thu 18/04/2024

Jeet Thayil: Low – grief’s seedy distractions | reviews, news & interviews

Jeet Thayil: Low – grief’s seedy distractions

Jeet Thayil: Low – grief’s seedy distractions

Fine writing on low living but where’s the outsider appeal?

Clean Jeet Thayil © Basso Cannarsa

Like many writers, Jeet Thayil is a bit of an outsider. And, if his track record is anything to go by, he has been happy to keep it that way.

The poet, novelist, editor, performer and former addict spent a couple of decades rubbing shoulders with the writers, artists and eccentrics of bohemian Mumbai before putting pen to paper in the late 90s and, eventually, offering a glimpse of that underworld in his kaleidoscopic first novel, Narcopolis.

After courting one literary prize (the 2012 Man Booker) and picking up another (the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature), his sophomore effort, The Book of Chocolate Saints, questioned just how much we can tell from the outside looking in. Recounting the life of a fictional painter from multiple perspectives (while omitting the artist’s own), the 500-page many-voiced monster conjured up its own Frankensteinian composite of the real-life stars of the 70s and 80s Bombay underground, including the late, great writer and poet, Dom Moraes, Thayil’s close friend and mentor who also battled with addiction to alcohol.

Moraes lends his name to the protagonist of Thayil’s latest, much slimmer and, sadly, much more conventional novel, Low. It follows recently bereaved writer Dom Ullis as he takes the freshly cremated ashes of his wife Aki, a publishing house editor, on a coke, smack and meow meow-fuelled weekend-long bender in modern-day Mumbai. With the supposed aim of immersing the ashes in clean water according to Hindu custom, Ullis – or Ulysses, as one character willfully mishears – ends up touring the city, mingling unexpectedly and indiscriminately with politicians and pushers, hotel heiresses and heroin addicts.

Low by Jeet ThayliWith this translucently autobiographical story – Thayil lost his wife, also a publishing house editor, suddenly in 2007 – the author steps into the mainstream, slipping comfortably into the current vogue of auto-fiction. There are echoes of Ben Lerner’s urban musings in 10:04 (Ullis, like Thayil, spent several years in New York), the brief encounters of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (which, like Low, kicks off with meeting a stranger on a plane) but also, less palatably, the Trumped-up Twitter-fed twitchiness of Crudo by Olivia Laing.

Despite the now familiar casing, there are some gems inside. Thayil, always a fine writer on low living, is very good on drugs – teasing out the aural suggestions of Mandrax for example, or describing cocaine as having descended on Mumbai in the early 2000s “like a dirty white blanket”. He is even better (perhaps too good) on Trump, his Indian counterpart Modi and the general rot in world politics. However, the frequently apocalyptic aspersions, though intended to distract from the guilt Ullis feels for not having noticed his wife’s descent into depression – “the low” – also detract from the emotional import of the novel.

In contrast to the narrator’s arresting insights and verbal acrobatics (including an extended pun or two), the story of Ullis’s relationship with Aki – who reappears ghostly during his drug trips to confront him with choice moments from their brief, troubled marriage – proceeds with a wan predictability not entirely helped by its postmodern tic of signposting the déjà-vu: “the bells are an omen” and “more about this meeting in a later chapter”. This may prove the book’s point that “Grief, like time, is circular” or that it is all a neat fiction to justify Ullis’s bad behaviour, but such gestures do not easily move a reader to sympathy.

The back-and-forth can also be wearing, and is especially present in the novel’s seemingly less self-aware habit of appealing to precedents. The book abounds with literary and cultural references Ullis’s personality and career are supposedly patterned on, playing a sort of Poundian flash-card game which comes close to the shallow nostalgia or disregard of the "new Indian, uninterested in the past" he critiques. Again, it may all be a gentle satire on the vanity or self-indulgence of writers, but the approach has an obvious pitfall: Ullis is bad company.

Thayil is capable of deepening that nostalgia elsewhere in the novel, and he has done so in the past. By plumbing a sort of collective consciousness, he gave life to his first novel’s recollections. His third and, he has said, final poetry collection, These Errors are Correct, is a moving evocation of love and grief. Both are elegies – one for a wife, the other for a city – with the ego removed. At best, Low, which tries to address both, demonstrates Thayil thinking, very cleverly, inside the box, and largely inside Dom’s and his own head. No doubt he will find, by feeling, a way back out.


it may all be a gentle satire on the vanity of writers, but the approach has an obvious pitfall: Ullis is bad company


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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