreamt of a West that had "a civilization to match its scenery,"
and no other writer did more to bring that transformation about. His
influence can be felt all over a fine anthology edited by Kittredge,
The Portable Western Reader, which Stegner didn't live to see but
would have appreciated as a marker of how far the storytelling culture
of the region had come. "The Westerner is less a person than a
continuing adaptation," he wrote. "The West is less a place than a
process." On the evidence of his new book, Kittredge is in total
agreement.

In Southwestern Homelands, he tells stories from thirty years of
tooling the freeways and back roads of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New
Mexico, mostly with his longtime love Annick Smith (another fine writer)
and often with a set of golf clubs in the trunk. He goes in search of
history and the earthy flux of the present, and he's as fine a travel
companion as a reader could hope for. I'm with him for all but the golf.

It helps to have friends to show you around an unfamiliar land, and
Kittredge had some good ones, including Eastlake, Abbey and Doug
Peacock, the renowned grizzly-bear expert and model for George Hayduke
in Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eastlake once told Kittredge a
perhaps apocryphal tale in which he and Abbey drove the Southwest's
Interstate highways, felling billboards with a chainsaw. Whether or not
the tale is true--don't you like to think so?--it symbolizes the tension
at the heart of the region's history. What is progress? What are its
costs? And, to paraphrase Charles Bowden, can we not imagine a future in
which we have less but are more?

Everywhere Kittredge goes, these questions haunt the air. At Chaco
Canyon the Anasazi built immaculate pueblos across four square miles
between 1025 and 1100 AD. "The houses were fitted together from tons of
red stone cut in quarries and mortared into tapered load-bearing walls,
five stories high on the curving back side of Pueblo Bonito. Tens of
thousands of pine timbers were cut and trimmed with stone axes in
mountains sixty miles away and brought to Chaco by people without horses
or wheels." They built irrigation systems to channel rainwater toward
domesticated crops. Abruptly, around 1150, they abandoned all of it. To
this day, no one knows for certain why. Drought? Enemy siege? Whatever
the cause, their attempt at constructing a secure homeland failed. The
Anasazi drifted to the north and west. In Canyon de Chelly, they built
cliff houses accessible only by ladders, which they pulled up when they
feared attack.

One millennium later, dreams of an impenetrable fortress persist.
Phoenix, another human settlement fed by diverted water, spreads on the
landscape like a malignant tumor; its gated communities might be
compared to ancient fortified pueblos. One severe or prolonged drought
would also send that city's inhabitants scurrying to more hospitable
climes to the north and west. Aridity, as Stegner incessantly pointed
out, is the defining characteristic of the West. In some distant future,
tourists may gawk at the splendid, dune-covered ruins of Phoenix or
Albuquerque the way we seek out the spooky grandeur of abandoned cliff
dwellings.

The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is among man's most
ambitious efforts to compensate for a lack of rainfall. It flooded what
Kittredge calls "one of the most exquisite runs of landform on earth," a
labyrinth of canyons formed by 10-million-year-old sand dunes compacted
by wind and carved by running water. Abbey once wrote, "To grasp the
nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres
Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible." Kittredge
consoles himself with the thought that canyons and species don't last
forever. I'm surprised it doesn't make him happier to think that dams
are even more ephemeral.

Gated communities, seething barrios, cross-border maquiladoras, crimes
against humans and nature--that's one side of the coin. On the other:
spicy food, entrancing native ceremonies, breathtaking landscapes,
hummingbirds flitting among the saguaro and art that soars into
timelessness, from the overcommodified Georgia O'Keeffe to Mogollon
Mimbres pottery. The exquisite care taken in crafting the Mimbres bowls,
decorated with imagery that made use of communal symbols and stories,
might even be a valuable example for careless book editors. In the
middle of a very moving passage, we find Kittredge viewing "my mother's
powered face that last time before she was interned." You might be
forgiven for momentarily thinking she was a robot on her way to prison
camp.

But if you hang with him, you discover him working through one of the
keystone moments of the book. "On Second Mesa, in the village of Walpi,
a man came up while I was walking the balustrade around the edge of the
mesa, and offered to explain the Hopi beliefs. I imagined he was hitting
on me, running some scam, and I turned away." His failure to connect
gnaws at him; he keeps brooding over Walpi until he settles on a
"message" from the ancients: "Be communal, join up, share your goods,
and once in a while give your sweet time away, no charge, pro bono, and
you'll be as close to home as you're likely to be." He could have merely
bought a trinket or a piece of Native art and moved on. Instead, and
despite his failure to connect at first, he was driven to seek some
cross-cultural pollination to take with him as he returns to his own
homeland in Montana. Which ought to be one of the points of travel for
anyone who does it seriously. "Intimacy with otherness is close to
impossible without taking some time to stop playing the game of
anthropologist," he writes. In other words, open up, drop your guard,
talk to strangers. The world awaits: desert and mountain, laughter and
tears, bedrock and paradox.

