Friday 8 March 2013


Jeet Thayil, 2012
(February 2013)

I’ve previously expressed my dislike of the Wall of Text – massive paragraphs over a page in length which make you feel that you’re trying to parse meaning from a wordsearch grid, not a story. The opening sentence to Narcopolis is almost 7 (seven) pages long.

It works here though. It’s something I usually associate with a certain type of male American writer whose prose is typically described as ‘muscular’, your Roths and your McCarthys (McCarthies?). Not here; the effect is definitely not one of robust anger. It is, frankly, trippy as fuck, and as such a perfect complement to the subject at hand. Narcopolis is about drugs, specifically but not exclusively opium, though if you hadn’t worked that out from the cover or title I’m not sure there’s much more to be gained from continuing this conversation. Those great long sentences and paragraphs flow in a pleasingly spacey, almost-but-not-quite stream-of-consciousness manner as we weave in and out of the lives of residents and workers on a street in the red light district of late 20th century Bombay.

I’m tempted to label this as ‘The Indian Trainspotting,’ and it’s definitely a valid comparison in some ways. Obviously there’s the drugs, but the structures of both share a certain episodic, tangential nature whereby you could view them as short story collections tied together by only the loosest of framing devices, as well as dialogue that is very dialect heavy. However, while neither book shies away from the more visceral humiliations of addiction, Narcopolis doesn’t take the same prurient joy in describing them as does Trainspotting (but then very few things do). There’s murder and prostitution and misfiring bowels, but at no point does the narrator end up diving down a shit-stained toilet in search of a half-used suppository. It does have a cameo appearance from Colin Hay though, so there’s that.

It’s all very hazy. My experience with narcotics certainly doesn’t stretch to what’s described here, but the deprivations visited upon the various characters somehow seem more immediate through being described in such an off-hand, muted manner. Much as how (I imagine) a junkie might view misfortunes suffered by their acquaintances; as just something that happens and is of little concern unless it gets in the way of your next fix.

The final section jumps forward in time to almost the present day and the conclusions (or lack thereof) of several character arcs are, in their own ways, both shocking and unsurprising. The whole book wraps itself in this contradictory fug of blissful unsentimentality. It seems that this book is a result of the author’s own addictions, and while I wouldn’t wish addiction upon anybody, at least some good has come of it here.


  1. I don't like the paragraph thing you describe either. It almost makes reading it a chore, like a set of stairs with a huge one that you have to climb over. When I see one of those wall paragraphs as you describe, without thinking I flick through the next few pages to see where it ends.

    So I assume this paragraph represents some sort of high or stimulant trip then?

    The book sounds interesting, especially as it is set in India, but I won't bother to read it. I like the cover tho.

    1. "I assume this paragraph represents some sort of high"

      Exactly. A lot of it's like that. As you say, the paragraph thing isn't me favourite device, largely because it often comes across as angry ranting. This guy's fairly free with the punctuation though and it's al got a very 'floaty' tempo so it's one of the few occasions I actually liked it.

      It's still a slightly unpleasant surprise when you turn the page and see no breaks whatsoever though. Like you, I end up flicking ahead.

  2. "(I imagine) a junkie might view misfortunes suffered by their acquaintances; as just something that happens and is of little concern unless it gets in the way of your next fix."

    You imagine correctly. And getting i the way of said "fix" if it's meth can be lethal for the person in the way.

    The stuff coming outta the Phillipines in the 80's-2000 was the stuff tested on rats and they killed each other for the second dose. 1 time ...just 1 and your gone. Not a casual drug. And people are no better than rats down there at that level.

    1. The kids in school get the whole "Drugs! Zattai Dame!" deal with police coming in to scare them off it. One of the things that got my goat last time I was party to that little performance was their insistence that all drugs have the same effect. Clearly bollocks.

      But y'know, as a scare tactic it seemed to work. One and you're gone is pretty strong stuff. You'd just worry about what happens if/when the kids work out that some of the more herbal stuff is no worse than booze or alcohol in that respect. I generally think the 'gateway' arguments are nonsense, but flat out lying to the kids does seem to make it more, not less, likely.

      I'm not sure exactly what I'm saying here, except that I'm very glad I've got only a passing familiarity with most of this stuff. And thanks for chipping in on this, it'd be very easy to get away with the more 'romantic' and exotic angle here. A reality check is no bad thing.

    2. Smoked Hawaiian bud daily for years snorted coke a bit crazy..spent about 80 thousand in a year. Got kinda sucked into crack but I thought my heart would I stopped. Meth, the real stuff not the stuff made in the U.S. and places that regulate the original ingredients ..the 3 rolling hits and your up for 3 days no doubt and the hair on the back of your neck is at attention the whole time....

      I have some horrific tales, some really really "bad" stuff and it's all related to Meth.

      It is on a whole different level. Nothing compares.

      The gateway drug crap is crap. Booze will cause you to snort your first line of coke or crack or meth more than weed ever would or did.

      It's bullshit.

    3. "got a bit crazy..spent about 80 thousand in a year."

      I think that's a pretty workable definition of 'getting a bit crazy.' I assume we're talking dollars and not yen.

      "The gateway drug crap is crap."

      Nicely put. Again, I've got no experience with stuff at that level but always figured it was more about personality and opportunity; if you've got an addictive streak and (relatively) easy access then winegums could start you off.

      All joking aside though, good job getting back on track. That's impressive right there.

    4. Yeah, $ not yen.

      When folks are dying and getting mandatory federal sentences that'll make em' eligible for senior citizen discounts when they next see the light of makes the choice easy.

      I quit drinking booze 4 years ago too. When something runs it's course and becomes a clear impediment to me being my best it's time to hit the "off" switch. Very easy actually. I talked about the Meth specifically because it's like seeing Medusa's ain't coming back from that. I don't know anyone besides myself who did and survived to thrive.

      Japan has junkies too. Stimulants usually injected. They scratch themselves on the forearms a lot and look everyone directly in the eyes and they should be avoided. They act like rogue Hyenas.


    5. "Japan has junkies too."

      Brainwashed as I had been, it took me so long to realise that's why they're that. "They look like they're on something. But Japan's such a safe, neat country. Can't be."

      No drugs, no crime, no littering, and no homosexuals. So I've been told. Genuinely.