There's a passage in Or the Day Seizes You, Rajorshi Chakraborti's compelling debut novel, where the narrator visits an "exclusive men's club" in London along with a couple of friends. This is effectively an amusement park of sex, housed in a sprawling seven-floor building: they pay at the desk, are given cards with their numbers and asked to wait for their turn. In the meantime, they have the run of the place – access to unlimited drink, the right to wander anywhere they please in the building, even watch what's going on in various bedrooms; the place looks neat, well-managed, efficient. But the night wears on and it becomes obvious that things aren't as perfect as they seem: at 3 in the morning they're still 15 numbers away from their turn.
Exploring the upper floors, the narrator realises with a start that what he thought were a long line of doors are mere paintings – clearly a ruse to make the place appear grander than it really is. An angry Nigerian joins their group and delivers a long monologue about how they're all being cheated: "Look at what they offer you. You sit around for hours waiting for them to keep their promise, and they tease your eyes and ears so you won't leave, but that's the way it will be all night..." This extraordinary scene ends with the three men being forced to leave at 7am, weary and perplexed, never having achieved what they came to the club for.
People being repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to finish something, or even to focus on the task at hand...this is a theme rooted in the surrealist tradition. Luis Bunuel's film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is built on the constantly interrupted efforts of a group of six people to sit down to dinner. In an earlier Bunuel picture, The Exterminating Angel, guests at a dinner party succeed in eating all right, but then find they cannot leave the house (no reason is specified). In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, a famous pianist is kept from his central task (though we never learn what that is) by a number of irritating distractions.. (Like the characters in The Discreet Charm..., he never gets to finish a meal either – which paves the way for the powerful ending involving a seemingly limitless feast spread out at the back of a tram-car.)
Or the Day Seizes You has other elements in common with these works: a continuing sense of dislocation, of time being stretched out to the point where it doesn’t mean anything, uncertainty about where dream-life ends and waking-life begins. Some of this is reflected in the book's cover design, which is one of the more interesting I've seen lately. Two famous Salvador Dali paintings occupy the background: "Le Sommeil" ("The Sleep"), which depicts a giant sleeping head precariously tethered to the ground, and the hypnotic "The Persistence of Memory" with its landscape of eerily folded “melting” clocks. The book contains no reference to Dali or to surrealism, and I don't know about how much collaboration there was between author and designer, but it's a strikingly appropriate design.
It's difficult to write a straight review of a book like this. It doesn't have a conventional beginning, middle and end, and it feels almost irrelevant to summarise the contents. But here goes anyway:
Niladri Dasgupta, a man in his mid 30s, gets a complaint about his seven-year-old daughter's inappropriate behaviour at her school, and this in turn leads to the discovery that his wife has been unfaithful. After a brief visit to a hill-station with his daughter, he leaves the country and goes to London by himself. Five years later, he returns to attend the funeral of an uncle who was murdered during an altercation at a traffic jam. He learns unpleasant truths about the reasons for the estrangement between his father and the deceased uncle, discovers that a vital part of his life – involving his family's cruelty towards a neighbour – was founded on a falsehood. He visits his ex-wife, marvels at how completely she has settled into a new life without him: "I found her absolutely undepleted and her magic circle was as large as ever, only I wasn't inside any more."
Interspersed with all this are vignettes from his life in London – including the sex-club incident and a trip to Normandy that ends in a nightmarish car chase. Near the end of the story Niladri is fleeing once again – this time as the result of his father's foolishness in taking on a powerful local ganglord. At a point where one would think the book could easily have gone on for another 100 pages, it simply ends.
This plot isn't remarkable in itself, but what's notable is the ease with which Chakraborti creates the sense of a life that’s perpetually adrift. In its refusal to draw obvious connections between the various episodes in Niladri’s life, the book is, paradoxically, more effective than a conventional narrative would have been. This is a story (if you can call it that) about missed connections, about the vast spaces that can exist between people in close relationships – and appropriately, at the centre of it is a passive narrator; Niladri is like a blank slate, content to be scribbled on. ("Forgive me if I narrate nothing in order and have omitted so much that must have occurred around me," he says, "I probably represent it as if I were alone with my feelings in some underwater womb surrounded by silence.")
As a whole, Or the Day Seizes You can be a bit mystifying, but chapter by chapter (fragment by fragment?) it's one of the most engrossing books I've read in a while. It's full of dream-like sequences, some of which foreshadow others: the very prologue, with the 11-year-old Nilu being forced to go to school despite heavy rain and finding himself practically alone in the building, has no obvious connection to anything that follows – but it prepares the ground for the book's tone of agoraphobia and general paranoia. In fact, the abstract elements in the book are so striking that I found it difficult to process the more straightforward presentation of ideas: a long rant, for instance, about corruption in high places, about the hegemony exercised by the powerful over the weak, about how the world's rich are part of a perpetual conspiracy to keep the poor in their place. (This occurs in two speeches made by different characters in different contexts.)
Or the Day Seizes You is a thought-provoking first novel that hasn't yet received the attention it merits. Even if you're not into surrealism, do give a try. And though I've revealed more here than I usually do about the plot and specific scenes, flipping through it again I realised there's much I haven't touched on: the book manages to pack a lot into its 200 pages.