The image of the White Man is likely the easiest identifiable caricature of our times, its resilience as a cultural figure rooted in its proximity to the truth – it endures because of the lack of any real exaggeration. So what can a new novel tell us about this expended figure and the view of the world from its altitude? In The Laughter, Sonora Jha deploys the first-person narrative of a tenured white professor to tell the story of a long-decaying academic landscape against the backdrop of a burning American political scene.
The narrative in The Laughter jumps back and forth in time, and in the first-person voice of Oliver Harding, a sense of foreboding creeps in: something bad has happened. Harding is a tenured professor of English at a prominent university in Seattle. Long divorced and estranged from his 22-year-old daughter, he is a GK Chesterton scholar (whose life and words he returns to for inspiration often enough for it to seem almost inevitable that he took after his philandering ways).
A sophisticated bulwark against change
With his practised charm and complete refusal to take a position in public, Harding is also a solid representative of the group that forms the hollow American inclusive agenda’s most sophisticated bulwark against change.
Jha harnesses this voice to hilarious effect – in her hand, Harding is more than a slimy middle-aged professor; he is a mountain of vanity, as fragile in his ego as a sand dune. The object of his obsession is Ruhaba Khan – sharp and opinionated, Khan is an assistant professor of law, and a favourite with the students. Navigating the contingencies of both immigrant and professional life – a native of Pakistan living in America on a green card, and untenured in her professorship – she is almost too liberal for Oliver’s taste in some ways. What he’s fixated by, though, is that even so she wears the hijab – a contradiction in character of such significance to Harding that taking it off animates many of his fantasies.
As nationwide cries for more diverse departments and course offerings grow, their campus too is marked by protests fast gaining momentum, and a vote on a large-scale overhaul of the syllabi is imminent. This university is an establishment in the true sense of the word: the administration’s favourite activity is to make committees, buzzword-rich statement writing is a job of its own, and all prospect of change is met with militant disdain. Set in the days leading up to the 2016 Presidential elections, the larger arena for the turmoil on this university campus is the wider unrest in all of America: all manners of divisions are starker than ever before, and on the ballot is a choice between bad and worse.
While political tension gripping the campus grows, Ruhaba’s 16-year-old nephew Adil arrives on the scene. Inspected by the French police for alleged ties with radical Islamist groups, he is sent away to the US for some time away to live with an aunt he has never met before. Though Adil’s parents are from Pakistan too, he has spent his life in France, and it is Toulouse whose streets and sights beckon when the haze of home rises in his head. Back in France regular life, family, and his first love await. For Adil, Harding takes on the role of a confidant in matters of the heart, enabling the latter to claw his way into being at least a semi-regular presence in Ruhaba’s life.
In the beginning, Harding appears to be your average Seattle liberal; perhaps somewhat more paranoid about far-right talking points than the average guy, but then middle age often does creep up on people in unexpected ways. In course of the story, however, the depth of venom in his psyche becomes evident.
It is to Jha’s credit that Harding remains a believable character right until the end. His evil does not overwhelm all at once, but comes on in countless studied layers. What we see develop in course of the book as his almost fanatic obsession with Ruhaba was never an innocent attraction – no description of any interaction between them is complete, for example, without the mention of a sexual fantasy, often racially charged.
A believable reality
Though the choice of tone in email snippets at the beginning of many chapters is somewhat confounding, the scene writing in The Laughter is a success every time it wants to highlight a situation that would be lost if said in words and not through action. The narrative voice is cool and matter of fact, and yet throbbing with feeling. For example, in encounters where Harding finds himself talking to Ruhaba alone, or where there is a touch as light as a brushing of fingertips, what jumps out in the shape of repressed desire is often a litany of prejudiced, exoticising fetishes. It is in these unexpected, small moments of closeness that the countless lines between “us” and “them” emerge most clearly – not only in Harding’s mind, but also in those of the archetypical American man he represents.
The events on the university campus in The Laughter don’t need much imaginative power to be believable – the discontent, redundant hierarchies, and the overall sense of chaos will be familiar from news headlines and personal experiences. They also become a demonstration of how incidents in a fraught political atmosphere spiral to take on meanings beyond the realm of intention to that of the possible: when the fault lines run so deep and no bargain is quite final, the space for resolution is replaced by one for conquests.
In the last few pages of the novel, much happens and disturbs, leaving you with questions that Jha hands you all the ammunition to face. Their frontiers are difficult, and mounting them triumphantly is an impossible objective, but given the story you read in The Laughter, you will find plenty to pit your mind against.
The Laughter, Sonora Jha, Penguin.