“Relevant” has always seemed to me a bewildering choice of praise for works of fiction. What light can a measure of relevance throw on art? And what constitutes relevance anyway? Any good story will capture something both specific and universal, so any relevancy attributes are as much a reflection on the reader as they are a qualitative assessment of the work.
But lately – and unfortunately – “relevant” seems to be a placeholder for “current news”. What if there was a bingo card for what makes a novel timely, Identify yourself, Mithu Sanyal’s debut work of fiction, translated from German by Alta L Price, would decimate the game. Privilege Olympiads, Twitter shitstorms, university politics—it’s all there, delivered at the rate of one joke per paragraph.
At the University of Düsseldorf, 20-year-old Nivedita is a doctoral student. She also manages the blog “Identitti”, she operates in the currency of coolness, she uses words like “herstory” and, born to a German mother and Indian father, she considers her interest in postcolonial studies more of a vocation than anything else. The sun in her orbit is her advisor Saraswati, a celestial being with whom Nivedita defines everything in relation, her gravity strong enough to keep Nivedita’s past and present, real and imagined, in motion.
Their relationship is fraught with both epistemic and emotional tension, and though parasocial at first, its asymmetry is altered by news that tears the ground out from under an unsuspecting Nivedita’s feet: Saraswati is in fact white. But it also makes Nivedita’s dream come true: their relationship transcends the classroom as she lands in Saraswati’s spare room, eating the night oats Saraswati prepares for her, using Saraswati’s vibrator, and trying to peel away the layers from the untouchable deity that came. know the professor of her like.
There’s also Priti, Nivedita’s cousin whom she loves in the complicated way you can only love your sister, and who without thinking about it causes the fiasco to explode. As the novel opens, Nivedita’s on-and-off boyfriend Simon has done another disappearing act for her, and as she nervously awaits the fate of their relationship, drama erupts.
Race and recognition
In the Identify yourselfrace is the axis on which all experience of daily life revolves. Not white enough to never wonder where she’s from, Nivedita is also not black or brown enough to wear the label Victim of Racial Discrimination without feeling some discomfort. Who is she really and who is she trying to be? Her questions haunt her at every turn, but the fact that it’s only her ghosts to face drives her mad.
In the dialogues and, often, at the beginning of chapters, there is a smattering of quotations generous enough to make the average liberal arts student smile smugly. Sure, honey, that was all about the program. Especially for those who recognize the refuge that a student engaged simultaneously in a particular blend of empowerment politics and self-discovery mission finds in the classroom, reading Identify yourself it will look like a faithful representation. A few paragraphs, however, will have this same reader wondering (perhaps from his own experience writing to impress) whether the writing is bizarre or just littered with weirdness.
India is for Nivedita an idea that carries the promise of salvation, but all of her associations with India are so riddled with NRI clichés (yoga, turmeric, Amrita Sher-gil paintings…you see the drift) that it’s pretty hard to take his activities seriously, academically or personally. An interesting presence is Kali, who is both the interlocutor and the alter ego of Nivedita, hovering in the rooms and on her conscience. Nivedita asks her questions, looks at her for clues, shares observations with her that can become tweets. A dutiful participant, Kali also responds, but for a character initially written with as much promise, she seems underutilized, often no more than a prop for Nivedita’s inner monologue.
Life on the net
The place of Sararwati’s downfall also extends beyond Nivedita’s psyche to the landmine that is the internet. Hashtags are trending, battle lines are being picked, ugly distortions of identity politics abound. But at the risk of sounding very 22, there is something about an internet scandal that can only be captured by the chaos of being on the internet.
It’s certainly an interesting time for the internet novel; enough of them have come out in recent years to claim a genre of their own, yet what it means to write on the internet remains unsatisfactorily explored. Part of the problem is its overwhelming scale: How do you start presenting a slice of all life that happens online? Capturing the experience of being on the Internet, however, above all requires striking a balance between two apparent contradictions of condition: fragmentation and fluidity.
On one level, as anyone in our protagonist’s demographic will attest, the Internet is a sort of shared consciousness, a breathing thing that we’re awake to even when we’re not hunched over our phones. Instead inside Identify yourself, the story moves between tweets and narration as if they were two different rooms, entering one while requiring to leave the other. At the same time, our Internet experiences are so deeply individual, almost solitary (thanks, algorithms) that the stakes of a novel like Identify yourself it will be lost on a reader who doesn’t share a very particular understanding of internet culture.
A popular expression on the Internet reads “all I know [topic X] I know against my will. The wonder – and tragedy – of the internet is that topic X is a set that stretches infinitely into the strangest of horizons, in a way that real life does not. Identify yourself is an attempt to explore whether this might be a gift in disguise and what it can tell us about our place in a world where there are no mores to give meaning are sacred. And what about material and useful resolutions, you ask? Don’t be silly, you don’t come to the internet for that.
Identify yourselfMithu Sanyal, translated by Alta L Price, Astra House.