If there is any book that I have read of late that “literally” speaks to its reader, it is Tanuj Solanki’s Neon Noon. Solanki’s debut novel is a lot like auto-fiction, drifting in and out of autobiographical elements. He writes well because what is an otherwise old formula of love/break-up/sexual escapade/liberation becomes a “sprawling mess” in this book with necessary digressions in the narrative, which I would rather like to call “writerly interjections”, making the read very real and impactful. The struggle of the protagonist, T. (an MBA with a finance job in Mumbai), is quite often punctuated by the writer’s struggle to articulate every experience into language and as the two coincide, the outcome is one beautiful mess.
Neon Noon begins with an email pen pal exchange between T. (perhaps, Solanki himself) and a woman called S. he had encountered in a humble hangout called Janata Bar in Mumbai. Written from the perspective of the woman, this brief exchange is kind of a stage-setting for the reader before he gets an insight into the protagonist’s life. From thereon, we get a glimpse of the protagonist’s first-hand account of his love affair with a French woman, Anne Marie, where we travel in time, from when the two were together to the time when the two separated. Unrequited love with Anne Marie followed by an unresolved sexual tension with S. sets the ball rolling, changing the tone of the novel. T. gears up for a trip to Pattaya for what the reader can inevitably figure out. Simply put, for some casual sex.
But while the trip was supposed to have been an act of escape, it becomes one in which T.’s failure to face realities is turned inside out. First by a young woman called Noon (who forms the basis of the latter half of the novel) and second by Orhan, someone he chances upon in Pattaya and who could qualify as either his alter ego or the unborn son he hoped to have with Anne-Marie.
Perhaps the most hard-hitting writerly interjection from Solanki comes as he prepares his readers to meet Noon. He apologises for failing to add a sentimental touch to one of the most important characters in his novel, as in his aside, he says, “I have to resort to this, this naked avowal, begging you to exercise your imagination and create this new girl at Marie Bar Beer as a kind of female presence that reminds a man of some good in the world, reminds him that he is splintered and shattered but can be fixed… I claim that the best literature is also sentimental, and that there are many kinds of sentimentality in literature.” Just like Noon, who is new to prostitution, struggling between being “plain Jane” and picking up “dirty” tricks of the flesh business, she somewhere strikes an immediate familiarity with T. Loner in a strange city, T. is struggling too in his raw exploration of sex and loss. This attitude, more prominent, in his strange encounter with Orhan where they talked of love, life, poetry, so forth. Solanki writes this portion of the book almost aimlessly, and it works well with the book’s moodiness.
There is a talent here which will no doubt deliver more… Yet what comes out of these pieces is that there is a longer novella or perhaps even a novel which the author has playing in her mind… That is the novel which we should expect next from this talented author.
Noon, by now, we are informed, is betrothed to a rich man, much against her wishes. But the novel, as it culminates with an intimate moment on the streets of Pattaya, between T. and Noon before she leaves for her “Korean man”, amid sudden downpour and subsumed music from a nearby bar, speaks volumes. This climactic moment prepares us for what happens in the denouement: T. instinctively tearing off and throwing away Anne Marie’s photograph that he had been carrying all along as he proceeds to Pattaya airport.
There is a slightly disturbing male gaze throughout the novel, which gets more pronounced in its treatment of the idea of debauchery. But this is a book that you might want to perhaps let float about in your subconscious: with its poetic diction, its witticisms. This is a book you might not want to maintain necessary critical distance with. Solanki’s writing devours you. It strikes the deepest chords.