Tokyo Cancelled, Rana Dasgupta (2005)

From the sublime (A Golden Age, Fugitive Histories) to the ridiculous (this). But before I demonstrate how strongly I disliked this book, I want to share my one and only Rana Dasgupta anecdote.

At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2011, I went along to a session being chaired by Rana Dasgupta. He is, I must say, a very good looking young man, and I overheard a couple of middle aged Indian ladies sitting behind me discussing this:

“Which one is Rana Dasgupta?”

“The one chairing, holding the mike.”

“Oooh, the cutie with the mike! Kashmiri hai?” (Kashmiris are known in India as fair skinned and attractive people)

Dasgupta hai. Bengali hai.” (Dasgupta is clearly a Bengali surname, Bengal being on the opposite side of India to Kashmir)

“Nahin. Kashmiri hai.”

But, the looks of the author aside, this is a terrible book. I had previously read Dasgupta’s second book, Solo, which I really enjoyed, so had been looking forward to reading this for a while. But ridiculous and dissatisfying are the only appropriate adjectives for Tokyo Cancelled.

The premise is this: a bunch of people are stranded in Tokyo airport overnight as a massive storm descends upon the city and all flights are cancelled. They pass the night by telling each other stories. The book is divided into these thirteen individual stories, with brief interludes back in the airport. Each person’s story is more ridiculous, contorted, twisted and ludicrous than the last. An example from “The Store on Madison Avenue: The Fifth Story”:

“‘Who are you?’

‘I am no ordinary woman. I am the daughter of Isabella Rosselini and Martin Scorsese. No one knows that at the moment when the two of them separated my mother was pregnant. I am a secret to the whole world. The only people that know are you and her.’

‘Why did you tell me?’

‘Because you are not ordinary either. You can understand.’

‘But I grew up in an airport the son of immigrant workers.’

‘Nonetheless. I can see it in you. We will be friends. Come: let me teach you kung fu.’

Pavel ended his first evening with Isabella casting martial shadows on the ceiling of her apartment by the soothing pink glow of pornography.” (p. 137)

OK, Dasgupta has an inventive imagination (or has had a lot of vivid, lariam induced dreams throughout his obviously extensive travels). But the wild and whacky just ends up being tedious. A girl conceived in a laboratory grows up to have the disability of making plants around her grow at astonishing rates in inappropriate places–a comment on humans’ attempts to play god? If it does indeed contain this moral, it is too fantastical and too obtuse at the same time. A woman who can “miraculously” transform–bodily–into a high-end fashion boutique by having a glass of milk with oreo biscuits crumbled into it (!!) over her head: a comment on conspicuous consumption? A young Polish woman, thrown away by her father as a baby and raised by a childless couple, can sew quilts so beautiful and expressive that they act as therapeautic devices for the customers, and gets head-hunted by a domination business. (I almost can’t bear to describe the rest of the plot twists, but must to demonstrate that this is not an unjustified rant that I am on: the Polish woman joins the domination business, falls in love with a customer and wants to conceive his child, but knows he will not be unfaithful to his wife, so she requests that another client with supernatural powers temporarily transport her into the body of the first client’s wife. He agrees, but demands that if she is unsucessful at seducing the married man, he will take away her fertility. She is unsuccefful, he takes her fertility, she is mad. Her estranged father tracks her down after all these years. Not knowing how to approach her, he confides in a stranger at the pub. The father is advised by ‘kindly’ stranger (owner of the fertility) to pretend to be him when he contacts his daughter for the first time. He does so, daughter shoots father, father ends up brain dead. Exhausting, yes.) Another story has an overworked Japanese man constructing an artificial girlfriend from prosthetic body parts that he falls in love with. Was that not already a hideous cliche? If not, it just became one.

(The day after drafting those thoughts, I was sent an article called “She Feels as Real as My Girlfriend” by a feminist network that I subscribe to. These radical feminists were self-righteously outraged by Japanese computer games that “simulate” the girlfriend experience (whatever that is) for lonely men. I must say I’m a bit tired with this type of reporting. Isn’t this just another issue that “we” can feel moral outrage over, to show how low “they” have sunk in their treatment–no, their very idea–of women?)

Being the academic-in-training that I am, I do have to question exactly why Tokyo Cancelled rubbed me up the wrong way quite so badly. Generic non-conformity is one of the fastest ways for readers to dislike a book, but I like to think I’m generally a bit more broad minded than that. I’m happy with literary experimentation, even if such books don’t usually make my top ten. But this is a weird hybrid: not quite science fiction, not quite short story, not quite fable, not quite novel…

Still, I may not have totally given up on “the cutie with the mike”, as his second book, Solo (2009), was far superior to Tokyo Cancelled, taking Dasgupta’s creative imagination and putting it to good use in a way that just works.

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Travel writer at Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

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