Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hari Kunzru's "Magda Mandela"

Maybe being a writer has ruined reading for me. Because just about every story I have read over the past few weeks has let me down in exactly the same way--starts off great and peters out into a faint disappointment. Perhaps I'm writing endings as I read, comparing the real ending to the one in my head. Perhaps I have too much riding on the one in my head being better. Or something.

In any event, the disappointment this time was particularly acute--small, but acute, like a flu shot--because the beginning of Hari Kunzru's "Magda Mandela," in last week's New Yorker, really appealed to me. It's all in the voice--an antic first person that projects itself into the object of attention with unusual elan. Our narrator, a vague smear of a fellow living in London, is talking about his nutty neighbor, a boisterous and amorous woman:

Magda is a nurse, a qualified pilot, a businesswoman and a philanthropist, a gifted and sensitive lover, the holder of certificates in computing and English grammar, a semi-professional country singer, and a mother. Yes, a mother! Magda has a daughter. Who came out of this pussy right here.

Right here, she says. Out of this pussy. RIGHT HERE.

That transition at the end of the first paragraph, from the narrator's voice to Magda's, is seamless, surprising, and very funny.

The whole story is pretty funny, in fact, but as I said, it ultimately disappointed me--Magda wakes up the neighborhood and gets arrested, and along the way we meet some of the other quirky locals, and observe their run-ins with Magda. But what of it? A grad student of mine said to me the other day, apropos of a story she had written and was trying to figure out how to revise, that for her, a narrator couldn't just tell the story; he had to be telling the story for a reason. And that reason had something to do with the story she, my student, was telling.

Obviously not everyone has to work this way, but that's what I was hoping for here--for the story's narrator to find himself implicated, somehow, in Magda's sad drama. Instead it's more of the same--quite funny, but never amounting to much, with the narrator lurking in the shadows. We are given to understand that Magda will return and the cycle of madness will begin anew. The ending suggests some shame on the neighborhood's part--

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we returned Magda's love. If we believed in her, she could do great things for us. But our problem is that we are faithless. Our problem is that we are stupid. Our problem is that we just don't listen.

Aesthetically I like it--Magda's voice has inhabited the narrator's in a new, less mocking way. But there's no bite to it--it's an afterthought, a hail mary pass.

Still, this story has inspired me, as it's essentially plotless, a character sketch spun into a narrative with the thinnest of threads, and while it doesn't entirely work, in my view, it is doing something I like. And the writer's Wikipedia page informs us that he is a member of that rare tribe of award-refusing novelists:

Although he was also awarded The John Llewellyn Rhys prize for writers under 35, the second oldest literary prize in the UK, he turned it down on the grounds that it was backed by the Mail on Sunday whose "hostility towards black and Asian people" he felt was unacceptable. In a statement read out on his behalf, he stated "As the child of an immigrant, I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail's editorial line.... The atmosphere of prejudice it fosters translates into violence, and I have no wish to profit from it." He further went on to recommend that the award money be donated to the charity Refugee Council (UK).

There was a time when I might have found such a gesture pretentious or arrogant, but nowadays it seems totally badass.

5 comments:

moonlight ambulette said...

First of all, I really love this blog. It's refreshing to see authors being actually candid about their contemporaries, and I'm loving your readings of NYer stories. I've been having the same problem (and maybe it's true that being a writer warps you as a reader) of feeling very disappointed in endings lately. I feel like I've encountered a lot of novels especially that start great and then sort of putter out towards the end, loose ends flapping in the wind. But I'm equally disappointed in endings that very neatly tie everything up.

Sigh.

jrlennon said...

Hey, thank you! I think my delight in being candid about my contemporaries will last approximately until the moment when they start being candid about me ;-)

It has long frustrated me to be accused, in book reviews, of "writing myself into a corner." This has happened a lot. The truth is that, though I have had this problem from time to time, the result is never published--almost everything I have published ends pretty much the way I wanted it to. So I am convinced that the way a story ends--and I don't just mean what's at the end of it, but in what way it presents itself overall, and what kind of party favors a reader gets to take home from it--is really a matter of taste. It depends upon what you're looking for. And I'm at a point in my literary life when I don't know what the hell that is.

That said, I do feel that there was substantively more that could have been done with this otherwise appealing story--it's robustly seasoned but half-baked.

—T. said...

Just last night I curled up damn excited to finish a Nicci French book that came free in the mail. It's just the three of us (Nicci, Sean and myself) and I'm running to home plate, there's not many pages left, it's going to be quite a climax and what the hell? And I echo, the ending was better in my own head.

jrlennon said...

Perhaps we should rent ourselves out as "finishers."

rmellis said...

A new Tarantino movie, "The Finishers"