Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Anis Shivani's The Fifth Lash and Other Stories

Reviewers, like the novelists and short story writers they judge, as well as citizens in the “real world” taking in their cars for major overhauls, need to be shrewd in going undercover. If the characters are leaking oil for two hundred-plus pages, perhaps it’s a good idea to look under the hood oneself, even if one isn’t an expert, in order to discover whether the problem is serious and systemic, or trivial though persistent. In the latter case, the book under review is a loose bolt in the oil pan, which is to say the “problem” doesn’t really exist if one is satisfied with last-minute plot resolutions while ignoring the psychological filtering between and behind the covers and metal intestines. In the first instance, one has to dig into every nook and cranny of the book to find that both crankshaft seals are defective. What to do then? Well, the reader isn’t a mechanic, that’s the author’s job. In a perfect fantasy world, the car owner would then tell the mechanic to keep the car since he (the owner) could just purchase another one that wouldn’t keep getting these strange noises every time a spin is taken.

I’ve drawn out the metaphor to make a point. Most readers are happy if the book just needs a screw tightened in the pan. But that’s only possible if they’re part-time passengers in their friends’ cars, the equivalent of romance readers plundering a book a day before throwing the year’s supply into a Guy Fawkes Day apolitical inferno. Because in a literary work, the oil leak is devastating no matter the source. And one leak – two leaks, actually – that readers keep putting off going to their mechanics about have to do with race and class, and the cultural enclaves that follow from them.

How so? Well, peruse some of the comments on GoodReads about novels and short story collections that contain or omit those two hot-button subjects. Glib melodrama, leaving its slick from carport to destination, is “colorful” or “poetic” or “romantic” or “sincere”, even though its “others” – the sapper Kip in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a good example – are more parabolical than human. And money (class)? Novels which flatter, and which are about and for, the middle class get traction for that alone. Note Carol Shields’ popularity. Then we have the otherwise exciting Martin Amis who avoids the middle class while grinding the lower and upper molars against one another, often as caricature fillings.

Earnest depictions of insular communities or romantic peripatetic excursions in various exotic settings (usually in past centuries to avoid any exposure to charges of jejune characterization) guarantees that class is either analyzed in a vacuum or outsourced to fantasy.

Enter Anis Shivani’s The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (C&R Press, 2012). Born in India, though living most of his life in Houston, Texas, Shivani’s collection of fourteen short stories burrows into the accelerating realities of mobile personae not as obtuse social document or facile moralizing, but as character-driven dilemma and existential frustration and/or reckoning and realization. Shivani’s first story collection (covered last year in this blog), Anatolia and Other Stories, was published first, though most if not all of The Fifth Lash was written earlier. The concerns are similar, though in the book currently under review, the stories are set either in Pakistan or the U.S.

Shivani’s most audacious effort is the titular story as told by an aide to Pakistan’s (then) president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It’s devilishly difficult to cram the sinuous detourings of political intrigue within a short narrative while keeping a sense of drama percolating, and Shivani sometimes is guilty of info dump overload, but at its best, the machinations are relevant, haunting, even prophetic. (At least this reader experienced an unwelcome frisson at “Bhutto’s mimicry of Zia, both in front of him and behind his back, had ceased earlier that winter.” No need to detail the twentieth-century despots Zia reminds one of, pre-ordainment. As for the "prophetic" plaudit, note how Bhutto's nationalization of various industries, and the stagnation that ensued,  reminds one of Obamacare and Detroit wheels.)

“Jealousy”, typical in a Shivani exploration, turns what is often a well-worn premise – sexually inexperienced young wife flirts with charismatic male friend and discovers new resources of power – on its head. In this story, the male friend is Asian, and isn’t just an excuse for the protagonist to work through her problems. All of these characters have their stories, and though Shivani here doesn’t always integrate the back story seamlessly into the propulsive present, the quirks and exasperations, the intelligence and guile of these people are vivid challenges to the rather pale category assertion of “round” characters as laid out by E. M. Forster.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is “Growing Up Blind in a Hotly Contested State”, which depicts the formative years of a Muslim who escaped his parents’ stultifying social expectations and intellectual inadequacies by (first) spying on his Caucasian neighbours only to be invited to their artists’ soirees and reveling in a many-sided freedom. But these artists (and artists’ friends) had pedigree. “Exiles” in their own land, the connection with Safdar may seem too easy, but it’s to Shivani’s credit that the connection has its own life, and isn’t a closed loop. This is eventually made clear in a brilliant first-person epiphany when Safdar grows up even more – (Blake’s Songs Of Experience, the higher third, comes to mind) – “I got to know the characters in the Robartses’ pantheon of heroes all too well: the minimalist poets and abstract expressionists, and their hangers-on, no longer surprised me with a well-chosen word or quotation from obscure European intellectual texts.”

“Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy” deals with ... well, you get the barebones of it in the title. But again, Shivani goes beneath the headlines to get at the conflicting tensions that animate and confuse his characters. Similar in some ways to “Growing Up Blind in a Hotly Contested State”, this short story deals unflinchingly with the sexual awakening of a Muslim who has taken up the serious dictates of the mosque, and who grows (rather, stultifies) into an orator and strict pedagogue himself. The sexual revelations are both infuriating and funny, not an easy combination to get right. But Shivani is never about painting with a broad brush, nor about using only the centre of the canvas. Here’s Salman’s own observations as his experiences at university develop: “The Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley graduates, who had seemed so idealistic and verbally accomplished, baffled me with their hard-nosed practicality, an obsession with the nitty-gritty, particularly money matters.”

“The Rug Seller’s Daughter” is a particularly affecting story, a short one in two scenes, concentrating on the American buyer of the goods in the house of the father in Pakistan. Matchmaking stories have a long literary history. In Shakespeare, it’s all japes and folderol. Here, Shivani moves the reader on a different emotional path, again with an ending both inevitable and surprising.

Another challenging story, and perhaps the best in the book, is “What It’s Like To Be a Stranger In Your Own Home”, the deeply troubling exploration of identity post 9/11. Paranoia, downsizing, terror alerts, personal disintegration, post-marital anger, sexual expectation and fantasy image-setting by the protagonist, but also by his current lover and others: this has all the checkpoints for a maudlin outpouring, but Shivani skillfully and expansively engages the reader on all these concerns without turning the proceedings into a stump sermon. It’s his most impassioned story in the collection, and though some may find the realization a little too confident, it’s certainly hard-won and organic.

If there’s anything exotic about The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, it would reside in the gorgeous cover art by Tapu Javeri depicting two naked men (or is it one?) seemingly caught in a revolution, but in the twelve-and-six position, somewhat reminiscent of Shiva, the destroyer, in this volume, of illusion.