Book review

This novel about heartbreak is heartbreaking to read, and unsettling as well

Tanuj Solanki’s debut ‘Neon Noon’ is enigmatic, moody, ingenious – and strangely gripping

When the sun goes down
On my side of town
That lonesome feeling
Comes to my door
The whole world turns blue

There's a rundown bar
Cross the railroad tracks
I've got a table for two
Way in the back
Where I sit alone
And think of losing you

I spend most every night
Beneath the light
Of this neon moon

The lyrics of Brooks & Dunn's 1992 hit single Neon Moon spell out the core of Neon Noon: heartbreak. The little alliteration play on the title adds an edge to Tanuj Solanki's debut novel: this is a time-tested premise, told in stylish, captivating writing. As I fell deeper into the novel, I knew I wasn't going to enjoy reviewing this book.

I liked it immensely, but this isn't prose you want to examine strand by strand. This is a book you want to let be in your head, floating about in various corners of your subconscious, letting it settle, unsettle, twist and turn, till you feel like flipping through its pages again, reassessing, preferably with a hot cup of something, then a cold something else maybe, lost in thought, some mellow music in the background.

End of an affair

Much of Neon Noon is enigmatic, moody, ingenious. It’s cinematic, even. Heartbreak seems the stepping stone to explore language, ways of seeing and writing, playing with literature and experience. He is a broken man, T, he’s hurting from a major break up with his true love Anne-Marie, drowning his sorrows in expensive whisky and cold beer.

We first get to know bits of his life from a distance, through the perspective of a fellow writer, S, who befriends him on Facebook and tries to bed him. S sees him as the rich, MBA guy with an enviable flat in Bandra, an ambiguous but well-paying job in insurance, nursing lofty literary ambition.

When that safety of distance breaks, and we move to a first-person account, T bares his soul. In between there are flashbacks, neutral in tone, craftily structured.

In “Flashback to a SundayMorning”, T and Anne-Marie are very much in love, sharing a breakfast of fruit and expensive bread and jam, and an easy affection that is both sexy and comforting. In their spacious Mumbai flat, she is working on a work presentation, while T is attempting to learn French, her language, from the original and translated versions of Madame Bovary, no less (He is a man of many creative energies, which in turns thrills and infuriates her).

“Proud of the tinge of mental fatigue he now feels, he tenderly moves his palm over the many papers in front of him, thinking of just how much he loves her, how his learning French is his way to belong even more to her.”

But now his world is falling apart. Of the two bedrooms in his house, the one with all the memories – the bed they shared and her now empty cupboard – is off limits to anyone who may want to pry into his private life. As he spirals into grief and the making of literature in the depths of his mind, the narrative slackens, and turns more moody.

His thoughts are rambling, like an aimless walk in the rain, the writer in him bursting forth, and we read: “At best, a short story can only approach perfection, never attain it. A novella has to be perfect. A novel has to be a sprawling mess. I am thinking of these things as I walk around my neighbourhood in Mumbai.” And then: “I realise that I have walked quite far. There is thunder; it is going to rain again. No matter, i tell myself. I will keep on walking. I will keep on walking till my walking becomes a short story. There can be no rules in writing. A short story can be a sprawling mess too.”

This sort of mad literary ambition chases him everywhere. To Bali, to Nepal, where they travel together, and then to Pattaya, where he goes alone. Trekking through the villages in the mountains, Solanki writes of T’s thoughts: “Up close with the paddy, touching distance, she says, ‘This is going to be beautiful’. And I wonder: How does experience become literature?”

Feverish mix

Then comes Noon: the woman he meets in Pattaya, where he tries to be a noble sex tourist, note the irony, but seems to fall, instead, in some sort of confused state of love. Is she who she says she is? There are things we see and don't see of his experience that may or may not be real, things can get fuzzy and dizzy amidst the twinkling neon lights of Pattaya’s pubs and whorehouses.

There is an obvious male gaze here, an increasing sense of debauchery as we go along, which can become tiresome after a while. But despite the raw exploration of sex and loss, there is a delicate sensitivity to the women who drive this novel.

Adding to the feverish mix is T’s unborn son Orhan, whom he had hoped to have with Anne-Marie. T chances upon Orhan in Pattaya, in a bar, and Solanki writes these portions of the book with a lightness of touch that is inspired, a pleasure for a reader open to experimental prose. The lack of a plot, a meandering narrative, work well for the book’s moodiness, I felt like I was watching a Wong Kar Wai movie, slow burning and unsettling.

It’s interesting that T – fashioned in some ways on the author himself? – features, often as the storyteller, in some of his other fiction, short stories that Solanki has published in the last few years. In Out of Print, in the story “The Same Experiment, Again”, Solanki writes: “Well…what can I say? I am I, and so I write weird stories (rather the same story, again and again), aware all the time that I am fooling myself. With the fire of culture burning elsewhere, my tiny laboratory produces its lumpy results. There is nothing else to do.” For The Caravan magazine, Solanki wrote “Muzaffarnagar Diwali”, in which T is Tarun, the same person really, but the tale has a flavour distinctly gritty and rooted, suiting its small town milieu. This is a writer writing from great depths, comfortable in both the familiar and unfamiliar.

Neon Noon, Tanuj Solanki, HarperCollins India.

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