Undercutting Authorial Authority in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days
Rachel Solotaroff '92 (English 137 1990)
From the first page of Meatless Days, Sara Suleri breaks down the barriers of her authority. In contrast to the brilliant Neoclassical prose of Johnson, whose stylistic devices function as an assembly line for the production of meaning, Suleri's seems more a collaborative effort, an effort whose goal itself is ill-defined. For one thing, Johnson confines himself to a single world -- the social, perceptible world of upper and upper-middle class English citizens. -- from which he embarks on his quest for significance in his own, unfragmented narrative. The roles, and the theater, of Suleri's work are nowhere nearly as secure. She does, like Johnson, fit the dominant contemporary artistic movement of her time -- her case postmodernism. Yet, again like Johnson, these categorizations seems inadequate to appreciate her work and its intention.
For example, the motivating idea behind postmodern prose is the defiance of traditional narrative lines. The act of definition, the use of sententia as headlines, is anathema to the postmodern work. Instead of dealing in pat universals, the postmodernist explodes the whole system altogether by denying that there is one particular reality that can be generalized. The work, instead of asking epistemological questions about the world, becomes, as Brian McHale quotes Thomas Pavel, "'an ontological landscape...a complex ontology, involving different domains, populated by different kinds of beings.'" (McHale, 36) Instead of limiting reality to one particular social sphere, this landscape reflects the social construction of a much different kind of reality, one that includes social classes, religious sects, occupations, a series of smaller worlds that make up either a meta-reality, or, in McHale's syntax, an "(un)reality." (McHale, 37)
This idea of multiple realities, or no reality at all drives in Meatless Days. From the opening sentence, Suleri juggles the different worlds that hold meaning for her: "Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women." (1) She immediately presents us with her national identity and her gender identity. These are not simply two causal components of her personality; they comprise separate universes that either overlap or collide. Suleri spins out these possibilities in her opening chapter, as she moves from one episode to the next, each one adding a new tile to the mosaic, sometimes highlighting this interface between personal and political worlds. For instance, in one episode Suleri recounts a confrontation she had with her younger sister, Tillat, who came home suspiciously late from an evening out, and Sara responded with jealous, helpless violence. The implications for their close sisterhood are severe:
Till then we had associated such violence with all that was outside us, as though somehow the more history fractured, the more whole we would be. But we began to lose that sense of the differentiated identities of history and ourselves and became guiltily aware that we had known it all along, our part in the construction of unreality. (14)
In this case, Suleri shows how her naive placement of herself in one single world (that of sisterly affection) invariably leads to fragmentation, a sharp reminder of the lack of secure, coherent structures. It is not simply that the significance of her world is diminished by alternative, political realites; that world is destroyed by the alternative, not only by its violence, but by its very existence. In fact, as Suleri realizes, the more she identifies herself as Tillat's sister, the more she contributes to the multiplicity of realities, creating in the long run one overarching unreality.
Interlacing texts and their consequent fragmentation runs throughout the first chapter, as Suleri layers tales of family deaths with explosive political events. ( 17). She recounts one especially jarring incident when her father, upon receiving a cable from his wife, kissed it before putting it in his pocket. Suleri felt startled, "as we all did on the occasions when our parents' lives seemed to drop away before our eyes, leaving them youthfully engrossed in the illusion of knowledge conferred by love." ( 12) . The multiple realities span not only political and personal spheres, but temporal ones as well. Suleri is confronted with the reality of a world of which she is a product, but not necessarily a part. She cannot enter this world, nor can she really negotiate with it. It simply stands as another thorn in the side of the idealized, neat, cohesive narrative.