By Dhanuka Bandara
Vihanga Perera’s The Fear of Gambling, otherwise known as FOG, could be at best described as textual anarchy. This text is significant in its recalcitrant defiance of taxonomy. In that, the text transcends genre and creates for it self a new narrative space of sorts. Vihanga Perera has not claimed that his latest work is a novel. But he has claimed that it is a work of “longer fiction.” However, this claim is subtly undermined by the text itself.
One way of classifying this work, if at all literary classification is of any importance, is to say that it is an anti-novel. Here, we confront a colossal difficulty. If at all the text at issue is not a novel then what is a novel? Terry Eagleton claims that novel is a genre that resists definition (in my opinion any genre resists definition). Let us, therefore, remain within commonsensical bounds (for over the course of years I have realized that commonsense makes most sense). If Anna Karenina is a novel, The Fear of Gambling is not. However, one cannot say without being dogmatic, the fact that FOG defies genre, constitutes a drawback. On the contrary, one can read this as a merit of the work. Owing to its uncontainable textual fluidity, FOG does not limit itself to constraints imposed on writing by genre. It does not profess to have a narrative, an overarching structure or characters. Perhaps, it is fair to say that if at all it has characters, they are, for want of a better term, placard-like. In that, I mean, the characters lack depth and are symptomatic of a postmodernist syndrome of depthlessness, and for that reason unreal.
The narrator of the novel, eponymously baptized as VK, an unambiguous reference to the author himself, claims that “In my left pocket I carry five 100 dollar bills, three 20s and fiver; all neatly stolen from Monopoly. What is real about me, then? I ask.” In much the same as the money stolen from Monopoly that the narrator carries, the narrator himself is unreal. He is in the same way depthless. The money from Monopoly is currency without depth, is mere simulacrum that simulates real money. It is for this reason that a reader, who tries to find substance in Perera’s characters, is inevitably disappointed. By their very nature his characters have no substance. In this respect FOG profoundly challenges the reader.
I have mentioned above that the characters in FOG are not real and the fact that they are not real is made deliberately apparent. The text boasts of no realistic affectations. As I have mentioned above Vihanga Perera claims that The Fear of Gambling is a work of longer fiction. However, this claim could be contested. In chapter seventeen the narrator (VK) claims that “Well to be honest- all that I say in this book is not true.” This is what is described in literary parlance as “short-circuiting,” a literary technique which is some times used in postmodernist fiction. Here, the narrator, by disclaiming the verity of the events recorded in the text, renders the fictionality of the work apparent. However, one can, by reading the text against its grain, argue that since the aforementioned claim itself is found in the text which it claims is not true, its (the claim’s) truthfulness itself is, therefore, questionable. From this we can draw the inference that all that that the narrator says in this book, is in fact true. This is, of course, one way of looking at it. We could perhaps more justly say that in FOG one finds an interplay of fact and fiction where these two are constantly pit against each other. By so doing the author intentionally dismantles the distinction between fact and fiction and problematizes the realistic norms of story-telling. Thus FOG is clearly antithetical to the realistic narrative, which was dominant in the 19th century and breaks bread with texts that work along poststructuralist and postmodernist lines.
The absence of an overarching structure renders The Fear of Gambling a text that knows no bounds; nor does it have a concrete narrative that gives the text a trajectory, teleological or otherwise. One could argue that FOG has several narratives but this would be true only if we were to consider “narrative” in a very liberal sense. Therefore, The Fear of Gambling does not narrate a story; but the reader is lured by the promise of a story that defers itself until the point at which the text ends with “It will be over right now.” This book holds a bogus promise of fulfillment that anti-climatically ends without textual coming and what the readers feels at the end is disappointment. Yet, I believe that this disappointment leads the readers (it led me) to some kind of soul-searching as readers of literature and reassess our understanding of story-telling. The reader is confronted with questions such as does a text which calls itself “longer fiction” should necessarily have characters; or a narrative; or an overarching structure? Is The Fear of Gambling, then, the quintessential poststructuralist novel? These are amongst the unavoidable points of contention that the conscientious reader would have to grapple with.
In terms subject-matter, The Fear of Gambling treats matters of grave importance such as the 18th amendment, the “evaporation” of Prageeth Eknaligoda and the integrity of the territory which is dear and near to us, inter-alia and at the same time brings into narrativization the quotidian triviality of life. The text challenges our notions as regards what deserves artistic representation. In a sense, one could describe FOG as a work of kitsch-art. The author’s rendition of his world is kitschified and triviality of the contemporary social experience is laid stress on; to my mind, this is arguably epitomized by the narrator’s urge to watch women. Kitschification of art was first undertaken by Dadaists in the 1920’s to make art a non-elite form of expression and to bring it down from the lofty heights of modernism. In much the same way, The Fear of Gambling deflates Lankan fiction in English and transforms the narrative space into one that accommodates the peripheral social experience of the very many.
Linguistically The Fear of Gambling is experimental. The language randomly and alternately borders on the poetic and the banal and does not fail to waver in between. The author has also incorporated into the text chat language (an FB chat per-se) reminding us that the on-line experience is part and parcel of our contemporary life.
The Fear of Gambling is a disobedient text that challenges literary norms and by extension the readers. It has the potentiality to broaden our literary experience and this alone is reason enough for one to read it.
[Dhanuka’s article was carried by the Nation on Sunday, last Sunday]