The Soul of All Great Designs

The Soul of All Great Designs

By Neil Scotten

A review of The Soul Of All Great Designs by Neil Bissoondath

Published on October 1, 2008

The Soul Of All Great Designs
Neil Bissoondath

Cormorant Books
$29
paper
223pp
978-1-897151-32-7

There is a movie from the 1960s whose plot goes something like this: a small plane and a jet airliner take off from different places. We follow the passengers’ trials and tribulations, their tales of hardship and quiet heroism. Just when we are nicely sucked in, bang, the two planes collide. The small plane bursts into flames and goes down but the airliner makes a shaky landing without loss of life.

This story relates to Neil Bissoondath’s sixth novel in several ways. Most importantly, the book propels two very different characters into the air and then watches what happens when they, too, meet head-on. It is a peculiarity of Bissoondath’s narrator, however, that the main details of the collision are presented to us with all the passion of a black box flight recorder. More on this later.

The similarities between movie and book go further. Raj, the main character in Bissoondath’s first novel, A Casual Brutality has lost his parents in a car accident. In The Soul Of All Great Designs, Cal’s parents are killed when their brakes fail in the snow and ice. Similarly, Suminitra, the first-generation Indian-Canadian woman in the alternate story of the current novel, has already lost her elder sister in an airplane explosion.

The air in The Soul Of All Great Designs is crackling with frustration and disaster. As far as the parameters of this book go, one of the contributory factors to this atmosphere is the failures of the previous generation, particularly the women. To varying degrees Cal and Suminitra feel strangled by their mothers. For Suminitra, her mother represents the unwavering traditions of the old country and its potential for disciplinary action should she compromise the family honour. As far as the men are concerned, Cal is shamed by his father, who works in a car plant. Suminitra loves her Papu but he has to sell pop and chips out of a van to make ends meet.

All these forces mould Bissoondath’s two central characters and form the lens through which we see events. Perhaps as a reaction to his parents’ modest lifestyle, Cal reinvents himself as Alec, an interior designer. At the start of his Charles Foster Kane-like ascension, his own logic dictates that he must naturally assume a “gay” persona to get by in this business. The author of his own success, Cal guards his new identity and cultivates clients, not girlfriends (inconveniently, as he is straight).

This is all fine until Suminitra rocks his airspace. They enter into a relationship with both holding delicate secrets. Cal is not prepared to give up “Alec,” his paint chip-picking persona, and Suminitra cannot talk about how her parents would prohibit their meetings and probably send her to India if they knew. It is at this point that the two forces slowly collide and begin to come apart.

To return to the black box image, Alec is the device through which events are narrated. He is brilliantly unreliable at this. Never mind his unwitting bouts of prurience or his colossal detachment. What really characterizes Alec is his inability to feel the difference between what he is not willing to give up (his business kingdom) and what Suminitra has already walked away from for him (her family and community). The Soul Of All Great Designs is a clever if at times insubstantial book. Its strength is in the peculiar psychopathy of its narrator and how this is used to bring an unsafe world to heel. mRb

Neil Scotten is a Montreal-based writer and photographer.

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