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Thanks to Rosh Hashanah, it was another short week in Short Fiction. We studied two stories, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Nawabdin Electrician” and George Saunders’s “The Falls.”
“The Falls” was new to me, one of those last minute syllabus-making decisions to which I’m so fatally prone. (Does that happen to anyone else?) I’d been meaning to read Saunders for a while, especially after his Tenth of December got such good reviews. But when I got around to looking at the collection, the stories all seemed so long. Some rudimentary online searching led me instead to this much shorter piece. “The Falls” is an interesting story, and one the students seemed to enjoy. But I’m unconvinced I’ll teach it again.
It seems to pander to young people’s ideas of what it’s like to be older—maybe why the students liked it so much—and I can’t find a satisfactory explanation for what one of the two main characters is doing in the story, other than to make us sympathize more with the other. That’s a good enough reason, I guess, except that the other character was already fairly sympathetic to begin with: adding the other seems like unnecessary special pleading. (For those who have read it, I’m talking about Aldo Cummings—what’s he doing there? Morse is plenty interesting all by himself.) I often need a second or third teaching to really get a handle on a text, but in this case I don’t feel compelled to give it another try. Saunders lovers, tell me why I’m wrong!
“Nawabdin Electrician,” on the other hand, is a winner. I can’t remember if this is the second or third time I’ve taught it. But it keeps getting better. Mueenuddin grew up in Pakistan and the US; he published his first and so far only collection, Other Rooms, Other Wonders, in 2009. I think I first read “Nawabdin” in The New Yorker. I really hope Mueenuddin is working on something new.
The story is set between Multan and Firoza in the Punjab province of Pakistan at an unspecified date, probably in the 1980s or 90s. I don’t know anything about this place, which doesn’t reflect well on me, but the story explains it’s an arid region where water matters a lot and tube wells run continuously to provide for the crops. Nawab, the story’s first sentence tells us, “flourishe[s] on a signature capability, a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters.” Additionally, he fixes the motors on the pumps and ensures that the home of the region’s largest landowner, K. K. Harouni, who lives mostly in Lahore, remains a cocoon of comfort. Nawab thrives under Harouni’s patronage, even convincing the man to give him a motorcycle. Mueenuddin is a warm writer, not above poking fun at his subjects. People are rightly, if predictably always comparing him to Chekhov. Some of his humour comes from his syntax: his sentences often have a sting at the end. Here the narrator reflects on the effect of the motorcycle on Nawab’s prestige:
The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him “Uncle,” and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing.
The joke here is as much on Nawab as on everyone around him.
The first half of the story is a bit aimless, setting up Nawab’s life, his devotion to his large family, composed, and this is the great tragedy of his life, of thirteen daughters that he cannot hope to ever provide dowries for yet for whom he works indefatigably. I use the word “aimless” advisedly, because that’s the one the story uses to describe its protagonist’s movements:
Nawab’s day, viewed from the air, would have appeared as aimless as a that of a butterfly… the maps of these days, superimposed, would have made a tangle; but every morning he emerged from the same place just as the sun came up, and every evening he returned there, tired now, darkened, switching off the bike, rolling it over the wooden lintel of the door leading into the courtyard, the engine ticking as it cooled.
We can see here Mueenuddin’s genius with the long sentence, his way of unfurling clauses in leisurely but consequential fashion. The idea of the difference between a life viewed from above and from within reappears in the story’s dramatic shifts in perspective, most famously in this description of the trees that line one of the roads Nawab tears along on his bike:
Some hundred and fifty years ago one of the princes had ridden that way, going to a wedding or a funeral in this remote district, felt hot, and ordered that rosewood trees be planted to shade the passersby. He forgot that he had given the order within a few hours, and in a few dozen years he in turn was forgotten, but these trees still stood, enormous now, some of them dead and looming without bark, white and leafless.
We considered this passage for a while, lingering over its magisterial irony: the whim of the potentate that can make such a mighty and extraordinary thing come to pass even as he himself is as soon forgotten as his initial whim. Only the narrator remembers, and this move to omniscience—there’s no attempt to tie the information to Nawab’s consciousness—suggests that individuals are insignificant in the sweep of time, an idea that casts the end of the story in a new light.
Halfway through, the story switches gears, as it were, and narrates a single incident in detail. Nawab is riding home one night when a man steps out on to the road and motions for him to stop. Nawab takes pity on the man and offers him a ride. Half a mile later, the man pokes a gun in Nawab’s side and orders him to stop. Nawab loses control of the bike, the men go flying and land in a heap, but when Nawab tries to take the man’s gun the robber shoots him in the groin. After another tussle, the man fires five shots at Nawab from point blank range: they all miss. The commotion brings two other men running; one of them shoots the robber. The injured men are taken to a pharmacy. Only Nawab has the money for medical care, and he refuses the robber’s pleading: “Have mercy, save me. I’m a human being also.”
Nawab counters with a lofty, self-serving judgment—“At every step of the road I went the right way and you the wrong”—and the man dies after whispering, “It’s not true.” Then this, the story’s remarkable final paragraph:
Yet Nawab’s mind caught at this [the referent is unclear—perhaps the man’s final words], looking at the man’s words and his death, like a bird hopping around some bright object, meaning to peck at it. And then he didn’t. He thought of the motorcycle, saved, and the glory of saving it. He was growing. Six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances, and not one of them killed him, not Nawabdin Electrician.
