Review: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Written by Rafe Posey
On October 16, the Man Booker Prize judges will announce a winner, and I can’t wait.
Recently there has been a lot of press about “readability,” and about the Booker judges and their intense literary snobbery (as if this is at all surprising), and so I am particularly interested in their decision this year. In this year’s Booker shortlist, the finalists are quite unlike the lists we have been seeing of late in the United States. This year’s shortlist of six authors includes three men and three women. Four of the authors are British, one is Indian, and one is Malaysian. The only previous winner on the list is also one of the women; I almost can’t conceive of that happening in American prizes, not least because there are so few women who win the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, or other prestigious prizes.
One of those debut novels is Jeet Thayil’s dazzling Narcopolis, which weaves together the stories of a handful of characters as they move through the recent history of India and Bombay (I have elected to use the city’s old name, in keeping with the author’s choice in the novel). Peter Strothard, the Booker Chair, along with his various rather high-end comments about whether or not books should be readable or easy to absorb, said that the judges picked these titles because of the “shock of language” and “pure power of prose.” If those are your criteria, then Narcopolis is an obvious choice.
Many critics have described the dizzying seven-page first sentence that opens the novel; this section appears to be behind many readers’ assertions that Narcopolis is too hard to read, or too confusing. My suspicion is that many readers never went past the prologue, a fever dream in which we are introduced to most of the themes, and many of the characters, we will encounter in more depth later. I also imagine that many readers were caught up in the narcotic spiral of the prose, and couldn’t maintain their pace when the narrative evened out.
Like the preparation of the opium pipes with which much of the novel concerns itself, Narcopolis should not be rushed. The novel is more cinematic than most; while reading, I was much more aware of the setting, with its noise and chaos, the scores of languages and dialects, than I often am, and sometimes that background pulled me away from the much more intimate writing in the forefront of each scene. In fact, Thayil returns again and again to characters talking about movies, and whether they’re talking about Bollywood pictures or western films, these moments stitch together the stories with a peculiar delicacy that felt more like extremely deft film editing and cinematography than like seamless prose.
Then there are the comparisons between Narcopolis and its literary ancestors. The jacket copy compares Thayil with Burroughs and Baudelaire, although I think it might be more apt to link him with Paul Bowles, or with other Commonwealth writers like J. M. Coetzee or Margaret Atwood; the prose is much more coherent, and less weighted, than Burroughs or Baudelaire. I also found the writing quite unlike that of India’s literary greats, especially Salman Rushdie, and it was in this difference that I found myself most affected by the characters I encountered in Narcopolis, and by the perilous, intricate stories Thayil told about them.
Starting with our very unreliable quasi-narrator, Dom Ullis, whose return to 1970s Bombay from New York, and his immediate descent into an opiatic languor, opens the novel, Thayil introduces us to a splendid cast of outsiders. It is Dom whose voice we hear in that seven-page first sentence, in which he introduces us to the idea that there are two narrators to a given story, the I and the other I. Having set the stage for the twisting narrative that follows, he abandons his reader for the drug. Dom resurfaces periodically, although he is almost entirely absent from the whole middle of the novel. In the first part, he leads us into the opium rhanda run by Rashid, a not-especially-devout Muslim businessman. In this shop, we meet Dimple, the Hijra eunuch around whom the rest of the novel flows with great affection; Jamal, Rashid’s disaffected son, who grows up to be a conservative Muslim gangster; the tragically cosmopolitan Hindu addict Rumi; and Mr. Lee, a Chinese ex pat whose stories and medicine soothe and guide Dimple.
Here is another problem with complaints about “readability.” Throughout Narcopolis, Thayil uses whatever strikes him as the best language for whatever he’s writing about, which means that we often encounter words in various Indian, Chinese, and Pakistani languages and dialects scattered through the mostly English prose. He doesn’t bother italicizing these words, and does not provide a glossary. Many American readers have learned to expect these cues in their international fiction, and may have tired of stumbling over all the languages. Thayil also does not provide western characters (although several are westernized, which is not the same thing at all) to whom we can cling. Narcopolis is in some ways rather post-post-colonial – Thayil seems to assume that either we will take responsibility for what we’re reading, and how we’re reading it, or we will just stop. His setting is Bombay, for the most part, but it is not the glorified slum Bombay of Slumdog Millionaire (although sometimes the chaotic narrative reminded me of that film’s kinetic surges) or the Anglo-influenced post-colonial India of Vikram Seth’s novels or Satyajit Ray’s masterful films. This Bombay of this novel is a city in which, although the address to which the story keeps returning is 007 Shuklaji Street, and the characters talk about movies all the time, I have no memory of even a single comment or joke about James Bond.
As stated earlier, Dom is not a reliable narrator, although it’s hard to tell, sometimes, when he’s narrating and when he’s not. He is rarely present, and when he is there, he’s a mess. As he puts it himself, “What was the point of being reliable, like a dog or an automobile or armchair?” But the question of truth, and of reliability, is one that bleeds through the whole novel, setting up one of its many binary challenges. We are asked to consider “hero” as the opposite of “heroine” as well as “heroin” on the first page, but heroin is also opposed by opium; Hindu by Muslim; clean by dirty but also by addicted; rich by poor; real by not real; I by not I. And in Dimple, Thayil asks one of his largest questions – who is a man, and who is a woman, and how do we know?
Unlike Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, this sprawling novel is actually quite small, looking at the lives of small people in a small area, with the history of India and Bombay unspooling in the distant background. There are riots, revolutions, and tragedies, but it is Dimple, Rashid, and Dom we care about most, the people of Shuklaji Street, not the city, not the government, and not the world. The novel takes years to happen, but in such a blur that it could happen over the course of a century, or a day, and feel much the same.
This is where Narcopolis is most triumphant – Jeet Thayil has created an indelible portrait of a cluster of people whose fates we believe in, and whose heartbreaks hurt us. I don’t understand the questions about readability; I could no more have stopped turning pages than Dom can stop his visits to the pipewallah. So many details – they create a lethargy that makes you keep reading, a smoky entropy of language. Throughout the book, characters talk about the difference between the slow use of afeem and the fast use of garad heroin. The novel works the same way, relying on the same slow, rather ritualistic assembly and smoke of the pipe. The language makes you want to go slowly, to smoke it like opium and lie around with the thoughts and dreams it evokes, but the narrative accelerates and you have to keep reading to keep up.
In the end, Narcopolis is Dom’s story only as much My Antonia belongs to Jim, or The Great Gatsby to Nick. His eyes let us see these other people, particularly Dimple, for the wholly realized people that they are. This is a story in which “dreams leak,” and in which we are compelled not just to entertain, but to embrace, the idea that “the addict [and, necessarily, this book’s reader] wants to think of time the way a tree does.”
Info: The Penguin Press, 288 pages, $25.95 hardback
Source: Received review copy via author’s representative
About the Reviewer: Rafe Posey has been writing book reviews since 1989, when he found himself admiring a photo book called The Dog in Art. A writing teacher and Lambda Literary Award finalist, he loves the art and craft of storytelling, and is working on a novel. As our Fiction Editor, he tweets as @Cobalt_Fiction; in his other guises he is @ponyonabalcony.