The Crazed Wind by Nod Ghosh (Truth Serum Press, 2018), 140 pp., $12.00; Swim by Avi Duckor-Jones (Seizure by Brio Books, 2018), 172 pp., $20
In an essay from his 1995 collection Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera dreams eloquently about novelists freeing themselves from orthodox expectations of plotting, scene-setting and chronology:
That is what delighted me about [Rabelais] and … about other early novelists: they talk about what fascinates them and they stop when the fascination stops. Their freedom of composition set me dreaming: of writing without fabricating suspense, without constructing a plot and working up its plausibility, of writing without describing a period, a milieu, a city; of abandoning all that and holding on to only the essential; that is to say: creating a work in which … the novelist would never be forced – for the sake of form and its dictates – to stray by even a single line from what [she] cares about, what fascinates [her]. (Kundera, 157–58)
One reason I altered the final pronouns in Kundera’s statement is because I believe Nod Ghosh, in her latest work, The Crazed Wind, successfully achieves Kundera’s vision. I don’t know whether she is familiar with this essay, or indeed with the novels in which Kundera attempts to realise his own aesthetic, but some of the strategies he goes on to discuss, borrowing and adapting from his lifelong love of certain composers, resonate wonderfully with Ghosh’s methods:
… By giving each part the nature of a short story, I made unnecessary the whole seemingly unavoidable technique of large-scale novel composition. In my project, I happened upon the old Chopin strategy, the strategy of small-scale composition that has no need of non-thematic passages … As I worked I … came across another old strategy: Beethoven’s variation strategy: this allowed me to stay in direct, uninterrupted contact with some existential questions that fascinate me and that this novel in variation form explores from multiple angles … (Kundera, 165–66)
Interestingly, the authors who have praised Ghosh’s book on its cover and front pages have varying opinions on how to ‘classify’ it: at one end, Santino Prinzi describes the work as ‘an exemplary novella-in-flash’, and to Stephanie Hutton it is ‘a hybrid of fiction with elements of non-fiction, prose poetry and playful structures’; at the other end Eileen Merriman calls it a ‘unique collection of flash fiction’, which is also close to the way Paul Beckman reads it, as a book that allows you to ‘go back … time after time and read stories by choice or by chance’. My own reading is closer to Prinzi’s and Hutton’s, if only because interpreting The Crazed Wind as a varied-but-connected series of narrative glimpses leaves us with an incredibly rich overall portrait of a narrator and her ongoing attempt to grapple with her family legacy, its values, its people, its larger and smaller histories, as embodied especially in her evocation of her complex relationship with her father:
My father has been telling me our family history; stories that have echoed through generations but passed me by, because I have been living in an alternate reality.
I have been in the Land of the Ostracised for many years but have been granted a visa that has allowed me to enter the Land of Acceptance. (Ghosh, 93)
For Ghosh, this inheritance we receive and endlessly wrestle with, knowingly and unconsciously transform, perpetuate, resist – that, all of that, is identity.
Everything he’s done has been driven by good intent. I’ve always known that. And I’ve always wanted to break free. I fear he may tie me here with invisible ropes.
I have to go back. I have a family. Responsibilities.
But I won’t go before I find out what makes him the way he is. (71)
To me, Ghosh’s method – of working through fragments and flashes while attempting to assemble a greater whole – is integral to the nature of her project. Not only are we constantly in touch – à la Kundera – with the memories, conversations and discoveries that matter most to the narrator (and nothing but), Ghosh’s form is also mimetic of the fleeting, tumultuous, discontinuous ways in which our most significant moments, and ties, live within us and constantly register their presence.
And, although I haven’t time to do them justice in this review, in their detail and content, those memories and experiences are evoked as vividly as their presentation is inventive. Here are a couple of moments of the narrator refuting the values of her father that brought to mind another master, Jamaica Kincaid in the story Girl:
You recommend men who are solid and reliable.
I want a man who will share his wildness with me …
You would be proud to call a man who makes his mark in society your son-in-law.
