The prose versus purpose, form versus function, distinction has a storied history both as whipping boy and foundational concept in literary criticism. But there is general agreement on the view that to say of a work that it exhibits unity of prose and purpose, or form and function, is a commendation. Parallelly, to say of a work that its form and function are at odds is not quite censure though it can be; depending, that is, on whether their interaction frustrates or furthers the communicative goals of the work and if that detracts from the effect of the work on the whole. Sarah Thankam Mathew’s All This Could be Different has been marketed, and widely reviewed, as a novel in which electric prose serves a calling higher than the merely aesthetic. The prose here is au courant, fluent in the meme-inflected argot of the relatively young extremely online reader, and exemplary of the transparent, personality-effacing style of writers coming out of MFA programs.
Its idiolect spans the use of “capitalism” as a modifying descriptor capable of tracking particularities of any personal or social life event [See: wedding capitalism and racial capitalism]; the use of hip-hop slang like “no cap” (281); untranslated Malayalam words ranging from the familial [mol] to the culinary [inji] and botanic [manjadi kuru, gulgangi mar, chakka]; and last but not the least the use of they as a singular subject pronoun to centre the experience of a gender renegade. Even at a superficial level of analysis the style, or literary voice, of ATCBD is deliberate, competent, bold, and ample. It is deliberate in deciding to centre an audience expected to know what certain Malayalam words mean in the narrative universe of the novel. It is competent in adopting a voice that is a convincing hybrid between the classic style of Strunk & White and the bleeding edge of rap. It is ample in taking on queerness, race, and immigration as intercommunicating themes in a literary landscape dominated by single theme novels. But to be deliberate is not the same as to achieve what one sets out to do, only to know what one intends before attempting to do it. To paraphrase the American pragmatist philosopher Robert Brandom, one does what happens. What ATCBD sets out to do and what it does do are, for better or worse, very different things. On balance its prose might be too bold in relation to its expressed purpose; exceeding the limited narrative intelligence of the work and biting off more than its dramatis personae could possibly chew.
For Rafael Frumkin at the Los Angeles Review of Books Mathews is a “gifted prose stylist” because she delivers a striking metaphor now and then; driving the vehicle of “the dark orange of a bee’s thorax” (18) into the tenor of a night awash in street lights, for instance. One wonders what Frumkin thinks of the protagonist’s love interest’s clit “swollen like a raisin in payasam” (109). Perhaps he’d insert Mathews into the Biblical tradition of bringing sexuality and food into the same semantic bed; where one finds waists likened to mounds of wheat, breasts to clusters of vine, and the scents of lovers’ breath to apples. In food as in figures of speech there is no argument about matters of taste. Yet it doesn’t take a literary critic to see that within the bounds of the linguistically permissible, there exists many an inelegant—one dare says meaningless—formulation [Colourful green ideas sleep furiously]. Consider the clunker: “What nobody told me growing up was that sometimes your friends do join your family, fusing care, irritation, loyalty, shared history, and affectionate contempt into a tempered love, bright and daily as steel” (298). Are friends intelligent and commonplace or harbingers of optimism marked for their regular availability? On either interpretation it seems friends are replaceable by tableware.
Some metaphors are so potent that an originality eschewing them could only be looked upon as wanton. Thus one is happy to indulge Mathews’ botanical metaphor of lucky red seeds planted by Sneha at age six having turned into a pod-laden thicket by the time she’s twenty three and has lost all recollection of the event. The same botanical metaphor of potentiality, growth, and the passage of time is used in Lee Isaac Chung’s (2021) Minari. Except there the minari plant is brought to America from Korea by an aged grandmother flown in to babysit her sickly grandson while her daughter and her husband work two jobs to realise the immigrants’ American dream. In the movie the plant becomes a potent symbol of continuity and the restorative power of the family bond in lives otherwise upended by the rigours of the immigrant experience. In ATCBD Sneha’s father who remembers the incident shows her the cluster of manjadi trees when she visits them back in India, planted against her mother’s advice too close to each other by their quietly “stubborn” daughter (149). Here the manjadi trees become a recurring motif sometimes inspiring Sneha to feats she’d have dismissed as foolhardy and at other times allowing her to construe other’s foolhardy affirmations of their vital purpose as possessed of the same poetic gravity and dignity as those of a tragic hero’s. But her affirmations and those of people in her intimate circle of friends and lovers, their “saying one small yes to one small thing at a time” (299), don’t accompany anything particularly heroic even if there is a hint of the tragic. Unless, of course, Sneha’s getting out of a dysfunctional relationship with an alcoholic lover—a “white girl. Thin-limbed, with pert full breasts and lips. Pink in all the right places” (45) [Marina], or her dyslexic BA philosophy student pal Antigone Clay’s [with her “brown nipple[s]…and fupa” (280)] starting a barely functional co-op with a little help from friends flush with old and new money are fate defying feats of will. These are not gestures revolutions are made of though people’s lives can certainly revolve around them. For the young adult interiority of the novel these acts of self-definition certainly are world making, but the world is full of people older and younger than young adults.
