Monday, December 7, 2009

Sumanth Prabhaker

Sumanth Prabhaker is the founding editor of Madras Press, a non-profit imprint that publishes individually bound short story- and novella-length booklets and distributes the proceeds to a network of charitable organizations selected by its authors.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished Underground, Haruki Murakami’s exploration of the 1995 Tokyo gas attack. It was the only English-language book of his I hadn’t yet read, so I probably came to it with certain expectations; readers familiar with his work know enough to look out for cats and disappearing women and vertical movement and so many other things that seem to occupy his brain. And the event at the heart of the book does hold some things in common with his fiction — a world beneath the surface, the struggle to understand how to behave in the aftermath of a mysterious event. Even the images are comfortable within his library, especially that of the masked cult members releasing their zipper-lock packets of liquid sarin onto the floors of the subway cars, wrapped in newspapers, and poking at them repeatedly with the sharpened tips of umbrellas. But Underground ends up accomplishing something very different than any of Murakami’s other books, in part due to the inclusion of himself as a character in the story. I’m sure he’d hate to hear this, because the focus of the book is very clearly on the victims, survivors, and perpetrators of the attack; my attention, however, was on him, and on parsing his attempt to get to the bottom of why this event took place and what it means and how it has affected the surrounding culture. Possibly even more fascinating than the recollections of the relevant parties are Murakami’s mini-profiles of the interviewees, which he includes before each new section. About one person he says, ‘Just to look at him is to see the very model of a good citizen.’ He describes another person as ‘a useful member of society,’ and goes out of his way to note that one interviewee’s ‘tall, silent husband thoughtfully left the room for the interview.’ Over the course of the book, these little bits of generosity create a sort of moral imperative, and reveal the sincerity and courteousness and profound politeness to his approach to character, and to his placement of basic ethics as the thing that keeps you rooted in the world.

Before that I read the wonderful and totally baffling graphic novel The Squirrel Machine, by Hans Rickheit, which is about two brothers who scavenge scrap metal and the limbs of dead animals and create of them a series of ornate musical machines. Driven away by the scorn of their unappreciative peers, the brothers seclude in an expansive underworld hidden in the depths of their mother’s Victorian home, where they exhibit their creations to an ambiguous audience. It's a lovely and very memorable book, but my attempts at describing the feelings it elicits have all been metaphorical and kind of meaningless, so far — it’s like looking out the window of an airplane, or like being alone in a dark museum, or like something at the bottom of a large body of water.

Before that I re-read William Vollmann’s The Royal Family, the last of his fictional studies of street prostitution. What interested me about it this time was how insistent the narrative is on incrementally lowering the main character’s social class (which wasn’t so high to begin with); it’s a huge novel, one that must have taken a lot of time to write, and I like to think of someone devoting himself to such an unusual project for so long. Lower and lower Henry Tyler goes, until those around him who haven’t died or gone to prison appear as giants in stature, and when there finally seems to be nowhere left for him to descend to, the narrative abruptly stops. I love how committed Vollmann can be to his agenda, regardless of what it does to any sense of traditional momentum or development in the storyline, and maybe even more than that I love his facility with prose and his startling imagery and the importance he assigns these things. One of my favorite moments in the novel comes early on, interrupting a conversation between two characters: There’s a paragraph break, and the parenthetical description, 'Her eyes were the shadows behind fences,' and then the dialogue resumes. It makes me happy to know that there are writers so willing to put everything else on hold when a thought like that comes to them.
Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance transcribes a long telephone conversation between a young woman stranded in India and her older boss and partner across the world. As she relates to him the story of a metaphysical experience she endured, trapped beneath a fallen armoire in a strange hotel, their relationship becomes a creature all its own, beyond their control. And as it moves, they speak only to the traveling voice of each other, driven by the possibility of connecting wires, and the melancholy of inhabiting a body.

Read more about Sumanth Prabhaker’s work at the Madras Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue