The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Like many short story collections, Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac discretely announces its form with the subtle label “Stories” in small type underneath the title on the cover. For those who read back cover blurbs, the first hint that this is a collection with a difference comes from Joyce Carol Oates’ comment (“a novel in short-story form, warmly intimate, startling in its quick jumps and revelations”) and publisher Biblioasis’ own contribution of “an Indo-American Canterbury Tales”. A look at the Contents page underlines this impression: “These stories are intended to be read in order”, it says before listing the 11 stories.

I count myself an advocate of short stories, but admit that “linked” collections strike my fancy even more than conventional ones. Some linked collections, such as Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock, are historical — her exploration of her family history starts in 18th century Scotland and concludes with Munro contemplating her own mortality. Others, such as Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, use a single individual and community as the common thread to link the stories.

I have just cited some truly exceptional story collections (Pulitzer winners? Chaucer? Yup) in introducing this review of The Meagre Tarmac and it is done deliberately — this impressive volume is fully up to being compared to those classics. The nature of the “link” is much different than Munro, Anderson or Strout (the Canterbury Tales is perhaps closest, but even that is a stretch) but I agree with Oates that it produces a book that is every bit as much “novel” as it is “collection” — and an important novel at that.

Blaise’s linking thread in the 11 stories is the experience of five first-generation Indo-Americans and he develops it by telling his stories in “sets” (four pairs and one trio), which is why they need to be read in order. In each “set”, the first story explores the “success” of his characters in North America (these are not stereotypical struggling immigrants), the following ones delve much deeper into the longing and compassion each feels for the India that was left behind and the continuing need to have an impact there for that “success” to have meaning. I’ll sketch out a couple of the sets to give an indication of how he does this.

Blaise is Canadian but lives (mainly) in San Francisco, which means that he knows well the impact that Silicon Valley has had on modern America — and the contribution Indo-Americans have made to that impact. The opening story, “The Sociology of Love”, introduces Dr. Vivek Waldekar, a nanotechnology expert, as he is being interviewed by Anya, “a monstrously tall girl from Stanford”, herself a Russian immigrant, who is allegedly doing a sociology project on “adjustment and assimilation” and whose interest is the way that South Asians “lack the demographic residential densities of other Asians, or of Hispanics. We are sociological anomalies.”

The following are my answers to her early questions: We have been in San Jose nearly eight years. I am an American citizen, which is the reason I feel safe answering questions that could be interpreted by more recent immigrants as intrusive. We have been married twenty years, with two children. Our daughter Pramila was born in Stanford University Hospital. Our son Jay was both in JJ Hospital, Bombay, seventeen years ago. When he was born I was already in California, finishing my degree and then finding a job and a house. My parents have passed away; I have an older brother, and several cousins in India, as well as Canada and the U.S. My graduate work took four years, during which I did not see Krithika [his wife] or my son. Jay and Krithika are still Indian citizens, although my wife holds the Green Card and works as a special assistant in Stanford Medical School Library. She will keep her Indian citizenship in the event of inheritance issues in India.

That final phrase introduces a sense of some of the personal issues that are part of the diaspora; Blaise carefully unfolds more in the next few pages. Anya’s “academic” project has a very personal agenda. Her boyfriend is Mukesh “Mike” Mahulkar, a friend of Dr. Waldekar’s son, who is headed for a lucrative professional tennis career:

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “That was inexcusable. You must think I came under false pretenses. Mike’s getting married in Mumbai in three weeks. It’s very hard, to be told, without warning, without explanation, that you’re just…unworthy.”

By all outward signs, the immigrants have adapted — but some things (like arranged marriages that are an historic part of the culture) just don’t go away. Anya’s admission provokes some introspective guilt from Dr. Waldekar:

I could not go home for my father’s funeral. I did not see my son until he was four years old and had already bonded with my wife’s family. I think he still treats me like an intruder. So does my wife. It has pained me all these years that I permitted my studies and other activities to take precedence over family obligations. I have been trying to atone for my indiscretions all these years.

Those indiscretions are at the centre of the second story, “In Her Prime”. The narrative character here is 12-year-old Pramila and we already know part of her parent’s version of her future from the first story: “We will not encourage Pramila to date. In fact, we will not permit it until she is finished with college.” Unfortunately for the Waldekars, we discover in this story that the filly has already escaped the barn — the pre-teen is having an affair with Borya, her figure-skating coach. She knows that kind of sordid behavior is typical of the child-abusing Borya and that she will soon be dumped for her even younger skating friend, Tiffy Hu, but it is from that experience that she looks back on family history and draws some conclusions:

I think I know what it was, back in that rented house in Palo Alto when my father and Al Wong and the Parsi guy were Stanford students and my mother and the baby Beast were still in India. Al knows, Mitzi [Al's wife -- the couple are the Waldekars only close friends] knows, my mother knows. He wants to go back to India because someone from his past, a woman perhaps, has suddenly come back. Some long shadow of shame has shaped our lives. It’s about him, not me, though I’m the one who will pay the price.

