Reviews by FRANK BIRBALSINGH
The Soul of all Great Designs
Toronto, Cormorant Books, Inc., 2008, pp.223
It is fascinating to watch the progress of Neil Bissoondath’s skill as a writer of fiction. To start with, one is struck by the thoroughly unsettled, roving nature of his settings: his early stories and novels are set in his native Trinidad, in Canada where he has lived since his university days, and in foreign places, while his fifth novel The Undying Clamour of the Night takes us to a remote island that looks suspiciously like Sri Lanka, and is now followed by The Soul of all Great Designs whose action swings back to Toronto, Canada’s largest city which, although being far from remote like the island in the previous novel, is just as nameless. Evidently, place and a settled sense of belonging are problems in Bissoondath’s fiction, implying not only shifting, physical restlessness, but uncertainty, doubt- even turmoil within the inner lives of his characters themselves.
Soul is divided into three parts the first of which is narrated by a young man who paints a thoroughly convincing picture of his conventional, working class parents in the fully earned comfort of their suburban home. He has issues, mind you, with his parents’ practical-minded conventionality. It is entirely to please them, for instance, that he takes a job in a painting company, but he does not abandon his secret yearning to become an interior decorator. As he asserts at the very beginning of his story “Everybody has secrets. I have a secret. Don’t you? Deep down, in your heart of hearts as they say?” (p.3) One secret is that he works in the painting company while, unknown to his parents, doing interior decorating. Another secret is that he uses his good looks to pass himself off as the stereotype of a gay interior decorator. This double life inevitably creates inner strain. Our hero who prefers not to give his name – yet another secret – frets about leaving home and breaking free from parental control when, abruptly, his parents die in a traffic accident, and by the end of Part One, he is left enjoying complete independence and success with his own interior decorating company New World Designs. In Part One at least, carefully observed detail combines with sharply analytical character studies to produce a taut, diverting and wholly compelling narrative – the work of a true master.
In a complete change that seems wholly disconnected from the serious or sober manner of Part One, Part Two revels in delightfully comic episodes about an Indian immigrant family and their frantic, if clumsy match-making efforts on behalf of their daughter Sumintra (Sue). When her parents contrive a meeting with an Indian bachelor, eligible because of his professional qualifications, money and family status, Sue’s cutting sarcasm is hilarious when she confesses to her suitor: “Sometimes my folks can be as subtle as an earthquake.” (p.92) Yet the ironic portrait of Indian immigrants struggling to survive in North America, fighting for acceptance of their foreign qualifications, settling for second or third best, then greedily acquiring conspicuous wealth, is both wryly amusing and soberly realistic. The comment: “The idea of ‘going to the cottage’ was alien to people whose spare money was sent back home to relatives or hoarded for plane tickets to the land they had only left physically.” (p.101) confirms Bissoondath’s authoritative grasp of immigration and ethnic issues.
As if to redeem the disconnection between the first two parts of the novel, the nameless hero of Part One meets Sue when he buys a bottle of water from her father’s food truck at the end of Part Two. Part Three opens with our hero’s confession that the name “Alec” which he has given Sue is a fabrication, yet another secret. Then follows a frenzied sexual relationship between Alec and Sue in which they often use the apartment of Kelly, Sue’s trusted friend. There is yet another ludicrous episode of failed match-making between Sue and an ageing Indian widower Professor Mukherjee. But by this time, Sue’s secret erotic encounters with Alec are beyond redemption.
The secrets in Soul are functional: they aid and abet the artificial and flexible quality of identity which is an essential part – the soul – of the novel’s design. Alec quotes Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players “ [p.201] in justification of the roles he plays, and adds, “These selves of ours we’re supposed to be true to our constructions – the roles we play, roles that are either given to us or that we invent ourselves.” [p.201] This is a frankly frightening confession. For Sue is ineluctably drawn to Alec: “She[Sue] wanted to know who I am . But who I am is what I have constructed – ungraspable and enigmatic, fluid even to myself.” [p.202] This enigmatic, artificial identity is what leads to the bizarre climax of the novel.
From his earliest fiction Bissoondath has been attracted by the perilous quicksilver nature of identity whether conditioned by race or ethnicity as in the Caribbean, or by immigration, language and class as in Canada. But secrecy is crucially linked to the formation of identity in Soul. Bissoondath takes his cue from the novel’s epigraph: “Secrecy has been well termed the soul of all great designs. Perhaps more has been effected by concealing our own intentions, than by discovering those of our enemy.”
The quotation is from an English clergyman Caleb C. Coulton who is remembered chiefly for his aphorisms and sayings.
The author’s skill in Soul has already been acknowledged: his taut, intricately designed and potently succinct narrative, relieved by witty, comic sketches, is the work of a master technician. But the link between secrecy and identity produces too horrific a climax in the novel. Nor is such horror justified by Colton’s epigraph which both eulogises secrecy and connects it to “great designs.”Alas, not even irony can portray the final horror in Soul as part of a great design.