I'm going to talk a little bit about the short fiction work of Kuzhali Manickavel. (Her blog is no longer frequently updated, sadly, but more recently she's been doing a series of posts at Pornokitsch where she listens to and writes down her reactions to 1940s–1960s SF radio dramas. And yes, this is exactly as hilarious as you would expect, and perhaps more so if you actually listen along.)
For a first tasting, perhaps a demonstration of affective range. This is a passage from "Discuss How India Will Become a Prosperous and Secure Nation in the Next Five Years" that I've always loved for its simmering, sunny anger, the precision with which it skewers middle-class sanctimony:
I will drop spare change on the ground for poor people to find. I will strew slum roads with 25 paisa coins and feel like a freedom fighter. I will hide 50 paisa coins under rocks as a special surprise for poor people who look under rocks. I will smile benevolently at suicidal farmers and encourage them to name their tractors after me. I will lift their children into the air with both hands, holding them against the sky so the sun doesn’t get in my eyes. I will say "Jai Hind" so that everyone will have to say "Jai Hind" after me.
Even apart from reading it as commentary, apart from what it actually says, consider its rhythm, the way it feels wry and cheerfully cutting and at the same time pained at the evisceration it's carrying out. Compare it with the bright-eyed sincerity, the heartsick teenage anguish evoked by this passage from "Anarch":
Whenever there is a group dance event, you get cast as a man along with all the sports girls. This is because you are not graceful but you are tall, quick and you smile easily when you move. Your partner is a Jain girl called Pooja who you usually don’t notice because all Jain girls look the same to you. But when you start dancing, she always looks straight into your eyes and she mouths the words of the song like she wants to fight you. When she sings the words “Bichua Jawani Ka” she tilts her head and arches her eyebrow and you forget your steps. You think the song is about girls that are mesmerising and poisonous. After the college farewell party, Pooja hugs you and whispers something in your ear in Hindi which you don’t understand.
"Discuss" is the shorter story of the two (the quote is about a third of it); "Anarch" runs long for Manickavel, relatively speaking, and is still under three thousand words. Manickavel is capable, clearly, of economical and well-turned phrases that convey a great deal more than they actually say, and you might think that this is how the stories get to be so brief, by compressing everything down to a set of perfectly phrased sentences. But it's not quite like that. Lots of Manickavel stories feature big chunks of playful prose: extended jokes, long circular conversations, plenty of ragged edges and digressions. There's nothing condensed-milk about them.
Hidden cameras only show up in two Manickavel stories as far as I can tell, which is perhaps not enough to call it a recurring motif. And by "show up" I mean that they are mentioned, not that they're actually there—though at the same time, to ask whether things are "really" there or not is usually the wrong question to ask when reading Manickavel. In this case, as a pleasing exception, it seems to me we are told clearly in both occurrences that the hidden cameras are not real even in the sense that other unreal, fantastical, or physically impossible things in Manickavel's stories are real.
That is, the story understands in both cases that there are not hidden cameras; the hidden cameras intrude into the narrative as avatars of anxiety.
In "Kisi Shayar Something Something," the hidden cameras are a flourish, the narrative riffing off the girl's dialogue with savage irony:
“Have you seen the bathrooms yet?” I ask. “Why, are there cameras? Did you find the cameras?” says the girl. The bathrooms usually have hidden cameras. We can’t see them because they are the size of dimes and we don’t know what a dime looks like. We do know that the cameras are sprinkled all over the walls and doors. We know that the footage is sold to sheiks in Dubai. She shrugs and starts wrapping her books with brown paper. “I’m not bothered,” she says. “I will bathe with a towel on.”
There is the anxiety of being surveilled as a long-established norm rather than a shock, resulting in the utter distrust of any guarantee of privacy; the sideways jabs at the Americanization of metaphor and at the racist stereotypes of the exploiter; the startling image of the cameras being "sprinkled" all over the walls and doors, which to me sounds both agricultural (like seeds being scattered) and SFnal (nano-something-somethings, swarming) but in both cases fecund. This is not just a single peeping eye, but a ridiculous embarrassment of them, a massively redundant level of surveillance far beyond anything that a pervert and/or government could possibly aspire to. The cameras are multiplied in this way, obviously—and the exaggeration is to make sure that we understand that it is obviously—because this isn't about cameras, this is about anxiety, or rather not even about anxiety, but about the utter normalization of that anxiety. These are the stresses of living in the panopticon, and we are least bothered also.
