Introduction

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Mojtabai, A(nn) G(race) 1938–

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Mojtabai is an American novelist. She was at one time married to an Iranian government official, and her years as an outsider in the Middle East provide the background for the cultural conflict presented in her most recent novel, A Stopping Place. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 9.)

Carol Booth Olson

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A. G. Mojtabai opens Mundome with an image of dissolution and decay. The landscape she describes—like those of Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme—is in the process of breaking down, losing its vitality and wearing away…. Through her initial depiction of the moldering library, Mojtabai effectively juxtaposes external setting and internal psychology, providing the reader with access to the mind of her protagonist, Richard Henken. For the library in which Richard works … is at once a symbol of the deteriorating consciousness of modern man and an objective correlative for Richard's own psychological condition. Mojtabai's discussion of the corrosion of collective memory and the debilitation of the human spirit mirrors the impoverishment of Richard's own inner being and the "attrition" of his mental stability.

Mundome is in the tradition of what has been called the waste land novel in which "all energies are inverted and result in death and destruction instead of love, renewal, or fulfillment." (pp. 71-2)

In essence, the library is a backdrop against which Richard enacts his own drama, his struggle to save himself from "drowning in [his] own wastes."… His struggle becomes more desperate and more futile as the novel progresses: "Page by page the psyche is laid bare, and with it the feeble defenses that people use to keep hold on their sanity." When the stage clears, Richard Henken is hopelessly entrapped with the prison of madness.

At the outset of Mundome, Richard is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his sister, Meg, who has just been released from a mental institution after many years of confinement. (p. 72)

In many respects, Meg and Richard appear to be exact opposites of one another. (p. 73)

When one looks closely at these characters, however, some similarities in their personalities begin to emerge which make them difficult to categorize. For instance, Meg and Richard do not always display irrational and rational behavior, respectively….

One hears [the statement: "You're insane, that goes without saying"] over and over in Mundome. Meg usually utters it in a matter-of-fact way to let people know that the seeds of madness exist within every individual. She needs to remind Richard, now and then, that they are "birds of a feather" … rather than polar opposites. (p. 74)

Meg's precarious mental condition and her need for constant supervision provide Richard with a plausible reason to avoid having to connect with any other human being. The precise nature of his relationship with and commitment to Meg remains a puzzle until Sue, a library staff member whom Richard attempts to take on a date, makes sexual advances toward him. After Richard tells Sue that he does not want to be involved with her because of Meg, she asks who Meg is. He responds, "She's in my mind…. We live together."… His comment confirms the reader's growing suspicion that Meg may literally be a figment of Richard's imagination or, more precisely, an aspect of his psyche. Part of the confusion which arises over whether Meg is real or illusory stems from the manner in which the book is written. In a letter Mojtabai notes, "I wrote the book first with Richard and Meg as one character, then again as two, leaving in all the ambiguities of the first version without committing myself to either version. The book can read, and has been read either way." One also begins to wonder if Richard is a dimension of Meg's psyche rather than vice versa. Mojtabai leaves the question of identity unresolved. (p. 75)

Numerous references to the theme of the double occur throughout the novel, reinforcing the inextricable relationship of Richard and Meg. (p. 76)

One key symbol used to convey the idea of doubleness is the mirror. When Richard looks into the mirror, he sees a "composite photograph" representing the duality of his nature which is "cleft down the middle" and "badly spliced."… (p. 77)

Richard envies his sister's freedom from social responsibility as well as her imperviousness to loneliness and pain, and he wonders "Which is the false theater, which the true?"… Is the reality of Meg preferable to the illusion of order, propriety, and rationality maintained by Richard? Mojtabai intimates that the inviolateness of Meg's insanity holds another attraction for Richard. His urge to commit a "crime" and "shatter" the sanctuary has sexual implications for Richard that he is unable to confront. His concern with propriety camouflages certain repressed impulses which he is not fully conscious of and does not comprehend. The underlying theme of incest and violation (deflowering) is evident…. (pp. 77-8)

