The title of this talk seems to suggest that I know the answer to the “why,” and that I’m about to share it with you. I began writing my first novel in 1986, in what I elected to be my gap year: so, if I’ve been trying my hand at fiction for about thirty-four years now, I should definitely have some idea why I write novels. The truth is that the title has a misleading sound. It should have been, “Why Do I Write Novels?”, with the emphasis on the “do”: because I’ve grown increasingly, rather than less, puzzled by this part of my existence—a part that, to those who know my work from afar, may even seem definitive of my existence.
Of course, in order for me to be confident of that title, “Why I Write Novels,” I have to assume that the reader knows enough of my fiction to want to learn of its backstory and provenance. I’m not making such an assumption. What I’m hoping is that the spectacle of a person who’s published seven novels over three decades without knowing exactly why he’s chosen that genre to write in will be a matter of curiosity to others.
People have pointed out to me from the start that I have been writing about my life. I have been at pains to point out to them that I’m interested in “life,” not “my life,” and that there’s a subtle difference between my understanding of the first and the second. Still, when Karl Miller read a chapter from my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, which he published as a standalone story in 1988 in the London Review of Books, he said, “It’s your bloody memoir!” I’ve had this said to me since from time to time, if with less passion. I have sometimes asked myself in what way a novel I’ve written isn’t a memoir, especially when I definitely know it isn’t. Take my sixth novel, Odysseus Abroad, which came to me from my urge to cast a maternal uncle I had in London, a bachelor, as Odysseus, and myself—from my memories of my student days in the early ’80s—as Telemachus.
This conceit came from nowhere, as conceits do, after I’d bought a large charcoal sketch in 2002 by the artist F. N. Souza. I’d purchased the work exceptionally cheap, for fifty-five thousand rupees, and hung it up in the drawing room in Calcutta. The charcoal sketch was a portrait; a jumble of frenetic lines that had come together to create a man. My uncle, the bachelor from London, was in Calcutta. He still rented the Belsize Park bedsit he’d lived in for roughly thirty years, but, from 1991—after I convinced him to visit Calcutta to attend my wedding—spent most of his time in Bhowanipore in South Calcutta with his younger brother. Though he’d been a senior manager in one of the biggest shipping companies in Britain, he owned no property. In Calcutta, he spent his time visiting relatives. He came to our flat and asked to see the painting. He studied it and said: “You may as well have paid me fifty-five thousand rupees for farting.” When I protested, he said: “I suppose the art produced by a genius and the art done by an idiot are identical.”
I kept looking at the magnificent likeness, thinking how it was like my uncle, and was reminded that Souza had named it Ulysses. The portrait resembled my uncle because it was actually a self-portrait, and there’s a marked similarity between my uncle’s features and Souza’s, even a pronounced overlap in temperament, except that Souza hated Tagore and my uncle loved him: so, if they’d met, they’d have soon been at each other’s throats. Staring at the drawing as my uncle went off, I thought, “He is a bit like Odysseus.” This was the surfacing of the conceit, that at first felt liberatingly absurd, then increasingly tenable. He had lived in the bedsit in Belsize Park for thirty years; he had worked in shipping; he had only lately, relatively speaking, returned home. When I was in London as an undergraduate, he was my one point of contact outside of my frugal interaction with college life. I now began to see the journey I made at least once weekly from Warren Street to his bedsit, walking past him, as he stood in the doorway, to the kitchenette inside to open the tap and pour myself water, as Telemachus’s journey. I returned to the image from time to time over the next ten years.
When I committed myself to writing the story in 2012, I wondered how to approach the conceit. I considered the essayistic memoir: this would allow me to discuss the conceit while laying out the lives of Odysseus and Telemachus and their time in London. I wrote two paragraphs in this mode. I put a line through them in my notebook.
