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The Book We're Talking About This Week: 'Narcopolis' by Jeet Thayil

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"Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil
Penguin Press, $25.95
Published on April 16, 2012

What is it about?
The book begins in Bombay in the late 1970s. The narrator gets sucked into the city's seedy underworld, rife with opium and prostitutes. The narrator is high on opium (or heroin, later) for much of the book, so the novel contains many long, poetic, drug-induced ramblings.

Why are we talking about it?
We love contemporary Indian literature, and jump at the chance to read it. After just a glance at the book's beautifully written prologue, we were sold.

Who wrote it?
Jeet Thayil has four poetry collections and also edited "The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry," but this is his first novel. He is also a musician/songwriter.

Who will read it?
People who like Indian, post-colonial literature and people who like seemingly drug-induced literature. Though beautifully written, it's very surreal, and if the reader isn't paying close attention, what's actually happening in the book isn't always utterly apparent.

What's it similar to?
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson
"White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga

What do the reviews say?
The Guardian: "Narcopolis is a blistering debut that can indeed stand proudly on the shelf next to Burroughs and De Quincey. Thayil is quoted as saying that he lost almost 20 years of his life to addiction, but on this showing the experience did not go to waste. We can celebrate that he emerged intact and gave us this book."

The Telegraph: "In ambition, Narcopolis is reminiscent of Roberto Bolano; but it is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son – the best junkie book of the last quarter century – that is its closer kin. Thankfully, Thayil creates something original and vital from those blueprints. One yearns for the next hit."

Impress your friends:
India produces about half of the opium used by the world's pharmaceutical industry.

Opening line:
"Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I'm the one who's telling it and you don't know who I am, let me say that we'll get to the who of it but not right now, because there's time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city..." (the sentence continues for 6 pages).

Notable passage:
"Only the rich can afford surprise and/or irony. The rich crave meaning. The first thing they ask when faced with eternity, and in fact the last thing, is: excuse me, what does this mean? The poor don't ask questions, or they don't ask irrelevant questions. They can't afford to. All they can afford is laughter and ghosts. Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts and rage addicts and poverty addicts and power addicts, and the pure addicts who addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and tenderness that substances engender. An addict, if you don't mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world's traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan's slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he's hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live."

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Filed by Zoë Triska