Wednesday, September 7, 2011
by Clark Blaise
Masterpiece. That's a big word. In 20 years of writing book reviews I don't think I've ever used it, but I'm throwing the dart at Clark Blaise's new short story collection, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis, 2011).
Born in the USA in 1940 to a French-speaking Canadian father and an English-speaking Canadian mother, Blaise lived part of his childhood in French in Quebec and other parts in English in the USA. His entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia says he lived in "at least" 25 cities before he finished high school in Pittsburgh.
Determined to be a writer, in the 1960s he attended the famous writer's workshop at the University of Iowa, where he met his life-partner, novelist Bharati Mukherjee, and also Philip Roth, among other literary notables.
Primarily a short story writer, Blaise has often explored the period of this upbringing and his multiple identities and senses of self. He has also been an administrator of writing programs and a notable essayist and non-fiction author. He is currently the President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story.
The eleven short stories in The Meagre Tarmac continue Blaise's interest in the social construction of identity. This time, however, his characters are not exploring the two solitudes of North America's English/French divide. The characters in this book are nearly all Indo-American. The two solitudes on display here are the East and West. Also, cultural tradition versus liberal capitalism.
Post-Obama, are we post-racial? Blaise's book argues emphatically, no. But it's a no that is dense with complication.
In an earlier age, this book would be a lightening rod for an "appropriation of voice" debate. How can this white dude write from within the perspective of the Indo-American population? And he does it over and over, in precise detail, and so well!
Clearly, the author has experience of Indo-American culture through his in-laws, but (more importantly) he has brought to it a lifetime of experience, a lifetime of thinking through precise cultural differences, a lifetime of mastering the short story.
And it is a mastery, here, that ought to be celebrated. And read. And studied.
The table of contents includes a note: "These stories are meant to be read in order." The back cover includes a blurb from Joyce Carol Oates calling it "a novel in short story form." The reader can choose how she would prefer to proceed. The stories link and inter-relate, but you could probably skip about and still make sense of the whole.
Many of the narrators are older men, nearing the end of their prosperous careers in America, yearning to return to India (and complete a plan begun earlier in life), their minds seeking a simpler time, one when the supremacy of the elder male wasn't in question.
The collapse of patriarchy is a significant subtext. Over and over male narrators talk about loss of prestige. American is partly to blame. Western liberalism with the stress on the individual. Marriage is the metaphor that rises to prominence next. Marriage is how the family perpetuates itself. On the subcontinent marriages are arranged. How or whether marriages will continue to be arranged is a question that repeats through many of these stories.
Money is often discussed, but it is the challenges of the rich, not the challenges of the poor, that consume (no pun intended) these characters. America has held up its end of the bargain. The families moved from the East to the West to seek economic opportunity and were amply rewarded. In the process, to oversimplify, they lost their souls.
But then, there is no opportunity to return to the land of their youth, because the New India (Mumbai, not Bombay) is rife with corruption (see recent new stories) and booming with its own out-of-control capitalism. Where East meets West, West tends to win, and the ensuing complications (loss of identity, collapse of family, cultural fragmentation) follow.
Canadian geography features in the book. That is, some of the action takes place in Toronto and Montreal. But the Canada here is indistinguishable from America. The West is the West, though one Indo-Canadian family settles in Montreal and one of its sons becomes a high-ranking official in the Parti Quebecois! (Another son, a gay man and actor, makes his fortune in Hollywood.)
The women in this book are brilliant. Not just sharply drawn, exquisitely portrayed and smart (one thirteen-year-old girl is on her way to Stanford, if her father doesn't first take her back to India so he can marry her off), they are also emote sensitively and diversely. That is, there are traditional mothers, untraditional mothers, dutiful daughters, undutiful daughters, Western beauties seeking Eastern wisdom, Eastern women corrupted by … what? the West? No, greed. Corrupted by corruption. By human nature.
For "an exploration of the human condition" is ultimately where analysis of this book leads. The superficial (yet strict and real) boundaries of culture and tradition colour every page, but the underlying architecture of every story (in the book and always?) is built on questions about what it means to be human. La condition humaine.
What an old formulation! What risk of cliché! Yet, so it goes. It is what it is. Or as my seven-year-old says, you get what you get and you don't get upset.
Sadness pervades this book. As does beauty.
The conclusion is simple: read it.