One of the curses of fame in the age of mechanical reproduction is the way it renders the strange ubiquitous, the sublime habitual. There is the first time you hear “Born to Run,” and there is the umpteenth, and by the time you get to the guy drunkenly karaokeing it at 2 a.m. in Koreatown (rock on, Dave!) it’s kind of hard to remember the first time, when it still felt holy. I guess that’s called growing up, but still…
Notwithstanding his philosophical apprehensions about fame and adulthood, American style, J.D. Salinger could not quite escape this fate. It is difficult to remember, given his prominence on high school syllabi, that he was once ardently debated by college professors. It is hard to appreciate fully, now that Catcher in the Rye is a line in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the recklessness of Holden Caulfield’s address to the reader. After Life of Pi and The Mezzanine and Oblivion, the profound strangeness of Franny Glass’ religious epiphany and of Zooey’s endless bath and of Buddy’s recursive later mode start to seem ordinary. And it is hard to disentangle the heart-stopping endings of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor” from the clichés they would become. Esmé, recall, used to be an unusual name. So, come to think of it, did Zooey.
It is likely that Salinger, who like some keen but troubled falcon increasingly homed in on quarries too large for language – holiness, perfect truth – would have seen the domestication of his fiction as a defeat. I’d like to propose, however, on the occasion of his death at age 91, that it was a victory. It afforded him the leverage to shift, as few others have, the center of American literature. His candid introspection would liberate subsequent generations of storytellers (for better and sometimes for worse) to tackle without fear the personal, the intimate, and even the juvenile. Goodybe to the manly r-r-reticence of Hemingway. So long, even, to the social.
That, in a reduced form, is the what of Salinger’s career. Harder to talk about is the how. With each book, he drew closer to the vanishing point where candor and artifice, earnestness and irony, “literally” and literally, become indistinguishable from each other. After his last published stories, “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Hapworth 16, 1924,” (made available to subscribers in the New Yorker archive) he vanished beyond it. No one seemed able to agree on what to make of them, or of the silence that followed. Was he serious?
It is possible that further work will be unearthed posthumously. And I suppose, if we’re going to get to see The Pale King and Three Days Before the Shooting, we might as well see what Salinger left behind, in some similarly respectful edition. But the best place to start revisiting the Salinger canon – a body of work as perfect as any American has produced – may be those two final stories, those five a.m., all-stars-out productions. Their strangeness reminds us of just what distances this writer was willing to travel in pursuit of his truths.
It may also remind us afresh of how far, in the earlier works, he got. Though it has been talked about as the greatest vanishing act in the history of American letters, Jerome David Salinger’s career also turns out to be one of the major triumphs. He had something to say, he said it – beautifully – and when he couldn’t say it anymore, he stopped. Charming? Yes. Adolescent? Sometimes. But boy, reader, was he serious.
Borges tells us of a civilization where cartographers produced the perfect map: one “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” In the next breath, he concedes that this map was useless. Though Borges titles his tale “On Exactitude in Science,” it might serve as a parable for the novelist. One sets out to document a time, a place, a series of events… but even a single escalator ride (as Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine has shown us) can take up 50,000 words. It turns out that the novel, that capacious canvas, demands selection. Compression. Let this protagonist stand in for an army. Let this page break signify the passage of years.In his new novel, Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra sets out to map contemporary Bombay, and despite his many achievements, the novel threatens to become as boundless and ungovernable as the city itself. I don’t mean that Sacred Games is too long; I’d happily sit through another 900 pages of Chandra’s balanced prose, provided that each paragraph felt necessary. But if the same conversation occurs three times in the course of Chandra’s novel, he feels duty-bound to report each exchange. If a peripheral character has been scarred by the Partition that occurred 50 years ago this month, Chandra insists on telling us how. If a character takes a notion to cruise penis-enhancement websites, we get a list of URLs.The set-up is promising: Inspector Sartaj Singh, a sartorially adept member of the Bombay