The beautiful lie
is the perfect name
(Note: since I wrote this reflection, Arundhati Roy has in fact finished and published her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which, although I wolfed it down in a few sittings and did like it, does not, in my not so very humble opinion, stand up well against The God of Small Things).
Not long ago, I began re-reading Arundhati Roy’s masterpiece The God of Small Things, and as I—even before turning the first page—fell through the lettered terrain of her amazing prose to land squarely in the heat of Kerala with its bursting jackfruits and dissolute bluebottles, I could not help but wonder: Why on earth has she not written a second work of fiction?
Roy’s 1997 debut novel earned her not only uniform acclaim but also the Booker Prize, as good a sign as any that she had, indeed, arrived as a writer of great fiction—the Booker Prize, in my view, is just a small step down from the Nobel Prize, if that.
This novel went on to sell over six million copies world-wide, and is possibly how most of us still think of her—as “the wonderful author of.”
But after that, since 1997, nothing. Nothing but non-fiction that is. Well, Arundhati Roy does not think of non-fiction as “nothing,” of course. Writing non-fiction has for her become a tense and urgent business, she just has to get it out. “It’s like the body doesn’t have room for its organs,” she said in a recent interview with the Guardian.
So, instead of another work of fiction she has directed her considerable talents and energies towards political activism, which over the years has seen her in and out of trouble with both the public and her peers, as well as with the law, and with the Indian powers that be. While these energies have produced a host of essays and polemic tracts, to me—no matter how well-written—they do not tell the whole truth.
And that is my point: Many writers, readers, and critics agree that good fiction is, in fact, the lie that tells the truth—And Roy’s fiction is very, very good.
Some (and I count myself among them) take an additional step and hold the truth told by fiction as a truth deeper or higher than (depending on viewpoint) the truth told by non-fiction: Fiction tells a truth both more personal and more universal—a deep truth that cannot be told any other way. Whey then, did Roy turn away from this deeper truth to pursue her surface warfare of polemics?
I just don’t know, but I lament that she did fact.
Now, she is apparently working on a second novel, but at a pace that makes Donna Tartt appear to rush things.
In the recent Guardian interview, she also confided, “I have been working on it for quite a few years. If those characters are still hanging around in my house, swinging their legs and smoking their cigarette butts, they’re not going to go away, so there must be something there.”
She also says that she is a different person altogether when writing fiction, which, she says, she can relax into. “I don’t mean because it’s easy to write but I trust its rhythms and I don’t have to get it out there. There’s no urgency. It’s like cooking, it takes its time. I rather like the idea of just living inside it and not coming out of it.”
Well, precisely. So why doesn’t she simply connect the dots? Why doesn’t she return to and tell her larger truth?
She is certainly immensely capable of it.