Critics have been going bonkers over "The Golden Gate," a novel about some young San Franciscans written entirely in verse: and not just any verse but rigorously controlled sonnets, 590 of them.
Some reviewers rave without restraint; others seem astonished to discover that an actual story can emerge from the jogging, jagged rhymes; still others are content to concentrate on Charlemagne, "one of the great cats in literature," a character so inner-directed, so arrogant, so engagingly ruthless that even the author, Vikram Seth, insists he doesn't mind "if he gets top billing."
Seth, who breezed through town recently, has never had a cat.
"But you know," he said, "I feel as if I had entered the cat's mind. It didn't happen with the iguana at all. The iguana was just too self-contained, too opaque."
Not that it's that kind of book. "The Golden Gate" starts to be an ingenious and rather brittle examination of these self-absorbed yuppies. But it builds. Gradually the reader becomes involved in their complicated lives, and the ending, gentle and laconic, is moving in a way that defies prose.
"If all one got at the end was a sense of cleverness," said Seth, "that would be a pity, and I would say it hadn't really worked."
The cleverness is most noticeable at the beginning, with such antic rhymes as "tic-tac-toe" and "whoa," "San Francisco" and "Crisco" (what else?), "trotter" and "not-a." On the other hand, the need to rhyme gave him some lovely images, whether happy accidents or not, like "the kelp of loneliness," to go with "help."
Dialogue, which fits with varying success into the Procrustean form, gives the early verses a headlong effect:
"What? Advertise? You must be joking!"
"I'm serious." "Jan, you're nuts." "I'm not."
"You know, Jan, you've had such a soaking
In Tsingtao you don't know what's what.
Me advertise? You must be kidding!"
"Kiddo, I'm not. Just do my bidding.
Take out an ad. Right now. Today.
'Young handsome yuppie seeks . . . ' "No way!
I've always thought your schemes, though wacky
(Conceived in midair, born in haste),
Remained within the bounds of taste,
But as for this one -- talk of tacky!
Let's talk of something else instead.
'Young yuppie . . . !' Better dead than read."
The man ultimately responsible, you could say, for this dazzling first novel is Aleksandr Pushkin. Seth, working on his doctorate at Stanford, happened to pick up the Charles Johnston translation of "Eugene Onegin" -- and was bowled over. The idea of a novel driven by the powerful momentum of iambic tetrameter intrigued him.
With two fewer syllables than the standard sonnet iambic pentameter line, the Pushkin verses tend to rush with an urgency not often felt in the stately Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet.
"I'd just finished a travel book, prose," Seth said, "and to keep from thinking about the reviews I began writing a few sonnets, to try it out."
He decided that the sonnets relaxed him, liberated him from his worries. He wrote some more. And some more.
"I just got into it. I got deeper and deeper. After a while I was thinking in tetrameter."
Indeed. The dedication is a sonnet too, and even the author's bio at the end ("In '52, born in Calcutta/ 8 lb. 1 oz. Was heard to utter/ First rhymes -- 'cat,' 'mat' -- at age of three . . . ").
Seth has one of those minds that delight in word play, backward spellings, Joycean puns and games. He took to the tricky rhyme scheme (ababccddeffegg) as though to the meter born, appreciating its complexities: the variety in the rhymes that prevents them from meandering endlessly, like a stray doggerel; the first line with its extra syllable that somehow keeps the series of verses from thumping pedantically on and on. The form seems designed for a long narrative.
"Some days I could only write a line or two. Other days I could finish seven or eight sonnets. I guess the average was two a day, one before lunch, one after. I worked on it for a year."
Where the Pushkin story tends to ramble and digress in long discussions of love, life and the landscape, Seth sticks to specifics. He evokes the San Francisco scene, the fog and the restaurants, the hills and cable car tracks and freeways, the Bay Guardian and the health food stores, to achieve an immediacy, a sense of the kaleidoscopic pace of these young lives:
They drive across to Sausalito;
Later, divide a vile burrito
From Taco Hut, and wash it down
With a Dos Equis, cool and brown . . .
There are, of course, some digressions, notably a long sequence on an antinuke rally. Seth feels strongly about the subject.
"My younger brother was arrested some years ago in England, protesting the American missile base in Oxfordshire. It was partly because of him that I began seeing what people are doing about the bomb. His name is Shantum, by the way. It means peace."
Seth's father is a consultant for a shoe manufacturer, and his mother, a lawyer in New Delhi for 25 years, is a high court judge. Seth himself got to Oxford on a scholarship, graduated from Corpus Christi College and is now about 14 months away from completing his doctorate on the economic demography of China.
"Oh yes," he remarks in passing, "I just got a Guggenheim for my writing, so I might go back home for a while. Maybe do a novel set in India. I'll wait till something grabs me by the scruff. Then I can feel guilty about the PhD just as I felt guilty about this novel when I was working on the PhD."
He already has published a book of poetry ("The Humble Administrator's Garden") and the travel book ("From Heaven Lake") that came out of a two-month hitchhiking tour of Tibet. That one won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
The slim, slight scholar is surprised by the reaction "The Golden Gate" has had. It is not, he emphasizes, a roman a clef, for "the characters have a life of their own, though the germ of them may be a real person." He gives himself a walk-on part as the anagrammatic Kim Tarvesh.
"I wonder about the specificity of it: Will it be inaccessible five years down the line, or to people across the continent, but I don't think you can be too concerned about that. You nail your novel to eternity, yet you want it to be of its time and place. After all, Dickens isn't simply a London novelist, Pushkin isn't a St. Petersburg writer."
We'll have to wait and see about eternity, but Seth has certainly nailed the time and place, and then some.