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The New Canon: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

How unfortunate that this crisp, multivalent novel is so often weighed down with that infelicitous label: post-colonial fiction. Whenever I heard that MLA-ish term, I instinctively conjure up the image of a British Beefeater in full regalia exiled to a closet at the rear of the stage. Here our post-colonialist listens on as scenes unfold, no longer playing a role in the story, but tainting it nonetheless by his unwieldy presence.

But The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy needs no yeoman of the guard to sharpen the pointedness of its narrative. Matters of caste, class and gender loom even larger here than the lingering aftertaste of imperialism, as do the four extreme possibilities of the human condition, as outlined by one of Roy’s characters. “Anything’s possible in human nature,” muses Chacko, a Rhodes Scholar who has become a struggling manufacturer of pickles and condiments: “Love, Madness, Hope, Infinite joy.”

Love—both found and lost, carnal and spiritual—drives almost every character in this book. In Roy’s words, the players on her stage build their own individual and collective tragedies by ignoring the “Love Laws” that “lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.” And though her protagonists enjoy a small taste (in this book of small things) of Hope and Infinite joy, it is Madness that holds the upper hand. Crimes also play a part in The God of Small Things, and imagined crimes, but even more guilt and (perhaps the most terrible taskmaster of all) imagined guilt.

The cast is surprisingly large for such a small, intimate book. Roy introduces ten key characters in the first five pages—I found that I needed to lay down the novel and draw a family tree before I finished chapter one. I am happy to relate that she stops adding new names before we reach Gabriel García Márquez proportions. Even so, this book spans three generations and three continents, and sometimes moves with blinding speed across the miles and years.

The story revolves around two turbulent weeks in the lives of seven-year-old twins, the boy Estha and his sister Rahel. The youngsters feel shunted aside by their relatives in the excitement surrounding the visit to Ayemenem (based on Aymanam in Kottayam District, Kerala, India) of their Uncle Chacko’s ex-wife Margaret Kochamma and his daughter Sophie Mol. In the course of a few days almost every character faces some tragedy that is linked to the unwitting actions of the twins. The results include ruptured relationships, class conflicts, a fatal accident and even a violent murder.

Roy plays deft games with the chronological unfolding of her tale. She flashes forward to the twins as adults, still struggling with the aftermath of childhood events; or she shifts back to scenes of Uncle Chacko at Oxford or the twins’ grandfather’s career as an “Imperial Entomologist.” The major components of her plot are foreshadowed long before the specific details emerge, and continue to reverberate in later pages. Yet some of the key elements of the story are withheld until the very end, imparting an odd, ethereal sensibility to the story. The reader both knows what is going to happen, but also doesn’t know. I can’t recall a recent novel in which the layering of the particulars of the plot is handled with greater virtuosity.

This kaleidoscopic splintering of events is made all the more impressive by Roy’s decision to present much of the story as filtered through the perspective of the twins. The novel is in the third person, but the narrative voice is often infused with the wide-eye wonderment of a young mind. Sometimes a misheard phrase or misunderstood concept creates a surprising metaphor or even changes how the world is encountered. The odd, and sometimes brutal ways in which the world of adults and children interface is one of the key themes of the book, sometimes treated with humor, at other times with pathos.

Then there is the sheer beauty of Roy’s writing. True to the title of the book—whose meaning also shifts with the passing pages—this novelist can bring out the poetry in even the smallest things. Anthills are “congealed in the rain . . . slumped like drugged sentries asleep at the gates of Paradise.” The rain on the roof is a “lonely drummer practicing his roll long after the rest of the band has gone to bed.” Birds on wires seen through the windows of a moving car, slide by “like unclaimed baggage at the airport.”

At times, the writing comes close to a showy preciousness. There were a few passages that seemed a little too flashy when placed amidst the perceptions of the young twins. But it is easy to forgive a writer who can put together such fine sentences, with powerful cadences, and so many sweet surprises.

And the novel itself, despite the horror of its central story, also closes on a lyrical note. The effect is almost akin to a rewinding of a film back to a moment before all the terrible things happened, and a lingering on that beauty of small things that contributes so much to this book’s allure. What a shame that, more than a decade after it was published, The God of Small Things is still Arundhati Roy's only novel,

No, the term “post-colonial” does not do justice to this bittersweet book. Let the Beefeater out of the closet; he can go home now. Yes, with some effort you can twist this story to suit whatever ideological message you choose—every constituency from the Maoists to the Catholics is skewered at some point in its pages, including the colonialists. But please don’t try to make The God of Small Things into a novel about One Big Thing. That would have been a much easier book to write, and a less interesting one to read. Arundhati Roy has instead given us something more delicate and nuanced, that it would be best not to label at all.

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  • Lisa Solod Warren

    I read this book some years ago and I remember really wanting to like it. There was much to admire. But in the end I found it completely overwritten, much too long, self-conconscious and desperately in need of a good editor. It seemed to me that Roy got in on the tale end of “Oh, look, another ethnic young writer!” I was weary of it well before the end.

  • The god of small things compels me to point out that it is “tail” not “tale”.