The Tusk That Did The Damage. By Tania James. New York, NY: Knopf, 2015. 240 pp. $24.95.
Now We Will Be Happy. By Amina Gautier. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 140 pp. $16.95.
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One of the most exciting freedoms that literary fiction offers is the elbow room to blend or hop genres in a single work. David Mitchell comes to mind as an author who seamlessly integrates the historical, contemporary, and speculative. To genre-blend is a skill. The writer must win the trust of the reader several times over—for each genre attempted—and then one final time for the entirety of the work, which must cohere and address the author’s thematic concerns. In Cloud Atlas, for instance, Mitchell’s statement about the connectedness of human nature across epochs and geographies is first and foremost what we remember about the novel. The adventures in the nineteenth century and the post-apocalypse are instruments that amplify this overarching theme.
In The Tusk That Did The Damage, Tania James attempts a similar genre-blending high-wire act. Set in South India, the novel is at once a fable, a behind-the-scenes look into the world of elephant poaching, and a love triangle between Western do-gooders abroad. What could be three separate and compelling novels are woven together with great skill. The book hits all its marks, and yet leaves you wanting more, curious about the vast trove of untold stories left beyond its lean 225 pages.
The novel alternates between chapters simply titled “The Elephant,” “The Poacher,” and “The Filmmaker.” James’s rendering of the point of view of an orphaned elephant named the Gravedigger is the book’s rarest jewel. Few contemporary authors have used an animal’s perspective outside the world of children’s fiction. The Gravedigger’s voice is closely observed but doesn’t pander to “human-centric assumptions of animal consciousness.” In this riveting and lyrical passage, I felt immense empathy for this captive and abused animal.
The pappan stabbed the Gravedigger’s leg. Pain blazed up his flank, hot and stunning.
The same pain shocked him where the skin was most tender, behind the ear and under his tail, then his side, and his belly. There was no room between one pain and the next, no time to let the hurt breathe, only pain and pain again while the pappan barked nonsense, the aroma of liquor and sourness pouring off his skin. The Gravedigger shrank from the pappan, growing smaller and smaller until he was but a calf again, trying to hide from the hands that were yanking him from his mother’s side. Forever on it went, that blur of barking and stabbing until, at last, the Gravedigger smelled hope blooming up from the darkness.
James’s best writing is on display in the Elephant chapters, while the Poacher chapters are the most dramatically compelling. The reader is transported inside the lives of a rice farming family slowly drawn into the lucrative but dangerous business of animal poaching. The love triangle that develops between Jayan, his wife Leela, and his younger brother Manu has all the elements of a great romantic tragedy. When Jayan is sent to prison for four years, Manu must resist his desire for the beautiful but mysterious Leela and remain loyal to his brother in order to hold his family together, a family about which he feels quite ambivalent:
Indeed I had imagined a fatherless life. Wouldn’t you, if you watched your father day by day destroy your mother and drink away your land, wouldn’t you once or twice imagine him resting in peace so you could honor what good memory of him remained and preserve what land and love were left?
In the lines above, Manu’s voice is loose, heartfelt, and at its most authentic. Occasionally James’s prose wears its literary influences too proudly, as Manu narrates out-of-character lines like: “There went my friend, my boyhood entire,” as if he were a lifelong reader of Cormac McCarthy. But Manu, a young man trying to remain principled, is the human character that readers will likely empathize with most.
The Filmmaker chapters are the least compelling. Emma and Teddy are young Americans working on a documentary about Ravi, a British-Indian veterinarian stuck between the elephant population he cares for and the Indian government’s industrial aspirations. When Emma falls for Ravi instead of her college friend Teddy, the stakes of this second love triangle seem lightweight in comparison to Manu versus Jayan. I was thirsty for more of Ravi’s backstory, as well as deeper and more frequent explorations into the Indian bureaucracy responsible for protecting endangered wildlife.
The Tusk That Did The Damage left me wondering whether each of the blended genres would have been more compelling on its own. I imagined a 200 page fable about the life of an elephant. A 400 page searing exposé into the socioeconomic conditions and the filial and cultural dynamics that drive rice farmers to become criminal poachers. A 300 page love triangle between Westerners working in a foreign land complicated by government corruption. Even though I was frequently excited to be transported to these far-flung corners of South India, I felt like I’d seen a ninety-minute version of three loosely connected, full-length features. This feeling made me question whether the author had successfully articulated a coherent statement about humanity’s role as both protector and destroyer of the wild. I simply wanted more of each storyline, and that reaction was an indication of both the novel’s success and failure.
Amina Gautier’s award-winning collection Now We Will Be Happy also mixes story types to illuminate the nowhereness of the Puerto Rican American experience. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans who migrate to the mainland exist in a foggy neutral zone between ocean-crossing immigrant and native American. Gautier’s characters have modest dreams: to open a bodega, to serve in the Armed Forces, to find an estranged family member. When the stories are fully realized, the reader is reminded of the depth of pleasures that can be enjoyed from a story that stretches a single genre to its limits. In “How to Make Flan,” one is reminded of movies that use food as a metaphor for cross-generational connection, like Eat Drink Man Woman and Tortilla Soup. A granddaughter is asked by her hospitalized grandmother to make flan to assuage her fear of death. “Men and women divorce, not families,” the grandmother says, voicing a theme of the collection. There are no broken families in Gautier’s world, just broken relationships. All separations between an island and the mainland are just temporary. The collection touches upon universal truths about the right of return and what is permanently lost in the act of migration. In the story “The Last Hurricane,” a second-person narrator drops the truth about Puerto Rican emigrés on the eve of a storm of Biblical intensity:
. . . they really don’t care and they don’t know anything about being a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico anymore. When it is too cold on the mainland, they take paid vacations to fly over. They spend their money in the mall in Isla Verdes, buying clothing that is too tight for them, buying makeup that is now too dark for their wintry-pale Americano faces. They ask you to go to the cinema with them and you sit there in the theater in San Juan, watching movies in English with Spanish subtitles, wondering if the very irony of the situation escapes them . . .
Like James, Gautier explores different perspectives using genres that, on the surface, seem separate. The title story of the collection is about an extramarital affair. “The Luckiest Man in the World” is told from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy. While The Tusk That Did The Damage is more technically inventive, Gautier’s persistent thematic explorations into the meaning of family and identity make Now We Will Be Happy cohere and resonate in ways that you’ll remember long after the final page.