Low by Jeet Thayil - review by Kevin Power

Kevin Power

What Goes Up



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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.

Low follows a similar pattern. It even borrows from Bad News an extended junkie-nightmare chat with a disembodied voice – in this case, as Ullis communes with the spirit of Aki (who is also, at brief interludes, a viewpoint character). But Low does succeed in generating its own mood: a mellow mixture of comic and tragic, high and low. ‘Was he high or low?’ Ullis wonders as he contemplates the effects of a new drug, meow meow. And what about the novel? Like Ullis, it is both and neither. The mode is picaresque – traditionally a way of embracing high and low society in the same story. Ullis crashes a party with some striving millennials; Ullis is befriended by Payal, alcoholic heiress to a hotel fortune; Ullis hooks up with Danny, his former dealer, who drags him to an underworld party; Ullis nods out at a lavish dinner featuring ‘endless talk of poverty while dinner guests stuffed their faces’, and so on, as Ullis plays his haphazard game of social snakes and ladders.

If that line about the dinner guests seems a bit trite – barely observation, let alone observational comedy – then it’s only fair to say that the novel offers many examples of distinctly non-trite writing. Ullis notes the ‘harped strings’ of the Bandra–Worli Sea Link bridge. Seen from a hotel terrace, ‘the light on the water was liturgical, blinding, Saul-light on the road to conversion.’ As Ullis comes up on cocaine, ‘a lava lamp of butterflies migrated from his stomach to his chest’. And here’s a brief glimpse into the inner life of Petronella, a television talking head and one of the guests at that obnoxious dinner party: ‘Everything she knew about the state of the nation would fit on half her phone screen, but it was more than enough for the limited purposes of television punditry.’

Also not trite are Ullis’s reflections on the moronic inferno that is the outside world as mediated though his phone. He admires, in a not entirely ironic way, the current US president, an ‘overtanned bloviator’ whose mendacity Ullis interprets as a kind of salutary honesty: ‘His true mission was to undo the world and start over.’ Ullis, the junkie flâneur, filters the whole world through his grieving consciousness. The effect is often startling.

On the other hand, there are a few stretches of dull stuff. Low’s verbal surface frustratingly mimics its thematic oscillation between the high and the low, the good and the bad. ‘From time to time Ullis blew on his cigar to make it burn evenly. He was trying to enjoy it: though slightly stale it was Cuban and properly expensive.’ As Blur might say: this is a low. For a short novel, Low feels, at points, strangely unpressurised. It also feels longer than it is. Partly this is a fault of the picaresque mode, which wanders and digresses without a thought for the morrow. Partly it has to do with its drifting character, something that also marked, and occasionally marred, Narcopolis.

Low never quite achieves Ullis’s junkie ideal of remaining ‘perfectly poised between the high and the low’. But perhaps that, after all, is Thayil’s point: to write a novel as decentred and dizzyingly unbalanced as life itself.

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