Saturday, 24 May 2014

'The things that matter to them'


I was surprised to see how overwhelmingly positive critics' reviews of this novel have been so far, and while I don't completely disagree with them, I thought I would offer a different perspective. This novel focuses on a single man: Zafar, born in rural Bangladesh and rising to a position of privilege via an Oxford education to become a derivatives trader and later, to work for the UN in Afghanistan. Zafar's story is narrated by his unnamed friend; still an investment banker, this friend, who met Zafar at Oxford, is surprised to find Zafar on his doorstep years after he had disappeared. Although he shares with Zafar a common experience of racial prejudice in Britain, his background is very different; the grandson of the Pakistani ambassador to the US, he was born in America. Hence, he is unable to connect with Zafar's continuing anger as he remembers his struggle to navigate 'class-ridden' British society, and his sense of being a continual outsider, even as he takes on official positions of great responsibility and prestige.



As an intellectual experiment, this novel is continuously fascinating. James Wood's excellent review in the New Yorker, which has already been referenced by a number of the reviewers here, rightly reflects on its exploration of the uses of knowledge. As Wood notes, Rahman is interested in exploring why a certain kind of knowledge leads to a certain kind of power, and how knowing the right things, even if you know very little else, can take you far in the world. Zafar, it's evident early in the novel, is not only well-educated in formal terms but an obsessive autodidact; he continuously tells his friend titbits of knowledge that never fail to fascinate. As one of Rahman's devices to remind the reader both how much we don't know and how useless a lot of our knowledge is, it's remarkably successful; as a literary choice, it is perhaps less so, as it frequently interrupts the flow of the narrative. The same could be said for the way in which the novel is told. The narrative is remarkably, and deliberately, difficult to follow. Not only do we constantly switch from the narrator's to Zafar's perspective with little warning, there is no use of quotation marks, so even in hindsight, it can be difficult to disentangle the precise moment when the voice changes. Furthermore, the narrative is told completely out of order, with the climax of the story - Zafar's time in Afghanistan - strung out throughout the book and interspersed with numerous other remnants of Zafar's memories. Again, from an analytical point of view, this way of telling is clearly integral to the novel's intellectual project. Zafar might intercept with bits of solid, factual knowledge, but the hopeless jumble in which he relates his own life reminds us how little we can really hang on to. Nevertheless, it is an authorial choice that becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader.



If Rahrman breaks one of the cardinal rules of the novel by writing such a confounding narrative, he breaks another with his characters. I found both the narrator and Zafar neither likeable nor interesting - a rather off-putting combination. Although I suspect our reaction towards both of these men is meant to be deeply ambivalent, ultimately my disinterest in Zafar meant that this novel - which is largely an exploration of why he has become the man he is today - lacked much of the driving force that it needed. Rahman writes some splendid set-pieces on Zafar - his near escape from a train crash in Bangladesh and his brief contact with a boy he might have been springs to mind - but they tend to get lost in what is, printing tricks aside, a very long novel. Also, for a man so rightly concerned with the classist and racist discrimination he has suffered, he is utterly blind to gender. Both Zafar and his friend are guilty of some pretty sexist statements throughout the novel - I think the low point was their comments on how 18 is the peak of a woman's attractiveness, although Zafar's blithe assertion that career women of 32 have often left it too late to get pregnant was also pretty bad. These attitudes are summed up in the way both men remember and react to the only significant female character in the novel, Emily, a long-term love of Zafar's. Emily, as an upper-class white Englishwoman, represents everything Zafar cannot have, and his desire to possess her is as symbolic as it is off-putting. Sadly, because we only see Emily through the filters of these two somewhat unpleasant men, it is difficult to get a handle on her as a character in her own right, although she seems to be quite capable of manipulation and deceit as well.



