The avalanche of attention that greeted Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was only to be expected. It's polarised readers and reviewers, sorting them into camps of it's-too-political versus all-writing-is-political; and it's-structurally-flawed versus the-vision-is-all-encompassing.
An aspect of the book that been less remarked upon is Roy's prose style, an integral part of the work. The sentences contain a menagerie of registers, from the Joycean usage of "slygreen" and "blindgreen", to arresting metaphors ("she felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb"; "tombstones grew out of the ground like young children's teeth") to a flowing together of languages (hijra, badtameezi, ai hai!). This is prose that wants to throw its arms around the world, which aims to contain multitudes in its desire to convey the book's concerns and passions.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; Arundhati Roy
Another recent work, quite different in its intent, is also notable for the ferocity and distinctiveness of its prose. Meena Kandasamy's When I Hit You, a fictionalised account of a wife's experience of, and departure from, an abusive marriage is striking in the way it conveys the protagonist's mental scarring and subsequent strengthening. The sentences are spiky and challenging: "I should be a blank. With everything that reflects my personality cleared out. Like a house after a robbery. Like a mannequin stripped of its little black dress and dragged away from the store window, covered in a bedsheet and locked in the godown." Repetition, cinematic techniques and letters are all part of Kandasamy's stylistic arsenal with which she attacks structures of power and outlines the internal and external difficulties of finding a safe haven.
When I Hit You Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife; Meena Kandasamy
"For me, style is matter," Vladimir Nabokov, that consummate stylist, once said. And Roy and Kandasamy's styles are perfectly suited to their material: their sentences draw attention to themselves with the objective of dramatising their contents.
There are, however, other writers with other styles that are quieter, less eye-catching - and yet as moving in their effects. Take another recent novel, Weike Wang's Chemistry, about a young graduate student in a science lab whose life goes off the rails because of work and relationship pressures.
The sentences here are spare and deadpan, with short segments intermixing reflections on the narrator's life with her observations on organic chemistry. (The opening lines: "The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says, That's not how this works.") There's nothing overt, nothing dramatic, but the overall effect is touching and charming in equal measure. The novel gets under your skin simply because the nonchalant, almost breezy, prose style always asks you to go deeper under the surface, thus creating more empathy with the narrator's predicament.
From Jenny Offill's Dept of Speculation.
This approach is similar to another novel with which it's been compared, Jenny Offill's Dept of Speculation. Told in fragments, this is a portrait of a marriage that falls apart and then comes together, interwoven with jokes, quotations and the other cultural detritus that surrounds the narrator's life. Without being flashy or extravagant, Offill's episodes add up to an affecting and endearing meditation on life and relationships.
Such pointed sparseness of observation is pushed to its epigrammatic extreme in yet another recent work, Sarah Manguso's 300 Arguments. She's called it "a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book's quotable passages." The aphoristic, compressed form here is somewhere between the poem and the essay: they are brief and brilliant flashes that light up the mind of the woman writer at work. Here, less is clearly more.
Manguso's arguments, about desire and dissatisfaction, about ambition and art, are as pithy as they are memorable. Among the shorter ones: "Every success story can be told as a series of failures"; "I used to have a handwriting. Now I just have a signature"; "Everything has to be paid for, especially money". They may be short, but they're certainly not simplistic, with their polished concision and elegance concealing signs of being ruminated upon again and again. "On the page, these might look like the stones of a ruin, strewn by time and weather," she writes, "but I was here."
Such spare styles can involve the reader a great deal more than having everything spelt out; one is called upon to dive below the revealed tip of the iceberg (as Hemingway would have it) to get a glimpse of the immensity below. Brevity can be the soul of empathy.