*Originally published August 14, 2015 in the Michigan Quarterly Review online
Reading Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and John Gardner’sThe Art of Fiction side-by-side makes for a fun, challenging experience: figuring out how Mueenuddin’s prose violates stylistic conventions and gets away with it. In fact, Gardner’s (and other grammarians’) prescribed sentence constructions often lead to clumsy iterations. Consider the following:
There’s no need to belabor this rule, but Gardner’s warning against using passive sentences is worth reminding in its sternness: “The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction except when used for comic effect, as when the writer mimics some fool’s slightly pompous way of speaking or quotes some institutional directive.” Here is Mueenuddin’s opening in the story “Provide, Provide” (emphasis mine).
Seated at a dinner in Lahore one winter in the late 1970s, for the third time in a week Mr. K.K. Harouni was forced to endure a conversation about a Rolls-Royce coupe recently imported by one of the Waraiches, a family no one had heard of just five years before. The car had been specially modified in London and cost an absurd amount of money, and the mention of it inevitably led to a discussion of the new Pakistani industrialists who at that time were blazing into view.
Mueenuddin employs not one, but two, passive sentences consecutively—even three, if one is to consider that the person doing the “mentioning” of the car in the second sentence is absent. Nor is he using the passive here for a comic or ironic effect. A quick and clumsy edit to turn the passive into active construction results in something like:
Mr. Makhdoom Talwan forced Mr. K.K. Harouni, seated at a dinner in Lahore one winter in the late 1970s, for the third time in a week, to endure a conversation about a Rolls-Royce coupe recently imported by one of the Waraiches, a family no one had heard of just five years before. A garage in London had specially modified the car for an absurd amount of money, said Mr. Talwan, inevitably leading the discussion of the new Pakistani industrialists…
The obvious problem to the above is that Mr. Makhdoom Talwan (a name I particularly liked and stole from another of Mueenuddin’s stories) is not the focus here. Putting him in the very first sentence would inflate his importance and frustrate the readers with memorizing the name of someone who would never show up again in this story. Similarly, introducing a general “garage in London” just for the sake of writing an active sentence takes away the focus from the Waraiche’s car, which is what preoccupies Mr. K.K. Harouni. He doesn’t even care about the Waraiches—a family who no one has heard of until recently. Mr. Harouni’s concern is his declining status vis-a-vis other people’s rise—signified by the Rolls-Royce coupe.
Here’s a subtler edit that omits “was forced to” and makes Mr. K.K. Harouni the subject:
Seated at a dinner in Lahore one winter in the late 1970s, for the third time in a week Mr. K.K. Harouni endured a conversation about a Rolls-Royce coupe recently imported by one of the Waraiches, a family no one had heard of just five years before.
I would argue that the revised sentence, although more efficient (by two words) lacks a sense of the social world of Mr. Harouni, in which there are indeed many (lesser, names of no import) people forcing their views on him. This theme of gossiping and rigid class structure becomes more and more crucial as the story progresses.
Gardner’s dictum against infinite-verb phrase constructions is similar to the one against splitting infinitives and dangling modifiers—they often lead to wrong temporal sequences and are often illogical (Gardner’s example is “Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, Eloise drove into town.”). But it’s also connected to the fear of the passive voice: the alleged preoccupation and impatience of readers to immediately and correctly find the sentence’s subject. I think this may be true to a degree—although when one considers that speakers in other languages often omit their subjects or put them towards the very end, one wonders whether this is universal and if readers are more patient than we give them credit for.
In any case, here is another example from “Provide, Provide” in which Mueenuddin violates the rule:
One spring day, while driving Jaglani from Firoza to Dunyapur, among the rising green sugarcane fields, with partridge and the migratory quail calling, Mustafa the driver, sensing his master’s good mood, begged to speak.
The prescriptive alternatives would be something like:
One spring day, Mustafa was driving Jaglani from Firoza to Dunyapur … when he sensed his master’s good mood. He begged to speak.