Then I wondered what to do. Joyce’s behemoth was on my mind, of course. What if I, taking a cue, set my story over a day? But at which point to begin? I used to wake up and practice music in Warren Street, but with trepidation: my neighbors slept late, and the English woman below would come to my door and knock at 10 AM to complain. All of them, including the Gujaratis from Tanzania who lived above me, went to bed at about 3 AM; the Gujaratis played rap music every night; so it was always moot whether I’d have enough sleep to get up and sing and then get through the day. My neighbors were the suitors. This came to me as I considered how to proceed. After that, other details of the epic began to fall into place: my landlord, who owned a restaurant called Diwaan-i-Khaas (after the Mughal court’s “upper chamber”), would be Menelaus; an episode that my uncle had related to me, of the 16-year-old janitress in his office making a lewd gesture at him as she cleaned the floors, would comprise the section on Odysseus spying on Nausicaa; my uncle’s Pakistani neighbor, who both protected and exploited him and whose own bedsit was filthy, would be the swineherd Emaeus with whom Odysseus had taken refuge. I implied this last through a thought that Ananda—that is, Telemachus—has when he glimpses the inside of the neighbor’s bedsit on his way to the shared toilet: “It was a pigsty.” And so on. It became clear that I didn’t need to invent, but remember: everything in the epic had already happened to me. But this remembering was not the sort of remembering that the memoir is supposed to involve. I say “supposed to” because I have no idea what kind of memory goes into a memoir. Here, three narratives encountered or lived through in one way or another in a past life—the Odyssey, which I had to consult again; Ulysses; and my own miserable years as an undergraduate in London—came back to me over the period of writing in a steady confluence. They bore upon each other in an act of regeneration. All the elements had been waiting for this moment; this is not the way we conceive of memory, which we think of as a conduit to the past that we access at will. I had, in fact, tried to write a memoir on that assumption, and failed.
The questions, “Is it from your life? Did this really happen?”, along with the self-contradicting observation, “Nothing happens in your novels,” have greeted my fiction from 1991. How you can ask “Did this really happen?” while at the same time claiming nothing has happened in unclear to me. The first two questions I’ve just mentioned returned with a new acuteness with the publication of my seventh novel, Friend of My Youth. I was partly responsible. I had written a work of fiction in which the first-person narrator was called “Amit Chaudhuri.” He was born in Calcutta and had grown up in Bombay, very much as I had, and the novel has him returning to Bombay in March 2011 to read from his fifth novel, The Immortals. By coincidence, The Immortals was my fifth novel too. He stays in a club in Malabar Hill, overlooking the building in which he’d grown up. I’d grown up in that building myself, and I knew the club. Amit Chaudhuri registers the absence of his school friend, Ramu, an on-and-off drug addict who, after recovering from an overdose, has gone off into rehab outside Bombay, and is inaccessible to the world. Amit is puzzled by the disorienting effect his friend’s absence has on him. He hadn’t expected it. He’s also perplexed that the Taj Mahal hotel, which he visits in the evening to exchange two pairs of shoes that his mother and wife have sent with him, looks exactly as it used to, bearing no signs of the way it had been gutted in 2008. He knows the present Taj Mahal hotel is partly an illusion. The next morning he’s interviewed by a newspaper journalist who turns up late; then has a Parsi lunch with his publishing rep at Britannia restaurant; after which he goes with him to Strand Book Stall for a book signing. He’s still missing Ramu. The first, and the largest section, of this short book ends before the reading happens. The second, very short, section has him return to Bombay a year and a half later for a literary festival. Ramu has managed to get himself extricated from rehab, and is back in Bombay. In the last, also very short, section, Amit returns to Bombay in the summer with his wife and daughter, and they stay at the Taj. This is a holiday, but Amit also designates it as “research”: by now, he knows he’s writing Friend of My Youth.
When the book came out, an interlocutor asked me, in the course of one of those events that newly published books can’t do without, if everything I’d described in it had happened. “More or less, I suppose. Almost all of it,” I said. “Then why call it a novel?” he asked, smiling pityingly, as if at a man who has a chronic problem he’s not aware of. “Why not say it’s a memoir?” I, by now, had an answer to this: how could a book that covers a day and a half in 2011, leading up to a reading that isn’t described, followed by two short sections about separate visits, be called a “memoir”? What kind of memoir was this? A memoir must recount part or all of what has happened to oneself; here, the bits that formed the subject of the book—“bits” is not an inappropriate word, as Amit Chaudhuri’s excursions are sporadic—are where nothing, in strict narrative terms, is taking place. No respectable memoir should take such a form.
