Review: I Am Me, by Ram Sundaram

>>Published: December 2011

>>Finally got around to it: March 2012

The door behind him opened and I saw Amelia enter the room again. I turned around expectantly, but there was no Amelia in my room. I listened to her asking him to be ready for his cue in two minutes. He nodded, and she wished him good luck with a kiss that told me their relationship was different than the one I shared with her. When she left the room again, he turned back to the mirror and looked at me… yes, directly at me.

“You’re it,” he told me, but did not explain what he meant. When he left, closing the door behind him, my eyes fell on his dresser. This time there was no bottle of gin on it, empty or full. A part of me wanted to turn around to see what I would find on my own dresser. But I no longer had the luxury of observing two realities. For somehow in the past half hour, I had stopped being the magician and the performer; instead I had become the man in the mirror, a reflection.

***

Ram Sundaram’s modestly experimental book of short fiction, I Am Me is less a collection of twenty split narratives bookended by additional mirrored prologues and epilogues, and more a mosaic of the author’s personal philosophical journey. The aggressive overarching conceit—that twin flames and parallel selves exist across universes and realities (or states thereof)—is further complicated by the book’s physical structure: ten stories read from one end, ten stories read from the other (by flipping the book and starting from the rear… whichever end you deem that to be), with the twin epilogues of “Absolution” meeting in the middle. Whether or not this structural decision works to the book’s benefit is up to the individual. Personally, I found it needlessly cumbersome and wished for an alternative. This was primarily due to my desire to flip back and forth between stories in one half of the book and their conceptual parallel in the other. However, the decision to produce the book in this fashion doesn’t mar the content within. It’s merely a small frustration I wanted to address.

The stories themselves are an interesting mix of voices, ethnicities, and upbringings. As previously mentioned, the two halves of the book (divided by the twin prologues “Dreamless” and “Dreamer”) consist each of ten stories sharing the same selection of titles, but offering mirror images and alternate realities of one another. From the Author’s Note that opens the text: “The purpose of this ‘two-way’ arrangement though, ultimately, is to challenge the segregation of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction.’ These two labels are not as mutually exclusive as we deem; for the world of fiction borrows heavily (if not entirely) from existing fact, while the factual reality we perceive in our daily life is tainted with lies, fantasies and the artful brush strokes of an entire population’s imagination.”

Though ambitious, Sundaram’s stories have difficulty finding and maintaining any true sense of weight or social significance. I was reminded a lot of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist—not in a narrative or qualitative sense, but in the book’s more philosophical bend. The interrogative is used to a dangerous degree in Sundaram’s stories. He asks more questions than he endeavours to answer. The questions themselves are about man’s nature, his relationship to the world, himself, and those around him; about one’s upbringing and whether or not that determines their quality as a human being. These are all valid questions to explore, but it is through his overt posing of such questions that the book loses its impact.

The scenarios presented aren’t given enough voice to be relied upon for presenting the questions, and possibly the answers as well, through their narratives and his character’s actions. Too often he asks directly, as if expecting the underlying of his stories to be too easily lost on the reader. In other instances, too many answers are given, points hammered home; “An Apple Branch” is a perfect example of this. In the “Dreamless” half of the book (which I took to be the more faithful and less reliant on magical realism to enforce its purpose), this is a tale of two neighbours, Maurice and Anwar, and the apple tree between their properties and the friendship it helps forge between them. This friendship, however, is twisted and destroyed one day, as the cultural views of a nation turn against Anwar and others of his ethnic background. This is all fine, but Sundaram, instead of incorporating imagery or a sense of foreboding into his tale that might relate indirectly or directly to the cause of this sudden shift, feels the need to end the story with the perfunctory paragraph: Maurice and Anwar parted ways that afternoon, forever. And the 200-year old apple tree was cut down in anger that very evening. The evening of September 11, 2001.

This example is endemic of the book’s most obvious problems: Sundaram always takes that extra step too far and explains his point, rather than allowing the reader to discover it for themselves. For this reason, I found the “Dreamer” tales to be the more engaging of the two halves. Though still overcooked in this manner, it is not to nearly the same degree, and their surrealism is given province over Sundaram’s need to explain.

This is not to say the book is without enjoyment. Far from it. “At First Sight” is the strongest title in the collection, and the only one that is strong in both halves of the book. For the remaining standouts, usually one of the pair is far stronger in voice than the other: “Fifty Cents” in the “Dreamless” portion of the book feels ham-fisted and too direct, while its “Dreamer” counterpart is charming, innocent, and leaves much to the imagination. Apart from the prologues and epilogues, which felt like unnecessary monologues from the author’s own philosophical avatar, Ishvar, the only story that did not work for me in either reality is the final tale, “Immortal in Death.”

Sundaram’s voices are well developed, and his use of imagery is sound. I admire the intent of this book, but in the end I wish more restraint had been given—to both the design of the book, and to the author’s overly direct need to pose and answer his own questions. Simply not enough agency and trust is given to the reader.

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