"The great California novel been written, in verse (and why not?): The Golden Gate gives great joy."--Gore Vidal One of the most highly regarded novels of 1986, Vikram Seth's story in verse made him a literary household name in both the United States and India. John Brown, a successful yuppie living in 1980s San Francisco meets a romantic interest in Liz, after placing a personal ad in the newspaper. From this interaction, John meets a variety of characters, each with their own values and ideas of "self-actualization." However, Liz begins to fall in love with John's best friend, and John realizes his journey of self-discovery has only just begun. "A splendid achievement, equally convincing in its exhilaration and its sadness."--The New York Times "Seth pulls off his feat with spirit, grace and great energy."--The New Yorker "A marvelous work . . . bold and splendid . . . Locate this book and allow yourself to become caught up, like a kite, in the lifting effects of Seth's sonnets."--Washington Post Book World
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.