A year or two later, it occurred to me that I’d been making a distinction that was important to me, but that it wasn’t entirely accurate. When I’d said that most of what happened in Friend of My Youth was taken from life, this was true in one sense and untrue in another. For instance, that trip to Bombay in 2011; that reading from The Immortals; that stay at the club; the visit to the Taj with my mother’s shoes—none of them had ever taken place. Each one of these events has occurred at different times, independently of each other: that is, I have indeed read in Bombay from The Immortals; I have undertaken shoe-exchanging missions to the Taj; I have stayed in the club overlooking the building in which I grew up (though never, perhaps, on a “book tour”); I have been interviewed by newspapers; I have eaten Parsi/Iranian food at Britannia Restaurant. On visits to Bombay, I had also strangely, powerfully, missed my absent friend when he’d vanished for more than a year to rehab. This, in fact, was the prompt: the weighing of the idea of whether a novel could be written about missing a childhood friend upon revisiting the city in which one had grown up. The moment when such an idea surfaces is the moment when living’s demarcation from, its anteriority to, writing fades, and the latter no longer remains a reporting of the former.
For all that, the episode I’d described in some detail over the first two thirds of the novel has no prior existence. It is an invention. Why invent such an episode? If I’m to be accused of writing from life, and if I also begin to blithely admit to doing so, I may as well earn the accusation. Why invent a situation unless to pursue a narrative goal, a denouement or dramatic event? Why construct in order to persuade a reader of something that doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief: the fact that nothing, on the level of plot, is taking place? One of my dissatisfactions with the novel as a form has to do with it comprising what Naipaul called “made up stories.” But why “make up” something that isn’t a story in the novelistic sense? In The Prelude, probably the first modern work, at least in English, to explore the intersection between memoir and poetic language, we note the convergence between artifice (that is, poetic form) with the re-addressing and re-formation of memory; that is, a performance not of memory being written about, but becoming what it is in the act of composition. But one can at least expect that the incidents Wordsworth dwells on did take place just as he relates them to us—“One evening (surely I was led by her)/ I went alone into a Shepherd’s Boat,/ A Skiff that to a Willow tree was tied/ Within a rocky Cave, its usual home”— and rely, too, on the fact that the point of these lines isn’t some form of extraneous story-making. When Robert Lowell tells us of spotting, during his time in jail as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, the killer Lepke “piling towels on a rack,” we feel that the image has poetic veracity, but also that it has a reasonable fidelity to fact. Lowell did glimpse Lepke with the towels. However, when I write, in Friend of My Youth—
I have crossed the road. Opposite me is the building that came out of nowhere in the late seventies and partially blocked our view. Before then, we had an unbroken view of the Arabian Sea. The building is irrelevant to me now, but still causes a pinprick of irritation. It was an interloper—a tenant on the landscape—and continues to be one.
In front of the building, upon the road—there’s no pavement here—sits a woman on her haunches, displaying a basket of fruit. What she offers that the grocers’ opposite don’t, I can’t say. In another area, there’d be a gaggle of squatting women. Here, she is one. One is enough for Little Gibbs Road.
—when I write these sentences, I have to think of each one carefully: not only to be true to my sense of what’s significant, but also because I’m giving shape to what’s never existed. Although I have crossed Little Gibbs Road many times, I never crossed it in March 2011 in the early evening, mainly because I wasn’t in Bombay in March 2011. I never saw that woman sitting on her haunches selling fruit, though I may have seen such a woman at some time. The “pinprick of irritation” Amit feels when he glances at the building I may have experienced too, but not at that precise moment. Why not say what happened rather fictionalize a non-happening? Is that what Lowell meant when, struggling with self-doubt about his method and the fear that his poetry was “paralyzed by fact,” he countered, “Yet why not say what happened?/ Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination”? Or did he have something slightly different in mind when making those connections and distinctions between “fact,” “accuracy,” and “illumination”? I’d certainly responded to the lines as a credo, though I now realize that, repeatedly, I haven’t said “what happened.” The July day in 1985 whose arc Odysseus Abroad follows is non-existent. Everything in it is from life, and nothing in it is. In July that year, personally speaking, I was in Bombay, so there was no question of me running into Menelaus on Warren Street, Nestor at a college that was closed, let alone meeting Odysseus in Belsize Park. It’s possible that I fabricated that day—dated, in my head, precisely, as July 19, six days after the Live Aid concert, which Ananda/Telemachus has watched on TV with disdain, and one day after Shahnawaz Bhutto’s death, which he learns of from a newspaper headline—it’s possible I fabricated it in order to map on to it the Homeric epic. But there was no such compulsion towards inventing situations as far as Friend of My Youth was concerned, or A Strange and Sublime Address. In the latter, I describe two childhood visits made from Bombay by the boy Sandeep with his mother to his uncle’s house in Calcutta. I made those visits too, to an uncle’s house, in the same period in the 20th century: though there are no dates in the novel. But the difference between the real visits and the ones in the novel isn’t that something clearly “fictional” takes place in the latter. There’s one factual divergence that would be important if I were for some reason looking for an alibi to cover my movements at the time; my uncle had a heart attack, and I heard about it on the phone. Sandeep’s uncle has a heart attack, and Sandeep is present, then, in the house in Calcutta. Otherwise, the difference between my actual visits and Sandeep’s doesn’t have to do with “fictionalizing” in the sense we understand that term—that is, arranging for an element of “story” to creep in. The difference is that the former occurred while the latter never took place.
