The other day, I began re-reading Arundhati Roy’s masterpiece “The God of Small Things,” and as I, even before turning the first page, fell through the lettered terrain of her amazing prose to land squarely in the heat of Kerala with its bursting jackfruits and dissolute bluebottles, I also could not help but wonder: Why on earth has she not written a second work of fiction?
Her 1997 debut novel earned her not only uniform acclaim but also the Booker Prize, as good a sign as any that she had, indeed, arrived as a writer of great fiction. That novel went on to sell over six million copies world-wide, and is possibly how most of us still think of her—as the wonderful author of.
But after that, since 1997, nothing. Nothing but non-fiction that is. Well, she does not think of non-fiction as “nothing,” of course. Writing non-fiction is for her a tense and urgent business, she just has to get it out. “It’s like the body doesn’t have room for its organs,” she said in a recent interview with the Guardian.
So, instead of another work of fiction she directed her considerable energies towards political activism, which over the years has seen her in and out of trouble with both the public and her peers, as well as with the law. While these energies have produced a host of essays and polemic tracts, they do not tell the whole truth.
And that is my point: many writers, readers, and critics agree that fiction is, in fact, the lie that tells the truth. Some take an additional step and hold that the truth told by fiction is a deeper one (or more transcending one, depending on viewpoint) than that told by non-fiction, and I would certainly agree with that: fiction tells a truth both more personal and more universal, and one that cannot be told any other way. Whey then, did Roy turn away from this deeper truth to pursue her surface warfare of polemics?
I just don’t know, but I lament the fact.
Now, she is apparently working on a second novel, but at a pace that makes Donna Tartt appear to rush things.
In her recent Guardian interview, she confided, “I have been working on it for quite a few years. If those characters are still hanging around in my house, swinging their legs and smoking their cigarette butts, they’re not going to go away, so there must be something there.”
She also says that she is a different person altogether when writing fiction, which, she says, she can relax into. “I don’t mean because it’s easy to write but I trust its rhythms and I don’t have to get it out there. There’s no urgency. It’s like cooking, it takes its time. I rather like the idea of just living inside it and not coming out of it.”
Well, precisely. So why doesn’t she simply connect the dots? Why doesn’t she return to and then tell her larger truth? She is certainly immensely capable of it.
Not holding my breath, though.