Friday, 10 August 2018

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Chris

I wonder if it is that to get a book published when you're an Indian ex-pat author, it needs to be really, really good. I suspect that may be the case, but I have to say that by far and large, the books I've read by authors (mostly men) who come from India have been just so good. Dynamic, interesting, compelling, often very difficult. It'll be a mark of progress when you don't have to be this good to get published, when mediocrity is allowed you the same as it is allowed white authors, but at the moment, damn.

Narcopolis was recommended to me a long time ago (possibly a couple of years ago) by a colleague in grad school. I tucked it away on my list and forgot about it, more or less, but when it made it to the top of that particular list a few months ago, I was happy to get it out from the library. Then I got sidetracked by my first year of voting for the Hugos, and just kept renewing the book until I finally finished all my award reading. So this was also the first book in about four months that I was picking up not because it was science fiction or fantasy and had been nominated. It was a very enjoyable return to my more usual mix of mainstream and genre fiction.

I devoured this book. I was eager to get back to it, never wanted to put it down, and yet, despite that, I am having a hard time summing it up. This is not a book you read for plot. It is only partially a book you read for characters. But it is definitely one you read for atmosphere and prose, and on those counts, I was pulled along in a haze not entirely unlike the drugged lens the characters put between themselves and the world they live in, Old Bombay in the 1970s.

The first chapter quickly plunges you into the world in a way that is not stylistically mirrored by the rest of the book, but works to give the reader an entry - it is one very long paragraph, and I'm not even sure there are sentence breaks. It is not linear, it does not make sense, but it never feels like it needs to make sense. We are brought into an opium den with the first viewpoint character. From there, the prose gets a little less experimental, but was never anything less that intriguing to read.

I don't remember much about that first viewpoint character, because we get to know him relatively little - that he had been in the U.S. but had to return to India, that he quickly turned to opium, that he drifts between a mainstream world and this shadowy one. We see his misadventures shepherding a former enfant terrible of the expat Indian literary and artistic scene to the opium den, then leaving him there - long-term sense of responsibility not being a notable feature of his drug haze.

We get to know Dimple, the woman who works the pipe, coming from a former (and present? The timeline was never entirely clear to me) profession as a prostitute. We hear her history, including how she came to smoke opium and then to work for the Chinese man who ran the opium den in its first incarnation, after fleeing mainland China and the Cultural Revolution. We learn about Rashid, the next proprietor of the opium den, and his family, and relationship with Dimple.

This book is not a diatribe about drugs. It is not idyllic about them. It is just exactly what it is, and feels like an attempt to capture the whole experience, as closely as the author can. (Wikipedia says it's based on his own twenty lost years of addiction.)  There are dangers on the street, people become more and more desperate for the release of drugs, and newer, harsher drugs enter the scene. There are attempts at rehab, moments of cynicism concerning recovery, honest attempts and regretful changes, and reversions.

I don't think this is a book for everyone. This is another in a long line of books I've said are for people with high tolerances for ambiguity and meandering. Who are open to an experience rather than a straighforward narrative. Who want to spend time in a world where squalor is escaped from into smoke.

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