In 2000, I tried to make a break from the novel. I had returned to India from Britain in 1999, and these two events are, for me, related. My escape from Britain, where I’d lived in one capacity or another—student; poet manque; published novelist—since 1983, was prompted by the startling changes, the homogeneity, coming over its culture. Thatcher’s legacy affected the novel too. It seemed that a certain kind of novel—state-of-the-nation; multicultural; possibly compendious; possibly employing the dramatic monologue; exploring dystopias; novels with, for the want of a better definition, an entrepreneurial vigor—would flourish in Thatcher’s Britain. Poetry would go out of business. The interesting young novelists who had made their name in the ’80s—Ishiguro, McEwan, Barnes—would, over time, abandon the lyricism (An Artist of the Floating World) and eccentricity (The Cement Garden) that had marked their early work. The novel would morph into a robust form that would benefit from, and contribute to, the new features of literary culture in the Blair years, and, in fact, become indispensable to them: the Best of Young British Novelists and books of the year lists, and the annual Booker Prize spectacles that have ended up comprising the sole cultural landscape of planet Britain, with McEwan, Ishiguro, and the major figures of that literary generation keeping watch over it today like retired but still-active cabinet ministers.
My plan was not to flee Britain towards the Indian novel in English. In fact, it was essential for me to flee the Indian novel in English too. The Indian novel in English became a major entrepreneurial form in the run-up to, and aftermath of, globalization: this is what was meant when it began to be said commonly that it “straddled several worlds.” No, my plan was to move to Calcutta. I remember thinking: “Why must the variety of the creative impetus I feel be accommodated by the novel alone? Certain things I want to say might be better expressed in an essay, story, poem, or even a musical composition. Why foreclose those options?” I formulated these questions because of the pressure on writers to write novels, and on the novelist to prove that they were novelists by producing a novel every two years. I took a break for what looks like, on paper, nine years.
Then I went back to it again; and then again, and again.
And now I ask myself why, when I could have stayed with the essay. It was not that I made an adjustment; that, having detoxified myself of the literary over those nine years, I’d finally started writing viable novels. The Immortals, published in 2009, is longer than all my other novels, but it is, I suspect, resistant—to, among other things, the expectations a bookseller might have of an Indian novel in English. Perhaps it’s resistant at a more basic level. I recall the Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam saying to me that the thought, “But what will happen to Amit Chaudhuri?” had flashed through his mind when the chair of the Booker Prize judges in 2011, author and former director general of MI5 Stella Remington, had said of that year’s reading, “We want our novels to zip along.”
Today, I think again of how I have devised situations in novel after novel: situations in which there’s no drama, but which, for me, try to convey great, if contained, excitement. It’s the potential that this paradox has that probably draws me to the novel. I’m dependent on its structure and syntax—which otherwise bore me—to lead me to this excitement. By novelistic syntax I mean a kind of sentence without which the narrative’s grammar—that is, the rules by which it is comprehended—falls apart. I mean a sentence like, “He got off the car and walked to the door”; or “I looked out of the window”; or “It seemed as if she was about to say something.” The novel is full of sentences like these. You barely notice them, but they comprise the tools with which the narrative progresses. These sentences separate prose from poetic language, and fiction from the essay. You needn’t structure your essay around such bland declarations because the essay, as a form, isn’t reliant on a situation. It is more meditation than situation: time doesn’t move forward intrepidly in it. A poem is a disjointed artifact. Two lines that follow each other in a poem don’t necessarily constitute a progression; even two parts of the same line might retain an independence from each other.
