‘Fugue States’ by Pasha Malla

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Dan Twerdochlib

Pasha Malla’s second novel Fugue States is about friendship, masculinity and dealing with heavy emotions…but let’s not call it bro-lit.

Fugue States follows literary personality and radio host Ash Dhar as he copes with the loss of his father, a doctor of Kashmiri descent in exile in Canada. While going through his belongings, Ash discovers a manuscript written by his father about a religious pilgrimage in Kashmir, where his father was born. Inspired, Ash’s childhood friend and ultimate dude-bro Matt—who has joined Ash in his time of grief—flies to India instead of Ash, to have adventures and “make memories.”

Although their friendship is longstanding, Ash wouldn’t describe Matt as a great friend. Matt has a personality like one of those 3D Magic-Eye pictures: he holds your attention, forcing your stare until you see right through him. Chances are good that he’ll give you a headache. His behaviour reads like a performance of masculinity, intended to appear as the execution of some personal code when he really wants his actions to solicit the admiration of others. Although Matt shows up for Ash when his dad dies, even Ash feels Matt’s presence is intrusive. Consequently, although Matt wants to go to India with Ash, for male bonding and to “do some serious Karma Sutra training,” Ash’s reply is, “You and I are never, ever going to India. And it’s Kama. Karma is the infections you’ll bring home.”

Matt makes the trip without Ash until he inevitably falls into deep enough trouble to compel Ash to join him. That is, after all, what friends do, right? Even when your friend is a perennial screw-up whose arrest you both predicted and warned against. Isn’t it what friends do? Out of duty, or obligation, or affection, or something impalpable, maybe?

These are the kinds of questions raised by the novel: questions about friendship, vulnerability and what it means to be a man. The relationship between Matt and Ash is the backbone of the novel, but in spite of their bond, their history and their eventual union in India, I cannot and will not label their relationship a “bromance.” It seems to me that such classification stems from some kind of bastardization of the Bechdel test. Any book that has men fulfilling stereotypes of masculinity, but who also occasionally have feelings or thoughts that aren’t purely id driven, will inevitably be labeled bro-lit.

And then there are those readers of bro-lit: the lit-bros. Men who read narcissistic, chauvinistic literature with difficult prose to look smart or provide intellectual context for their bad behaviour. However, the reasons these “bros” might read Infinite Jest or Ham on Rye are not the same reasons Fugue States deserves a read. Fugue States is a pastiche of bro-lit that calls into question how “masculine” men are represented in literature and undermines rather than reinforces accepted markers of masculinity. Matt’s sojourn through India has him tilting at windmills in misguided attempts at chivalry, first attempting to “free” a sex-trade worker, and then later, attempting to bring a suspected rapist to justice.

And Matt and Ash’s “bromance”? It’s put into context when you consider that Ash’s social circle seems unusually small for a public personality who is “considered successful in a small, Canadian way.” Matt bullies his way into the spotlight at the beginning of the novel, but when he’s in India and Ash is on leave after an outburst at the radio station, Ash is suddenly very much on his own. The result is a novel that reads as a sketch of what loneliness feels like for someone who doesn’t realize he’s lonely.

In addition to clever prose and some novel approaches to race, masculinity and friendship, Fugue States offers a number of metafictional threads to pull at. Malla’s work is heavily invested in questioning how much literary meaning is purely the projection of the reader. He is likewise adept at provoking such questions in his audience. Ash’s rough treatment of a guest on his radio show—a popular writer of bro-lit—follows quickly after his own rough treatment as a guest of a book club, where his first novel is ripped apart as the work of a vindictive chauvinist. His defence: that a book is no way to understand someone, like the author or an entire race or gender. At another point, when it arises that Ash’s stepfather is reading his first novel in an attempt to get to know Ash better, Ash replies:

‘I wrote that book like ten years ago. It isn’t me. When you write, you change things. You make stuff up. You’re just trying not to make something bad, not expressing yourself or whatever inane thing people say. That’s it. It’s no way to know someone!’

About conclusive endings, for Matt or Ash or Fugue States itself, Malla offers an explanation within the diegesis of the text:

Maybe there can’t be an ending. Because these sorts of stories are these weirdly deterministic things. There’s this teleology that justifies its parts with the sum, which is usually a man achieving success—getting the girl, or the glory, or regaining his sense of self, whatever.

The reader is occasionally left to connect the dots themselves, and there are plenty of dots to connect. Omissions and obfuscations in the narrative offer a better explanation for the title of the novel than the blunt, literal fugue experienced by the protagonist late in the story. Fugue States is a novel of substance, but as such it may not be a hit with lazy readers.

Knopf Canada | 368 pages | cloth | $32.00 | ISBN #9780345811332

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Dan Twerdochlib

Dan Twerdochlib writes reviews, haiku and short fiction. He lives and works in Winnipeg, Manitoba.