Less alone in a place we don’t want to be in
IMEET Akhil Sharma a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, in a hotel whose courtyard is dotted with Indian elephant sculptures. We are close to the corridors of power, but the Indian-American author’s raw and unflinching new novel, Family Life, throws into the light the lives of the world’s powerless, those who have been pushed to the peripheries by brutal illness.
Sharma spent 12½ years working on Family Life, a perseverance that seems to have paid off, with prepublication praise from the likes of David Sedaris, Gary Shteyngart and Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai. The novel explores how three minutes can change the course of a life: it is a fictionalised account of how a swimming pool accident left Sharma’s brother Anup permanently brain-damaged, aged 14, when Sharma was 10. The family were new immigrants to Queens, New York, from Delhi.
What made Sharma decide to tackle such traumatic material? “I find that if it’s going to take so much work, so much pain, I might as well write about the things that are important to me,” he explains, “and what matters to me are these deep psychological wellsprings; selfloathing in the first book, An Obedient Father, and in this book the desire to represent my family, and the early immigrant community.”
For Sharma, good books should “take us to a place we don’t want to go” and “expand our world in terms of our emotion”, and this absorbing new novel is indeed an uncomfortable yet compulsive journey through treacherous emotional terrain. Following the devastating accident, narrator Ajay shoulders some of the burden of caring for his bed-bound, brain-damaged brother, also enduring bullying at school, while his family struggles to make ends meet and his depressed father descends into alcoholism. Yet the novel’s triumph is that, despite its bleak subject matter, it is pervaded with a dark humour, hilarious and heartbreaking to read.
It was a long and fraught process completing Family Life, Sharma says. He wrote 7000 pages before eventually slimming down to a novel of a little more than 200. “I would write with a stopwatch and my goal was to work for five hours a day. But there was a point when I just couldn’t bear it any more and went a little bit crazy. I became overwhelmingly depressed. I had insomnia. I had panic attacks.”
What about the novel made it so unbearable to write? “Partly it became unbearable because of the time I had spent on it. And then partly it was remembering. Horrible details would come and their brutish handlers, small-time dealers and their squalid dwelling places. There is a broad similarity with the drug-wrecked society of the Missouri Ozarks described in the fiction of Daniel Woodrell.
The hapless Mickey is ‘‘rescued’’ by Ben, who breaks his leg matter-of-factly and then returns him to the Target Ball franchise and a locked caravan. As the pace of events becomes more hectic, this is a temporary and risky ex- back and become overwhelming. When you’re writing, there’s a responsibility that you want to capture the horror of illness.” Illness is indeed captured in visceral, vivid detail, which powerfully evokes the vulnerability and strength of the body and mind.
Sharma reached a nadir one day when he lay on the couch and wouldn’t move. “A friend came in from out of town and drove me around and around the city,” he says. “Later, my mind kept going back to that and feeling relieved when it did because it was so comforting to have this example of goodness. When we meet goodness it feels like something we can exhale. We can feel safer.”
Strengthened by his friend’s kindness, Sharma was determined not to give up on the novel.
He also found writerly survival strategies, such as sitting on a bench near the Hudson River and contemplating the lives of others. “It was a way of being outside of my own head and that affected how I wrote because it gave me distance from my own feelings and so it allowed pedient. Ben needs Mickey to distribute for him and the latter obliges, tending to the needs of desperates in ‘‘stained Kmart trackie dacks and Billabong tee … Glass runway gettin’ nasty this season’’.
Glass is the ice that provides most of Ben’s take from the Kingdom, but he never loses the nihilistic awareness that he will succumb to the trade as surely as many of his customers. His melancholy dream of a domestic world elsewhere is too late. Mickey’s scheme for a reality TV show is in character — manic. Cook For Your Life will be a program where the losing criminals have their life sentences abridged by execution. The trouble is that the reality-TV format has gone beyond the reach of any satire but its own, partly intentional one.
Flynn moves on, bringing the novel to a catastrophic, unexpected and strikingly imagined climax. His command of extravagant action and idiom never flags. the prose to be a little more detached.” This led, eventually, to a stylistic breakthrough: “I began in the third person as I felt it would give me distance from the narrator, it would make things less painful, but that didn’t work. Third-person consumes plot at a different rate.
“Other solutions included writing the ending first. And then I began writing it again in the first person, which is an adult remembering, and that’s the form it eventually had.”
He also explains the stylistic stripping away of sensual details to render the world he depicts more powerfully, in prose scraped clean of sentimentality or self-pity. Less is more: “The way we bring the reader in is that we generate a visceral reality. I’d been reading Chekhov, who works a lot in the present tense, using a lot of sound, smell, texture. He writes with very little visuals. I thought maybe I could reverse that. So I removed a lot of things. Now readers can enter and exit scenes with much less effort.”
Finding such a fine balance in the narrative required his absolute concentration: “It’s like when you’re trying to assemble a watch and even your breath could knock a little gear off.” Sharma barely paused for breath in his writing and, like a watch successfully assembled, the prose chimes out the painful hours of the narrator’s life.
After 12½ years of drafts, how did he finally know the novel was ready? “I wanted the book to read in a certain way: I wanted a capaciousness inside the book, like a room full of light. At a certain point it just felt separate from me.”
Books were salvation as a child (“Vanishing into books, I felt held,” the narrator of Family Life says). It was reading a biography of Ernest Hemingway that brought an epiphany for the young Sharma that his constricted life could be different, a sense of possibility that he could reach a world elsewhere through the power of language, and so he began writing. He is now a professor of creative writing at Rutgers-Newark University, which he finds rewarding: “I spend my days thinking about sentences.” He is also working on a collection of short stories.
His parents still haven’t read the new novel, Sharma admits with a laugh. “My mother asked my permission not to read it. My father said: ‘Why would I want to read it? I was there.’ ”
Sharma says there are times when he “feels the worth of what I’ve done’’, such as when readers share their own fraught family stories with him.
“I had a lady tell me that when her brother was dying of AIDS she went and lay down in bed with him and how it really moved her to read that passage in Family Life when Ajay goes and lies down next to his brother.” Another elderly woman shared the experience of doing the same thing when her mother was dying.
“That was a real privilege and the best thing about it — you feel you’ve done things that have made people feel less alone.
“All these different people can relate to it in different ways. People are responding to things that I hadn’t even noticed.”
This is the reaction Sharma had hoped for, his motivation being for the book to be useful to others, to do good in the world.
The real value of writing, he says, “is the intimate relationship a reader can form with the book. The real value of a book is that it can make a person feel less alone.”
Akhil Sharma says he hopes his new book, —a fictionalised account of his brother’s near-drowning helps readers respond to challenges they have faced