From the chair where I write this, in a fire lookout tower in the Gila
National Forest of southwestern New Mexico, I can see nearly 100 miles
in all directions. The landscape is multifarious: austere desert to the
east, rising into pinyon and juniper on the foothills and up to peaks
covered in aspen and ponderosa pine, before falling away to mesas and
grassland river valleys to the west. Hard to recall that just a month
ago I was a cog in the corporate journalism machine, a rearranger of
commas, scourge of the split infinitive. "Flight involves a spot of
reinventing the sweet old psychic self," Kittredge writes. Amen.

Everything out my window sings to my soul the way Beethoven's
Archduke Trio speaks to Kittredge's when he's on the road. Yet
the feature I find most intriguing from my perch is a man-made one on
the edge of Silver City: a giant open-pit copper mine that looks like a
gaping wound in the earth. Just above it, at the end of a shelf of
exposed rock, a solitary spire looms. The locals called it the Kneeling
Nun, and through my binoculars I can see why: It resembles the shape of
a woman wearing a habit, bowed in supplication to an ancient altar of
stone.

I like to think whoever named it also saw our need for forgiveness. All
across the West, man-made monstrosities punctuate the landscape--dams,
clearcuts, open-pit mines, oil refineries. Some of us silently seethe,
some of us protest, others work quietly toward a new definition of
progress. As we dream and argue our way toward the homeland of the
future, we could do worse than to take our cues from an old boy from a
ranch in the backlands of Oregon, a man who himself learned to take a
few cues from the ancients: "Everything evolves. Nothing lasts. Don't
destroy that which your people depend on. Take care, and plan for the
seventh generation, the long future."

If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic,
funny and convert all the nonbelievers. He baits his readers with
serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion,
but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled,
that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't
help but be captured by his prose.

That's largely why I took such pleasure in Life of Pi, Martel's
wonderful second novel, which playfully reworks the ancient sea voyage,
castaway themes of classics like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Swift's
Gulliver's Travels, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner
, Melville's Moby-Dick and (in some of its more
fantastical aspects) Homer's The Odyssey, to explore the role of
religion in a highly physical world. What's more, it's a religious book
that makes sense to a nonreligious person. Although its themes are
serious and there are moments of awful graphic violence and bleak
despair, it is above all a book about life's absurdities that makes one
laugh out loud on almost every page, with its quirky juxtapositions,
comparisons, metaphors, Borgesian puzzles, postmodern games and a sense
of fun that reflects the hero's sensual enjoyment of the world. Although
Martel pays tribute to the past by using the typical castaway format
(episodic narrative, focus on details of survival, moments of shocking
violence and reflections on God and nature), his voice, and the fact
that his work is more fantastic, more scientifically sound and funnier
than that of his predecessors, infuses the genre with brilliant new
life. If this century produces a classic work of survival literature,
Martel's novel is surely a contender.

Life of Pi is the unlikely story of a 16-year-old Indian boy, Pi
Patel, adrift in a boat with a hungry tiger after the ship carrying his
zookeeper father, mother, brother and many animals sinks in the middle
of their journey from India to Canada. (It's the mid-1970s and Pi's
father decides to emigrate after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi starts
jailing her enemies and suspending civil liberties.) Pi is at once a
Hindu, Christian and Muslim (echoes of the pacific Mahatma Gandhi here)
who believes that all religions are about "love." But having grown up
among animals, he's also practical and grounded. Early in the book, his
three religious teachers meet, and Pi gets his "introduction to
interfaith dialogue," a big argument that ends only when he is asked for
his opinion. He quotes Gandhi, "All religions are true," adding, "I just
want to love God," which floors them all. Then he goes out with his
parents for ice cream. Most of the rest of the book is a challenge to
Pi's simple faith, as this sweet yet unsentimental hero experiences a
situation where, it would seem, survival is everything. Aside from the
detailed descriptions of hands-on survival techniques that almost rival
Ishmael's whaling lore in Moby-Dick, the book poses the
questions: Can faith survive in the face of doubt and suffering? Can the
love of God and one's fellows remain pure in an angry, violent world?

Despair sets in from the beginning. Not only does Pi lose his parents,
but he is facing life on the ocean wave with a tiger (named Richard
Parker), a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. Pi watches them kill each
other, with Richard Parker finishing off the hyena. The boat is littered
with animal carcasses. As the days go by, Pi, a vegetarian, learns how
to kill with his bare hands, batter turtles to death and eat uncooked
flesh. He weeps. He is "dumb with pain and horror." But he survives,
marking his territory with his urine, as animals do, to keep Richard
Parker at bay, feeding him and finally teaching the tiger (by using a
whistle) that he, Pi, is master here.

It's true that his three faiths recede to a whisper on the boat. He
confesses that it is Richard Parker, and the practical matter of
avoiding being eaten by him, that gives him "purpose," even "peace" and
perhaps "wholeness," and thus keeps him alive. "If he died, I would be
left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.... He
pushed me to go on living." Pi keeps up with his religious rituals, but
he finds his faith wavering. In one funny scene, he yells out his
beliefs to make them more real. "I would touch the turban I had made
with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, 'THIS IS GOD'S
HAT!'" Then he points at Richard Parker and says, "THIS IS GOD'S CAT!"
The boat is "GOD'S ARK!" The sea, "GOD'S WIDE ACRES!" The sky, "GOD'S
EAR!" But, he says, "God's hat was always unravelling," and "God's ear
didn't seem to be listening."