The tensions of the immigrant extend to the next generation. The Waldekar’s are the trio set and the third story, “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real”, is told from Krithika’s point of view (her husband is back in India) — I’ll leave it to you to discover what she thinks.

Blaise explores another version of dislocation in the stories featuring Cyrus Chutneywalla of Baroda, Gujarat –”called Chutt by his Indian friends and Chuck by his colleagues at the Mellon Bank”. We meet him at The Factory Tavern in Andy Warhol Square in Pittsburgh where he is waiting for his “Wharton batch-mate”, Ramesh. Chutt/Chuck is brilliant at finance although a Wharton scandal (his “girl-friend” stole his ideas and he reported her) means that he is stuck in the backwater of Pittsburgh while his schoolmates are Wall Street successes.

Chutt is thirty four and unmarried — he also has siblings around the world (Germany and India for starters). Chutt is also Parsi, one of only 50,000 still left:

His old teacher, David Solomon, said the Parsis are the real Jews of India: a dwindling minority, huge in commerce and the professions. With so many Parsi trusts and hospitals, there are no poor Parsis.

Chutt’s doctor father has not found a Parsi match for any of his children yet and Chutt himself has already rejected eight marriage proposals from prominent Bombay Parsi families — father is threatening to head to Africa to perform free surgery to atone for his failure in properly marrying his offspring.

Blaise sets up the tension in “Waiting for Romesh” through the waitress at the tavern, Rebecca — Romesh never does show up but she picks up our hero as her “trial” boyfriend of the week and the two soon set up household in Squirrel Hill, the former Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh now being taken over by South-or-East Asian immigrants, most employed in the lucrative health industry there.

The tension is increased in the second story featuring Chutt, “Potsy and Pansy”, when an email arrives from his mother in Bombay announcing the latest marriage on offer: Pansy Batliwala, from a very good family that endowed the Dadaji Bottlewala Gardens in Bombay. Pansy is a screen actress in Canada — under the name of Darya D’Aquino — but that slip in status can be overlooked. A visit to Toronto where she is filming is suggested. As you can tell from the story title, Chutt/Chuck is about to acquire a third nickname.

The marriage tension is heightened by a new career opportunity as well. Chutt’s new boss (Ms. Harriet Mehta) is proposing a promotion to become head of Section Four (We have a Section Four? is his mental response), EAT, an Estates and Trusts division the bank is setting up in San Francisco:

“The first generation Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley aren’t getting any younger [Ms. Mehta explains]. They’ve made tons of money and they’ve invested it conservatively but they want to retire comfortably to India. They want servants and flat screens and gourmet restaurants and travel and maybe a country house and philanthropies. And they want to leave trust funds for their grandchildren. We think EAT is something we haven’t exploited.”

“Potsy and Pansy” is the ninth story in the collection and that excerpt is a precise synopsis of the over-arching diaspora thread that runs through the collection. Blaise develops it with painstaking care and I appreciated it very much since context is one of my favorite traits in reading — but I am delighted to report that, successful as it is, it is a secondary strength of this collection. The real worth of these 11 stories, and what makes them truly exceptional, is the depth of person that the author develops in his central characters, their families and the insurmountable challenges of trying to be faithful to the two incredibly different worlds in which they live and prosper. For individuals, “success” in the global economy often comes at considerable personal cost — and it is that thread that Blaise so brilliantly develops.

Clark Blaise has been a “name” in the short story world for decades — he hung out with the Mordecai Richler-Brian Moore-Hugh Hood-John Metcalf bunch in Montreal many years ago, was director of the International Writing Program at Iowa for almost a decade (that’s a holy grail in the short story world) and has been President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story since 2002. If you want to see how good the form can be — and how it can take a new direction, centuries after Chaucer — read this volume.

Obviously, I am disappointed this book did not make the Official Giller Prize shortlist — it would certainly be on mine. This review is much longer than normal for KfC (actually, the longest ever), mainly because I’d like to persuade as many people as possible to read the collection. And there is more — a few weeks ago I “gifted” a frequent commenter here, Emily Luxor, with copies of this book and Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden. Stand by for a guest review from “Emily” (and the revelation of her real identity) to be posted here tomorrow. And do buy this book.

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18 Responses to “The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise”

  1. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Wow – what a review. I will definitely add this to my reading list. And as much as I love CanLit and the short story I have never read Blaise so must address this gap! His themes here seem reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri – one of my faves.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cherine: Thanks for bringing up Lahiri’s name — I wanted to mention it in the review but it was just getting too long. She is a favorite of mine as well and you were right to pick up on the similarities. The difference is that most of her characters are second generation — Blaise’s are first. And, like you, I have not read nearly as much of Blaise as I should — another backlist to be explored for me.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    Wow x 2. Hard to ignore a review like this Kevin – and I won’t. It’s on the wishlist immediately. Sounds like a superb achievement.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I don’t think you will regret it — a master at his best as far as I am concerned.

