“If metaphors increase our understanding, they do so only because they can take us back to a familiar vantage, which is to say that a metaphor cannot bring anything nearer. Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness below the horizon, so that nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know.”
I don’t always jump on the bandwagon of the hot novel du jour, but one that got favorable reviews across the board this summer did grab my attention: In the Light of What We Know, a debut novel by Bangladeshi writer Zia Haider Rahman. It’s a novel that stems from that desire for metaphor detailed in that quote above—a desire “to analogize, to link one thing with another, and to make whole the disparate,” in the words of Zafar, the character who is the novel’s primary subject.
It’s a novel that belongs in the same category as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: it’s a big social novel, trying to talk about the Way We Live Now. With an international flavor thrown in, it can almost seem like the most self-consciously zeitgeisty novel ever. (It’s a novel about the U.S. in Afghanistan! About investment banking and the financial crisis! About the collision of Western and traditional values! Life in the British aristocracy! Math and metaphors and through it all the meaning of writing and therefore of life! And on and on.) But then, of course, you realize that all of this is Zia Haider Rahman’s life, and that he’s just writing in the light of what he knows. Of course, that alone isn’t enough to dismiss the charges of pretension, and every now and then, the quotes at the start of each chapter grow to be a bit much, or the characters’ intellectual asides don’t quite ring true, even given the depth of knowledge they display. It’s clearly a debut novel, carried by the same instinct I first had when I started writing: the author believes he has to pack in as many of his thoughts as humanly possible, lest any one little drop of his brilliance be left unwritten.
The good news is that Rahman is rather brilliant, and knows this. One exceedingly self-conscious pre-chapter quote by Italo Calvino even lays it out: “overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.” Indeed, why shouldn’t he go for it? Literature is far more forgiving of possible overreach than the real world, and if the end result gets us somewhere, who cares about the sniping of the cynic from on high? This is a novel as personal exploration, the lines between reality and embellishment obscured; one man’s effort to turn everything he’s known into a somehow coherent narrative arc. To the extent that anyone can meet that near-impossible goal, it does well, and the bevy of glowing reviews shows how sincere Rahman can be, even though his life story can seem so inaccessible.
The tagline for James Wood’s New Yorker review in the print edition called it “a novel of the global elite,” which is true in the sense that pretty much every character is in a position of power, and perhaps all save Zafar from privileged backgrounds as well. But Zafar’s inability to ever find comfort in that elite is the novel’s driving force, the source of his eternal foreignness. Even as he becomes fully conversant in its language and customs and courts a woman who is its ideal, alienation and disgust always simmers beneath. Zafar is a tortured genius, forever someone from somewhere else, and he can share this story only to the unnamed narrator; despite Zafar’s skepticism of bonds built around mere familiarity and his rejection of free will, he is, ironically, pulled toward another man from the subcontinent.
The bond goes a bit deeper than that, of course: Zafar and the unnamed narrator share a brotherhood born of curiosity, an identity as Oxford men and bankers, and a passion for math. In the cleanness of numbers, Zafar can usually escape the ambiguity that overwhelms his daily life, but even there, it doesn’t quite work, with Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem repeated throughout: within any system, there are claims that are true that cannot be proven true.
This is a powerful theme in the novel, with several unique takes on that old Socrates maxim that the wisest man knows that he knows nothing, with greater knowledge only opening up a realization of one’s ignorance. For all of Zafar’s brilliance, he only becomes more and more alienated, and the narrator, while wise not to go quite as far as Zafar in his jadedness, feels many of the same burdens of knowledge. Consider this brilliant turn of phrase: “The faith in having the measure of others really becomes unstuck when you begin to consider how many you’d acknowledge as having the measure of you.” The revelations are often unsettling, and it is not hard to see how circumstances could drive men like these, seemingly so privileged and powerful, into the depths of despair.
For such an erudite novel, it settles into a good pace after some early meanders, and the prose manages to reach a high caliber without being showy. The chapter entitled “The Gospel of St. Thomas” in particular grips the reader, as the details of Zafar’s courtship with Emily Hampton-Wyvern finally come into the light. I especially applaud the decision to eschew quotation marks, a technique that turns dialogue into a sort of meditative trance: the speaker is de-emphasized, and things flow together into a deeper reflection, at times even making us wonder what was really said, and what was merely thought, perhaps in retrospect. (At one point, there’s an explicit mention of this; it also raises the question of how much our narrator—and through him, Rahman—is massaging his depiction of Zafar for his own purposes.) It’s not a tool to be used frequently, but for the tone of Rahman’s novel, it’s ideal.
Readers will likely either love or hate In the Light of What We Know, depending on what they themselves know: how much can we relate to Zafar, a man with such an extraordinary biography? Thankfully, there are a number of ways to approach the enigmatic Bangladeshi raised in Britain, a child of both “a corner of a corner of the world” and Oxford: through lenses of class and race and culture, from intellectual affinity to political or philosophical curiosity. (There was a bit of Zafar leeching into my recent post on the U.S.’s role on the international stage.) Slowly, surely, the bond between the two protagonists emerges as the theme, though its development comes at the expense of the novel’s paper-thin women. For good or ill, they are in a world of their own, along with their author.
There was a time when I probably would have called this the best thing I’ve ever read. The novel’s reach is awesome, that of a social novel raised to the highbrow level; I admire its scope, and a number of lines have been written down to keep. I found some avenues to relate, at times a bit more than I’d like to admit. But now, safely emerged from my phase of overly anxious, morose soul-searching, I can’t help but find it incomplete: telling that narrative about oneself is great, but it’s only a start. To that end, I’ll be very curious to see what Rahman writes next. Now that he’s shed some light on his past, where does he go from here, now that all the self-consciousness is out of the way?