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Book Review: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

Sentenced to death

More Rushdie-lite than rushed delight, Narcopolis tries far too hard.

Jeet Thayil begins his first novel with a very long sentence, one of those showboating literary devices that can make or mar the mood, and while the writing in that chapter-long opening salvo is more precious than authentically frantic, far too eager to show off the poet’s linguistic range — from poor puns to patronising punditry — there is an undeniable energy to it, a grace apparent even as the writer aims to impress, to astound, to make you draw your breath in and wonder what comes next, admittedly a pretty smart way to start a book except, and here’s the thing, except it isn’t really a long sentence, it doesn’t really glide, instead using commas as crutches, as fullstops in disguise, striving unnaturally to take a relatively intriguing prologue and turn it into a stream-of-consciousness spectacle, a guitar-solo opening meant to electrify the reader, and while that is peachy keen in theory, perhaps there is a reason events, even literary ones, don’t begin with showstoppers, and this ambitious Narcopolis is left teetering as the writer keeps scrabbling to find room (in a hovel-novel crammed with characters, backstories and dreams) to roll up his unprosaic sleeves and work in another sensationally gaspworthy guitar riff, and the result is painful as each of the book’s undoubtedly colourful multiple narrators — junkies of extraordinary description, separated by gender, geography, greed — look at the world with the very same open-mouthed sense of wonder, absorbing it all like sponges with remarkable powers of observation and regurgitating it right up to the point that they take their next hit, which, invariably, sends them down a spiral that spells out how all dreams are prophetic and all dreamers doubly so, a repetitive trope that renders the book tragically turgid, one that exhausts more than it exhilarates even as Thayil laboriously pulls out all the stops to dazzle us, taking us from the book’s leading lady — a eunuch christened Dimple after the hit film playing in theatres at the time she was Bobby-ted, so to speak — to Chairman Mao’s China, to the McMumbai of today, and while Thayil painstakingly and often beautifully details the varying effects different drugs have on very different people, lingering meticulously on the consumptive process behind each drug, his fond intoxication with the subject renders it tiresome as the book goes on and the method and madness of every single drug — at least to the casual user, nay, reader — blurs into the other and we are tempted to feel that the writer is leading us down parallel rabbit-holes all to the same effect, which isn’t altogether true, but (all together now?) sure as hell feels like it, despite the writer fleshing out the eunuch character quite brilliantly, telling us her story with fascinated sympathy while all other characters seem somewhat condescendingly pinned down by cliché, by the need to act like books and movies inform us characters of that ‘type’ would act in similar circumstances, especially when the action shifts to rice-eating Mao-worshipping China, but despite provoking much rolling of the eyes, the writer occasionally manages marvellous stylistic flourishes (“The sky was the colour of someone’s black eye,” he writes for the rain-ravaged city) that almost make up for constant allusions to the kind of authors he would like to share a shelf with (Baudelaire mentions notwithstanding, this lies closer to Khushwant Singh’s masterful Delhi, a great novel which managed the city-as-eunuch narrative far more authentically) as he keeps nudging, winking and suggesting that this Narcopolis is just the type of confounding volume its character Mr Lee would wonder whether to call imagined autobiography or a historical novel, and which first novel we should just call a trip, no more no less, a surreptitiously sucked-in hit that thrills only in bits, thrills less than it tires, but nevertheless a quick ride with true merit and some steam, and if only he, like his narrator, had split the seductively long line into more coherently sized chunks, we’d all have inhaled it easier — though I must here confess that writing a really long sentence is mad cool.

~

First published Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle, February 19, 2012

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