The Inheritance of Loss

If I wanted to give a habitual science fiction reader a novel that would reinforce all their prejudices about the world beyond the ghetto walls, I don’t think I could do much better than to give them a copy of The Inheritance of Loss. Kiran Desai’s second novel starts well enough: the first chapter, with its evocation of a mist-shrouded house in the northeastern Himalayas, builds a world (in exactly the way a good sf novel does, in fact) by carefully layering observation on incident. In the foreground is Sai, 17, reading National Geographic, musing on love and her affair with her maths tutor, Gyan; in the background are a judge and his cook, both stripped of names (except when we get access to their thoughts, later). It is the start of 1986, a few months before the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front organises a demonstration calling for a separate state (the region, we are told, “had always been a messy map”, 9); a few months before two years of disruption and violence. There is a symptom of the troubles to come: a gang of boys come to the house and steal the judge’s guns. The incident is troubling and tense.

A few days and two hundred pages later, a drunk is accused of the theft, arrested and beaten. In between and afterwards there is relatively little present-tense action; the focus is on a succession of elegantly interleaved flashbacks. This structure is actually the best thing about the book, although for Desai to highlight one character’s foolishness by having her express a preference for “Old-fashioned books […] Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of … free-floating plasma” (217) is perhaps a little too knowing for my taste. We dip in and out of the lives of the characters we’ve met, and a few more we come to know, and occasionally take a trip to America, where the cook’s son, Biju, is scrounging a living. For most of its length, this latter strand is extremely effective: every chapter in the novel is a collage of short scenes, most only a few paragraphs long, and the cut-and-paste effect suits the unsettled nature of Biju’s life. He’s squeezed from one to another New York kitchen, every kitchen equally grubby, equally detailed, and equally stuffed to the gills with migrant workers wrapped up in their own schemes and rivalries. Biju himself is consistently dazzled by the world — “How,” he wonders, “had he learned nothing growing up?” (22) — and his life is dismayingly credible; it certainly highlights, for example, the frictionless nature of a not-dissimilar migration in Hari Kunzru’s Transmission.

It’s back in the subcontinent, with the other characters, that the troubles with the novel set in. The beauty to which Desai’s prose aspires is a civilised beauty: long, languid sentences, gentle and descriptive. Sometimes it works; too often, to my mind, it feels overworked. Of Sai and Gyan’s courtship, which starts during tutorials, Desai writes, “how delicious the pretense of objective study, miraculous how it could eat up the hours.” Fine so far. But then: “as they eliminated the easily revealable and exhausted propriety, the unexamined portions of their anatomies exerted a more severely distilled potential” (125). This is, perhaps, an attempt to recast their courtship in the physical-science terms Gyan is teaching Sai, but it seems to me far too coy, far too self-aware to take seriously. Later, a character “traversed along flat main roads” (181): traversed? Really? Could he not, more specifically, walk or run or ride or drive? And earlier, a mother having bid her son farewell “was weeping because she had not estimated the imbalance between the finality of goodbye and the briefness of the last moment” (36): does that really get to the heart of a mother’s grief, or is it — as I can’t help thinking — just a long-winded way of stating the obvious? Worse still is some of the dialogue, notably some of the exchanges between Gyan and Sai. Here is one during a rumbling argument:

She yawned again, elaborately like a lion, letting it bloom forward. Then he did also, a meager yawn he tried to curb and swallow.
She did–
He did.
“Bored by physics?” she asked, encouraged by the apparent reconciliation.
“No. Not at all.”
“Why are you yawning then?”
Stunned silence. (163)

Stunned silence from Sai, at least; snickering from this reader, at such a spectacularly inept — and jarring, in context — depiction of late-teen sulkiness. To be fair, Gyan is not the only character who gets to speak in block capitals. Later on, for instance, we get this

WHAT ARE YOU SAYING????!!!” the judge yelled. (319)

He’s drunk, of course, and has every right to be angry, but I can’t help thinking that if a writer needs to resort to block capitals and italics and eleventy-one style punctuation to make that point clear then their actual words aren’t doing as much work as they should be. (Or at the very least, they don’t need to tell us that the person talking in block capitals and italics with eleventy-one style punctuation is yelling.)