police force, is tipped off to the whereabouts of gang leader Ganesh Gaitonde. Gaitonde eludes capture in the style of a Roman senator – packing himself off to that great hoosegow in the sky – but the circumstances of his death disclose a plot that dwarfs any of his previous crimes. In alternating chapters, Sartaj races against the clock to thwart the conspiracy, and Gaitonde narrates, from beyond the grave, his own rise to (and fall from) power.Its potboiler conventions lend Sacred Games a measure of glitter, but it’s as an anthropological investigation that the novel strikes gold. The novel’s linguistic curry, spiced with Hindi and Urdu slang, delivers a taste of the polyphonic vitality of Bombay. A few vividly rendered locations – Chowpatty Beach and seedy Indian restaurants and a Sikh temple – evoke the entirety of Sartaj Singh’s world. (One senses always the teeming masses in the background.) And the various sectarian fault-lines of present-day India are fully, fictionally realized: not only does the author see them, he evaluates them. He instructs, as well as entertains.Likewise, Chandra excels at procedural detail. He depicts the corruption and brutality of Bombay police-work with a journalist’s eye for minutiae. If Sartaj Singh begins the book as a cipher, time chips away at the uneasy peace he’s made with the demands of his job. Eventually, we see him longing, underneath, for something better. Here is Sartaj contemplating a bomb-scare:”He was at his desk, in his dingy little office with the weathered benches and untidy shelves. Kamble was hunched over a report. Two constables were laughing in the corridor outside. There was a little pool of sunlight from a window, and a pair of hopping little sparrows on the sill. And all of it was dreamlike, as gauzy as the wafting of early morning. If you let yourself believe in that other monstrous thing, even a little, then this ordinary world of bribes and divorces and electricity bills vanished a little.”This last clause, cascading from the immoral to the amoral, suspends Sartaj between detachment and attachment. Detachment, attachment: isn’t this the dialectic that keeps our great cities alive?Gaitonde’s character moves in the opposite direction. As an outlaw, he begins the book with a certain charismatic capital, but the repetitiveness of his megalomania – “Ganesh Gaitonde Makes a Film”; “Ganesh Gaitonde is Recruited”; “Ganesh Gaitonde is Recruited Again”; Ganesh Gaitonde Gets Plastic Surgery – depletes our interest. And here the novel’s more-is-more aesthetic runs up against the more-is-less principle of Borgesian cartography.Pankaj Mishra, similarly vexed by Gaitonde, has pointed to Chandra’s ambition to transcend the bourgeois morality of the Western novel. But Chandra wants Gaitonde, like Hannibal Lecter, to interest us precisely because he’s bad. And Hannibal was more engaging on celluloid than on the page. Gaitonde starts out round, but ends up as two-dimensional as a movie poster. It’s a shame, too, as Chandra can invest a supporting character like Sartaj’s partner, Kartekar or his boss, Parulkar, with real weight. And in the case of Sartaj’s mother (the focus of one of the book’s four historical “insets,” or novella-length digressions), he can bring a character fully to life.Those insets, indeed, contain some of Sacred Games’ strongest writing. But they read like aborted novels, tangential to this one. Against the fine descriptions and effortless historical significance of an inset such as “The Great Game,” the Gaitonde-Sartaj plotline devolves into lunacy: nuclear terrorism, international espionage, and an evil-criminal-genius-cum-Vedic-guru. Chandra wants to license this “filminess” by appealing to the kitchen-sink aesthetic of Bollywood, but he fails to master the requirements of genre fiction, which are, in their own way, as demanding as those of realism. The palpable tension and richness of Sartaj’s quotidian life dissolve just as they should be deepening.Ultimately, Sacred Games comes off as a very serious book and a very silly one glued on to the same spine. This may well be part of Chandra’s program. But inclusiveness doesn’t always deepen our engagement in a fictional world. Sometimes, it can enforce a curious distance from it. Craving immersion in a perspective, we instead find ourselves standing outside a teeming flatness, unsure where we’re supposed to look.Notwithstanding Chandra’s debt to the realist doorstops of Dickens and Thackeray, the dissolution of point-of-view is (arguably like Bombay itself) a postmodern phenomenon. And perhaps in its Dhamaka plot, its refusal to reconcile the filmi and the literary, and its overwhelming expansiveness, Sacred Games corresponds more exactly to the city Chandra loves than a shapely narrative could. Still, fiction is no science. It is the art of illusion – useful illusion – and I look for this gifted writer, in his next novel, to focus his impressive energies toward some brighter (if not bigger) bang.