Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Hari Kunzru's "Magda Mandela"

A friend told me she had recently watched the miniseries, “The Corner” – a show created by the minds behind HBO’s irreplaceable “The Wire.” Unlike “The Wire’s” panoramic vision of Baltimore’s slow demise, she said “The Corner” focused strictly on the tragic lives of the crying, pleading, drugging, drinking, and fading away citizens of the streets. She said the show was like watching someone starve himself. Literature often looks to the extremes of poverty for material, and undoubtedly there is plenty of tragedy among the poor, but what about all the fun? Several noteworthy literary writers have used the eccentrics of the fringe of society to make art; let’s call this process the literarazation of the ‘ghetto’, and within these horizons of expectations, Hari Kunzru’s “Magda Mandela” stands out because it dares to have a little fun. One of the tropes used in “Magda Mandela” is Magda’s monumental voice; however the tone and form of the story more resembles a stand-up comedian’s routine – not simply because the story is funny, which it is, but because the story’s slippery point of view and ironic shifts mimic the great comics of past.

The comic’s ability to shift identities is imitated through the story’s alternating perspective. Sometimes, the reader follows the neighbors, who “come to [their] windows to twitch the net curtains and face the awe-inspiring truth that is Magda in her lime-green thong.” At this point, the reader is following the narrator, Magda’s neighbors, and seeing her from their perspective; adapting their condescension towards her as well. Another case in point is when the narrator asserts: “Magda must be excused her foibles, because she is wrestling with the great question of her life: old man or young man?”

Other times, the story changes persective,coming so close to Magda the reader feels aligned with her. The cops suggest she follow them to the hospital, for example, and Magda “met this suggestion with the scorn it deserves. She knows that she outnumbers these fools. YOU KNOW ME, she says. Then with a sinister leer, AND I KNOW YOU.” Here, the story has adjusted its vision, and the reader identifies with Magda’s ridicule of the cops. Yet, Magda’s ridicule lands most heavily on her neighbors, i.e. the narrator, i.e. the New Yorker readers. The reader is told, “sometimes she is unhappy, and then she will tell us, I am dying, my neighbors. You don’t love me. I am dying, and you don’t even know. I love you, but I don’t give a fuck about you. Go now.”

This perspective equivocation works like multiple voices used by comics. During one of Richard Pryor’s more remarkable routines, he performs a conversation between a previously drug-addicted version of himself and Crack, whose milky white voice soothes the frantic Pryor back into his arms. A great comic knows his voice, the way it modulates, inserts irony, slows, and stops, creates the momentum of the jokes. How does a writer capture this modulation? I was all ready to rail against Hari’s profusion of capitalized letters, but I realized in the middle of one joke, this was his answer. The capital-letters jump at the reader like Chris Rock’s voice. One moment of Rockian pace and inflection: “Wake up, my neighbors, she will often command. Wake up and listen. Tonight I love you. I love you, my neighbors. I am filled with love. But you do not love me, so I say to you this: I DON’T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT YOU.”

I’m sorry; I am still laughing at that line. The pace of that joke works so well. Sometimes, a writer can create a character with a voice so distinct, the reader feels it must belong to a real person. Magda's voice accomplishes this. The way she irreverently flips between hippie-like lulls ad snapping anger works like an improvised fugue on love, know, and fuck you -- one that could only belong to a person. Another, very different type of humor is used for the brief back-story. The reader is told Errol, Magda’s old and wrinkled lover met Magda in “one of the least salubrious pubs in our little corner of East London.” Retired, Errol thinks he is about to enjoy his twilight years; meets Magda and “pottered around with a smile on his grizzled face, raffishly touching the brim of his baseball cap to us neighbors.” The comic sets up the joke by imitating an old man with a walker, bragging to his old friends about the “young gal” he met at the pub and the way she treats him. The paragraph ends with the reversal: “These days, he wears the sour expression of a man who’s been cheated at cards." The comic creates a face that visualizes this specific misery and holds it while the audience laughs.

I enjoyed this story thoroughly, but no story is perfect. No matter how well-structured, humorous, dramatic, or enigmatic, stories fail because they seek truth, and this abstraction is perhaps the most subjective of our notions. Thus, my criticism of this last paragraph is MY criticism of its truth. For me, this end endorses a sentimental mendacity about Magda that is untrue to the story. The neighbors say “our problem is that we are faithless. Our problem is that we are stupid. Or problem is that we just don’t listen.” Magda is part impoverished psyche, part schizophrenic, part humanitarian, and her openness to the world, her clever assertiveness, is admirable. But she’s no soothsayer. Religious language permeates throughout the story, but to say it is about faith isn’t true. What does Madga have faith in? Her song? The reader feels Madga’s uniqueness and humanity in the story’s sinew and already knows the neighbors’ weakness, but to say they are faithless simplifies the story. Their feelings, like Magda’s persona, are much more elusive than this epiphany. This end seems to buy the same native savage, holy fool archetype it has rejected, while also uncovering and reducing the story’s subtext. Not my preference; I think a good comic never completely breaks character.


Anonymous said...

hey, what's going on? i want to hear what you think of t cooper.

A. Colom said...

Apologizes are in order. Last week, I had begun a short story of my own and couldn’t escape from its grasp long enough to write a response to T. Cooper’s “Swimming”. I did read the story, however, and was excited to see a story explore the trend of expatriate European and American men flocking to third world Asian countries in search of godliness in the face of immense poverty. I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment too much on the story because I read it only once, but my small thoughts were that I liked how the story explored the moral muddiness and guilt of sexual globalization, but thought the metaphor of the main character swimming and the drama of the sick baby were dull. Neither elucidated the character’s emotions, which were veiled by his blithe exterior; thus I felt blocked from the essence of the story. In the end, I didn’t know where to find the heart of its matter.