You might say he's trying to persuade himself. But it's clear that he
continues to appreciate the beauty of the sea and sky, and the sparse
life around him, in which, as a Hindu, he sees his connection to God.
There are wonderful poetic descriptions of the fish around the boat as a
little city, of Richard Parker's beauty and of a dorado fish that, as it
dies, begins to "flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue,
green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its
surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death." Even
when his journey is "nothing but grief, ache and endurance," it is
"natural," he says, that he "should turn to God."

But religion is only one element of the book's exploration of faith.
Martel is also interested in the faith of his readers. He wants them to
believe his story. He has his narrator pose a larger, Keatsian "beauty
is truth" argument against the glorification of reason, "that fool's
gold for the bright." It's as if he were suggesting that storytelling is
a kind of religious experience because it helps us understand the world
in a more profound way than a just-the-facts approach (or by
implication, dogma, fundamentalism and literalism). Two passages that
some reviewers have picked out as the least convincing (for their lack
of literal accuracy!), I find illustrate Martel's attempt to show the
power of storytelling at its best. Fantastic, yes, but utterly
convincing. The first is Pi's encounter with a blind, cannibalistic
Frenchman whom Pi runs into at the exact moment he too has gone blind
for lack of nourishment. Their obsessive conversation about food is one
of the funniest and most farcical moments in the book. The second is
Pi's sojourn on a flesh-eating island, which is one of the most chilling
symbolic illustrations of evil I have read. (If the pious Swiss Family
Robinson finds utopia, the religious Pi finds dystopia!)

Good postmodernist that he is, Martel wants to use the very telling of
the tale--multiple narrators, a playful fairytale quality ("once upon a
time" and "happy ending" are mentioned in passing), realistically
presented events that may be hallucinations or simply made up--to push
at the limits of what's believable, yet still convince the reader of his
literary, not literal, veracity. He wants to prove that it's possible to
remain curious about and connected to the world, yet to accept that
there are always going to be aspects of life (and literature) that
remain mysterious.

Pi's doubts about his faith are mirrored by the seeds of doubt Martel
sows in the mind of the reader throughout the narrative. Every moment of
certainty is undercut by the potential for disbelief, and that's when
Martel seems to ask: Am I convincing you now? He sifts the story through
various narrators, beginning with an author-narrator that at first one
thinks is Martel himself but is only Martel-like, introducing the story
as if it were true. Martel has said in interviews that some of this
information is factually accurate. Like his narrator, he was trying to
write a novel about Portugal that wouldn't come alive when he got the
idea for Life of Pi on a trip to India. Martel also briefly
acknowledges his special debt to Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar,
whose novella Max and the Cats also has a hero who survives the
sinking of a ship filled with zoo animals and spends days at sea in a
boat with a large cat, in this case a jaguar. Scliar's is the
mini-version that Martel fleshes out with more lyrical language and the
fruits of zoological research.

But there reality stops. There's the whiff of an old-fashioned quest or
allegorical tale in the introduction, for the Martel-like narrator first
learns the story from Francis Adirubasamy, a family friend of Pi's, who
tells him that Pi's story will make him "believe in God." And he plays
with the reader's sense of reality when he has Adirubasamy talk about Pi
as "the main character" whom the narrator proceeds to track down in
Canada. And just how believable is Pi? Now in his 40s, Pi apologizes for
his memory and tells the story as a series of out-of-sequence
events--jumping back and forth between his early childhood, his teenage
years and his time at sea. He can barely remember what his mother looks
like, but he appears able to recall whole conversations from his
childhood. He even asks the narrator to "tell my jumbled story in
exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less." (He does.)
One begins to wonder if Pi made up Richard Parker. Despite his knowledge
that people anthropomorphize animals because of their "obsession" with
putting themselves "at the centre of everything," Pi seems
disproportionately haunted by the fact that when the boat hits Mexico,
Richard Parker takes off without a backward glance. Perhaps the loss of
the tiger symbolizes the greater loss of his family, or of his own
innocence. Perhaps Pi invented the tiger to keep himself sane. The
reader is left to decide.

In a final test of the reader's faith in the narrative, Martel has Pi
tell an alternate, allegedly more believable version of the story at the
end--lacking not only Richard Parker but also the humor, poetry and
detail of the tiger story--to please a couple of doubting Japanese
shipping officials. He asks them which they think is the "better" story.
Of course, the tiger story is the finer, more thoughtful literary
creation and therefore (Martel suggests) has a truth more lasting than
the second, more journalistic version, with its "dry, yeastless
factuality."

Even if one accepts the twists and turns of the narrative, one faces the
further challenge of tracking down clues hidden in a warren of allusions
for more definitive answers to questions about Pi's religious faith, and
whether the narrator (and the reader) will be persuaded of the story's
original premise that it will make one believe in God. That symbolism is
important in this book is made clear at first by the most obvious symbol
of Pi's name, self-chosen because it's the short version of his real
name Piscine (after a family friend's favorite Parisian swimming pool),
and he is inevitably called "Pissing" by classmates. Nothing could be
grittier. In contrast, Pi is like ¼, what mathematicians call an
"irrational number," that is, 3.14 if rounded off, but with endlessly
unfolding decimal places if carried out. Martel couples this mysterious
abstraction with a concrete image--"And so, in that Greek letter that
looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive,
irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe,
I found refuge"--to show that, as a boy, Pi is in harmony with things as
they are as well as with his sense of the unknowable.

