WE THAT ARE YOUNG
By Preti Taneja
480 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.
Quick, summarize “King Lear.”
You can probably come up with the gist — aging monarch, three daughters, a fool, a storm. But there’s more: political jostling, the threat of war, descent into madness, suicide. Writers crib from Shakespeare because the stories are lodged in our collective recall, but so full of subplot and nuance they can be remade.
Revisiting “Lear,” as Preti Taneja does in her debut, “We That Are Young,” is a familiar trick (it won Jane Smiley a Pulitzer). Still, with Shakespeare, fresh interpretation is always welcome. If Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” was an act of transposition, “We That Are Young” is an embodiment. The register is dramatic and the language poetic, but the novel (like the play, I think) tries the patience. By the fourth act, you’re fidgeting, waiting for the characters to start dying.
Taneja’s Lear is Devraj, and the kingdom he’s dividing is the Company, which is in the business of business: manufacturing, government contracting, hotels, real estate, you name it. His heirs are Gargi, Radha and the youngest, disowned Sita. Taneja also gives us Lear’s hundred knights, his fool, his hangers-on (Kent, Gloucester and his bastard son), his subpar sons-in-law. The book shouldn’t be evaluated on its fidelity to the source material, but Taneja’s attentiveness deserves credit.
Devraj is a magnate, not a monarch; that old but still salient point about the root of all evil. Gargi, on her first date with the man she’ll marry, listens to his catalog of the things he loves and comes up with her own: “The beautiful horizon of the production possibility frontier. The maximum possible output combinations of two goods or services an economy can achieve, when all resources are fully and efficiently employed.” Goneril is a monster; Gargi is a capitalist.
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