Double Your Fun
Despite universally glowing reviews ranging from John Updike to USA Today, first-time Indian novelist Arundhati Roy is relieved at the lack of attention her book has received in America. "Things were getting a little out of hand back home, and this is a bit more relaxed," Roy says in a recent telephone interview from a Minneapolis promotional tour stop. "Every day there was something else in the paper. It was news when there was no news about me. So it's good to be away for a little while and let all of that settle down." Armed with prodigious talent, supreme confidence and an insouciant lack of reverence for the publishing world ("I don't plan to get caught up in the machine of cranking out books; my goal is to do as little as I possibly can to survive"), the 37-year-old Roy has stormed the literary world with her inveterately florid and hauntingly evocative debut novel, The God of Small Things (Random House, 321 pages, $23). The novel, which revolves around a patrician family (buoyed chiefly by their pickle plant fortune) every bit as doomed as any residents of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, sparkles throughout its complex, slowly unfurling tapestry. Among Roy's literary peregrinations: decades veering from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, political machinations that include swirls of communism, the invidious remnants of the caste system (most horrifyingly evidenced by a group whose members are forced to carry brooms to sweep away their footsteps), local histories and shifting perspectives, all of which reveal a writer of frightening ability as well as key pieces to the book's devastating finale. Unlike fellow Indian literary stars such as Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth, Roy has no plans to move from her native country. "People ask me if this is going to change my life," she says. "It won't. I like my old life, and I'm not willing to trade it in." Her flashy literary style and affection for puns, partial sentences and English realized as an Indian language have led to inevitable comparisons with Rushdie, but Roy refuses to be lured into such debates. "It's all nonsense," she bristles. "We're from India and we write books, but that's it. He does what he does, and I do what I do. None of the rest of it matters." Concentrating on Roy's book, the comparisons become all the more seductive once it has been consumed. The plot centers on fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel, witnesses to tragic events -- including the drowning death of their British cousin Sophie Mol, whose funeral opens the book -- on a fateful December day in 1969. More than two decades later, Rahel and Estha, who was rendered mute by what he witnessed in youth, have returned to their childhood home in the state of Kerala in southern India. They are now 31, the same age their divorced mother Ammu was when she died. Thirty-one, Roy writes in typically cryptic fashion, being an age "not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age." Rounding out the cast is the twins' failure-prone Uncle Chacko, the divorced father of Sophie Mol; the twins' grand-aunt, Baby Kochamma, a spiteful spinster reduced to watching satellite TV wrestling matches in her old age; and Velutha, an ebulliently talented handyman tainted by his Paravan lineage. The clan endures its inexorable march toward disillusion, madness, guilt and betrayal at an inevitably doomed estate dubbed Ayemenem House, a dwelling capable of making the House of Usher seem a place of refuge. While The God of Small Things offers a compelling plot replete with more than satisfying elements of mystery, Roy dazzles with her language. The frenzied joy of her writing routinely takes the reader's breath. When Rahel comes upon the scene of her cousin's long ago drowning, it greets her "with a ghastly skull's smile, with holes where teeth had been, and a limp hand raised from a hospital bed. Both things had happened. It had shrunk. And she had grown." A linear, spare story this is not. For those frustrated by heavily layered and constantly undulating plots, The God of Small Things will likely prove The God of Big Aggravating Narratives. Roy blithely tosses conventional story elements aside, creating her own language of Randomly Capitalized Words, doubledosed newly minted compound words and torrents of one-sentence paragraphs, carefully culled references to earlier scenes that may send some readers scurrying backwards through this backwards-told tale and allegedly alluring alliterative allegories. Her eye for detail and blistering prose are ample throughout, as evidenced by an early segment introducing Rahel's return to her childhood home: It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway. So, how long did it take Roy to craft such a work? "All of my life," she answers, as prone to wordplay in casual conversation as on the written page. A former screenwriter and honors architecture student, Roy says she has always known she would be a writer. Her other vocations were merely ways of passing the time until her literary talents could no longer be ignored. That happened in 1991, when Roy dropped screenwriting because of her frustration over actors' penchant for flubbing some of her best lines, no matter how well written. "When I started writing, I don't think anyone ever really expected a novel to come of it," she says, laughing. "I mean, I didn't show it to anyone. So no one knew what I was actually writing, or if I was really writing. But when I finished, it kind of took on a life of its own." An understatement as grand as branding Michael Jordan a teammate of Luc Longley. Completed in April 1996, Roy's novel had been sold to nearly two dozen countries for more than $1 million within two months. Before it was published domestically in May 1997, the book was already being touted for the Booker Prize and other literary honors. Asked how all of this happened to someone so young and inexperienced in the ways of publishing, Roy is typically vivacious. "It is because I am irresponsible," she giggles. "That is the key to my success, I think."