When a reader picks up a novel, he or she signs an implicit contract with the writer. Irrelevant detail in fiction is a breach of that contract: when description seems gratuitous or self-indulgent, we have a right to complain about why our time is being wasted. I thought of these things while reading - in some parts suffering - Raj Kamal Jha's new novel Fireproof, a book which somehow manages to be both tedious and profound.
Fireproof is a novel about the tragedy and the horror of Gujarat, 2002. A reasonable question to ask is what a novel can tell us about this cataclysm that all the newspaper reports, journal articles, and books on the subject have not. To this Jha's good answer is: nonfiction and reportage cannot present the voices of the dead, only fiction can. Of the many narrators in Fireproof, most speak to us from the afterlife, where they have "discovered gifts we never knew we had". Many of these voices speak for no more than the length of a page: they are admirably concise and powerful. The plot itself turns on the interventions made by the departed in the world of the living.
One of these interventions involves the protagonist, Mr.Jay, who, even as people are being massacred by the dozen, waits in the hospital for the birth of his first child - in this way Jha juxtaposes the "newborn" and the "newdead". The baby turns out to be grotesquely deformed; Jay is appalled, but is forced to take it home, and slowly he begins to feel for it what every parent feels for a child. Much of the novel is told from Jay's perspective. Like the narrator of Jha's first novel, The Blue Bedspread (whom we also find in the company of a newborn child), Jay has some guilty secrets which the action of the novel slowly reveals.
Jha's prose has many faults. In fact, if one were to go by Fireproof alone, he would appear a much worse writer than he actually is. He has a liking for lushness that is often not far off from cliché: "Outside, the sky was beginning to stain the colour of ink, the purple blue that forms when night begins to grow old, a colour that softens the edges of this hard city, washes the washed-out yellows and the whites and the greys of the houses" (my italics). Or, "He sees her mouth move, as if she were gulping the night down, chewing it, drinking it, as if she had been emptied and needs the darkness to fill her up once again."
Jha loves what his narrator in one place calls "adjectival neons". Some of his descriptions sound like he is preparing a chart of the universe for the colourblind, and his two favourite words are "soft" and "smooth": "This time I began peeling her skin off, pink skin, soft skin, smooth skin." Or, "I feel her hair against my hands, between my fingers, I can feel its soft, smooth rustle". This kind of detail sometimes borders on the pointless, and sometimes it clearly crosses that border: "There are always flies on the bananas. Buzzing, flying in circles, triangles, straight lines, ellipses." Jha's tendency to state, even belabour, the obvious, brought to my mind JK Stephen's very funny sonnet about Wordsworth, in which he chides the poet for that aspect of his work "Which bleats articulate monotony,/And indicates that two and one are three,/That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep".
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jha also likes the urgent sound, the sense of great significance, intimated by laconic one-sentence paragraphs. This is a perfectly legitimate way of working, but Jha employs this device without discretion. His work has many bits which go like this:
The telephone rang.
Ithim was with me now, his father.He also likes - I think we can call this the Arundhati Roy effect in Indian fiction - another hokey move, which is to capitalize words and phrases in mid-sentence.
Father and son.
The Blue Bedspread had some of these faults, but at least it was an admirably spare book. Some of its sections are no more than a paragraph long, and by virtue of this discipline they move the story forward very swiftly. In Fireproof, by contrast, there are many parts where we are presented with a paragraph when only a sentence would do, and a page when a paragraph would serve just as well. Great swathes of Jay's narration are bogged down by the most excruciating point-by-point, sensation-by-sensation, moment-by-moment detail. An egregious instance appears at the close of one chapter, when at the end of a long day Jay receives a puzzling phone call from a woman he only seen once in mysterious circumstances.
But before I could think through what she had said and what I had heard, before I could try to look beyond those walls around her, I knew I was fighting another battle, this one more immediate: a battle with sleep that came like water rising, rushing upwards, in a wave. Beginning with my feet, rippling in and out between my toes, rising to my ankles, then to my chest, lapping against my shoulders, climbing over my jacket, gurgling as I breathed through my nose, reaching my eyes, filling them both.Do we need to be told all this in such depth? And even if we did, is this account even true to the experience of sleep that comes " came like water rising, rushing upwards, in a wave"? Does that kind of sleep not overwhelm conscious thought in an instant, and preclude exactly the kind of slow, hyperconcious tracking which the narrator presents us? Which reader can imagine what it is like to feel sleep "rippling in and out between my toes"? This account of sleep taking over the human body section by section reminded me of the unintentional comedy of a similar passage in Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldier, in which we are told of how a cold wind blows around the protagonist Zia: "It tore at him, slipped inside his trouser legs, groped at his crotch, ferreted in his armpits and careened into his lungs." Such sentences are pure verbiage.
Indeed, the body is Jha's great subject: in general, he never passes up the chance to go over it in slow motion whenever he can. Here the narrator is watching over his mother, who has just suffered a scorpion bite:
Even the slighest wavering and Mother might die. For if I am not careful, the poison will spread from her wrist, run into her veins and her arteries, travel along her arms, her shoulders, her neck, then down again, to her heart and her stomach to her legs to her face to her head her fingers and her toes - the pus and the black blue yellow green.Leaving the city with Ithim on the instructions of the mysterious woman, Jay is received at the station by a midget in outlandish attire. Jha begins to describe his shirt:
And what a shirt it was. A profusion of not only fabric, a fabric that shone like silk and velvet, but also of wild colour and twisted asymmetry: blue and red and green and yellow and white and black, stripes, checks, triangles, circles, swirls, ellipses, straight lines, curls.Once again the narration trips teeters into excess, giving us such a welter of details that it actually becomes impossible to imagine the thing being described, which is not such an important thing in the first place. These are utterly pointless moves, serving only to drain the reader's interest and leave him or her indifferent to details of actual consequence.
Fireproof has an interesting storyline, and it builds up to a conclusion of genuine grace and moral force, in which we witness the workings of a justice that avoids the senseless path of "fire and hate". But it is also an unbearably prolix book, and this dulls its power. Jay may hold many secrets, but Jha's unpleasantly overwritten sentences mostly do not. They seem rather like a literary instance of disguised unemployment: present, countable, but doing no useful work.