The Alchemy of Desire
Tarun J. Tejpal
Ecco / 518 pages / $26.95
"Avoid writing about sex - difficult to pull off, easy to trash," the unnamed narrator, an aspiring novelist, reminds himself in Tarun J. Tejpal's The Alchemy of Desire. Happily for the character, he is laboring to complete not an erotic novel but an expansive portrayal of contemporary India. Tejpal, however, a highly regarded journalist and publisher living in New Delhi, has set himself the daunting task of detailing a high-wattage sexual and romantic obsession - and at 500-plus pages that's a huge minefield of potential cliche and repetition for any writer to navigate. (The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana details its staggering multiplicities of human sexual expression in far fewer pages.) He is largely successful, in part because he explores not just the steamy stage of such a relationship but its painful death throes as well. Along the way, he provides a fascinating analysis of 20th-century India, a painfully accurate study of a writer in the writerly anguish of trying to write and an endless Scheherazadian weave of stories-within-stories-within-stories - all in engaging and colorful prose, a literary crazy quilt of love, family, culture, politics and history. And yes, a lot of sex.
Tejpal's protagonist wanders the geographical and socioeconomic landscapes of India accompanied by his loyal girlfriend/wife, Fizz; they travel from town to city to mountains while he tries to balance his attempts at writing with their consuming passion: "Love is not the greatest glue between two people. Sex is. ... [A]nyone who has stretched and plumbed both mind and body will tell you the body, with its many nagging needs, is the true engine of life." And this sexual fuel sustains him through the writing of two novels: The first, which he considers a juvenile effort, is thrown into the fire; his second is the aforementioned "grand narrative ... the sweeps of history and ideas and civilizations, the arching movements that make and unmake the world," meant to "serve as a metaphor for the predicament of India." He summarizes its braided, multi-generational narrative for us as he goes, illustrating how and why "India was no longer innocent. Terrorism in the eighties had ripped out our complacencies, and the three-decade-old grand glow of having kicked the British out with fine dignity was fading fast."
The narrator makes lists of writerly tricks and tools of the trade, keeps to a disciplined schedule (with breaks for sex), counts and agonizes over every word - but ultimately decides that this story too (and writing itself) is worthless, and manuscript No. 2 is drowned in a lake. Thanks to a surprise inheritance (another detailed story he shares), he and Fizz purchase a rundown estate in the Himalayas and flee the corrosive, enervating mentalities, the petty jobs and politics of Delhi. His plan now is to write a small, intimate book, a minimalist microcosm: "The cosmos in a kernel." But after settling into and renovating their mountain paradise (more breaks for sex), he discovers a stash of notebooks, the legacy of the estate's original owner, an American woman named Catherine who decades earlier had fled the constraints of American society in search of adventure. He becomes consumed by her erotic tales (the "adventures" are primarily sexual), which our naughty Scheherazade again recounts for us and which take up more than 100 pages. His growing absorption with the mystery of Catherine causes him to abandon novel No. 3; worse, it threatens and dilutes his overwhelming lust for Fizz: "With each day I found myself becoming a different man; with each day my olfactory senses turned tail on me. For fifteen years the smells of her body had defined my life. The whiff of a fold of her skin would get me started and derail me from anything I was doing. ... But now her skin had no taste. Like chewing on gum hours after it has lost its flavor." As he is lured away by Catherine's spectral, somewhat sinister presence, the couple unravels in a despairing battle of sexual wills.
So back to the issue of sex - or is it the issue of love? There's plenty of sex here, and, as with all sex writing, Tejpal scores best when the idiosyncratic personalities or unique circumstances of the moment are stoking the fire. But he stumbles when he's being self-consciously poetic ("her pink tips asked questions I was born to answer"; "I began to move in the oldest dance of all"; "I had traveled everywhere and spread her molten core") or repetitious (there are far too many mentions of her "musk" and his cobra-like phallus). The true engine of this story, and of the narrator's life, is not really sex but love, the finding of "[p]assion and peace in the one person." When the passion dies (when he has lost, so to speak, his fizz), the narrator realizes that the psychic peace of their union was the real gift. This is ultimately a story of sexual love, not love of sex.
Which makes all the more frustrating the depiction of Fizz, the other half of this impassioned couple. We are told repeatedly about her intelligence, her glamorous charm, her masses of curly hair and her moist orifices. But despite passing references to her friends, her family, her work, we are privy to virtually none of her thoughts and dreams and (nonsexual) desires, beyond her hopes for his success and fulfillment as a writer. A fleeting mention of her being a Muslim serves only to complicate the narrator's relations with his Hindu family and with real estate agents who object to "a mixed couple." We might assume that Fizz shares his agnosticism, but we're never granted her own perspective on her faith. Her job editing a pseudo-scholarly study of male masturbation is merely fuel for their sexual escapades. In all their travels, she is conveniently absent the baggage of a personal history, and by the time we arrive at the narrator's description of his foul mouthful of rotting teeth, we have to wonder: What does this magnificently musky woman see in such a self-absorbed, socially maladroit, adrift-in-the-world man? It isn't until the last 40 pages, when the narrator tells how they met, that we hear a bit of her back story (childhood, family, school) and the secret of their bond is revealed: "I became for her a teller of stories. The need for the story became the basis of our love. ... Passionate love has nothing to do with any obvious attributes of the lover - class, intellect, looks, character. It has everything to do with the stories the lover can tell."
In short, Fizz is a "truly gifted listener," defined strictly by her relation to him, by the function she serves. She is the ultimate male writer's dream gal ("I was never more special for her than when I was writing"), the fawning muse/audience to his tales, wholly in service to his literary and sexual needs, a hot-to-trot Dora clutching David Copperfield's pens. A true love story demands players of equal depth and development. But fortunately, just as the most textured relationship is not simply about sex, The Alchemy of Desire is a novel about so much more than desire.
Tara Ison is the author of the novels "A Child Out of Alcatraz" and the forthcoming "The List." She wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.