His First Novel Was a Critical Hit—Two Decades Later, He Rewrote It

From a New York Times Magazine story by Wyatt Mason headlined “His First Novel Was a Critical Hit. Two Decades Later, He Rewrote It.”:

“Hey, man, can I give you a hug?”

The unexpected question was posed by a man I’d just met — the 50-year-old, Delhi-born Indian American novelist, essayist and short-story writer Akhil Sharma — as we stood at the top of the chilly little hill we had climbed. The hill was part of a loop we would end up taking a number of times over two days, the three of us, which is to say me, Sharma and his baby daughter, asleep in her stroller. Her need for a nap had been the pretext for our circuit around Hollins, a small university outside Roanoke, Va., where Sharma was a writer in residence.

A plum gig, it required that Sharma teach one graduate-level fiction course to a small group of students at Hollins. So Sharma and I had taken his daughter for her daily stroller nap through the not particularly lovely campus, which, beyond its lackluster borders, was ringed in the distance by the oceanic peaks that make up the Virginia quadrant of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As we walked, Sharma and I fell easily into the discussion of uneasy things. The particulars of those uneasy things haven’t much bearing here, except to say that we — two men in our early 50s — were addressing, with candor, the difficulties through which people at midlife pass. And it was at one materially insignificant moment in our conversation, when we reached the crest of that hill on that loop, that Sharma posed the unexpected question.

Sharma, who is slight and dapper, opened his arms. I opened mine. His leatherette puffer parka compressed slightly as he held me and I him.

It is unusual to hold a stranger in a loving way, and yet it didn’t feel strange. What’s odd to me, retrospectively, about that moment in Sharma’s arms is how congruent the feeling of it was with the feeling of reading his work: to be brought suddenly, unexpectedly, un-self-consciously close to another human — a pressure that’s palpable on every page of his work.

I realize the same assessment might be made of any number of contemporary writers, and while I stand by it and will try to qualify it, there is something undeniable about Sharma that can be said of very few novelists, and it was for this reason that I went to see him. Sharma had done a weird thing, something white-rhino rare in the history of literature: He had revised and radically rewritten a novel, his first, “An Obedient Father,” one he published 22 years earlier. Considerably shorter, with a very different ending but the same title, the novel was about to be published a second time — it reappears this month — more than 30 years after Sharma began it.

It’s not as though the first version of “An Obedient Father” was ignored. It met with the kind of success few first novels receive. It was excerpted in The New Yorker and won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and Sharma received a Whiting Award — career milestones for any writer. Novelists reached out to its 29-year-old author out of the blue. Sharma was not shy to say that among them was the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. Still, the book would sell only adequately for a literary novel: according to Sharma, 6,000 hardcover copies and then 11,000 paperback copies over the next two decades, taking 17 years to earn back what the publisher advanced him for it and certainly not paying well enough that it let Sharma live off his writing.

Aside from those encouraging/discouraging realities, Sharma was secretly displeased with the novel when he published it. He’d had doubts, yes, but he had been arrogant enough, or insecure enough, or hopeful enough to want to be hailed as a genius, and when it was clear that, despite the praise the book received, “genius” was not a word being thrown around, Sharma’s sense of failure, of not living up to his hopes for the novel, was confirmed. In that little way, what he already knew to be true was borne out: Whatever the book did well, aesthetically, it had real things wrong with it, formal problems he hadn’t been able to name, much less fix.

“An Obedient Father” is a brutal book. It tries to integrate two first-person reports of family life, one by a father and another by his daughter, with a larger, social story about modern India, its political history and its fraught, failed attempts at change. The father, Ram Karan, a widower and a petty administrator whose job amounts to coercing bribes from petty officials, is also a fiend. He is a pedophile, who brutally raped one of his two daughters when she was a child. That daughter, Anita, now a young adult, has become a widow, and without any other options (her successful sister has fled India) she — along with her own 8-year-old daughter, Asha — moves into the father’s apartment. It does not go well.

“Because I published the book when there were problems in it,” Sharma told me, “I had always felt that I had betrayed my characters. And because I had betrayed them, I had committed a moral injury to myself. I did the best I could back then, but my best wasn’t good enough. I was like an inexperienced surgeon who botched an operation. What made the sadness of the botch greater was that the characters couldn’t complain, they had no one to say on their behalf that they had not been given the opportunity they deserved to be themselves.”

The way Sharma described his characters made me wonder if they were veiled portraits of people in Sharma’s life.

