A question of taste

<strong>Maynard and Jennica</strong>

Rudolph Delson <em>Fourth Estate, 304pp, £14.99 </em>

Meet Maynard, an eccentric boater-wearing piano-teacher-slash-film-maker who is in the habit of constantly making resolutions. Then meet Jennica, a Wall Street employee who makes obsessive lists and redundantly punctuates her sentences with "like". These neurotic New Yorkers first clap eyes on one another on the downtown No 6 train, and Maynard is instantly attracted to Jennica's voice: "That like - very sexy. Like, the watchword of eternal youth." Readers may disagree: Maynard and Jennica is colloquial to the point of distraction, its occasionally acute observations drowned out by airhead chatter.

Every stage of the ensuing love affair between the couple is played out on New York public transport, with journeys on "the No 1 and No 9 trains between Columbus Circle and Columbia University". For anyone unfamiliar with the city and the finer points of its transport system, things can get confusing. But the site-specific detail is important: it also provides the backdrop to Maynard's film commentary on contemporary fashion, Unseemly, and it is at the post-screening Q&A the couple first exchange words.

There are 35 human characters in the novel, as well as an aged macaw, cicadas, frogs, crickets, and the emergency brake on a No 6 train. The narrative flits between opinionated family members (dead and alive) - including Jennica's Jewish parents (whose only concern is that their daughter marries accordingly) - a rip-off hip-hop artist, a Russian-Israeli bunco artist who attempts to cash in on the 9/11 attacks by declaring herself dead and who ends each line with "weis' du?", a former best friend and casual passers-by.

The list, unsurprisingly, includes a fair number of stereotypes. They are entirely intentional - during his Unseemly Q&A, Maynard observes: "You achieve immortality by being a cliché. Because if you are a cliché, then even though you may die, you have lived on." But the gimmicky structure is reflected in a frustrating lack of depth; a host of potentially gritty subjects are only fleetingly explored.

It is only in its penultimate section, concerning the weeks after 9/11, that the novel really comes alive. Rudolph Delson's decision to incorporate the subject into a comic novel is calculated. The story is largely concerned with the way that Maynard suffers aesthetically over the tastelessness of others, most comically captured by a subplot in which his piano sonata gets sampled for use in a hip-hop anthem.

In a similar way, the inclusion of 9/11 captures what Delson perceives to be the trite and saccharine response of America to the tragedy. None of the characters is injured in the attacks. Rather, Maynard is mildly disgusted by an America infected with esprit de pays, by the tricolour "Never Forget" T-shirts. He comments: "Pat riotism is always in such - bad taste." Through him, Delson pokes fun at the addictive blend of media hype and universal passion for indulging in tragedy. Maynard jibes: "You are not all New Yorkers - you are all shit. I don't want your solidarity, I want my towers back - to block off my view of America."

The filmic quality is so apparent that it's surprising Delson bothered with the book format at all - Maynard and Jennica has already been optioned by the producer Scott Rudin, of The Truman Show and The Queen fame. With the cutesy gift of a Maine coon cat to launch the couple's romance, plenty of nauseating dialogue regarding the naming of the animal and subsequent descriptions of how pleasant it is to be in a relationship, it has all the ingredients of a successful romcom.

In its novel form, though, Delson has exercised a Dave Eggers-style formatting freedom, while telling some of Woody Allen's jokes. The comedic blend is lent weight by 9/11, a handy tragedy that provides the characters with an element of integrity that they otherwise lack.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis