I admire almost everything about Narcopolis, a strange and intriguingly offensive novel about opium addiction in India. It was short-listed last year for the Mann Booker Prize and its author, Jeet Thayil is the first Indian writer to win the coveted ($50,000) DSC Prize for South Asian Literature .
The first sentence alone runs for 7 mesmerizing pages that in lesser hands would have been a gimmicky imitation of William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junky) or Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater).
But here the beautifully poetic Prologue flows off the page like the smoke from an opium pipe. Soon we don’t read Narcopolis — we inhale it, get hooked on it, are haunted by its unsettling, dreamlike blur. The opiate-addicted characters may have “fallen” in society’s eyes, but there is no guilt in Narcopolis, only the allure, the freedom, the obsession and the artistry of induced elation. Closing the book, we feel it’s been seeping into our pores.
Narcopolis follows a half-dozen opium addicts across a span of 40 years, during which a luxuriously slow-moving Bombay morphs into the fast-paced, corporatized and increasingly violent Mumbai.
Soon opium itself is transformed into a more marketable version of heroin called “The Chemical,” a drug so filled with rat poison that it blows your brains out while giving you a stupendous high.
It’s that kind of neuro-ejaculation that the author splatters on India’s plunge into economic and social squalor. Even in the explicit parts where women are raped, humiliated and made into slaves, boys are castrated and sold as eunuch-prostitutes and disgust over the smell of homeless women contributes to men’s arousal, I found myself appreciating author Thayil. In Necropolis, male hatred of women has its own authenticity, and the accurate depiction of every possible female orifice being violated in every horrible “boom-boom room” of the city’s slums reveals a world we would never see otherwise.
I even admire an annoying adolescent argument about “cunt” being better than “pussy” because the voices portray a running conversation that goes on in the back alleys, massage parlors and (we assume) corporate board rooms of the male world that Thayil wants us to see.
Fifty years ago I thought it was important that women read authors like Henry Miller (Sexus, Tropic of Cancer) so at least we would know how deep misogyny can go. But today after a half-century of ever-worsening “gash” novels — at the end of which, as with Narcoplis, all we feel is dirtied by them — I’m not so sure.
The message of Narcopolis follows the reader around saying that women are LESS THAN, LESS THAN, LESS THAN more blatantly and sexually than other novels — though still legitimately, I believe, because of the book’s context.
But when you look at the literary canon in which Narcopolis is already prized, this theme about women being not just inferior but hateful and forgettable and disgusting and rape-able grounds you down. And when you remember that canon goes back hundreds of years with this theme repeated a thousand times — well, it’s sickening and I’m sick of it.
Again, Narcopolis does have an originality and a brilliance of its own, but if the one sustaining thing we feel is trashed while reading it (rather than inspired by often very good writing,), maybe the real abuse is literary.
All this to say that ordinarily if I were reviewing Narcopolis I might say well, it’s going to be tough to read for some (mostly female) readers, but we need literature that pushes our limits, and Jeet Thayil comes close to ripping the lid off society’s hypocrisy in this regard to show the horrors underneath. So hooray, in part, for him.
But today I have to cross the line by saying in some ways I HATE this book, not because Thayil wants his characters to wallow in female humiliation (that’s fine, again the context makes it legit) but because not a single female character is developed in the entire novel.
Oh, we briefly see the two wives of the opium den’s owner (who insists their job is his happiness so he can treat them like dirt); the modern young woman who stays naked under her burkah so her drug-dealing fiance can have sex with her more easily and bray when he climaxes seven times in a row (without once trying to please her); the homeless but for some reason imperious (who decides this?) woman who urinates in the street as if the gutter is her throne; the mother who tenderly holds her baby out to a lonely man, not realizing that he wants to bash its head against the wall because oh well, that’s the kinda guy he is.
I’m not concerned that these women are minor characters in a festering male-dominated, crime-ridden hellhole of a story. Rather I worry that the author doesn’t think any of the women is worthy of becoming a fully fledged-out character in his novel. He prefers to create what is to him a better example of femaleness through Dimple, the man-turned-eunuch who is allowed the pronoun “she” because her castrations have left her with a need for tenderness that maybe, the book suggests, only women — or men’s idea of women — are capable of.
And while we readers do fall in love with Dimple because “she” is the only human character with emotions and a curiosity beyond herself, the author seems to forget that Dimple is STILL A MALE person who is clinging to the remnants of selfhood that he — and he is a HE — has bravely carved out for himself. Quite against the author’s intentions, Dimple is not a substitute for a woman character. He does not “do” women better than women do.
Again, if I were reviewing Narcopolis for a “family newspaper” I’d adhere to the approach that critics should keep their personal feelings out of the process and stop themselves from reviewing what’s not in the book. (If the subject is about Ireland, we don’t say it’s lousy because there’s nothing about France.) That would leave me saying politely that the book is imbalanced because women characters are omitted.
But we don’t have time for that in the no-holds-barred book publishing revolution. These days it’s more important for a reader say that Necropolis is a book I admire but can’t stomach or, obviously, praise out of hand. I hope the whole world reads this novel, but NOT to overpraise it and NOT to short-list it for awards like the Booker. Jeet Thayil is a promising author who needs a chance to grow, not sit back on unearned laurels.
And finally I hope the whole world reads it so that we readers (especially women readers) can take a long, steady pull of that liberating drug called free will (which happens to be a dazzling if also castrated theme in the book) and discuss all the truths Narcopolis reveals, whether the author meant to or not.