Friday, September 23, 2005
A novel idea
There are more newspapers now in Bombay than anyone can possibly read. All report pretty much the same news - and even the features are not spectacularly different. What every publisher must be in search of is a USP so here's an idea : a serialised novel.
Works by Charles Dickens, Henry James, Alexander Dumas, William Thackeray and Thomas Hardy originally made their debut in this manner. As did Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
More recently the San Fransisco Chronicle ran Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin in serialised form. That's what led to 44, Scotland Street actually. After bumping into Maupin at a party author Alexander McCall Smith wrote an article for The Herald about "what a pity it was that newspapers didn't do serial novels any more".
The response from the paper's main rival, The Scotsman, was - "You're on". When McCall Smith suggested that a chapter every week was quite a tall order, the reply was "no, not weekly, daily". The author was so flabbergasted that he agreed.
The daily column that came out of that exchange has now been compiled and published as a book - "44 Scotland Steet". It comprises of 109 short chapters of 850 odd words - as dictated by the need to publish a daily installment.
So it's a little different from novels in general and also McCall's own previous books (if you have not read his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series - you're really missing something!).
The great thing is that once again the amazing Alexander McCall Smith has created a little world populated with characters that come alive and that you can relate to. They just happen to live in Botswana or Edinburgh - but they represent some very universal human traits.
He reminds you of R K Narayan - although his writing is even better in terms of the wry humour or observations made. For example:
"It was a long narrow room , decorated in the obligatory Danish minimalist style, which meant there was no furniture. She had always thought that Danish minimalism should have been the cheapest style available, because it involved nothing, but in fact it was the most expensive. The empty spaces in Danish minimalism were what cost the money". :)
44 Scotland Street's cast includes, among others:
Pat - a confused young woman taking her second gap year
Bruce - her narcissistic flatmate who applies hairgel that smells of clove and thinks he is God's gift to the world
Irene - a pushy mom who forces her 5 year old son to learn Italian and play the saxophone.
There are Pats, Bruces and Irenes amidst us, here in Mumbai too!
I do hope some newspaper editor and some imaginative writer rise to the challenge and publish a similar series in India. The important thing is that no one with literary pretensions should be allowed near the project!
The idea, after all, is to keep junta hooked to a rivetting story. Not scratching their heads, wondering what the hell the author meant when he wrote his sentences.
Magic realism is all very well but the best kind of magic is realism - deftly and definitively written!