In "Item Girls," the hidden cameras do-not-exist in a way that is same same but different:
At night, when the room glows with dirty light from the street, they both look up at the ceiling and remember what they used to pray for. Please don’t let my mom find out. Please don’t let there be hidden cameras. Please forgive me for letting this person with a uterus and breasts put her fingers inside me, not one but three, all at once, again and again and again.
The anxiety here is also specifically a queer anxiety, but, as before, it's not a despairing acceptance but an insouciant one, the escalation of please-don't-lets undermined by the joyful thrusting of fingers: it ends in anxiety overcome by ecstasy.
Manickavel frequently draws on the eversion of the real for narrative torque. (Which is something of a bilingual pun, incidentally, on a colloquial Sinhala phrase which literally means to be dizzy from being spun around, to be disoriented, which is the usual result of the sudden shifts of direction that this technique makes use of.) For example, the sudden burst into irreality at the climax of "The Tar Heroin Guide to Melting a Snowman"—that one's not online, but is included in her second collection, which was reviewed for Strange Horizons by Sofia Samatar in 2014—or to return to "Kisi Shayar Something Something," the story with(out) the hidden cameras in the bathrooms, how these canals are real in the way that the hidden cameras are not, while still being not real in the way of the actual, and actualized, bathrooms of our lives:
The bathrooms are overrun with sleek, black canals and boats slice through them like angry fish. Sailors stand on the decks and tell us to take our tops off. Some girls throw chunks of soap at them. Others faint and we have to fish them out of the water. Sometimes we let them drown.
A group of girls [...] wade carefully through the flooded corridor while the hair of drowning girls clings to their ankles.
This is not dream logic, not surrealism nor magic realism. This is not the old weird or the new. Also not and nowhere near the kind of constrained fantasy that would have "worldbuilding" or a "magic system" in it. If you had to name this or position it in a tradition it might be the irreal, maybe—but this puts us in danger of joining the endless cosmic dance of genre classification, which (here, at least) seems secondary to looking at the work. Which works very well, and does a lot of work.
Constraint seems like a good way to talk about the work that's being done here. By constraint I don't mean as in Oulipo, but something much more ordinary and invisible: that realism in literature isn't something that's just there, but is something that is achieved through placing constraints upon the fable, the fib, the tall tale, the lie—which for the sake of this argument I'm considering the ur-story, the kind that the human animal makes naturally. In a modern contemporary realist story, the constraints are at least threefold—the story must become a kind of reportage of the real, tied to the place and the time in which it is produced; it must mirror one of the modish selfhoods that we are all pretending to inhabit; and most of all, it must reproduce not the actual contemporary scientific view of reality (which is, after all, extremely peculiar and suspicious-looking) but a particular Western bourgeois nineteenth- to twentieth-century version of it that has gained an air of respectability through being reproduced in the literary canons from that time. (We sometimes contest racism or sexism in books that are Of Their Time, that is to say Of A Certain Age, but we rarely contest their implicit physics.) Not quantum tomfoolery and hologram brane something something, but solid, respectable, middle-class protons and neutrons in a nice plum pudding.
(None of this is a criticism of realism in fiction or a recapitulation of the genre wars. Constraints can be very useful to writers and readers alike—and besides, to many people the kind of thing I'm talking about doesn't even present as constraints, but merely as norms. Just like ordinary life, but two inches off the ground—inches or miles—altitude is a detail once you've been suspended by your disbelief.)
