August 12th, 2009

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Naeem Murr's The Perfect Man

The last few days, I've been lost in the world of Naeem Murr's third novel The Perfect Man (Random House, 2007).

Murr writes prose that is aching, devastating, beautiful, and tragic all at once. Centered on a mixed-race Indian-English boy named Rajiv Travers who ends up in a somewhat-orphaned state in Pisgah, Missouri, in the 1950s, the novel sketches out the muffled aspirations and desires of the townfolk. Dark secrets subtend the convoluted relationships that criss-cross the characters of the town. As one review blurbed on the back of the book suggests, the world created here is Faulknerian, complete with an idiot boy and repressed sexualities constantly erupting in failed and troubled encounters. The narrative also reminds me of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, the short-story cycle that was a model for many American writers interested in weaving stories of small-town life and the emotional complexities of townfolk in a claustrophobic and incestuous setting.

The central characters are young boys and girls on the verge of adulthood--Rajiv, Annie, Lew, and Nora--who struggle to understand their emerging sexual desires against a backdrop of their parents and other adults who seem equally if not more confused about sex. The novel is rife with hints of sexual taboo--incest, adultery, rape--that structure and frustrate the young characters' attempts to express their desires in positive ways. The adults all, in some way or another, are filled with shame about sex and desire, and their children see this broken quality as a pervasive kind of stiltedness in their world.

The adult characters are full of secrets and hurtful pasts. All of them struggle forwards in their lives as if lost, and they make choices and goad each other into destructive actions as if flailing for a sense of meaning and worth. It is in this kind of world that Murr's exploration of love and intimacy is most powerful, and some of the descriptions of how characters feel about relationships as exquisite. For example, Ruth, the romance-novel-writing single woman in town who takes in Raj:
She just wanted to be alone. Oliver had been perfect, his past and all his unhappiness sealed as she had sealed hers. He was like a dream figure, endlessly approaching across vast distances. Haig was shocked by how little Ruth knew about his brother, but they had both preferred it like this, living in the present, as needful and mysterious to each other as parent to child and child to parent. Whatever was inside them, however terrible, was transforming, under the pressure of hard work, silence, and tenderness, into something resembling love. The cost, though, was that they were never in love, since they existed for each other too obliquely. Love occupied the spaces between, worried the edges of their consciousness like a song neither could quite remember. (36-37)

The narrative jumps back and forth primarily between the years that Raj is in town and a moment a couple of years before his arrival when Lew's little brother Roh drowns in the Missouri River under mysterious circumstances. Lew was witness to something that night, but his mind fractures as he tries to deal with the events against the adult world's refusal to accept what he thinks he saw.

I was really quite mesmerized by the prose of this novel, and I look forward to reading Murr's previous two novels sometime soon.

While Raj is a mixed-race Indian/English character, the novel as a whole does little to explore the history of British colonialism in India and thus eludes a reading that would place it in a group with other South Asian diasporic writing. (Murr was born and raised in London but has lived in the United States since his twenties, the biographical blurb on the book notes.) I find the Missouri setting in the 1950s to be a fascinating one, and Murr certainly uses it to his benefit with many characters bracketed by World War II, Jim Crow sentiment, and other conceptions of Americanness and race that are of a pre-Civil Rights South. It is a white community with only the occasional specter of a black man appearing in the pages--literally, he is the "boogerman" with a white dog who attacks and eats people in the woods. Raj, with his darker skin, is seen by the townsfolk as like a black boy, and though he is grudgingly accepted into the community, the possibility of interracial relationships between him and white girls in town reveals much more resistance from the adults. It is Raj's exceptionality--that he does not fit in conceptions of white or black or that of immigrant or "native" that makes him such an interesting figure for the story.
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