Jeet Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis opens in the late ‘70s. The narrator has fallen into trouble in New York City, caught with drugs in his pockets after running from a police officer, shipped to Bombay “to straighten out.” It’s difficult to imagine a place less conducive to straightening out than the 1970s Bombay of this novel, however, and the narrator quickly becomes a regular at Rashid’s opium den, a place where it’s possible to lie still and dream for hours or talk quietly with his fellow addicts. The city is frenetic, but in the opium den time moves very slowly.
There is a certain elegance in the preparation of the pipes, the ceremony of it, and Rashid’s seems for a while to be the ideal place to disappear. “After a while of this,” the narrator says, speaking at a much later point in the book of splashing after someone half-glimpsed on the street during a monsoon, “I lost track of time, I lost myself, which is the reason people like me get into drugs in the first place.”
There are echoes of Roberto Bolaño in the book’s early pages, especially a memorable scene where the narrator attends a talk given by the extravagantly drunk painter Newton Xavier and ends up escorting him back to Rashid’s. Rashid’s is the axle around which Narcopolis revolves, the lens through which Thayil considers the city. Newton Xavier is the hand-off; he arrives in the story from the perspective of the narrator, and then goes off alone with someone else as the story shifts into the third person and Thayil begins to follow the stories of the other denizens of Rashid’s.
To my eye, the most captivating of these is the unfortunately-named Dimple, a young eunuch who identifies mostly as a woman and wears women’s clothing. Her mother gave her to a priest when she was still a boy, and the priest sold her to a brothel. She works at the opium den part-time, at first; evenings are given over to the brothel. She is on an endless search for knowledge and beauty. She has taught herself to speak English, and is teaching herself to read. When she takes over the story, the shift is so gentle that it takes some time for the reader to realize that the narrator has faded into the background and hasn’t been seen in some time. The book is that structural oddity, a first-person narration with a (mostly) absent narrator, a story that switches quickly to the third person and stays there for most of the duration.
Narcopolis is concerned largely with Dimple and her unlikely friendship with the elderly Mr. Lee, a refugee whose upbringing in Maoist China is described in some of the book’s most harrowing chapters. Mr. Lee gives Dimple her first hit of opium when she’s brought to him suffering from back pain. The predictable addiction sets in—in the immortal words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you” — and in the years and decades following the day when the narrator first meets Dimple, opium is replaced by garad heroin from Pakistan and the scene grows exponentially darker. The drugs change, the city changes, and through a span of several decades Thayil follows his characters’ marginalized lives. His characters, he wrote in an author’s note, “were the marginalized, the poor, the degraded, the crushed, whose voices were unheard or forgotten, but whose lives were as deserving of honor as anyone else’s.” He never looks down on his characters.
There were moments when I found myself wishing for more story told from the perspective of the narrator, or at least a clearer understanding of who he was. The story isn’t really his and it doesn’t need to be, and yet, who was this man? He’s a bit of a ghost. He’s less interesting than the other characters, but only, I suspect, because we never know him very well.
Thayil is a poet, and it shows in the prose, which contains countless moments of great beauty. His debut is an unsettling portrait of a seething city, a beautifully-written meditation on addiction, sex, friendship, dreams, and murder. It’s a simultaneously brutal and beautiful work, dreamlike without ever being sentimental or vague or soft-hearted. Narcopolis is a truly impressive achievement.