Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reading Notes: Narcopolis

As expected, it's taken me a little longer to knock over the next title on the Man Booker longlist; having managed the previous three in a week, Narcopolis took me just over a week by itself, and would've taken longer if I hadn't had two nights of insomnia and needed distraction.

From this, it's reasonable to surmise that it's a heavier, slower read than the charming frippery of Skios , the straight-arrow plotting of Swimming Home or the compelling Philida. I found this book to be a harder reading commitment than any of the preceding five; it lacked the lightness, the humour, the simple, easygoing plotting, or the sparkling strangeness, that carried me through all of the previous titles with relative ease. That's not to say I didn't like it as such, although, actually, I didn't, hugely - as I'll explain below. It's just an acknowledgement that I think I have now hit the Very Heavy and Serious End of this year's Booker field.

Narcopolis, by poet and journalist Jeet Thayil, is, essentially, a multi-faceted story of Bombay's drug subculture in the 1970s. Thayil himself spent a good portion of his life as an addict, and this personal context is evident in the familiar, intimate, almost loving way he describes the process of smoking opium, the effects it has on bodies and minds, and the strange life it engenders. This book also plays around with notions of gender identity, sex and self; one of the main characters (and in fact the only one with whom I felt any real connection) is a eunuch named Dimple, who spends her early life working in a hijra brothel, but eventually becomes a key dispenser of opium in Rashid's opium den.

Thayil is a talented writer, with a journalist's sharp observation and a poet's gift for description, and this book is extremely well crafted. The movement between fairly standard narrative prose styles and more disjointed, stream of consciousness writing is, I am certain, completely intentional and always appropriate to the state of mind he is trying to invoke. In interviews, Thayil has said that he aimed to avoid invoking typical "writing about India" cliches and move away from the soft-focus mysticism with which such novels are often imbued. In this, he has succeeded brilliantly. This might be a book set mostly in Bombay (with the exception of the moving interlude recounting the life of Mr Lee in Maoist China), with mostly Indian characters, but it is not remotely mystical or reminiscent of the better-known Indian genre novels. Let me put it this way - the scent that hangs over this book is the scent of opium and sweat, not spice, mangoes and incense.

(I ought to add here, for anyone reading these posts to get an idea of content / suitability - this one has a HUGE content warning on it, and I would definitely NOT give it to a younger reader. Graphic descriptions of drug use, sex and extreme violence abound. The book feels, intentionally I'm sure, dirty, gritty and dark; don't attempt it if this is not something you feel comfortable stomaching).

All of that said, and acknowledging the great talent that has produced this story, I found Narcopolis to be a deadening, depressing read. It's funny that it's the first book on the longlist that has left me feeling so flat, given that two of the previous titles feature suicides, one has a mass-murderer running theme and one includes extreme brutality and slavery. I think it's because I got no sense of hopefulness at all from this book, no tiny glimpse of a sense that there was any purpose to anything beyond paying for the next hit. I understand that this may be an accurate depiction of this life and that, for those living it, it's probably not as bleak as it seems. For me as a reader, though, I couldn't engage with it (except, to some extent, with the character of Dimple) and I didn't actually enjoy it. I was glad to finish it and I don't foresee reading it again soon.

Overall verdict for shortlist?
Narcopolis will be shortlisted, because it's such a writerly, depressing book, but if I were writing the shortlist, it wouldn't be.

(*I still reserve the right to change these votes after I read the last six books, in case they're either wonderful beyond belief or really weak :-)

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