Books

'Night Theater': Surgery, Corruption, and Chekhov

The well-timed choreography of Vikram Paralkar's Night Theater leads us to interrogate the unfamiliar notes of our personal harmonies.

Night Theater
Vikram Paralkar

Catapult

January 2020

Other

Reading Vikram Paralkar's second novel, Night Theater, brings to mind another doctor-writer from another century. Anton Chekhov. This Russian physician and writer gave us well over a hundred fictional doctors in his plays and short stories. With each one, he gave us different memorable archetypes: the narcissist, the genius, the healer, the bumbling idiot, the cynic, and more. And with each one he also gave us richly evocative studies of the medical profession—its many conflicts, rewards, labors, and satisfactions.

Paralkar, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, gives us just such an archetypal doctor in this novel: an old, once-brilliant surgeon resigned to working the balance of his life in a threadbare government clinic of a tiny, nowhere village. When a family of three dead people arrives at the clinic one night, Paralkar's doctor is given no choice but to follow along with their desperate plan. The majority of the novel is about what transpires throughout the night, before the much-anticipated and much-dreaded dawn is upon them.

In the short story "Ward No. 6", Chekhov reveals one of the reasons for his frequent literary exploration of the doctor-patient equation:

People who have an official, professional relation to other men's sufferings, for instance—judges, police officers, doctors—in course of time, grow so callous, that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients, in this respect they are not different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in the backyard and does not notice the blood.

Paralkar's doctor in Night Theater has also, in this manner, grown cold over his decades of practice, first as a coroner and then as a surgeon. Valuing process, procedure, and precision above all else, he has managed to achieve a certain emotional distance from all the pain and suffering he must trade in.

... it'd been far too long since he'd felt any emotion worth mastering. Health itself appeared so bleak a state that sickness and death wrung little pity from him any more. Sometimes, when a patient's final breaths seemed no more than the last turns of a wheel, leaving behind an object to be removed, charred, turned to ash, and stirred into a riverbed, his indifference terrified even him.

However, with his own mortality thrown into sharper focus due to his dwindling years and the on-hand overnight crisis, the doctor sinks into an existential turmoil where he questions both his own ideologies of life, death, and the hereafter as well as those of the dead man he is attending to. Answers elude or frustrate the doctor constantly, leaving him more cognitively exhausted than the lack of sleep and performance of multiple surgeries.

By not giving any of his characters any names—they are simply "the surgeon", "the pharmacist", "the teacher", "the official"—Paralkar has attempted, perhaps, to make his archetypes seem more universal. The surgeon could be any man of medicine struggling to manage his emotional inner world with his external system-driven one. The pharmacist could be any young, semi-educated woman with her superstitious beliefs about good and evil, the divine and the demonic. The teacher could be any husband or father doing what he thought was best for his family. The official could be any corrupt bureaucrat grasping every opportunity to turn a situation into a profit.

While Paralkar mostly succeeds with the above, where he falters a bit is in his rendering of the tense connections between the characters during these defining moments of their existence. The small cast moves around the clinic with well-timed choreography, bringing to mind some of the award-winning Marathi plays from the 1970s and 1980s theater scene of Mumbai (Paralkar's hometown.) But the long stretches of dialogue and surgery descriptions—the latter done with admirably exacting detail and language—drag their momentum and dilute their drama. Also, at times, Paralkar's metaphors and similes invoking the medical world, when applied to non-medical aspects, do not seem to have quite the desired effect.

One of the other recurring themes of the novel is human corruption. Time and again, the plot veers in this direction by showing how various characters embody or experience corruption differently. While corruption exists in almost all societies and cultures, the many insidious ways that it continues to spread a terminal rot throughout entire institutions in India could have been, perhaps, probed with a greater sense of urgency and incisiveness.

The novel ends with an inevitability and predictability, which is, given the way the story begins and progresses, as satisfying as it should be. This inconclusiveness calls to mind what Virginia Woolf has described, when writing about Chekhov, as the "note of interrogation" where the "tune is unfamiliar" (see the essay, "The Russian Point of View: in The Common Reader; Mariner Books; 2002). Paralkar's ending, then, is also pitch perfect, leaving readers questioning their own thoughts and expectations and listening, in a more alert way, for "those last notes which complete the harmony."



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.