The symbolism of the manjadi tree, planted on a whim and thriving ferally, as a living reminder that actions have consequences, would have more force if it were informed by the unexploited fact of the tree’s almost entirely ornamental nature; which is also further compromised by its copious production of litter by way of leaves, twigs, and seed pods that prematurely crack open on the branch. This is where sympathetic critics would interject that use of the tree’s pods in traditional medicine demonstrates the utility superadded to its already sufficient ornamental contribution to human society in the narrative world of ATCBD. Sure, Sneha’s mother using a “few sprigs of leaves in a decoction for her grandmother’s digestive problems” (150) adds a utilitarian dimension to the manjadi tree in its capacity as a prop for an entire culture. The noun originating in a particular Indian community gives the symbolic world order of the novel an identifiable Indianness for a Western audience. By this very fact it also draws attention to fellow nouns of Indian origin legible to Indian readers. The inclusion of “inji” alongside peppercorn and cardamom then seems coquettish and affected, too clever by half, when inji, kurumulaku, and elam would make a perfect triad of tokens of brownness in a single sentence. Parallelly, it also draws attention to malapropisms like “chaiya” instead of the well-established alternatives of chaya or chai. Chaiya is not a beverage this half-Malayali reviewer is aware of, though he can attest Google is not off the mark when it suggests “Chaiyya Chaiyya” the Filmfare Award Winning Song from the 1998 Shahrukh-starrer Dil Se as the first result for chaiya. Eating Parle-G while dancing on the roof of a moving train is a quintessentially Indian experience even for Indians who haven’t gone through the motions. It’s pleasantly surprising indeed as Sneha says to see Thom—a champagne socialist child of doctor parents “making doctor paycheques in America,”—with his white face living his white life (56) getting along with a Black girl from humble origins studying for her BA in philosophy at age twenty-seven. But it is nigh impossible to further picture them performing Bollywood choreography over an A.R. Rahman number atop a train snaking through scenic locales in the hilly northern regions of India.
ATCBD could have been a powerful queer coming-of-age novel with the immigrant experience of South Indians in America as a running theme, developed in the narrative tradition of the bildungsroman genre within which it is categorised by the publisher. It has the essential elements of character development including formative experiences from an ethnically coloured childhood as these feed into an early adulthood in an American world that is simultaneously more capacious and more demanding. But the novel is committed to being what Stephen Marche has called the literature of the pose. To be sure one could readily identify the sentences on page 149 as Mathews’ as says Marche one can with Raven Leilani’s Luster, or all too easily with any of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. But each sentence here serves the role of assigning a clear identity to the protagonist and the characters inhabiting her world. Here’s the first sentence off of page 149 of ATCBD: “You know Americans sell chakka now? I said. In fancy supermarkets and all? They put barbecue sauce on it, use it as meat. Selling it for eight, nine dollars in the market! My nose wrinkled.” Here, it is quite clear that the Indian protagonist is cringing at American food culture. The protagonist is winking at her Indian readers suggestively to say that only Americans are uncultured enough to be buying and selling jackfruit as a meat substitute, and daring to garnish it differently from the Malayalis.
The Aesthetic Totality
ATCBD is committed to delivering a self-presentation that leaves open to anyone’s guess what is exactly, substantively, being said but makes it abundantly clear—even overspecifies—who is saying it. It doesn’t matter that Tig’s quasi-functional commune is a farcical reiteration of the 60’s failed experiments in creating society from scratch in intentional communities. What matters is that she’s Black, from a disadvantaged family, has a learning disability, has opted out of gender, and goes by they/them pronouns. Everything they now say earnestly through their “unflossed teeth” (36)—and in spite of their “brown nipple[s]” and “fupa” (280)—is now refracted through the prism of their identity. It doesn’t matter that Sneha’s landlord Amy exhibits classic race-and-nationality-transcending shitty landlord behaviour like complaining about negligible noises arising from normal domestic activities, failing to promptly perform maintenance tasks like fixing the heating, and refusing tenants the right to entertain guests. What matters is that she is white and her tenants are not. The given facts about Sneha’s father’s culpability as an accountant in a scam involving shell companies created to sell eager and ineligible men from Haryana, UP, and Punjab H-1B visas at a tidy sum are insufficient for the reader to overrule the US court’s guilty verdict. Yet the reader is coaxed to exonerate the father because the daughter has expressed all the right political, economic, social, and sexual views and has shown herself fluent in the regimented vocabulary of Left-of-centre Podcast Speak. The amorphous and amphibolical vocabulary according to which spending a lot on weddings is wedding capitalism; and, work rivalries between friends at the same organisation, knee pain and tooth decay among young adults, shitty behaviour by white landlords, the desperate resort of Indians—a formerly colonised people!—to the disreputable position of landlords are all due to capitalism.
