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The Valley Unpleasant in 'Mount Pleasant'

Ruined by blind ambition, Mount Pleasant stands as a cautionary tale to any writer possessed of more aspiration than art.


Mount Pleasant

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 384 pages
Author: Patrice Nganang
Price: $27.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-04
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The greatest praise I can offer Patrice Nganang’s Mount Pleasant is that it is ambitious. Unfortunately, that is also the most damning praise I can offer.

It's a mess of a novel, sprawling in the way an ornate estate might be; an overcomplicated, unmotivated structure branching out with no concern for the stability of its foundation or the sense of its construction. In less than 400 pages it tries to plumb the depths of the colonial history of Cameroon, the rise of Cameroonian nationalism, the nature of imperialism, the nature of story telling, the relation between politics and language and the relation between reality and language (to say nothing of a hundred other topics), but spreads itself so widely and so carelessly that it ends up saying very little of worth about any one subject.

In part this is a matter of plotting. Nganang’s novel is divvied up into four interrelated sections that are meant to echo one another for purposes of clarity, but which more often than not only muddle. There's the framing device, a story about a researcher named Bertha who returns to her ancestral Cameroon to interview the last surviving servant of the Mount Pleasant estate, the doyenne Sara, about her own history as well as the history of the titular manse. There is Sara’s tale, about how the coincidentally-named-servant Bertha saved her from induction into the sultan Njoya’s harem, a tale which in turn branches off to explore the history of noted Cameroonian nationalist Joseph Ngono (Sara’s own father, as it turns out) and the tale of Nebu, Bertha’s son, a sculptor whose search for artistic perfection and resultant death parallels the downfall of dreams for a united, free Cameroon.

Cuts between these stories come often and awkwardly, with very little intention: the novel has barely introduced Joseph Ngono, hardly given him four pages, before it cuts back to Nebu’s story for four pages before moving back to Sara’s for 12 before jumping back to Joseph’s for another three before finally settling on Nebu’s for 40. There’s no thematic echo, no narrative trigger that would explain these abrupt transitions. When Bertha, who narrates the story, bothers to justify the jarring shifts she does so almost exclusively by deferring to Sara. “She didn’t want to hear about (Joseph’s story)... So I let her take it from there,” she says after dropping his tale to dwell at length on Nebu’s in one place. Bertha is no better when left to her own devices: she shows no compunctions about dropping a recounting of her own life to wax for nearly 100 pages on the fate of Nebu.

If this conversational structure affords the novel a kind of authenticity, it's at the expense of any greater structure. There's no sense of flow or design at work, just a groping after catharsis. No story but Nebu’s builds towards its end with any deliberation: all others feel like 60 or so pages of unrelated novels ripped out at random and then pasted into this one, so haphazard is their telling.

When Joseph Ngono dies feeling betrayed by his friend, Charles Antagnan, and realizes that his attempts to spark a nationalist movement among his people robbed him of the family life he so badly wanted, it makes no sense. His relationship with Charles and his attempts to spark nationalism have only ever been footnotes until this point, told to the reader but never never afforded even a scene; his children have not even been mentioned until the moment of his revelation. His story, like two of the others, moves from rising action to climax with no development in between, and yet has the audacity to demand the audience respond as if this was all better constructed.

Worse, this confused shifting between plot lines seems to have flummoxed Nganang himself. He never quite seems to recognize his characters when they stumble back onto the pages. The servant Bertha cannot be both so moved by the cruelty of Sara’s fate that she disguises her at great risk to her own life and yet be described as “ruthless” 40 pages later. Earlier chapters describe the sultan Njoya as a man with a reputation for “cutting the knots of women’s destiny” by conscripting them into his harem when they’re barely nine, portrays him as a creature who possess a “face as captivating as an abyss” and who looks as if “he could swallow a soul”, yet later all one hears of him is how grand he is. His days are spent traipsing through the gardens of Mount Pleasant and instructing children on how best to follow their dreams; his every waking moment is bent on thinking of how he might best help his people. So benevolent is he that when he rises from a coma even the animals are so overjoyed they come from all corners of Cameroon to celebrate (indeed, this is so important a detail it warrants its own chapter).

Stories and characters both demand some kind of ordering, some kind of consistency. Expectations that are raised have an obligation to be either met or subverted; they must come to some larger end. Nganang may think he’s found a loophole when he has Bertha beg our indulgence not 20 pages into the story (“One skeptical word is all it takes to kill off both the storyteller and her tale” Bertha allows, permitting Sara an overriding indulgence, and it may as well be the author himself advising readers to do the same), but the doubts he so casually waves off are not the doubts that arise when faced with a story so wild it seems impossible or details so odd they require trust in the teller. The doubts that appear in Sara’s tale are created by flat-out contradictions that threaten to unseat the very coherence of characters and story and authorial authority all in one fell swoop.