In the end, however, it wasn't the novel's uncomfortable gender politics or its convoluted structure that broke me - it was the fact that both Zafar and the narrator are so unforgivably pompous. To an extent, we can see why Zafar has become this hyper-educated, pedantic and obsessed man, but giving him a similar narrator to interact with was, I think, a mistake, especially as the narrator's pomposity is far less understandable. Of course, the characters' obsession with knowledge has thematic relevance, but when the novel ended with an image of Godel and Einstein walking together, as 'they discuss the things that matter to them and why they matter' I did start to wonder whether we were meant to take their discussions seriously. This would be easier to do if Rahman hadn't larded the novel so heavily with quotations - supposedly quotations taken from Zafar's notebooks - as these only added to the general air of self-righteousness. And while the value of knowledge is continually questioned, Zafar, too, judges others by what they know; for example, what they know about the geography and politics of Bangladesh.



This review has been largely negative, but, as I stated at the beginning, there is much to admire in this novel; this, for me, was the other side of the balance sheet. I will say that, whatever its brilliance, In The Light Of What We Know is not a novel to embark on, well, lightly; be prepared to engage.

11 comments:

  1. What a fascinating, nuanced review of this novel. I read it and enjoyed its intellectual project very much. But like you, I found the gender politics to be dodgy at best. The fact the novel ends with the rape of Emily by Zafar seemed a conclusion of such abject ambiguity that I wasn't sure what to make of it. Must men always reassert their sense of control and authority on the bodies of submissive women? How are we to judge the effect of inequality on Zafar's character in the light of what we (almost) know happens? A strange and intriguing novel but one whose flaws do need to be pointed out against the backdrop of applause coming from the likes of James Wood.

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  2. Thank you! I didn't dislike this novel by any means, but the more that I think about it, the more uncomfortable it makes me feel (which is perhaps the intention). I tried to avoid spoilers in this review as it was originally for Amazon Vine, but I'm sure I could write a whole other blog post just about the ending, which I found very problematic for reasons similar to the ones you outline (the symbolism alone is pretty disturbing). In a novel more explicitly aware of gender and the way that gendered narratives link into colonial oppression, it might have worked. In this one? I'm really not convinced.

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  3. Hey Laura,

    Just read your comment about having the same trouble as me with readers being able to leave a comment, so I thought I would try and post a comment on your blog. So far, so good! Good luck with your blog

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  4. A good review. The novel has great writing and interesting ideas - but the story is sorely let down by making Zafar unlikable.

    One can forgive the character (whose biography overlaps with the authors) for not dwelling on the many potentially interesting facets of his story ( eg; the affair with the Jewish New Yorker or why he was solvent but not so rich he couldn't just pay off his parents mortgage ) - but it is clear throughout that something bad happenned in Afghanistan.

    The looming sense of portent in the narrative had suggested to me that Zafar might have been a spy/terrorist or that Emily had been murdered-- but the chapter heading citing the definition of rape implies that that which the reader is not told but presumably the writer suspected, was that Z raped E - it may have been more hacklike to go down one of those paths (and strayed into Othello/Caliban territory)- but making Zafar more likable would have made some of the many interesting insights discussed in the book (about Class, NGOs/ War on Terror) much more digestable.

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    1. Sorry - I tried to respond to this a while back but Blogger wouldn't let me comment!

      I think the question of Zafar's likeability is a very basic structural flaw in the novel. For the ending to make any sense, there needs to be some kind of twist, or dilemma for the reader, in discovering that Zafar is a rapist, but for me it seemed to follow on logically from his general misogyny, and his earlier violent tendencies (for example, his deliberate, premeditated attack on the men who shouted racist things at him and his friend in the street). At the very least, Zafar's friend, as his biographer, needs to be likeable, so we can speculate how these revelations affect his friendship with Zafar, but he is not likeable, and we know from the image of Godel and Einstein at the end that they've had no effect.

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  5. I have just finished reading this book about 20 minutes ago and I'm still shaking with anger. The absolutely disturbing mysogyny... I kept reading and reading and reading 5-star reviews in all the usual places and occassionally coming accross a glimpse of "Um. He's a rapist..." but it's a drop in an ocean of fellatio. This book is (probably) going to win awards. It makes me want to whack James Wood over the head with my keyboard just thinking about it. Am I blind to the occassional beauty glimmered through the relentless self-absorption and manangst? No, no, I am not. Even now in my rage I can still appreciate the beauty of the scene where Zafar is touched by the bridge builders who are presumably replacing the rickety iron bridge that almost took his own life as a child. etc. Granted, even without the pathological sexism, such glimmers of genuine great writing are few and far in between, but to my mind everything is reduced to: two mysoginysts dazzle us with their intellect while (barely) discussing their ambitious, vapid, annoying girlfriends/wives who get in the way of What Really Matters, The Great Ideas Upon Which Male Friendship Is Formed.

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    1. I totally sympathise with your anger even though I know that my own review is more equivocal. I think I was trying to read the novel charitably, and our narrator as unreliable, but (as I've implied in my comment to the previous Anon) the novel is either extremely badly structured and conceived, or Zafar is meant to be likeable. I do find the latter reading, which seems to be the one preferred by the professional reviewers, infuriating. I also wonder if spoiler policies are partly at fault here. My own review obviously doesn't discuss the rape very much, not because I didn't think it key to understanding Zafar, but because I was trying to avoid spoilers. This is definitely an occasion when I should probably have 'spoiled' the novel (with spoiler warnings) for the sake of having a proper discussion about it. It does annoy me that newspapers don't seem to feel they can do that. Your final sentence, I admit, does reflect my reaction to the Godel/Einstein photograph at the end. Obviously male musings are ultimately more important than anything else...

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  6. I read this book as a deliberate commentary on the origins of misogyny, where women in general and mothers in particular are the lacuna at the heart of both narratives (i.e. Zafar's actions and the narrator's refracted perspective on them). Can a work that is intentionally ugly still be art? In this regard the novel bears important similarities to Open City (Teju Cole) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz), which also focus on the critical intersection of ethnicity and gender through the lens of collective memory and cultural identity. And yet in all three cases, critics have been so awed by the explicit commentary about race and place that they often missed the authors' more fundamental points about masculinity and misogyny (as Cole and Diaz have openly discussed in their own interviews). To my knowledge, Rahman has not said as much directly, but I find his choice of pronouns in this Guernica interview revealing.

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    1. Thanks for the link to the very interesting interview. I'm not convinced that this is a book about misogyny, though, regardless of the author's intentions, which are obscure. Yes, Rahman pays clever attention to his pronouns in the interview (female magicians, male parents) but he says nothing about the book itself that implies he's particularly interested in gender - as opposed to his musings on class, for example. Furthermore, as has been discussed above, I'm not sure the novel works unless Zafar is likeable in some degree, and I'm increasingly becoming convinced that Rahman intends him to be a fundamentally good character, with some unpleasant traits. Again, in this interview, he emphasises the shallow, distorted viewpoint of our narrator, but skirts around the issue of Zafar himself. Likeability can seem like an unsophisticated way of assessing a character, but because of the way this novel ends, I think it really matters in this case. For Zafar to have been explicitly written as pretentious and deeply sexist, the novel would have had to be constructed very differently.

      What I find most concerning, however, is that none of the professional critics I've read have touched upon gender at all. This is a problem for them, because they seem to think it doesn't matter; and a problem for Rahman's hidden gender message, if it exists, because it isn't having an impact, at least in these circles.

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  7. I've just finished this novel and found your review, and all the comments here, really interesting and thought-provoking. They make me feel like a naïve reader. I'm a woman, born in London, of Asian heritage. I found Zafar very interesting and I didn't dislike him, so the rape at the end was very shocking. I didn't like Emily at all, so a flaw in the book for me was how on earth she could be so important in Zafar's life as to more or less cause his psychological and moral disintegration. I did think the narrator was a bit pompous but I don't know if I'd go as far as to say I 'disliked' him, either! I loved the writing, the exploration of race and class, and all the snippets of 'knowledge' - I didn't mind them interrupting the narrative. I agree that the constant switches of narrative viewpoint switching could be a little confusing sometimes, but I found the book a real page turner, not difficult to read at all. I thought the switches were handled well. I also got the impression that the quotations at the start of the penultimate chapter (as well as giving clues about what took place) meant that we were not being invited to condone Zafar's rape of Emily.

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  8. Totally pedantic, boring, uninteresting characters... I could not keep reading after page 80. What a show-off.

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