x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sensational crime story of 1830s London gets bogged down in details

Tabish Khair's novel, The Thing About Thugs, never really transcends its genre because it offers no emotional connection to the real world.

A group of elderly men identified as a
A group of elderly men identified as a "Gang of Thugs", taken sometime in the 1860s in Peshawar, now in Pakistan, by the photographic pioneer Samuel Bourne. SSPL / Getty Images

Tabish Khair's novel, The Thing About Thugs, is a sensational crime story about a series of beheadings that terrify the public in 1830s London. As a Victorian genre novel it delivers an intricate plot, a large cast of entertaining characters, masked villains and admirable stylistic flair. And as an attempt to transcend the genre, Khair employs some metafiction and uses multiple perspectives to offer a broad social critique of the era's class and race divisions.

Khair eases slowly into this ambitious, dual agenda by establishing his authorial presence early on rather than jumping right into the story. He starts out by sharing childhood memories of his grandfather's house in Phansa, a small village in India, where he came to love authors like Dickens. "It was there that I first read rumours of the story that I will tell you in these pages, while a gecko clicked on the wall, a moth butted its head against the false sky of the windowpane, and the antique ceiling fan chattered and sighed in turns."

This tactic leads to a high expectation: that Khair as author (or an "I" speaking as the author) will serve both as a guiding voice and true character in the story, and his autobiography will help propel an otherwise standard genre novel to a higher level. It is, however, not a subtle method to draw readers' attention to possible parallels between an author and a novel. And Khair's writing style in the first section presents a mix of awkwardness and eloquence. The odd first line reads, "Ghosts are often said to be white," but a few pages later Khair delivers a slightly more graceful, expansive sentiment about the characters we'll soon meet: "(I) write from between texts and spaces, even though I am located in the space of their narration and they in mine."

Having set the tone, the tragic epic tale of a young Indian man named Amir Ali then unfolds. We learn that he has left India posing as a member of the murderous Thugee cult, whose infamy has spread throughout the empire. He's actually a peaceful man, grieving for a terrible loss, and has faked this identity to help escape India, courtesy of a British officer named Captain William Meadows, who has his own agenda for Amir once they arrive in England.

As this plotline advances, Amir's backstory is slowly revealed, allowing for great moments of parallel action, with his past seeming to dictate his fate in London - which is soon rather dire. Amir has agreed to serve as Meadows' showpiece for a phrenology society, where its members harrumph and argue about whether the "brain is the means by which we may recognise the shadowy workings of our eternal soul," a fact pronounced by the book's villain, Lord Batterstone. Amir has also agreed to serve as a primary source for Meadows' book-in-progress about the Thugee cult. He's hoping to capitalise on the thug's tale, and help prove that the racist agenda of phrenology is true - that only white men possess good souls and good, round skulls to prove it.

In somewhat pat fashion, Amir is soon dating a cleaning woman named Jenny, whose aunt runs an opium den, which later becomes the scene of a grisly murder by three white Englishman who - and this gives nothing away - later begin harvesting the bumpiest heads they can find to help fill the secret skull-museum of Lord Batterstone, whose identity is unknown only to the three capable, if dim, murderers-for-hire. We know all this because Khair narrates from all these characters' perspectives, except Jenny's.

The short chapters help set a quick pace, but also keep the perspective off-balance. Amir's state of mind is shown via letters he writes to Jenny, and we get his backstory from Meadows' first-person record of the false history Amir has dictated to him. Occasionally, the first-person narration leaps into the mind of a minor character and late in the book it's narrated by a character who has almost no stake in the central action.

Then of course, there is Khair, or his cipher, as author, who more than once clambers directly into the narrative, as in this exact quote: "Jenny bends down and … I cannot see what she does. From my grandfather's library in Phansa, in the ghostly white pages of the books here and elsewhere, there is much that I can see and much that I cannot."

Why not? And does this matter? Khair wants it to matter. And in the end it does only because these confessed limitations, true or false, are unwise to include. They amount to discursive hand-wringing about the work of writing a novel and need more care and attention if they are to fit into an otherwise gripping, inventive book.

It's a baffling device to use because Khair has designed Amir's story well, an epic journey propelled by a mysterious past as Amir faces life as an outsider among many people prejudiced against him. Khair presents phrenology as many of the aristocrats' beloved science, to help strengthen England's global dominance and colonial zeal. We get scenes of Lord Batterstone bellowing eloquent bigotry: "(Our) science of phrenology argues against the assumption that the Chinaman or the Negro is almost a Caucasian, failing only in degree. There is a difference in the size of the brain and the organic quality of the body, with which the brain must inevitably correspond." The language races along, in various well-tuned dialects of the large cast of characters from the London underworld, who live "in those crooks and crannies of London in which you may find asleep, a dozen to the floor, lascars and ex-slaves, ayahs and prostitutes of the poorest sort, gypsies and stowaways, urchins and pickpockets".

Amir is of course accused of the murders and he takes refuge among his fellow "untouchables," including a fun trip through Mole People territory, who live in sewer tunnels. Khair does build some suspense about what might happen to Amir, but the storytelling engine becomes clogged as we're constantly told exactly what characters feel, often when this is implied based on their role in the drama. For instance, after a scene inside the mind of Major Grayper, the chief investigator of the crimes, we're told: "But Major Grayper was a pillar of society. He might sympathise with the feelings of the vigilante, but he would uphold law and order."

This amounts to a flat character sketch, not character development. And halfway through the novel, I realised that Khair had written no full scene of dialogue between Amir, our hero, and Jenny, his love. By using an epistolary technique of showing us Amir's letters to Jenny, Khair had silenced them both, rather than giving them a voice and showing their true feelings about each other and their possible life together.

Unfortunately, the prose can only hint at what emotion or feeling might connect these characters' plight to real life, and Khair does not slowly develop his chosen themes. It's disappointing that after bringing himself into the story so many times, teasing at the idea that while Amir's adventure is wild it has a basis in modern life, Khair does not give enough concrete facts and details about himself to form the real connection he tells us he feels he has with his characters, Amir most of all.

Khair is a poet, novelist, professor and literary critic, and he writes in Thugs very directly at times about race and class, hinting at the scope of Amir's pain and creating many chances to weave in his own experiences of racism and class division. But we're not given the insight to care about Amir's suffering or its source in Khair's reality. When Amir laments: "This is India as you people imagine it. You have made it come alive here in the streets of London," we get a sense of what Amir has endured, but only briefly. It becomes another thread Khair abandons to follow small scenes about his minor characters. Thus, the refusal to write neither a full-fledged genre novel nor a book with true, personal connection, as promised, make this a book of halfway things.

Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who helps judge the Best Translated Book Award.