Book Club: In the Light of What We Know
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that first novels are thinly veiled memoirs, but I can’t help but see some biographical connections between Zafar, one of the central characters in the novel, and you. Would you say that the novel is autobiographical?
Roth didn’t write about an aging South African male writer living in Sydney; and Coetzee didn’t write about Jews in New Jersey in the 1950s. Most of the novelists I’ve loved reading—these and others, Conrad and Sebald, for instance—have written books, often more than one, with strong biographical connections between the author and some or other character. I rather suspect novelists are less interested than readers—some readers— in whether the novel at hand has autobiographical elements. There’s a very mundane level, however, on which the answer to your question is yes. I’ve worked in investment banking and in human rights and I’m familiar—to varying degrees—with the parts of the world where the novel takes us. If I said to you that it happened like this, that I had an idea for a story in which, among many other things, one thread of the story touches on military contractors in Kabul and that then it occurred to me that I could draw on my visits to that city not long after the US invasion, then, quite rightly, you’d say I was being disingenuous. The fact is that one leg of imagination is experience and experience is not a prosthetic to imagination. Of course I’m drawing on experiences, including the experiences of observing others going about their business. Perhaps those connections were responsible for the intimacy I felt in the course of writing the novel. Some time after I finished writing I caught myself crying: I was going to miss the narrator deeply. And not because he didn’t exist any more—no fictional character ever did. What I felt was the feeling of missing someone you know you won’t see for a while. In his case, quite possibly never again.
The novel is set against the backdrop of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the war in Afghanistan, the kinds of contemporary events that are typically treated more by journalists than novelists. In your mind, what can the novel as a form bring to our understanding of the present?
The characters of this novel cross borders of geography, career, nationality and—most obviously in the character of Zafar—class. The final border the novel crosses is the one between the imaginary and the real worlds. If the crossing is mandated by the story, why should a novel hesitate to take the step? There’s an important point here. I’ve mentioned “the real world,” but this raises all kinds of questions. Each of us has only an imagined world. Whatever comes in through the senses is refracted by our personalities, our dispositions, our inheritances, our specific everything, and is translated into something represented in our heads. We recognize our friends when we see them or hear them; we don’t get to know them from scratch every time. Our interactions with the world are with the imagined world inside us which might be some kind of representation of the so-called real world but cannot actually be the real world. That’s why people we believe we know are capable of surprising or disappointing us. Our understanding of the present—which is what your question is about—is not simply the reception of what the news media tells us. It’s not so much an understanding that we develop—even if our egos tell us that that’s what we’re getting—but an experience that we’re having, as what we learn interacts with all that we already are. I think the form of the novel, with its enormous flexibility and scope, remains the pre-eminent venue for exploring that experience, and thereby shedding light on our imagined worlds—our most present and governing ones.
You have referred a few times to how we are constrained by the circumstances that we inherit. Can you say more about how the novel grapples with notions of career, class, ethnicity, language, geography, and history as shaping our sense of self?
At the very outset of the novel, a certain political perspective of my own had a bearing on the novel. Human beings seem to be very bad at handling more than one cause. We don’t actually need psychologists to suggest this because it’s quite apparent in everything we read in the news media. Whenever there’s a tragedy the first question we seem to ask is, “What was the cause of this?” Almost all the answers given are heavily biased towards mono- causality, like the question, reflecting, I think, a cognitive bias. The reality of the complex human world is that effects might—I’ll say will—only be accountable in terms of varied, jointly sufficient causes. In other words, causes that only together produce the effect. When I started out on the novel, I asked myself why I wanted the narrator to have a similar ethnicity to Zafar—I seemed to want this very strongly and the strength of my feeling puzzled me. I think whenever ethnic difference comes into the picture it seems to monopolize everything. Consider the statement: Barack Obama is a very intelligent black man. The fact is, his ethnicity is what screams out. The context might warrant the use of the word black—say we were discussing why some people seem to hate him with rationality- defying fervor—but the context must justify it, if you don’t want the experience of reading the sentence to be hijacked by one word. I was much more interested in exploring class- difference than ethnic-difference and by keeping the narrator and Zafar ethnically similar, I was enabling my own mind to draw out differences of character arising from difference in class. All sorts of things come off in the friction between the two characters, but not too much of their skin color, I hope. Even their respective experiences of racism, in the very limited ways it’s touched on, are conditioned by their distinct class statuses. Incidentally, verbal tics aside, I tried to keep the language of these two characters not too dissimilar (though that’s not at all the case with other characters), partly because of the frame— namely that the narrator is reconstructing conversations—but largely because I wanted to avoid a problem I saw coming: that the differences in the form of language used by the two would come to stand for differences in their outlook. I wanted the experience of class to come through their ideas as manifest in their actions or failures to act, and I wanted to avoid certain tropes, which are easily and unintentionally evoked by a character’s choice of words. Class is arguably so pervasive in everyday life that what we experience is a parody of the idea. Sometimes you have to break through the real world to get to the imagined one.
Now let me take a swing at your very big question. The search for self is illusory. The question of what the self does—what it means—doesn’t present itself clearly other than in instances where it seems to be broken in some way. You never ponder to think how the internal combustion engine works until you see smoke coming from the hood of your car and you come to a halt on the side of the road. In its healthy, working state, a self is perhaps just the by-product of the actions of that daunting list you gave. An interesting feature of your list is that every item implies a taxonomy: Geography—countries; Class—upper, middle, lower. One of the things I was keen to explore was the man who crosses those internal borders. Even history contains borders: Zafar finds himself in the position of trying to make a choice about history, through choices about the future—I don’t want to go into details, for obvious reasons. One of the effects of exploring this fractured self was to find, rather eerily, that the more you know about Zafar, the less you feel you know him. Without spoiling anything, I think I can say that one question the novel works towards is not how much can we know of ourselves?, but how much is there there, present, effective but hidden, never to be known? What is in that darkness?
One thing I want to add here is that we seem to have gotten ourselves into a deep level of analysis; we’ve gone behind the plasterboard and into the plumbing. If a reader reads a novel in anything like the way I do, at least on a first reading, then I expect them not to be distracted by the pipework and just go into the kitchen and turn on the faucet.
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