Sunday, October 4, 2009

If "Tales of the City" Were Written in Verse... would be The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth.

I know I posted a little about this book last week--how it is a novel written entirely in Onegin stanzas. Not an "epic poem," because its concerns are far more down-to-earth. Set in the Bay Area in the 1980s (Napa Valley, the Peninsula, and S.F. proper), it mostly follows the love lives of a group of yuppies. As with Tales of the City, parts of it are dated--some of the "yuppie lifestyle" satire, as well as the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation that forms a major subplot.

All the same, it hooked me from the first stanza, in which a man has an existential crisis while walking through Golden Gate Park. And some of the San Francisco atmosphere that the book captures is truly timeless--first dates at the Cafe Trieste, the Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline itself... Here is a sample stanza (perfect for this time of year!):
They park the car by the Marina.
The surface of the cobalt bay
Is flecked with white. The moister, keener
October air has rinsed away
The whispering mists with crisp intensity
And over the opaque immensity
A deliquescent wash of blue
Reveals the bridge, long lost to view
In summer's quilt of fog: the towers,
High-built, red-gold, with their long span--
The most majestic spun by man--
Whose threads of steel through mists and showers
Wind, spray, and the momentous roar
Of ocean storms, link shore to shore.
The characters of the novel are more types than individuals, but all the same, by the end I was curious to learn how their tangled relationships got sorted out, and moved by the final chapters, when darker matters intrude on the blithe innocent California world. Another charming aspect of the novel is that the characters' pets play a role in the story and are made just as vivid as their human owners. (I can't easily think of another novel that has such good writing about animals.) One of the pets is an iguana named Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is, of course, all the funnier in light of recent California history!

The narrator is not nearly as funny and garrulous as the narrator of Eugene Onegin, but he has a few good digressions, including the beginning of Chapter 5, where he defends his decision to write a novel in verse. He ably rises to the challenge of rhyming--OK, "Oregon" doesn't rhyme with "gone," and "merely" doesn't rhyme with "really," and some of the rhymes only work when spoken in a British accent, though presumably Seth, who grew up in India, has that kind of accent. But those are just a few mishandled rhymes in a sea of thousands of perfect ones--300 pages, 13 chapters! Not to mention that the acknowledgments, chapter list, and author bio are written as Onegin stanzas too. (Seth made his task slightly easier by naming the main characters things like "John," "Liz," and "Phil"--one-syllable names that rhyme with some of the most frequently used words in our language.)

Highly recommended for anyone who is fascinated by rhyme and structure and "constrained writing"; people who want to be exposed to a different sort of contemporary poetry than that which we usually encounter (this book flatters your intelligence, rather than making you feel stupid for "not getting it," as some of the more oblique poetry these days does); and of course any proud citizens of the Bay Area!

No comments: