Review: City of Incident; A Novel in Twelve Parts by Annie Zaidi
In Annie Zaidi’s new novel, 12 interconnected people in an unnamed city reveal parts of themselves as the local trains run in the backdrop
Annie Zaidi’s City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts is essentially snapshots of 12 (vaguely) interconnected people in an unnamed city, which “will forgive anything and anyone, except for those who delay the trains” (Mumbai).
A diverse cast of characters — a cop, a bank teller, a security guard, a fragile woman having an affair, her lover, his ex-wife… — show up and, one by one, reveal parts of themselves: their thoughts, their observations, how other people see them, how they see other people, a significant life-altering incident. The local train runs in the backdrop.
These don’t somehow come together as a novel — but seem more like 12 parts of a work-in-progress. Some stories are essentially a synopsis of an entire life featuring a transformative or cathartic incident, culminating in death. And yet you don’t quite understand who this person is. Other times, you know her in a sentence: “Everyone has a memory of her rushing into the frame, saying, ‘Hold on! Me too! Take one with me too!’”
Every part has a mood of its own. Some contain the wise, whimsical loveliness of Zaidi’s writing. My favourite sections are about love and loss: “But she had been floating on her own cloud then. Pink cloud of dream, her mother said. That’s all it is. You’re sitting on a pink cloud. It will rain itself empty when the next monsoon comes around… Better than a grey cloud that never rains. It was the first retort she had delivered to her mother. First and last.”
In contrast, the unrelated section preceding this is the very confident and self-unaware inner monologue of male selfishness. A middle-aged man, after losing his wife and his lover, finds relief in what he thinks of as his narrow escape from the clutches of apparently the horrors these two women could have hypothetically inflicted upon him. “Luckily, his wife did not make a scene or threaten to file a domestic violence case. Lucky too that he had never laid a hand on her. These days, the laws are all geared towards women.” As for his former lover, she “Had a tongue on her. Worse than his wife perhaps. He ought to have been warned by that. She was not the weepy, whiny kind though. Her voice was light, soft as soap bubbles.”
In Zaidi’s excellent first novel Prelude to a Riot (2019), which was a compendium of the anxieties in an increasingly hyper-nationalistic small town, there were asides on comparatively minor things like love. It rarely comes up because there’s so much else that felt more important in that exceptional little novel, but some of those sentences have stayed with me since: “He spins a long yarn of honeyed crumbs around me, but he never tells the truth.”
City of Incident is built around those little things, but they’re not enough to hold up the novel. It is a deliberate stylistic choice to offer just more than a glimpse into the “people who don’t particularly interest you until a fragile moment shatters.” The book’s blurb also says it presents “an unnerving view of a great city and its most powerless inhabitants.”
But these are voices that just don’t fit. Zaidi’s middle class characters come alive with ease, there’s a lightness to their emotional vulnerabilities. But her marginalised and working class characters have a misplaced earnestness, which makes them feel like mere props — as if they see themselves dismissively and lacking agency even in their minds.
The security guard, for instance, thinks “his job is to simply keep his eyes open”. Surely he knows it’s more than that, and that there’s more at stake — it’s evident he does because throughout the section he takes his job seriously. We’re told that the residents of the building would rather he lower his eyes. But Zaidi doesn’t quite reveal who would want security to look away and why. But only that, “Some of them complain that he is insolent. When they walk past, he looks right at them, straight into their eyes. They don’t like his peering, gauging, weighing, level-eyed look. He ought to lower his eyes. A nod would be all right, a salaam, a salute. He need not smile and tilt his head in that familiar way, as a friendly neighbour might. He ought to have been trained about these things. He does not know, of course, that they say such things. He thinks he’s doing a fine job as security.”
Aesthetically, the book looks good, although dated. The cover is in lower case, the 12 parts are separated by black pages with titles (large, serif) that sound mysterious — “A Woman Encounters Love in Illicit Places, and Watches over Her Lover’s Wife”— and would be on a tote bag, but here it’s the literal plot. This minimalist ambiguity went out of style with millennials just before the pandemic began, which wouldn’t matter if it weren’t so baffling.
Zaidi, also a journalist and playwright, has been producing work — largely quality, important work — over the last few years at an impressive speed. In 2019, she won the Nine Dots Prize for an essay on the idea of home, which led to an insightful exploration of roots and displacement in Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation (2020).
I got into City of Incident about halfway into the 120 page book. The characters had started to come together and some of them were closely connected which have it a coherence. This made me curious enough to flip back to the beginning — but I was disappointed again.
At the end, I wished more parts of this novel had been like the last one, A Manager Picks Up Scraps of Other People’s Lives, and Attempts to Restore Her Own, in which a manager picks up scraps of other people’s lives and attempts to restore her own.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.