Got this on email and had to share. Here’s the winning (?) entry of this year's Bulwer-Lytton contest (AKA Dark and Stormy Night Contest) run by the English Department of San Jose State University, wherein one writes only the first line of a bad novel.
"The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, 'You lied!’ "
What’s all the fuss about? I’d read that novel. Can’t be worse than Sidharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Last Song of Dusk (which was hailed as the Next Big Thing in Indian writing in English), which I reviewed earlier this year. Realise on rereading the review that I was probably trying to be too clever, but what the heck, having wasted so much of my time reading the wretched book I’m entitled to some self-indulgence. Hereunder is the review.
The last sentence on page two of The Last Song of Dusk, the much-hyped debut novel by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, reads: "A weep gathered in her chest like the crest of a wave." This immediately set me thinking of Steve Martin’s delightful short story "Drivel", in which the narrator -- the publisher of the American Drivel Review -- trades in analogies of the sort "a tear marked her cheek, like a snail that has crept across white china".
"Drivel" was gloriously, deliberately cheesy. Dusk is, well, just drivel. It’s painfully obvious after a few pages that the funniest moments in this book weren’t intended to be so. (Still on the analogies, my personal favourite is "the air was bursting with tension, like the navel of a pregnant male sea horse".) The few actual attempts at humour, parody, or what you will, are laboured (e.g. the annoying anthropomorphising of the house Dariya Mahal, which "threw back its head and laughed…" and "would have slipped on its dancing shoes if it had had legs…"). But there’s some merriment to be found in the well-meant solemnity with which Shanghvi produces gems like: "Modesty trailed her as the most dignified of chaperones in her candlelight tryst with Destiny."
That Dusk is, at the very least, going to be derivative is obvious from an early moment where "several bees grow dizzy and promptly faint in mid-air" (because of the strong fragrance of the flowers worn by the heroine). Uh oh, you think, there’s the first nod to magic realism. Naturally, there’s more to follow. The lady in question is Anuradha Patwardhan, who, as the book opens, is leaving Udaipur for Bombay to marry Vardhmaan Gandharva, a doctor. Anuradha’s mother, who comes to see her off, is, we’re told, "a woman of altitude (sic)…slim but with pertinent parts of her biology eye-catchingly endowed and a certain gift of Song".
The capital S in Song commences a tradition that lasts the length of the book, where select words (which the author can presumably use to hint at Deeper Meaning) are subjected to the same treatment -- words like Joy, Desire, Death and, on one memorable occasion, even Quietness ("a puzzling Quietness had settled in him like a silverfish in a book").
To be unnecessarily kind, there is a point, early on, when despite all these stylistic irritants, one gets a sense of something readable -- of the kernel of what might turn into a promising story. Especially with the introduction of Anuradha and Vardhmaan’s precocious first child, Mohan, who demands a violin when he is two-and-a-half years old. There’s also a (very) briefly moving account of an Englishman who dies in Dariya Mahal while waiting for his lover, a Rajasthani prince -- thus relegating said mansion to haunted house status.
Unfortunately, none of the good parts lasts very long. The reader is assaulted, at all-too-regular intervals, by passages like: "She slides through the forest. Monkeys barking. His cantering paws crushing twigs. Blood on her neck. Gasping. Takes a right. Almost goes down a damned gorge. Out pours the moonlight she has bayed at and branches that whack her flat." Not to mention the repeated use of words like "clavicle" and "tumescent" (the latter used at one point to qualify the noun "teat"). And Dariya Mahal soon morphs into the book’s most annoying character, a house that is far too clever for its own good, or ours.
By the time the real protagonist, Nandini Hariharan, is introduced, ennui has thoroughly set in. Nandini is an orphaned cousin of Anuradha; the women in her family have a regrettable history of copulating with leopards ("Cat’s blood she had in her. Cats.") -- hence, one supposes, the sheepish-looking panther on the book jacket?
Nandini’s rise in art circles soon becomes the focus of the book, as the story gets increasingly confused and directionless, moving away from Anuradha and her estranged husband. Among her other achievements, Nandini tells M K Gandhi his loin cloth is "unbelievably sexy", smartly advises Virginia Woolf to "jump in the river or something" and attends parties frequented by the likes of "Stella Dimm, England’s first ever Tit Girl, who was shacking up at the Bella Vista with Sudipto Bhattacharya, author of the international bestseller The Mating Habits of the Hindoos, an updated version of the Kama Sutra, for which he had been awarded the prestigious Hooker Prize" (sic).
All this probably makes the book sound more interesting than it is. But there’s only so much fun that can be squeezed out of unintended humour, and I soon lost interest in these self-important characters and their lengthy discourses -- like the depressingly blah dialogues between Anuradha and her dying friend Pallavi that are so, so, obviously aimed at the western reader. ("Even love comes with its own season…and relationships with their own kismets. They start through us, Pallavi, and then love loves through us. Like the fruit that must fall from the bough if it is to carry its life into its next avatar.")
Since a review as dismissive as this one is open to charges of prejudice -- or at least to a blinkered view of what good writing should be like -- I’ve included as many passages from the actual novel as I could. My advice therefore is: take a quick look at those again, see if there’s something here you might fancy, and then decide for yourself whether you want to buy this book. If not, leave it to the silverfish.
-- May 2004