High points among the lows include the vivid and varied depiction of the multifarious megacity of Mumbai and its citizens. Jeet Thayil has a gift for bringing tertiary characters to life with fitting details; a brief visit to Aki’s father gives the sense of a whole life mislived. But this novel is at its best when set at a distance from the minutiae of the protagonist and the banal book-keeping and marshalling of his powders. Adrift in a world of flux, Ullis finds nihilistic solace in the ubiquity of Trump, a role model for the binger
But Low is a novel that sounds more interesting than it really is. The writing is just not potent enough and too many jokes fall flat (on a Bob Dylan concert: “the man on stage was an old crooner whose time had a-changed”). In one flashback scene, Ullis tells Aki he isn’t interested in hearing an account of her dreams because other people’s dreams are boring. The same might be said of other people’s drug experiences.
Low never quite achieves Ullis’s junkie ideal of remaining ‘perfectly poised between the high and the low’. But perhaps that, after all, is Thayil’s point: to write a novel as decentred and dizzyingly unbalanced as life itself.
It's a hallucinatory helter-skelter around Bombay's lurid underworld in the company of a dandyish poet, Ullis, carrying the ashes of his editor wife, Aki, who committed suicide...
True, the story itself is pretty shapeless. Yet Low more or less gets by on Thayil's charm as a born phrase-maker, his prose steering you to the sweetly upbeat finish.
Beyond any plot, it’s the narrator’s default tone, dry and punctiliously polite, that most piercingly brings the earlier book to mind. But if Thayil can’t quite match St Aubyn’s Rimbaldian evocation of fleeting drug highs, Low has significant merits of its own. It’s a novel of our times as opposed to St Aubyn’s tale of the decadent 1980s. Ullis is fascinated by Trump, craving a regular hit of his belligerent inanity as much as heroin, and everywhere he fatefully observes the desecration of the environment.
Low is beautifully written, intelligent and gripping, and elicits compassion for a character who is pitifully adrift, despite what some might see as his disqualifying privilege.
The final chapters chart Ullis’s realisation that life has more than ruin to offer him. He thought he was going to Mumbai for a lost weekend but wonders eventually: “Wasn’t it more of a found weekend?” He has recovered some of his past, taken the last of his drugs and resolved not to buy more. Thayil risks a schmaltzy ending when a chance encounter at the airport triggers an epiphany for Ullis, but it works because of the emotional distance the reader has travelled with him. It’s the final risk that pays off in a novel full of them.
The rather flimsy plot recedes in importance before the logic of the binge and its oneiric delirium: it’s not so much what will happen next, as where will the next drink, line, pill or pipe come from. Dominic’s concern with balancing his highs and lows, uppers and downers, booze and powder generates its own kind of narrative dynamism. Occasionally he pauses to reflect on all the excess: “What was the lure of the high? Now there was a question a sensible person would duck, simply because the answer was so plain, so ruinous. You paid in money and time for a drug that obliterated money and time.”
Appropriately, where Low achieves its own highs is in Thayil’s descriptions of drug-taking. When Samuel Beckett read Finnegans Wake, he observed that it “is not about something; it is that something itself”, so that if Joyce writes about drinking a glass of champagne, “the language is drunk. The very words are tilted and effervescent.” Thayil does something similar when Ullis injects heroin or snorts a line of cocaine. Time dissolves and language is given an extra shimmer; the world warps into a brand new shape. The result is not just another novel about taking drugs. At times it reads more like a novel that has taken them.