Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review: The Association of Small Bombs

The Association of Small Bombs The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don Delillo’s Mao II proposes the troubling idea that terrorists have assumed the role of writers: they have become the individuals who, imagining in solitude, release their visions and reshape the world. The Association of Small Bombs answers that premise. It’s the story of two families responding to the fact of a terrorist’s bomb. They had ideas for how they wanted their lives to go. After the bomb, they find they can never fully escape its consequences.

This is a thoroughly depressing novel. The opening scene (and back cover copy) describe the explosion in which two young brothers are killed. Their friend survives, but he has to deal with injuries for the rest of his life. The parents of the children and many of the people they encounter spread a kind of contagion in the years that follow. Each tries to rebuild a life, but they find everything discolored by the fact of the violence they have endured.

Mahajan uses a striking narrative device in that the characters go their separate ways but find themselves reconnecting with one another and with the perpetrators. There is no escape. Nothing they do can undo the effects of the experience, and that leaves them perpetually diminished. It’s novelistic in the satisfying sense that we see a picture larger than anything the individual characters can see. There’s a haunting geometry to the way different people connect, yet they have no idea how their histories affect one another.

While I admire the essential premise here, I’m frustrated that we get it in total at the beginning and that nothing really alters it. Victims of violence suffer not just from their pain but from the lingering sense that some random force has changed the trajectory of their lives. They are forever marked, revealed to be cowards or ever unaware of the narrow limits of their capacity to shape their own lives. But we have that revealed in the opening pages. As Monsour staggers away from his dead friends, he already suspects everything he will ever learn.

There is, in other words, little development in the way the characters think about the world. As impressive as the novel is, it’s longer than it needs to be. Part of me wonders whether it would work as well as a short story, whether it would pack the same punch more efficiently in a smaller space.

That said, this is certainly compelling material. Even if the characters are essentially static, we get a glimpse of modern India, of a nation that seems to feel acted upon more than self-determining. Those elements, the ways in which we see tensions among Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, among urban and rural, and among the wealthy and the struggling, do justify its greater length. That material seems peripheral to the central insights here – peripheral to this novel, as I feel compelled to read it, as a response to Delillo – but it makes the whole worthwhile.

This is troubling material, given to us in bleak fashion. I’d like to close my eyes to much of it, but Mahajan makes me have to look.

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