This book read like a literary thriller. Loved it. Learnt from it.
Some thoughts about the experience (Spoiler alert):
Do read the blurb of the book for the plot and then read my review. I recently read Manasi Subramaniam’s article ‘Writing a blurb for a book? It’s as hard as creating your Tinder profile’. As I finished reading Neon Noon, I remembered her article. That got me thinking of my version of a blurb for the book.
Mine would include this disclaimer:
For all those who are wary of love/ heartbreak stories that Anglophone Indian writing has seen recently and for those who haven’t read Solanki before- This is anything but a cliché heartbreak story.
As the narrator ‘T’ is a writer, he acknowledges the fact that a love story has the risk of sounding cheesy in this line on Page 105:
What I felt, when I first looked at her in her simplicity, was a surpising connectedness, in a way that does not necessitate splendour- and I know this sounds mushy. It was this very apprehension of sentimentality that, along with the poverty of my lexicon and my lack of literary depth, had made me wary of mentioning the word connection.
I had read a slightly different version of the first chapter of part one as a short story titled ‘the Other Room’ (the story had reminded me of the Malayalam movie ‘Bangalore Days’) in an online magazine about a year ago. In an interview, the author says about ‘the other room’-
“The Other Room” is the room of secrets, of secrets that are traumatic, maybe. Basically the mental space that we roil inside in self-pity, but bar others from entering. I believe we do that because we are afraid of being healed, of losing the assurance and false privacy that a secret offers us.
The story presents a physical ‘other room’ but it is symbolic as his answer clearly conveys.
He also knows that this is how he is, a person who takes on a Herculean task with an indelible faith in his own doggedness, eventually ending up with mixed results.
In addition to the context in which this line is used which you will know when you read the book, it got me thinking- T (the narrator) is also talking about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend? He is talking about a potential novel he had attempted and abandoned?
In the front yard of the house we are in, two belled and furred calves of a milk-giving animal I would like to name exactly (likely a cross between a cow and a yak) chew on a dried stalk amidst their own knotty, fragrant dung.
The mention of the cross between a cow and a yak might have something to do with Orhan, T’s imaginary unborn son, who is half French and half Indian?
Tanuj has also used references of wars to highlight the heartbreak tragedy. I did not find the references digressing at all. It is a controlled narrative.
Dialogues are genuine. The words don’t appear contrived. As if the characters aren’t fictional.
‘Why you come to Pattaya?’ she asked.
‘I am on a vacation,’ I said.
‘But why? If you hap girlfriend?’ she said.
‘I told you. She is not my girlfriend anymore.’
Exposition and drama:
This novel balances the two very well.
The narrator ‘T’ has empathy for the characters.
This line speaks volumes: ‘To wish to be forgotten by the beloved is a soul-task harder far than trying not to forget’.
Also the author Tanuj’s empathy is not only restricted to the prostitutes in Pattaya. But also for ‘S’, the girl in Mumbai, who questions her morality.
As I read about the plight of prostitutes in Pattaya I couldn’t help but think of prostitutes in India and how the novel would have turned out had it been set in India alone but the point of vacationing in Pattaya was for ‘T’ to be a tourist. A tourist is granted a certain anonymity and it is easier to forget things transpired in another country.
The narrator acknowledges and counters this notion on Page 159:
‘…That I was supposed to forget things I did with Pattaya whores, for what use were these memories going to be. But then what was the point of coming to Pattaya, I also asked myself. What was it, if all that could be done here was fuck whores and if that action was not to leave any trace in memory.’
This could have been just another heartbreak story. What makes this different is the structure, the writing and more. But for me the plot stood out the most:
Reason for break-up: Not mentioned. Is it necessary to mention the reason? He does mention that T’s ex-girlfriend might have left in search of happiness. (His empathy for her search for happiness is magnified because happiness is abstract. He regrets not having understood the specificity of happiness for her. He tries to undo this mistake with Noon and he makes this ‘learning from his mistake’ evident to the reader.) The absence of a concrete reason of break-up also highlights the narrator’s plight at not getting a closure from the break-up.
This reminded me of a short story: Following Water by Janice Pariat which ends with the line:
“You tell me why we’re looking for water on Mars,” said Sheba, “and I’ll tell you why he stayed behind.”
This book only includes details which the author feels are the most essential to the story. Everything else is sieved very carefully and that has made all the difference. What could have made this story stale is the explanation of the genesis of the relationship, the reason for the break-up and more.
‘Yes. Many poems. There is a poem about ______ opening into an impenetrable dark. ________digging a hole. I think that one borrows__________.’
The author uses blanks amidst the text. Here loud music is used as a trope to introduce the blanks in the dialogue. The music hinders the narrator’s hearing, hence the blanks but the author has used blanks in his previous pieces too. It is part of his style. Two pieces that come to mind is ‘The Geometry of the gaze’ in Litro and ‘The Mechanics of Silence’ in Vayavya.
When I asked the author about why he did so. He said he wanted the reader to think, to fill in the blanks.
The prose is poetic. (Page 119-I think she kissed me then. Not a big one, just a little peck on the lips, the kind that lovers come to love more than the big ones till the big ones become so scarce that those little pecks begin to feel like violent scratches’.) Such beautiful similes/metaphors throughout the book make you overlook a trite metaphor like ‘Dark as charcoal’- Page 186.
The book appears like it is in the process of being written while we read it. It is a conscious trope used as the narrator is a writer.
For me, the book seemed like a quarter-life crisis novel. There is the heartbreak, the boredom with the job, the guilt of being immoral. It will resonate more with readers aged 20-30.
When the narrator shows traits of being nihilistic in Part 3 of the book, this line from the Bible came to mind:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
In Part 3 of the book, there is a surprise element which would make a reader wonder if the book is autobiographical. Autobiographical or not, it feels like a personal tale which aims at shedding light on the universality of love and heartbreak.
I wish for a sequel.