In The Art of Fiction, English author David Lodge defines a novel of ideas as a light-hearted book of narrative interest in which abnormally articulated characters debate philosophical questions among themselves. At first glance, 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 thirties, Keteki and Ved. They are vastly more interested in discussing the state of the world than making their own plans or decisions.
This can work well in fiction, as with the hyperarticulated characters in Sally Rooney’s novels, whose conversations result in fresh, urgent writing that involves a lot for the reader. The key lies in the quality of observations and the intelligent analysis of ideas. We suspend disbelief at his characters’ prowess in debating everything from climate change to colonialism to the collapse of civilization because the author’s bliss is so awe-inspiring to behold.
Keeping in Touch has an interesting dual backdrop from which to discuss world issues. Although some scenes take place in the United Kingdom (the liminal space of a Heathrow bar, a confinement in a remote Suffolk pub), Assam, in the northeast of India, occupies a place more important, coming to life with thoughtful details of contemporary society, from the degradations of the caste system to the corruptions of government and big business.
Some of the best scriptures in the book describe the Indian landscape, “the sun, the magenta bougainvillea”. As nomad Keteki – a freelance art curator who lives between the UK and India – parties around her hometown of Guwahati, she takes us on a journey through back streets “drenched in sunrise , here and there a disheveled but golden homeless. The light was like nowhere else, as if filtered: an illustration of what light meant”. This framework also prompts astute observations: “Assam. So beautiful, but still undone. Earthquakes, floods, such fertile land.
In a way, the novel works better as a love story about a location rather than a couple. There is a deliberate transience and apathy to the protagonists’ relationship, which is a true reflection of modern dating culture. They meet by chance at Heathrow. They both happen to travel to India, Keteki for family, Ved for his work as an investor. They sleep together. They are separating. The texts are exchanged sporadically, in a dull way. One person is more lively than the other. The roles are reversed.
So far so realistic, but the problem is that apathy bleeds into the narrative. Aside from the occasional vivid description, the prose is serviceable and the reflections are often mundane. There is no urgency in the story. The first sections are pleasantly winding but nothing advances the narrative. We’re not invested enough in the characters to worry about whether they’re going to get along. Ved, in particular, reads like a cipher, his character and history obfuscated in favor of his current business affairs, which show the politics of modern India, yes, but through reported speech rather than dramatized action.
The dialogue can be stilted and explanatory, especially between the two protagonists, a holding factor for each other, perhaps, but it’s unsatisfactory for the reader. In the later chapters, they still talk to each other as if they were strangers. Elsewhere, long exchanges with walking characters aim to reflect reality, but the “reality” in the fiction is heavily stylized; the art is in what is omitted, as much as what appears on the page.
Underdeveloped subplots – the disappearance of housekeeper Tuku, a story of sexual abuse in Keteki’s past – compound the issues. The only punishment for the family member responsible for the abuse seems to be banishment to another part of the country, which makes us wonder what happened to the children he met there.
Joseph is an Indian novelist living in Great 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 volume is not without interest. In addition to the skillful evocation of location, certain characters, like Keteki’s irrepressible uncle, Joy Mamma, enhance the text when given airtime.
Throughout Keeping in Touch, there’s a refreshing honesty to the characters’ perspectives, from their existential interrogations to attempts to find peace (“yoga, running, ayahuasca, tantra, Prozac, beta-blockers”), even to Ved’s rationalization of his visits. to a prostitute: “As he got older, he realized that he was becoming more brutal but also more sentimental; he felt the need to revisit places and experiences that, if only in imaginary memories, seemed to represent past satisfactions. In those moments, there is art to philosophize about, fiction brought to life.