It makes little sense to offer a plot summary of Upamanyu Chatterjee's new novel. Filled with casual, chilling violence, modern-day witches and ogres, Rabelaisian humour and flickknife-sharp one-liners, Fairy Tales at Fifty, Chatterjee's fifth novel, defies plausibility to tumble, overwrought, into a sort of hallucinatory, Baroque romp. All of it is intended. And it is quite a ride.
When I had interviewed him after the publication of Way to Go (along with Mammaries of the Welfare State, the most richly ironic of his titles) in 2010, he had talked about his depressing funny books as opposed to the ones which were out and out comedy. Given the catastrophes that darken the pages of the new novel, is this one more depressing than funny?
"Well, I think of it as a lark," Chatterjee tells me in an interview over the phone.
"You live in a world in which you can watch people being beheaded on YouTube. A cannibal lives on the outskirts of Delhi. What do you do? You have to retain your sanity. And comedy helps one to do that. The stuff of fairy tales is about us, all around us. My idea in this was to take the clichés and conventions of the fairy tale and put them in the modern world."
Hence the dare to the conventions of social realism in the narrative, hence the cheeky waiver to the notion of plausibility. But Chatterjee is wary of the novel being seen as a commentary on the way we live.
"Any book written with a serious intention is about the times we live in. And yet at the same time, to see this book as such, to find meaning in it, is to make the book more solemn than it is meant to be. This is meant to be funny."
A sort of coda to the book, Chatterjee feels, appears on the final page. Read it as you will.
"Lives are precious only in fiction wherein you may leave characters falling from skyscrapers in midair because you just don't want them to die."
Even dying (and there are a good few deaths in Fairy Tales at Fifty) is funny for Chatterjee.
"Living is a quietly horrible business. And death and dying, both inevitable, I actually find funny because of the fuss we make about them."
In his 2006 novel, Everyman, Philip Roth offers a chastening encapsulation of the dwindling of the human body and mind: "Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre."
Beneath the hyper-real events in the novel, the violence and the gallows humour, it is this trope that is the most significant and the most persistent in this book. The diminishing of the body, the blunting of mental faculties, the desire to cling to youth, to repudiate infirmity (both of which Chatterjee finds mighty amusing), the battle against old age that cannot be won because it turns - inevitably - into a massacre, concerns Chatterjee, now 55, in Fairy Tales at Fifty.
Ever since Weight Loss in 2006, a streak of darkness has become more and more pronounced in Chatterjee's books. The acerbic bon mots are very much in evidence in each work, including the new one. But as they have become more inventive and less conventional, his novels have become more disquieting. Fairy Tales at Fifty can be laugh-aloud funny; it can just as easily shock and disturb you in all sorts of ways.
What has the response to the bookook been like? "Well, polite and impolite bewilderment."." During a previous conversation, Chatterjee had told me: "I don't give a shit when some people say they find a book of mine unreadable." Does that still hold? "Oh, yes, absolutely. I let not one of my books go till I am happy with it. And that is the main thing."