No discipline by itself can account for human existence. Clark Blaise’s collection of short stories The Meagre Tarmac follows the first-person thoughts of eleven loosely connected narrators as they make sense of their mixed Indian and North American identities. While the narrators are diverse, they all consider the seemingly contradictory societal values of American individualism and Indian orientation around community. The mutable but consistent narrative structure of The Meagre Tarmac mirrors the collection’s trajectory: that an individual’s life, as well as broader humanity, is not centred around any one force. There is no climax structuring of Blaise’s stories, and neither the individual stories nor the collection as a whole have a beginning or end. Instead there are shards of static quotidian energy. The collection correspondingly imparts that existence has no climax, beginning, or end; rather, it is a continuum of short and inextricably related lives. Blaise’s narrators attempt to rationalize this nature of human existence from various discourses including, sociology, math, and science –none of which considered alone can fully explain the human state of being. Through the mutable yet steady narrative structure of this collection, Blaise conveys the inexplicable phenomenon of both infinity and brevity in the narrators’ quotidian existences.
Sociology is too general a discipline to predict the life patterns of Indian immigrants. In the story “The Sociology of Love,” Anya, the honours student, has faith in the discourse:
That’s why I’m involved in sociology, she says, it’s so exciting. Sociology alone can answer the big questions, like where are we headed and what is to become of us? I offer a counter argument; perhaps computer science, or molecular biology, or astronomy, I say, might answer even larger questions. “In the here and now,” she insists, “there is only sociology. (10)
Such an avenue to understanding existence leaves her with infinite gaps. For instance, her interview with Vivik on adjustment and assimilation answers only statistical questionson his marriage, parents, job, and residential status. In asking these categorical questions, Anya does not learn anything new; in contrast, she actually reinforces the well-established American standard of success that is based on individualist values. She regards Vivek as an assimilated Indian, not as an American, which she considers herself to be (even though she is Russian as well). In this story, sociological procedures construct difference in Vivik’s experience. Contrary to Anya’s research, Vivik selects the ways in which he lives like an essentialized American: he is protective of his children as many Indians are, but he has had an affair. While he refuses to go to his father’s funeral, privileging instead his American mistress’s opinions, he regrets the family sacrifices he made for his prestigious education. Vivik’s individuality in his self-chosen values make him a very American figure without at all diminishing his Indian identity. Thus, Sociology as Anya presents it, hardly succeeds in predicting the pattern by which human beings live their lives.
As with sociology, in “In Her Prime” math similarly fails to elucidate an all-encompassing explanation of human existence. In the beginning of “In Her Prime,” Pramila intelligently dwells on both the inevitability and the sheer chance at being alive:
Life is eternal…We die and decompose….The elements keep going on, and on, and on and the recombine randomly, making birds and mice, grass and trees, and sometimes, even, every few thousand years I guess, a dog or a human being. (25)
In spite of this highly sophisticated musing for a thirteen year old, Pramilla fails to acknowledge the element of deliberate choice and personal agency in existence. Her ability in math is reflected in her personality by in she does not demonstrate the agency she is capable of. She is like a variable that is assigned a high value and then manipulated by a function: always attached to a coefficient. Applying herself flawlessly to the functions expected of her, she lets Borya do what whatever he likes to her. Likewise, when she strongly objects to moving to India, the only action she takes against her parents is a passive operation: she threatens to cease existing entirely, the same way numbers in a function seamlessly and silently cancel each other out without creating a statement. While math explains much of human existence, it fails to account for the element of personal agency, idealistically representing the world in terms of logical, equalizing flows of operations.
Through the consistently mutable narrative structure of this collection, Blaise conveys the phenomenon of both infinity and brevity in the narrators’ quotidian existence. He reveals the inability of single discourses to fully rationalize this contradiction, and by examining existence in fragments of different discourses, Blaise’s overall message is that sociology, math, science, and infinite other disciplines are not respective of each other. The lives of individuals are correspondingly inextricable. As one of his narrators remarks, “given infinite time, every molecule in a confined space–even if the molecules represent the world’s population and the confined space is earth itself–makes contact with every other” (113). Individuals, different discourses, and the stories of this collection are all interrelated, and by reflecting on the inadequacy of single discourses to fully approach existential reality, Blaise also implicates the failure of his own approach, the literary collection, to wholly grasp the nature of being.