The task of defining, even in the broadest terms, the protean postmodern self has bedevilled artists for decades. What does it mean to be an individual in a society uprooted from the certainties of family and ethnic tradition, objective morality, and religious belief? How much of what we call our fixed “self” is merely a collage of competing cultural signs, family dynamics, biology, and personal tastes?
Poet, novelist, and academic Priscila Uppal is the latest author to wade into the waters of identity politics with her second novel, To Whom It May Concern, the saga of the splintered Dange family. The aging patriarch, an Indian immigrant named Hardev, is an engineer confined to a wheelchair since an accident left him almost completely paralyzed from the neck down. Long separated from his French-Canadian wife Isobel, Hardev shares the family’s original suburban Ottawa home with his son Emile.
As the novel opens, Hardev is watching his fully acculturated adult children listlessly go through the motions of a Thanksgiving dinner. Present at the table are Emile and Birenda, Hardev’s oldest daughter, and her rich fiancé Victor, who is meeting Hardev for the first time. Isobel has skipped the dinner, as has Dorothy, the couple’s 17-year-old daughter, a precocious deaf student and artist who works part-time in a tattoo parlour.
Hardev is anxious about more than just his weakening health and his failure to deliver on the ideal of family life that he’d promised himself as a young man starting a new life in Canada. Unknown to his family, he is about to lose his home to the bank unless he can find a way to earn enough money to pay off his back mortgage payments.
The novel is filled out with a number of secondary characters, including Mohab, Emile’s devout Muslim friend, who may or may not be a closeted homosexual; Hardev’s homecare worker Rodriguez; and Kite, Dorothy’s co-conspirator in a plan to build a massive collage (eventually titled “To Whom It May Concern”) charting their fellow students’ transient, fluctuating identities.
That this list of characters reads a little like the ideal roll call for a banquet celebrating contemporary Canada’s rich mix of polyglot identities is most likely intentional. Uppal, like Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, and Jonathan Lethem, is striving to make a Big Statement about how culture and ideologies both construct and deconstruct self, and how any deviations from cultural studies graduate seminar ideals will not be tolerated.
This ideological orthodoxy contributes to both the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. Uppal achieves some fine comic effects in her interlocking narratives and identity conflicts. This is especially true when she takes the characters out of their comfort zones, as when Emile begins to suspect that he may have non-platonic feelings for Mohab. Hardev, springing from an older, less self-conscious generation, is the novel’s finest creation, a sympathetically pompous father fighting the breakdown of his body and the encroachment of a hideous subdivision.
If Uppal had narrated the novel exclusively from Hardev’s point of view, she might have humanized what eventually becomes a predictable comedy of manners, but she squanders intimacy and narrative motion by continually shifting the perspective from one character to another. And for all the novel’s 21st-century knowingness, the narrative voice would not be out of place in a Victorian novel of the duller sort. Flitting between generations and cultures and personal emergencies, Uppal writes in the same formal, reflective, distancing voice.
Here is Hardev’s point of view: “He never imagined his daughter would ask a young man to marry her, without her father’s permission…. Yet here is this man, this Victor, whom he’s met for the first time – the first time! – today.” Here is Hardev’s alienated 17-year-old daughter: “Dorothy doesn’t feel she belongs to such a family, nor does she understand how she is supposed to benefit from the family connection.” His graduate-student son: “Though he doesn’t mind standing in the cold now and then, he does hope to find a PhD program where he is more permanently welcome….” And finally, the marriage-obsessed eldest daughter: “Without being able to pinpoint why, she knows that most people are uncomfortable with chosen childlessness, as if it represents a rejection of the future, a rejection of hope.”
The controlling authorial voice and overly schematic structure work on one level as a playful deconstruction of the traditional novel’s attempt to contain the ultimately uncontainable human self. But that’s little consolation for the reader struggling through yet another predictable confrontation between characters representing the usual shades of grey.
People – even people in novels – are never predictable, as Uppal ought to know.