A slow-burning novel vivifies the life and loves of young gay men, moving between the Northeast, Delhi and London
Janice Pariat opened Boats on Land, her award-winning debut short story collection, with a brief treatise about the tradition of oral storytelling. She begins Seahorse, her debut novel, with an explanation of ‘in medias res’ , the technique of plunging the listener or reader into the middle of the action. Of course, she doesn’t start with art historian Nicholas Petrou’s disappearance, but with a didactic, throat- clearing preface explaining why. These are all clues to the type of story Pariat intends to tell, with its mythological underpinnings, its ouroboric shape.
Seahorse is many things—mystery, bildungsroman, künstlerroman (a subsection of the latter, dealing specifically with artistic comings of age), campus novel, sentimental education, love story—but most importantly it is confirmation of Pariat’s ambition, ability and quivering, sometimes overweening, sensitivity. It is about Nehemiah or ‘Nem’, a boy from a small town in the Northeast, and his initiation into love, loss and art. His unusual Old Testament name— Nehemiah was entrusted with the job of rebuilding the walls of a broken Jerusalem— is another clue, an indication of Nem’s task: to reconstruct his life, to rebuild, remake and so understand what was once torn down by the loss of two great loves at formative points, one adolescent and the other as a young student.
Nem, at those ages, is a tabula rasa, educated by Lenny, his first love, and more significantly as an undergraduate in Delhi by Nicholas, an older post- doc who is Nem’s conduit to art, classical music and cheese. It is as if Tadzio returned Von Aschenbach’s affections, though Nicholas is of course younger and easier on the eye than Mann’s ageing, dying writer. Nicholas, still in his prime, is a seductive figure to a provincial like Nem. In most novels, written by men past their prime, Nem would be a sylph-like ingenue, wide-eyed and eager for a guide (a man about the author’s age, naturally) to the mysteries of the world and sex, particularly sex. This type of ‘hideous man’, to borrow from David Foster Wallace, can also be found in Woody Allen movies, leading a blonde with ample embonpoint around the MoMA. Pariat is less cynical about older men who seek to cultivate young lovers, to mould them in their own image, and so Nicholas is introduced to us framed in flattering light, Mr Darcy at the lectern, fiddling with a projector: ‘He had a face I wanted to reach out and touch. Broad, yet not indelicate, with long, chiselled cheeks shaded by stubble. A nose that sloped straight and high between deeply-set eyes… his hair gleamed dense and dark, framing his forehead, his temples, his ears, in waves.’ Lenny, meanwhile, who Nem meets in his constrictive hometown, has ‘a rough chin, and sharp plane cheeks’ and smells ‘of smoke and pine forests, of something wild and unexplored.’ Nem, blank slate though he may be, clearly has a type.
Found in a homosexual clinch with a backpacker with ‘coal-dust eyes and mercilessly sun-darkened skin’ carrying ‘the scent of bonfires’, Lenny is sent by his father to a ‘psychiatric institution’ where he likely commits suicide. Nem, whose relationship with Lenny was platonic— albeit suffused with longing—finds, in Nicholas, a salve for his grief. Until Nicholas himself disappears without word or warning in 1999, as Nem is finishing up his academic career. Here follows a standard life as a promising arts journalist at the sort of smart monthly magazine that characterises monied, culturally confident ‘noughties’ Delhi. As the recession hits and the party ends, Nem moves to London on a literary fellowship and the ghost of Nicholas is exhumed.
I have left out much of the plot to preserve Nicholas’ mystery; all the things that Nem does not understand or is too callow to guess. Pariat’s plot, though, is a bit of a clunker, reliant on much authorial straining to get going, and wheezing piteously when it does pick up. The reason to read Pariat is the lapidary prose, the intensely felt emotion of the young characters. But the intensity of her prose, almost stifling in Boats on Land, is slow-burning here, dulled by Nem’s anomie, his quiet, comfortable life of art and lit chat and smug dinner parties. On the stretched canvas of the novel, Pariat’s brushstrokes, so distinct in her short stories, blur and smudge into imprecision. She remains an impressive writer, and in places Seahorse is an impressive novel, but the blank slate at its heart remains frustratingly blank.