One spring day, Mustafa drove Jaglani from Firoza to Dunyapur. […] The driver, sensing his master’s good mood, begged to speak.
The second construction is probably closest to Mueenuddin’s, but I believe it still falls short of his intentions. Aside from rhythm, the quality that is lost by putting the subject (Mustafa) earlier in the sentence has to do with a very non-Western concept: humility. In Mueenuddin’s original sentence, Mustafa is almost invisible at the start, although we take on his POV as he observed the surroundings around him, waited for the perfect opportunity to ask his employer an important question. The sequence here is important: Before he can even speak, Mustafa has to beg; before he can beg, he has to sense his master’s mood; before he can sense his master’s mood, he has to observe the surroundings while driving him. Tamper with any of this particular sequence and you risk Mustafa’s delicate situation. Even a slight change from progressive to the preterite (“sensing his master’s good mood” to “sensed his master’s good mood”), a convention often encouraged in rule books, makes Mustafa somehow more presumptuous.
The stuffiness that underlies infinitive-verb phrase constructions, or any left-branching constructions for that matter, is subverted in Mueenuddin’s version. Compare the famous ending in James Joyce’s “Araby”—
Gazing up to the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
—in which the short delay in setting up the subject is used for dramatic, sentimental effect (move the subject up front like in ordinary speech and we get: “I gazed up to the darkness and saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity,” which is not as dramatic).
The delay in identifying Mueenuddin’s driver emphasizes his lack of status and indeed the ironic non-drama that the sentence is building towards: he only begged to speak!
Overloading of Sentences
The final rule-breaking I observed in Mueenuddin’s prose style is one that I immediately noticed but that took me some time to understand why and how it worked. Gardner’s advice against overloading sentences with too many details, thereby testing the reader’s focus, is generally a good one. For this, Gardner has a handy explanation:
As a rule, if a sentence has three syntactic slots, as in
(1) The man (2) walked (3) down the road.
—a writer may load one or two of the slots with modifiers, but if the sentence is to have focus—that is, if the reader is to be able to make out some clear image, not just a jumble—the writer cannot cram all three syntactic slots with details.
In other words, for the example above, one can’t describe (1) the man, (2) the manner of his walk, and (3) the place of his walking with equally long digressions. One has to prioritize an aspect above the rest.
Here is Mueenuddin describing a particular rural setting in the titular story, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”:
Old trees were scattered around the receding lawn, creating areas of shade where grass wouldn’t grow. A row of mulberry trees just ripening at the far end attracted sugar-heavy bees, which sipped purple berries hanging from the branches and littering the ground. Overhead, in the bleached sky, kites and vultures wheeled at a great height on the afternoon thermals, as if the sky itself were slowly turning.
At first glance, one wonders where the focus of the description is: the trees, the bees, or the sky? All seems to be highly and equally detailed. However, reading the passage did not make me lose any focus. And I think it has to do with how there seems to be an internal, temporal logic working in these sentences.
The POV in this scene is Husna’s, a servant of Mr. K.K. Harouni. The whole paragraph almost works like Gardner’s syntactic slots—except that each sentence works as its own slot. The focus is first on the tree and the manner of its scattering; the second is on the bees and the manner of their sipping; the last is of the sky and its appearance. Clearly, the logic has to do with Husna’s gaze: focusing first on the ground, then being carried mid-air by the bees, and finally up above where the vultures are flying.
Contextually, this is the day that Husna is going to sleep with her employer, Mr. Harouni, for the first time. The three sentences create a charged atmosphere and are tied by symbols of ripeness and decay. They also work like a left-branching structure, delaying and building up to the last sentence that carries the most dramatic weight: “as if the sky itself were slowly turning.” As Husna’s gaze travels higher and higher, her emotions in those sentences actually probe deeper and deeper until they reflect her anxiety of the inevitable act.
To be fair to Gardner, his book is subtitled: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, and he does remind us: “Needless to say, the writer must judge every case individually, and the really good writer may get away with just about anything.”
Daniyal Mueenuddin is one such good writer that got away with pretty much everything.