Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sang Pak explores the darkness within

It’s easy to ignore evil when your life hasn’t been touched by it, but what do you do when it has? Do you just walk away or will it haunt you until you face it? And what if the darkness is in you?

American writer Sang Pak’s debut novel Wait until twilight explores the influence of dark impulses on sixteen-year-old Samuel, an intelligent and intuitive teenager whose world is shaken when he encounters a set of deformed triplets hidden behind closed doors in his sleepy southern town.

Samuel is repulsed by the “freaks” and his reaction – and the dark thoughts he has towards the babies – haunt him for days afterward.

But when he attempts to atone for these thoughts – to prove to himself he’s a not monster – he’s confronted by true evil in the form of the twins’ adult brother Daryl. Daryl is menacing, brutal and obsessed with using Samuel’s inner turmoil for his own ends.

Samuel’s usual defence is to find a single focus and wipe everything else out of his head. He feels most normal when he feels nothing. But while that seems to have helped him suppress his grief for his mother, he can’t suppress the reality of the deformed triplets.

He tries to turn his back on the disturbed household, but he’s haunted by the triplets and the threat Daryl poses to them, and ultimately decides the only way to confront his own darkness is to save the defenceless babies.

His response to them is all the more amplified by the fact his friend David seems unperturbed by them: the triplets and their unbalanced mother are just another of life’s oddities – nothing to disturb his thoughts beyond the moment.

Wait until twilight has elements of J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, as Samuel starts to react to the world around him in increasingly confusing ways – his own world of ordered focus starts to crumble, and we wonder if he might actually be descending into madness.

But, just as the violent encounters with Daryl disturb and conflict him, relationships in his “normal” world provide balance and help Samuel transform into the man he wants – and needs – to be.

Pak creates a dark undercurrent throughout the story that ensures a sense of menace pervades every page, even when Samuel is relaxed. The idea that seediness and darkness lurk just out of sight is not new - particularly in American fiction - but Pak's approach is powerful in its understatement.

In Samuel’s home town, the seedier side of human nature is indulged in back woods cabins only a stone’s throw from suburbia. That reality leads Samuel to assume the only way the rest of his community can be “normal” is to pretend there’s nothing terrible in the world - a luxury he no longer has.

Wait until twilight features a strong and confident narrative voice. Samuel is a likable and sympathetic character; he's masculine without being overtly fuelled by testosterone, and his inner struggles are compelling and believable.

Pak has created a novel that's at times deeply disturbing, but ultimately redemptive, and I suspect its characters will continue to stay with me for many weeks to come.

Next post: a Q&A with Sang Pak.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

White Tiger - a complicated India

“Things are complicated in India.”

That about sums up the picture created by Aravind Adiga in his Man Booker Prize winning novel White Tiger, which I finally read recently.

This cleverly written novel is not the India of Bollywood films, nor does it offer the ultimate optimism of Slumdog Millionaire.

Instead, it puts the reader in the hands of Balram, a “social entrepreneur”, who tells us from the start he’s killed his master and set himself free from the “Rooster Coop” of the caste system.

Balram is amoral and selfish, but his circumstance in life – and his ability to respond to it with ingenuity, wit and self belief – ultimately makes us able to sympathise with him on some level.

Balram is the son of a poor rickshaw puller. Deprived of a formal education, he begs his way to becoming a chauffeur, and it’s while driving the corrupt rich men of the city that he begins to see where his opportunities for a better life may lie.

White Tiger depicts an India where the caste system continues to exploit and abuse its rural poor, and the rich – in the mad dash for capitalism and power – have become increasingly corrupt.

Balram talks about the India of Light (the shining new “economic miracle” of the call centres) and the India of Darkness (the poverty-stricken rural heart, where life is dominated by oppressive servitude).

The gap between the have and have-nots is never more obvious than in their attitude towards animals: in the city, the rich have servants wash their pampered pets; in the villages, the family buffalo has far greater value than a child.

Balram tells his story through a series of chatty letters to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, who is soon to visit India. Balram very helpfully attempts to explain that India will succeed over China as a capitalist society in the long term because of the emergence of entrepreneurs – and goes on to use his own life as an example.

Ultimately, Adiga uses the corruption of Balram’s master to mirror the corruption of India itself and Balram does the only thing he thinks an entrepreneur should do in such a situation: take advantage of it.

Balram has no issue with corruption and exploitative behaviour in the India of Darkness:
“You can’t expect a man living in a dung heap to smell sweet”. He’s less forgiving of the rich in the India of Light: watching his good natured master allow himself to become corrupted leaves Balram with no remorse when the time comes to kill him.

And there is no companionship or honour among the suffering poor: just as their masters are cruel to them, they are cruel to each other.

As well as the plaudits, Adiga has attracted criticism for being a wealthy Indian man writing about the servant-class. But does that really matter? His story is engaging, eye-opening and – at times – uncomfortable for a reader sitting in First World comfort.

No single novel can completely capture a nation in all its essence. Adiga says his aim in writing White Tiger was to prick the conscience of his country and prompt some element of self examination - which is hardly an exploitative motivation.

I'm keen to hear how other readers responded to this novel.