Remember that friend you’ve been avoiding since his breakup many months ago? The one who is still obsessing over his ex-girlfriend, clearly unable to move on? The one you’re beginning to think will be healed only by Doctor Time. Now imagine being trapped inside his head.
T, the narrator, in Tanuj Solanki’s debut novel Neon Noon is struggling to get over his French ex-girlfriend, Anne-Marie. Though, unlike your whiny friend, T is not gunning for your sympathy or even trying to get you to like him as he bares his soul — warts and all — while thrashing about in the dark for closure. T is also an aspiring writer and hopes to compress his painful reality into sentences and create literature out of his misery. If you’ve been in that unhappy place too, you might empathise with T regardless of whether you share his “unchecked neurosis of love and literature”.
Neon Noon has a terrific opening that effortlessly sucks the reader into the story. It begins with the first-person narrative of S, a copy editor at a publishing house in Mumbai and an aspiring poet, whose two rather strange meetings with a writer/MBA guy – T – result in the book. The chapters that follow seem to be the pieces T sends her in response to her enquiries about his life and the short story she emails him (a riveting account of the two unusual dates).
To forget Anne-Marie, T decides to go on a solo trip to Thailand where he hopes to write a masterpiece on the “miseries of love in our century” besides, of course, distracting himself with sex. In Pattaya, he meets, among other sex workers, Noon — a nurse-turned-prostitute — who has a “female presence that reminds a man of some good in the world”.
Except for the first chapter, the entire book is narrated by T. Reading it – given T’s chronic over-thinking and fixation in love – creates the effect of being trapped inside his head. With all his unhappy, morbid, obsessive ruminations, recollections of happier times with Anne-Marie, grief for the son he wished for and will never have with her, accounts of visits to a shrink, of a near meltdown in his boss’s cabin, and his dull work life that T describes with as little emotion as possible. Not only does this get a bit much at times, it also makes the reader wish to read the story from Anne-Marie and Noon’s point of views.
There also is a lot of meta-commentary about writing that is part of the narrative. T is constantly reflecting on what makes and defines literature, wrestling with self-doubts about his skills as a storyteller, and constantly drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that he is writing this story and is not always satisfied with his output. Here’s a sampling of some self-flagellation:
The introduction of the new girl [Noon] in the section above shames me as a writer, or as someone who needs to pretend to be one. How devoid it is of any presentiment, or even postsentiment. (page 105)
At one point, T draws the reader’s attention to the fidelity of his narrative: “Am I projecting my projections through Noon? Am I making a collage of twice-projected images and feelings, all to make it a story?”(page 143)
There is rain at the end of the novel (a therapeutic one and obviously more significant than just water falling from the sky), which brings some relief. T breaks through his shell of self-absorption as he realizes thatNoon’s “was a story more painful than mine. And there was no Pattaya for her to go to” (page 204). Like the narrator, the reader, too, experiences the sense that a long-running high fever has finally broken.
This is not an easy book to read (or review for that matter) and certainly not for everyone. But if an experimental narrative style interests you as does an unusual story, go ahead. You might like it.