I discovered “Chucking the Dragon” a month or so ago, after it had been unceremoniously discarded by the Gratiaen shortlist. It is customary that the Gratiaen Prize submissions for each year are laid out for display and sale on the day of the shortlist – and that is where I found this provocative novel, by a certain Mark Wilde: apparently a Sri Lankan writer banking on anonymity.
First impression – I felt that I was holding something “big”: a revolutionary expression, perhaps, where Lankan English creativity was concerned. For me, “Chucking” came across as a “narrative” with twenty or so short, compact, staccato chapters: some mutually coherent; some less coherent. The narrative is, in turn, punctuated and accompanied by graphics at the beginning of each chapter, and Mark Wilde has freely demonstrated what he derives from the world of rock by quoting lyrics and extracts from rock anthems as “prefatory notes” to each of these chapters. The persons doing the layout and the creative graphic work, surely, have had a dedicated run in the publication process of “Chucking the Dragon”. The final outcome of their labour is, in the creative sense, a “narrative” that banks on “multi-media”: for, the said extracts of lyrics and the graphics are essential and integral facets of the final product.
Surely, Mark Wilde’s layout and amalgam of multi-media expression is nothing new in world literature. The multi-media treatment is at the core of postmodernist expression; but, in my experience, I have not encountered a Sri Lankan writer (given that the writer of “Chucking the Dragon”, as s/he claims, is a Sri Lankan national) who has dared to go to the extant Mark Wilde has done in forging a “language of expression” of his own. I mean, not that I am saying Wilde’s is a superhuman achievement. But, I am yet to come across a Lankakn writer who infiltrates the traditional “black” and “white” in setting about his/her trade. The closest contender of this department in recent times would be Shehan Karunathilake – who accompanies his “Chinaman” with illustrations of several bowling grips and roughly scribbled trajectories of spinning deliveries. But, Shehan’s, I felt, was more contrived an injection: a self-conscious illustration or two just to make his narrative a bit “sexier”. Insertions that, in any case, served no creative or stylistic purpose. But, Wilde’s consciousness is entirely different. His “multi-media” application is more in harmony with the main narrative – and is, in fact, an inbuilt and integral motif of it.
“Chucking the Dragon” is, in its tone and “dig”, a cross between “pulp”, in its texture; and “punk” in the concerns it raises. The guiding philosophies of the universe created thereof are of rock, sex and drugs. “Chucking the Dragon” relates to the world of “dudes” and “homies”; and the judges of the Gratiaen prize (as far as I could read them) were neither; and would never be either. The short, abrupt chapters are presented as twenty exclusive “cuts” from the lives of a group of young adults growing up in semi/urban Sri Lanka in the late 90s and early 00s. They smoke. They have sex. They give blowjobs (and receive them in exchange for dope money). They cheat on lovers most crassly and mercilessly. They overdose themselves. They get caught in punch ups in working class drinking joints. They steal car batteries and ship them to the Northern peninsula to forge a few bucks to buy dope. Mark Wilde is not wild: he is touching on an unspoken of, subaltern reality of urban youth.
The comforting elite-upper middle class walls of our exclusive and alienating “literary culture” may chuck this dragon out. It is always safer to identify war, violence and issues of migration as the compelling issues of the day. Whatever said and done, “war” is not a tangible reality that will hiss a flickering tongue at where the Gratiaen judges are sitting. Besides, “war” has, over the past two decades or so, become the fashionable exportation item of Lankan literature – nothing new in that. So, the writer who cringes the fat out of this flogged horse becomes the ultimate benevolant soul who “feels for the bleeding Sri Lanka”, while highlighting the “sores of a divided nation” and the “trauma of feeble humanity” caught between the bullet and the grave. This is nothing more or nothing less than pure voyeurism and fetishism of a “war” that never existed for a Barefoot cocktail and a Lional Wendt spot. Yet, this is the war that has given bread to a generation and a half of ambitious (and at times pernicious), unimaginative, unfeeling and ungrateful un/creative work that goes to London and the States in the guise of “Lankan literature” or similar.
The truth is that the tensions to do with drugs, sex, youth disillusionment, financial recession and the like are more immediate and compelling issues which, at this very moment, prick the outer skins of the Lankan urban consciousness. These are the truths we keep denying ourselves in a bid to wade off “middle class” insecurity. We do not admit to the language we use. We do not admit to the frustrations we harbour. We should not admit that a “kid” of twenty one might sneak out of his best friend’s girl’s house at 4 AM in the morning after fucking her all night (the politically middle class word, I am told, is “sexual reciprocity”) just to meet the same girl’s sister-in-law sitting up in the parlour after being abused and assaulted in bed. For one thing, Mark Wilde is direct and unblushing in setting out these hardcore upper middle class scenarios. As much as these may rattle the security of our elitist assumptions / hypocricies and make us a bit uneasy and itchy in our pants, they also lay on ground the limitations and class-consciousness of our literature; and its judges.