That Pi's attitude to religion may have changed after his ordeal is
buried in the hidden symbolism hinted at by Pi's college studies in
religion and zoology, described on the opening page as if to emphasize
their importance as a key to the story. (This is after the lifeboat
comes to shore in Mexico, and Pi goes to Canada to start a new life.)
His specialties are the sixteenth-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria and
the sluggish three-toed sloth (symbol of the Trinity?) whose miraculous
capacity to stay alive, he says, "reminded me of God." (An echo of his
own survival, perhaps? A hint that God seems more elusive these days?)
More important, Luria's cabalistic ideas may hold the key to Pi's
experience at sea. His philosophy (Luria thought the secrets of the
universe lay in numbers) echoes the symbolism of ¼, and the formula
for figuring out the dimension of a circle and its radius (connecting
perimeter and center). Luria believed that God's light contracted from
the center of the universe, purging itself of evil elements, leaving an
empty space (a circle) in which human life developed. But God also sent
down a ray of light (like a radius) so that the few remaining divine
sparks could reconnect with Him. To achieve this fusion with God, and by
implication eliminate evil from the world, Luria believed, people must
live an ethical life. The original divine contraction is called
variously tzimtzum, zimzum or simsum. It's no
coincidence that Martel called the sinking ship Tsimtsum. Thus Pi at sea
was experiencing his own void (or withdrawal of God), in which elements
of evil fight with the instinct to do good. Richard Parker saved his
sanity, and Pi's goodness kept Richard Parker (and perhaps his own
faith) alive. By introducing this strain of mystical Jewish thought,
Martel not only further illustrates Pi's contention that all religions
are essentially the same in that they stem from love but he also uses
mysticism to underscore the profound ways in which literature can
present life's truths. Skeptics, however, might see Pi's study of Luria
as a move away from his earlier, purer faith toward a more structured
mysticism. That would explain his comment at the end of the book, when
he confesses his need for "the harmony of order."

Though one can read Life of Pi just for fun, trying to figure out
Pi's relationship to God makes one feel a bit like the castaway hero
wrestling slippery fish into his lifeboat for dinner. An idea twists and
turns, glittering and gleaming, slaps you in the face with its tail and
slips away. Did the story really happen? Does it make one believe in
God? What kind of God? Early on the narrator says, "This story has a
happy ending." But Pi also tells his interviewer, "I have nothing to say
of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it
is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful," which suggests
a man with at least some conflict on his mind. On the other hand, Martel
may also be suggesting that work is less important to Pi than God and
family--the narrator gives us glimpses of Pi's shrine-filled house and
his loving relationship with his wife, son and daughter. However, when
Pi is showing him family pictures, the narrator notes, "A smile every
time, but his eyes tell another story." I believe Martel's point is that
doubt inevitably accompanies faith. But the opposite explanation, that
after Pi's life-threatening experiences his faith is a mere prop for his
anxiety, might work just as well.

Does it matter that the answer to all questions in this novel is both
yes and no? One answer comes in the form of Pi's question moments after
the ship has sunk and he's sitting in the lifeboat, bewailing the loss
of his family and God's silence on the topic: "Why can't reason give
greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in
an answer? Why such a vast net if there's so little fish to catch?" And
that, of course, is the nature of faith. One can't argue it through, one
just believes. Faith in God (as the younger Pi sees it) "is an opening
up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love." It's also "hard to
love," Pi adds, when faced with adversity. The same might be true of a
good novel, as readers are taken to the edge of their understanding by
something new. If the reader lets go of preconceptions, the experience
can be liberating and exciting. Martel may be sowing seeds of
uncertainty about God, but there's no doubt that he restores one's faith
in literature.

Much as I hate to, I'm going to start by talking about the damn money.
I'm only doing it because almost everyone else is.

It's not just the author profiles and publishing-trade columns, but
seemingly every other review of The Emperor of Ocean Park that
mentions, way before stuff like plot or characters, the $4.2 million
Knopf paid Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter for this first novel and
another to come. Most, if not all, of these pieces seem incredulous that
an academic-of-color could reap the kind of dough-re-mi for thriller
writing that the John Grishams and Tom Clancys could command. Pundits of
both colors--or of what Carter's novel continually refers to as "the
darker nation" and "the paler nation"--sound pleasantly surprised that
an African-American male could earn some pop-cultural buzz by being paid
millions of dollars for doing something that doesn't require a ball or a
microphone.

I'm guessing Carter has the grace to be appreciative about all this. But
I'm also guessing that the author of Reflections of an Affirmative
Action Baby
is equipped with inner radar delicate enough to pick up
faint signals of condescension (or worse) beneath all this hype. Sifting
through the reviews so far, especially those taking Carter to the
woodshed, one detects glimmers of doubt as to whether the book or the
author deserves all that money and attention. No matter that Carter,
Yale Law's first tenured African-American professor, has established his
credentials as a legal scholar and public intellectual, having published
seven nonfiction books whose subjects include values (Integrity,
Civility), faith in public life (The Culture of Disbelief, God's Name in Vain) and, of course, race
(Reflections...). Black people have been through enough job
interviews to recognize the skeptically arched eyebrows in key precincts
of Book-Chat Nation over Carter's big score. The eyebrows ask: Is the
book worth all this fuss--and all that damn money?