I had begun class by referencing E. M. Forster’s classic distinction between round and flat characters. Surprisingly, Forster begins by describing flat characters at length and only then goes on to define round characters—and then mostly in opposition to flat characters. Flat characters, says, Forster, can be summarized in a sentence. We went on to consider the relation between flat characters and stock characters of types (quite similar, but not, I think, the same). Flat characters are static, maybe even simple, but they’re not dull. I asked the class for an example of a flat character in “Nawabdin Electrician” and was pleased when the immediate answer was Nawabdin’s wife. (I also offered the example of the pharmacist, whose ruthlessness about only exchanging his services for cash reminds us of certain aspects of Nawab’s character.) We briefly discussed Nawab’s wife, concluding that what best characterized her was her long-suffering attitude to her husband. I wanted students to see, though, how warm and moving a portrait of a “flat” character can be. We see that her life is hard, she always comes last in the family, but she isn’t entirely put upon, she’s shrewd and funny and seems to love her husband as much as he evidently loves her. And we learn all this in only a single scene.
I proceeded to offer a riff on what the names of character can reveal, whether through allusion (Ishmael in Moby Dick, as exiled and wayward as his namesake in Genesis) or through description, (the evasive and obfuscatory lawyers Dodgson and Fogg in Pickwick Papers: I nicked these examples from a textbook I’ve lying around my office.) Then I turned to the most interesting thing Forster says about round characters: they surprise us. Their motivations are complex, sometimes inscrutable even to themselves.
Having given this background, I suggested that Nawab was a perfect example of a round character. The ending, students readily agreed, surprised them. Did they like Nawab, I asked? The class was split, and this naïve question sparked the most open, back-and-forth conversation we’d had so far. Some students were taken by Nawab’s devotion to his family. Others were impressed by what a bad ass he turns out to be. But still others disliked him for that same reason, pointing out how judgmental and cruel he proves in the end. Indeed, I suggested, to call him a bad ass is to believe his own propaganda, which we see at work in the free indirect discourse of that brilliant final sentence. This is aggrandizement of a different sort than the prince’s whim that led to a forest. This is a man given the opportunity to reflect on his actions and simply choosing not to (“And then he didn’t.”) Moreover, though I forgot to mention this at the time, to judge the robber as harshly as Nawab does is to ignore another surprising narrative shift when we suddenly, via narrative omniscience, learn that the man had never used guns before and couldn’t bear to point at the head or the body.
There’s much more to say about the subtle ambivalence of Mueenuddin’s characterization of his protagonist. I’ll end simply by citing the passage we looked at in the last minutes of class, with time running down and still so much to say. It’s a passage from early in the story, when we are still being introduced to Nawab, still inclined to look kindly on him as a Robin Hood type. Nawab has been called in to fix the pump on a well:
Hammer dangling like a savage’s axe, Nawab entered the oily room housing the pump and electric motor. Silence. He settled on his haunches. The men crowded the door, till he shouted that he must have light. He approached the offending object warily but with his temper rising circled it, pushed it about a bit, began to take liberties with it, settled in with it, drank tea next to it, and finally began disassembling it. With his screwdriver, blunt and long, lever enough to pry up flagstones, he cracked the shields hiding the machine’s penetralia. A screw popped and flew into the shadows, He took the ball-and-peen and delivered a cunning blow. The intervention failed. Pondering, he ordered one of the farmworkers to find a really thick piece of leather and to collect sticky mango sap from a nearby tree. So it went, all day, into the afternoon, Nawab trying one thing and then another, heating the pipes, cooling them, joining wires together, circumventing switches and fuses. And yet somehow, in fulfillment of his genius for crude improvisation, the pumps continued to run.
The backhandedness of that last sentence is wonderful: is that honest praise for genuine skill, however crude, or is it a testament to an unchanged reality (not even Nawab could break the machine)? Over and over the passage undermines Nawab: his “cunning blow” fails with a thud echoed by the unusually short sentence in the midst of these glorious, sinuous lists of Nawab’s efforts, which range from brute force to tender solicitation. (Am I the only one to hear “genitalia” in that obscure “penetralia”? Not to mention his “taking liberties” with the machine.) Nawab is a master, wielding his carefully described tools with precision. Nawab is a charlatan, throwing everything at the wall and hoping something, some piece of leather dripping with mango, sticks.
The precision of Mueenuddin’s description, his genius with tempo and rhythm (we really feel Nawab’s desperation in those lovely lenthy sentences), and his through-going ambivalence about Nawab’s character: in these ways the passage offers in miniature everything that is so good about this terrific story.
In past entries, I’ve expressed some doubts about this group of students. This week was certainly our best so far. It seemed as though the students were starting to get a handle on what I’m asking them to do. Some still have that half-puzzled, half-terrified look. But in general the week was characterized by a kind of looseness and joy that our conversations had usually been lacking so far. Here’s hoping that atmosphere continues next week, when we discuss the concept of place/setting/locale in stories by Malamud and Rachel Seiffert.