“Just so I don’t sound crazy,” he explained, “let me declare that my characters are, of course, imaginary beings. They do not exist in the real world, and they have never existed. They are stand-ins, however, for real human experiences. They are also stand-ins for temperaments, histories, hopes. Even though the characters are imaginary, after enough years spent with them, I begin to feel that I have to represent them the way a journalist would have to represent subjects. My responsibility feels even greater than a journalist’s because I have to do more than represent. I have to give my characters the opportunity to be their full selves — this feels like what a parent wants for their children.”

A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.

I wish I could claim the previous sentence as my own, but it’s by the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, from his introduction to Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, “The Man Who Loved Children.” There is much I could say about the Stead — there is much one should say about the Stead, which is one of the great, underappreciated novels in English of the 20th century: one gorgeous sentence after another, astonishing psychological acuity, a gutting plot. And yet it has needed several generations of high-profile advocates to keep it in print. Jarrell was the first, with his 36-page introduction to the 1965 edition (as good as literary criticism gets); and Jonathan Franzen was another, who wrote about it movingly in this newspaper.

In Jarrell’s fleet, perfect definition of “novel,” he’s talking about finished novels, how something about the form leads inexorably to error and flaw, a fundamental quality of failure that distinguishes it from other art forms. A great ballet will not be described as a dance performance of some length that has something wrong with it or a great painting as a paint surface of some size that has something wrong with it or a great pop song as words set to three minutes of music that has something wrong with it or. … Whereas, with the novel, there is always something problematic about it that the novelist must push through if he or she is going to achieve not perfection but an uneasy truce with formal forces that cannot be vanquished. And so novelists revise novels, endlessly, necessarily, on the way to completing them, which is to say by accepting their problems and moving on.

On a basic, functional level, it’s easy to understand why the novel form is prone to being problematic. Even short novels are long: “The Great Gatsby,” one of the very briefest of great novels, at 47,000 words, will take you four and a half hours to read aloud, an artistic experience in real time that only a few avant-garde films or plays will match, and for which a very long novel, “War and Peace,” say, at 587,000 words and some 50 reading-aloud hours, finds no equal in temporal demands. So even at its shortest, a novel is invariably composed over the course of months if not years, and, by virtue of that period of composition, enjoys different emotional, intellectual, practical and cultural weather, which demand the amending of beginnings, endings and everything in between.

Philip Roth spoke of the importance of completing a draft of a novel, but not because it represented any sort of completion. Rather, he said, it gave him something that he could finally read; only through reading what you have in full can you have any hope of registering what a novel does, doesn’t do, might do, can be made to do or can out of incapacity, disinterest or exhaustion leave undone. And even with such a draft that you can read, it may still be, to the novelist, illegible: It may take many years to get to the point that you can see what it was you did wrong or were unable to do right.

Toni Morrison, in an afterword to her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,”which she added in 1992, two decades after it was published, wrote with characteristic lucidity about what was wrong with the book: that “a problem lies in the central chamber of the novel. The shattered world I built … does not in its present form handle effectively the silence at its center.” She continued: “It should have had a shape — like the emptiness left by a boom or a cry. It required a sophistication unavailable to me.” For the Nobel laureate, her solutions ended up being “extremely unsatisfactory.”

So, when a young writer told the novelist Donald Antrim that he was worried that his novel in progress wasn’t going to manage to do what he was trying to make it do, Antrim told him not to worry: “It won’t.”

Given the commonness of frustration with the process and the product, it’s surprising how infrequently novelists have attempted late-life second tries at fixing early flaws. My little list of novelists who have made radical, belated amendments to their novels is surely not exhaustive, but it’s also not misleadingly brief. And anyway, even if there were a hundred additions to the following (there are not), the exceptions prove the rule.

Goethe, for “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” after receiving complaints from friends who were displeased with having been transposed transparently into fiction, revisited the book, a revision that was less about his frustration than theirs, and was, therefore, an act undertaken out of courtesy: He made it more difficult to point out who was who, but it’s not as if that fixed the problem. Time did. Dickens, whose “Great Expectations,” like many of his novels, appeared serially before being published as a book, changed the ending (in the revised one, it seems like wedding bells for Pip and Estella).