The short answer is yes, though we'll get to the longer, more
complicated answer in a few clicks. First I want to address the other
recurring motif in the reviews so far: a belief that the novel's primary
value--if not the only legitimate reason for all that money--comes in
the way it foregrounds privileged reaches of African-American society.
As if Dorothy West, John A. Williams, Nella Larsen, George S. Schuyler,
John Oliver Killens, Charles W. Chesnutt, Lawrence Otis Graham and E.
Franklin Frazier, the Veblen-esque sociologist-satirist who wrote
Black Bourgeoisie
, had never been born, much less ever bothered
writing books. To these weary eyes, such incredulity over class issues
reflects nothing more than the same-as-it-ever-was manner in which
novels by African-Americans are waved toward the sociocultural
checkpoint before they can compete for artistic consideration. And since
it's being marketed as a legal thriller/whodunit, The Emperor of
Ocean Park
has the added burden of being stigmatized as a genre
piece. Hence the carping in some reviews over Emperor, whose
closing kickers spring merrily like tripwires.

Hello. It's melodrama. There are a lot of smart people who agree
with Raymond Chandler, who confessed to a friend in 1945 that he chose
to write melodrama "because when I looked around me it was the only kind
of writing that was relatively honest." Also as Chandler and other smart
people drawn to genre have repeatedly proved, it's possible to hang
lyricism, social observation, even political ideas on melodrama's broad
shoulders so long as you don't forget to play by the rules of the genre.
One more thing: Melodrama, when played at top speed, often can be
transformed into something very close to satire or, at least,
sophisticated farce.

The Emperor of Ocean Park doesn't move quite fast enough for
that, which may be its biggest problem. Still, it is sophisticated
entertainment; witty, elegantly written (way better than Grisham or
Clancy, OK?), conceptually outrageous in a genteel way and flush with
conflicting ideas unleashed in the stick-and-move fashion of a
freewheeling sparring match. The surprise isn't that Carter can write
fiction. It's his showmanship in mixing up the car chases, chess
strategies, red herrings and gun battles with such dark, rueful
observations as this:

I suddenly understand the passion of the many black nationalists of the
sixties who opposed affirmative action, warning that it would strip the
community of the best among its potential leaders, sending them off to
the most prestigious colleges, and turning them into... well, into young
corporate apparatchiks in Brooks Brothers suits, desperate for the favor
of powerful white capitalists.... And the nationalists were right. I am
the few. My wife is the few. My sister is the few. My students are the
few. These kids pressing business cards on my brother-in-law are the
few. And the world is such a bright, angry red.... I stand very still,
letting the redness wash over me, wallowing in it the way a man who has
nearly died of thirst might wallow in the shower, absorbing it through
every pore, feeling the very cells of my body swell with it, and sensing
a near-electric charge in the air, a portent, a symbol of a coming
storm, and reliving and reviling in this frozen, furious instant every
apple I have ever polished for everybody white who could help me get
ahead.

This passionately skeptical, somewhat self-loathing voice belongs to
Talcott Garland, who also answers to the names "Tal" and "Misha." (This
multiplicity of names is one of the little jokes that Carter threatens
to run into the ground.) A law professor at an unnamed Ivy League
university, Talcott is one of four children of Oliver Garland, a
conservative judge appointed by Nixon to the US Court of Appeals, who
might have served on the Supreme Court if his nomination hadn't been
derailed because he was seen hanging around the federal courthouse with
a college roommate named Jack Ziegler, a former CIA agent and a sinister
presence skulking in the dark alleys of American power.

As the novel begins, Tal's father, whom Time once dubbed the
"emperor of Ocean Park" because of his family's impressive digs in the
Oak Bluffs section of Martha's Vineyard, has been found dead in his
study. Tal is, at best, indulgent to older sister Mariah's suspicions
that their father met with foul play. Still, Tal suspects something's
afoot when, at the judge's funeral, Ziegler pulls him aside to ask the
whereabouts of some "arrangements" that the judge stashed away
somewhere. Knowing "Uncle Jack" all too well, Tal suspects that these
"arrangements" don't exactly fall into customary categories of
post-mortem details. By the time bogus FBI agents try to scare him into
telling what little he knows and the Episcopal priest who conducts the
funeral is tortured and murdered, Tal's paranoia has kicked into third
gear.

All of which Tal needs like root canal. Things are rough at the law
school with various and sundry colleagues intruding their personal
dramas onto his own. One of them, it turns out, is in competition with
Tal's stunning wife, Kimmer, short for "Kimberly," for potential
appointment to a federal judgeship. Kimmer frets and fusses about the
appointment, oblivious to her husband's concerns for their safety from
whatever or whoever is stalking them. She barely notices the shadow
stalkers, traveling long distances from home to make rain for her
high-toned law firm. Tal suspects Kimmer is having an affair, but can
barely keep her close by long enough to probe for concrete evidence. He
concedes being flummoxed in general by the nature of women, seeking
respite from such mysteries in "the simple rejuvenating pleasure of
chess." Indeed, the conundrums of chess, a game where, as in life, white
always gets the first move over black, play a metaphoric role in the
mystery, complete with missing pawns from the judge's own set and a
strategic gambit labeled "Excelsior."

