Recalling her first night with her husband, Maya, the heroin-addicted narrator of Jade Sharma’s graphic, funny, relentless debut novel, tells us “we touched so much it didn’t feel like someone else’s skin”. Dope is, in many ways, the antidote to this intimacy: it is like “wearing armour”. At the heart of this novel is that contradictory impulse: the need to feel and the fear of feeling, Maya’s deep desire to be both hurt and made to feel safe. When we first meet her, she is married to Peter, working in a bookshop, and on the precipice of an almighty unravelling. She starts an affair with Ogden, a 63-year-old professor who she calls “Daddy”. “I wanted him to order me around,” she tells us.
Problems was acquired by Ireland’s Tramp Press after receiving a roaring reception in America. It is explicit, shocking and sure to incite conversation. Throughout the novel, Maya makes terrible decisions, but knows exactly what she’s doing. She is open about her needs, no matter how uncomfortable. In fact, the book is deeply feminist partly because it engages in “bad feminism”: it takes male violence and male fantasies and wrestles with them. It gives Maya the opportunity to be fully contradictory, fully human, a problem in her own right.
Problems is, indeed, a funny book, but it’s hardly a comedy. It is brutal, sarcastic, often startling in its depictions of sex, sex work, drug use, and disordered eating habits – but these highlight rather than distract from the deep vulnerability at its core. Maya is sometimes merely a body that things happen to; at other times, she takes control. She is both a bad feminist and a real anarchic feminist force – alternating between critiques of gender roles and her own often violent urges against other women.
At one point, watching pornography, she says: “When I came, I came wanting it all. In one way or another, I wanted to be the men, and I wanted to hurt the woman. I wanted to hurt like the woman, and I wanted to hate the men for hurting me. I wanted to be the man at home jerking off wanting to be the man wanting to hurt the woman.” It is this aliveness to the range of “bad” thoughts and emotions that makes Maya stand out. Readers of contemporary poetry might recognise echoes of the voice of Melissa Lee-Houghton, but in fiction narrators like Maya are rare.
Underlying the novel is the essential boredom of addiction, and in many ways the unbearable nature of consciousness. At one point, Maya asks “Why can’t someone interest me in my own life?” The relentless, dialled-up nature of the book, the lack of modulation, can at times push the reader out, but this is all part and parcel of the narrative’s enactment of monotony. The opening line of the book, after all, states that “somewhere along the way there stopped being new days”. However, because the novel remains at a heightened pitch of chaos throughout, the scope for emotional range can seem limited. Though there are many poignant moments, and many sensitively delivered truths, the lack of breaks in the narrative, and the lack of downtime, can sometimes make the reader feel saturated and, like Maya, numb.
If, for WB Yeats, “the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul”, for Maya this extends to emotion, too, and to speech. Problems approaches the core of her experience from a number of angles, and she is constantly yo-yoing from one fix to another, always trying to knock through the barrier between herself and the world around her. It is at these moments of vulnerability and self-reflection that Sharma’s book is at its most powerful, where Maya’s self-revelation bears down on its own futility: “To have all these feelings of wanting and longing, a hole in my heart and none of it translating into the dull words passing through my lips, ‘I miss you,’ or ‘I think about you,’ or ‘I wish you were here’. They came out of my mouth and disappeared but the hole was still there.”
Problems is in many ways a brutal work, and it’s not a criticism to say that I’m glad it ended when it did. Reading it is an intense and draining experience that seems to promise redemption but never quite delivers it. The book’s comedy only goes to underline the extreme vulnerability at its heart. Maya herself goes some way to summing up the experience of the novel towards the end: “Sometimes it felt like there was blackness underneath everything. Like a Rothko painting, how the blackness bleeds through.”
Tramp Press, 224pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war