Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Professor of Light

Adolescent Meggie Singh faces her complex personal history as she struggles under her genius father's demanding tutelage in this luminous second novel by Budhos that chronicles Indo-Caribbean displacement. Eight sections, each concluding with a fantastic and symbolic tale corresponding to Meggie's development, describe successive summers the Singh family spends at Meggie's aunt's house in England. Away from her Queens, N.Y., home, along with her romance-deprived Jewish mother and her Guyanese father, a philosophy professor (an ethnic pairing similar to that of the characters in House of Waiting), Meggie is surrounded by relatives and social strivers who encircle her family seeking money and status. Letters containing desperate pleas from the paternal relations in Guyana emotionally exhaust the already fragile professor (""a dreamer, a storyteller, a thinker""), who has been unable to finish his book on the subject of quantifying light. Meggie is a devoted and invaluable ally: she types her father's notes, engages him in relevant debates and tries to keep him from distractions like his gold-digging ""old friends."" She is unable to prevent his descent into madness, however; in dangerous symbiosis, Meggie nearly follows her father into mental breakdown. Her lonely mother, meanwhile, finds love with another man, and Meggie grieves over this betrayal as she explores romantic beginnings of her own. Many dualities are depicted in this taut psychological drama: England's stoic lucidity and the dark ancestral superstition of British Guyana, the dual nature of light as both particle and wave, the pull of burgeoning adolescent drives disarming the objectivity required for scientific thought, and the fine line between genius and madness. Budhos skillfully sustains these narrative tensions without waxing melodramatic or maudlin, and reaches a satisfying crescendo in which Meggie must reimagine everything she knows and loves in order to remain herself. (Mar.) FYI: Budhos has received grants/awards from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Kenyon Review, the Writers Room, Yaddo, MacDowell, Millay Colony and Virginia Center for the Arts.

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Warren Singh, an East Indian from British Guiana, professor in New York, spends his summers with his family in rural England. He is consumed with the problem of light – what to make of it, how to understand it and most importantly how to describe it. He is torn between the competing theories of light as particle and light as wave.

His precocious daughter Megan, the narrator of this tale, is taken into Warren’s world as his co-inquirer and learns many things no pre-teen (at the outset) and mid-teen (at the end) would typically have any idea of.

But madness seems to run in the Singh family, most recently with Warren’s brother Joseph who was also fascinated by the problem of light. Joseph went complete mad with what they call the jumbee curse inside the family. Slowly, this disease overtakes Warren and there are even subtle suggestions along the way that Megan may be in for the same.

I was disappointed with the treatment of the physics of light problems. Author Marina Budhos tries to make it sound all so complex and deep, yet what she gives us in the novel is the slimmest surface glance at the problem, and talk about studying and unpacking the problem without ever having any serious discussion of the problems and issues themselves. I came away from the book thinking Budhos could have learned all she needed about the problem to write this book with just an one hour’s read on the internet.

There was a second feature of the book that troubled me. In significant measure there is a tension revealed in the characters between several conflicts: being Caribbean Eastern Indian Guyanese and being U.S./British westerners; between the old culture of India and that of the west; between rational/scientific approaches to the world and superstitious/Hindu religious approaches. Those clashes and tensions were fairly well written and I think I learned from them. However, I had the feeling that Budhos was somehow trying to graft those dichotomies onto the dichotomy of light as particle and light as wave. If so, then either it was badly done, or just completely over my heard.

I enjoyed Megan as narrator. We watched her grow, learn, get drafted into her father’s world, and then try to make sense of the break up of her parent’s marriage and the madness of her own father. Her mother, an American woman represents all that Warren initially was not during his youth in (then) British Guiana and the Caribbean East Indian culture. Megan’s mother doesn’t play a major role in the novel, but toward the end she does become a much more sympathetic figure.

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DON'T LOOK BACK, if you're racing, pursued by the flames of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or you'll be turned into a pillar of salt. Don't look back, if you're Orpheus on the threshold of escape, holding your Eurydice by the hand, leading her out from captivity in the Underworld. Steal a peek of your beloved, and the game will be up. She'll fall back into the abyss.

Whether it's horror or longing that compels the glance, fight it, or the costs will be tragic.

The western canon offers many examples of the dangers of looking back, and it is this anxiety about memory that animates "The Professor of Light," Marina Budhos' lyrical but schematic second novel. Her characters, immigrants to successful addresses in the First World, wrestle against the impulse to cultivate "home" and its habits, once permanently abroad.

For Warren Singh, a philosophy professor in New York City and the novel's namesake, the claims of the past are psychological blocks to achieving his ambition: to write the definitive book about the dual nature of light, as both matter and energy.

The past asserts itself through ever more insistent letters from his mother and sisters in Guyana - the second poorest country, after Haiti, in the Western Hemisphere and a place that some might argue is its own Underworld of political burlesque and economic need, its own Sodom and Gomorrah of racial sins.

Warren's relatives report, in blue aerograms "sliding through the mail slot with a scary hiss," that the house is falling apart. That, in a country "that once shimmered with green paddy fields," there is no rice to buy. That they never receive the money he sends to the village gas station. And that his brother Joseph (once upon a time, his partner in dissecting Descartes) is close to death.

If it were not for Sonia, his Jewish-American wife, the letters would pile up unanswered in the room where he paces, mulling over the paradox of light and wishing he could disentangle himself from his roots long enough for sustained flights of scientific inquiry.

Soon, the letters arrive with coaxing gifts: guavas wrapped in pink tissue, pillows embroidered by Singh's sisters, glass bangles for his teenage daughter, Meggie, the book's narrator.

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