August 18, 2015

Of New York and Pretentiousness: H.M. Naqvi's Home Boy sinks and burns

Home Boy might have the dubious honour of being the most patronizing Pakistani book I’ve read yet. Even though I’ve read quite a few Pakistani fiction novels with horribly misinformed intentions, Home Boy takes the cake for its utterly pompous tone. But let me start at the beginning.

Here’s the first line of the blurb: “They are renaissance men. They are boulevardiers.”

Now take that sentence, add at least eleven more SAT words to it, and repeat ad nauseam. You have the entire book. It’s the equivalent of the most pretentious sentence you have ever read, expanded into a whole novel. A 216-page long exercise in pure, flamboyant torture. I read it in the slowest way possible; I took water-drinking gaps, random-internet-surfing gaps, fanfiction-reading gaps. I left the book rotting on my table while I celebrated Eid, two farewell events, three wedding functions and six post-wedding parties, hoping that when I’d come back the book would have magically transformed into something interesting. No go. All I had at the end of the three-week-long wasted time was a deep, dark desire to throw the book into a hole from which it would never return.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The characters:

Though we shared a common denominator and were told half-jokingly, Oh, all you Pakistanis are alike, we weren’t the same, AC, Jimbo and me.

Chuck, AC and Jimbo are three Pakistani boys lost in the revelry of their New York City lives around the time of the change of the millennium. It takes no time at all for a rain of adjectives to descend upon the reader’s head when we meet these characters. Show and don’t tell? Pfft, this book is too high-and-mighty for such tactics. This book would rather prefer to tell you, dear not-very-intelligent reader, in as condescending a manner as possible, exactly what these characters are like, so as not to tax your tiny little brain into trying to figure them out yourself. There is no second-guessing here, no fine layers to peel away. These characters are caricatures of the idea of having complex characters; attempts at originality that fall flat.

AC – a cryptonym, short in part for Ali Chaudhry – was a charming rogue, an intellectual dandy, a man of theatrical presence. Striding into a room sporting his signature pencil-thin moustache, one-button velour smoking jacket, and ankle high rattlesnake-skins, he demanded attention, an audience.

AC, according to the blurb, is a gangsta rap-spouting academic. Let me stop you right there for now. A ‘rap-spouting academic’? It’s like someone had a deck of characteristics and thought, "Hmm, how shall I make my characters interesting? I want them to be likeable, but also, 3d! I know! I shall throw in the two most conflicting characteristics!" *shuffles cards* "Aha! An academic who raps! Never been done before. I shall use this. Next character."

It is the most cringe-worthy attempt at creating a 3 dimensional character ever. The amateur equivalent of making teenagers spout classic literature and love old music in order to make them ‘different’ and ‘fiesty’. AC does not inspire any affection in the reader, and the same goes for Chuck, a lost, unrelatable character with no admirable traits and a distinct lack of narrative drive. What does Chuck want? Why should I be concerned about him? Why am I reading a 216-page book about Chuck’s life? Who the hell knows?! The blurb itself claims that Chuck is a ‘wide-eyed, off-the-boat kid, searching for himself and the American Dream.’ I think I rolled my eyes so hard I gave myself a headache. Chuck is quite possibly the most uninspiring protagonist ever. I did not root for him, did not care for him, and found myself having no reaction to either his successes or failures.

Later, when reviewing the episode in my mind, I recalled things to say, funny things, bold things, things men say to woo women, but just then I stood there dumbly, my hands flopping at my side. It was as if my reservoir of cool had run dry. It was time to leave.

The third character is Jimbo, another one off of the automatic story generator algorithm, a card-shuffled character with daddy issues and no concrete storyline to follow. He is dating a girl his father doesn’t approve of; he has a good-looking sister crushing on his best friend Chuck; he is a physically dominating man with a sappy side story and a moralistic streak. Again, do we learn to care about him? Do we root for his relationship or for his dad to become more accepting? Do we admire his deejaying abilities or hope for a better future for him? Nope. Non. Nyet. Nhi.

The Summary:

The backdrop is 9/11, and our three valiant heroes are, in the months following the attack on the Trade Towers, setting off to find a missing friend. Although 'friend' might be stretching it a bit. The Shaman is a random, pointless character whose only worth is in being missing, so that the three musketeers can go off searching for him in another city, spend the night drunk at his house and end up getting arrested for ‘terrorist activities’. The story is not so much about the journey to save a friend’s life, as one would assume from the panic caused after 9/11-

After 9/11 we heard not only from family and friends but from distant relatives, colleagues, ex-colleagues, one-night stands, two-night stands, neighbours, childhood friends, and acquaintances, and in turn we made our own inquiries, phone calls, dispatched e-mails.

-but more about Chuck, and the first time Chuck drove a car, and the time when Chuck got fired, and that other time when he became a cab driver, and oh of course the one time he got scared in New York and randomly called up one of his mother’s old friends whom he didn’t really know. Chuck Chucky Chuck Chuck and his opinions on anything and everything. And then Chuck goes home at the end, presumably more lost and confused than he was at the beginning. The end.

The good:

Sometimes, very rarely, the book manages to surprise. In the midst of the posturing and the heavy-handed self-importance, sentences of worth and value crop up suddenly, as if these were the first, few sparks of inspiration which led to the mundane text-wrapping around them.

