Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Good Doctor - review

My review of Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, done for Business Standard last year:
The Good Doctor
by Damon Galgut

Jai Arjun Singh

Nothing changed. That was the way of things up there. One day resembled another in the sameness of its intentions, the level graph of its ambitions; and I’d become used to it. I wanted to keep everything fixed and rooted in its place, for ever.

The setting is a moribund hospital, half-heartedly managed by a skeletal staff, somewhere in the South African homeland. The "I" is Frank Eloff, who came here as a young doctor years earlier and soon forsook idealism as the oppressiveness of his surroundings defeated him. Into this soul-deadening environment comes Laurence Waters, who asked specifically to be sent here for community service, because he wants to "make a difference". World-weariness and youthful enthusiasm find themselves sharing the same room and their relationship moves between awkwardness, distrust and something approaching friendship.

Numerous subplots are woven into the fabric of this story. There is Frank’s on-again-off-again sexual relationship with a woman he knows only as Maria, who runs a small souvenir shop a little way off the main road. And the inevitable political angle comes from asides involving a former dictator -- now in hiding -- with whom Frank has a vaguely surreal encounter, and a commandant who stirs in the narrator dark memories of a day that was the "defining moment" of his life.

All of these strands are interesting in their own ways. Galgut extracts genuine menace from certain images: a white car sometimes parked outside Maria’s shop (it means her husband is home and marks the days Frank can’t visit her, but it might also represent larger dangers); a monitor lizard hauling itself up into a crack; a bend in the road from where a deserted army encampment can be briefly glimpsed. And there’s Laurence himself -- underconfident, uncertain, belying the stereotype of the bright do-gooder who wants to change the world. He has a strained long-term relationship with a girl who turns out to be an American, he’s oddly muted at a party that was his idea to begin with and his optimism lacks conviction. Like Frank, the reader can’t quite figure him out. All this gives the story a positive tension; there is a constant sense of something shifting beneath the surface, and this holds the reader’s attention for the most part.

But the undercurrent doesn’t resolve itself into a payoff and the book turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. Much like the narrator’s last, misguided attempt at absolution, it leads to a dead end and this is, well, disappointing. You don’t have to be expecting a pulp-thriller denouement to wonder what all the fuss was about.

Of course, it’s debatable whether such criticism should be directed at a story that, after all, deals with trapped, wasted lives and a stifled milieu where nothing ever changes, and that has the narrator declaiming towards the end: "This was a story without a resolution -- maybe even without a theme". But what’s good for the protagonist isn’t good for the author, and one is left with the sense that Galgut just didn’t have too much to say. The ending is weak and doesn’t follow naturally from any of the events that preceded it -- it seems arbitrary and tacked on. So it’s hard to relate to the glimmer of hope the narrator talks about in the conclusion to his story.

Naturally, too, there’s the Man Booker conundrum. However much one tries, it’s difficult to judge this novel independently of the "Booker shortlist" seal that it carries. Increasingly, these awards are becoming the literary equivalent of the Oscars which make half-baked attempts to be highbrow by honouring a film for intention rather than execution. (Or, when it comes to the acting awards, plumping for role over performance.) The Good Doctor is as good an example as any of such misplaced high-horsedness. Maybe the Man Booker should just have a separate category where it can eulogise books for worthiness of subject matter regardless of literary merit. Galgut’s novel, with its putative insights into the South African dilemma (and, by extension, one supposes, the human condition), would fit neatly into such a category.

But quibbles aside, if what you want is a lit-award nominee that’s also a light read -- minus the teen argot of a Vernon God Little -- you needn’t look much further than this.

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