In The Art of Fiction the English author David Lodge defines a novel of ideas as a book light on narrative interest in which abnormally articulate characters argue philosophical questions between themselves. On the face of it, Anjali Joseph’s new book Keeping in Touch seems to fall into this category. In loosely structured scenes she charts the progress, or lack thereof, of a couple in their late 30s, Keteki and Ved. They are largely more interested in discussing the state of the world than in making plans or decisions of their own.
This can work well in fiction, as with the hyperarticulate characters in the novels of Sally Rooney, whose conversations result in fresh, urgent writing that is hugely involving for the reader. The key is in the quality of the observations and the intelligent parsing of ideas. We suspend disbelief about her characters’ prowess in debating everything from climate change to colonialism to the collapse of civilization, because the author’s felicity is so impressive to behold.
Keeping in Touch has an interesting dual backdrop from which to discuss the problems of the world. Although some scenes take place in the UK (the liminal space of a Heathrow bar, a lock-in at a remote Suffolk pub), Assam in northeastern India features more prominently, coming to life with considered details about contemporary society, from the degradations of the caste system to the corruptions of government and big business.
Some of the best writing in the book depicts the Indian landscape, “the sunshine, the magenta bougainvillea”. As the nomadic Keteki – a freelance art curator who lives between the UK and India – parties around her hometown of Guwahati, she brings us on a journey of the back streets “bathed in sunrise, here and there a homeless person dishevelled but gilded. The light was like nowhere else, as though filtered: an illustration of what light meant ”. This setting also prompts astute observations: “Assam. So beautiful, yet always being unmade. Earthquakes, floods, such fertile land. ”
In a way, the novel works better as a love story about a place rather than a couple. There is a deliberate transience and listlessness to the protagonists’ relationship, which accurately reflects modern dating culture. They meet by chance in Heathrow. They both happen to be traveling to India, Keteki for family, Ved for his job as an investor. They sleep together. They go their separate ways. Texts are exchanged sporadically, in lacklustre fashion. One person is keener than the other. The roles reverse.
So far, so realistic, but the problem is the apathy bleeds into the narrative. Aside from the occasional arresting description, the prose is serviceable and the musings are often banal. There is no urgency to the story. Early sections are pleasantly meandering but nothing drives the narrative forward. We’re not invested enough in the characters to care about whether they’ll get together. Ved, in particular, reads like a cipher, his character and history obscured in favor of his present-day business deals, which show the politics of modern India, certainly, but through reported speech rather than dramatized action.
Dialogue can be stilted and expository, especially between the two leads, a factor of them both holding back from each other, perhaps, but it is unsatisfying for the reader. In the closing chapters they’re still talking to each other as if they are strangers. Elsewhere, lengthy exchanges with walk-on characters aim to reflect reality, but “reality” in fiction is heavily stylized; the art is in what is allowed, as much as what appears on the page.
Underdeveloped subplots – housekeeper Tuku’s disappearance, a backstory of sexual abuse in Keteki’s past – compound the problems. The sole punishment for the family member responsible for the abuse appears to be banishment to another part of the country, which leads us to wonder what happened to the children he encountered there.
Joseph is an Indian novelist living in Britain. Her first novel, Saraswati Park, won the Betty Trask Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Fiction. This second book is not without merit. In addition to the deft evocation of place, certain characters, like Keteki’s irrepressible uncle Joy Mamma, bring the text into sharper focus when they’re afforded airtime.
Throughout Keeping in Touch, there is a refreshing honesty to the characters’ outlooks, from their existential wonderings, to the attempts to find peace (“yoga, running, ayahuasca, tantra, Prozac, beta blockers”), even to Ved’s rationalizing his visits to a prostitute: “As he aged, he noticed himself becoming more brutal but also more sentimental; he felt the urge to revisit places and experiences that, if only in imagined memories, seemed to represent past satisfactions. ” At moments such as these, there is art in the philosophizing, fiction brought to life.