The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki
April 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
This is one of the Orange nominees this year, and the second of Farooki’s novels that I’ve read. The Flying Man is the story of a gambler, a man who spends the whole of his mostly charmed life evading responsibility, ducking out of commitment, and pleasing himself. Maqil (also known as Mike, Michel, Miguel etc, depending on his current location and identity) is born and raised in Pakistan, studies in the US, and thereafter travels the world making – and losing – money, either at casinos or by private bets with acquaintances. As the book opens he is living out his days in a seedy hotel in Biarritz, reflecting on his life, the wives and children he has abandoned, and what it means to have a reputation that you have to live up to – in this case, a reputation for being so unreliable that you aren’t expected to show up for even the most important of family events (engagements, funerals, that sort of thing). In a nice twist on the usual “man in later life defends less desirable characteristics, telling himself/others that it’s simply who he is and he can’t be expected to change, regardless of the pain he causes,” Maqil actually has some moments of reflecting that his reputation has become a burden: in other words that it’s not even his own fault that he is so unreliable, since he is just trying not to disrupt the received wisdom about him.
As Maqil moves from global city to global city, always slightly ahead of his creditors, his new identities are as much about finding a place he can belong as they are about covering his tracks. The London section, which is more or less the middle third, when Maqil is with his second wife Samira and their children, is the most successful because the pace slows down enough for the reader to spend some time with Maqil rather than breathlessly following him. His early life rushes by rather too quickly, and the later part, with wife number three, is again dealt with rather summarily. This reflects Maqil’s own preoccupation, since he is still in love with Samira, but it is not the best tactic in structural terms–the whistlestop tour is never quite satisfactory. By the end of the novel (back writing the letter in the French hotel room) has not quite managed to charm me (or indeed most of his family).
The Flying Man is entertaining and enjoyable. Farooki’s characters are well-observed, albeit perhaps verging on parodies of themselves. She has a light, deft touch with setting, giving enough details about a place without being overly descriptive. Call me a snob, though (is it snobbery? I’m not sure), but there’s something about the jaunty tone, the “let’s not take any of this too seriously, shall we?” undercurrent, that leaves me feeling unsatisfied. This type of humour strikes me as very English–I can’t remember ever reading a literary North American book with the refusal of earnestness that marks this style. It’s not that it’s not funny, because it is, and it has some great lines, and it’s not that it’s not clever, because Farooki is intelligent and observant, but both times I’ve read one of Farooki’s books I’ve found myself wishing that she would try her hand at something truly serious. I wish she would let her guard down a bit and take on something without the safety net of comedy. If she wrote that book, it could be devastating.
So somehow I’ve only read two oranges so far, with 16 days left until the shortlist is announced. Farooki is on the light side; good but easily so, like a sparkling last-minute homework essay by a very bright student that easily surpasses the effortful compositions of her fellow students. And then Altenberg – lyrical, solid all round, and yet essentially unadventurous. The only other one currently on the shelf is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which I must confess I am avoiding. It’s heaped with praise words like “lush” and “enchanting.” If it wasn’t on the longlist, and I wasn’t interested in sampling as much of the list as possible to see how these things are put together, I would never have picked it up. Perhaps it will prove me wrong. Claire Messud was apparently enchanted by it, despite beginning her Guardian review with this:
“To a degree, literary taste is a subjective matter. One can admire a work of fiction without particularly enjoying it; one can dislike a novel even while appreciating its value. In the case of Erin Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, I might well have been the wrong reviewer. As a reader, I am resistant to historical fiction. I am hostile to whimsy, and beyond impatient with the fantastical.”
Maybe I will be as charmed. We shall see.