The Association of Small Bombs. Karan Mahajan.

Mahajan, Karan. The Association of Small Bombs. Viking Penguin, New York, 2016. F;8/17.

I didn’t like this book for two reasons. First, this writer crosses, and spends a lot of time on the wrong side of, the line between sharp and emotionally accurate figures of speech and random free-association. Second, if we accept that the writing isn’t much good, he and the book must have gained recognition (mainly in United States) for some other reason. Could terrorism be another trendy topic?

The story starts with a lot of drama and emotion, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Two little preadolescent boys are killed when a small ideologically-motivated bomb goes off in a crowded marketplace in Delhi. From that compelling shock at the beginning, characters including the boys’ parents, a young friend accompanying them who was only slightly injured, his parents, the bomb technician himself, and an emotional young man looking for a cause are tracked through life and psychological events to a strangely abrupt ending.

Most of the good writing is in the first twenty percent or so of the story. A bus is a “diesel-perfumed monster”. The father of the dead boys “(scours) every inch of tarred road and glittering gutter and veined dust-sprinkled leaf, in every season, at all times, for my boys – to look till I go blind or mad, till my brain revolts, staging a headache in the space where I am trying to insert the entire city by looking.” A university student affecting others’ gestures to attract attention wonders “Does everyone steal gestures?”

But the father becomes a recluse “winched by nightmares”. Winched? Yes, I can see the machine dragging him through a miserable dream, but the connection seems a bit remote. Ayub (the emotional young man looking for a cause)’s “heart (gets) mixed up with the freezing waves of (an) air conditioner” – a little more remote? The same character contemplating setting another bomb himself considers suicide but feels “this would lead to the same outcome as escaping; no one trusts a suicide note by a nobody.” I may be missing something here but I don’t think that idea makes sense.

Again, Ayub’s familiarity with prison through previous advocacy seems to him to make going to prison inevitable just by visualizing and thinking about it. This could be the character’s irrationality, but it fits with the author’s losing track of what’s reasonable as well. Ayub suffers terrible moral paralysis contemplating planting the bomb, but a few pages later “the same strangling pleasant inertia” stops him from fleeing. Pleasant? Shockie, the master bomber, tells Ayub about the terrorist’s life “… cleaning his nose occasionally by squeezing his nostrils with his fingers… There was something practical, nasal, and strict about it.” Practical OK, but strict?

It gets worse. Injury after a bomb goes off horrifies Vikas (the dead boys’ father) because “its violent horizontal stasis revealed the complete artificiality of war.“ Even if we credit that a bomb has violent horizontal stasis, that wouldn’t have anything at all to do with war’s artificiality I don’t think. Repeatedly toward the end of the book we get this kind of failed artistic logic.

Plot events often lack coherence. Why would Mansoor suddenly be stricken with irresistible romantic motivation for his friend’s love Tara when the three of them had been quite platonically happy for months? Mahajan doesn’t seem to think we need convincing motivations for the ebb and flow in Vikas’s and Deepa’s relationship (they are the parents of the dead boys), so he doesn’t provide any.

There might be a bit of breaking the fourth wall by our author appreciating on some level that he’ll enjoy the benefits of a trendy topic. The father, a video professional, “wanted to film the moment itself, slow it down, open it up like a flower over time, like the ultraviolent bomb dreams that filled his nights” (we understand from commentary that author Mahajan was somewhere close when a similar bomb went off). And the surviving boy isn’t happy with his university essay about terror and death: “… he’d tried to take advantage of a tragedy.”

Similarly to The Sympathizer and Hero of the Empire there was a gulf between the reception American critics gave this book and what they thought of it in the UK. Hari Kunsru in The Guardian seemed to agree with me that Mahajan often “drives his penchant for arresting imagery off a cliff”, and that “the impact of the book is absorbed by its focus on family stories, dulled where it ought to be amplified.”

This author, in a published interview, asks rhetorically, “What are we supposed to feel?” in respect of the kind of bombing that is the topic of this book. Supposed to feel? I’m with Mary Gaitskill who believes that nobody is supposed to be concerned with what they are supposed to feel: we feel what we feel, and adhering to rules about that seems to me to be one of the early steps toward narcissism, which I guess can make feeling and expressing genuine emotion difficult. I imagine the self-absorption and -regard of that narcissism leaking into the author’s artistic process is one reason I found this story was disappointing.

What does experience of fiction or any art depend on? For me I want to feel trust that comes from the grace and charm of presentation. When I continually have to ask myself whether something makes emotional or syntactical sense and continually discover that it doesn’t, I begin to suspect that an author is losing his way and trying to conceal it and I’m not happy. And: Terrorism, welcome to the list of fiction topics in the presence of which we are expected to suspend our critical faculties: Holocaust, abuse of children, every kind of illness, racism, etc. etc.

5.2/4.8-8.2 (the range for style takes into account the good writing at the beginning)

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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