I would be happy to live anonymously with love. (17–18)
This is a book that, for the most part, is as successful and interesting in how it presents the most complex and formative of our experiences, influences and emotions, as in its understanding of their enduring power.
Avi Duckor-Jones’ debut novella Swim also explores, as its central focus, the lasting (perhaps distorting) impact of a parent, to lose them but as well to be formed by their values. After years of staying away from home following the death of his father and the subsequent reaction of his mother, the narrator Jacob has returned because his mother (Estela) is sick, although he claims not to know ‘quite what that meant, but I could imagine the enjoyment with which she’d tell people … She’d be laying her accent on thick. I was starting that old dialogue in my mind, and shook my head against it’ (2). In stark contrast to a mother whose face he struggles to remember, however, his father and his legacy are still vivid for Jacob, as they are for Estela:
Dad often said that the three of us were different … ‘We know more,’ he would say. ‘We don’t need television sets telling us what to buy and when to buy it!’ … He said that all those people who went through their routines, without knowing what it was that they were doing, were just lost causes. They had followed the generic map that was sold on every street corner. We were sketching our own plans, without degrees or politics or money getting in the way. (106–07)
Again and again, mother and son share the same anxiety of betraying in some way the patrimony of their long-gone love:
‘And how’s the shack looking? … Keep Dad in mind whatever you do. You know he had very specific intentions when he built it.’ (52)
The renovation of the shack. The party. It was a violation of Dad’s memory. I should have left it as it was. Estela must think so too … Now it was like every other house in the bay. (111)
And yet, in the course of the book, several profound and movingly drawn ironies emerge – that this shared love-to-the-point-of-reverence actually serves to divide Estela and Jacob, to add to their mutual mistrust, and also the damaging impact on Jacob of living out these inherited values, of compulsively pushing himself as an ocean-swimmer, for example, ‘to test ourselves’, as his father would have said. ‘Not only so that God knows we love him, but so that we know we are alive’ (114). One of the great themes of this slim book is that even the apparently healthiest of pursuits, such as endurance swimming, if followed for ‘unhealthy’ motives – in order to look away from life’s other possibilities and challenges, or else to isolate oneself from people – can assume the form of an addiction. After a while, I began noticing the number of times Jacob uses the word ‘numb’ during or after a swim, as well as the many evocations of the silence, the safety, and even the sense of invulnerability he seeks in the sea:
Nothing can reach me here. I am safe. Just move through the water, feel it on your eyes and lips, moving through your hair. You are safe. You feel nothing. (114)
In keeping with its theme of Jacob feeling most alive in the water, or by himself in nature, Duckor-Jones’ writing is at its most evocative in these sections. As a portrait of a damaged young man, and family, that do not know how to begin to re-engage and trust, this is a convincing, poignant novel. The only extra dimension I missed was a presence in the book, a character or two, who could perhaps ‘model’ for Jacob and Estela how to begin to re-connect with people, by inhabiting their relationships with as much openness and courage and vigour as Jacob enters the sea. To that extent Kiri, in her slightly earth-mothery cameo appearances, and Kate, represent a couple of not-quite-seized opportunities. Unlike the vivid evocations of Jacob alone, especially in the water, the encounters and conversations between people in the novel remain at quite a rudimentary level, often not rising beyond banter or small talk. This is mostly appropriate within the established context: it is in the nature of our narrator to flee every gathering before deeper engagement can occur. But I did wish there was someone depicted within Jacob’s field of vision who could powerfully demonstrate through their own way of being that other people are a supreme value – not just ‘boring, normal middle-aged idiots who have stopped living’ (125) – and as rewarding, challenging and infinite to explore as the open sea.
RAJORSHI CHAKRABORTI is the author of five novels and a collection of short fiction, including, most recently, The Man Who Would Not See, which was long-listed for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. A new novel, Let There Be Heroes, is due out in early 2020. You can find out more about Raj’s work at www.rajorshichakraborti.com
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