Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sara’s narrative voice and fictional technique

Owing to the grandiloquent, highly analytical style of Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, an appropriation of voice inevitably stands out; in such instances, it is almost as if the writer condescends, leaving behind her typical syntax and diction to speak at a lower level of the English tongue. Of course, her reason for so doing might involve the language itself, as in the following passage from the "Papa and Pakistan" chapter:

There were always a few words that his flamboyant English insisted he mispronounce: words, I often imagined, over which his heart took hidden pleasure when he had got them by the gullet and held them there until they empurpled to the color of his own indignant nature. "Another" was one of them-- I cannot count how many times each day we would hear him say, "Anther?" "Anther?" It did not matter whether it was another meal or another government or another baby at issue: all we heard was a voice bristling over with amazement at the thought that anther could exist. ... Something like "beginning" had to become "bigning," a hasty abbreviation that was secretly aware of the comic quality of slapdash, the shorthand through which slapdash begins. He was a journalist, after all.
Later, at the end of this paragraph-- and before delving into her father's background and upbringing-- Suleri will state, "For in the bigning, there was Pip"-- "Pip" being a childish appellation for her father.  What I am wondering is, of course, why Suleri would do this-- why here, in that final, transitory sentence, she would appropriate the voice (or, more accurately, the mispronunciation) of her father. At the outset of the paragraph I've reprinted above, the author quickly and quite cryptically characterizes her father as "indignant" in nature; moreover, her description of his articulation-- the way in which he spoke, or attempted to speak, English -- is rife with violent imagery. The image, to be specific, is of her father choking a word until it conforms to how he wants it to sound, as if he knows how it ought to sound but actively seeks to turn it, by way of articulation, into something meaner, more "indignant."

Suleri's Pay-Off and Set-Up Anecdotes

In Meatless Days, Sara Suleri jumps right into her anecdotes, often delivering the pay-off without a set-up. "Dadi behaved miserably at my mother's funeral" , she writes, immediately following a story in which her mother appears quite alive. The information jars the reader, perhaps reconstructing the suddenness of Suleri's mother's death. But, more importantly, Suleri's anecdotal structure gives her stories a particular energy: we know what happens, but we don't when it will. In a way, it resembles Alfred Hitchcock's "Bomb Theory": two men sit across from each other on a train and only the audience knows that there is a bomb under the table that separates them. Only with Suleri, we already now that the bomb goes off. Other examples: I had strongly hoped that they would say sweetbreads instead of testicles, but I was wrong.
And so we were not really that surprised, then, to find ourselves living through the summer of the trials by fire. It climaxed when Dadi went up in a little ball of flames, but somehow sequentially related were my mother's trip to England to tend her dying mother, and the night I beat up Tillat, and the evening I nearly castrated my little brother, runt of the litter, serious-eyed Irfan.

What Suleri Knows of Storytelling

Sara Suleri's style of storytelling is nothing new to us. Like Wolfe and Chatwin, Suleri moves from scene to scene without haste, leaving dense paragraphs and seemingly unfinished ideas in her trail. Clever transitions, oftentimes employing minor details to turn the reader's eye, keep the prose moving at a quick pace, and it is up to the reader to slow down, reread, and put all the pieces together. Yet, according to the following passage, Suleri herself seems to struggle with this approach:
Tom and Tillat tried to behave like friends; they cooked together in a way I liked -- but with me the man was so large that he could conceive of himself only in bits, always conscious of how segments of his body could go wandering off, tarsals and metatarsals heedlessly autonomous. Such dissipation made him single-minded. He never worried about the top of his head, because he had put it behind him. His mother chose his glasses for him. His desires made him merely material: he looked at himself just as a woman looks when her infant takes its first tremulous step into the upright world, melting her into a modesty of consternation and pride. And his left hand could never see what his right hand was doing, for they were too far apart, occupying as they did remote hemispheres of control. Perhaps I should have been able to bring those bits together, but such a narrative was not available to me, not after what I knew of storytelling. . . .
This passage raises a number of important questions:
  • How is it possible that Suleri is unable to "bring those bits together" if, as we've mentioned, her own writing seems to work this way? What exactly does Suleri know of storytelling?
  • What differences between men and women is Suleri highlighting with this description of Tom? Are there any implications for the different responses men and women might have to Suleri's work?
  • Do you find Suleri ultimately effective in completing her ideas or, like Tom's two hands, is it all just too far apart?
In Meatless Days, Sara Suleri recounts story after story about her family members and growing up in Pakistan. The book is composed of strung-together narratives between which Suleri inserts her own musings and interpretations of the larger implications of her personal stories. Figuring largely in the book are well-developed characters, whose idiosyncratic personalities can be gleaned from Suleri's carefully chosen anecdotes. Two of these characters are her grandmother Dadi and her elder sister Ifat, to whom Suleri frequently refers both as living characters within stories and as dead people, eulogized through the stories.
And somehow it seems apt and heartening that Dadi, being what she was, never suffered the pomposities that enter the most well-meaning of farewells and seeped instead into the nooks and crannies of our forgetfulness. She fell between two stools of grief, which is appropriate, since she was greatest when her life was at its most unreal. Anyway, she was always outside our ken, an anecdotal thing, neither more nor less.
Later, Suleri writes about her sister: It reminds me that I am glad to have washed my hands of my sister Ifat's death and can think of her now as a house I once rented but which is presently inhabited by people I do not know. I miss her body, of course, and how tall she was, with the skull of a leopard and the manner of a hawk. But that's aesthetic, and aside from it, Ifat is just a repository of anecdotes for me, something I carry around without noticing, like lymph.

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