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with a formidable stick labelled Catch-22 when I actually intend to write about A Passing Shower by Bruce Goodman, an unpublished book, as nondescript as the former is celebrated?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.
It sounds like a good one! Your rejected thesis sound like a hoot. You must have been a student of Camus.
Funny you thought of Camus; the professor who ditched me kept telling me, ‘You can’t create experience, you undergo it.’ Yep, a passing shower is best experienced.
Yessiree! It’s all about survival.
And so it is, my friend!
We are good at that.
I downloaded A Passing Shower and will try The Catch-22. I’m always interested in trying new reads. Thanks…and sorry your Prof dumped you, bummer.
My hunch is you are going to love both. My professor was a disciple of a disciple of T. S. Eliot. Hope he is doing well in his Waste Land!
My thanks for the recommendation, my friend, and the enlightening read, as well.
The pleasure is mine, my friend. Thanks to you, too!
WOW Uma. Thank you for the review. I shall reblog it once I get the know-how. Your posting makes me feels small and over-sized at the same time! I’ve already read your posting several times – vain creature that I am. I am indeed honoured a). that you read it, and b). that you reviewed it with your wondrous flair. Thank you!
Bruce, the spiral bound volume of your book was getting restless atop my TBR pile. Since you have squeezed the daily flow to your blog, I was left with little choice other than taking a plunge in your book. I must admit I was surprised by the complex package but I got hooked towards the end and had to reread it immediately after I finished it. A Passing Shower is only the third book that made me do it, the other two being The Sense of an Ending and The Sea (John Banville).
As for reblogging, you need to use the Share button at the bottom of the excerpt of the post in the WordPress Reader when you are logged in. Hope that helps!
What a crackling review this is. On another day of 40C weather, I’ll settle on the sofa and indulge in reading Bruce’ s offering.
Yvonne, could it be you are in Sydney? Also, tell me, if you are also writing a novel! Thanks for liking the review. I don’t know what else I could have said though.
I live in the north-east of Victoria, it hasn’t been quite as hot as poor old Sydney.
No, I’m far to lazy to write a novel, but I can pretend that the Yvonne in Bruce’s novel is really me, and bask in the warmth of his glory.
I commented that it is a shame that Cynthia is not alive, she would have added to your excellent analysis of Bruce’s writing. I’m near the end now, it has captivated me, and surprised me every so often with the patented Bruce twists.
True, it is a curse Cynthia isn’t around any more. I’ve been missing her poems, I’ve been missing her comments, I’ve been missing her vision. I would have loved to hear what she had to say about my piece on A Passing Shower. Whoever said life is fair!
It is a good thing I read Bruce’s book. Now I am quite the Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice of the Catch-22 fame. I have spawned a new sense of appreciating twists of his flash fiction series.
It is an encouraging sign —your pretending you are the Yvonne of the book. 🙂 That is how things like that begin! As for that heat, well, we get to feast on 48 ℃ in our summers out here.
I found Cynthia’s comment about the novel itself, dated 29 December 2015: “I should say, here, that I have only yesterday finished reading your novel, A PASSING SHOWER, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Though it’s readily found by Googling the title and author I do think publication in the form of a “real” book is definitely warranted. Its just plain lovely!”
That’s a comment to cherish.
I keep thinking about your novel, and the sneaky twists and turns in it.
Yvonne, we have had the hottest ever summer here in Sydney and the rest of the state is hotter! Ivanhoe reached 47 degrees!! We all miss Cynthia so much, don’t we. Stay cool, stay hydrated.
It’s been so unbelievable in parts of NSW. I hope there are no fires, it would be a catastrophe. Today is blissfully cool in NE Victoria, what a contrast.
I still can’t believe Cynthia is gone.
Bruce I am going to read your book soon! And Uma Shankar, loved your review.
Uma Shankar, if you were here in Sydney experiencing our hot weather, it would have inspired a ghazal – which you would write capably
Shubha, I have had my share of hot weather in parts of india, which includes Rajasthan. I realise, belatedly, my musings in that desert state may have been sold to the kabadi-walah (rag-and-bone-man) at prices that wouldn’t feed a family of mice, when my domestic partner entered my life —she is a fastidious housekeeper.
