The Golden Gate is a brilliantly achieved novel written in verse. Set in the 1980s in the affluence and sunshine of California's Silicon Valley, it is an exuberant and witty story of twenty-somethings looking for love, pleasure and the meaning of life. It was awarded the 1986 British Airways Commonwealth Poetry Prize.
Here, for instance, is the Table of Contents:
1 The world's discussed while friends are eating.
2 A cache of billets-doux arrive.
3 A concert generates a meeting.
4 A house is warmed. Sheep come alive.
5 Olives are picked in prime condition.
6 A cat reacts to competition.
7 Arrests occur. A speech is made.
8 Coffee is drunk, and Scrabble played.
9 A quarrel is initiated.
10 Vines rest in early winter light.
11 The Winking Owl fills up at night.
12 An old affair is renovated.
13 Friends meditate on friends who've gone
The months go by; the world goes on.
And, Seth's justification for using iambic tetrameter:
Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?
Because it once was noble, yet
Capers before the proud pentameter,
Tyrant of English. I regret
To see this marvelous swift meter
Demean its heritage, and peter
into mere Hudibrastic tricks,
Unapostolic knacks and knicks.
But why take all this quite so badly?
I would not had I world and time
To wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme
To reassert themselves, but sadly
The time is not remote when I
Will not be here to wait. That's why.
How to put this? Well, let's see...
Were he a cookie from Nabisco,
A Nilla Wafer's what he'd be.
An ordinary kind of guy,
No one you'd notice passing by.
From him, the story branches out
To friends and lovers, and throughout,
The sonnet form is the exclusive
Method used to tell the tale.
And yet, it never comes off stale,
Or cutesy, hackneyed, or intrusive.
This novel merits great affection;
These lines are but a pale reflection.
I have myself written my own post-Pushkin novelized poem, of some 65 pages, and I am envious
of the range and wit of Seth's achievement. Unfortunately, because of the dynamics of American publishing--and because of the stupid preference of American poets and their academic sponsors for Romantic "I" verse--Seth was discouraged from producing another novel in verse. Too bad. It took Pushkin's model Byron two tries. The GG does not require improvement, or a sequel, but one wonders what it could possibly be.
By the way, I have read Pushkin in Russian, maybe one-fifth, and I have even tried translating some of his additional stanzas.
As poetry, each sonnet stands along fine. Each one is a snippet, a little window into life in San Francisco from the turbulent 1970s midway through the consumer driven 1980s. As a slice of Americana, the book is feeling dated. It relies too heavily on popular culture that has since moved in other directions.
The book tells a few small stories, of the relationships between yuppies in the Bay Area back when home computers were a novelty and the big business were tied to the defence industry. It tells these stories with astonishing beauty; enough that I cried at the end, over the fate of a character who 150 pages earlier I'd decided I disliked and was the author of most of his misfortunes. That's a strength of the book in general: every character is deeply flawed, but the book holds them all with enough compassion that I still cared what happened to them.
And yes, it's all in verse. Sonnets. Onegin stanzas- intricate rhyming scheme and all. 14 chapters of them, the titles of which themselves make the table of contents into a sonnet that summarises the story. While there are moments at which the brilliance of the craft distracts from the story, they are very few, and the form actually serves the book very well, driving it with a pace and lightness of touch that had me read the book in a week and want to start over again immediately.