Maybe I’m being too harsh: The Inheritance of Loss is a very inward-looking novel, with far more internal monologues and passages of description than exchanges of dialogue, which despite the rough patches mentioned above plays to Desai’s strengths. Here is Gyan falling in with the GNLF, just a few pages before the exchange of dialogue above:

As he floated through the market, Gyan had a feeling of history being wrought, its wheels churning under him, for the men were behaving as if they were being featured in a documentary of war, and Gyan could not help but look on the scene already from the angle of nostalgia, the position of a revolutionary. But then he was pulled out of the feeling, by the ancient and usual scene, the worried shopkeepers watching from their monsoon-stained grottos. Then he shouted along with the crowd, and the very mingling of his voice with largeness and lustiness seemed to create a relevancy, an affirmation he’d never felt before, and he was pulled back into the making of history. (157)

This, I think, does convey the tentative fervour of a youth desperate to live a life that signifies: Gyan floating, not walking (or traversing), torn between his longing and the immediacy of the real, that “lustiness” tellingly close to “an affirmation he’d never felt before”: good stuff. But it’s immediately followed by ruminations of a kind repeated by almost every character in the novel at one time or another, on the desire for and impossibility of escape, “free from family demands and the built-up debt of centuries.” Which leads to another reservation.

For the characters in The Inheritance of Loss, escape is impossible and misery is birthright. Sai’s parents — before they die — are filled with the same loneliness as their daughter; the son whose mother was bidding farewell earlier in this review botches his goodbye, and we learn that “Never again would he know love for a human being that wasn’t adulterated by another, contradictory emotion” (37). (The son grows up to be the judge, arranged into a loveless marriage that descends into rape and other abuses.) The cook is an old man with no fulfillment in his own life, desperate that his son do better than he did; this pressure is eventually Biju’s undoing. Sai’s tutor before Gyan is Noni, a spinster who “never had love at all” (68). And so on, for the entire cast. It’s an old story: “Certain moves made long ago,” we are told, “had produced all of them” (199). They are, if you like, variations on an absence of dignity: children, criminals, and buffoons. And too often that’s all they are — or at least the rest is hidden, the civilised sheen of Desai’s prose obscuring the extent of the violence done to their lives by circumstance.

It is not entirely surprising to me that the inhabitants of the real Kalimpong have objected to their counterparts’ portrayal in the book. The cast of The Inheritance of Loss are buffeted and bewildered by the world, with no initiative to speak of, nor (apparently) any capacity to learn; quite often they’re not even paying attention. Sai and Gyan completely miss “the important protest”, which is to say they miss the defining moment of the novel’s historical context. Whatever my reservations about the generosity with which a book like, say, Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song treats its characters, it’s hard not to prefer such an approach to one that ultimately comes to feel capriciously mean. Desai tries her best to convince us that her characters are “just ordinary humans in ordinary opaque boiled-egg light, without grace, without revelation” (259), and that this justifies their fatalism. But the litany of misfortunes that make up the book’s final fifty pages verges on parody, manipulative in the extreme but too obviously controlled to really sting; imagine I ARE SERIOUS BOOK stamped on the cover and you’ll be thinking along the right lines.

It’s not that Desai scrupulously avoids offering an answer, or answers, to the problems of global inequality that gives me trouble — to do otherwise would arguably be presumptuous, and she mines good material from her stance, such as one character’s painful realisation that he can only live a Western life by cutting off his countrymen, “or they would show up reproachful, pointing out to him the lie that he had become” (306). But The Inheritance of Loss denies even the possibility of meaningful change. Over and above the inconsistent loquaciousness of the prose, the near-absence of narrative drive, and the passivity of the characters (a consequence, I can’t help thinking, of the book’s ideologicial fixedness), this is what I expect would stick in most sf readers’ craws. And rightly. Sai’s ultimate epiphany — “The simplicity of what she’d been taught wouldn’t hold. Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself” (323) — is pitifully empty, not just because any half-awake reader will have got there at least a couple of hundred pages earlier, if not before they ever open the book, but because Desai has so thoroughly drummed home that there’s nothing Sai can do to change her fate. All Sai’s achieved is to wake up to the same awareness that the rest of the book’s characters have been struggling with: her life does not belong to herself, because the West distorts and robs all those who come into contact with it, now and forever: the end.

19 thoughts on “The Inheritance of Loss

  1. Those extracts of dialogue just bring to mind the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where Harry demonstrates his teenage angst by SHOUTING A LOT and USINE EXCLAMATION MARKS! I did not expect to be making this comparison to the Booker prize winner.

  2. Yeah, I thought of that too — I haven’t read Phoenix myself, but it was something a lot of the reviews commented on. I kept wondering whether Desai intended those bits to be funny, but (a) I couldn’t find anything to really justify that reading (while Sai and Gyan are both relatively immature, for instance, and don’t really know how to handle the issues they’re confronted with, the conversation I quoted is clearly meant to be Serious and Meaningful) and (b) even if they’re intended to be funny, they’re just not. At least to me.

  3. I like this NY Time review of the book, mostly because it takes almost everything I think is a flaw to be a virtue. In particular the last paragraph:

    Though relieved by much humor, “The Inheritance of Loss” may strike many readers as offering an unrelentingly bitter view. But then, as Orhan Pamuk wrote soon after 9/11, people in the West are “scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population,” which “neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom.” This is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need to agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai’s artistic power in expressing it.