The novel’s syntax depends on joins, however: the sort of sentences I’ve mentioned above. When you hear that a novelist writes terrific sentences, you can assume safely it’s not the joins that are being referred to. The great sentences are the ones that could just as well occur in an essay, or take the form of a line in a poem. But “He got off the car and walked to the door” can’t have a durable habitation except in the novel. In the essay, it’s a domiciled émigré rather than a natural member of the community. In the novel, it’s invisible but always there, at the writer’s disposal, essential to what Virginia Woolf called “the appalling business of the realist: getting from lunch to dinner.” I can’t think that I’ve turned to the novel repeatedly except for this reason, because of the availability of this peculiar syntax of fiction-writing. Otherwise, my interest in language and its relationship to the world is poetic and essayistic.
I abhor this syntax and its instrumental role in creating the effects of realism. So when people say to me that my novels aren’t novels but are taken verbatim from life, they don’t mean, then (obviously), that my novels are too real and not fictional enough to be called “novels,” but that they don’t abide by the rules of realism, which proclaim that a sentence like “He got up and opened the door” must lead to a story. Yet, as I’ve admitted already, it’s precisely a sentence like “He got up and opened the door” that leads me again and again to the practice of writing fiction, rather than only essays or poems. What is it about such a sentence that I find enabling? And why, at once, do I find it so difficult to use? It’s a difficulty that separates me from “natural” writers and readers of novels, who read, and presumably write, such sentences without exertion.
The difficulty lies in my resistance to the air of recounting; the air that something is over—that what you have before you as you read a novel is an event, or life, as well as an artifact, that’s already finished. Discussions of narrative in creative writing classes will occasionally fall back on the edict, “Show; don’t tell”; but this is an empty edict because, for me, the crux is “How do I not recount, and access the moment?” “Showing” is as embedded in the language of recounting in the novel as “telling” is. Roland Barthes, in Writing Degree Zero, quotes an observation from the poet Paul Valery while reflecting on fiction. Valery, Barthes reminds us, noted that novels always begin with a sentence like “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock.” What’s the distinction between telling and showing here? They’ve become one. The sentence ensures that the novel and the Marchioness are plunged into an action—something is about to happen—while, simultaneously, communicating the lulling assurance that the action is over and has been turned into, and domesticated as, story. For Barthes, this domestication is achieved by the preterite or simple past tense in which the sentence is written: it immediately introduces the reader to, and places the narrative within, “the unreal time of novels, cosmogonies, and histories,” an “unreal time” that, Barthes complains, suppresses the “trembling of existence.”
Yet it’s only in the novel that time is a significant subject; rather than, say, a thought-process, as in the essay, or image, metaphor, or language, as in the poem. And, as a form, the novel is unimaginable without the simple past tense and the “The Marchioness went out at five o’ clock” kind of sentence. But, while time can be presented as a recounting, it is also coterminous with the present moment, which is where we encounter time. Resolving these two things—the first a formal concern, inextricable from the grammar of narrative; the second (to do with encountering the moment) a matter of the possibilities of the form I’m most interested in—has been my chief preoccupation as a novelist, voluntarily undertaken. If I had written only essays and poems, there would have been nothing to resolve in this regard. It’s because I’m a novelist that I need to work this out. It might even be that I am a novelist because I want to work this out. If you were to take Barthes literally, then exchanging the simple past tense to present tense should fix the problem. This is not the case. “He walks into the room” is really no better than “He walked into the room” at placing the life that’s being written about (I mean not just the man’s life, but the room’s and what’s outside it) in the present moment rather than in a story.