[Finally] Richard can no longer curb his passions or control his actions. He is desperately trying to remain "lucid," but he is aware that he cannot "hold out" much longer…. As Richard becomes increasingly confused about the nature of his identity and his sanity is brought more and more into question, the novel itself becomes fragmented in form and content. The form of the novel now is reminiscent of a dreamscape Richard describes: "My dream is all shifting surface, no scale, no demarcations, only locations, punctures or mouth holes, where terror and lust are the sole inhabitants, and people are only the sites for these, only the tags."… Mojtabai purposely chooses to "dislocate the reader, to shake the reader up, to dissolve the solidarity of things around him, to clear the ground for feeling in a new way." She intends that we experience the novel as participants and not as spectators, that we actively "feel Richard's vertigo." (pp. 78-9)

Richard's feeling of remoteness from self and his sense of hopelessness about the future increase until he admits defeat and ceases to struggle to maintain his sanity: "Trapped between myself and the mirror, I cannot run. It is better to lie between the sheets, clooe to the horizontal, all fight gone, taking whatever comes."… The image of entrapment is reminiscent of both Plath's bell jar inside of which Esther Greenwood suffocates and the mirror-maze that Barth's Ambrose forlornly wanders through in Lost in the Funhouse. For all three characters, isolation from other humans eventually leads to desolation in the inner self. (p. 80)

Although Richard's drama is played out since he has no way "to settle accounts" or "have the last word,"… it still may have a final message for the reader. Mojtabai suggests, "Only look within: the potentialities for almost anything are present in everyone." Meg might say it differently: "You're insane, that goes without saying." (p. 81)

Carol Booth Olson, "Mirrors and Madness: A. G. Mojtabai's 'Mundome'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1978), Vol. XX, No. 2, 1978, pp. 71-82.

Anatole Broyard

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It is clear that "A Stopping Place," by A. G. Mojtabai, is a tragic comedy of cultures. (p. 558)

[The author] who lived for several years in Iran and Pakistan … uses East and West to indict one another.

In "A Stopping Place," Miss Mojtabai uses her local color well. She turns the experience of foreignness into a feeling of being lost, of being assaulted by metaphors….

The expected riot or invasion [which provides the tension in the novel] is the result of a theft, from a shrine, of a holy relic.

The relic is a hair of the prophet Muhammad. In the East, we are reminded, a hair can cause a war, because every man, as Henri Michaux said about India, is an ecclesiastic. Everything is holy. In America, we understand, nothing is sacred.

This secondary plot is the undoing of "A Stopping Place." Intended as counterpoint, the two themes—the Americans' search for another kind of order, the Pakistanis' search for the hair of the Prophet—never effectively impinge on one another….

"While writing this book, I was haunted by an image—an image of parallel roads unfolding, nowhere converging…." This is A. G. Mojtabai's "note to the reader" at the beginning of "A Stopping Place." At the end of the book, the roads are still parallel, nowhere converging. Her characters and her situations have existed side by side for awhile, and no more….

While we enter a foreign state in this interesting novel, we do not profoundly enter a foreign state of mind. Miss Mojtabai, however, is to be admired for what she has almost done.

As the epigraph to Part 2 of "A Stopping Place," the author quotes an Eastern text: "Listen, I have wept patiently." One senses that Miss Mojtabai, too, has wept patiently over the enormous, accusing space between East and West. (p. 559)

Anatole Broyard, "'A Stopping Place'," in The New York Times, Section I (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 11, 1979, pp. 558-59).

Julian Moynahan

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A. G. Mojtabai made her literary debut in 1974 with "Mundome," an extraordinary, poetic novel…. This first novel was a dark, modern-gothic book, lighted by shafts of demonic wit and marked by distinction of style and bold imagination. One surmised that this strangely named writer of the work with the strange name had been there and back, had by herself descended some distance into the imprisoning abyss where her characters languished. Hers was the report of a survivor….

"A Stopping Place," is set in [Iran and Pakistan] during the early 1960's and shows prescient knowledge of the explosive mixture of Moslem religious zealotry and ethnic power politics that fueled the recent Iranian revolution and has kept Pakistan "destabilized" since the British withdrawal and the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent. The book is almost obsessively concerned with forms and occasions of imprisonment, oppression and constraint. This emphasis reflects, no doubt, the author's [own] marital ordeal….

