Doubles and dramatic stylistic shifts abound in this novel about a young writer’s misadventures in romance, with his family, and on social media.
Kitab Balasubramanyam, the narrator of Shukla’s (largely) comic and self-aware novel, is a writer with a number of problems: his brother, Aziz, has decamped for an adventure in New York; his father is bothering him for dating advice; and a young man who shares his name has entered his life, sometimes endearingly clueless, sometimes appearing to be a terrifying stalker. Interspersed with Kitab’s story are Aziz’s adventures, which take on a very different tone. Literary references abound, including Will Self and Martin Amis, as well as Kitab’s favorite book, which is strongly implied to be Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. These are all books that a young, edgy writer would likely embrace, but they’re also there for more metafictional reasons. Palahniuk’s penchant for unreliable narrators, Self’s games in worldbuilding, and Amis’ fondness for ambiguity—think, especially, of Money—can all be seen as stylistic antecedents for what Shukla is doing here. And given the array of doubles and doppelgängers, and a meditation on the difference between online identities and our identities in the physical world (hence the novel’s title), Shukla leaves the reader with plenty to ponder. Shukla does a good job of making both the object of Kitab’s affection and his ex-girlfriend characters with their own lives and concerns; this is a novel that shows, but does not share, its narrator’s anxieties. Less successful is the prefacing of all of Kitab’s chapters with his Internet search history. It’s an amusing touch but one that never gets inside his head the way the rest of the novel does.
Literary and well aware of it, Shukla’s novel is a charming, sometimes-satirical take on the narratives we create about ourselves and those around us.