A few words about Tal: He's the hero of the story, but he's not an easy
man to admire. Readers so far think he's at best an unjustly beleaguered
nerd or at worst an embittered brat, as self-absorbed as the mercenary
students, career women and secular humanists he slaps with his words. He
behaves badly at times, never more so than in a memorably chilling set
piece in which he bullies and humiliates one of his students, "an
unfortunate young man whose sin is to inform us all that the cases I
expect my students to master are irrelevant, because the rich guys
always win.... His elbow is on the chair, his other fist is tucked under
his chin, and I read in his posture insolence, challenge, perhaps even
the unsubtle racism of the supposedly liberal white student who cannot
quite bring himself to believe that his black professor could know more
than he.... I catch myself thinking, I could break him." And he
does, adding to the rapidly expanding ledger tabulating his
self-disgust.

On the other hand, he loves his young son Bentley in a way that
frightens him, especially when he visualizes a future in which Kimmer
drifts out of his life with son in tow. He volunteers in a soup kitchen,
partly as penance for his transgressions, partly to turn down the noises
his own inner radar makes and submit to Christian values. He also yearns
for a grounded sense of family, though relations with his aforementioned
sister are strained and his brother Addison--the one Tal believes Dad
liked best--is a commitment-phobic radio personality who keeps slipping
from sight to avoid close scrutiny. (He has his reasons.) And there was
a younger sister, Abby, something of a family renegade, who died in a
car accident. "When Abby died," Tal recalls, "my father went a little
nuts, and then he got better." It's the book's most pithy line. Don't,
for a minute, forget it.

Carter is very good at evoking the wonderlands of American life, whether
the Vineyard, Aspen or Washington's "Gold Coast" enclave of wealthy,
powerful African-Americans. He's even better at describing the
machinations and intrigue in law school faculty offices--which shouldn't
be a surprise, though Carter's extended disclaimer (pages 655-57) begs
readers not to confuse Tal's spiky, tempestuous professional life with
his own. Still, from what readers know of Carter's ideas about religion,
ethics, politics and manners, it's not too much of a stretch to see Tal
asserting his creator's right to probe, confound and, whenever possible,
shatter conventional ideological boundaries.

At one point, Tal has a reverie about one of his father's standard
speeches to white conservatives, pointing to the overlap of their
opinions on such issues as school vouchers, abortion and gay rights with
those of the African-American mainstream. "Conservatives are the last
people who can afford to be racist. Because the future of conservatism
is black America!
" Quickly, Tal's mind makes a countermove. "Because
there were a few little details the Judge always left out. Like the fact
that it was conservatives who fought against just about every civil
rights law ever proposed. Like the fact that many of the wealthy men who
paid for his expensive speeches would not have him in their clubs....
The Judge was surely right to insist that the time has come for black
Americans to stop trusting white liberals, who are far more comfortable
telling us what we need than asking us what we want, but he never did
come up with a particularly persuasive reason for us to start trusting
white conservatives instead."

For fans of the well-made thriller, these and other digressions may seem
like patches of glue. But for those who think the plot is, as with the
rest of the book, somewhat overstuffed with data, false leads, sudden
frowns and black-and-blue contrivances, Tal's asides come across like
flares of random, cheeky insight. As the quote above suggests, neither
left nor right is spared Tal's withering assessment, though if I were
keeping score, the liberal humanists get it in the teeth far more than
those with more spirit-based devotions explaining their identities.

Readers have become accustomed to books written by African-Americans to
come down hard on a sociopolitical point. Mystery lovers want airtight
solutions. The Emperor of Ocean Park fulfills neither
expectation. And that, as much as anything, earns both its money and its
respect. Novels of ideas, in whose company Emperor surely belongs
if I read my Mary McCarthy right, are supposed to be exactly that: About
many ideas and not just one. Someone, maybe the author of Anna
Karenina
, once suggested that fiction should rouse questions, not
answer them. Once again, the defense calls Raymond Chandler to the
stand: "It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story
operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public
and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones,
which the public does not seek or demand or in effect recognize, but
which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes."

The Emperor of Ocean Park is no Farewell, My Lovely. But
Carter is on to something. And he may someday deliver what Chandler
does, along with a hearty serving of something non-Chandler-esque. What
that something may be is hinted in a few lines close to the novel's very
end:

"That truth, even moral truth, exists I have no doubt, for I am no
relativist; but we weak, fallen humans will never perceive it except
imperfectly, a faintly glowing presence toward which we creep through
the mists of reason, tradition, and faith."

Your move, Tom Clancy.

A young man of 16, visiting his cousins in Calcutta in a house in a
"middle-middle-class area," has just published his first poem. This
not-yet-poet from Bombay is the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri's short story
"Portrait of an Artist." The artist in the story is not the visiting
youth, however, but an older man, the English tutor who comes each week to instruct the cousins. This
man is respectfully called mastermoshai.

