Quarantine: Stories – Rahul Mehta
If Madison Smartt Bell is telling the truth when he writes, on the cover of Quarantine, that the book is the “best first collection I have read in over twenty years,” one can only conclude that Bell doesn’t actually get all that much reading in, at least not of first short-story collections. What Quarantine has going for it – which, it is essential to realize, is not a literary quality at all – is a kind of demographic novelty. When’s the last time you read stories by a gay author about gay Indian-American men? Never, probably (although one doesn’t like to forget Vikram Seth’s stellar “novel in verse,” The Golden Gate, published in 1986 and also its author’s first book).
Still, there’s something out-of-the-everyday in the concept, especially for the morass that gay fiction has become, and so one is beguiled enough to open the covers and dive in. And that, unfortunately, is where the magic largely begins to reveal itself as a series of not-very-clever parlor tricks. Mehta tries, without success, to duplicate David Leavitt’s masterful evocations of family arrangements and derangements; he attempts a sort of Carveresque minimalism in which, beneath the surface of a story in which nothing whatsoever actually happens, deep and meaningful currents roil; mostly, that doesn’t much work, either. Mehta has also been reading his Jonathan Franzen and his Jhumpa Lahiri, the latter of whom demonstrated, in her most recent book of stories, that it is possible to be a terrific writer and an enviable craftsperson and yet fail to understand when you’ve drawn too many times from the same well.
But Mehta cannot escape three significant flaws in his writing. First, this is graduate-writing-program writing in its purest form; it probably impresses writing teachers for hitting all the points of technique they’ve been teaching, but it is far from profound. Mehta demonstrates little depth and even less insight, and he doesn’t quite seem to know how to lend even a touch of humanity to characters who behave clumsily, bluntly, thoughtlessly, caddishly, selfishly.
Second, notwithstanding the ways in which Mehta appears to want to locate himself “outside” the mainstream (because his characters are gay, because they are Indian-Americans), he traps them in stuffy, middle-class worlds that, except for what the characters eat and the fact that they occasionally drop Hindi phrases into their conversations, are a fairly standard literary depiction of American bourgeoisie WASPlandia. (Mehta, of course, is ethnically Indian, but was born and raised in West Virginia; if you listen to his interview on YouTube, you can only giggle at how much he sounds like every other well-educated, post-gay, American thirty-something, complete with the standard-issue linguistic tic of making every statement sound like a question.) In other words, though reviewers of the book seem to feel compelled, to a man, to trot out the phrase “breaks new ground,” it isn’t clear what new ground Mehta has actually broken. (There is usually a muddled assertion or two about “identity,” as if the word actually meant something.) Yes, a new demographic constituency has been depicted in fiction; if that’s fiction’s job, then Mehta has done it. Still, the marketing and niche-i-fication of the book strike me as a relic of the late-80/early-90s when it seemed to make sense to talk about the first black gay novel or the first novel about AIDS. There’s a kind of schizophrenia, moreover, in Mehta’s insistence in numerous interviews that he is writing about characters who “just happen to be gay” (where have we heard that before?) even as the book is fluffed and blurbed and reviewed as though the gayness of the characters were central to the writing.
Finally, and most damaging to the literary project, is the monotony Mehta brings to the stories and to the characters, a quality that wears exceedingly poorly. As a result, the fact that they are gay and Indian-American truly does fade into the background. Unfortunately, what rises into view instead is the realization that they are self-absorbed, shallow, and all but insensate to their experience. The epiphanies they have (and modern short fiction lives and dies on this appalling notion of the obligatory epiphany) are banal and, almost without exception, unearned. In the least successful story, “Yours,” the relentless reporting of details and of stilted conversations, all of which add up to precisely nothing, is an insurmountable irritation; and the clunky metaphor of driving (at the end of a long, adolescent tizzy spurred by jealousy, the protagonist decides his lover isn’t going to leave him after all and drives off into a snowstorm, “[pressing his] foot on the accelerator”), sends a mediocre story right over the cliff.
Mehta is going to write better books. His biggest challenge, however, is going to be finding a way out of the corner he’s painted himself into with this one.