Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled

Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled came to me highly recommended. A friend whose taste in books I have the greatest faith in sent me desperate mails begging me to read it, and another friend gave me pitying looks when I told her I’d never heard of it.

Thinking about it, that might be one of the reasons I found the book underwhelming. Because the truth is, there’s much to like about this book. The opening gambit – a group of travellers, stranded for the night, telling each other stories – is interesting, if unoriginal (forget the Canterbury Tales, for the most sublime use of that device EVER read Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies) and certainly no one can fault Dasgupta for insufficient appetite. The 13 stories in this book cover the widest possible range, spanning multiple geographies and genres, defying classification. They are tales of the wildest invention, heady concoctions of magic and street-smartness, mixing fantasy with a delicately comic humaneness. There are some real gems of ideas here, and there are moments when the Dasgupta’s sheer inventiveness leaves you breathless.

What the book lacks, I think, is purpose. Structure. A sense of inevitability. Truly fantastic writing is not just about being imaginative, it is about a constrained optimisation of the imagination, about the tension between the writer’s manic inventiveness and the bounds that he chooses to impose upon himself. Like Houdini escaping from his chains, the truly great writer thrills us by making the impossible come alive within the confines of the everyday. This is what gives Calvino and Marquez and Kundera their magic – that fact that all that overwhelming invention is tightly bound to a superstructure of political reality, narrative device, or philosophical perspective. Great writing is about creating variety through variation.

Dasgupta lacks any such anchor, so that his stories, both internally and across the book, seem drifting and directionless. There is a great deal of fervid imagining here, but the stories seem less assembled than carelessly stapled together, a collection of brilliant tangents, of loose threads that Dasgupta dishes out with dizzying facility, but never quite manages to reel back in. It’s precisely this sense of potential that makes the stories ultimately disappointing. Again and again I found myself let down, puzzled, when I looked back on the story, by why Dasgupta had not made more out of it, surprised to find that some of the best advances in the plot turned out to be little more than digressions, put in for no other reason than to give Dasgupta the chance to show off his undeniable talent.

Overall, my sense is that Dasgupta is trying too hard. The opening gambit turns out to add little value to the story, the constant change in settings is gratuitious, and many of the side stories are, in the end, more distracting than anything else. Again and again, Dasgupta sacrifices the larger intensity of his story for the sake of a quick witticism, a clever observation, a well written line. This would have a been a much finer book if Dasgupta had pared such digressions out.

What Dasgupta needs, I think, is a much better editor. Someone who will question the relevance, the necessity of much of the flab in the book. Someone who will take Dasgupta to task for the frequent laziness of his writing (he’s capable of really good prose, but much of the book is filled with lines that seem awkward and with dialogue so clunky it makes you wince). Give this man an editor like that and his next book could be a truly brilliant one.

Bottomline: Tokyo Cancelled is a book of considerable but frustrating promise. A collection of short stories that seduces you with how good it could have been, then fails to deliver on all but the most average of its promises. A book that, in the end, never manages to match up to the appetite it creates in you. It’s a cancelled flight of a book, one that is just good enough to make you hang around in the airport, waiting for Rana Dasgupta to finally take off.