Out of Print Author Series: Tanuj Solanki
Interviewed by editor, Ram Sadasiv
OofP: Hi, we’re here with Tanuj Solanki, author of Neon Noon, published by HarperCollins India. I read the novel in galleys and I must admit that I got a little chill seeing that watermark on every page. Congratulations. How does it feel to be able to ‘assert the moral right to be identified as the author of this work’?
TS: Well, it’s complicated. I take your question as ‘what does it mean to have a first book out’, and to that I have a not-so-sunny answer. There is of course the initial excitement, and that stupid moment when you hold it in your hands and are on the verge of crying; but then, a month or so later, your joy begins to diminish and after a point you even start getting bored by the mere sight of it. Compared to the day the book comes out, I now believe that the day its joys expire (for the writer) is the truer landmark moment. You confront the fact that your desire to create is enormous, that you won’t be satisfied with this one alone, that a single book won’t solve you, that if you are writing for tiny redemptions then those redemptions have to be had again and again and again, that you are condemned to grapple with what it is to be a human being forever, that you will continue to deal with the world in sentences, that you will have to understand dawns and dusks and mountains and oceans and great plastic hoardings and money and Muzaffarnagar and geopolitics and climate change as sentences, that your back will hurt and your neck will hurt and your eyes will hurt but you will keep at it, that something good will get made only after it has swallowed a previously unaccounted part of what makes you you, et cetera. Each time I look at Neon Noon on my bookshelf now, it as a sign telling me that ‘there are no options.’ It’s bloody terrifying, and so, yes, it’s a thing of horror to have a first book out and then get past it.
OofP: It’s always good to see your friends succeed, and you have certainly been a good friend to the magazine over the years. To me, one of the most edifying things has being able to watch your voice grow, and to see how some of the more fragmentary material that previously appeared in Out of Print has been pulled together into a coherent whole. The first piece of yours that we published, Sentatoms, in March of 2013 [http://www.outofprintmagazine.co.in/archive/march-2013-issue/tanuj-solanki_sentatoms.html], appears largely intact in Neon Noon as ‘Flashback to Nepal Holiday’. Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of that chapter and where it fit into the composition of the book?
TS: The project that became Neon Noon started with Sentatoms. I was in Nepal, with the woman I was romantically involved with. It was a strange time because we both knew that our relationship was going to end soon after the trip was over. But the inertia of our love was making it difficult for us to say anything conclusive to each other. (The French have written good novels about this excruciating phase, I’m told.) Anyway, I wanted to make a memorial out of this pathetic period of my life, and so I started writing about each day in a notebook, assuming fictional replicas of the two of us; although I was also often hoping that she (the real one) will open that notebook and see the beauty of the sentences and be seduced and fall in love with me all over again (which didn’t happen). I was reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy on my Kindle in those days, and it’s a bloody efficient book to read if you are trekking in the Himalayas and desirous of writing about the mountains. I wouldn’t have used the words panniered and packsaddled and ecru and buttes in Sentatoms had I not been encountering them at the same time in the McCarthy book. Even the generous spitting in Sentatoms was a derivation from the McCarthy novel – people spit a lot in that one. I don’t know why I felt that I could use the grimness of that super-violent novel to inspire the bourgeouis grimness in my notes. But this template persisted even as I wrote on after Nepal, after Sentatoms.
Initially, there was more in the notes that later became Sentatoms. But I culled a lot before submitting it to you. Sadly, I’ve lost those sentences. Losing a sentence is like losing a reality, right? Then some sentences were edited out of the final draft that was Flashback to Nepal Holiday, but I still have them stored. I think a writer should maintain a repository of unused sentences. They didn’t fit aesthetcically, so what? They were something when they were.
OofP: In several places in Neon Noon you name drop Roberto Bolaño, and in the opening chapter, ‘I never think of those two nights’, you identify him as one of ‘the graveyard writers’, continuing:
‘I love their writing, T said with a flourish of his hands. The spontaneity. Sometimes I feel they create the illusion, the illusion that they are not concerned with the demands of the narrative, that they are just rambling – recording events and conversations. But you can’t miss the sense of doom in each sentence. The story always reaches a precipice from where everything is hurled. And down it all comes – all crash and burn.’
