Sleeping on Jupiter

Sleeping on JupiterParticipating in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel requires me to stack books up against one another, something I’m not always inclined to do but which can be a revealing exercise. In some respects, comparisons are impossible because all books are different and have different goals and interests. How could one compare a cantaloupe, an eggplant, and a salmon steak? Each can be excellent in its own way. And how might an excellent eggplant dish stack up against a mediocre salmon dish if you love salmon and don’t care for eggplant?

As I near the end of my Booker reading, having read 11 of the 13 books, I’m finding these strange and arbitrary comparisons to be my primary lens for contemplating these books. And so I’m finding it difficult to discuss Sleeping in Jupiter by Anuradha Roy simply for what it is.

It is an excellent book, with pleasing prose and an intriguing story that puts it a cut above the string of merely good books that I read early on. The story is set is Jarmuli, India, and consists of several overlapping storylines. The center of gravity is a young filmmaker named Nomi, the only first-person narrator in the novel, which is mostly written in third person. Nomi was born in India and lost her parents suddenly and violently before being sent to an ashram run where the guru abused the young girls in his care. Over the course of the novel, we learn more about her story and why she came back to this place that is the source of so much trauma. As she journeys to Jarmuli, she meets three older women who are taking a vacation together, and their adventures and (mis)adventures also feature heavily in the novel. We also meet Nomi’s assistant, a local tour guide, a tea seller, and various others who are linked in ways they are unaware of.

An obvious comparison to make is with A Little Life, which also includes childhood sexual abuse and its long-term effects, and Roy’s handling of the subject is an example of exactly the route I wish Yanigihara had taken. Nomi’s experiences, which shared some strong parallels to Jude’s, were more believable for being less extreme. (And her experiences are pretty extreme.) This is a much shorter book than A Little Life, however, so the abuse and, especially, the long-term after-effects are explored in less detail, which, for some, might make this an unsatisfying read. For me, it was enough.

As I finished the book, I was also reminded of the ending of Did You Ever Have a Family, which also featured a wide range of interconnected characters. By the end of Clegg’s novel, the stories are tied up neatly, people’s connections are revealed and few threads are left hanging. It is some tidy plotting, perhaps even too tidy. Some readers might find that it feels engineered, but I so wanted to see these resolutions happen that I was happy when they did. But the author’s job is not necessarily to satisfy a reader’s desire for order. Perhaps it’s a bolder choice to leave some things hanging, to let mysteries remain. In general, I appreciate when authors do that.

Which brings me to Sleeping on Jupiter. Nomi is searching for clues to her past, and she gets so close to those clues without ever seeing them. She’s just never quite in the right place at the right time to hear a familiar melody or notice a familiar dimple. Roy leaves those signposts in place for the reader without outright explaining what they mean. I respect that very much; it makes this book feel more intelligent than Clegg’s. And yet…

I wanted very badly for Nomi to have those moments of recognition that I experienced—to find at least some of what she was looking for. It’s not honest, and it’s not real, but I don’t always want reality in books (yet I complain about A Little Life‘s unreality).

More bothersome, however, in Roy’s case are the connections that aren’t quite made for the reader. There are some details that seem so deliberately planted and some characters’ actions that seem so meaningful but that don’t quite lead anywhere—if the answers are there, I missed them. Roy avoids Clegg’s engineered unreality, but is the result a little too messy, a little too disconnected?

Probably which ending is better will depend on reader preference for tidiness versus messiness. I’m inclined at the moment to tip slightly toward Roy’s method, but I’m still frustrated at what I didn’t find and the threads that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. (The storyline of the three vacationing friends was where most of these threads appeared, and I’m not ruling out the possibility that there are clues I missed.)

I fear that sharing these flaws makes it sound like the book isn’t very good, which is inaccurate. My ruminating on these flaws is a side effect of the exercise in comparison that is the shadow panel. Under ordinary circumstances, I could say of Roy that it leaves a few more threads hanging than I’d have liked and of Clegg that the ending is a shade too neat without having to decide which approach I like better.

It may be that such exercises in comparison aren’t so great for the books under consideration because they can’t be evaluated solely on their own merits, but as a reader, I find the questions raised through the comparisons to be well worth pursuing. Having to choose between the eggplant and the cantaloupe makes me think through my own tastes, and there’s pleasure to be had in that.

Other Shadow Panel reviews: Dolce Bellezza

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9 Responses to Sleeping on Jupiter

  1. Elle says:

    I sometimes think that for an author to not let any connections occur or tie up any ends is, in its own way, just as bad as tying up too many. There are coincidences and unlikelihoods in real life as much as in fiction–just in different ways, perhaps, sometimes–and it seems as if maybe Roy here tries so hard to make her fiction “realistic” that it tips over the edge into being unrealistic again?

    • Teresa says:

      I know what you mean about loose ends being unrealistic, but that wasn’t the problem for me here. I kind of liked that some of the connections are revealed but not made. (The readers know a couple of characters’ identities, but the characters don’t.) But there were other threads where I’m left uncertain as to their purpose thematically or plot-wise. Still thinking about it.

      • Elle says:

        Ahh–that does make a difference. It’s always frustrating when an author does something that you can’t explicate or justify in terms of what it adds to the whole book.

  2. Jenny says:

    These thoughts are fascinating to me, because I wonder so much about how much these factors affect the actual Booker jurors. Not just personal taste, but the comparisons between books, and the fact that it’s just a slice of what was published this year alone. It’s one reason I feel suspicious about the prize as a whole, I guess: what if you get a jury that’s weighted toward eggplant-haters or a fluke bunch of reduced-fat cream-cheese-lovers? Still, I think the fact that you’ve at least liked most of the books has been encouraging. Only one real stinker, right?

    • Teresa says:

      It’s a problem inherent in any literary prize. It’s all down to the jurors’ preferences, both as individuals and as a group. The group phase of this will be fascinating because so far the two books I consider stinkers are favorites of others in the group. (The post on the second stinker is coming.)

      This is also why I enjoy the Tournament of Books co much–they own up to the arbitrary aspects of literary prizes and let readers see inside the judges’ heads. But even with all that, the winners are usually reasonably good books.

      • Jenny says:

        I guess, though I’ve found the Booker to be hit or miss (as you know.) “Reasonably good” is a low bar for a prize like this, maybe?

        p.s. I just remembered I read The God of Small Things back in 2006, pre-blog. I remember really liking it but not much about details. Maybe I’ll put this one on my list.

      • Teresa says:

        If they were only ever reasonably good, sure. But sometimes they land on books I think are really great. Plus, my reasonably good is another person’s brilliant. The best I tend to hope for from any prize list is “worth taking a look at.” A low bar, but with something so subjective, it’s hard to do better.

        The God of Small Things is by Arundhati Roy, and this is by Anuradha Roy–I made that same mistake, the names are so similar!

  3. Stefanie says:

    I enjoyed your ruminations and imagine that literary judges everywhere take the same sort of consideration, or at least I hope they do!

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