Mastermoshai has already been shown the narrator's poem. (One of the
cousins reports that the teacher was "very impressed.") On a Saturday
morning, the budding poet meets mastermoshai. He has a "very Bengali
face" with "spectacles that belonged to his face as much as his eyes
did" and "teeth that jutted out from under his lip, making his face
belong to the preorthodontal days." The cousins, and also the narrator,
wait for mastermoshai to say something about the poem. When two literary
men meet in Bengal, they do not indulge in small talk but instead
"straightaway enter realms of the abstract and articulate," we are
advised. Fittingly, mastermoshai's first question to the poet, in a
Bengali-inflected English, is, "Are you profoundly influenced by
Eliot?"

"It was mastermoshai who first spoke to me of Baudelaire," the narrator
says, and there are other discoveries in this induction into the
literary life. When the older man takes the poet to an editor's house in
another part of Calcutta, Chaudhuri's portrait of the artist shades into
a portrait of private homes and of the city as a whole. In Calcutta, our
poet discovers, clerks and accountants nurture an intellectual or
literary life, not only in English but also Bengali. The city appears
provincial, but it also reveals, like Joyce's Dublin, its particularity.

The literary passions that this city with a colonial past breeds are
already obsolete elsewhere. Yet they inspire a romance that is real and
productive. That is what the young poet feels after the years have
passed. By then, mastermoshai has faded into the oblivion of insanity.
His interest in Eliot and Baudelaire is seen by the narrator as a
"transitional" time during which, after the early losses of his life,
mastermoshai had returned to his "youthful enthusiasms." You realize
that the story is not so much about the space of literature, which like
the city itself offers surprises that serve as a refuge from the general
claustrophobia and madness. Instead, it is about the patient and
sometimes crazy, and mostly anonymous, striving in the former
colonies--and also about the tribute we need to pay to mentors in a
literary culture that functions without the trappings of creative
writing programs and, in the case of the poor, even ordinary colleges
and schools.

Chaudhuri's other stories in this debut collection, Real Time,
also concern themselves with the conditions under which art is born or
the circumstances in which artists live. The book's closing story is
about Mohanji, a gentle and gifted singer trained in classical
Hindustani music. He makes a living by teaching affluent housewives in
Bombay how to sing devotional bhajans and ghazals.
Mohanji's life now is "a round of middle-aged women" in Bombay's
affluent districts like Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill. At night, he
takes the fast train back to his home in a ghetto in distant Dadar.

Lately, Mohanji has been feeling ill. He believes he has an ulcer. He
also suffers from tension. This tension comes "from constantly having to
lie to the ladies he taught--white lies, flattery--and from not having a
choice in the matter."

Mohanji's student Mrs. Chatterjee does not always have the time to
practice. But, she would like to sing. She tells her teacher that she
wishes she could sing like him. Mohanji is "always surprised" that the
rich had desires for "what couldn't be theirs." He is also amused that
"it wasn't enough for Mrs. Chatterjee that she, in one sense, possessed
him; she must possess his gift as well."

This sudden sharpness on Mohanji's part, like his illness, reveals a
malaise. The gentleness in the guru, a quality to which Mrs. Chatterjee
had grown so accustomed, is now shown to be the result of great
restraint and even artistic discipline. The story's presentation of
Mohanji's speech and his silence ushers us into the domain of criticism.

We get a clue here to Chaudhuri's own art. He belongs to a very small
group of Indian writers in English who are as good critics as they are
storytellers. This skill at criticism is not a result of close
reading--though that ability is in fine evidence in The Picador Book
of Indian Literature
, which Chaudhuri has edited--but of a serious
search for a reading public. Chaudhuri's writing, both critical and
fictional, subtly demonstrates for this public (which is yet unborn) its
most responsible function.

There is a great need for such acts in India. Recently, at a literary
festival in Delhi, I heard a well-known writer telling her audience that
there were only two literary critics in Punjabi in the whole country.
But this wasn't the worst. She said that one of the two critics was a
university professor who was interested only in promoting the female
students who were doing their doctorates under him. The other was a man
in Chandigarh who wrote exclusively about other writers from his own Jat
caste. The writer said, "Since I am neither a pretty face nor a Jat, I
am ignored."

I thought about the Punjabi writer, and about Chaudhuri, who was also
there at the festival, when I was awakened past midnight in my hotel
room in Delhi by a call from London. It was someone from the BBC.
Earlier that day, V.S. Naipaul had been rude to another writer. Now the
BBC wanted to know if I believed that "Naipaul had lost it."

I wasn't able to provide gossip. But, as I lay awake in bed after the
call, I remember wondering whether I hadn't made a mistake thinking that
the problem of building a critical culture was India's alone. Did
Britain, for example, have a vibrant literary public sphere? Why then
was the BBC not rousing people from sleep to ask about the solitude of a
writer working in Punjabi, a language that is used by millions, and
endowed with a rich literary past, but now possessing no critics?