It is not represented in Neon Noon, but I certainly felt the shadow of Bolaño in some of your earlier Out of Print stories, particularly The Sad Unknowability of Dilip Singh, published in the DNA Fiction issue in July of 2014 [http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report-dna-out-of-print-short-fiction-contest-the-sad-unknowability-of-dilip-singh-2005504]. Can you expand on the concept of ‘graveyard writers’, or more generally, what Roberto Bolaño means to you?
TS: There are many levels on which reading Bolaño has helped move towards becoming that thing called writer. At the level of the sentence: my education is that it is possible to craft an incredibly affecting one even without possessing astonishing powers of description or great wit in turning phrases. Simply speaking, at the level of the sentence Bolaño taught me that it was okay if I couldn’t become Nabokov. Heck, Bolaño taught me that it was okay if I couldn’t become McCarthy (Bolaño was also a Blood Meridian fan). This seems inconsequential, but Bolaño’s simplicity at the level of the sentence hides massive wisdom, in my opinion. As a writer, you develop an aesthetic around your limits, rather the highest common factor sentence you have. If it takes too much for you to come up with a single sentence as good as a Nabokov or a Salter, then you are not going to be able to write novels in the same league as those guys. But there are other sentences, other leagues.
Beyond the sentence, reading Bolaño is an experience in getting comfortable with fragmentation. Also the confidence of keeping plot points outside the novel. You see, it was through Bolaño that I learnt that while the plot may be a series of causal linkages that provide the figurative spine of a novel, it is not necessary for all of these linkages to actually appear inside the novel. Novels can have fragmented spines. Even short stories can have fragmented spines. Have you read the short story Last Evenings on Earth by Bolaño – the whole story is a big fat middle and he keeps the ending invisible.
This simple wisdom—or authorly brutality, depends on the way you look at it—is the very heart of all the mystery that Bolaño’s novels are understood to possess, their dark pulsating secret, so to speak. In Neon Noon, you never know the reason why the protagonist split with Anne-Marie, even though it is a part of the plot. I’m ok with it just as Bolaño might have been okay with it. Although of course I may look silly using a Bolaño trick in a novel that is far less political than any of his.
The term ‘graveyard writers’ refers to doom and gloom writers, I guess. You read their work and you know that their lives are difficult, that something very heavy is very wrong in their lives. And it all kind of implodes in the end of the story / novel. I’m sorry to sound mystical, but to give you examples: Jeet Thayil is a graveyard writer, Amitava Ghosh is not; David Foster Wallace is a graveyeard writer, Jonathan Safran Foer is not; and there is no graveyard writer in Britain. Europe has many, too many to count.
OofP: I got a big kick out of the last line of the first chapter:
‘P.P.S. The girls in Sriram’s apartment were not call girls. They were from his neighbouring flat.’
It made me laugh because that is exactly the kind of detail that I will share with friends if we are discussing one of my more ‘lightly’ fictionalised works. Your stories are generally told in the first person, and the narrators of your stories are frequently writers who share some of the details of your public biography and, in some cases, even your initials. If it’s not too personal, could you share some of the similarities and differences between you as a person and your narrators as characters, and how you manage that distance and overlap for inspiration and for creative effect?
TS: My narrator-protagonists are definitely more given to melancholy than I am, especially in situations they share with me. They also have less control over their lives than I have, which I guess is a derivative of their being pathetic. They are sadder than I was in the same situations. Their inner lives are more conflicted than mine. What they share with me is their writerly self, that struggle to write the best sentence, that self-consciousness about the quality of their own writing, of its powerlessness, and so on. And yet they find, as I’ve found, that writing does change things for them, that when reality is threatening all their subsistence fantasies it is the writing that glazes over reality to make it manageable, that to write something like ‘the flickers of neon defied the sky above and the sky was my heart and my heart was drowning in the lights of the world’ is a massive relief after you’ve actually had that same very exact experience looking at neon lights blinking at twilight.
A friend used the word auto-fiction for what I have done with Neon Noon, and I’m very happy with that, because it retains the auto- of autobiography and appends it with fiction. I think the word captures precisely what I did with the book. The protagonist shares some life experiences with me, especially the propelling ones, the ones that begin the action. I was similarly romantically involved and I similarly broke up. So that’s common. After that it’s mostly imagination, the fictive part taking over. Auto-fiction was not a limitation, it was a choice. Debut writers are often talked of as limited to writing autobiographically, in a euphemistically pejorative way. And here I was, wanting to create a protagonist who was close to me. So I decided to invite that euphemistic-pejorative quip. My debut novel is unabashedly auto-fiction – now for others to deal with that.