If you relax the constraint on time and place but keep the others in place, you get historical fiction, or the kind of science fiction that aspires to be like historical fiction. Even once you begin to relax the constraints on physical plausibility to account for a broader range of fantasy—with monsters and magic and all that sort of thing—many fantasies could easily fit into a reverse Clarke's Third Law: any sufficiently constrained fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction. This is the literary function of worldbuilding and magic systems, to make fantasy more like science fiction. The magic is just a science that we Don't (Yet) Understand. Mana and thaums instead of protons and neutrons, but still a pudding. All those epic fantasy doorstoppers whose ventures into the realm of the actually fantastical are negligible, often limited entirely to received imagery (dragons, prophecies, shape-shifters, magic swords) from Previously In Fantasy. It's not that good books can't be written in pudding fantasy, either (many are—they focus their energy on things other than the evocation of the fantastical). But it does mean that, from a certain point of view, many of the thickest hardcovers are much smaller on the inside than they seem on the outside.
Manickavel's stories tend to be (as she's observed herself) very short, but not small. "Kisi Shayar Something Something" is a vast, echoing 400 words. This vastness is something I've come to associate with all of Manickavel's work—even the more restrained ones, because there is often this potential for irruption lying beneath the skin. Even the unbroken worlds are fragile, anxious, surveilled, itchy—and it isn't achieved by removing constraints one by one from a fictive world that began in the attempt at perfect mimesis (both the mimesis that is science fiction, and the other one). The careful work of balancing constraints and suspending disbeliefs is practically a separate magisterium from this. Here we're approaching the problem from the other side, as it were—in the absurdist, irreal, bizarro, or fabulist traditions, where we begin in a place of much greater possibility than any mere world could conceivably afford and navigate from there purely by a sense of the contextually plausible. The text gestures toward the constraint only to remind itself of its own mortality. The story does not even necessarily need to be consistent with itself, much less with any particular model of physics.
The amazing thing is that such a place of untethered possibility is imaginable at all. To set a story in that place is an art form entire, all by itself: the only thing that keeps a story together here is a sense of the plausible.
In stories where it seems that "anything" is "possible"—this is a poor phrase much overused, mostly to describe stories in which "anything" is not, in fact, "possible." Often it just means "a story in which something surprising happens," which is practically tautology. But I'm using it here in the aggressive sense where it actually means what it says—there is constant negotiation between figure and ground, between narrative and world. We could see this as a working definition of the plausible as applied to fantastika in general: implausibility is what happens when the implied world becomes more interesting than the narrative proper, which is then displaced to its own margin as the world takes precedence. In fantastika at large, it is generally a bit of a red flag when the story depicted seems inconsequential next to other stories implied, marginally, by the world, but which are never depicted. In the mimetic mode, this is a peculiar sort of failure condition—not a failure of mimesis, because the real world is quite full of boring stories, but a failure of the narrative to navigate its own world.
But this displacement can also be used deliberately for ill and irreal effect, as Manickavel does, and it generates considerable momentum in the extreme shortform where the narrative events that can be depicted are necessarily minimal and the world does the work. A single line can unravel any sense of a built world, like the kiss to the heart in "Snowman" or the body that sits up in "The Ash Eaters":
B. Lakshmi drew stick figures drowning in the river and said that was us. A year later her body sat up in her funeral pyre like she had suddenly remembered something. Fat flakes of ash hung in the air while a man beat down her burning chest with a stick.
Someday we should catalogue all the recurring Lakshmis in Manickavel's fiction: is B. Lakshmi from "The Ash Eaters" the same as the B. Lakshmi in "The Perimeter"? In the latter, B. Lakshmi watches a beetle die while simultaneously comforting herself with the fantasy of being its savior—the familiar imperial/uplift mechanism in miniature!
"The Perimeter" is a beneath-the-skin story: nothing breaks through, physics does not unravel, though it is (as with many of the beneath-the-skin stories) full of menace, hot and oppressive. Like with Lakshmi herself in "The Ash Eaters," we never see the moment of the beetle's death. The narrative torque—the spin that gives each story its erratic energy, whether it breaks through into the irreal or not—is in this absence, and the way it telescopes us from before to after. First there is life, which is a process of dying, and then (passing over the event itself) there are the unknowable things that might happen to our bodies after we are dead, and the things somebody else might find (and the strange conclusions they might come to), in the autopsy.
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