It is difficult to review a book as unabashedly experimental and self-indulgent as Neon Noon, so rare is it in the annals of Indian English literature, with its history of social realism and plot-centric novels. It is admirable how unwavering the book’s commitment to solipsism is, how it chooses to make a bold departure from Indian literary tradition. The book’s protagonist T (a semi-autobiographical version of the author Tanuj Solanki) is a corporate minion living in Mumbai, nursing a heartbreak caused by his breakup with Anne-Marie, his white French girlfriend. T sleepwalks through his soulless job and bemoans ‘the cult of the five-day week and the two-day weekend in which love is only allowed in the wrinkles of time that have not been smoothened’. The reasons behind his breakup are left ambiguous, but are hinted at by interspersing passages in the book [hint: it involves an unborn French-Indian son].
To add to T’s misery is the fact that T is that tortured creature – an aspiring novelist – a ‘compulsive archivist of himself’, forever obsessed with the idea of translating reality into words, and vice versa. T spends the bulk of his time converting his experiences into succinct, forceful sentences, a process he believes essential to becoming a writer. He is a faithful narrator of his own life. In that sense, the book is being read as it is being written, and written as it is being experienced, in classic stream of consciousness fashion. At a few places, Solanki even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader, usually to aid him in fathoming a narrative leap or to apologize for some literary deficiency. Neon Noon is simultaneously about T finding relief from his lovesickness through obsessive documentation and about his discovery of his artistic voice [which is brooding and serious].
At the level of plot [since the first question most ask is “Story kya hai?”], the book is about a broken man made whole by an affecting encounter with an enigmatic whore in Pattaya. But to even think of this book at this base level is to take away from its multilayered charm. Solanki’s writing is often digressive, but reading through his ruminations, which vary from critiques of liberal capitalism to an exploration of the French language, you are often ambushed by strikingly beautiful sentences, rambling streams of words that unerringly find their way to fertile meaning. It is these sentences that lend Neon Noon its literary quality and elevate it from a hedonistic tale of cavorting with Thai prostitutes to something more subtle and redemptive. Sample this description of a Thai brothel, at once euphemistic, insightful and eloquent, as a place where “mid-sized capital and mid-sized enterprise waltz together to present the world’s oldest value proposition in glitzy red, inescapable allure”.
The book sometimes feels disjointed, arising from the fact that the first few parts of the book are independent short stories that have been stitched together to yield a novel-length book. But these short stories provide a necessary background to the protagonist and add flesh to T’s character. And the disjointedness is only felt in retrospect upon finishing the book, not while one’s reading it. However, one major criticism of the book is its humourlessness. If only the protagonist could view his own misery in a lighter vein from a cosmic plane, it would have made for a more entertaining read [but probably wouldn’t have made the book possible]. Also, I did not understand the point of the unborn son, unless it is T’s obsession with this imaginary character that precipitates the breakup. But then, these are the inevitable quibbles to an engrossing, melancholy novel that will eventually tug at your heartstrings. Recommended!