Auto-fiction, as it happens, is not lacking a tradition of its own. The French writer Edouard Leve wrote some beautiful books before his suicide. Karl Ove Knausgaard. W.G. Sebald perhaps had more fictive elements in his auto-fiction. Teju Cole, a descendant of Sebald, also wrote what could be called auto-fiction. Ben Lerner is more playful, more humorous than I can ever be; and being a poet, he is exceptional at the level of the sentence. But the two novels Lerner has written can be thought of as auto-fiction.
OofP: The third part of the novel, starting with the section conveniently titled Neon Noon, is to me a significantly different voice than the first half of the novel, and most of what we have previously published in Out of Print. I’m very happy that you chose to share an excerpt from that section with us, published in the September 2016 issue as Noon’s Entry [link]. Can you tell us a little bit about the excerpt and how that relates to the part of Neon Noon in which it appears? My co-editors are particularly interested in what might be construed as the heroism in the character’s positioning with respect to the women prostitutes in the excerpt.
TS: (I hope by ‘conveniently titled’ you don’t mean ‘badly titled’). Thank you for calling it ‘heroism’, though it was more like writerly duty. My protagonist is on sex trip. So, in his inner life, is he going to be politically correct? Shouldn’t he be using what are called vile expressions in his mind? He should, and that shouldn’t be surprising. A very juvenline review in a major newspaper wondered how the Pattaya sections will be seen by feminists. I was like—come on! I’m a feminist, but I can’t give away verisimilitude for political correctedness. In fact, what is really surprising is the tenderness that this protagonist shows in certain moments, the humanity he lets show, even if accidentally. The more evolved reviewers have found the book to have a great sensitivity towards the women who drive this book, and I find that observation to be so gratifying. I did a decent job with the positioning with respect to the prostitutes, I think: my protagonist was lustful, regretful, loving, tender, angry, confused. What he was not was an evil person.
Noon is one of the many prostitutes he encounters in Pattaya. And since her name appears in the title, you can guess that she is the most important. The excerpt you are publishing is a pivotal one in the novel—it is, as the name suggests, of Noon’s entry. The protagonist-narrator sees something different in her—perhaps it is the very plainness of her appearance that contrasts with the pomp and glitter all around him. (In fact, immediately after this passage, he moans about not being able to describe Noon’s entry better). I also introduce the cast at Marie Bar Beer, where Noon works. Some of these characters will return at a later stage in the novel.
The excerpt gives an idea of the kind of writing the novel contains—not everything relates directly to the story, there is atmosphere, then there is the awkwardness of human interaction, and so on.
OofP: Neon Noon is filled with the idea of love, but the reality of love in the novel is less clear:
‘We kissed not like two people in love, but like two people in love with the possibility of love’
Having read Neon Noon, how are we supposed to feel about the (im)possibility of love?
TS: Romantic love is a subsistence fantasy, we need it. But it comes with the same caveat that all fantasies come with: the actualization in reality can be a thing of horror. If you have been ‘lucky’ enough to actually spend some domestic time with someone you really love, you also know how stupid the whole thing becomes if you keep using the vocabulary of—let’s call it—‘high love’. Love has a half life as soon as you domesticate it and fix your gaze on it. Because to have love manifested as daily life is to make it lose its own sense of possiblity.
The protagonist’s and Noon’s love—if it is love—is a thing of beauty, because it ends precisely at the height of its possibility. Any real manifestation after the point I left it off with will be a disappointment to either or both of them. I wanted them both to be remain truly happy forever, forever floating in beauteous possiblities.
Anyway, to come back to love’s difficulties: I claim that the tension between domestic life and love might be a derivation of what sort of work qualifies as economically viable in any age or time. For today’s bourgeousie across the word, corporate work cultures makes love’s quotidian actualization very difficult. It needs other notions and systems to survive. In other words, love needs unglamorous clutches, and there is no turning away from that fact. Thankfully, there are some.
Friendship is a much more flexible notion, more suited to reality than fantasies. Marriage is a solid system too, I think, a truly timeless social system. It can be unforgiving, yes, but it at least attempts to make certain things (like infidelity) criminal, things that are necessary for love’s functioning. It at least attempts to provide a workable template for a love relationship.