21 October 2007

"Akhil and Judy" by Avi Lall

Whenever I encounter a piece of writing that blows the top of my head off, I try to settle down and figure out how it works and what I so forcefully responded to within it. Sometimes I can figure it out, sometimes I can't. Sometimes the top of my head just won't go back on.

So it is with "Akhil and Judy" by Avi Lall, published in the latest issue of Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine. You might not have heard of Porcupine, but it's worth your attention; this issue in particular is rich with good poetry, prose, and pictures. But "Akhil and Judy" is the standout for me, and a standout among all the stories I have read this year, or, for that matter, any year.

I have a few hypotheses for why I find this story so affecting, so impressive, but I don't have much in the way of solid reasoning, though I'm going to try here to make my hypotheses hold some water. I know the story's effect on me: during one of my three readings, it brought me to the verge of tears; during another, I was struck by how charming and even funny it sometimes is. Each time I read it, the story took hold of my attention and imagination in a way few stories ever do -- I heard nothing other than the words, imagined nothing other than the images those words expressed.

It's a difficult story to summarize, and that's often a good sign. Summary cannot really convey how (and how well) this story works, because its subject matter is so vividly and inextricably connected to the narrative structure.

Nonetheless, there are things I can say. I can say it is the story of Akhil, who was born in India and then was brought by his father to Rwanda, where the family settled in Kibeho, where an orphaned girl named Isobelle saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and then, a few years later, everyone was in hell. Akhil and Isobelle met in a refugee camp and fled, eventually ending up in California. That's where the story begins:
Akhil and Isobelle first set eyes on each other while they were fleeing for their lives-- Akhil, amongst a throng of screaming people, from the east end of the camp, Isobelle, in a frenzied crowd, from the west. They stared, slowed down, crossed paths, turned to keep their eyes connected then continued their flight from the men with machetes and machine guns. Akhil hid in a toilet hole along with a mother suffocating her child. Isobelle buried herself beneath a pile of recently inaugurated corpses. When Isobelle later appeared, looking into the toilet hole, yelling for Akhil to get out, Akhil was convinced he finally had a real vision. Now the vision ends, or walks out the door, slamming it vengefully behind her.
Akhil decides to leave, and so he gets on a train to Portland, and there he meets a family from India with a little boy, and the little boy thinks Akhil is his lost brother, Mohammed. The family is from Ahmedabad, and left in 2002, a year after a terrible earthquake, and the year of a month of riots that began with a train on fire.

There's even more to the story, both foreground and background, but that's enough to let you know there's a lot. Yet "Akhil and Judy" isn't even twenty pages long. That's where some of its wonder lies: it compresses three continents and three decades of history into remarkably few words, and it does so without reducing the continents or the history to simple lessons or easy emotions. The affect of the sentences is flat, yet they gain power from Lall's careful control of tone and diction, with surprising (and effective) choices of words popping up every few sentences to keep the story from falling into an inappropriate deadpan. It stays, instead, tensely matter-of-fact, jutting now and again into lyrical images that would be much less effective were the whole striving for the same effect.

I would quote some passages to prove my point about the prose, but (in this case) to rip the words out of the story hobbles them. The sentences and paragraphs need each other for their rhythms and patterns, and what looks in an excerpt like too much or not enough proves itself to be, in the story itself, exactly right. The familiar doesn't lose its familiarity, doesn't become completely strange and new -- rather, it becomes both familiar and exact, satisfying in its inevitability, amazing in its ability to contain so much in a form that would, anywhere else, be mundane.

The title points to one part of the story I haven't yet mentioned. Early in the story (though not in their lives), Isobelle tells Akhil, "We have to become different people." Later, we discover what this means:
Their date was at a pier in Newport Beach. Akhil was supposed to come upon Isobelle and approach her as if for the first time, using an alias and a past made of fiction.
It doesn't work the first time -- Isobelle scoffs at Akhil as he pretends to be other than himself, and she walks away. But they try again, and this time they talk, with Akhil calling himself Jack, and Isobelle ("in a Jamaican accent that faded in and out") calling herself Judy. As the characters talk, fiction leads to something that sounds too convincing to be anything other than a horrible truth.

One of the reasons I find the story so effective, aside from how much it crams into its sentences and how well crafted those sentences are, is that it is not linear, and yet it is patterned. We move back and forth from the present-tense travels on the train to past-tense reminiscences and meditations. We gain glimmers of the past until, by the end, the accumulated bits of collage gain a shape in our minds, and all the previous sections grow richer and revelatory.

And so we have a story about time and memory and vision and loss and faith; about exile, truth, and family; about religion and politics, Akhil and Isobelle, Jack and Judy, Kibeho and Ahmedabad, us and them. It's a story so achingly sad at its heart that it is nearly unreadable, and yet the sadness is leavened with a hope in the possibility that comes from new beginnings, though that hope is tempered with the knowledge that survival is a blessing tempered by the ineradicable taste of ash on the tongue.

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