The blandness of my mind frightened me to the point of screaming.
– “Whispering Trees”
“Whispering Trees” builds as a series of repetitions:
I did not wake up in heaven as I had anticipated (for I certainly had not thought I was bound for hell, even though I had not been a saint). Instead, I woke up in a huge, seemingly infinite universe of darkness. I sensed nothing except that everything was hollow. I could discern nothing except being conscious, but, even then, I could not remember my name.
Notice not only the repeated “I,” a recurring feature of the story, and one that insists on itself, but also the repeated sensations: “I did not wake up”; “instead I woke up”; “I sensed nothing”; “I could discern nothing.”
This feature recurs so often that it might be described as the dominant strategy of the entire story: repetitions with slight variations. For instance,
It came back suddenly, my consciousness. The first thing I discerned was not the alluring light of the angels, for I could see nothing. Nor was it the heavenly melody of their songs: I couldn’t hear anything either. Instead, I perceived a smell, a sharp, distinct smell that my nose had known well while I had been alive. It was then that I realised that I could not be in heaven. Heaven could not smell so awful. But it took me a quarter of an eternity to recognise the smell of antiseptic in the air.
Here, “it came back suddenly, my consciousness”; “the first thing I discerned”; “I could see nothing; “I couldn’t hear anything”; “instead I perceived”; and on it goes until the final sentence where “senses meet,” if you will: “it took me a quarter of an hour to recognise the smell of antiseptic in the air.”
One might argue that this slow accretion of details, the movement from assertion to negation to (at times) reconciliation paces the story. I experience it as I do Steve Reich, whose work I now love, but had to learn to love. A demand that one pay attention to the slow unfolding, the slow act of perception, the “awakening, if you will.” One might describe this as a “slow start,” as some movies start slowly and persist in languor.
Whereas the first three paragraphs pace themselves at the level of the slight variation, the tiny shift, the little nudge (notice how I mime the story), the fourth announces its arrival: “it happened”; “I struggled”; “like a thunderbolt”; “excruciating pain”; “mangled like a ferocious beast”; “ignited my memory”; “challenged my mind”; “suddenly”; “falling into an abyss.” The change in pace is dramatic, announced, an alarm bell, a loud drum, the visitor whose arrival is announced by an announcement from an announcer.
This accumulation of detail threatens to overwhelm the key part of the paragraph: “I heard her humming a heavenly melody. Even in my death, in a realm I was yet to understand, Faulata’s voice was quite distinct. She hummed a poignant tune that did magic to my mind.” (I must confess, I find myself reading this story as an editor-writer more than as a reader, and I keep wishing I could hand the writer Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext.)
This fourth paragraph feels leaden, anxious, an anxiety communicated by the insistence on immediacy, as though the story needed to change pace as fast as possible. What might have happened if it lingered on the slow unfolding of sensation, on suspending what can be known, if it tarried in uncertainty? And because I’ve been focusing on sound recently, I wonder what would happen if sound—as repetition, as exposition, as method—was allowed to shape the movement of event, the development of character, more insistently.
The shift to the visual register as where knowing takes place—“Then I saw a picture of” and “Then I saw a picture of”—risks conflating the narrator’s mother with the “men in black” who rob the speaker. One might read this construction as the narrator’s mother gives him life while the “men in black” take a kind of living away. Again, we are still in the formal structure of assertion and negation. And still the slow accretion of detail. Except now it’s punctuated with sharp breaks, quick and often jerky movements that interrupt the slowness.
I enjoyed the pidgin and wished there had been more: its brief appearance seems to mark “local color” and so doesn’t quite work to depict the lifeworld or even brief encounter it’s supposed to mark. I appreciate the musing on its authenticity, even as years of trying to figure out vernacular in McKay and Dunbar have taught me to respect the difficulties of writing any kind of oral-heard speech: one is writing by ear and tongue, and spelling becomes difficult. (I’m only three pages into the story.)
The story changes once the narrator, Salim, discovers he is in hospital. The slow accumulation of detail through sensation is replaced by a too-rapid exposition: the bodily injuries are described clinically: “I had two fractures on my right leg, one on my left arm and three broken ribs.” One wonders whether any pain or discomfort is experienced. Similarly, the shape of the narrator’s family, or, rather, its attrition, is described mechanically:
Abba, my father, had already been dead for long; my elder brother, Kabir, had passed on just over a year before; and now Ummi was gone. All I had left was Jamila, my teenage sister. My other two female siblings were married.”
One wishes for some restraint—and some EDITING! Surely, it makes more sense to end with “All I had left.” The addition of “My other two female siblings” is gratuitous.
Rather than a kind of mechanical exposition that passes too rapidly, as in this passage,
I developed a phobia for eating in front of people. I felt as if they were looking at me, shaking their heads in pity. I hated being the object of their pity. I would rather have had them laugh at me. But each time I imagined them laughing at me, I got angry and would fume. Besides, my pride would not let me eat in front of them because the exercise was tasking. I had to feel the food, like a child learning how to eat. So, when there were guests around, which was always the case, I would refuse to eat.
One wishes for an illustrative passage, rich detail, an encounter that would dramatize what is, now, told. And if “show, don’t tell,” is poor writing advice, as some claim, it’s still what I want to say.
The “bad” paper always takes more time to grade than the “good” one; the poorly-written and badly-argued critical book takes longer to read than the good one, though not as long as the excellent, dense one. And this is, in part, a function of training. I still read fiction as I do poetry, because I’ve never really learned “how” to read fiction. I find many formal strategies for reading fiction too taxonomic, too distant from the text. I want to find and inhabit a text’s crevices.
A simple way to describe this story: it moves from an intense focus on the self, intense narcissism—hence the proliferating and insistent “I”—toward a state of grace, of being not-for-self but for-others. It could be described as a long wail that hiccups as such wailing often does and, at the end, discovers “service” as the significance of life.”
The elation I felt at seeing all these troubled souls liberated remains the most magnificent feeling I have ever felt. To see people in anguish and give them comfort, to free minds bound by desire, anger or guilt, to guide souls that are lost to their destinies, to reconcile souls alienated by misunderstandings — that is my life and purpose. It is what gives me joy.
It could be described as a story about finding joy. But a story that gives little joy in the search-and-rescue effort. (This whole post might be described as a search-and-rescue effort.)
Matthew recently described most Caine-nominated stories as realist and didactic. And while this story seems to reach for a little bit of the fantastic, it’s never willing to trust in the power of the imagination, to indulge in fantasy a little more.
It feels rude to write that I wanted more, and more better.