This is something I’ve had to grapple with from the start. For instance: I could have written A Strange and Sublime Address, my first novel, as a story about my childhood, set in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But I didn’t, because I had no impulse towards recounting. I wrote it, instead, to place the action in the present moment, rather than in the past, or inside a recounted story. I didn’t set about achieving this by writing in the present tense, but by aiming to arrive, during the nightmare of revision, at a sequence of sentences and paragraphs that didn’t have the air of being “made up”; by which I mean they needed to sound as if they weren’t “finished.” A huge number of sentences and paragraphs were taken out, or their positions changed. The latter were left homeless, without their originally assigned locations. Other sentences were added later, not as bandages or plaster would be, to cover abrasions or absences, but in response to belated promptings. Words were removed and added on the same principle. What was left behind or then came into existence—words, sentences, paragraphs—didn’t really follow each other but still aimed for an illusion of continuity.
It was a demoralizing process. At first I thought I would be able to keep nothing except, maybe, a chapter. Without realizing it, I’d started working at some point solely on the basis of the question, “What can I keep?” I’d put to one side the matter of how these bits of writing would hold together. I recall thinking, “So editing, in this case, is closer to a film editor’s job than I’d realized”: because the job of editors in cinema is to know what to keep and what to destroy, to spot what will survive from among the hours of footage, snip out the rest, and deal with continuity later. I see I made a note on my phone in June this year: “My novels are not made up of the sentences I’ve written, but the sentences I’ve kept.” Composition, for me, is salvage.
To me, a sentence that serves as a purely functional join in the syntax of the novel, like “They drove towards the building,” is as much hard work, and requires as much attentiveness, as a sentence like this one from Afternoon Raag, my second novel, in which the narrator is describing his mother’s hair: “It falls in long, black strands, but each strand has a gentle, complicated undulation travelling through it, like a mild electric shock or a thrill, that gives it a life of its own; it is visually analogous to a tremolo on a musical note.” I don’t consider “They drove towards the building” easier to write than that sentence from Afternoon Raag. If anything, it’s more difficult. It has the potential to plunge the narrative into the “unreal time” of fiction. But it also presents an opportunity vis-a-vis situation that I wouldn’t have in an essay or poem, the sort of situation in which no drama takes place, but through which the present can be encountered. This encounter involves an immersion quite different from immersion in a story. I must now determine what the join’s shape, sound, and position are in relation not only to the story, but to the moment. Do I say “They drove towards the building” or “They drove to the building”? Do I want “towards,” with its particular weight, or the closeness to speech that “to” has? What kind of adjustment would lead to freedom from recounting? Do I wish the building to take greater charge, as in “The building became visible” or, more strongly, “The building rose before them”? But “The building rose before them” is too dramatic. Can I get away with “The building came up,” even though it sounds odd? These decisions need to be taken as one deliberately employs the grammar of recounting, but not in order to recount. This leads to my courting minor discrepancies and, occasionally, an unobtrusive element of unevenness in grammatical construction; such as, for instance, writing a sentence in the past perfect tense in its first half and changing the tense to simple past in the second. These changes will sometimes be queried by a copy editor, as will the fact that I’d referred to “houses on Marine Drive” on page 32 but wrote “They stopped at the Marine Drive to look at the sea” on page 50. “Which should it be?” the copy editor will ask. “‘Marine Drive’ or ‘the Marine Drive’? Change to ‘the Marine Drive’ throughout?” I will lamely say, both about the transition from past perfect to simple past tense and from “Marine Drive” to “the Marine Drive”—“Please keep as is.” Then I’ll wonder why I said this: am I lazy, or in love with my own writing? But what’s there in these sentences to be in love with? I then start to reluctantly understand that my request to not do away with the discrepancies is my way of both using narrative syntax and fighting it. Recounting is dislodged by the non-observance of house style.
The sentences I’ve quoted above were invented for the purpose of this talk. They aren’t real sentences from a work of fiction, though that’s where they belong. My novels have them too; my first novel opens with: “He saw the lane.” If I quoted only these sentences from my fiction, you’d think I write “normal” novels.
