The Middleman | Critical Review by Uma Parameswaran

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Middleman.
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Critical Review by Uma Parameswaran

SOURCE: A review of The Middleman and Other Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 363.

In the following review, Parameswaran discusses the stories in Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories.

Bharati Mukherjee's second volume of short fiction consists of eleven stories that are wide-ranging in both settings and themes. Following her self-proclaimed American identity stated in her first volume of stories, Darkness, she explores the American experience through various personae or protagonists, four of whom are white American males and six of whom are females (only three of the women are of Indian origin). The result is a curious mix of voices and experiences that go to make up the celebration of being American (as she states in Darkness) as opposed to being Canadian.

Mukherjee's explorations of male attitudes and diction are interesting as experiments. Alfred Judah, the protagonist of the title story, is a macho operator in the rough-and-tumble world of smugglers: "Me? I make a living from things that fall. The big fat belly of Clovis T. Ransome bobs above me like whale shit at high tide." This image from the Florida scenery seems to have impressed her deeply, for in the next story we find "python turds, dozens of turds, light as cork and thick as a tree, riding high in the water." One is led to see a metaphorical streak that runs through the volume: these characters may be full-blooded Americans racing with both hands grabbing at all that life has to offer, but what they grasp is rather obnoxious all the way. More disturbing is the fact that Mukherjee's control of language is as devastating as ever, but now geared to a kind of cynicism that was absent in her earlier works. The characters who appear in the American stories, especially those from India, are stark caricatures of individuals: motel owners who use underpaid fellow Indians whenever possible; highly educated professionals whose linguistic idiosyncrasies are laughed at; a Vietnam veteran who brings home his daughter Eng and "rescues" her from "our enemies." the doctor and the hospital that terrify her; a ruffian who, we are asked to believe, is driven to auto theft and rape by his feeling of betrayal by some larger entity, the state.

The final story in the collection is "The Management of Grief." It has clearly come out of Mukherjee's scintillating and controversial documentary The Sorrow and the Terror (co-authored with Clark Blaise), on the crash of Air India flight 182 on 23 June 1985, which killed 329 passengers, most of whom were Canadians of Indian origin. There are minor questions that come to the reader's mind. Would the Stanley Cup have been played so late in June? Would the two young Sikhs have left for India within a month of having brought over their parents, who did not know the language and had no other family members? However, the story is very poignant and improves on E. M. Forster's idea of the failure of disparate cultures to connect. Though the families of the victims manage their grief in their own ways, the Canadian government finds itself in a quandary of communication, trying ineffectually to get paperwork done through translators. Shaila, who has lost her husband and two sons in the crash, is a volunteer interpreter; when the government agent Judith takes Shaila to the old Sikh couple who had been in Canada only a month before losing both their sons, we see their intractability clashing with Judith's impatience. No amount of explanation will persuade them to accept aid, because such acceptance might "end the company's or the country's obligations to them." Or, as Judith perceptively concludes, "They think signing a paper is signing their sons' death warrants." As Judith and Shaila leave, Judith talks about the next woman, "who is a real mess." At this, Shaila asks Judith to stop the car, gets out, and slams the door, leaving Judith to ask plaintively, "Is there anything I said? Anything I did … Shaila? Let's talk about it." The story would have been more effective if it had ended here, but Mukherjee follows her more traditional storytelling form of tying up loose ends.

The title of the volume goes beyond the title story to imply that many of Mukherjee's personae are middlemen, moving between cultures or events that pull others or themselves in opposite directions.

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This section contains 729 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Uma Parameswaran