Henry James is most famous for real, radical revision. The 24-volume New York Edition of his works was published between 1907 and 1909. It was an attempt at a late-career cash grab that didn’t pan out: Perpetually poor James remained so (until very successful Edith Wharton secretly funded a later book’s big advance, but that’s another story). James wrote his famous prefaces to each volume, assessing virtues and shortfalls, a set of essays that remains an excellent education for a novelist on the distance required to see clearly what might be wrong with a prose narrative. In the New York Edition, James touched up his work, but two of the novels, his second and third, “Roderick Hudson” and “The American,” were so intolerably bad to James that 30 years after the fact, he revised both, the pages’ cloud-white margins filled with storms of additions, insertions to be placed where existing lines have been, unforgivingly, excised. In his preface to “Roderick Hudson,” James notes formal errors (“the time-scheme of the story is quite inadequate”; “Everything occurs … too punctually and moves too fast”) but also a graver issue: “My mistake on Roderick’s behalf — and not in the least of conception, but of composition and expression — is that, at the rate at which he falls to pieces, he seems to place himself beyond our understanding and our sympathy.”

Then there’s the weird case of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though he published “Tender Is the Night” in 1934, it seems he made major changes to it before his death in 1940. Among his papers was a version with a very different structure (nonchronological to chronological), begetting other alterations, the new manuscript including a note that said in his hand, ‘This the final version of the book as I would like it.” The job of moving the manuscript to finished book was handled by the editor Malcolm Cowley, whose edition, published in 1951, has its scholarly detractors (both the 1934 and the 1951 remain in print).

More recently, Peter Matthiessen took his three Edgar Watson novels, published between 1990 and 1999, and in 2008 published an 800-page edition, which was less a condensed version of the original than a thorough rewriting and truncation, one that reduced the length of the whole by 400 pages.

I can think of only two living novelists of note — each graphomaniacally prolific, each with more than 75 published books — who have revised published novels substantially. Stephen King revisited his post-apocalyptic novel “The Stand” — first published in 1978, republished in 1990 — reincorporating hundreds of pages from his original manuscript, rearranging the order of chapters, changing the time frame of the novel, but fundamentally retaining the initial version’s vision, events and voice. Joyce Carol Oates made a more Jamesian revision. Between 1967 and 1971, Oates published the Wonderland Quartet, consisting of “A Garden of Earthly Delights,” “Expensive People,” “Them” and “Wonderland.”When the Modern Library decided to absorb the books in its series, Oates, upon looking at them, saw how they could be improved. She ended up revising “Them” lightly (a few scenes, many sentences), “Expensive People” and “Wonderland” not at all and “A Garden of Earthly Delights” wholesale.

“Most writers have revised novels, or parts of novels, so many times by the time of publication, the novel is indeed ‘finished’ — the vision exhausted,” Oates told me by email. “Rewriting 80 percent of ‘A Garden of Earthly Delights’ was a totally fascinating and mesmerizing experience for me. No characters are changed, no scenes are changed, the ‘plot’ remains identical; but the narrative voice, which is the soul of a novel, is quite different: There is less authorial intrusion, more dialogue — characters allowed to ‘speak for themselves.’ Since I love to compose visual descriptions, there is a good deal of that: a sharper focus, as if a slightly blurry windowpane had been wiped clean.”

Sharma began revising “An Obedient Father” in 2016. He published a second novel, “Family Life,” two years earlier, and it met with great success: 10-best books of the year lists (including in this paper, where it had landed on the cover of the Book Review), and major awards like the 100,000-euro Dublin Literary Award. Sharma says he wrote 7,000 pages to produce the novel’s final 208.

Explicitly autobiographical, “Family Life” revolves around the disastrous domesticity of a family of Indian immigrants in America in 1979. There are two sons, Ajay, 10, and Birju, 12, and two years into their new life, Birju dives into a swimming pool, hitting his head on the bottom, changing everything. Severely brain-damaged, he never walks or talks again and is fed through a tube. After a year, the family removes him from the institution that could have been his permanent fate, to care for him at home, in an unchanging state the mother refuses to call anything but a coma, waiting for him, through the years, to improve, though he never will.

As with Sharma’s first novel, there is very little plot in the traditional sense. Rather, there are warring, hidden interiors, spaces rendered without melodrama. The first is within the walls of the family home, the ruin that unfolds there, a ruin that includes the kind of comedy that family life, whatever its degree of fraughtness, is nonetheless never without. And the second, and essential, interior is that of the younger son, a child trying to convey his guilt and sorrow and rage as he is all but overlooked by his parents, who resent this healthy son tasked with washing his prodigal brother, the all-but-dead son becoming, for the family, a point of gravity infinitely dense, one that absorbs all hope, all light.

