Weaving a tale through the margins

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on May 22, 2020

Meena Kandasamy’s ‘Exquisite Cadavers’ joins a club of books where experiments with typesetting add a new layer to the narrative

*Meena Kandasamy’s Exquisite Cadavers, along with books by JM Coetzee and Mark Z Danielewski, challenge conventional typography by using margins and fonts to craft a parallel narrative

*Books, at the end of the day, are a physical artefact. Such innovations with the page often don’t translate well into electronic formats

Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy’s latest novel, was written (she declares in the preface) as an elaborate response to the way her last novel When I Hit You (2017) was reviewed. Again and again, it was characterised as a memoir, as though creating fiction out of one’s own life experiences was an endeavour reserved for old white men (“we are never treated as writers, only as diarists who survived”). At one point in Exquisite Cadavers, Kandsamy responds to this phenomenon; she admits to feeling “like a bit of a Philip Roth, selfish and exposed” when her partner (playfully) complains that she has put their real lives on the page.

Meena Kandasamy’s Exquisite Cadavers divides the page into parallel narratives   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ADITYA MANI JHA


By invoking Roth (notorious for creating unflattering caricatures of his wives), Kandsamy levels the playing field, so to speak. The misrepresentation is also a way of insinuating that for writers of colour, game-changing innovation comes from game-changing trauma — but when white writers achieve similar breakthroughs, they do so through the intricacies of ‘craft’.

The way Exquisite Cadavers is structured makes for Kandasamy’s stinging riposte: Almost 50 per cent of the average page is marginal space, filled with a parallel narrative about her real life, doing everyday things with her partner and her children. The way she uses this text on the margins as metafictional foil puts Exquisite Cadavers in a small club of novels where typographic/page-setting idiosyncrasies are crucial to the way the text functions. Other notable examples include JM Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007), Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) and, of course, the once and forever enfant terrible of postmodern novels, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

In Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, each narrator gets a different font and style   -  IMAGE: ADITYA MANI JHA


The ‘main’ text of Exquisite Cadavers follows Maya and Karim, a young couple living in London. She’s a British layout artist at a local newspaper; he’s a Tunisian film-maker struggling with his dissertation. Through their professional and personal struggles, we see the past and future dilemmas of political artists (like Kandasamy herself). His professors just won’t let him work on anything but the most clichéd ‘old Arabia’ theme, for they cannot accept a Tunisian man on a scholarship studying anything else. She can’t help identifying with the wronged character in every single film she watches; she owns their pain and their righteous anger, whether they are black, white or brown (which is directed at Western critics and their trauma-lore). Both of them are unable to shake off the spectres of their cruel fathers. In one memorable scene, they exchange paternal baggage in an escalating, weirdly competitive way (it’s like a dance-off, only with words).

All of this would have made for potent symbolism on its own. But what makes them even more effective is Kandasamy’s strategic usage of the text on the margins. These are witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud deconstructions of the circumstances behind the writing of each chapter — to extend the book’s cinematic metaphor, it’s a split-screen film where one of the screens is a perpetual behind-the-scenes commentary. In the first chapter, for instance, the main text makes it pretty clear that Maya and Karim’s story was one where the personal and the political clashed. Meanwhile, in the margin, when Kandasamy’s partner asks her if her book (which he knows features both of their real lives) is going to be political, she replies, “No, love. It is very domestic”. The line’s power as an irony-laden, chapter-ending zinger is impressively amplified by the use of the margins.

Talking through the margins

With its formal bravado and its playful riffs on the fictionalised-memoir question, Exquisite Cadavers reminded me, above all, of Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year. Coming from any other writer, I suspect it would have ranked as a magnum opus. As it happens, coming from the author of Disgrace (1999) and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), it is considered a minor work, no more than an amusing oddity.

The novel is narrated by JC, a South African writer in his 70s living in Adelaide (the real-life Coetzee was still in his 60s at the time, which is a crucial hint). It begins with a series of short essays on world politics — the ‘war on terrorism’ post 9/11, the mutual back-slapping and assorted idiocies of former US President George Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Australian government encroaching upon civil liberties in the name of caution. Presumably, these essays have been written by JC. However, from page one, these essays only occupy the top two-thirds of the page — the bottom one-third is filled with the story of how JC met Anya, a young woman, at a laundry.

