Tough 'Choice' - Neel Mukherjee's rich new novel

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday June 4, 2024
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Author Neel Mukherjee (photo: Nick Tucker)
Author Neel Mukherjee (photo: Nick Tucker)

The opening pages of Neel Mukherjee's novels have a singular staying power. Masterpieces of craft, they do their duty in launching longer works of fiction, but they linger in readers' minds long after the novels have run their course. Daringly, Mukherjee's new three-part novel, "Choice" (Norton), has three you won't be forgetting anytime soon.

Readers of a certain age might say they are written in India ink, the indelible, deep black medium that now, in our advanced times, is reserved for big tasks ranging from comic book drawing to medical applications. The Kolkata-born, London-based Mukherjee writes prose whose stains do not come off the mind.

His award-winning debut novel, "A Life Apart" (2010), leads its protagonist to London's gay tea rooms (where something other than the leafy brew is infused) but not before a stop in the take-a-number waiting line of a scorching Kolkata crematorium, there to bid what farewell he can to his mother.

Mukherjee's 2014 Booker-Prize-shortlisted "The Lives of Others" opens with a depiction of the desperate, gnawing hunger of the ill-born Nitai Das, who would be dirt-poor if he owned dirt, a thing beyond his imagining. It stoked in me a haunted rattle that I may never shake.

Neel Mukherjee's previous novels  

A moral triptych
The two extremes of poverty mark the first and third parts of "Choice." In Part I, a long-term gay couple —the economist Luke, scion of a wealthy family, and his lesser-earning partner, Ayush, an editor at a publishing company whose names, Sennett and Brewer, are elided into Sewer inside and outside the firm— dukes out, non-violently (depending on your working definitions of violence), the raising of twins who are the sum of Luke's sperm and the custodial womb of a Thai surrogate.

Part III lands us back in the India of Ayush's birth, the northwest of Bengal, to be specific, where an unimaginably poor family with its own two twins, Sadaheb and Mira for short, together eke out a hardscrabble existence on the far fringes of society or anything that could be called civilization.

In between, in Part II, a British academic named Emily, who comes from comfort and has swanky friends, is literally thrown into the company of two for-hire taxi drivers from Eritrea, whose lives she becomes deeply involved with.

There are no take-away "morals" in this deeply moral novel beyond what the title foreshadows. Both the affluent and the poor face challenges, unexpected and not, which force them to make choices pre-fabricated both by their circumstances and their innermost souls, souls being the one thing the characters have in common.

Back to the beginnings
Part I opens with a situation so hallucinatory it takes a few pages to come into focus. Settling down between the two twins for their nightly bedtime story, Ayush shows them a video, an altogether different entertainment. There are pigs, more or less guaranteed kid-pleasers, that are soon revealed to be porkers forced through slaughter for their meat in an abattoir with blood-soaked walls. This is not Barbie pink.

Ayush, more their domestic caretaker than Luke because of his lower salary, has the high-minded goal of teaching his charges where the pink of their ham sandwiches comes from. The twins, first baffled, then horrified, soon take Ayush's point, however reluctantly, and forever after have deep sympathy not just for piggies but for their aging family dog, Spencer. You see what's coming and share their dread.

It would be facile to see Luke, who sees all of life through the formula of his training —Economics is life; life is economic— as the less sensitive of the two co-parents, but he quickly emerges as a father who provides a deep love as well as luxury for his children. Nor is Ayush, internally, perpetually tortured by his awareness of the unfairness of life and the moral conundrums of affluence and comfort in a world so sparing with them elsewhere, a bad guy.

But Ayush makes some household choices, without letting Luke in on them beforehand, that threaten to upend even this conspicuously privileged household. No one gets out unscathed, and such as there's a moral determining their lives, it's simply that actions have consequences beyond any we know.

Down the economic ladder
Emily's life is as rudderless as it is predetermined. (Mukherjee is at his most withering in his critique of the aridities and dissatisfactions of academia, the publishing industry, and non-governmental aid agencies.) Too drunk to leave a posh party on her own, she takes a taxi that may or may not become a hit-and-run involving a boy and his dog while earning herself a concussion. Hunting down the taxi driver, she becomes the hunted, and haunted, which ends up costing her an organ.

There are no illusions in Part III, set in the outskirts of the outskirts of civilized India, where the wonder is that the destitute family gets up day after day to do it all over again. The gift of a cow, and the fraught choice to accept another very big mouth to feed, is the pivot of their precarious lives, and the reader, like the family, comes to love the equally ill-fated Gauri. When it comes to "belongings," there's only enough death to go around.

Hidden bones of narrative
Over time the reader becomes aware of subtle connections between the stories, even of stories within stories. Parts II and III may be books Ayush is acquiring and hoping to publish. Emily is a scholar of the poet Spenser.

There also are leitmotifs, too, for example, the noting of how much easier it is for people to share hard truths circumstantially when not looking directly at one another, in the front seat of a car, say, or at an outdoor cafe table or face-down in domestic toil for others.

Mukherjee is a master of changing points of view and flash forwards and flash backwards in time in the minds of the characters as they tell their stories, and as their stories are told by others.

But nothing in the novel's careful architecture interrupts the force of the narratives large and small. The writing is as penetrating as it is devoid of gimmickry. It doesn't seek to explain the inexplicable or gussy up the banalities of the characters' daily lives, but neither does it wallow. This is not poverty porn.

Emily's relationship with her mother "had no weather fronts, no shadow areas, no possibility for either damage or succor." But that's about as fancy as the prose gets. Ayuth "doesn't have much time, three four maybe five years of he is —they [the twins] are— lucky, before time enters their lives and lays everything to waste," but that is about Ayuth's own fraught interior, not about his family's weather fronts.

There's a long, expertly crafted and therefore easy to follow sentence near the end of Part I, that addresses the matter of choices. But, like the novel that unusual sentence inhabits, there are no neat takeaways. At most there is this, and this is Ayush's tangled thinking, not Mukherjee's lesson:

"Everything in the world makes one think that the solution lies within private choices, personal responsibility, that it is the individual at the centre of things, that personal agency is everything ... But what if this centrality accorded the self is entirely misplaced, erroneous, or as a scientist once joked, not even wrong?"

When the prose lays you out as it does and will, it's by directness, not decoration. The only given is that you will think of these characters and their stories long after you've closed this book.

Turning every page of it is a choice, one for which the willing reader is richly rewarded, not with abstract verities but with whole knotty worlds.

'Choice' by Neel Mukherjee, W.W. Norton & Company, 298 pages, $28.99.

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