Suspense Books

Most reading is probably a selfie

Thrillers tend to reflect the collective consciousness of their countries of origin. Agatha Christie’s quaint and bloodless crime novels mirrored the feeling of loss the British experienced as their empire crumbled and British society itself changed, becoming more violent, with gang wars starting to take place already during Dame Agatha’s lifetime.

In the Japanese thrillers I’ve read, plots usually revolve around psychological issues and mental abuse; the Americans display an urge to write and read of big corporations and rich people abusing their power; Scandinavian noir more often than not contains elements of sexual abuse; while one of two Indian thrillers touches upon terrorism.

Consider thrillmeister Mukul Deva’s bestselling series about India’s heroic counter-terrorism operatives, Shashi Warrier’s classic page-turner Night of the Krait or Shatrujeet Nath’s nail-biting The Karachi Deception. There is C.P. Surendran’s tragicomic Lost and Found about 26/11, and Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy, the Terrorist. Do we see a pattern here?

Undoubtedly, a major concern in the country has been a growing fear of the ‘foreign hand’. While some of the titles above are straightforward pulp, others operate in the borderland of so-called serious fiction though they also masquerade as suspense stories. Manu Joseph’s latest, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, would seem to belong in the latter group — its various strains are loosely tied together in what at first glance appears to be a plot, while its cover design is pure Modesty Blaise.

Joseph’s menagerie is eclectic. There’s Miss Iyer, a heroic stand-up comedian who rescues a nameless sufferer, buried under a collapsed house in Mumbai, who, in what initially appears to be an oracular delirium, outlines a terrorist attack (perhaps) about to happen. There’s a mysterious puppet master with links to intelligence services and a field agent who composes pompous poetry and spends his days shadowing suspects. And finally there’s Laila, of the title, who in her urge to provide for her fatherless family, unwittingly gets caught in a web of evil. Many other characters pass by without having a bearing on the plot.

Most reading is probably a selfie

The story heads off in increasingly puzzling directions, making it clear that this is not a run-of-the-mill potboiler with a lucid core, but rather a post-plot, post-narrative pun on the idea of thriller writing, set in a superficial world of YouTube channels, where stand-up comedy replaces reportage.

About 40 pages in, Joseph seems to make his stand clear in an offhand remark by one character who calls literature ‘a flea market of frailties’ and pontificates about the decline of reading habits: “millions choose to surrender, unflagging in their search for a mention of themselves in the works of others; something, anything that reminds them that the world, despite everything, is about them. Most of reading is probably a mere selfie.”

I find this notion interesting. Can such selfies have therapeutic functions and help readers arrive at a diagnosis of what ails us? In this case, if the problem is terrorism, then the author seems to suggest that it is, by and large, a bogey created by politicians and the media — and maybe there is no terrorism at all?

Millenial darkness

Joseph’s subversion of the conventions of fiction is in the same vein as Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in which readers get an extensive insight into the author’s musings on where our culture is headed, apart from a general feeling of what in cinematic parlance is tagged as ‘inspired by actual events’. Although Joseph’s book operates on a smaller canvas than Roy’s sprawling tome, it is interesting to read them together — Joseph even lampoons Roy’s writings and, her ethics, in passing.

If there’s a semblance of plot, it’s a plot that ultimately doesn’t matter, except as a mechanical device, the camera to snap our mental selfie with. A selfie that allows the author to project an idea on us, but what do we see in the background of this selfie if we scrutinise it? An image of Kali Yug? Now wouldn’t the end of the world be something worth snapping a selfie in front of? Especially if there’s time to post it online and get maximum shares and likes.

Of course, literature has not yet become entirely one and the same as social media, so as of now Joseph’s book ought to be seen as an artistic attempt to depict complex times through a fragmented narrative where the traditional idea of storyline is more or less discarded. There’s something almost millennial about its darkness, as if it were a signal to an imminent end of the world. Or, at least, an end to Indian literature?

The author’s next thriller Tropical Detective will be out in December.


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Printable version | Jan 15, 2022 10:21:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/most-reading-is-probably-a-selfie/article19931331.ece

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