Shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize
Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. This is a book about drugs, sex, death, perversion, addiction, love, and god, and has more in common in its subject matter with the work of William S. Burroughs or Baudelaire than with the subcontinent’s familiar literary lights. Above all, it is a fantastical portrait of a beautiful and damned generation in a nation about to sell its soul. Written in Thayil’s poetic and affecting prose, Narcopolis charts the evolution of a great and broken metropolis.
Narcopolis opens in Bombay in the late 1970s, as its narrator first arrives from New York to find himself entranced with the city’s underworld, in particular an opium den and attached brothel. A cast of unforgettably degenerate and magnetic characters works and patronizes the venue, including Dimple, the eunuch who makes pipes in the den; Rumi, the salaryman and husband whose addiction is violence; Newton Xavier, the celebrated painter who both rejects and craves adulation; Mr. Lee, the Chinese refugee and businessman; and a cast of poets, prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters.
Decades pass to reveal a changing Bombay, where opium has given way to heroin from Pakistan and the city’s underbelly has become ever rawer. Those in their circle still use sex for their primary release and recreation, but the violence of the city on the nod and its purveyors have moved from the fringes to the center of their lives. Yet Dimple, despite the bleakness of her surroundings, continues to search for beauty—at the movies, in pulp magazines, at church, and in a new burka-wearing identity.
After a long absence, the narrator returns in 2004 to find a very different Bombay. Those he knew are almost all gone, but the passion he feels for them and for the city is revealed.
About the Author
Jeet Thayil was born in 1959 in Kerala, India. He was educated in Hong Kong, New York, and Bombay, cities where his father worked as an editor and writer. His four poetry collections include These Errors Are Correct and English, and he is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. As a musician and songwriter, he is one half of the contemporary music project Sridhar/ Thayil. Narcopolis is his first novel. He lives in Delhi.
Praise for Narcopolis…
Shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize
A Flavorwire Best Book of the Year
One of Financial Times' Best Books of 2012
"If you know and have enjoyed [John Rechy, Alexander Trocchi, William Burroughs], then Narcopolis belongs at your bedside. As it does, as well, even if you know none of them but want to read a jarring, revelatory, X-rated yet somehow miraculously lyrical depiction of some of the lowest things we do as human beings, even as we try to rise up again from lying prone, stoned, deluded, denuded of all dignity yet still hoping for a better world."
—Alan Cheuse, The Dallas Morning News
"Thayil is a poet, and it shows in the prose, which contains countless moments of great beauty. His debut is an unsettling portrait of a seething city, a beautifully-written meditation on addiction, sex, friendship, dreams, and murder. It's a simultaneously brutal and beautiful work, dreamlike without ever being sentimental or vague or soft-hearted. Narcopolis is a truly impressive achievement."
"[Thayil's] brash, hallucinatory Narcopolis has mainlined him into the international narco-literati circle, one that counts Scotsman Irvine Welsh, Chilean Roberto Bolaño, and American smack daddy William Burroughs among its esteemed members... Will Thayil, like Rushdie, inspire a whole new school of Indian writing?"
" In ambition, Narcopolis is reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño; but it is Denis Johnson's Jesus's Son... that is its closer kin. Thankfully, Thayil creates something original and vital from those blueprints. One yearns for the next hit."
"Thayil's precision and economy distill what could be a sprawling and uneven saga into an elegant tapestry of beautifully observed characters and their complex lives."
—Publishers Weekly (starred)
"Narcopolis imports the rhythms and emphasis of Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs to chronicle the sick thrill of drugs, but uses the structural eye of a journalist to depict with scary clarity how heroin takes down bodies and cities simultaneously."
—The Onion A.V. Club
"I wished that this book, like some long and delicious opium-induced daydream, would go on and on. The end, sadly, does eventually come... Narcopolis is a blistering debut that can indeed stand proudly on the shelf next to Burroughs and De Quincey. Thayil is quoted as saying that he lost almost 20 years of his life to addiction, but on this showing the experience did not go to waste. We can celebrate that he emerged intact and gave us this book."
"Beautifully written, inventive and clear-eyed, Narcopolis deserves to be read and acclaimed."
"Outstanding debut novel... The ingenuity of Thayil's novel lies in how he has squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe. And when the narrative dissipates into smoke, it leaves a deceptively addictive odour, with memorable characters at the margins of society."
"Devastating... As Dimple says to the narrator in a dream: 'You should listen. Even if you can't bear it, you should listen.' And that is precisely what this novel asks us to do: to listen to the most vulnerable people who usually don't have a voice."
—The New Statesman
"The sense of place is intoxicatingly horrible, and the author's poetic style makes something iridescently lush and nightmarish out of the squalor of recent Bombay."
—The Sunday Times
"Narcopolis will hypnotise you... This is a poetic book about vice and desperation, and a truly exceptional debut."
"As his well-drawn characters, from pimps to poets, fall deeper under the opium spell, losing their sense of self to their dependency, the author never takes his hand from the narrative tiller... Narcopolis represents a truly international work of fiction: influenced by and sitting comfortably alongside western works such as Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, yet possessing a quintessentially Indian sensibility that suggests more than a simple crude shift of time or place."
"A compelling, often exhilarating debut. Thayil deftly weaves the various narrative threads, and his overheated, hypertrophied prose invites comparison with the greatest of all narco-novels: Willian Burroughs' Naked Lunch."
—The Financial Times
"Poet, musician, and ex-junkie Jeet Thayil's vibrant debut novel is a sprawling saga about the underbelly of 1970s Bombay, with shifting foci and wonderfully degenerate characters swirling about in the muck, looking for their fix—whatever that might be. Striking, compelling and strangely addicting itself, Thayil's prose will have you captivated until the very end."
"Completely fascinating and told with a feverish and furious necessity, Narcopolis cultivates for us a glorious world which is simultaneously fantastical yet highly realistic. Jeet Thayil has written a work we can place on our book shelves next to Roberto Bolaño, next to G.V. Desani and Hubert Selby."
—Alan Walker, author of Morvern Callar and The Stars in the Bright Sky
"Stories unfold and hang in the air. They slide into each other, until you're not quite sure how long you've been reading. Jeet Thayil's Bombay is a city dreaming troubled dreams, and Narcopolis will change the way you imagine it."
—Hari Kunzru, author of Transmission and The Impressionist
"Hypnotic and enthralling–Thayil throws us into his kaleidoscope along with his diamond-edged characters, then twists and turns relentlessly."
—Manil Suri, author of The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva
"Jeet Thayil takes Mumbai out of Bollywood cliché and into an underworld that blends the best of Trainspotting with the wild comedy of Goya and the gorgeous yearnings of Keats. A guaranteed top-karat high!"
—Daljit Nagra, author of Look We Have Coming to Dover!
"Narcopolis is a magic carpet ride spanning half a century of drug use, devotion and delirium. Both unassuming and intoxicating, this book's beauty will seep through your synapses, and stay there, like passive-smoking the finest, smoothest psychotropic fumes." —Richard Milward, author of Apples and Ten Storey Love Song