Slate Whiting Title of the second novel on the list.
Great moments of literary compression:
In 1911, Ezra Pound tries to capture a vision he once had when stepping out of a Paris metro station. He discards this 71-line poem, seeing it as a “work of second intensity”, which is apparently some sort of modernist insult that we should immediately put back into common use. Pound starts again six months later, this time using 30 lines, and fails again. He fiddles with and pruns, and the following year he produces “Dans une station de métro”, a majestic two-line sentence: “The appearance of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a black, damp branch. Damn it, brother.
Around 2001, Akhil Sharma started the project which would become Family life. He writes, deletes, and rewrites over 7,000 pages of second-rate stuff that makes him wonder “if this was the right investment for [his] time. ”Friends are urging him to abandon the novel; he fiddles, pruns and is ashamed. The final version which was released this spring, the fifth of our five picks for the Slate/ Whiting Second Novel List, is a slim 224 pages. Like Sharma wrote in The New Yorker, “The book does everything I want a book to do.” I just wish that twelve and a half years of my life hadn’t been spent creating it.
Who among us does not know the agony of trying to get it right, whether we are imaginary poets, extremely talented second novelists, or assistant directors trying to decide to include our Pomeranian-Lab blends in our ” Things I’m grateful for “Facebook status updates? Is the end result worth all the tricks, dead words, torture? Akhil Sharma suffered for your pleasure, and the results are magnificent. He suffered in his youth, as his novel took off from his family history, and he again suffered as he struggled forcefully, on a heroic scale, with that essential writer’s dilemma: trying to find the right words. . And try. In the end, he succeeded.
So here are the false starts and all the brilliant solutions. Sharma’s second novel details the Mishra family’s emigration from Delhi to New York in the late 1970s, and their eldest son, Birju, has a horrific swimming accident. The resulting brain damage forces the boy to need expensive 24-hour care. Dad, who raised the money to bring his family to the United States for a new life, drinks and mom gets lost in his obsession with the doomed rehabilitation of his son. That leaves Ajay, the youngest son, going around in circles, recounting his attempts to decipher the impenetrable codes of adolescence and Americanity, and his own wild and unruly self.
This is the tragedy. If you have no knowledge of this kind of misfortune, it will make your blessings count, even as you marvel at Sharma’s spellbinding economy of sentences. If you’re unlucky enough to recognize some of the pain here, the skillful portrayal of Sharma will thrill you and make you grateful for an artist who speaks for your unexpressed notions.
But if it’s a tragedy, why do I remember the jokes so fondly? “My father loved science,” Ajay tells us. “The way he tried to introduce her into his life was to go to medical clinics and get his urine tested.” Most reviews of Family life have sufficiently conveyed his heartbreaking cruelties. But since this Slate/ The Whiting project is intended to direct readers to second novels that they may have forgotten, I would like to point out that beyond the sadness, the novel contains a deep and nourishing reservoir of dark humor, thanks to the Ajay’s impassive and dead-eyed perceptions. He is an invariably disturbing narrator, that he decodes the true meaning of It’s a wonderful life (“To me the movie meant that if you get unhappy enough, almost anything can pass for happiness”) or try to elicit sympathy from bored classmates by imagining stories worthy of grinning powers from before the Birju crash (“My brother was a very fast runner. Once he threw a ball straight in front of him, and he chased it and caught it before it hit the ground”). many intercultural misunderstandings in Family life, but gallows humor doesn’t need translation.
Having said that, even though Akhil Sharma did an admirable feat with this book, I hope he has an easier time with Novel # 3. For his sake. A person cannot take that much.
Family life by Akhil Sharma. WW Norton.
Previous SlateChoice from the list of Whiting’s novels:
Dan Kois on Helen DeWitt’s lightning rods.
Sasha Weiss on Eileen Myles Hell.
Yiyun Li on The night we walk in circles by Daniel Alarcón.
Sarah McNally on The Women’s Book of the Night by Marlon James.
See all parts in this month’s Slate Book Review.
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