As Sharma wrote in an essay for The New Yorker, “All of this, more or less, happened to my family, and to go back and relive the events was awful.” And as awful as “Family Life” absolutely is, it is also remarkable for its tenderness, the compassion Sharma manages to forge for all these characters to whom he draws us, movingly, near.

With that success, Sharma set to writing a third novel. He had tried to write it before. But it wasn’t going anywhere. The material was difficult, as it was for his first two novels. His brief, dense novels took him a decade to write. Why should the new one be any different? But life circumstances had changed. He and his wife of 16 years were divorcing, and Sharma was in a state of emotional chaos. As is the case for many writers, writing is a way of rooting oneself to a world that otherwise shakes. Sharma needed to write but could not. And so, to confirm his sense that he was still a writer, he opened the file for his first novel, hoping to find not inspiration but confederacy with an earlier, abler self.

Unfortunately, too often, while he recognized the book’s frequent merits, particularly the intensity of emotion he was able to capture on the page, rereading it confirmed his initial sense of the book’s shortcomings. Yes, he was pleased with many of the sentences. Still, he found the novel difficult to read. At times, the storytelling was ham-handed, and some of the characters were confusing. The greatest failure, in his view, was that he hadn’t adequately evoked the inner lives of the daughter the father rapes and of her child, whom the father molests.

And so he began to fiddle in the file of the original book, changing the beginning, reimagining its movement, simplifying sentences or cutting them altogether. In the novel’s first version, the motor of plot is made to turn over in the very first line: “I needed to force money from Father Joseph, and it made me nervous.” Onstage at the Hollins literary festival where I met Sharma, he spoke about that first sentence: “I began the novel in this way largely to get the reader hooked. There’s nothing as wonderful as a fight to get people interested. Somebody could be performing ‘Hamlet’ up here,” Sharma said, gesturing to the stage, and then continued, “If two people in the back of the audience begin punching each other, we all turn around and look at the idiots punching each other.” The original opening sentence makes it seem as though money and violence will be the center of the novel’s plot. And yet, this is not the fight that the novel wages. In Jarrellian terms, this is what is wrong with the book.

“The way that I think of this new version versus the older one,” Sharma told the audience, “is sort of like the older one was made out of springs and metal and tightened screws, and this is made out of polymer. You know it’s a little bit like airplanes. Airplane accidents used to be more common because planes just weren’t able to fly enough above the cloud cover, but then, as new technology came, as airplanes became lighter and lighter, it became possible for them to last much higher up.” He thought of the new version, he went on, “as made out of polymer versus metal. It’s just lighter, and because it is lighter, it can do certain things that the other one cannot.”

The new version begins with a sentence that couldn’t be simpler: “It was morning.” And from there, the novel offers an image not of a man’s work, as the first version does, but of a man’s helplessness before his failed nature:

The sky was a single blue from edge to edge, and as soon as I stepped onto the balcony my forehead prickled with sweat. There was the honking of traffic and somewhere someone hammering on metal. In the squatter colony beneath me several women crouched before their huts, cooking breakfast on kerosene stoves. Two men in shorts and rubber slippers stood next to a hand pump, soaping their bodies. On the roof of a nearby building, a woman was bathing her daughter with a tin bucket and a bowl. The naked girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, kept slipping out of her mother’s grasp and running about. The mother dropped the bowl and slapped her. My heart jumped. I felt slapped also. The child became very still. “More?” the mother threatened. Only then did the little girl burst into tears.

Father, looking at a naked girl, and her mother trying to care for her daughter but harming her in the process. It is all here, in this image, and it lands for the reader like the slap Ram feels, and which we will feel echoes of, as the pages turn.

“Revising the novel was wonderful,” Sharma told me. “We so rarely get a chance to correct our mistakes and instead have to carry these inside us like a little graveyard. Here I got to fix something awful I had done. It was such a relief, almost like waking from a terrible nightmare.”

I wondered what Sharma felt he had done to correct his representation of the child and grandchild Ram raped and molested.

“The particulars of giving them ‘moreness’ involved shrinking the character of Ram Karan,” Sharma explained. “He is constantly responding, reacting, processing. By reducing him, there is now more space for the female characters to be visible. Even if I had done nothing more than this, the female characters would have felt more rounded.”

