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Stories apart, stories linked

The joy of reading connected short stories in random sequences

In The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, English novelist Philip Hensher nudged the reader to consider “what the short story still does well”. As 2018 closes, with its uncommon treasure of big, fat novels (Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, Javier Marias’s Berta Isla, Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, to name just a few), two slim publications invite us to modify that appraisal somewhat, to think about what it is that inter-linked short stories do so well.

Reading in a non-linear way

Perhaps one way to do so would be to read them in a non-linear way. David Szalay, a Canada-born British writer whose All That Man Is was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, would likely have expected the reader to read his new book, Turbulence, from beginning to end. For no good reason, I opened to read the eighth story of his 12 stories. Weighing in at just about 140 pages, Turbulence sets out its structure clearly in the table of contents: as 12 air journeys, the first one “LGW-MAD” (London’s Gatwick airport to Madrid), and the last “BUD-LGW” (Budapest to Gatwick).

There was enough suggestion that the stories would loop back, that there were connections to be uncovered, but jumping right in at “SGN-BKK-DEL” (Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok to Delhi), I was immersed right away, from story 8’s first sentence: “The first thing Abhijit did, when he arrived back in Delhi on Monday afternoon, was look in on his father.” His taxi takes Abhijit to the family house in Daryaganj, and while he explains to his father what it was that he was doing in Vietnam (playing golf with his brother Abir, who appears to be somewhat estranged from the father for a reason that we don’t ever get a measure of), it’s almost as if Szalay has coasted into a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala setting, with its depiction of relationships clipped into place with aloofness and manipulation. The reader soon enough sees through Abhijit’s over-earnest manner, though we never know if his father ever will. But Abhijit is found out by the father’s caregiver, who catches the next flight (of story 9, “DEL-COK”, to Kochi).

And on it goes, through Doha and Budapest, back to London. Flipping back to the first story, the reader is eventually retuned to Delhi, via Madrid, Dakar, Sao Paulo, Toronto, Seattle, Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City. One character from the preceding story takes the next one forward, in a narrative of human connections, expected (among kin, for example) and unexpected (chance meetings). Some relationships are brittle (Abhijit’s, for instance), some are ephemeral but nourishing, others are long-lasting and poignant. The cast of characters doesn’t just take in various continents, it also captures the diversity of migrations and movements today (the well-regarded novelist, the student abroad, the Syrian refugee, the frazzled journalist, the Indian doctor made good overseas, the Indian worker in West Asia living precariously at the mercy of the goodwill of his “sponsor”, etc.).

Each story stands apart, whole in itself, but each is nourished by the stories that precede and follow it. “People were able to live multiple lives,” one of the characters says near the end. And each one does, often showing an emotional self different than what she or he did in the previous tale or will do in the next. And each one is affected in some way by what happened elsewhere between people he or she may not know. As the reader returns to the city where the book for her began, there is the sense of having come back to square one with a changed perspective. Turbulence is that brilliant, rare work of fiction that offers itself to multiple readings, not least because the reader can experiment with different narrative loops.

In Lahiri’s footsteps

Only the last two of the 11 short stories in Indian-American writer Neel Patel’s debut collection, If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, are linked. At just over 200 pages, it is a more crowded, noisy and uneven volume, but it nevertheless announces the arrival of a student of human nature to watch out for. Patel’s landscape of the Indian immigrant in the U.S. is similar to Jhumpa Lahiri’s earlier work, and it’s telling that the collection opens with a quote from her novel, The Namesake. The hyphenated identity does not always define Patel’s characters, as each one tries to fit in emotionally, to find love on his or her own terms, often with high anxiety and, as the title so evocatively conveys, with the fear of being found out.

The last two stories, about schoolmates who reconnect as adults at multiple points while navigating through the Indian community’s whispers and conjectures about each other, are also the standout stories in the collection. In their combined sense of loss and reclamation, they also bring to mind the last three stories in Lahiri’s collection, Unaccustomed Earth. Each can be read without the other, but read together they transform into more than the sum of the individual narratives.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 12:17:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/stories-apart-stories-linked/article25860431.ece

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