In a recent essay in the Humber Literary Review, Jen Sookfong Lee writes about the lose-lose situation in which Canadian writers of colour often find themselves. On the one hand, she notes the senior editor who “just couldn’t justify taking on ‘one more Asian woman writing about her dead grandfather’ … when the number of Asian women publishing fiction in Canada could be counted on one hand.” But then, if she attempts to stray from this narrative, she is told that she is not “build[ing] on [her] existing audience.”
In some ways, Pasha Malla’s second novel deals with precisely this topic. The main character in Fugue States, Ash, is in his mid thirties and has just lost his father, Brij. Ash is a radio host and used to public speaking but, giving the eulogy at his father’s funeral, he realizes that he is playing a part—hoping to dazzle with wit and cleverness instead of channelling some honest emotion. This constant performance is also his life in microcosm: in his first and only published novel, the protagonist was a “hapless and naïve version of himself—Ash, but inured to darkness. He did no wrong and every wrong he suffered was a ploy to elicit sympathy, to be likeable so in turn the author might be liked.” His second novel is well and truly stuck, his main problems being “an inability to invent characters, resistance to research [and] tenuous misgivings about treating tenuous cultural heritage as material,” which leaves him “too paralyzed to begin.” The book was supposed to have been about Kashmir, his father’s birthplace, but the impossibility of cramming everything about Kashmir into one book overwhelmed him.
But if he does not want to churn out a mournful, lyrical homeland novel, Ash also knows he does not (or tells himself he does not) want to write like The Behemoth, whose latest novel, In the Night, Ash is supposed to be reading in preparation for interviewing the man himself on his radio show. Here Malla describes the book with a wonderfully caustic touch: The Behemoth’s novels are “manually typed, of course, in some log cabin on some lake in some deep dark woods.” Ash has yet to read the book but he already knows that “its touchstones would be Hemingway, manual labour and the films of Clint Eastwood. Its main character would be a Broken Man of few words fuelled by booze and penance. Its politics would be ‘common sense,’ viz. intolerant of anything beyond their own chauvinistic purview. The prose, like The Behemoth himself, like his fictional proxy, would be muscular.”
Malla’s brilliant sentence style takes a cue from his protagonist, enacting all the funny and weird turns Ash’s thoughts take:
In the middle of an interview, Ash would stray off-script to pursue some tangential idea and along the way discover he was lost. Whether his thoughts snagged on a word or phrase, or his own dull voice began to fill his ears … In an instant whatever he might have meant went galloping away.
A combination of distress over his father’s death and funeral, a generous dash of midlife crisis and a decent amount of inadmissible professional envy cause Ash to botch The Behemoth interview dreadfully, insulting the writer and behaving in a deeply unprofessional manner. It is so bad that Ash is asked to go on leave, which gives him time to reflect on his life and relationships.
Since this is a novel about writing novels, we are not surprised when Ash finds, among his father’s possessions, an unfinished perfect Giller-bait “ethnic” novel about the Amarnath pilgrimage in Kashmir. Ash’s high-school friend Matt decides that this is the perfect excuse for Ash to visit his homeland—to do the pilgrimage and to finish the novel—but Ash is reluctant. So Matt decides to travel to India alone. Matt is a caricature of the kind of macho, sexually entitled man who is just as clueless at home as he is travelling in another country, applying his own morals and partial knowledge in ways that make the reader want to shake him. He ends up getting into so much trouble that Ash, celebrating Christmas with his family, has to come and bail him out. An enormously improbable twist shortly after Ash arrives in India threatens to derail the novel, but Malla uses it to make a lot of funny and sad points about tourism, friendship and trust.
The sections in India are less compelling than the exploration of Ash’s relationship with his family and friends. This is partly because Malla’s ability to create emotional tension works better in intimate scenes or when close to Ash’s interior monologue, and partly because Ash is a more nuanced character than the clownish Matt, who is constantly trying to take over the novel with his melodrama.
The pithy sketches of secondary characters can sometimes lack in humanity, or have their poignancy undermined for laughs, as if Malla might be afraid of letting his astonishing emotional perspicacity be seen in earnest. But even ridiculous characters are given some depth: Matt and The Behemoth in particular are mocked in a way that makes the reader laugh in knowing complicity before some detail is revealed that shames us for our assumptions. This knack of showing characters’ multiple sides rather than repetitively caricaturing them is perhaps what separates merely funny writing from great writing that is also comic, and Fugue States is very much the latter, particularly in its final scene, a flashback to the last time Ash saw his father. It is beautifully rendered, the comedy here more muted, with an ending that teeters between desperately sad and exquisitely hopeful.
Both Malla’s first novel, People Park, and his short story collection, The Withdrawal Method, employ an intelligent comic voice to satirize contemporary life by way of grounded fantastic plots. Fugue States is the first time Malla has touched in an extended, explicit way in his fiction on the issue of race in writing. Penning an earnest novel of immigrants made good, of romantic struggles in the New World and of poor but happy peasants in the Old World—or even going on a Hindu pilgrimage and fictionalizing it—is the kind of thing Pasha Malla would be allergic to. Fugue States, then, is the antithesis of that immigrant novel; in some ways it is the realization of Ash’s own difficult second novel, revealing a truer, less likeable Ash than the first novel did—but with the cunning addition of Matt as a foil, ensuring that Ash still looks pretty decent in comparison. Setting characters with a non-white family heritage in a very Canadian context of thinking and being, Fugue States is an emotionally intelligent, honest and funny look at the interplay of race and fiction.