Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Not All is Lost

In my previous post, I mentioned that I am finding it difficult to start reading books by people I first encountered on Twitter. However, the problem does not extent to people I met before Twitter, who happen to have Twitter accounts now. For instance, I have greatly enjoyed reading Sarang's debut novel, which he hopes to have ready for publication soon.

The book tells the story of Jessica Larkin, an introverted high school girl growing up in a midwestern university town. After school Jess frequently rides her bicycle to the university library, where she escapes the dreariness of high school life by submerging herself in Middle English poetry. Soon she begins writing her own poetry in the same style, copying out the poems in pencil and slipping them into the stacks. Her poetry examines a wide variety of themes, but focuses mainly on rodents and aquatic mammals. Here Sarang's pacing is magisterial—he frequently reproduces Jess's poems in full, but these excursions never feel like detours, even when they take up several pages. Though they seldom advance the plot, the poems bring Jess to life, highlighting her intellectual flexibility and fondness for wordplay. She begins to use poetry to explore her budding sexuality, at first in awkward, tentative steps, but then more and more confidently.

Meanwhile Simon Govindasvami, a student at the university, comes across Jess's poetry and is enthralled. Believing the poems to be transcriptions of authentic Middle English poetry, he switches his major from physics to English literature. One day, when Jess is about to slip another of her poems into the stacks, she sees Simon poring over one of her previous poems. She strikes up a conversation, and at first she is thrilled by the effect her words have had on Simon (and the effect his studious manliness has on her). However, she is taken aback when she realizes that he has already put a tremendous amount of effort into his thesis—a lengthy exegesis of Middle English poetry, most of which turns out to be hers. As Jess faces the fact that she has inadvertently jeopardized Simon's career, the plot accelerates and events spiral out of control. I won't reveal the way Jess attempts to resolve her guilt, since the way Sarang lets events unfold in a chaotic but emotionally honest manner is arguably the highlight of the book.

The novel is quirky, and not everyone will appreciate its artfully crafted but spare storytelling. Probably the ideal reader is one who can share the characters' excitement on discovering a clever metaphor or a surprising etymology, but I think Sarang captures their ecstasy in a way that will be accessible to everyone. In the end, the book is a lengthy meditation on obsession, deceit, authenticity, and the promise and peril of using sex as an apology for complicating someone's academic career. I can't wait to see it in print.


Blogger Sarang said...

1. It's a pity but I think this is going to go directly to Kindle (also how I ingested Teju Cole's book -- but then I read the novel before I started following TC on twitter).

2. I am glad you did not expose and thus spoil the pun on "divagation."

3. Did you notice that the novel is a palindrome?

4. Your choice of "Simon" is v. good. I don't quite understand why but there are many more nonwhite Simons than (say) Nigels.

12:26 PM  
Blogger James said...

1. I just hope that the illuminated manuscripts retain their vitality in the electronic version.

2. It took real effort not to spoil your many delightful puns, particularly the lengthy exchange between Simon and his thesis adviser on Simon's seminal work.

3. Yes, but it posed spoiler problems because people will be tempted to discover the end from the beginning.

4. I was also proud of Govindasvami.

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