The other day in the Wall Street Journal there was an article about Martin Amis in which the reporter, showcasing Amis’ excellence at description, included the following quote:
His eyes were positively flamboyant. Looking at those eyes, you felt not just fear but also the kind of depression that would normally take a week to build.
To me, that would normally take a week to build is pretty weak, but maybe the problem is this: it’s difficult to judge good writing if all you get are snippets. Bad writing is hard to miss, but writing that really affects a reader take some time to develop.
This was brought home to me by a very fine piece of work I’ve just distracted myself with called The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. For the first few short chapters I kept getting put off by the occasional clumsy or puzzling phrase:
. . . but it was far too dark by this time for Gyan to pick his way home through a hillside of ice eggs.
What in the name of Ned are ice eggs? Whatever they are, they make walking difficult and reading no less so. Get slipped up in your reading by too many ice eggs and before you know it you’re losing patience with the journey. Fortunately, the footing Desai provides is usually of a much more solid nature. The occasional ice egg is not evidence that she’s a bad writer, but that she’s willing to take risks.
There are lots of funny bits in the book, but as I hinted above, they’re only funny as a result of what led up to them. So it was difficult to find a stand-alone passage to illustrate Desai’s skill, though perhaps this might serve:
Just ordinary humans in ordinary opaque boiled-egg light, without grace, without revelation, composite of contradictions, easy principles, arguing about what they half believed in or even what they didn’t believe in at all, desiring comfort as much as raw austerity, authenticity as much as playacting, desiring coziness of family as much as to abandon it forever. Cheese and chocolate they wanted, but also to kick these bloody foreign things out. A wild daring love to bicycle them into the sky, but also a rice and dal love blessed by the unexciting feel of everyday.
Reading this book, I was frequently reminded of another fine novel from the subcontinent, The God of Small Things: not only for the fine sense of language that a not-quite-native speaker sometimes brings to it (think of Nabokov, whose native language was Russian but whose first written language was English) but also for the fine sense of character. Desai does not romanticize anyone. She presents neither angels nor devils, but human beings, all of whom are flawed, and all of whom have, if not redeeming qualities, comprehensible reasons for doing the sometimes horrible things they do. That is in fact a major theme of the book. The world was not created by the characters in the book. They inherited it. The fact that they did so little to try to change it, even the case of the judge, who once had some small power to do so, merely underlines the fact they are merely human. When their world comes apart and they are caught up in a wave of resentment that has been building for generations, about all we can do is shake our heads at their poor timing in not dying before it broke.