The recent Australian heatwave did its bit to startle me though. From what I have read of the Australian outback, it can surely get hostile.
A tempting review.
By the way, Catch 22 is one of my all time favourites. I read it when I was in my first year of service in Air Force. Could relate to many of those fictitious events quite easily. The book has some universality to it. At the end, as an Indian, one may feel relieved that the bureaucracy too has some universality as to its inherent functioning across nations and cultures.
I didn’t realise you are closely related to Yossarian! Bureaucracy is quite the Big Brother across the planet. Thanks for reading, Mr Dash.
Reblogged this on Weave a Web.
My pleasure, Bruce!
“I was dumped by the professor supervising my PhD not long after that.”
Just sticking with this quote, and not the technicalities, I am wondering, would it have been possible to dump your professor?
I just asked this for fun.
Of course it would not have been possible.
I have a problem answering my own questions and a bigger problem liking the answers.
“It was a collection of syllables and not of people.”
Some people are really brilliant.
But most, not so much.
You speak in riddles, and I quite like that.
The truth about my professor is I was his favourite disciple, but every time he disliked what I wrote, which was oftener than not, he asked me this:
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
So, when in a rush of blood I rose to leave in mid-session one day, he said,’Where to?’
This is what I hissed before I vanished:
“Where does one go from a world of insanity?
Somewhere on the other side of despair.”
We wouldn’t meet again for the next fifteen years. Apparently, brilliance is not my forte! But, how I wish…
An absolutely brilliant review, Uma. You capture Bruce’s inimitable style in such an entertaining manner.
So you do agree it is a postmodernist review of Bruce’s book! Thanks, Derrick.
Catch 22 is one of my favorite books and I reread it regularly.
Catch-22 can regale you on the worst of days. I have read all other books of Joseph Heller except Closing Time, but he couldn’t quite reproduce the magic, not that they are works of lesser value.
I trust you won’t be disappointed with Bruce Goodman’s efforts.
I have Bruce’s book sitting on my Desktop, waiting for me to have a spare evening. I already know it is good, and soon I will know what it is about 🙂
It is quite the magic road once you pass by the rag tree. 🙂
That was quite a read for my addled brain. If the Donald read books (which I am reasonably sure he doesn’t) I think the doctor should prescribe Catch 22. I love the doctor’s advice to Yvonne and, as someone tackling their 4th novel – after privately resolving not to write another one – I feel sympathy for her multiple dilemmas.
Let me see who Mr trump reminds me of: part Colonel Cathcart, Part Hungry Joe and part Milo Minderbinder, perhaps a cocktail of all these and a few more that I can’t quite recall at the moment. He has also displayed significant elements of Major Major Major Major in his luck and shyness with (One) China. Yep, Donald should surely read Catch-22!
It tickles me you could empathise with Yvonne, even through your fourth novel. Are you sticking with the third person singular then?
I was rather amused reading the first para…the novel reads interesting! thanks for the copy 🙂
The chariot of humour will keep you humoured till the end on wheels of fortitude and compassion. Carry on, Shweta!
Just reading the first lines and your notes about it, this novel reminds me already of Gabriel Garcia Marquez more than anything. He is, of course, a master of magical realism and once said that the key to MR is specificity. I see that in Mr. Goodman’s novel with the number of days of showers and with Yvonne’s age – “somewhere between twenty and forty-three.” 43 is a wonderfully specific number!
Your review is a delight. Are you sure you don’t want to leave your day job to write, write, write?
The power of magical realism lies in conveying the indescribable vortices of emotions ravaging the humans. When Yvonne says she is aged between ‘twenty and forty-three’, it also means how time has stood still for her for such a long span, fraught with pain, uncertainty, a persisting struggle with her identity, suffering and longing for something that will never be, apart from hinting at bouts of amnesia induced by her perturbed mind.
