A New Familiar Story

The hardships of the immigrant experience to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The isolation of life in the upper midwest. The lure, threat and promise of the big city. Patriarchy, misogyny, violence. Bigotry in World War I. Second and third generation immigrants families. These are recognizeable themes in American literature.

Familiar themes, though, do not have to limit a novel’s scope or imagination.

Michelle Hoover’s Bottomland is about the disappearance of two daughters from the German family homestead in rural Iowa in the early part of the twentieth century. Hoover tells the story in five chapters, each from a character’s perspective. She plays with time, with narrative veracity, and with the plot. It unfolds in bits and pieces. Hoover, though, is not interested in writing a thriller or mystery. Tension is used in service of broader themes, particularly those of interpersonal connection and agency. The prose is marked by an austere clarity – even when the picture is foggy and described by an unreliable narrator.bottomland

Bottomland is a thoughtful and well-written novel. It is also surprisingly relevant to contemporary life. Pick your immigrant group, imagination the perspective of one with little agency in a world with few or no guarantees, add a bit of cross-cultural tension – and it all rings as familiar. Hoover has crafted a clever and thoughtful book.

I wonder if novelists will be looking at Somalian immigrants in Minnesota or Syrian immigrants in Michigan twenty years hence. If they do – and do it well as Bottomland – I will read and learn.

David Potash

Quiet Dignity

StonerJohn WilliamsStoner is a novel well worth time and consideration. Originally published in 1965, the book was well-reviewed but far from a best-seller. After falling out of print it was reissued in 2003 and has been steadily gathering attention, praise, and sales. A gift from an English department colleague, it is a book for writers and academics. It is not a flashy book. Stoner lingers, its quiet simplicity raising very hard questions.

The plot is biographical. A lifelong academic, Stoner, enters the University of Missouri as a student and becomes an English professor there, teaching until his death. The product of poor, taciturn farmers, Stoner’s life is quiet and marked by frustrations, some realized, others just endured. He has an unhappy marriage, a difficult relationship with his daughter, and a brief affair that gives him a window to passion and joy. Williams treats Stoner with dignity.

Passive in many areas, life happens to Stoner. He is not a planner. What marks Stoner’s existence is his teaching and his connection to literature. It is, in many ways, a novel about the life of an academic teacher. In sketching out that existence, Williams expertly highlights the petty cruelties and the culture of constraint that accompanies life as a professor. There are few victories and more defeats. The steady toil of class after class, semester after semester, is reminiscent of the cadence of farm life and its steady, unyielding demands. Unflinchingly honest, Stoner paints a grim picture.

The beauty of the book comes from its prose. It is deliberate without being fussy, crafted like a small intricate box without screws, nails, or glue. It coheres and shines, even as the arc of Stoner’s career and life shrink.

David Potash

Engaging Scoundrels

Come with me, dear reader, on an exciting journey through smells, sights, opportunities, lies and crimes. I will entertain, engage, challenge and confide in you. I will be a most trusted guide and nothing that I say can be believed.

A good first-person narrator can take a reader by the wrist, or wallet, or throat and lead us through all manner of adventure. A tried and true technique, it is extraordinarily effective in the right hands. Aravind Agida employs it fully in his debut novel The White Tiger.  Dark and comical, the book references, borrows and steals from all the right sources: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, but also Defoe, Rushdie and Barth. It is the story of a charming and untrustworthy man living in multiple worlds – modern India.

The overall structure is the personal history of Balram (or Munna), an Indian entrepreneur, as written in a series of letters to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabo, who is scheduled to visit Bangalore. Balram tells his own story as way of explaining India; it is a story within a story. Born in “Darkness” or abject poverty in a rural village, Balram experiences privation and disappointment despite being identified as intelligent, a “White Tiger.” He is only partially aware of his misery in his lot until he becomes a driver for a rich man with family connections to his village. He journeys to the city, “Light,” comes to understand more clearly his situation and the way that India “works.” It is a voyage of knowledge, cynicism, and advancement. Balram eventually murders his employer in order to break free and to establish a new identity, business, and future. The novel’s coda is a recount of how Balram the businessman handles the death of a child run over by one of his employees: with bribery, influence peddling and power.

Agida gives Balram great intelligence but little knowledge, and as his perspective becomes more informed, an ever greater sense of agency. Balram’s morality is thin at best. He murders in cold blood and is ruthless. One the other hand, the very sense of right and wrong is problematized throughout, as “justice” seems to be irrelevant to the world in which the characters live. inhabit. Agida’s satire is of India and Balram is the vehicle. Balram the quintessential traveler, an alien in his own land, a visible invisible man. He parodies the myth of the self-made man. Balram has access to many voices: the subaltern, the Quisling, the entrepreneur, the internal immigrant, and the business man.

And though a cold character, above all, Balram is very funny.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008, The White Tiger is the kind of literature that entertains and provokes – a good and thoughtful read.