But tyranny over women is only one form of a social pathology depicted in "A Stopping Place." There is also tyranny imposed by a corrupt officialdom, by sectarian intolerance, the paranoia of misled ethnic groups confronting each other across poorly defined borders, and by the large, cynical manipulations of the Western powers, including the Americans. All of her places … are shown as good places not to stop at. Yet the book, through one of its main characters, Mirmal Roy, a Pakistani civil servant drawn from retirement (and from Graham Greene), and dispatched to Cyrilabad to pacify the city during a crisis of religious rioting, shows that just and tolerant men do exist in the area and may make some headway against the frenzy of faction before being struck down by the assassin's knife. (p. 15)

"A Stopping Place" is much more broadly scaled than Mrs. Mojtabai's earlier fiction, and she is not invariably successful at interweaving plot line and intertwining private lives with public scenes and issues. For such an interesting story, the actual narration sometimes goes by fits and starts, while her drawing of minor characters, especially the officials and leaders of factions at Cyrilabad, lacks conviction and specificity.

Mrs. Mojtabai is best at showing the lonely, beset individual enduring unsupported the ordeal of his—or her—life…. Along with this sadness there is the author's rich gift of humor, lighting up the book in a dozen places and from any number of unexpected angles.

If Mrs. Mojtabai in "A Stopping Place" does not quite bring off the big, panoplied novel she has set out to write, her progress as a novelist is still substantial. She is definitely someone to keep an eye on for the future. (p. 53)

Julian Moynahan, "Occasions of Constraint," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1979, pp. 15, 53.

Daphne Merkin

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A. G. Mojtabai is one of those dolorously polished writers—F. Scott Fitzgerald was another—whose prose has the quality of fractured light, playing over the shards of things: the waning of a romance, the eclipse of a career, the dissolution of a mind. Her first novel, Mundome, was a startlingly lucid evocation of schizophrenia. Mojtabai's second novel, The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud, recounted the disastrous consequences of an experimental program among a group of high school scientists and evinced, again, an unusual sense of the price that is paid for certain advantages of sensibility.

Her latest novel, A Stopping Place, takes off in another direction altogether. It … focuses upon the theft of a holy Moslem relic. James Nirmal Roy, a retired public servant, is assigned to investigate the incident….

A Stopping Place is about different levels of misunderstanding. It seems to me to take its originating impulse from that scene of irreconcilable difference on which Forster's A Passage to India concludes, for Nirmal, after overseeing the safe return of the relic, is stabbed to death in the residue of political intrigue. It is still, many years later, "'No, not yet,'" and "'No, not there.'" At the book's core, as in Mojtabai's earlier novels, is a perception of humankind as utterly lonely, adrift in individual consciousness. If A Stopping Place is not entirely successful it is because the various strands never quite knit and the narrative remains uneasily divided between a larger story and several smaller stories. My guess is that Mojtabai's particular talent is better suited to the sort of close portrait she attempted in her first two novels than to the largesse of scope she aims for here. Still, this work confirms my sense that Mojtabai is one of the more intelligent writers to have come our way in a long time.

Daphne Merkin, "Brief Reviews: 'A Stopping Place'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 26, December 29, 1979, p. 31.

A. G. Mojtabai's ambitious novel [A Stopping Place] is interestingly, if not altogether successfully, structured around the parallel stories of three outsiders affected by [the cultural tension caused by the disappearance of a religious relic]…. A master of implication in her first novel, Mundome, and a former resident of Pakistan, Mojtabai is here at her best when conveying her characters' half-bewildered, half-angry reactions to their own alienness. She has also managed to slip in a good deal of straight-faced comment on various cultural absurdities…. But the book's organization, in which individual tales are linked by only the wispiest of plot devices, undercuts its building tension, and this reader, at least, suspects its author of a little self-indulgence. (p. 88)

"Short Reviews: 'A Stopping Place'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 245, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 87-8.

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