Sneha’s reluctance to accept she needs to see a therapist after admittedly finding herself unable to function at her usual clip speaks more about her as a character than about an over-medicalised and over-therapised society. To be fair American popular culture is saturated with the idea of mental health as a resource that needs to be protected from the insults implicit in living modern—“capitalist”—lives. But what reason do we have to think that mammoth hunting cavemen experienced no anxiety over food scarcity, no rivalry over claims to valour, no sentiment of ownership over women, land, and resources to which they could control other’s access? What Namrata Varghese has correctly diagnosed as the patent and deliberate illegibility of ATCBD is but a strategic gesture that evades classification now only to make the mould anew. To give rise in its wake to a new taxonomy for interpreting a queer brown voice by expanding the possibility space of queer brownness in literary fiction so to speak. Rejecting the coming-of-age and coming-out narrative trajectory of the queer bildungsroman becomes for Mathews another avenue to flex a resurgent Indian ethnocentrism. It asserts by implication Indian queers value peaceable relations with parents more than they do total self-expression, and suffering potentially medicable torments with a performative stoicism more than they do the indignity of being someone who needs therapy.
On a speculative note perhaps the reluctance to accept medicalisation and potential management of mental illness can be linked to the Hindu tradition’s construal of deliberate suffering as a spiritual practice. Even within the Christian tradition, to which Sneha ostensibly belongs, avoiding suffering is beside the point; life isn’t about maximising happiness. On this view deliberately undertaken sufferings are given the theological and soteriological significance of an ascetic practice which earns merits cashed out in this or other lives. But even without being too speculative it is hard to neglect the potential genealogy of such a line of thought coming as it does out of a country where one in seven people have a diagnosable mental illness and mental illness is stigmatised. Specifically, South India—from where the protagonist of ATCBD hails—has a higher incidence of mental disorders manifesting in adulthood relative to North India. In this light her taunt: “You think that all that needs to happen here is me pay some lady with glasses on a chain to listen to MUH TRAUMA? What does it mean to be investing in my mental health? To be healthy? Show me a healthy person! Is it you?” (190) reads as defensive rather than cutting.
The substantive claim of the title All This Could Be Different only provokes a Yes Chad meme response. We Could All be Fish if we had gills. Yet here we are.
Sarah Thankam Mathews. (2022). All This Could be Different. Viking.
Emma Specter (2022). “Sarah Thankam Mathews has written one of the buzziest, most human novels of the year: In All This Could Be Different, the prose is electrified by the high stakes on the page,” Vogue. Updated: 20 August 2022. Retrieved: 20 October 2022. URL: https://www.vogue.in/culture-and-living/content/sarah-thankam-mathews-all-this-could-be-different-is-one-of-the-buzziest-novels-of-the-year.
Rafael Frumkin. (2022). “Love and Friendship Under Late-Stage Capitalism: On Sarah Thankam Mathews’s “All This Could Be Different,” Los Angeles Review of Books. Updated: 18 August, 2022. Retrieved: 20 October, 2022. URL: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/love-and-friendship-under-late-stage-capitalism-on-sarah-thankam-mathewss-all-this-could-be-different/
June Casagrande. (2013). “A Word, Please: Care about this: semantics and syntax,” LA Times. Updated: 25 November 2013. Retrieved: 20 October 2022. URL: https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/opinion/tn-dpt-me-1128-casagrande-20131125-story.html
Stephen Marche (2021). “Winning the Game You Didn’t Even Want to Play: On Sally Rooney and the Literature of the Pose. Stephen Marche Considers Contemporary Fiction’s Slow Abandonment of Literary Voice.” Literary Hub. Updated: 15 September 2021. Retrieved: 20 October 2022. URL: https://lithub.com/winning-the-game-you-didnt-even-want-to-play-on-sally-rooney-and-the-literature-of-the-pose/
Rajesh Sagar et al (2020). “The burden of mental disorders across the states of India: The Global Burden of Disease Study 1990–2017,” The Lancet Psychiatry, Vol.7. PP.148-61.URL: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(19)30475-4/fulltext#seccestitle10