A Flawed Masterpiece

A Suitable Boy
By Vikram Seth
British edition, 1474 pp.

When I told my mother I was reading Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, the first thing she said was "Vikram Seth? Isn’t he that pretentious guy who wrote a whole novel in iambic pentameter?" Although my mother was slightly mistaken - The Golden Gate was actually written in tetrameter - she has a point about Seth’s pretentiousness.

I suppose it takes a man of no small pretentions to write, and beyond that actually get printed, what is purportedly the longest novel ever published in the English language. Not only do you have to overcome the dependable aversion of publishers to anything longer than a novella, but you also have to convince yourself that people are actually going to like your work enough to suffer through it for 1500 pages. Somehow, I doubt that Seth worried too much about that. And to think, they say he cut another 600 pages!

I further suppose that it would be difficult to write so long a novel without leaving large chunks of yourself littered across its wordscapes. Seth certainly does so. In a strange way, after reading this book, I feel I know Mr. Seth personally. His knowledge of India is as vast as the Ganga, his settings are vivid, and his characters are remarkably alive but it is his sense of his own genius that is most palpable of all. In everything from his incessant wordplay, his clear disdain for Tagore, his ventriloquistic analysis of his own ventriloquized poetry, his constant literary name-dropping, and even his use of the most overpowering authorial voice — third person full omniscient — Seth himself dominates his novel like a Lord from on high. And why exactly was the table of contents a series of rhymed iambic couplets? Just couldn’t help himself, I can only surmise. As riveting as this book was, Seth never let me forget for longer than a chapter or so that I was reading a novel, because somehow he would intrude himself into the fabric of the world he has created. It is a tribute to the magic of the book that I regretted these jolting intrusions as keenly as I did.

If Seth indeed has an inflated sense of his talent, his is not far wrong in his self-assessment. Seth is some kind of genius. A Suitable Boy is brilliant. I couldn’t put it down. It made me think about life, the universe, and everything. More than once. It made me want to run out write more poetry and read more books and dream up more fiction. But in the end the work is flawed, marred, if ever so slightly, by Seth’s reflexive showmanship instinct, his flailing flair for flash.

And slightly more so by Seth’s descent into his novel like a latter-day avatar of Vishnu. One of the characters is undeniably Seth’s personal analogue. His history mirrors Seth’s, his dialogue is the most direct and least forced, his awkwardnesses are uncomfortably real, and his inner thoughts are the most deeply shrouded of any character. We as readers feel Seth lurking much more closely behind that mask than any of the others. Which character Seth ultimately gives his dream girl away to matters not. We the readers somehow know who the Suitable Boy should have been at the end, even though by rights we shouldn’t be so sure. This tainted masterwork deserved a more ambiguous ending.

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