Summer Fictionby Sophie Fels
Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee
(Picador USA, June 2001)
It ain’t classic literature, but Meera Syal’s story of three childhood friends from North London’s South Asian community isn’t bad, either. It opens amidst the dramatic lamentations of a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony: Chila, the loving but spaced out bride, who passed much of her childhood tucked away in special education classes, is being taken from her screaming family by a surprisingly good catch, Deepak. As they drive away, Tania, a professionally and sexually aggressive beauty, smiles through the lipstick kiss she has left on the car window, while Sunita, the sensible, middling friend, cries, thinking of her own marriage.
Where does a writer take a novel that begins with every romance’s concluding flourish? Syal pokes and prods marriage and single life through her three stages of womanhood: Tania, living with a white television writer who cooks her Indian food; Chila, frying samosas in Deepak’s converted bachelor pad; and Sunita, eating leftovers in a messy, child-dominated home. When Tania’s boss meets and becomes enamored of Chila, and puts Tania to work on a documentary about marriage in the local Indian community, Syal’s examination of culture and romance – the gentler tropes concealing her interest in race and gender – begins in earnest.
Tania, an ex-girlfriend of the recently married Deepak, is loathe to interview Chila, whom she had introduced to Deepak without explaining that she was his ex. While she’s screwing up her courage to do the interview, Tania recruits Sunita’s husband, a therapist, to allow her to film his patients. The fights they record in his office presage the trouble to come for the protagonists as soon as the show, heavily edited by Tania’s colleagues, has its premiere at a hip warehouse club with all those depicted in attendance. No one, the editors manage to point out, has what he or she wants, and Sunita, the most trustworthy character, takes her cue to stage a personal and political reawakening throughout the ensuing drama.
Tania’s boyfriend and editors aren’t the only outsiders pawing at Indian culture. The story is bracketed by the ramblings of Anglo neighbors, presumably foils for a white readership, who putter around the edges of Hindu rituals in the first and last pages. The unnecessary image of Mr. Keegan rubbernecking at the crematorium, an understandable but unwise addition to the story, demonstrates the clumsiness of Syal’s moralism. Some of her internal monologues sound like consciousness raising brochures circa 1974—“Akash was canny enough to clip her wings before she’s realized her potential,” or “We meet the world head up, head on, we meet our men and bow down gracefully”—can hardly be excused as character development.
Although Syal’s work has its weaknesses, Publishers Weekly found a strength to offset them, describing, in a coded heads-up to film rights buyers, the novel’s “spot-on cinematic sensibility.” It’s not hard to imagine the chick-flick that the book could become, nor to identify scenes the studio would have a hard time cutting, among them a clutch of aunties at a family tea, knocking chairs over domino style until one of their number is truck and lodged among heavy cushions, “legs and arms flying like a podgy upturned beetle.” In the script doctors’ rewrites, the twin questions of how much politics you can fit into a fluffy story of three modern ethnic girls, and how much you can keep out, will have to be answered all over again.
Kate Christensen, Jeremy Thrane (Broadway Books, August 2001) $23.95 hardback.
Christensen’s title character, as the publicity materials for her second novel suggest, is only loosely (perhaps for obvious legal reasons) based on Tom Cruise’s boyfriend, should he exist. Here, Jeremy maintains “Ted’s” New York brownstone, pays his bills, and guards the secret that could destroy his career. But when Ted and his wife, Giselle, a movie star whose name is box-office magic, adopt a child and become America’s most photographed family, Jeremy finds himself without a job, and, more important, bereft of the love of his life. As a gossip columnist says, offering to wage Jeremy’s revenge with a story, “Blind items can be even more scandalous than names in bold type, depending on the story.”
This story actually quits being scandalous after a while, perhaps because it’s too busy being well written. It’s hard to bother keeping track of whether Jeremy, a novelist, is a fictionalization of a real, star-fucking friend of the author’s, or if his painter friend Felicia, who uses his likeness in her work, might be a cameo appearance by the writer. (Properly interpreted, does this make Tom Cruise’s hypothetical ex-boyfriend a painter?) The potential parallels are ever present, in ways that will be familiar to readers of not only Primary Colors or The Hours, but presumably the long-awaited The Wind Done Gone, books that gain resonance by hacking into large preexisting chambers of public interest. To Christensen’s credit, it is (at least briefly) more interesting to follow Felicia and Jeremy’s fight over her portrait than to wonder if it has a real antecedent.
The bulk of the book covers the months after the collapse of Jeremy’s long-stalled relationship. Work and family fill the void—his first novel, a portrait of his absentee father that has been ten years in the writing, nears conclusion just as his secondary career as a porn writer, in which he fictionalizes the life of his new roommate in order to pay the rent, takes off. Jeremy’s mother, a poet hitting her stride in her fifties, and his sister, a musician with a pretentious rock band and a dubious Irish boyfriend, hit milestones of their own, which require his presence and spark his snappy comebacks. Life, he keeps remarking, just goes on, and it does so in ways that will seem familiar to city readers; the “openings, closings, and bad repartee” that Lou Reed noted 30 years ago are still with us.
Alongside its potential prominence as a blind item, Jeremy Thrane is being sold as “social satire,” which makes me wonder: did I miss something? True, there are “normalizing, non-judgmental, open-minded” penis-themed parties here. There’s a series of air kisses spelled “mwah mwah, mwah mwah, mwah mwah,” and a romantic rival with a fake Japanese accent. But as I read it, this is much less a social commentary than just a good book with a fine sense of humor; I remember laughing, and feeling as though someone was occasionally fumbling for my heartstrings. Christensen’s final uptick in plotline is also mercifully two-faced, offering hope in literary and personal endeavors, and ample room for her protagonist to take two steps back.