    Even if the novel’s characters represent reality — which the reaction of the actual people who live in the area would seem to complicate — it still strikes me as too one-note a portrayal to support an entire novel. I’m also a little bothered by the opening paragraph’s statement that “Despite being set in the mid-1980’s, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel”; I’m not sure how far it’s reasonable to take (or intend) a story set in the 1980s as a commentary on now. (Or rather, there’s a danger of trying to have your cake and eat it.) Still, if you want the argument for the book as a prize-winner, that’s the best version I’ve seen.

  4. Well, you already know that I disagree with your overall assessment of ‘Inheritance’…and so I’ll say very little about the specific qualities of the book (I’m going to write my own post when I re-read it anyway). But I have to niggle at the *way* you’ve read it: like it was sf without the meat. Looking for change/development or ‘the journey’ in contemporary/mainstream fiction seems ill-advised to me since, unlike sf, it isn’t really about those things. It is often (very often) about revelation rather than revolution and is in the business of uncovering rather than galvinising human action and emotion. Cataclysm in contemporary fiction doesn’t necessarily signal renewal or regeneration but rather realisation, recognition and maybe, if the character is lucky, understanding. In this sense I think Desai is entirely successful – ‘Inheritance’ is all about the slow awakening of a human consciousness to the hard truth of their existence and it is full of compassion for peoples’ real faults.

    I think you may find that you can criticise several other of the Orange shortlisters on the same grounds – certainly ‘Digging to America’ and ‘Arlington Park’. ;-)

  5. But I have to niggle at the *way* you’ve read it: like it was sf without the meat.

    Hey, you said it, not me.

    More seriously: I think you’re taking more than I intended from my opening sentence, which is at least half there as a way of segueing from sf to non-sf content. That said, I’m not having a dig at The Inheritance of Loss for not showing dramatic change, I’m having a dig at it for being so pessimistic and guilt-stricken as to argue that there will never be change.

    I think the book fails in plenty of ways unrelated to the fact that it has this point of view — patchy writing and overly manipulative plotting, for two. And given that it’s implied by the title, it’s clearly a deliberate stance on Desai’s part. But it’s a view I think is problematic in all sorts of ways, as well as being a view that exacerbates some of the book’s other points of failure.

    In particular, I thought it utterly failed to dramatise “the slow awakening of a human consciousness to the hard truth of their existence” in anything resembling a convincing fashion, because all the characters are artificially stunted by their author, not by what actually happens to them. This is part of why the real inhabitants of Kalimpong are complaining, it seems to me — because none of the characters in The Inheritance of Loss have much self-awareness, or creativity, or dignity, and because, with the possible exception of Sai, all of them react to their awakening in the same way, by retreating and giving up.

  6. Good things this post has done: made Niall use the phrase eleventy-one!

    Reminded me that I want to read Orhan Pamuk.

    Good job.

  7. ‘I’m having a dig at it for being so pessimistic and guilt-stricken as to argue that there will never be change.’

    I don’t think that it totally denies the possibility of change – change is inevitable within a living culture. Admittedly, it is ‘pessimistic’ in the sense that Desai is equivocal about whether that change will be (or can be) positive. But isn’t that a valid viewpoint? Does a novel have to end with the brightening dawn and the glimmer of hope? Isn’t there something terribly honest about ‘Inheritance’ bleakness? Afterall, it’s set in the 1980s and Desai is in a position to know that things won’t get all that much better politically or economically in the next 20 years – it is a novel written in hindsight too. Finally, I think ‘Inheritance’ places a high premium on the startling extents of human love and regret and bitterness, and that there is championing of the former at the end, in Biju’s homecoming. Which is devastating but also a source of comfort and emotional potential.

    ‘…all the characters are artificially stunted by their author, not by what actually happens to them’

    I disagree, particularly with reference to Biju, his father and the Judge. You don’t focus on the Judge, but I found his narrative arch incredibly moving: his crushed academic hopes, his failed marriage, his narrowing life, his pedantic twitches, the pathetic attachment to his dog… He is such a thoroughly ruined man and yet there is nothing extroadinary about his experiences. It seems to me that Desai is staring a particular reality directly in the face.

    ‘…none of the characters in The Inheritance of Loss have much self-awareness, or creativity, or dignity, and because, with the possible exception of Sai, all of them react to their awakening in the same way, by retreating and giving up.’

    I would say they harden over and survive rather than retreat and give up but I get your point. Partly I think you’re overestimating the average person’s capacity for strength in adversity, and partly I think your being unfair to Desai’s characterisation. Her auxiliary characters have a good deal of pride and dignity – so much so it often makes them socially stilted; I’m thinking of the older women (I forget their names) with their M&S pants and their ‘proper’ library books – and their lack of self-awareness isn’t beyond belief. How many people are actually self-aware of their flaws? Or act like it?