As for quitting my day job, I suspect the time is near…
Uma Shankar, I know my comment is going to sound irrelevant for this post. It’s about “Springtime wind” – beautifully written….but that’s no surprise…
Anyway, there is one ghazal that I would love to read in English and that is “Phir Wohi Shaam, wohi gham, wohi tanhai….
जाने अब तुझं से मुलकात कभी हो के ना हो …मेरी मंजिल ‘तेरी मंजिल ‘तेरी मंजिल से बिशाद आई है
On many a quiet evening after I’d returned from Pune, these words would haunt me and I wondered if I would see my mother the next time….
Translating such powerful lyrics as you have quoted requires the powers of a Cynthia Jobin. One of my friends once put it beautifully, ‘every language has its own fragrance.’ Sometimes then, it is like trying to express the fragrance of jasmine in terms of that of the rose. And yet, I will surely try to do that for you someday.
Here is one that kills me every time I listen to it:
करोगे याद तो, हर बात याद आयेगी
गुज़रते वक़्त की, हर मौज ठहर जायेगी
ये चाँद बीते ज़मानों का आईना होगा
भटकते अब्र में, चेहरा कोई बना होगा
उदास राह कोई दास्तां सुनाएगी
बरसता भीगता मौसम धुआँ-धुआँ होगा
पिघलती शम्मों पे दिल का मेरे ग़ुमां होगा
हथेलियों की हिना, याद कुछ दिलायेगी
गली के मोड़ पे, सूना सा कोई दरवाज़ा
तरसती आँखों से रस्ता किसी का देखेगा
निगाह दूर तलक जा के लौट आएगी
करोगे याद तो…
Cynthia lives in our hearts and yes the rose and the jasmine! How true. And thank you so much for the promise Uma Shankar
As for karoge yaad toh…..I can understand why it kills….evocative……
Now I’m expecting Gravity’s Rainbow.
Noway, if you’re referring to A Passing Shower. You know better if Bruce is working on his second book.
Bruce has assured me that a trilogy is in the works.
Trillium! I never tell anyone what I’m planning to do, because – as Plato said (paraphrased) – spill the beans and lose the magic.
I believe it had a scatological element – which is quite beyond my means!
Naturally I presumed the title ‘A Passing Shower’ to be an oblique reference to human excreta. It is always possible (though seldom desired) that the artful reader reads more into a text than intended. This happens, I have noticed in my capacity as a reader of pre and post modern fiction, after imbibing several cups of semilethal coffee.
I shall let that comment pass!
Yes, the natural consequence of filling one’s bladder with liters of that ubiquitously aromatic drink.
Dear (Exiled) Prospero, you need to read The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan. You will find a review in the archives.
I’m new here, so I hope you’ll forgive if, as Puck beseeches in Midsummer Night’s Dream, my comments cause offense…
Catch-22 is a worthy adversary. I’ve struggled to plumb depths of this ticklishly painful text many times (outside of professional or academic circles of course as I have no business in either). I want so much for it to BE more, and to MEAN more, but, in the end, I end up unwinding each strand of Heller’s complex tapestry to give it a closer look. And I’m left with piles of pretty, but ultimately commonplace yarn.
For me, this is the magic that I am striving to emulate. To spin a series of yarns into a story that resonates. Highly unlikely (statistically impossible), but still, what if…
Your review was incredibly intriguing for similar reasons. Just downloaded A Passing Shower.
And I’m looking forward to following you here. I suspect I have a lot to learn from you, and I’m really looking forward to the experience.
If you look at human failings, or ‘foibles’ as they are referred to, and its grislier manifestations in brainless sodomy wielded by bureaucracy the world over, the naked lust for power, the wars, the massacres and the holocausts, they can all be broken down to whims coarse and ‘commonplace’ enough. In each of the chapters, and through each of his characters in Catch-22, Joseph Heller has dissected the limbs of a dysfunctional system, and the lethal obsessions of the race.
I am touched by your quest for the yarns falling into pattern of a story that resonates. Perhaps you should read Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Perhaps you should read War and Peace.
That sounds like an interesting morsel ! A review with a flourish.
It is a book you will not easily forget for its style. Thanks, Ash!
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