Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Voices Unheard

Letters and fragmented stories create an intriguing tale

Marianne Apostolides

To Whom It May Concern

Priscila Uppal

Doubleday Canada

416 pages, hardcover

Can we ever know a person’s true nature? How does appearance—what we can see and verify—relate to interior essence? Secrecy, identity, story, fate: these are the heady issues that engage Priscila Uppal in her latest novel, To Whom It May Concern.

The novel follows Hardev Dange and his three grown children as they negotiate their various identities and injuries. Hardev’s wife left him years earlier, after he became paralyzed in an accident. The kids have their own burdens, too: Dorothy is deaf, Emile is questioning his sexual identity and Birendra is fundamentally deceiving her fiancé.

Despite these fraught narrative elements, Uppal has not written a maudlin tale. She is far too sophisticated a writer to reduce her characters to a single characteristic. Instead, her book incorporates deafness, handicap and homosexuality, all within the broader experiences and relationships of her characters. Nor does this book become a mere multicultural tale. Yes, Hardev is an immigrant from India; yes, his children are sometimes unsure of their footing as they serve as the bridge between two cultures. But this aspect of their personalities informs their actions and the movement of the book: it does not comprise the book’s sole perspective.

The scenes within Hardev’s house are stark; I can almost smell the stale air as I read. Here is a man whose house is threatened with foreclosure, a proud man who sends ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letters about various political issues, carefully crafting his impotent words as if to maintain his place in the world where he once strode. In Uppal’s capable hands, Hardev elicits our sympathy, not our pity.

The scenes that follow Hardev’s youngest daughter, Dorothy, take a different tone, becoming whip-fast and angry. Dorothy is an independent-minded high school student who works in a tattoo shop and hangs out in a local bar; there, she asks men for their stories, using a Palm Pilot to type the question. This act is seductive. It is also deceptive: Dorothy uses the hand-held device so the men do not realize she is deaf.

Dorothy’s struggle to define herself not by deficiency—by her deafness and attendance at a high school for handicapped kids—makes her an appealingly complex adolescent character. Her developing relationship with another deaf student, Kite, has the slow build of a well-told love story. Through Dorothy and Kite, Uppal questions the nature of language itself: how do we communicate our thoughts and ourselves through words, spoken with our bodies, our meaning conveyed through logic and sensation?

My only major problem with this book lies in the publisher’s insistence on labelling it a “modern, multicultural re-telling” of Shakespeare’s King Lear. This is risky business: when publishers directly link contemporary authors to the great masters—a link that is explicit rather than subtle, through epigraphs and textual references—they establish the conditions for failure. Nonetheless, the comparison has been made and, therefore, it must be addressed.

The language of King Lear is exquisite. The language of To Whom It May Concern is not. Uppal approaches language differently in her poetry; in her latest collection, Ontological Necessities (nominated for a 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize), she is more playful with her words. But that is not the mode in which she is writing here. This is a conventional work of literary fiction. It engages with language and its meaning within the structure of the telling—including a bit of mystery and dissemblance through the use of letters and fragmented stories—but it does not ever condense language, entering its non-linguistic meaning through its metaphor and music. Second, To Whom It May Concern does not primarily examine the specific tragedy of the elderly patriarch, as does Lear. Hardev is aging, certainly, and he is trying to determine the accumulated worth of his life. But this question does not drive Uppal’s story.

The notion of a retelling is, as a result, both problematic and unfortunate. It would have been more effective to allow the novel to stand as its own work—one that derives its intellectual foundations from Lear but is not a retelling.

Seen in this light, Uppal’s book succeeds, especially in comparison with another supposed retelling of Lear, namely Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Smiley is a skilled craftsperson, but her story clunks with heavy-handed references to philosophical ideas. Uppal never falls into this trap. Her exploration of philosophical issues is intelligent and embedded; she has taken them deep inside her thinking and her story. In a letter between Hardev and Dorothy, Hardev is made to describe the aftermath of his accident, when he lay paralyzed in his hospital bed, unable to touch his children or pregnant wife: “And at that moment I hated you. I hated you for being inside your mother’s body, for touching her when I could not, for being where you should be when I was where I shouldn’t be … And though I need your forgiveness for this, this is also part of the story.” Interiority versus exteriority, subject versus object, forgiveness, origin, story: these are all matters that have nourished the world’s great philosophers. In scenes like these, Uppal provides a narrative through which they flow, conveying both idea and emotion.

In addition, Uppal is drawn toward questions that are not present in Lear—questions that are particularly urgent in our post-God era, when we have lost our unifying master narrative. To whom are our stories addressed? Who listens to our recounting, our desire to find threads of meaning and purpose?

This issue is explored in various ways, most powerfully through the mural that Dorothy and Kite construct in their school. The mural is a collage of mundane objects contributed by students: buttons, photographs, pillboxes, hearing aids, the knobs from canes, letters. Like much contemporary art, the meaning comes from the juxtaposition of everyday objects and the personal stories contained within. This mural is entitled To Whom It May Concern.

For Dorothy, the mural’s most precious object is a Palm Pilot, contributed by Kite. Although he had co-created the mural, he could not attend the unveiling: he was undergoing surgery to “cure” his deafness. Dorothy had given him the Pilot, asking him to type the first word he’d utter when he learned to speak. While gazing at the mural, Dorothy considers:

It’s true that the electronic message will disappear when the battery wears out, but it doesn’t matter. She decides it doesn’t matter. The message itself still exists. Sometime in the future, Kite will be learning to speak—as she is, as so many others are—first words, important words, uncomfortable words, and this message on her Palm Pilot will be here, invisible to future viewers but still here, waiting for its recipient, as do so many other exchanges that go unnoticed, unheeded, unanswered, in even the simplest of forms, even the simplest of salutations:

HELLO

The mural is smashed the day after its unveiling. This mindless shattering of creating is portrayed without melodrama. Uppal includes only the vandals’ response to the students’ beautiful offering: YOU ARE NOT SO FUCKING SPECIAL.

In this accomplished novel, Uppal poses the fundamental questions of our time: If we have lost our faith in a single, unifying power—a God both eternal and omniscient—who will hear our stories, our pleas? Who can give us meaning? To Whom It May Concern does not provide an answer, although it does hint at a process to guide our search. As the book concludes, it urges us toward our own imagination, our own ability—despite the risk—to create our own story and live within its ethics.

Marianne Apostolides is a writer and critic based in Toronto. Her most recent novel, The Lucky Child, was published by Mansfield Press in 2010.

Advertisement

Advertisement