Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The novelty of the novel: Kingsolver and others

One of the most enjoyable things that one can share with one’s wife, husband, lover or partner, must surely be reading with and to each other. And what better form of literature to share in this fashion than the ever “novel” literary phenomenon, to wit, a novel. Sure, if both of you happen to be academic types, the odd philosophical or psychoanalytical text makes good reading together, too, but when it happens at night, before going to sleep, a novel is invariably the better, more enjoyable choice.

Our recent trip to Egypt was no exception, and for our bedtime reading we took along one of the inimitable Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, Pigs in Heaven. Probably best known for her bestselling The Poisonwood Bible, a beautifully written, but disturbing tale on the theme of religion and its “poisonous” effects, especially when fanatically promoted (here, by Westerners) among people of a different culture, Kingsolver has the ability to take a theme and knit its pattern into a variegated, constantly surprising narrative.

Pigs in Heaven is no exception. In many ways it demonstrates what one may call the “novelty” of the novel – that is, the extraordinary capacity of this literary genre to accommodate anything and everything “novel” that historical experience (or sheer imagination) can come up with, in so far as it is linguistically articulable. (And it even has a strategy of dealing with that which resists language, which I shall return to).

In the case of Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver has tackled the thorny question of native American children who are adopted by white Americans under circumstances not necessarily conducive to the child’s best interests. Except, here she complicates matters by spinning a suspenseful – and simultaneously delightful – tale where the child’s “best interests” appear, for all intents and purposes, to be best served by staying with her “white” adoptive mother. The child, a quirky and intelligent Cherokee girl named Turtle, is thrust upon Taylor Greer in a parking lot one evening by a family member who simply informs her that the child’s mother is dead, and that she “has” to look after the little girl, who shows unmistakable signs of having been abused.

To cut a long story short, after being responsible for the rescue of a man who has fallen down a wall at the Hoover dam, Turtle ends up on the Oprah Winfrey Show with her mother, where she is noticed by Annawake Fourkiller, a star lawyer working for an organisation called the Cherokee Nation. Annawake realises immediately that the “adoption” of Turtle by Taylor was not legal because it lacks the required approval of the Cherokee Nation. From here the plot unfolds in a nail-biting manner, with Taylor’s laid-back musician boyfriend, Jax, her mother, Alice, and a string of beautifully constructed other characters all contributing to the unexpected twists and turns of the undulating narrative.

If it seems, from my brief description, as if this is merely a run-of-the-mill thriller of sorts, I have to correct that impression hastily: although the fictional events in the novel are set in a recognisable time and space – late 20th-century America – which would make of it what Roland Barthes calls a “text of pleasure”, its narrative is intermittently lit up by quasi-utopian moments of potential interpersonal fulfillment, of the kind that is all too rare in extant social reality, where power-struggles between parties in a legal dispute often lead to acrimonious, albeit legally “correct” conclusions of disputes.

To the extent that Pigs in Heaven (the name of the novel has a delightful moralistic Cherokee story behind it) occasionally breaches the spatio-temporal parameters of a “text of pleasure by adumbrating, if not quite entering, the domain of what Barthes calls a “text of bliss” – where the reader encounters a fictional world that does not obey the recognisable coordinates of everyday time and space – it succeeds most as a novel. It is as if Kingsolver utilises the exciting, suspenseful narrative as scaffolding to enable the reader to peer into an unfamiliar social reality that we, as finite, fallible humans, have not quite managed to discover. And she does so convincingly, with the result that one never doubts the persuasiveness of the novel.

What would a “text of bliss” be like, and what would be the point of writing such a novel – except as fantasy (which strives, but does not necessarily succeed in conjuring up an alternative world) or science fiction? It would be an attempt to say, or show (the two things are not the same) what cannot be linguistically stated in a simple, easily recognisable manner. As such, it invariably explores hidden, unknown frontiers.
I can think of several examples of texts of “bliss”, one of them being Salman Rushdie’s infamous, and I believe in certain quarters wholly misunderstood text, The Satanic Verses – a complex, convoluted narrative alternating between moments of realism and magical realism, allegory and fantasy.

Here one seems, at times, to recognise something of the world as we know it every day – part of the action is set in London, after all – but mostly one has no other option than to immerse oneself in intersecting narrative fragments where both fictional space and time have metamorphosed into something wondrously “other”. The story of Gibreel and Chamcha reverberates with echoes of “intertexts” (plays, novels, myths) ranging across a spectrum too wide to recount here, including Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Kafka’s Metamorphosis (Chamcha as Caliban and as Gregor Samsa) as well as the myth of the fallen rebel angels. At any rate, it is not a novel that anyone could straightforwardly construe as being blasphemous regarding any specific religion; the latter is seen through too many distorting and refracting lenses for this to be possible.

Another novelist whose work sometimes irrupts and disrupts the reassuring dimensions of the quotidian, is the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, probably most familiar to readers through the film version of his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The latter novel is shot through with a literary quest – sometimes visible, sometimes latent, out of sight – for a social utopia or nowhere-land that would function, not only to give one respite in the face of a sometimes unbearable extant world of corruption, poverty, war and other kinds of violence, but would also, as Adorno or Foucault might put it, indict the world as we know it, for not actualising the “just” society.

My personal favourite among Kundera’s works is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, though, which is analogous to a musical composition structured as “variations on a theme” – a number of longish “short” stories (not quite novella-length), which overlap and echo one another, without any of them ever being the continuation of another’s “story”, or even the development of a recognisable character’s life in a different direction, because one is never sure whether a character bearing the same name as another in a different story, actually is the “same” character. This is what makes of it a text of bliss: while its narrative time-space is recognisable, the manner in which the different “stories” relate to one another is not. Consquently, it has a strong alienation effect, to the point where one feels quite disoriented (almost like in Bunuel’s surrealist film, That Obscure Object of Desire, where two different, but similar-looking actresses play the same character, to the consternation of the audience).

The effect of such “texts of bliss”, in contrast to “texts of pleasure” (the good ones of which are enjoyable to read, too), is weird and subtle, in my experience. Weird, because it has a strangely transformational effect on one’s consciousness, and subtle, because it is easy to dismiss this strange awareness as something completely insubstantial and therefore inconsequential.

But make no mistake – it is not without consequences. It lights up the world with new possibilities, towards the actualisation of which one could work, no matter what the odds are.