THE GOLDEN GATE: A Novel in Verse. By Vikram Seth. Random House. 307 pp. $17.95.
LIKE THE BRIDGE for which it is named, Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate is a thing of anomalous beauty: a long narrative poem set in present- day San Francisco, and that is odd enough, but what is odder, a rhyming poem in strict meter that is a "good read" after the manner of the better sort of fiction in the women's magazines. If Mary Gordon had written a contemporary romance that revolved around the "issues" of nuclear disarmament and sexual politics (viewed from an enlightened Catholic perspective) and had then boiled down her prose into 8,250 lines of verse, the result would be very like The Golden Gate.
The real surprise of this "novel-in-verse" is not that it has been done at all (for there has bee a boomlet of narrative poetry lately) but that it has been done so well. Vikram Seth has recently published one slim volume of shorter poems (The Humble Administrator's Garden, Carcanet), but for all but the most au courant readers of poetry The Golden Gate will represent the author's debut, and what a debut it is!
Seth writes poetry as it has not been written for nearly a century -- that's to say, with the intention that his work should give pleasure to that ideal Common Reader for whom good novelists have always aspired to write. For most poetry professionals earning their living by the teaching of creative writing, Seth's ambitions, and his accomplishment, will be abhorrent if not simply incomprehensible. Does one write poetry to entertain? Are the affairs and courtships of five Bay Area yuppies -- described as such on the very jacket of the book -- a suitable subject for poetry? Are wit and grace and mere cleverness to be counted among the desiderata of poetry? Dullness forfend!
Yet if you have no vested interest in keeping poetry within the generic boundaries established by academic criticism and by the customary, sanctioned sloth of most poets (slim volumes take less work, after all, than thick), you will almost certainly find The Golden Gate an agreeable and judiciously balanced (not too heavy, not too light) tale that has been enhanced by the power of poetry to the narrative equivalent of haute cuisine.
This is not to say that there aren't stretches of the story that don't sag (but isn't that so of most novels, even very good ones?) or that the verse is unexceptionably fine. Some stanzas gush, some lines scan only under duress, and a couple of the larger scenes misfire. Seth's form accommodates most narrative needs naturally, but its artifice does become obtrusive when applied to long speeches and soliloquys. At one point a Berrigan-like priest delivers a 19 stanza-long peroration against the arms race, the effect of which was like hearing Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth transformed into rhyming bon mots. Even the converted may become restive with such preaching.
Those few exceptions taken, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, following its quadrangular romance with the same degree of amused involvement or involved bemusement I would give to one of Woody Allen's sedater comedies of sexual intrigue. The plot is simple. Let the sign p represent loves-and-is-loved-by and the sign )( represent the sundering of love. Then in Act 1, ApB and CpD; in Act 2, A)(B and C)(D; and in Act 3, BpC, while A and D are left with their regrets. The one feature of the plot that may strike some readers as a novelty is that the fourth of the principals, Ed, is gay. But please note, Ed is a good Catholic who initiates his breakup with C from a deeply engrained sense of sexual guilt. Ed's character is psychologically feasible, as Seth presents it, but his self-sealed fate does beg the question of how the author, as an avowedly Catholic writer, would deal with a gay character who was not supplied with such convenient compunctions.
The chief attraction of The Golden Gate is not its story as such, but its ever-recognizable and ever-fresh representation of upper middle- class life in the 1980s, a life that Seth celebrates with none of the dyspepsic acerbity of such prose chroniclers of the current scene as Ann Beattie or Frederick Barthelme. His characters are not invented to afford his readers the pleasure of knowing themselves to be more knowing. They are all of them quite nice people -- good-looking, well-bred, prosperous, principled, affectionate -- "yuppies" as the jacket copy has it, which is an easily broken code for "people like you and me." The effect of such characters, en masse, together with Seth's chroniclings of representative California pleasures is like seeing a great many Renoirs all at once. Here, from a hundred possible samplings of Seth's craft, is a single stanza to illustrate this zest for the good ($50,000 per annum) life:
John looks about him with enjoyment.
What a man needs, he thinks, is
Well-paid, congenial employment;
A house; a modicum of wealth;
Some sunlight; coffee and the papers;
Artichoke hearts adorned with capers;
A Burberry trench coat; a Peugeot;
and in the evening, some Rameau
or Couperin; a home-cooked dinner;
A Stilton, and a little port;
And so to a duvet. In short,
In life's brief game to be a winner
A man must have . . . oh yes, above
All else, of course, someone to love.
The rhyme-scheme of these 14 lines is sonnetary, but the meter is four beats per line, not five. A four-beat line -- the natural meter of ballads and doggerel -- is much easier to sustain over the long stretch for both poet and reader. The model for this not quite-a-sonnet is Sir Charles Johnston's superb translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1977), and it is not alone the meter of that marvelous long poem that inspired Seth's emulation. The spirit of Pushkin's verse romance informs Seth's own tale at every turn, and Pushkin's intrusion of his own voice as commentator and master of ceremonies gives Seth a model for the proper balance between narrative momentum and poetic fun and games in his own poem.
Rarely has a poetic role-model been so sedulously imitated, and even more rarely has such imitation yielded so healthy an offspring. The least that can be said of both Pushkin's and Seth's novels-in-verse is that unlike so many would-be epics theirs are never monotonous. Both portray ordinary life without falling into banality, and one finishes both books with a sense that poetry rarely yields, a sense that life, however messy it may get from time to time, is really, pretty much, a bowl of cherries.