Books, perhaps more so than other media, have the remarkable ability to stay timeless after generations on end. The author’s dilemma is finding balance between establishing setting through concrete detail without allowing the material to become dated. But what happens when the author throws this idea out the window?
Jeet Thayil’s Low could only take place in our time, not just the 21st century but these past few years. It’s laden with references to ridesharing, Spotify, and most importantly, world leaders Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. Sure, names aren’t used, but the depictions are instantly recognizable amidst the hyperbole:
“The overtanned bloviator’s barefaced falsehoods, his thin skin and fear of mockery, these were the qualities that made him loveable…his true mission was to undo the world and start over.”
At first glance it is difficult to tell what relevance this has to the novel’s overall plot. Low follows Dominic Ullis, former poet and current addict, in the midst of a grief-stricken bender after the death of his wife. Ullis encounters a strange, compelling cast of characters on his journey through the streets of Mumbai, each floating through life in a drug-induced haze. Decisions are made on a whim, conversations wispy and often meaningless. Thayil devotes little of the novel to dialogue, adding in bits and pieces of conversation to establish character, only showcasing lengthy conversation in pivotal scenes. People travel here and there, guided by drugs and a search for meaning. The actual events of the book feel perfunctory without the backdrop of Ullis’s real, tangible loss, as well as the backdrop of 2019.
Ullis is never a happy man, struggling with his own demons as well as his wife’s crushing depression. Her death brings up his own feelings of guilt and shame like vomit in the throat. This moment, the events of this book, are his low. The lowest point of his life to date, the lowest he will ever feel. This is not easy to witness. It’s delivered to us without sugarcoating, without subtlety. Thayil’s harsh, scathing prose reaches its pinnacle when it comes to politics.
The author is ruthless when it comes to describing the current president of the United States and the current prime minister of India, and voices his views through two distinct characters. While Payal, a breezy, wealthy woman that Ullis encounters, is disgusted by Modi’s emphasis on yoga in the midst of violence, Ullis himself is strangely comforted by Trump. It’s his musings on Trump, and his overall situation, that bring Ullis to the line that anchors the entire novel, a line that brings story and context together as one:
“Nothing bad could happen because the worst had occurred.”
This is the low. There is no better interpretation of a feeling like this, and it’s a feeling that for Ullis is specific to this time, this existence, this moment in history. For the reader, it can be debilitating. Thayil offers little reprieve throughout the novel, and at times I had to stop, take a deep breath, and remember that this is not my low, but someone else’s. At times the political diatribes and the frequent lapses in and out of flashback can all feel disjointed and hard to interpret as a complete whole. References feel too heavy-handed: for instance, the frequent mispronunciations of Ullis’s name as Ulysses.
Supporting characters range from the careless, wealthy Payal to the self-centered Neel to the domineering nationalist Niranjan. Ullis’s late wife comes to the page as well, her existence a cry for help that feels nothing short of frustrating. Ullis himself is hard to empathize with at times, and even harder to like, though his vulnerability and depth of feeling is palpable. This is not an easy novel, but it stands out from the crowd due to its tone and its rejection of timelessness.
So, will Jeet Thayil’s novel feel dated in five, ten, twenty years? It’s difficult to say, as the landscape of literature will undoubtedly change in more ways than we can predict. Certainly now, in the Internet age—and with the omnipresence of social media—past references to pop culture and politics are more accessible than ever. It will likely be similar in the future. But what Thayil challenges us to think is, does that really matter? The book is relevant now on a time and space level, and serves as a detailed portrayal of our culture and political climate. But the themes woven in: disregard, grief, aimlessness, love. These remain timeless. And even disregarding all this, Low is a picture of a moment, a snapshot in time and of the depths of a single character’s despair. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be more than that.
By Jeet Thayil
Faber & Faber
Published February 25, 2020