In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, one of the spins is about an affair that Gogol’s wife is having. While reading through the affair, I was constantly anticipating an explosive, uncomfortable moment when Gogol would find out about it and feel cheated/humiliated. So I was pleasantly surprised when the author cut through that moment and skipped into the future. From there, Gogol only looked back upon the moment when he had found out about the affair – you can feel that time has already softened the hurt, it is merely to keep the records straight is why the reader is being told about it. You are not expected to sympathize or feel involved. It has happened, done with. As a reader, it is a relief to be spared the emotional turmoil.
But not so with Marias – he does not let you escape. At the outset, he will tell you that the tragic event has happened. But that distance of past never comes as as escape. He then begins to describe the moments immediately before and after the tragic event. In excruciating details. At the beginning of Tomorrow in Battle Think on Me, (which I am reading now), he tells you that a woman dies in the arms of a man she had just recently met. You instinctively want to escape the horror of this man, who finds himself in another man’s house, his amorous interlude with this man’s wife suddenly thwarted by her unexpected death. He is left alone in the house with a child of two years, torn between the horror of staying with the child in the house and explaining his presence to the husband in the morning, or the coldness of leaving the child alone with his dead mother. And Marias, unrelenting, makes you live that horror yourself – for 100 pages or so. You find yourself worrying about the sick woman whom you already know will die. Upon her death, you worry about the child, and worry about how you will explain the affair. It is curious however, that through those unpleasant pages, you suddenly begin to get comfortable, no longer as afraid or tensed as the first few pages, just treating it as a practical problem. The possibility of confronting the husband no longer seems as intimidating as at the beginning.
Perhaps this mulling over tragedy is what makes him a master. That and his ability to conjure up the most unpleasant situations (have you read A Heart So White where a newly wed wife shoots herself, or the mega-book your Face Tomorrow, where a multiple of such unpleasantaries unfold)