Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Sept. 16
Rehan Tabassum is in a bad way. Although, strictly speaking, the trouble isn’t of his making. He’s just got that kind of family — prone to falling in love with the servants, scheming against one another, messing with the wrong fundamentalist and leaving sensitive home videos lying about. The Tabassums, owners of a telecommunications empire in Pakistan, are a brutal, blundering clan grown crooked and strange after years of bending to the will of their autocratic patriarch. Their methods are medieval, but they’re punished for their excesses and brutality in distinctly modern ways: they’re blackmailed via text messages and pilloried in the comments of Internet articles.
“Noon” is Aatish Taseer’s third book in three years. Here, as in his memoir, “Stranger to History,” and his first novel, “The Temple-Goers,” he mines his own life to reflect on his preoccupations: patrimony, social stratification, the rise of India, the devolution of Pakistan. Taseer gives his protagonist, Rehan, the contours of his own life — the accomplished Indian Sikh mother and estranged Pakistani Muslim father, the Delhi childhood and American education, the writerly ambitions and frustration with Islam. It’s an austere, straightforward story that sets personal corruption and familial betrayals against a background of political violence, something the author knows intimately. Taseer’s father was Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, assassinated in January of this year by his own bodyguard.
The book begins in Delhi in the late 1980s. The product of a brief affair, Rehan grows up fatherless, but he’s not unduly bothered by this since he’s cosseted by his grandmother and mother. These early scenes are competent if bloodless. The plot gets juicier once Rehan is older, attending college in Massachusetts but receiving his real education when he periodically returns home to the subcontinent. On one such occasion, Rehan, who has hitherto “not considered it important to think hard about India,” gets a crash course in Delhi’s class war when his house is burgled. It’s clearly an inside job, and Rehan must preside over the police interrogation of his servants. It’s the Milgram experiment meets Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” a fine, morally messy vignette that forces Rehan to acknowledge his power.
Later, he travels to Pakistan to visit his father and half siblings, and it’s in the airy, scary seaside town of Port bin Qasim that the book opens up and breathes. Taseer allows his characters to expatiate on family and faith, sex and politics — and it’s a ripe moment for philosophy. The “fundoos” (fundamentalists) have found their next target, linguistic purity, and are merrily attacking English storefront signs and immolating themselves in the streets if they discover their own names have Sanskrit roots. Things prove equally bizarre on the family front. Rehan’s half brother, the polymorphously perverse Isphandiyar, hopscotches from one scandal to the next: he has just ended an affair with his father’s former girlfriend and is now being blackmailed over a sex tape in what appears to be an other inside job.
Taseer is a writer of great potential who excels at building absorbing moral tangles, and he renders well the divisions within contemporary Pakistani society, in which the elite regard the extremists with a mixture of embarrassment and terror. Why then does Taseer make so many amateurish mistakes, with long passages of exposition delivered through dialogue and prose sullied by infelicities? With such laziness of language comes, inevitably, imprecision of thought. (We’re treated to cryptic aphorisms like “To be morally superior in India was to feel physically weak and insecure.”) At times, “Noon” reads like sociology masquerading as literature.
The characters themselves are concepts intended to embody specific social phenomena: the Sexually Repressed Zealot, the Technocrat, the Obsequious Servant, the Predacious and Westernized Upper-Class Woman. Taseer never complicates or subverts these broad types; they’re kept static, struck against one another like flint and steel to illuminate the conflicts between rich and poor, East and West, tradition and modernity. These characters-as-concepts descend with dismaying frequency into ugly stereotype (gay characters in particular do not fare well) or remain so undeveloped that empathy is impossible.
Not even Rehan emerges clearly. He’s mainly a cipher whose naïveté allows savvier characters (and, by extension, Taseer) to deliver uninterrupted monologues on, say, What Ails Pakistan. He’s so hazy, it’s difficult even to pin him down as a reliable or unreliable narrator. Before describing the book’s grisly climax, he warns us that “the material is strange and distressing, and the tale without moral, unless you consider looking and recording with a sympathetic eye as moral enough.” But later we realize that Rehan was instrumental in this “strange and distressing” story. Wasn’t he aware of his role? How much is he telling? This sort of speculation, ordinarily so pleasurable and profitable, feels useless in the case of “Noon” because Rehan is so faintly, haphazardly drawn.
Taseer clearly wants “Noon” to be a grand narrative, to deal in portentous themes — and it does. Even at its most artless, it asks difficult questions: What does it mean to be rich in a poor country? Or to possess power that you don’t want? Why have the “educated classes” in India and Pakistan abdicated their social responsibilities? And (as illustrated by the rise and fall of the Tabassums), what does it mean for a family or a nation to be taught that treachery, not charity, begins at home?
Parul Sehgal is a senior editor at Publishers Weekly and the 2010 recipient of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.