Fifteen short stories and a reminiscence-in-verse make up Real
Time
. Not all the pieces are as strong as the ones mentioned above.
A few of the short stories, like the one in the voice of a humiliated
demon from the Ramayana, are clever sketches but call for a more
extended treatment in order to be satisfying. There is a first-person
account of a housewife who is writing a memoir--a story meant to mock
the Indian writing scene, where, it seems, a new writer is born every
day. But Chaudhuri's wit is suited to a more muted, or perhaps just more
nuanced, register, and here the mockery falls flat.

"Words, silences," a story about two male friends who are meeting each
other after a long time, contains a hint of a half-understood homosexual
exchange between them in their boyhood. But the story, in its reticence,
offers too little, the author's silence acting like a silencing of its
own. A couple of other stories in the autobiographical mode work better,
recalling the lyricism and humor of Chaudhuri's earlier fiction. His
first three novels, published in a single volume in the United States
under the title Freedom Song, won a Los Angeles Times book
award in 2000. That year Chaudhuri also published a novel, A New
World
, about an expatriate Indian's return to Calcutta after his
divorce.

A real gem in the present collection is the title story "Real Time,"
which along with the account of Mohanji was first published in the
British magazine Granta. This elegantly crafted story recounts an
executive's visit to a house in Calcutta where a shraddha, or
memorial ceremony, is being held. The ceremony is for a young married
woman who has committed suicide by jumping from the third-floor balcony
of her parents' house.

The visitor and his wife--the latter is related to the family--have been
able to find the house only with some difficulty. They have bought
tuberoses on the way, having bargained the price down from sixteen to
fourteen rupees. The rituals of mourning are not clear in the case of a
suicide. The narrative supplies very little conventional pathos, and yet
pathos is present in the story, always in tension with other quotidian
details that intrude upon the consciousness of the narrator. The visitor
spots an acquaintance and they fall into a conversation about "the
recent changes in their companies," their own children and even "a brief
disagreement about whether civil engineering had a future as a career
today."

Death produces a great absence, but here, in the story, the absence has
more to do with the fact that the visiting couple know very little about
the suicide. They had learned of the death from an item in the
newspaper. Grief remains remote. More than death, it is this distance
that produces a blankness, which, however, slowly gets filled with
ordinariness, and even trivia. The narrative is so precise that it is
with a tiny jolt that the reader realizes that this inconsequential
ordinariness is what we usually call life.

Jacques Derrida has written that the Moroccan Abdelkebir Khatibi does
not speak of his mother tongue "without a trembling that can be heard,"
a "discreet tremor of language that undersigns the poetic resonance of
his entire work." The same can be said of Chaudhuri. In his prose,
history always happens elsewhere. It is like an earthquake in the heart
of the earth. What the writing registers is only the shock and the
falling buildings.

In early 1993, a short while after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in
Ayodhya and the riots that had followed, Chaudhuri wrote a travel essay
about this return to India from Oxford. In that essay, he described how
the metal nameplates in the house where his father had lived in Bombay
were now all blank. This had been done to protect the Muslims living in
the building. "Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called
incidents," he wrote, "told me I was now living in a slightly altered
world."

The trip on which Chaudhuri discovered the small detail of blank metal
nameplates sowed the seed for his novel Freedom Song. While
reading his earlier novels, I had been struck by the way in which
Chaudhuri's evocative, Proustian sentences accumulated visual details. I
thought of Bengali cinema, the moment of its modernity and the movement
of the camera recording the texture of middle-class life. But there was
also an aural element to this writing. It was punctuated with delicate
pauses that made the prose musical. The sentences were marked by spaces
of silence and filled with near-poetry.

It was only when reading Freedom Song, however, that I got a more
vivid sense of Chaudhuri's unique and flawed aesthetic. The rise of
Hindu fundamentalism and the changes ushered in by market liberalization
provide the immediate occasion for the novelist to examine the changes
that affect a small group of relatives and friends. These changes are
not overwhelming; they are subtle variations on a more settled routine.
The technique works because it saves history from the banality of a
slogan. At the same time, it also carries the danger of slipping into a
mannerism. Both the strength and, on occasion, the weakness are present
in the stories of Real Time.

In recent weeks, hundreds have died in India in religious riots
orchestrated by the Hindu right in retaliation for the burning alive of
fifty-eight Hindus in a train. These events have challenged the
democratic credentials of the Indian nation-state. But they also pose a
question for intellectuals and artists, and this is the question of
seeking a powerful and imaginative response to the carnage.

What is our response in "real time"? And how does this time find breath
in our writing? Chaudhuri, in his attention to the imaginative use of
language, makes the search for the answers a process of magical
discovery. Let me end with a passage from Freedom Song that
captures the inertness but also the dynamism of the life that Chaudhuri
sees unfolding around him:

It was afternoon. And in a small lane, in front of a pavement, with the
movement of a wrist, something like a curve began to appear, it was not
clear what pattern was forming, then the letter D appeared upon a wall
of a two-storey house, in black paint, and then U, and N, until DUNKEL
had been formed, in the English language, which seemed to blazon itself
for its curious purpose; then it began again, and I and M and F began to
appear in another corner. Afternoon; no one saw them; it was too hot; on
the main road cars went past, up and down; a few people rested; they had
eaten; beggars dozed, blind to the heat and shadows, their heads bent to
the stomach.

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