The Anya portions have been written with a conspicuous male gaze (“As for the bright red shift, that is perhaps not the item of attire she would have chosen if she were expecting strange male company in the laundry room at 11 in the morning on a weekday. Red shift and thongs”). The ageing JC is clearly excited to be in the presence of a sexually attractive young woman.

About 30-odd pages into the novel, a third marginal band of text appears — this time, narrated by Anya, as she tells her side of the story. She’s aware of the effect she’s having on JC, who, she feels, is a typically too-sure-of-himself old man. Meanwhile, we are introduced to her boyfriend Alan, a financier and a bit of a smart alec, whose views on just about everything are laterally opposite to JC’s.

As these three distinct text-bands ‘talk’ to each other in increasingly subtle ways, we understand the ambition and scale of Coetzee’s game. JC is a caricaturist’s view of what the author might become in a decade; cantankerous, provocative and mostly alone. Even though JC doesn’t think much of Anya intellectually (during a low moment, the word “bimbo” is used), her common-sense homilies gradually soften his world view — his polished rants on America and so on are noticeably hawkish-no-more. Subsequent JC essays talk about much more pleasant things such as birdsongs, love, waking up at dawn. It’s like watching a late-career style evolve in real time. At no point does Coetzee have to spell things out; such is the simplicity and elegance of the ‘marginal’ structure used.

The artefact of the book

Kandasamy and Coetzee’s books are 21st-century works. But as early as the mid-’90s onwards, postmodern novels were using margins, footnotes, endnotes, colours, fonts of different sizes, diagrams, charts — elements crucial to the way these texts conveyed meaning to readers. Wallace’s Infinite Jest is infamous for its copiously long endnotes, meant to mimic the way digressive hypertext eats away at attention spans. The father of Wallace’s protagonist is a film-maker and so one of these endnotes covers his entire filmography through mini-summaries. Over a decade later, Diaz refined this technique with his much more thought-out footnotes in Oscar Wao (a blurb on my paperback copy notes that Diaz’s writing was like “Kanye West meets David Foster Wallace”).

Danielewski’s book goes several steps further. In House of Leaves, the protagonist, the delightfully named Johnny Truant, discovers an academic manuscript in the flat that he moves into — a book-length essay on an obscure documentary called The Navidson Record, written by the flat’s previous occupant, Zampanò. Thereafter, the narration is handled by a revolving group: Zampanò, Truant himself, Truant’s mother, the real-life Navidson’s brother and so on. Each narrator gets a different font: The sober Times New Roman for the ‘main’ narrative (which is to say, Truant’s), the much more flamboyant, old-school Dante for Truant’s mother, and so on. The editors of the documentary and the editors of the academic monograph get annoying little footnote-voices, and they interject at the worst possible moments (their ‘role’ in the novel is meant to parallel what the writer and the film-maker felt about them, respectively). Impassioned declarations are printed in an angry, amplified, blood-red font. Some slabs of text are at a 45-degree angle to the page, and so you have to rotate the book to read them.

In this regard, American cartoonist Chris Ware truly threw down the gauntlet with his 2012 graphic novel Building Stories. The book, which followed the intersecting lives of the residents of a high-rise, was presented in a box that contained 14 objects in total — four broadsheets, three magazines and an assorted collection of strips, pamphlets, storyboards and so on (best of luck recreating that digitally).

Danielewski, Diaz and company end up reminding readers that, at the end of the day, the book is a physical artefact. Although e-books exist for these works, it’s fair to say that they don’t work nearly as well as the physical edition. In fact, publishers should treat these books as a challenge — how do we digitise novels with such unique and innovative footprints? How do we do this without sacrificing the integrity of the text? I don’t claim to have the answers, but if I were an e-book designer, this challenge would be at the top of my to-do list.

Published on May 22, 2020

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