Let me turn to two sentences, selected at random, from Friend of My Youth to share with you specific examples of my use of the syntax of fiction. Amit has woken up in the club, had breakfast, and is killing time until the journalist arrives. Tired of waiting, he gets up. Should he return to his room? The narrator says, “I decide to walk up the stairs to my room and glimpse, through the latticed window, the building in which I grew up. It isn’t as if I’d forgotten it; it’s just that I see no point in looking at it directly.” The opening of the first sentence, “I decide to walk up the stairs,” is the sort of join that Woolf said was charged with the “appalling business of the realist”—a sentence that’s meant not to waste time, but kill it, as Amit is trying to do. It is only justified—that bit of time-killing—if it fulfills the expectation of a happening. The happening, in this case, would be the arrival of the journalist. But the second half of the sentence involves Amit in the kind of non-happening that absorbs me more than the journalist’s arrival: “I decide to walk up the stairs to my room and glimpse, through the latticed window, the building in which I grew up.” What kind of work have I done on a sentence like this? I can’t actually remember, but am extrapolating after rereading. First, I haven’t put a comma after “my room,” although I know I risk causing momentary confusion as to whether Amit had decided both to go up the stairs and glimpse the building through the latticed window: “I decide to walk up the stairs to my room and glimpse, through the latticed window, the building in which I grew up.” A comma would have made clearer that “decide” pertains only to walking up, and that the glimpsing is part-accidental: but I want this experience to remain in a continuum where I’m not assigning hierarchy to one bit of the sentence over the other. If I’d placed a comma after “my room,” the opening, “I decide to walk up the stairs to my room,” would have been functional, and the second half of the sentence would have priority in terms of emotion and shift of perception. Which is why, presumably, I jettison the comma, risking a moment’s confusion for the reader as they yoke different parts of the sentence, and Amit’s experience, together.
The other modulation has to do with the word “and”: “I decide to walk up the stairs to my room and glimpse, through the latticed window, the building in which I grew up.” Another word I could perhaps use here is “but”: which would, as with a comma, make a clear break, and indicate which part of the sentence is join and information, which bit emotional charge. I’m reluctant to make that distinction, and opt, instead, for “and.” The conjunction is possibly the most unnoticed of words in language: “but” can have a degree of portentousness; “and” is entirely instrumental. Yet it can also help in belying expectations, as it is meant to in this case, by denying the emotion that “but” would have introduced. There is a shift in emotion in the sentence’s second half: flagging it up would deaden it.
Of course, the fact that the narrator glimpses the building in which he grew up should itself constitute an event in a novel. The sentence that follows the one I’ve been discussing is a reiteration of what the reader already knows from what they’ve read so far, but may no longer have in mind: “It isn’t as if I’d forgotten it; it’s just that I see no point in looking at it directly.” This means that glimpsing the building through the latticed window isn’t accidental at all; it’s related to a deliberate plan of avoidance. This is why Amit allows himself a look at this point—because of the partial view the lattice permits protects him from a frontal encounter. These dramas need to be shaped by the words that comprise the most humdrum bits of fiction, those that have to do with killing time, but which contain fluctuations between anticipation and anti-climax.
There’s a popular TV show on British television called Would I Lie To You? Two teams face each other, and tell each other stories. The aim is to find out which of these stories are lies: points are giving to teams accordingly. The winning team is the one whose members have been best at sniffing out the other one’s bluffs and themselves been most successful at bluffing. What makes the lies and truths—all of which constitute real or so-called episodes in each team member’s life—so hard to distinguish from each another is that they’re equally absurd or unbelievable. What’s clear is that no claim that has the air of the commonplace or everyday could ever be anything but true. The lies pose as truths, and truths pose as lies: they can play these double parts because they all possess an element of the extraordinary. As I write about what’s deemed to be “ordinary,” my stories are taken to be true. Why would anyone make up an episode that has nothing aberrant or outrageous in it, a “story” that has no “story”? But this is precisely what I do. I make up stories about my life, but, unlike the contestants on the panel, about those bits in which nothing much is happening. I turn to the syntax of fictional narrative to do this. My aim is the same as that of the bluffers on Would I Lie To You—to make the extraordinary seem plausible. None of my stories—according to the rules set down by the show—can be called true.
