by Tony D'Souza
Reviewed by Alan Michael Parker
San Francisco Chronicle
Storytelling doesn't mean what it used to mean. Our cultural memories reside increasingly in visual information, and less in the stories told of our ancestors or by our parents. Even literary novels don't mean what they used to mean - despite Jonathan Franzen's screed in Harper's a few years ago and his public efforts to revitalize the art form by investing social significance in the events that novels dramatize. Literary novels, as the writer Jill Ciment has wryly noted, have become "the new poetry."
Which isn't to say novelists have abandoned their roles as storytellers. Tony D'Souza's second novel, The Konkans, offers a somewhat Dickensian treatment of class and race in Chicago in the 1970s and '80s, and dramatizes the challenges of a mixed-race marriage as a parable of social change. The characters, most of whom are Catholics from India, or Konkans, internalize the social ills of their times. These phenomena in turn become realized as individual disagreements among people rather than merely as "racism." The novel seems relevant and political as a result, and in personal ways as we get to know the characters.
Multigenerational in its scope, The Konkans presents the conflicting desires of its three main characters, the Konkan brothers Lawrence and Sam, and Denise, the white Peace Corps worker who meets and marries Lawrence. Ranging between Chicago and India, with seamless treatment of both places, along with a gift for atmospheric detail, the novel accounts well for everyone's unhappiness. Cultural pride and envy, love and lovelessness play out poignantly within the menage of the three central characters. And the novel is often delightfully entertaining, especially in its treatment of the foibles of the new immigrants, most notably Sam's Konkan wife, Asha, from an arranged marriage.
But The Konkans has significant problems, mainly having to do with its narration. The story is narrated by Francisco, the firstborn son of Lawrence and Denise, who throughout the book relates events, memories and feelings of all the figures involved. Unfortunately, D'Souza invests Francisco with omniscience. Most of the events described take place before Francisco reaches 5. The point of view, as a result, seems stage-managed.
Worse yet, the novel's final chapter details how these family stories were shared with Francisco over the course of years, a narrative maneuver that reads as a disclaimer, as though D'Souza were telling us "just in case you didn't believe Francisco, here is the rationale for his omniscience." That the final chapter also corrects one of the key historical tales related in The Konkans, of Vasco da Gama and St. Francis, and their arrival in India, doesn't salvage the reader's trust: D'Souza's admission (through Francisco) that stories are embellished by storytellers, and fitted to personal mythologies, arrives too late.
Interestingly, another fine writer has recently chosen omniscience to render a similar story of American immigration and social change. Andrea Barrett, in her latest novel, The Air We Breathe, uses the first-person plural point of view. Her novel suffers from the same problem as D'Souza's: To believe the narrator places a strain upon the reader.
D'Souza is a promising writer, as we've seen in his first book, "Whiteman," which successfully deposits a disenfranchised relief worker in the Ivory Coast, in a novel that reads like a linked series of excellent short stories. D'Souza specializes, at least thus far, in rendering powerful vignettes of displacement amid racial difference; his understanding of the issues intrinsic to this kind of alienation, along with the impetus to encounter "the other" in one's self, prove insightful. Maybe The Konkans merely suffers from the enormity of a single strategic error, but the book could have been great, rather than merely good. The same events, narrated by Denise, Lawrence and Sam, might have worked beautifully.
Altogether, what remains to be admired, nonetheless, is D'Souza's ambition, and the talents his storytelling demonstrate. To write so ably about racism, cultural envy and family conflict - and with such panache about history - indicates that D'Souza's great book may be possible, and that his talents may yet be well served. He's certainly capable of writing a great novel, socially significant or otherwise; his work already merits serious consideration.
One never believes the novel is moribund in D'Souza's hands, in terms of Franzen's argument, or that a particular kind of storytelling is needed to reclaim the novel's place in America. Now let's see what D'Souza's next book achieves.
Alan Michael Parker's fifth collection of poems, Elephants & Butterflies, will be published in the spring. Visit San Francisco Chronicle Books.