Low starts high – aboard an aircraft, from whose windows Dominic Ullis, the Indian-born poet protagonist, can glimpse the ‘gleaming’ slum quarter of the city he still calls Bombay – and lurches pointedly between high and low thereafter. Ullis is a former addict, a chaser of highs. With him on the plane are the ashes of his wife, Aki, who has committed suicide. Aki was a lifelong inhabitant of the country of depression, a place she called ‘the low’. Ullis (whose surname is misheard, at one point, as Ulysses) has come home to immerse his wife’s remains in sacred water, as per Hindu custom. Instead, he immerses himself once more in his addictions, stumbling from party to party and from one brief encounter to the next. Ullis has been living in New York; as far as the Indians are concerned, he is irreparably an ‘Englishwallah’. Through his Western eyes, the novel shows us Bombay’s high places and low life.
In a sense, Low revisits the subject matter of Jeet Thayil’s Booker-shortlisted debut, Narcopolis (2012). In that novel, incidents from the lives of the denizens of a Bombay opium den were buoyed along by a structure designed to mimic the cluttered, improvisatory feel of an opium dream. Narcopolis (great title) was compared to the work of Bukowski and Burroughs. In fact it was diaphanous and drifting in a way that made you suspect that its true tutelary spirit was Virginia Woolf. Low shares those qualities, but it seems to have been written at least partly in the shadow of a more recent book, Edward St Aubyn’s Bad News (1992). In that novel, Patrick Melrose is summoned to New York to collect the body of his abusive father. In the grip of fulminant and indiscriminate addiction, Melrose totters from high-rise hotel to squat, grieving and avoiding his grief in turn.