A few times each day, we experience moments that awaken our sleeping selves as we go about our routine. These are moments of anticipation, but they’re unrelated to any actual development. Actual developments in life are rare, and, when they happen, can be confusing, disappointing, or boring. The moments of anticipation that stimulate us in the midst of our daytime sleepwalking have to do with getting up from a chair, changing position on a sofa, opening a door, or looking out through a window or from a balcony. The day would be unbearable—inconceivable—without these, to all purposes, pointless internal departures. The joins that are legitimately scattered throughout, and which structure, the novel have the unique potential to trace the journey of this excitement—for instance, “She opened the door”; or, “He looked down from the balcony.” Instead, they’re seen to be unimportant in themselves, admissible only in order to introduce an actual development. To me, the actual development is a bogey of realist fiction in its many varieties, including historical and science fiction. Drama is also contained in sentences that are only meant to carry us, like those small cars inside airport terminals, from one place or happening to another.
Part of what I’ve called the novel’s syntax also comprise what Nabokov termed its “subliminal coordinates.” One of the things he probably meant by “subliminal coordinates” was that if you, the writer of a novel, introduce an uncle with a limp on page 24, you are obliged to have him reappear at two or three other points in the narrative. I say this from memory, but, even it isn’t reliable, it defines the kind of observance that realist fiction needs to adhere to. The novel isn’t a form in which you can mention the uncle with a limp and forget about him for the rest of the story. The uncle with a limp, or the coordinate, is yet another metaphor for the novel’s grammar of recounting.
For me, there’s an element in narrative composition that I think of as a countervailing force to the limping uncle. I’ll call it the “outlier.” An “outlier” is a detail that doesn’t perform a structural duty in the novel; it is among its unacknowledged raison d’être. I will provide three examples from cinema. The first is a scene from North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant finds himself creeping through, then hanging from an escarpment on, Mount Rushmore, adjacent to the carved faces of America’s founding fathers. Hitchcock had carried the idea with him for a long time—to make the face of Mount Rushmore the scene of action somehow. The opportunity presented itself with North by Northwest. Another example of the outlier is the head massage scene in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. When Dutt saw an itinerant barber administering a massage in Calcutta, he knew he needed to incorporate this moment in a film, and, in Pyaasa, his penultimate feature, found a way of doing so. My third example of an outlier is again from Hitchcock, though Hitchcock has never spoken about this scene as he did about the one in North by Northwest. It’s from Vertigo. A retired private detective played by James Stewart has been recruited by his friend to investigate his wife’s mysterious behavior and movements. Stewart discovers that his friend’s wife is often deluded that she is an obscure but tragic character from San Francisco’s history, Carlotta Valdes. To find out more about who Carlotta was, Stewart and his ex-fiancée and partner Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, go to a second-hand bookshop run by a local historian. Once they’ve finished listening to the historian’s account, Stewart and Bel Geddes step out onto the street. The light has faded and the sun’s gone down during the discussion. As Stewart and Bel Geddes stand there, talking animatedly, the light in the second-hand bookshop is turned on, illuminating the space within. You feel that Hitchcock had to wait to find a place in one of his films for this moment. It is an outlier.
By outlier I mean something inessential that waits for years for a plot to accommodate it. In the meantime, it lies out there, without a home, but also without impatience. Nabokov’s subliminal coordinate is a structuring device, working in cooperation with the syntax of realist narrative. The outlier waits for the plot to structure itself around it. The outlier sees no inherent purpose in plot or narrative except as an excuse to give a home to its own redundancy. A great deal of the process of artistic composition has to do not with narrative using detail to inform and order as it goes about the business of recounting a story, but with detail waiting for plot to recognize what its own function truly is: a structure justified by the outlier’s existence.
When I go to the notes at the back of the exercise book in which I wrote A Strange and Sublime Address in 1986, I find no plot directions or jottings about theme or character. Instead, there are numbered points covering possible chapters, many containing no more than a reminder for things to do on a particular day might: “Goes to the tailor’s”; “Aunt buys a fish from the market”; et cetera. These are not subliminal coordinates, but outliers. They are redundant to my story, which, as it happens, is quite basic—a boy from Bombay visits his uncle, who is struggling to run his business. On the second visit during the winter, the uncle will have a heart attack and then recover. There isn’t much about this in the plan I made in the back. Instead, I find a list of redundancies around which the plot is meant to arrange itself.
A year prior to my making those notes, I was intent on becoming a published poet. I had no idea I would begin writing a novel the following year, not least because I’d never been a great reader of fiction. Today, I still wonder why I write novels. It isn’t to master an art that I have no desire to master, but, evidently, to create something out of my perplexity with the form.