Tag Archives: Jeet Thayil

3 thoughts on the debut novel in 2013

ONE — You don’t have to be young to debut. The biggest surprise of this year of reading has been the age of the authors. While plenty of debut and emerging writers are in their twenties and thirties (enter Eleanor Catton), a quarter of the books I reviewed in 2012/2013 were published by authors over the age of 40 and there are many who debut after the age of forty or even fifty. Charlotte Rogan signed a contract on The Lifeboat right after her 57th birthday. Ben Fountain was a National Book Award finalist for Billy Lynn’s Long Hafltime Walk, also published in his fifties. And later this year I am going to review Lies You Wanted to Hear, by James Whitfield Thomson, who is 67. We live in a time when it is OK, even exciting, to celebrate authors who publish their first books after 40. There is even a blog, Bloom, which writes about emerging authors in this age band.

TWO — There is no formula. Some debut novels are written in first person, others in third. Some are sprawling and written in many voices, others are smaller and written from one POV. Some authors show more than tell and others tell more than show. I give Kevin Wilson a shout out for the debut novelist best able to show – I don’t think there is a single page in The Family Fang, which summarizes or recounts, but each of the books I read had a unique voice, a flair which made me feel like anyone who cites a rule for what kind of novel can make it is not reading what is being published today. And while the two most experimental books I read this year, Thrill-Bent by Jan Richman and Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, were published by small presses, Tupelo and Coffee House Press, respectively, mainstream publishers do take risks. When I read The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, and published by Reagan Arthur/Little Brown, I was drawn in to the story and the prose, but never would I have predicted this book could be a finalist for the Pulitzer. And Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil, published by Penguin, is a free spirited book that reminded me of the books published by small presses.

THREE — The novel is not dead. After reading such a range of debut novels in the past year, I feel strongly that the novel is alive and well in American culture; there actually isn’t enough time in a year for any one person to read and review all of the stand out debut books published. As a culture we might not read as many novels as we did 10 or 20 years ago, but there is an appetite for writing fiction, and it is exciting to read new authors and books.

What do you think? What have you noticed about debut novels in 2013?


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Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil



By Jeet Thayil

Penguin Books, 2012

288 pages

Rashid’s opium den, Shuklaji Street, Bombay. Narcopolis tells the story, over the course of twenty plus years, of Rashid, Dimple, Rumi and Mr. Lee. The main characters are addicts whose days revolve around multiple visits with pipes. Rashid’s family lives above his den. Dimple is a hijra prostitute. Mr. Lee came to Bombay from China and the second part of the book tells his story and the history of the pipes at Rashid’s. Rumi is an addict and a criminal. And a narrator, who also smokes pipes, jumps in and out of the story, spending time at Rashid’s in the late 70s/early 80s, coming back to the area 20 years later to see how the city and culture has changed.

This book fictionalizes a subculture and a period of history. The first and last words of the book are Bombay. It is a novel about a place or way of living, and how the characters’ lives are impacted by their addictions. Dimple’s life story is described more than some of the others and I was drawn to her history and circumstances. This is a beautiful book, but not always an easy one to follow. The point of view jumps around and small characters become a passing focus. But I was very taken with the poetic prose and the world of Rashid’s. The writing reminded me of a combination of Roberto Bolano and Michael Ondaatje – rambling and expansive storytelling, with poetic and precise language.

Thayil is a poet and former addict who has told interviewers he chose the topic for his book because he was “writing what he knew.” The book was shortlisted for the Man Asian prize and the Man Booker prize in 2012. Check out the book cover for the Indian edition. I love this art!





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