Maya, the protagonist of Jade Sharma’s debut novel Problems, has problems. A heroin problem. A self-esteem problem. A problem getting to her dead-end bookstore job on time. A problem keeping together her marriage to kind, steady, slightly alcoholic Peter. A problem staying faithful.
In short, she's the kind of character who, until recently, we’d expect to be male. Fiction about the psychology of a self-destructive, appetite-driven, deeply flawed character has traditionally focused on compelling but often rather loathsome men. In American fiction, at least, it’s often white, middle- or upper-middle-class men. But Sharma’s relentlessly grim, morbidly clever novel insists on the universality of this experience by allowing Maya her particularity. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she explained, “At first I thought, I should make her white, so I don’t have to deal with the race issue, because white people are blank slates.” Instead, like Sharma, Maya is Indian. “Indian girls can be crazy bitches, too,” she told PW.
Sharma paints Maya’s spiraling life in raw, sharp-edged, almost confrontational language. No euphemisms paper over the poisonous bowel movements that mark days of withdrawal, or the urgent, self-abasing sexual fantasies that she masturbates to when she’s alone. Maya’s crass wit and vitality can make her facade of “togetherness” convincing, even to her, but it slowly becomes beyond obvious that her heroin indulgences have seduced her into a full-blown addiction.
Finally, her husband leaves her. Though Maya professes mostly indifference and disdain toward him, she’s rocked by the divorce -- not that it’s happening, but that he left her. Worse, her former professor, Ogden, ends their affair. Suddenly, instead of a married woman with a glamorous older lover and a fondness for getting high, Maya is alone, with a rapidly crumbling bookshop job. Her fingernail-hold on functional life slips, and soon she’s doing little but cycling through unending bags of heroin and making the easiest money she can in between to pay for her new lifestyle. Sharma follows Maya as she slides into unkempt filth and flattened misery, doing lines off of ironically selected books and pretending she’s totally fine.
Maya’s addiction cycle, and her attempts at breaking it, structure the novel. It’s the plot, such as it is, and it can be both hypnotically compelling and somewhat listless, as one might expect. Her searching mind slip-slides easily from one thought -- Should I snort my last bag now? -- to another -- I’m sick of Greek yogurt -- to another -- How awful it is to get flowers from a guy -- to another -- Maybe I’m just in love with who I am around my husband. She observes her life as if she’s watching herself on TV, but her life couldn’t appear on the shows she watches, and she knows it. She cuts up a bag of heroin to snort through a rolled-up bill, and imagines appearing on a cooking show, chirpy as she explains the steps to prepare her highly addictive, illicit treat. (These pop cultural vignettes, where Maya mentally superimposes her own, frequently X-rated or grimy habits over squeaky-clean American clichés, are particularly razor-sharp.) Maya is unfocused, incisive, banal and brilliant.
Sharma guides us into Maya’s addiction like slowly boiling us in a pot of water. It’s almost imperceptible to see the change at any given moment, but the danger becomes impossible to ignore at some point. Once there, going elsewhere becomes tricky. Recovery tends to prioritize routine, calm, and the removal of unhealthy influences. Maya’s clean self does things, walks places, eats normal food, all without the pages of frantic thought. These aren’t easy things to propel a narrative forward with.
The latter portion of the book can feel hazy, indistinct and glided over -- certainly reflecting the powerlessness and numbness she comes to accept as a patient, but also, perhaps, because it’s not as thrilling of a subject. That may not be the most unforgettable thread of Problems, but everyday reality often seems lackluster. Nothing about Sharma's debut reads as sensationalized or sanitized or anything but the truth of living through what Maya lives through.
Maya, with her bodily neuroses and impulses and lusts and bolts of cleverly crafted philosophical insight, is the novel. And she's hard to stop watching and caring about and even, optimistically, rooting for.
The Bottom Line:
A psychologically astute portrait of a woman's cycle of addiction, the ebb and flow of her life around it, and her own hilarious, bittersweet and brilliant inner monologue through it all.
What other reviewers think:
Publishers Weekly: "Sharma’s debut novel is an uncompromising and unforgettable depiction of the corrosive loop of addiction."
Kirkus: "An absorbing novel carried by a seemingly hopeless protagonist you will want to befriend and save."
Who wrote it?
Jade Sharma is a writer living in New York City. She has an MFA from the New School, and Problems is her first novel.
Who will read it?
Fans of Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and other genre-bending, memoiristic authors of female experience. Also, readers who enjoy gritty fiction that explores the darker side of human existence.
“Somewhere along the way there stopped being new days. Time progressed for sure: The rain tapered off through the night; near dawn, cars rumbled and then zoomed away. Sounds folded back into the world, moving on, light-years from the living room where I lay around, hardly living.”
“On the toilet, I doubled over in pain. I wanted to fucking die. When I stood up, my vision darkened. I sat back down on the toilet lid. I closed my eyes. Did I need to puke or shit? Did I need more Suboxone, or had I taken too much? I stood up. Shit on the floor and puke in the toilet, or puke on the floor and shit in the toilet? I lay down on the cool tiles with my eyes closed. Get it together. Grow up. Get it together. Darkness. Self-loathing. Regret. I was an addict. I wasn’t an addict; I was just in a fucked up situation. I was going to end up homeless. Everything would be fine. I needed to use a lifeline. I needed to ask the studio audience. I needed to phone a friend.”
By Jade Sharma
Emily Books/Coffee House Press, $16.95
Publishes July 5, 2016
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