It would be one thing if these accounts were secondhand, delivered by a Bertha who is only now putting these pieces together from third-hand journals or from the mouths of tribesmen who transmitted cultural knowledge and folklore-like truths they felt they’d lived themselves after recounting them for so long. Or if they were put to some level of scrutiny. But Nganang does not allow even that much. He fails to deliver any larger observation because the service he affords language is only lip service. Certainly he makes much thematic grist out of the idea that stories and language can shape the world and identity. It is stories, after all, that revive the catatonic sultan Njoya from his coma; the very history of Mount Pleasant (itself known as the “House of Stories”) turns the “limping lives [of the people of Nsimeyong] into limitless fountains of potential.”

The problem is that for all of his inveighing about the delicate nature of the word, Nganang himself seems to have spent very little time considering how best to apply it. At times his sins are minor, a matter of one jarring word that betrays a lack of intention or consideration on his part. Joseph talks of wanting to “shatter” a Hitler’s mustache by punching it, but mustaches do not shatter; they do not have the brittle consistency, the structure necessary to do so. The movements of a pigeon are not “voluptuous” and in no way recall the “elasticity” of a graceful woman’s steps: there's nothing sensual about the never-ending series of awkward stops-and-starts that characterize a pigeon’s motion, nothing elegant about the way their heads bob back and forth as if they were balanced on a seesaw or their legs jerk out like uncoordinated marionette limbs.

Others problems are matters of poor stylistic choice. The entirety of the novel is recounted by the journalist Bertha, and suffers greatly for it. Her tone is smarmy, knowing, and burdened with a striving lyricism that makes such a clatter each time it is deployed that it detracts from rather than underline the emotions at work.. A woman’s body cannot be anything less than “a castle of a thousand voices washed up on the shores of time”, an eccentric diction is “the wounded flowers of (a) sublime vocabulary, [invented] to make up for the filth of [a] macabre existence.” No event can be described simply, no character is presented straightforwardly, and so everything disappears in a cloud of metaphor and symbolism.

Meanwhile, her speech is studded with a hundred little rhetorical flourish intended to foreshadow developments or explore that she fancies a particularly deep truth about reality, but which only ever pull attention away from what’s on the page. “So why not just listen to her?” she asks of the reader just after stating that her main goal in Cameroon is “exploring the building that is... Sara’s life”; whenever a character or event of some significance is alluded to, she invariably mentions that “(she)’ll come back to him soon enough” but gives us no reason beyond this perfunctory introduction to make us believe he has a part worth playing in this unfolding chronicle. By the time the event does happen or the character becomes relevant, she doesn’t even make a note that this is exactly what she meant a hundred pages back. A perfect opportunity to build world and character -- and so anticipation -- is sidelined for a quip that wants to sound cute but only sounds clumsy.

It's not that Bertha’s attempts to grasp something poetic are unwarranted, or that Nganang is wrong to give her a distinct if unflattering voice. Any author earnestly interested in the themes Nganang professes care for has no choice but to explore every element of language, even -- especially -- those instances where it seems at odds with itself. The problem is that he doesn’t acknowledge the flaws in Bertha’s language; he puts it front-and-center to celebrate, not critique, it. He’s so taken with what he thinks are clever turns of phrase that he seems blinded to the fact that his story is made so much less by them. Language is a fickle, delicate instrument -- one that must be deployed precisely to create convincing character, lend a story coherence and sense, give shape and form to a world that exists only in the author’s mind. Nganang is a writer possessed of extremely imprecise language.

Perhaps the problems are all to due with Amy Baram Reid’s translation: after all, some of these minor flubs could be a matter of words chosen mistakenly. Only such minor problems do not exists in a vacuum. What can seem dismissable or forgivable actually often suggests massive foundational error, and the problems ruining Mount Pleasant are so foundational they could belong to nobody but the author. The problem is that a creaky foundation is lucky if it can carry even a moderate load, let alone one so large as that Nganang has entrusted to Mount Pleasant. When even a pigeon’s walk collapses under the meager weight it’s been tasked to carry, how can a sprawling epic about the history of a nation, with its hundreds of complex characters and history, hope to even stagger one foot forward, let alone walk the length prescribed by an epic?

The answer, sadly, is that it cannot; that no amount of heart and no ideas, no matter how lofty, can make up for so poorly constructed a plot or language so inconsiderately chosen. In this strange way, Mount Pleasant still delivers the very theme Nganang trusted it with -- this idea that stories shape the world and language shapes stories -- yet, ironically, only as a cautionary tale.

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