What is the charm of novels about ordinary life – where nothing happens?

  • Amitava Kumar
  • Updated: Apr 02, 2016 19:09 IST
Lives less ordinary: Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar belongs to the genre described as “books in which nothing happens”. Stoner by John Williams, about an unremarkable life, is one of the most moving stories I have read

“Eight Essential Tips for Writers” or “10 Rules for Writing Fiction” or “Advice from Writers” – such bland compilations often include the following line from Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

But then you come across novels like Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, in which any urgent desire would appear extravagant or immodest. This is partly because the narrator is idle, he doesn’t go to work, he isn’t yearning for love. Shanbagh tells the story of a tiny joint family that owns a spice business. Ghachar Ghochar belongs to the genre that we lazily, sometimes even in admiration, describe as “books in which nothing happens.”

Shanbagh’s novel opens with the narrator sitting in a coffee house – which means that the narrator’s thirst is well-catered for. In fact, I found the opening less than promising. I had entered an account of a man who, fleeing from any intimate relationship with women, was more invested in finding an invisible rapport with the waiter who could guess when the customer wanted another lime soda.

The secret that the narrator would like to share with the waiter has nothing ostentatious about it. At first, the story seems to lack drama. We are in a lower middle-class household where expenses are so carefully watched that it is difficult to want much. Vonnegut was right. You don’t have a story when there is no desire.

Ghachar Ghochar is able to tell its story because of a change in the material conditions of the narrator’s family. Wealth and the dependences bred by it disturb the family’s settled moral universe. Shanbagh’s admirable skill lies in making this development appear natural, and so nearly inevitable, that we think that this is an ordinary rendition of an ordinary life.

The greater truth, of course, is that all life is ordinary life, but ordinary in the sense that it is filled with drama, disappointment, unexpected grace, even violence and brutality.

Just last week, I read another novel that on its very opening page announces that it is telling the story of an obscure life – and yet, this novel, Stoner by John Williams, about an ordinary and even unremarkable life, is among the most moving and perfect stories I have read.

“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.” That is the book’s plain opening sentence. By the time the story ends, Stoner is dying. The reader experiences the passages describing Stoner’s approaching end as a profound, personal loss. Why is this so?

We never move out of the realm of the ordinary – even wars take place at a distance, at a remove from the lives of the central characters – and yet the narrative is never banal. The book’s elegant simplicity, its directness, is a part of its appeal. We remain in the confined space of the university where Stoner teaches, but the friendships and enmities carry such quietly consequential import that each gesture has a weight of significance attached to it.

Like the novel’s author, Stoner works as a critic and a professor of English. The writing could have become academic and opaque. Instead, the register of writing brings a level of lucid explanation to every page. The perceptive logic of understanding so permeates the depiction of ordinary things and people that they appear to glow like enigmas.

An often-quoted passage from Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, is the wife’s anguished defence of her husband: “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.”

Paying attention: In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (below, a still from the 1951 film adaptation), the wife says: “I don’t say he is a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.” (Getty Images)

Attention must be paid. You would think that humanity was a sufficient defence against oblivion. But is it? We want danger.

I recently heard Nicholson Baker on a podcast talking about sitting in a car while writing his book; each day, he would park in a shady spot and smoke a cigar and work on his computer. Once, a cop approached the car. Baker said that the cop ended up in the novel – which was good, he said with a laugh, because usually nothing happens in his books.

When I heard Baker say that, I thought of Ghachar Ghochar. Toward the novel’s end, the narrator’s wife mentions the police. The narrator says, “The word ‘police’ has always filled us with a strange fear.” A chill runs through the pages that remain; it prepares us for the spilling of blood. It makes you wonder if what we think of as ordinary isn’t always without a dark shadow of death, even murder, looming over it.

The Bookist is a monthly column

From HT Brunch, April 3, 2016

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