Simhai’s debut coming-of-age novel stitches together seven loosely related stories, mostly following a young man’s attempts to understand his place in the world.
A young immigrant—called Persi, Satur and Sufi—yearns for a spiritual existence, which leads him to seek out partners for conversation in his wildly varying work environments. Following him on his jobs as an encyclopedia salesman and in military service, among other ventures, the narrative ambitiously attacks some of the deepest human questions: What is the nature of love? What is the purpose of art? How does one live a virtuous life? Simhai portrays a glimpse of each stage in the young man’s life, from youthful sexual escapades to journeys into sacred caves. But the dominant feature is dialogue: Plot only enters the novel in book six; until then, conversation takes center stage, sometimes in a deep, intense form and other times in excessive, empty lines. In its painstaking attempt to cover every detail in these conversations, the broad novel runs long. Although there are numerous moments of genuine enlightenment, the revelations sometimes veer toward being sophomoric or naïve, especially in Persi and his American friend George’s discussions of art. These conversations often feel as if they take place in a void where the navel-gazing characters make very few decisions, which can prevent readers from seeing the characters’ true nature; in particular, the protagonist has a noticeable shortage of flaws. The second and last books only tangentially deal with the young man, and their storylines don’t offer much of import. Along with the thought-provoking debate surrounding art’s purpose, the chapter on Sufi’s journeys conveys a mystical power unrivaled in the rest of the novel. Unfortunately, getting to great moments like this requires significant patience.
By turns philosophical and frivolous, an enlightening experience for those willing to carry its extra baggage.