  8. Chance: what, no credit for referencing a cat macro? (And I still have Snow waiting to be read.)


    Admittedly, it is ‘pessimistic’ in the sense that Desai is equivocal about whether that change will be (or can be) positive.

    She’s not equivocal. Things will get worse for these people, and never get better.

    But isn’t that a valid viewpoint?

    To borrow a quote from a novel I referenced a few posts ago: No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace. I happen to believe that. (Well, aside from the bit about God.) Desai, I can’t help feeling, wanted to make A Point about relations between the developed and less developed worlds, and shaped her entire book around making that point, and made it with force … and it’s a valid and important point, but in the process of making it she left out everything that would have provided context, and perspective, and meaning.

    Which is to say that I didn’t find Biju’s homecoming devastating: I found it ridiculous, because the hand of the author was so obviously trying to make it as devastating as possible. I didn’t find the Judge’s character arc compelling precisely because he is so thoroughly ruined. I don’t think I have to believe in superhuman strength in the face of adversity to believe that his unresisting and total collapse is exceptional, yet it seems to me clearly intended to be typical.

    As for Noni and Lola:

    … Lola and Noni indulged themselves in the pretense of it being a daily fight to keep up civilization in this place of towering, flickering green. They maintained their camping supplies, their flashlights, mosquito netting, raincoats, hot water bottles, brandy, radio, first-aid kit, Swiss army knife, book on poisonous snakes. These objects were talismans imbued with the task of transforming reality into something otherwise, supplies manufactured by a world that equated them with courage. But, really, they were equivalent to cowardice. (247-8)

    I did find their attempt to live a caricature of a Western life one of the more successful strands of the book. And they have pride, certainly. But, I think, not so much with the dignity.

  9. It does seem,from this review, that THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS fits every cliché about what wins the Booker Prize.

    What is awarded is not so much originality as regurgitating the Proper Attitude:
    Western Society Inauthentic,
    Everybody’s Stupid Stupid,
    People Are Doomed, etc.

    Another Booker winner, VERNON BIG LITTLE, was so jaw-droppingly clichéd and ineptly written I couldn’t even finish Chapter 1 — the kind of ineptitude that’s called “brilliant” or “satire” in reviews of Booker Prize winners.

  10. I’m not that huge a fan of the cat macros. If you’d used the serious critic macro, then you would have gotten points.

  11. Victoria wrote:

    “I think you may find that you can criticise several other of the Orange shortlisters on the same grounds – certainly ‘Digging to America’ and ‘Arlington Park’.”

    Well, there’s precious little self-awareness to go round in Arlington Park, certainly (by which I mean genuine self-awareness, as opposed to tedious, cliched navel-gazing…).

  12. AR:

    What is awarded is not so much originality as regurgitating the Proper Attitude

    Well, sort of, maybe. I’ve been wracking my brains for examples of other books I can bring into this discussion for contrast, because I know I enjoy a good, bleak read with the best of them; the closest recent comparison I can come up with is Simon Ings’ The Weight of Numbers, in which a cast of characters end up equally crushed. But in that book, (1) they get crushed by Time rather than Space (ie they get crushed by change itself); (2) some of them are unaware of how crushed they are, a tragedy of ignorance I found powerful; (3) most of them struggle against their fate, to a greater or lesser extent; and (4) Ings just makes it work, dammit.

    The other semi-example I can think of is Ian Macleod’s The Light Ages, in which a revolution fails utterly, dreams are crushed, and progress is incremental and ambiguous, at best.

  13. Hey, I’ve read and approved of James Tiptree Jr(Alice Sheldon)’s stories, and they are as bleak as they come. (And H.G.Wells crushed the entire human race with Time in THE TIME MACHINE.)

    But “Booker Bleak” is a different animal: it is attitude-based rather than fact-based.

    “Booker Bleak” characters fail to prevent being crushed not because of their personal development or a socio-historical context… no, the writer simply contrives to make them stupid to prove his point that Everybody’s Stupid Stupid and People Are Doomed.

    Ironically, I see a lot of that attitude in TV’s THE SIMPSONS: the citizens of Springfield are often depicted as a herd of doomed sheep. The scriptwriters are awfully smug when they regurgitate that cliché.

  14. Hey now, say what you will about Booker Bleakers (I don’t know, I don’t make a habit of reading them) but Banville’s book wasn’t about stupid people or being doomed. I haven’t read the Hollinghurst novel that won, but based on his first, I can’t imagine Line of Beauty falling into that category either.

    Have at the rest.

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