It has been said that in order to see the world scientifically, or at least with a heightened degree of clarity, it is necessary to abandon all preconceptions and see things as they are. A scientist must have the eyes of a child. Only through an adolescent’s unclouded vision can everyday events be seen for what they really are - acts of wonder that the rest of us have become unaware of, either by overexposure or the sensory filters of age.
It has also been said that the greatest scientific experiment of all time is life itself. We are constantly being pushed to an emotional breaking point, relying on sheer willpower or old-fashioned bloody-mindedness to see ourselves through. It is an experiment conducted in a laboratory of unprecedented scale, a scale so large that, taking the divine out of the equation, there’s no one outside to observe the results.
The only passably objective observers to this intergalactic petrie dish are those devoid of responsibility or history. Responsibility puts cause and effect, desire and gain on a sliding scale. Things don’t exist for themselves when viewed through a set of priorities. History does the same thing with fear. One bad encounter with a black dog will forever mar them in your mind, regardless of the first being a doberman and the second a miniature poodle.
Children are the visionaries. It is children who see what’s really there and what’s not, bouncing back and forth from reality to imagination as they please. They are only physically rooted in this world - in every other respect they live in a world of careless imaginings, completely and utterly consequence free.
And so goes Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things.” The plot revolves around the circumstances and its consequences of a little girl’s accidental death, but to restrict an analysis to plot alone would be a severe disservice. As tightly written as it is, the plot merely serves as a vehicle to propel Roy’s phenomenal use of language.
The work is narrated by a pair of fraternal twins who have a singular identity greater than either of their individual selves - one plus one adds up to a potent singular identity. Their conception of time is particularly odd - we are told what is going to eventually happen in chapter one and the details unfold themselves a little bit at a time.
These children are otherworldly in their innocence. They have no concept of death, of pain, of tomorrow even. Sophie Mol’s funeral, the event that should, by all rights, be the climax, opens the book instead; most of the story is told as a flashback within a flashback, an older twin thinking about what it's like to remember Sophie instead of being with her. That’s a wonderful effect; what it essentially allows is for Roy to completely abandon a linear universe for the sake of dramatic flow, bringing in the older twins when things need a little slowing down. The flow of time can be taken for granted from day to day, but time coupled with memory distorts and twists the past into unrecognizable and sometimes frightening shapes. We know Sophie dies but have only a vague idea as to who she is. The actual narrative, the goings-on that make the reader want to turn the page, occur in the twins’ head.
Their reactions to their world is what puts one literary foot in front of another. They speak in a language that their elders don’t understand, not because of grammar but because of context. The opening theme to “Popeye the Sailor Man,” after being heard once, pops up all over the place because they think of something that reminds them of the song’s meter. The twin’s mother teaches a lesson by telling them she loves them less every time they embarrass her and it sticks with them for the rest of their lives. The twins’ young reality, the reality of their minds, is somewhere for them to escape to, a game with no rules. They imagine bats flying up dresses and Sophie turning cartwheels in her coffin. They imagine her asleep until she finally wakes up six feet underground.
The twins also manage to possess a weary intellectualism common to most youngsters. Admit it - you used to think you knew everything and new information, when forced, was ignored as dull or pointless. The truth held no interest but the trivia remained. The trivia became truth and the truth took a running jump, replaced with a more interesting truth.
Roy’s most accomplished feat was crafting her narrative voice in such a convincing fashion. The way she captures the twins thoughts is pinpoint accurate - events that should change their lives are missed or misinterpreted while offhand gestures rock the foundations of their world. Repetition, alliteration, songs and onomatopoeia litter the story. Her feat is so amazingly well done, in fact, that the only way one knows it’s there at all is when, two-hundred pages in, it suddenly stops for a chapter. When the pivotal plot point is revealed, the style jarringly drops to a cold, dispassionate, unadorned narrative, telling the story of Sophie's demise from an adult's perspective. That chapter brings everything before it into sharp focus, much like graphite dust will show the hidden lines on paper.
The events of this novel are horrible things for a child to go through - violence, divorce, death and remorse. And yet Roy handles this with complete confidence, writing in a style all her own with an interestingly eclectic array of influences - part James Joyce, part Kurt Vonnegut and part Gertrude Stein. She, like they, is a social reformer and a revolutionary, attempting to break down people’s preconceptions through one of the most powerful literary and scientific devices out there - the naiveté of a child.