THE GOLDEN GATE: A NOVEL IN VERSE by Vikram Seth (Random House: $17.95; 307 pp.)
Ordinarily, when a book inspires a great prepublication brouhaha, who should care? As a rule, wise readers will let the noise flow in one ear and out the other, like tattle about the girlhood of Lady Macbeth.
Still, a serious commotion in the air has preceded “The Golden Gate.” For all I know, it just might presage a literary storm. Already, Gore Vidal, a writer not given to gush, has dubbed the book “the great California novel.” Another tough-minded critic, D. J. Enright, has chalked up for its author “a technical triumph unparalleled in English.” In Massachusetts, one book dealer has been demanding $50 for a bootlegged set of the proofs. In Manhattan literary enclaves, I’m told, pirated photocopies of the book have been circulating more busily than cocaine with Perrier on the side.
All this flap, mind you, concerns a young man’s first novel. And who is Vikram Seth? Born in Calcutta in 1952, schooled at Oxford, he is the author of two recent books: “From Heaven Gate,” an account of a trip through Sinkiang and Tibet, and last year’s warmly praised collection of short lyrics and satiric poems, “The Humble Administrator’s Garden.” At the moment, he works as an editor for the Stanford University Press. In “The Golden Gate,” he portrays himself in Kim Tarvesh (his own name scrambled), partygoer and perpetual graduate student.
A novel about the manners and morals of Silicon Valley yuppies might well be expected to make at least a local stir, but why all this coast-to-coast hullabaloo? The answer is clear: It isn’t merely Seth’s revelations of yuppiedom. Awe strikes whoever casts a glance up this mountain of technical virtuosity. “The Golden Gate"--all of it, even its table of contents, its dedication to the author’s friend and critic, UCLA poet and professor Timothy Steele, its autobiographical notes--is written in verse: 593 repeated stanzas, strictly measured and rhymed.
At the risk of turning off any reader who loathes technicalities, let me quickly note a curious truth, which Seth acknowledges. The basic building-block, this stanza pattern, is the very same stanza of another “novel in verse”: Pushkin’s classic “Eugene Onegin.” A compressed sonnet in 14 four-footed lines, this stanza clicks into couplets in the middle and at the end. It encourages wit (which it underscores with feminine rhymes: pianolas and Coca-Colas , and in Seth’s sure hands, it shows hardly any seams:
How ugly babies are! How heedless
Of all else than their bulging selves--
Like sumo wrestlers, plush with needless
Kneadable flesh--like mutant elves,
Plump and vindictively nocturnal,
With lungs determined and infernal
(A pity that the blubbering blobs Come unequipped with volume knobs),
And so intrinsically conservative,.
A change of breast will make them squall
With no restraint or qualm at all.
Some think them cuddly, cute, and curvative.
Keep them, I say. Good luck to you;
No doubt you need to be one too.
Selves and elves , by the way, is not the lousy rhyme it tends to be in bad verse. When Seth says elves , that’s just what he means. And why did he cast his novel in verse, anyway? Why has he used “The dusty bread molds of Onegin / In the brave bakery of Reagan?” He tells us why: for fun. He’d aspire to nothing higher than verse. Still, poetry keeps sneaking in--
As in an airless room a curtain
Parts to admit the evening breeze,
So John’s exhausted and uncertain
Tension admits a transient ease ....
For all its metaphoric moments, though, “The Golden Gate” is a true novel, as author and publisher insist. Realistic, written in scenes, it conducts us on a psychological safari through five interesting souls. Upwardly mobile young professionals, they all live and work in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. By night, Janet Hayakawa plays drums for the rock group Liquid Sheep; by day, she sculpts. Formerly, Jan slept with John Brown, a dour young bomb-builder who, feeling adrift now, admits, “The Dow-Jones of my heart’s depressed.” (That Jan can still stand to listen to this guy shows you the height of her generosity.)
When she does John a big favor, by advertising for a new lover for him, Jan looses as avalanche of fate. It sweeps on to involve Liz Dorati, a sensitive woman lawyer, and her brother Ed, an advertising man who writhes under the weight of a Catholic upbringing. Ed’s sense of sin, more muscular than a pillar saint’s, keeps wrestling with his gay nature. The wrestling match speeds up when he meets Phil Weiss, divorced single parent, a political idealist who has thrown over his high-tech job to crusade against the missiles he once made.
Seth, it soon appears, knows these people inside out. He understands the troubled conscience of the systems analyst who fears that his labors will speed the Big Bang. And Seth knows their habitat: singles bars and celebratory bashes, wine making feats and protest rallies. Besides, the novel abounds in vivid minor characters, some of them animals: Ed’s pet iguana Schwarzenegger and, most memorable, Liz’s formidable cat Charlemagne, lord of her hearth and bane of lover John.
What Robert Frost once affirmed was his big secret, Seth demonstrates anew. As Frost pointed out, the twists and turns of ordinary, idiomatic speech, when laid against a metrical line, give that line tremendous strength. In Seth’s strict verse, today’s small talk mingles with literary allusion--as when Jan tells John, “Choose a richer lens to see with . . . Trade in that zoom for a wide angle . . . You are the DJ of your fate.” Even when such dialogue couldn’t really come out of a human mouth, Seth persuades us that it just might do so anyway.
Deserving of applause though he is, Seth will probably get even more of it than he has coming. No doubt he will be proclaimed the reinventor of narrative verse in America, although in truth we’ve had a whole slew of long story-poems lately. At least, recent and notable efforts include those of James Merrill, Frederick Feirstein, Richard Moore, and Frederick Turner. Still, I don’t know when a versifier has proved better versed in a verse-form than Seth. Such fluency probably hasn’t been heard in English since Alexander Pope went around letting heroic couples effortlessly tumble from his lips.
Essential to an enjoyment of “The Golden Gate,” I’d suggest, is to read it slowly, silently pronouncing each line in the head’s echo-chamber. Although this advice goes against the wisdom of every speed-reading course, the method may enable readers to savor more keenly the book’s delectable art.
But isn’t “The Golden Gate” stultifyingly artificial? To enclose a story in a strict verse form, I’ll admit, is to place a conspicuous frame around it. Seth underscores this artifice with occasional asides that recall Byron’s in “Don Juan” (Reader, enough of this apology . . . "). Some will be tempted to imagine Seth’s novel translated into prose, without the stanzas. Even so denuded, it would still be well worth a read.
In that case, with the verse removed, a reader might complain that these people after all are ordinary; that the end of the affair between Janet Hayakawa and John the bomb-designer seems a bit melodramatic, like a climax in soap opera--or in a life, Seth gently preaches indirect sermons we have heard before; on honesty, on loyalty to friends, on the need for the human species to survive. I don’t mind those sermons, myself, when the preacher is so eloquently wise.
Luckily, “The Golden Gate” could no more successfully be taken out of its Onegin stanza than a dolphin taken out of its tank could be kept alive. Like the frame that Edgar Degas casts around his ordinary drinkers of absinthe, Seth’s verse-form calls our attention to people we know, or think we know. A splendid tour de force, “The Golden Gate” finally hooks us into caring less about its author’s skill than in caring how its sad and wistful comedy will turn out. For pages, we forget Seth’s incredible dexterity. Mesmerized, we watch, as in a kaleidoscope, the shifting and resettling patterns of five lives.