Less alone in a place we don’t want to be in

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.”

Fam­ily Life

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

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