Thursday, August 23, 2007

Daniyal Mueenuddin's "Nawabdin Electrician"

So...I think I missed a week of the New Yorker story's recycling day too, and I wonder if it has already been trucked off to the shredder. In any event, the new issue arrived yesterday and I read this story on the bus this morning, while trying desperately to shut out the blaring country music with nothing more sophisticated than my mind.

This one's a winner. Mueenuddin doesn't have a book out--he's described on the bio page as a former New York City lawyer who now lives in Pakistan, where the story also takes place. It's about a rural electrician, entrepreneur, and all-around handyman named Nawab, who ostensibly works for the local absentee landowner but is known by all as the guy who can fix the electricity meters so they run more slowly. He rides around on a bicycle, and later a motorcycle, and is the father of thirteen children.

There is a subtle, deeply irritating, and condescending tone that some writers fall into when they write about working-class characters, especially "colorful" ones. This is inevitable, I suppose, as most writers either have never been working-class themselves, or, alternately, grew up working-class but have since gotten educated and have mixed feelings about their relationship to their origins. I'll even go so far as to say that class consciousness is one of the most important and most ignored elements in contemporary fiction. In any event, it's not unusual to see a writer struggling with the topic without seeming to be aware that's what he's doing; the result is a kind of patronizing cuteness that mars the authority of the narrative.

Zadie Smith is one writer who handles this issue well. Chekhov was another. This guy, Daniyal Mueenuddin, is also good at it--"Nawabdin Electrician" is quiet and assured, serious in tone, yet funny. Moreover, Mueenuddin brings this firm hand to bear upon a character who, in less skillful hands, might come off as ridiculous. As written, Nawab is a fascinating figure, a goofy person whom Mueenuddin entrusts, at the story's conclusion, with a difficult decision. Nawab makes the decision swiftly and mercilessly, revealing a deep hardness to his character only hinted at before.

The writing style is sophisticated but straightforward, a strong third limited that lifts itself up into omniscience from time to time for some selective and useful contextual detail; it is at its best when unpacking character and place, as this little gem of a sentence about Nawab's aquisition of a motorcycle:

The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him Uncle and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing.

The narrative goes on to describe the road Nawab now takes home to his wife, explaining, in a quick excursion 150 years into the past, how it came to be lined with the dying trees the motorcycle is passing beneath. It's a lovely blend of good humor and narrative privilege, and really effective.

This is my favorite New Yorker story in a while, and I'll be looking forward to the collection Mueenuddin is said to be working on.


Jeff said...

Was there an ironic distance at the story's close? Overall, the p.o.v. cleaves to Nawab, which is why it's noticeable when we learn how his antagonist feels at the critical moment: "He couldn't bear to..."

I was getting irony anyway, as Nawabdin's conceit takes flight, "...six chances, and not one..." Comparing what we know about the antagonist's decision to how N. spins things in his own head.

And a strong contrast to last week's story, T Cooper's "Swimming," about an American doctor in Cambodia, indulged to the gills, with some serious guilt to work out.

Anonymous said...

Yeah "Swimming"...that was the one I missed.

I'm not sure, I feel there was a bit of distance throughout, with the narratoion trying to remain somewhat detached from the characters, and maintain its own, I dunno, selfhood. It's part of what I liked. The ending seemed rather brutal, not only on Nawab's part, but on the narrator's, judging Nawab for his judgement of the bandit.

That little leap to the antagonist is interesting. Something I would never think to do. Perhaps that's why I find myself respecting it...because it's so not me.

Seattle Electrician said...

Was there an ironic distance at the story's close? Overall, the p.o.v. cleaves to Nawab, which is why it's noticeable when we learn how his antagonist feels at the critical moment: "He couldn't bear to..."

Arizona foreclosures said...

I was getting irony anyway, as Nawabdin's conceit takes fligh Seattle Electrician

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