But Sharma did a great deal more, especially in how he tilts the book toward a very different and far more ambiguous conclusion, one in which the granddaughter’s future is blurrier. It feels more like life in its uncertainty, and more like family in its lack of an ending. It also feels more of a piece with his small, harrowing body of work. Sharma has been writing about the nightmares of family life throughout his career with an uncommon frankness. He described his parents in a New Yorker essay as “tormented people. My father grew up in a troubled home, and if he hears good news he shakes the news suspiciously until the happiness dies.” After Sharma spent more than a decade on a second novel that reimagines his own family tragedy, I wondered how it felt to relive the suffering of the characters in his first book.

“We are always reliving our life,” Sharma told me. “The residue of our days accumulates inside us. Reliving these days is a way of deciding where to put one’s attention, and deciding where to concentrate lets us make peace with what has happened.”

Sharma approached each page of the new version with extraordinary vigor and care, and there is scarcely a paragraph that hasn’t been improved, and if unnecessary, cut. Sharma estimates that he spent 4,000 hours on the revision. He did this out of a variety of needs: an aesthetic one (the book was not as good as he wished it were) driven by a practical one (he couldn’t write anything new) and an emotional one (his world unmoored by divorce) and, most of all, as he told me, a moral one.

“The moral injury is like all other such things; it gets added to the list of shames one carries,” he told me. “It makes one want to hide from others. Since one feels one is hiding from others, it makes one feel that they are hiding things from you.”

But he had no intention, as the hours accumulated and the improvements manifested, of publishing it — who would republish a modest literary novel by a modestly successful writer?

And then he learned that a bookstore in New York, McNally Jackson, had started a microscopic publishing house. Like New York Review Books, the imprint connected to the storied magazine devoted to literature, politics and art, it would reissue worthy books that garnered insufficient attention and appreciation at their time of publication (in its first batch were “Winter Love,” by Han Suyin, and “Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting,” by Penelope Mortimer). The imprint heard that Sharma had taken a second swing at the first novel and wanted to see it. It asked to publish it. And it offered Sharma an advance of a tidy zero dollars.

He did not care about the money. All that mattered was that he had tried to remedy what he had done, and not done.

“Even if the revision hadn’t been a success,” he told me, “the process of revision would have been worthwhile because I could have told myself that I tried fixing the book after 20 years, and the book still defeated me.”

And yet, it did not defeat him, far from it. I found it a strange experience, rereading, or rather reading anew, the rewritten version of the novel. It is the same book, and it is a different book, and it is a better book. There is, as Sharma suggests, a lightness to its movement. The sentences, already pure and unfussy, have been purged of any show. What is left is a closer feeling of closeness to his characters — to ugly, sorrowing, tender, stalwart, ruined, unredeemable people, failing at their lives and yet trying, still, to live them.

On one of the days when I went to pick Sharma up at the campus apartment where he and his family were staying this spring, his wife passed their daughter to him, and he held her to his chest with exquisite tenderness. His eyes closed, and very softly and firmly he held her and said, “Isn’t she amazing.” It seemed as though he were speaking to himself, out of pure surprise, that such a life could have happened to him, happened at all. His daughter — born when he was 50 and his wife 51 — was, in every way, a hard-won revision of his earlier lives. A revision of his own family’s way of loving him, and a revision of his way of having a marriage. With his daughter in his arms, it was hard to say if he was the consoler or the consoled.

If we are fortunate as adults, if our emotional lives are rich and our connections to the world varied, consolation comes. In a moment of need, we have a spouse or friend or child who, seeing a look on our face, will want to rest a hand on our head and, without saying a word, keep it there. But that is the ideal, and the real often falls short, as it does in Sharma’s fiction: Very rarely does a stranger on a hill, to shore up the shortfall, open his arms.

And yet, the stranger on a hill is, in fact, always there. The gifted novelist is that stranger, one who seeks formal strategies to put people before us who are in varieties of pain. The novel would be meaningless were it not able, at its best, to manage that task. But it would be no less meaningless were it not able, at its best, to manage it through the production of hard-won aesthetic pleasure: through sentences that hold us with their vividness and paragraphs that arrest us with their shape and images that arise and recur and form a pattern that, like the world, is full of harmony but, unlike the world, has something wrong with it. In its imperfect way, the novel tells imperfect people a simple, perfect thing.

Hold on.

Wyatt Mason is a contributing writer for the magazine and teaches at Bard College. He last wrote about Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of The London Review of Books at the time.

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