  5. Trevor Says:

    Spectacular review, Kevin. This is still possibly my favorite of the Giller longlist (and shortlist, which I’m a half a book from finishing), and despite the time I enjoyed contemplating it this review is enlightening and invigorating, making me think it is already time to reread.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Thank you very much for the kind comment (and for those who have not seen your review, here’s a link to it). I was impressed enough on first reading that I did go back and started again immediately — read the volume in its “sets” the second time through.

    So why didn’t The Meagre Tarmac make the shortlist? This is total speculation on my part, but I cannot help but wonder if “appropriation of voice” wasn’t a factor — authors tend to be more sensitive to that than I am (and all three Real Jurors are authors). Blaise may be a Canadian, born in Fargo, N.D., writing about Indian immigrants but he is not without experience. He has been married for some decades to author Bharati Mukherjee and the pair spend time in India every year. Indeed, the reason they moved to San Francisco in 1980 was because she felt she was being “frozen out” of the Canadian literary establishment. I knew some of their history but after posting my review did discover a Toronto Star interview from earlier this year (link is here) where he speaks to the genesis of the book and the appropriation issue directly. I certainly agree with his assessment, but then I too am a Caucasian Canadian.

  7. @AkA Says:

    Marvelous review…just ordered this

    I noticed other reviewers also compare the stories here to the masterful work of Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz………

    I hope your back is feeling better!

    cheers Kevin

  8. Trevor Says:

    Hmmmm, very interesting. I did go into the book a bit skeptical, not because I have any philosophical problem with voice appropriation but because most do feel contrived. They use the stereotypical descriptors, details are dropped in like name-checks, and it comes across so false. I too am not an Indian immigrant, but I didn’t have any “that doesn’t ring true” moments with this one, and I was looking.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I thought all of his characters were very well established and had empathy for them all, so obviously it was not a problem for me. I’ll be interested in what other readers think once they have had a chance to read the book. Overall I liked the book so much that I am searching for why it did not make the final six, so maybe I am guilty of stretching things a bit.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin,

    In the second quote, is that supposed to be a 12 year old or is it the adult woman looking back? I’m assuming the latter as it doesn’t sound at all like a 12 year old’s voice. It sounds like a writer being careful to craft each sentence precisely and neatly.

    Which actually leads me to a query. All the quotes feel to me like they have essentially the same narrative voice. Is that just a function of quotes being brief and so losing nuance, or are they very similar in tone each to the other?

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: The second quote is in fact a 12-year-old — who is scheduled to be the youngest person ever to enter Stanford University the next fall (in pure mathematics, if I recall correctly). Perhaps the stretch of a device, but I didn’t find it so — the Asian academic prodigy is a more or less constant story in North American education. I maybe should have explained that in the review since that distinction is important to her and a good part of the reason she wants no part of returning to her father’s Indian roots where she would come under all the pressures of, to her, a completely foreign culture.

    As for the similarity in tone of the quotes, I think probably that is more my fault than Blaise’s. Looking over the review, I seem to have chosen all descriptive or explanatory quotes (because they advance the story line for me) and ignored more personal or nuanced ones. I didn’t have a problem with voice at all — indeed, the way they characters were fully established was the best part of the book for me.

  12. gmh Says:

    Just finished this book. I ordered it, enroute to Arizona, the day I heard your interview with Shelagh Rogers. The book was waiting for me when we arrived at our little place in the south. I completely agree that this book of connected short stories deserves the praise you have given it. I need to re-visit these character and will read it again within the next couple weeks. So glad I tuned into The Next Chapter that day because I had never heard of your blog. After listening to your conversation I became a fan and will be a new follower. Thanks. gmh

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    gmh: Welcome to the blog and I am glad that I did not mislead you on The Meagre Tarmac. I certainly found that second reading was rewarding — and I was very impressed with the book the first time through.

  14. Buried In Print Says:

    What a superb response to a superb collection: I hope your enthusiasm cinches the deal for your readers. Even those who normally prefer novels, for the interconnections between these stories do make it particularly appealing in that regard. Agree completely on the question of the characters’ voices being distinct, as well as the sense of continuity across the work: this would have been on my shortlist too!

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    While The Free World was my choice when the Shadow Jury got down to deliberating, I would have had a difficult time choosing between it and this one if the judges had moved this collection on to the shortlist — that’s how impressed I was with it.

  16. shawna Says:

    I am later than I would have liked with this comment. A combination of being behind on my reading and wanting to let this collection soak in a bit as I thought it over. I really enjoyed the stories, particularly the sets that interwove and incorporated the voices and perspectives of multiple characters. The overall feeling I was left with at the end was one of displacement and the loss that comes from not really belonging anywhere.

    Thank you for the recommendation, Kevin, I think this is a book that will stick with me for some time!

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shawna: Thank you for the comment which brings this excellent book back up on the list so others can read about it. I was very impressed — I am three-quarters of the way through his early stories (Southern Stories in the collection that I am reading) and remain very impressed with Blaise.

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