Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Author: Jeet Thayil
Genre: Fiction (Bombay / India / 1970s / 1980s / Drug Addiction / Urban / Sex Workers)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Penguin Press (4/12/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked to loved.
Did I finish?: I couldn't put it down!
One-sentence summary: A dreamy, dark look at the underground Bombay, drug users and dealers, addicts and sex workers, over a twenty year span or so.
Do I like the cover?: I love it -- very eye-catching -- and the spine is a full color explosion of images, countering the black black of the cover.
I'm reminded of...: Kamila Shamsie, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Irvine Welsh
First line: Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I'm the one who's telling it and you don't know who I am, let me say that we'll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there's time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I'll have to stop, these are nighttime tales to vanish in sunlight, like vampire dust--" [excerpt]
Did... I wish there was a glossary for some of the Hindi terms used?: YES. Still, I guessed or assumed from context, and Thayil clarified some of the terms and phrases, so I didn't feel hideously lost.
Did... I die with the last sentence?: YES. It was poetic good, just delicious.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a dreamy, trippy, gross-but-great novel about drug addiction and urban decay.
Why did I get this book?: The title and cover, and the fact that I've had great success with Southeast Asian fiction.
Review: The novel opens with a seven page, comma-laden, period-free, stream-of-consciousness intro from our opium-stoned narrator that left me literally breathless. It was a little intimidating, but fun, too, requiring me to be a bit more conscientious about my reading. However, don't let this intro scare you off, however, as this is a very readable novel that is a look into urban culture in India wholly new to me. Freaky, dark, twisted, poetic, uncomfortable, and moving.
Thayil's novel is very much a drug narrative, focusing on the users, the addicts, the dealers, the victim, set during twenty-ish years or so in Bombay. The focus on the gritty, gross, twisted, and dark underbelly of an urban center reminded me greatly of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. There was even shades of A.S. Byatt to the story, with Thayil's enfent terrible painter and poet, Newton Xavier, and the exploration of his destructive and desperate life.
The novel's narrator, Dom Ullis, was born into some privilege, was educated, but succumbs to drug addiction which leads to his relationships with people on the edges of society, from dealers to pimps to sex workers to artists. For me, the most fascinating character in this book was Dimples. She's a hijra, which is a kind of 'third sex', born a physiological male who had her penis and testicles removed at age 10. Living as a woman, she's a sex worker who knows Ullis and through whom a good deal of the story is revealed. Not being familiar with hijra wasn't a hindrance as Thayil provides enough hints in the narrative to make her plight clear and compelling.
I keep saying 'dreamy' to describe this novel, which I hope doesn't frighten anyone away, because this is a very grounded story, but offered through the lens of addiction, the grip of a drug high. While there are depictions of sex, drug use, and violence, none of it felt gratuitous or excessive (although it was disturbing); Thayil's writing balances a hopeless resignation with a kind of optimism. Every few pages I came across a passage that was just beautiful -- my copy is tagged with three dozen flags marking lines I found captivating -- and I think anyone who loves gorgeous writing and is interested in exploring an unusual narrative should give this one a try. I'm quite excited to see what Thayil's next work will be.