“Chucking the Dragon” is about youth and the tensions and restlessnesses the urban “kids” of the day undergo: tensions social, economic, sexual and cultural. Perhaps, Mark Wilde loses out on being over-flippant in his/her delivery at times. The sardonic, detatched voice which s/he adopts become superficial and hazy in the discussion, for example, of the politics. Wilde’s needle works through many forms of snobbery: the top-end social layer/s of urban Colombo, hypocratic social “norms” of a hypocratic and perverse urban order and the narrowmindedness and lack of breadth in some (English department) students of a university are among those whom he holds to ridicule and criticism. Yet, I felt that he could have formed a deeper criticism of the political dynamics of Sri Lanka – specially, for a novel that shows deeper insight into society and as it deals with core socio-politic phenomena with a level of understanding that none have shown in recent times.
A notable fact for me is Mark Wilde’s interpretation of the JVP and the failed rebellions of 1971 and 1987. Wilde strives to identify these youth uprise in their socio-economic contexts and with empathy. Mark (a character who comes across as the writer’s persona) is an open advocate of the neo-Marxist JVP policies and his anti-establishmentarianism is aimed at the UNP-SLFP twins without reservation. In that respect, Mark Wilde tries to forge and extend his identity as a non-conformist. The said Mark , in addition to being a “junkie”, a JVP-sympathizer, a fan of rock, a reader of Byron, a “screwer” of upper middle class girls without agenda, a lier, a car battery and pen thief is also shown to be a guy with a conscience and grit. For the long and short of it, Mark and his friends resonate that post-1987 generations in its maturing phase – negotiating a coarse social scape, cutting corners, taking risks, failing and keeping going.
However, “Chucking the Dragon” consists of a few ideological contradictions which, I feel, is worth our attention. While assuming a non-mainstream narrative mode, giving expression to a radical cultural-political face and while touching the deep ends of several harsh and compelling urban realities of the day, “Chucking the Dragon” fails to be “Sri Lankan” in its character line up. Perhaps, this sounds a babish point to raise, but it amazes me that the novel, coming out of a critical mind as it does, would prefer to have a list of character names that would read as Mark, Shane, Dean, Ruki and Monica . This contradiction baffles me even as I write this. So, is Mark Wilde entertaining a secret audience in his mind as he writes: an audience with euro-like tastebuds in their consumption of literature? If the answer to this is a debatable ‘Yes’, then, is Mark Wilde, too, a hypocrit who is exporting the Sri Lankan “junkies” to a euro-like literary market? To make the subaltern an exhibit in the fancy glass cases of literary consumerism? I feel that Mark Wilde has injured his own creation most fatally by this choice of baptism.
Similarly, I also feel that “Chucking the Dragon” is ambitious in trying to do “too many things” at one go. For instance, Wilde, among others, raises issues of sexual exploitation, political chaos, political manipulation of the feeble and the ignorant, child prostitution, druggism, youth unrest, 1971, 1987 and sex tourism. While some of these get mentioned in passing, several others – unrest and manipulation being chief among them – become key concerns of the narrative. Yet, the “overload” of issues raised / undertaken makes that tea cup of a novel too clautrophobic a place for Wilde to brew the promised storm. As a result, most of these promised evocations die unfulfilled; or are under-represented. Perhaps, the flippancy I noted earlier in Wilde’s discussion of the political context of the Sri Lanka in question could be a victim of this “claustrophobia”.
“Chucking the Dragon” earns the merit of being an experimental work that is blatent and direct in its critical engagement in issues pertaining to urban youth of the day. It is by all means a novel to reckon with – a delivery on “alive” issues, incorporating the “living idiom” of a “live” youth. Perhaps, the Gratiaen prize did not see a significance in a work that hit out at the middle class facades of our day; threw in a swear word or two and suggested sexual reciprocity in the “heathen” way. Needles going into veins, bitter struggles to maintain sanity over “cold turky” and the desperate bid to “get clean” at a cabin in desolate Galle – no wonder the Gratiaen winner this year is “Mythil’s Secret”: a work of children’s literature.
[Initially carried by the LN 2-3 weeks ago]