My student life ended abruptly, or shall I say, comic-apocalyptically, with the postmodernist classic by Joseph Heller, Catch-22. It happened when I wrote a chapter for my doctoral thesis that would soon be abandoned, on the anti-war anti-novel with an anti-hero gripped by existential absurdism. What I posited in the chapter was Joseph Heller had transmuted a rather mammoth graphic comic into pages of plain text with a devastating effect. Rarely before, the human brinkmanship manifest in the madness of war, bureaucratic idiocy and capitalist avarice was dissected with scalpels of black humour and rank irreverence at such epic lengths. The Catch-22 was a war-cry to end all wars in favour of reason and rationality fabricated by the society, no matter which club the critics sought to include the book in —absurdist, comic-apocalyptic, existentialist, black humour or counter-cultural zeitgeist.
I was dumped by the professor supervising my PhD not long after that.
Why am I beating about the bush with a formidable stick labelled Catch-22 when I actually intend to write about A Passing Shower by Bruce Goodman, an unpublished book, as nondescript as the former is celebrated? The naked truth (I will change that adjective if you hate it) is I haven’t read many other books that are supposedly the touchstone of postmodernism, with the probable exceptions of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and the recent dabbling with George Saunders (Tenth of December). Permit me though to skirt clear of Waiting for Godot, I may be both blind and dumb.
There is also a truth even more naked than that. I find postmodernism rather unsettling, more so when you are seeking calm and not black-humour to feed that insatiable well of cynicism. That said, the genre is not unlike the clowns in Shakespeare’s plays, more at liberty to call the bluff of the establishment, adept at spinning riddles on existence, closer to the ashes and dust of life, and hence the truth. But again, as in Shakespeare’s plays, the train of falsities must resume; the show must go on.
Having contrived a likeness between the postmodernist novel and jesters, I am inclined to liken the author of A Passing Showers, to the Gravedigger of Hamlet, wherein the reader is apparently the latter. The analogy is not without justifications when you consider the number of deaths that spring in your face during the journey. But with a devious sleight of hand, Bruce Goodman delegates the job of writing the novel to the central character of the book, Yvonne, who is a bit of cuckoo like Ophelia. (Now that is getting complicated, but we may change the metaphor to the Porter in Macbeth, which again may not be out of kilter. You may leave a remark to the effect in the comments.)
The narrative begins with an ironic remark that would echo through the rest of the book. ‘What Granpop Tom called “a passing shower” lasted for three weeks… Granma Mattie died suddenly on the third day (while writing the first paragraph of the novel) and was buried on the sixth, so the sky took a backseat. Granpop Tom kept saying “passing shower” for the days after the funeral until it cleared up.’ Right from the outset, we are deep into black-humour country; and the carriage will rarely relent. The paragraph is vital to the story as it supplies the title, and I suspect, the major premise of the venture, which is looking askance at the obsession of hashing out novels.
As it happens, Granpop Tom fades out in another seven months and the languid sadness of the siblings Peggy, Nick, Cob and Holly, is pierced by a phone-call amidst indulgent bickering over inheritance negotiations when ‘another party enters claiming possible ownership.’ Naturally, it turned ‘things upside down’. Those of you who can already smell A Cousin’s Conspiracy here, I am loathe to disappoint you but it is a job that I must do. Watch out for a sibling that was adopted out…
If I am making it sound like a potboiler with an inheritance imbroglio at its heart, it is entirely my misdoing. Perhaps, I am an unreliable reader-reviewer. Or perhaps, I am moonstruck with the novel-writer Yvonne, aged ‘anywhere between twenty and forty-three’, she who ended up writing the book because ‘the doctor says that writing might be good therapy, provided the plot doesn’t get too tormented and I stay in the third person singular’. Reins of the carriage fall in other hands fleetingly, and we are told how Yvonne has had a nervous breakdown and she is really a ‘scrambled omelette’. Yvonne of course will seize control almost immediately and deny the charge vehemently, both in first person and third person voices. One can but sympathise, how gruelling the business of writing a novel can get. It can spin out of control, more so when you are writing your first novel. ‘Far too much may be going on. Far too much happening at once. Too many strands. Too many characters’. At the same time, she loves playing God, conjuring up people to fill the pages when it gets lonelier and give them the Dickensian two-dimensional characters, and killing them when they become a crowd. She may also bring them back from death, once in a while, to fill the vacuum. Trust Yvonne to deliver expeditiously, switching back and forth in time, space, reality and fiction, even in the middle of a paragraph, employing techniques of stream-of-consciousness, surrealism and magical realism, the sum total of which is a rich stream-of-muddleheadedness.
Some of us will relate to Yvonne in the way she is disposed to taking breaks, at times for years, returning to resume the writing. At any rate, it is impossible to complain as she will keep discussing her commissions and omissions, the characters and plot-line directly with the readers.
It seems I have unfairly broached the matter of Catch-22 in the beginning, but it is an unparalleled work of dark satire and parody, and not many books can match the humorous vignettes that crackle in its pages. That said, most of its characters are flatter than mud cakes. In contrast, in Bruce Goodman’s Yvonne, we have a central character who bears many more dimensions than Joseph Heller’s Yossarian. She presents a verisimilitude that is at once human, notwithstanding the farce and recurring insanity. Granma, who drops dead within the first three sentences of the story, turns out to be a lasting, indestructible influence. Yvonne’s sister-friend Peggy is anything but a puppet. Again, unlike Catch-22, where existential absurdism, thinly disguised as black humour, is the thread holding the book together, the courage and compassion of the Trippetts in the face of recurring misfortunes is the binding thread in A Passing Shower. There is also an amusing and rather poignant streak of intellectualism in how the larger characters keep quoting Shakespeare, Hopkins or Blake in overwhelming moments, indicating a richness of heart, and a fondness for employing irony as a balm.
It is possible to overlook an important theme element in A Passing Shower in the milieu of postmodernist tropes and tools like pastiche, lampooning and magical realism employed by the author. There are intermittent reminders of human susceptibility and mortality lurking around the corner right through the narrative, and thereby an acceptance of the transience of life, and with that, the briefness of happiness.
‘It’s a strange thing, life… ancestors all have one thing in common: death. In the end, Yvonne had pages and pages of meaningless word combinations who had died. The ancestor called ‘Jennet Woosencroft’ could just as well be called ‘Ellen Whalley’. It was a collection of syllables and not of people.