I recently finished one of the most disappointing books I've ever read, and I can't quite put it out of my mind. The book is In the Light of What We Know, by Zia Haider Rahman, and I'm about to give spoilers for it, so consider this an alert.
The first spoiler is that it is very well-written and compelling. It is readable, and provocative of thought. Obviously, it wouldn't have disappointed me so much if it had been bad. The narrator is a London banker at the time of the 2008 crash, the expensively-educated son of academics from Pakistan. One day an old friend from his Oxford student days turns up at his house and starts telling him a long story centred around a trip to Afghanistan when it was newly under US occupation in 2002. This friend, Zafar, was born in Bangladesh and is from a much poorer background than the narrator.* He's the cleverer of the two, though not as clever as he thinks he is. A lot of the novel is about class and race, and particularly Zafar's feelings of exclusion by the posh people at Oxford, who stand for him as the English in general. Reading this made me remember my own experience at Cambridge -- for large parts of my first term there I felt surreally out of place, with the "I don't belong here" parts of Radiohead's Creep stuck in my head, and I'm as middle class as it's possible to be without falling over. I think most people feel out of place in Cambridge, and I've had a tendency to feel a sort of exasperated scorn for fully-grown adults who think the way to deal with that is to try really really hard to fit in, by emposhening their voice and dressing like a mannequin in a Savile Row window. For a brief period of time this novel made me think I should be more tolerant of those people, on the grounds that I'm failing to check my privilege as a member of the middle-classes. So it probably briefly did some good there. That's because this novel very convincingly portrays Zafar's feelings of exclusion and frustration, particularly at the hands of his on-and-off girlfriend, whose name is Emily and then something improbably hyphenated, and who is very posh, and plays the violin impeccably but without feeling like someone out of an E.M. Forster novel. At one point she tells Zafar how to pronounce Beauchamp, which makes him feel discomfited although clearly the correct way to deal with that is to pronounce it Byoo-champ loudly and often thereafter. Emily becomes more and more central to the plot -- it's because of her that he's in Afghanistan in 2002, and it's quite clear that what happens in Afghanistan is going to be the main point of the book -- and part of my relish for the book was looking forward to finding out what was going on with her, in the filling in of her story by this clearly very accomplished and intelligent writer.
And this is where the disappointment comes in. Because by the end of the book it becomes clear that Emily, who had some intriguing possibilities, is not in fact a person at all. Emily is a McGuffin. She has no existence to her as a person and is just a way of moving the plot along. The whole book falls apart when you realise this, and start to think about the other women in it. The narrator is married, in a way that reminds me of how when I was about three or four and my imaginary friend Elizabeth and I played at being grown-ups we always had anonymous husbands somewhere off-stage. Zafar fell in love with Emily because of her daftly posh surname before he even met her, and her brother went to Eton with the narrator. (Emily, of course, could not have gone there.) For both of these men, women just do not count. They would be able to express their social yearnings and webs of connection much less indirectly if they were homosexual, but they aren't the sort of men who have enough imagination to be unexpected. Both men are so clueless that Zafar actually tells the narrator about the cause of menstruation as if this were a little-known and interesting fact, and he has only found out because the bio-mechanics of fertility impinge on his personal life. Their real communications are with other men.
The problem is that this too reminds me of my time at Cambridge, and a different sort of exclusion, less common and more upsetting (to me) than class exclusion. When people don't see me because of my gender somehow that riles me in a way I can't rise above. It makes me feel suffocated, and furious and ineffectual at the same time. I felt the same way when I came to the end of this book -- I felt dismissed as self-evidently not counting. Zafar in the book has got so used to seeing himself as the victim, the highly-intelligent victim of others' stupid prejudice, that his own ugly prejudices don't occur to him. The question is whether they occurred to the author. His potted biography is sufficiently similar to Zafar's to make it hard not to guess that Zafar is a loosely based on himself.
I don't know why this affected me so personally. I finished the book a week or two ago now, and it's still bothering me. I suppose it's because I was enjoying the book so much, and it let me down so badly. (And I'm not complaining about what happens at the end, but at how it's portrayed.) The lesson from the whole thing really is that if you are feeling excluded, and prejudged, then stop and look around you for the people you might be accidentally excluding by being so preoccupied in your own exclusion.
* There seems to be a thing now for the sort of bildungsroman about two friends where the narrator is less clever but more fortunate. (Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels are just as good as people say they are, though also slightly terrifying in how completely they skewer that thing where when you're a teenager you love your best friend so fiercely you also hate her.)