I read 'Cough Syrup Surrealism' recently. And then I re-read it, that being the fault of the Epilogue entirely. To write a non semi-literary review of such a book would have been a challenge, which I did not take. It is an unusual book and in a very good way.
There is no gripping plot here, if that is what you like to read books for. There is Charlie, in love with the 90s and hurled into a world of drugs, sex, love and music in the 21st century. He is surrounded by characters his age and stage, as he journeys through some months of being high in love and on drugs, full of self-hate yet living out his fantasies, somewhat. We are shown the ‘depressive’ trying to figure out which life he really wants for himself. That is, if he decides to live at all! Still, the book has no suspense, not a drop. No twists, no turns, no fatalistic dead ends. Nothing. Plot work is not what the book hinges around.
And neither does it solely revolve around issues that beset youth today - drug addiction, casual sex, hedonism, peer pressure, ambitious parents and even the complexities of gender construction in early childhood. These may form the label on the bottle, but not what it contains inside.
'Cough Syrup Surrealism' stands out in the crowd for how it has been written rather than what has been written about. Tharun James, using impeccable language and his background as a pop culture aficionado, has created a book which goes beyond the usual trappings of interesting plot, believable characters and realism. It is significant for the tasteful and mature ease with which it is written.
What stole the show for me?
An Omniscient Narrator: Charlie, is that you?
Much like your God, the narrator (not author) is present everywhere in the book. Charlie is telling us his story quite like a long dialogue, even as he is a character in the book himself. So in a way, the narrator and the character get collapsed together in the narrative. Got that? And when that dissolution of hierarchy happens, the reader sits wondering: Who is the real "author-ity" over these characters after all?
Charlie, the ‘smack-and-Paloma man’ is the only one we hear (or Mao, his imaginary friend). He shapes and breaks the characters in our mind. And he himself comes to us as a dichotomy personified - a constant flux between the outside him and the thoughts in his mind. Like here: “I’m not really into that kind of a thing, man. I’m not?”
At no point are we readers allowed to believe in one set reality. Not even Charlie’s. Look at this:
‘Where I lay my head is home. The right side of Paloma’s bed, my regular bar stool at Rewind, my spot on the guy’s balcony, the passenger seat in Mao’s car, they were all my places, whenever I chose them to be. Or were they? Maybe I just thought they were my places.’
Charlie slips from between our fingers like sand on a closing fist, even though he is the narratorial voice throughout. For this reason, he as well as the characters brought to us through him remain like impressionist caricatures created by Charlie, for us.
Tharun has managed a post-modernist literary technique rarely found in first time writers. While, as the author of this book, he continues to be the over-arching puppeteer, all the Charlies – the narrator Charlie (looking for bearings and hungering for ‘almost-respect’), the Charlie of thoughts (‘Charlie the Invisible Man’ with his ‘melancholy whores’) and finally the Epilogue Charlie (I say no more!) do a surreal dance before our eyes. And what helplessness I feel as my fingers itch to type a deconstruction of Charlie but do not, for another word may mean the curtain falling down. I rap my Literary knuckles to stop and move on, leaving for you to discover not just the mastered technique but a character called Charlie, who will grow under your skin, in a good way, with all his ‘fucked-up emotional conundrums’ much like a ‘Dickensian creature in a rubbish, modern world’.
Surreal Descriptions – Of drugs, music, sex, 90s, you name it!
The book propels you forward with the beauty of its language. How language used a certain way makes art out of the most mundane. From drinking water on a parched throat to masturbating, from dancing under influence to the feel and smell of books, from a running SRK to a bathing one, from an aging father to Trivandrum the town – every corner you turn in ‘Cough Syrup Surrealism’ will fill with delight your reader’s mind, thanks to wonderfully penned descriptions which move – sometimes powerfully, and sometimes in slow motion, as if immersed in cough syrup. Some favourite bits:
The pain, when Charlie publicly reveals Paloma, his girlfriend's, act of stealth – ‘It was surreal. I actually felt the thought … transform into a mechanical force. I felt the words slide cautiously up my vocal chords in second gear and ease over the bump of my larynx… they inexplicably lost all shape … as they gained speed, and suddenly, it was a desert storm: a zillion sound particles bellowed out of my mouth into the cruel night … I’d regretted the words for many years before they were even uttered or exited. It was the … emotional apocalypse’.
That syrupy immersion in emotion, when Charlie looks at Paloma's bed – ‘The bed was an unruly mess; musky sex-smells lingered around it like wall flowers at a party, too timid to join the conversation, too turned on to leave. It made me miss Paloma.’
And surreal descriptions of drugs and getting drugged, those scenes which border on their celebration. A wrong message? No, not at all. Just exceptional passages of great writing, telling you how these “medicines” are used to escape the deep-rooted sadness within, or maybe to feel the ‘fucking Microsoft of Candyland’.
What smack means to these rudderless characters looking for a bearing? Charlie says – ‘Smack didn’t leave you feeling empty and used…it was your favourite break up song. Smack was your best friend superimposed on the world’s most beautiful woman; and she wanted you. Smack was sympathy, empathy…the only thing that was real in an unreal plastic world. Smack gave meaning to a meaningless existence, and questioned it. Smack was beautiful, like a drug’.
And ‘songs that had sound-tracked our relationship’ dispersed all over the book. The conviction that ‘You can take my lover, you can take away my pride, but thou shalt not taketh the metal out of me’. Only at some points, Tharun uses his knowledge of music albums to such an extent that scenes of significant importance sound nothing more than dum-de-da-de-dum to my musically semi-literate ears. You can only wish you had heard it all in the 90s, and move on.
But you smile. How drugs, music and sex bind the characters in a whirlpool of sadness and desires, and how the author makes it all soar in the reader’s mind with his language.
Post-Epilogue Shot – Spot the author!
I finished the book and started turning the pages frantically. I think I knew now places where Tharun spoke to his readers. And wasn’t he speaking as Mao too? I found places of writing about writing (meta-writing) where the author was talking to me, hinting ever so lightly towards what the Epilogue will tell me. As a writer, this appealed to me beyond measure. Like an aside in a play, or like a Sutradhar – one with the scene on the stage, but whispering to the audience ‘Hey, you are watching a play. Don’t get so carried away!’
I found how he had hinted already - ‘I don’t believe in “The End”. The people in films and literature … are not merely fictional characters to me, they are real as we are … their lives never begin nor end with the movie or the book’. Post-Epilogue, we realize Tharun has managed exactly this with us. And I don’t just mean an open-ended closure, if you can call it that!
And this – ‘You research and mould and develop a concept for 10 years and create a character but once the character’s alive, you’re not indispensable to him. He’s quite happy to journey on, to write his own story…he doesn’t need you any more. You’ve already given it your all.’
I clear my throat now. And stop. I am swimming in spoiler waters now.
Read it for nothing but to get drugged into reading more, thanks to the language that describes so beautifully beauty, ugly truths and deathly sadness alike. All, from the reality that surrounds so many of us from the younger lot. And for those who not just enjoy the use of language but also aspire to understand (and reproduce) the craft behind writing a novel, this is it.
Deserving of an evolved reader, 'Cough Syrup Surrealism' is not just another novel to be rated, but a piece of Literature written by a literary genius. You must read it!
Title: Cough Syrup Surrealism
Author: Tharun James Jimani