I was broken, depleted, more cipher than actor, but kept thinking don’t trip, don’t break a leg, walk with your head up high, like you’ve done nothing wrong, but couldn’t, and it didn’t really matter, because no matter what I did, I couldn’t change the way I was perceived.

The book also manages to introduce interesting characters accidentally, as if they are the products of an imagination which hasn’t been carefully manipulated to become boring, as is the case with AC, Chuck and Jimbo. In this case the interesting character is Jimbo’s father – Old Man Khan – who doesn’t think modern women should cook, has a cool love story, and says funny things without meaning to.

“You mean you won’t cry over spilled milk?” Amo interjected. Old Man Khan looked at her quizzically. “Why would I cry about the spilling of the milk?”

Or Chuck’s mother: a feisty, opinionated widow with a temper and a soft heart. Chuck’s mother, lovingly called Ma, could very well have been the saving grace of this book, had she not had the misfortune of being in another country and thus not featuring in the events as much as one would hope.

It was a real scene, and in the headlights Ma cut a pose like a fifties’ film actress with her long black hair tied up in a bun, her sari wrapped tightly around her hips, and her kohl-lined eyes flashing, but she was no damsel in distress: with one fist on her waist, she wagged a finger at the man, who, not knowing what hit him, didn’t get a word in edgewise.

Another saving grace is the familiarity with New York, the setting of the book. Given that the majority of the book is set in the city, the reader is welcomed to the home that New York becomes for Chuck and his friends.

You could spend ten years in Britain and not feel British, but after spending ten months in New York, you were a New Yorker, an original settler, and in no time you would be zipping uptown, downtown, crosstown, wherever, strutting, jaywalking, dispensing directions to tourists like a mandarin. “You see,” you’d say, “it’s quite simple: the city’s like a grid.”

The book is a love letter to New York, and might be of some interest to whoever has lived in that city. It waxes poetic about the streets, the hangout places, the parks and museums. Chuck, an immigrant on a student visa from Pakistan, has left his mother behind and goes from haunting lonely places in New York to finding the places and people among whom he fits.

Sure, independence has its dark dimensions, its lonely frequented loci, like a scarred green bench in the northwest corner of Washington Square where no one sought you out. You would turn your collar up then, and sit with your arms folded regarding the masquerade ... New York could be a lonely place, but over the course of a year, these places became fewer and farther between.

The bad:

Don’t ask me, I thought. I don’t know nothing. AC was the go-to guy for advice and instruction. I was a village idiot.

The worst thing about the book is the fact that it is written about, and from the point of view of, probably the most boring narrator ever. Chuck inspires no warmth or affection, no feelings of understanding, no desire to care or relate on any level. He is like the epitome of the self-obsessed male, a personification of the privileged straight young man whose world begins and ends with his opinion and the sound of his loud, loud voice drowning everyone else out.  

Since I had no particular calling, having majored in lit, a discipline in which, I learned, anything goes, I did what I had to do: after dispatching some resumes on thick paper and making some phone calls, I secured interviews and then a job at a big bank that had just become bigger.

Oh ho hum, I don't care. It is the banality of the book that kills me. There is a degree of unremarkability (not a word, but I’m using this to honour the book’s ‘Let’s use big big words to impress people’ pretentiousness) about the whole proceedings that left me alternatively yawning or raising my eyes to the heavens in the hope that Allah would strike this book with a lightning bolt so I could stop reading it.

It’s like that one guy we all know who tries too hard to be smart and comes off as smarmy, or arrogant, or just plain irritating. Chuck wants to do this, or do that, but WHY? What motivates him? We have no idea. This book believes in the ‘tell, don’t show’ aspect of storytelling very faithfully; an aspect that fails spectacularly at managing to create any connection between the reader and the protagonist.

At the time we didn’t think that there was more to it than the mere sense of spectacle. We were content in celebrating ourselves and our city with libation. It was later that we realized that we’d been on common ground then, on terra firma. Later we also realized that we hadn’t been putting on some sort of show for others, for somebody else. No, we were protagonists in a narrative that required coherence for our own selfish motivations and exigencies.

And oh my god the words, the WORDS. Did I mention the complete-thesaurus regurgitation going on here? The characters don’t just speak out in protest, they fulminate. They don’t think, they ruminate. Conversing with Jimbo requires ‘hermeneutic feats’, AC delivers ‘some sort of disquisition’, and Chuck enters murky bathrooms to get high ‘tout seul’. By the third page, I had already looked up nine words in the dictionary. And this coming from the person who is the stand-in, walking talking reference book for the rest of her family. Who is this book written for? Those who read dictionaries in their free time?

The sudden random references to Karachi places (Burns Road) or desi terms (chappati) are also jarring; the equivalent of an expatriate hurriedly and awkwardly using Urdu works among formal elders to reassure that they haven’t lost their desi roots. This book is the guy who flicks through a travel brochure to pick out the local-sounding names and throws them haphazardly together. It’s not familiar. It’s not comforting. You want to patronizingly pat the character’s head, while at the same time wincing because he has committed the social faux pas of pretending to know more Urdu than he actually does.

The recommendation:

Recommended for people who have travelled to New York/are studying for their GREs/wish to balance out the awesome books they’re reading with some mindless drivel. Maybe. Read at your own discretion. This reviewer takes no responsibility for the feeling of distaste or boredom that will eventually creep in.