Psychological Realism Books

Nothing comes out of nothing: Jeet Thayil’s ‘Low’ reviewed by Aditya Sudarshan

Up in smoke: An engraving of an opium den in London’s East End by Gustave Doré.

Up in smoke: An engraving of an opium den in London’s East End by Gustave Doré.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The shadow of loss overhangs the narrative. But instead of a human story what we have here is a charade of humanity

Jeet Thayil’s Low is a difficult work to review. Ordinarily, a book review continues the dialogue which the book itself enters into. A harsh review, no less than a fulsome one, validates the importance of that dialogue, and respects the author’s contribution to it. But when a book, by the manner of its writing, shows itself to be quite indifferent to other interlocutors, and quite uninterested in a meaningful encounter with them, then a reviewer faces a trap.

Neither praise nor rebuke will turn out well; the former will degenerate into empty sighs and grunts of pleasure, the latter into futile lecturing. Instead, the proper task here is to simply delineate the error of the book — that which renders it a nullity. This must be done (naturally) with reference to something without, because the text itself is beholden to nothing.

Low fascination

To illustrate, Low follows the manoeuvres of one Dominic Ullis, an autobiographical writer-character whose much younger wife has died suddenly and unnaturally, precipitating, on Ullis’ part, a flight to Bombay, various desultory conversations, bouts of ill-tempered social commentary, apocalyptic ruminations and the studious consumption of many chemical substances, in the evanescent company of drifters.

Nothing comes out of nothing: Jeet Thayil’s ‘Low’ reviewed by Aditya Sudarshan

All this is indeed overhung by the shadow of loss, but the human story one is tempted to impute to this narrative (that of tragedy driving addiction, with some kind of passion) is not actually present. What Thayil has put on display is the equivalent of the ‘crocodile fighting python’ brand of viral video; a spectacle of low fascination which originates from, and powerfully appeals to, naught but our reptile brain.

Recall that this ‘reptilian brain’ also produces responses to loss and death; it can form plans, and verdicts about others and the world; it can harbour feelings of emotional discomfort; and upon this existential plane, it can even utter expressions of mesmerising felicity. Therefore, it baits our tendency to anthropomorphise and exoticise it, but if we can retain a grasp of the truly human, the deception is really paper-thin; even openly confessing itself, as Dominic Ullis candidly admits: “he was devoted to the image of [Donald Trump].”

Why? Because “everything [Trump] did was a satire of itself, a satire of presidential gravitas, a satire of compassion and grievance, a satire of civility, masculinity and patriotism. This is why the president was a comfort and an inspiration. It was thrilling to know that nothing was true and therefore everything was true... The president was living proof that you could say anything and it didn’t matter. Communication was concealment.”

And moreover: “Ullis understood the need to burn down the house, the country, the planet... he understood this president.” Just such a charade of humanity, with such nihilism underlying it, suffuses Low, as Ullis sends every event and encounter (the death of his wife, as much as the kick of a drug), and even his very self-awareness and self-criticism, down the way of his absolute self-centredness.

Block of narcissism

This pathology, however, in no way follows from his subject matter. According to Thayil, he has sought in his writing “to honour the people I knew in the opium dens, the marginalised, the addicted and deranged, people who are routinely called the lowest of the low.” And it is quite true that misfits, burnt-out folk, selfish and addicted people of whatsoever social strata lose nothing of their humanity, and are fit subjects for the most humanistic literature.

Dostoevsky, perhaps more than any other novelist, has shown us this. But he has also shown us how this is so, and the contrast with Thayil could not be starker. In the light of Dostoevsky’s gaze, we understand addiction as an unhappy derailment of (nonetheless) passionate and upward-reaching energies. Therefore, a man like Alexei (in The Gambler) is able to tremble with his wretched love for roulette and his hopeless love for Polina, teaching us that it takes a human being to be so deceived.

Whereas Ullis trembles to nothing at all, beyond the realm of physiological reactions to this or that powder. “I see nothing. I hear nothing. Most of all I know nothing,” he confesses to a taxi driver. Yet, even this utterance, accurate as it may be, is not truthful, for thereupon: “the ride passed in companionable silence.”

In Low, no racked human being appears before us, but rather a well-mannered reptile, and from the same standpoint, only so many others, who populate the world of Thayil’s imagination.

In all this, encased as it is in a rigid block of narcissism, blowing neither hot nor cold but always lukewarm, Thayil’s writing is perfectly critic-proof. There are, however, endearing chinks of honestly bad writing. Low does attempt to throw some structure of meaning around its unfolding, via the use of a ghostly imaginative device, a ‘climactic’ instance of grief, and a set-piece ending slathered with resonance. These attempts come off hammy, heavy-handed and remarkably stilted. But they are at least ‘signs of life,’ heartening moves towards humanity, whose genuineness is not for me to judge.

The writer is the author, most recently, of The Outraged: Times of Strife.

Low; Jeet Thayil, Faber and Faber, ₹599

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 12:13:01 AM |

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