Review: 'Exquisite Cadavers,' By Meena Kandasamy Meena Kandasamy's new novel is ostensibly about a married couple in London dealing with storms both intimate and geopolitical — but the writer also manages to work her own story into the margins.
NPR logo Meena Kandasamy Claims Space For Herself In 'Exquisite Cadavers'

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Book Reviews

Meena Kandasamy Claims Space For Herself In 'Exquisite Cadavers'

Atlantic Books
Exquisite Cadavers, by Meena Kandasamy
Atlantic Books

Meena Kandasamy's third work of fiction is a novella where, as she writes in the opening pages, "each influence, each linchpin behind every freewheeling plot-turn, [is] referenced and documented." The title comes from the French surrealist game cadavre exquis, which is, in turn, a variation of the parlor game Consequences. Players assemble a collection of words or images sequentially and per predetermined rules to create a real-time story. Using a similar technique, Kandasamy builds her fictional storyline with collected fragments of her own life. This collusion of fact and fiction unfolds a dual narrative of the intimate theater of two couples — the fictional one spotlighted front-and-center and the real one shimmering in the margins — further shaped by specific socio-political events in their lives.

Maya and Karim — the fictional couple — have a conflicted, inter-racial, multicultural marriage. Their daily dramas are heightened by their ongoing work-related issues (Maya's with a newspaper, Karim's a film-maker) and their ever-encroaching pasts. Kandasamy's poetic language merges the domestic and political smoothly as she presents vignettes of their lives with rhythmic ebbs and flows, storms and sorrows, charms and comforts. Alternating between Maya's and Karim's perspectives, Kandasamy translates their different responses to racism, Islamophobia, Brexit (they live in London), anti-immigrant sentiment, Hindu fundamentalism in India, a potential baby, a father's new marriage, a brother's disappearance, and more.

All along, we get a carefully-constructed, running commentary in the margins with anecdotes and lists from the writer's own upbringing and relationships, and ideas about her politics and her craft. At times, the marginalia shapes the scaffolding of the main fictional story. But, just as often, it is a window into the parallel universe of the writer as she creates. There are also some segments of silence in these margins — spaces for the reader's imagination to interpret aspects of the main story. The points of divergence between the two stories are just as important as the points of convergence because of how they reflect the writer's inspirations, aspirations, and apprehensions. Text matters, subtext matters more, and what's not referenced or documented in the margins is also revelatory.

This isn't auto-fiction of the sort we've seen from Karl Ove Knausgård or, more recently, Ayad Akhtar and Martin Amis. Nor is this metafiction in the infamous style of David Foster Wallace. If anything, it is closer to John Steinbeck's well-crafted Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, in which he wrote letters to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, on the left hand pages of a notebook with the text of East of Eden on the right hand pages. Kandasamy herself mentions Jacques Derrida's Glas as a direct influence for her book's structure.

In any case, the literary device here is a profoundly self-aware act of rebellion and rebuttal to the responses she received for her previous novel, When I Hit You. That was a fictional story of an abusive marriage, and given her own such previous marriage, a number of readers and reviewers — even when praising the book — were quick to label it as memoir or narrative nonfiction. In interviews and essays, Kandasamy has called the responses a stinging dismissal of her art and craft – and something that happens frequently to women artists of color. In the book, she writes: ". . . to a Western audience, writers like me are interesting because: –we are from a place where horrible things happen, or, –horrible things have happened to us, or, –a combination of the above. No one discusses process with us. No one discusses our work in the framework of the novel as an evolving form. No one treats us as writers, only as diarists who survived."

So, for Kandasamy, as a woman writer of color, taking on this avant-garde storytelling style is not simply a subversive statement. It is about laying claim to an intellectual space that is generally not allowed to writers like her. At times, she isn't able to fully scale the climb she has set out for herself with this slim volume. Some spaces are so tightly-crammed with her wide-ranging opinions about modern film-making or political ideologies or the novel-writing process that it's just the writer interacting with her text, leaving little room for reader engagement. What matters most, however, is that Kandasamy has beautifully scaled an artistic summit often denied to writers like her. Her success is that we, as readers and reviewers, are drawn to deliberate the creative merits of her singular experiment rather than her personal life, even though it's been laid bare in these margins.

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and host of the Desi Books podcast. https://jennybhattwriter.com.