Reviewed by Loie Rawding
224 pp. Catapult
When this moment passes, what will we most thankful for? How will we manage our resentments and our ironies; the failures we’ve inflicted upon others? What will the value be of one human, four humans, 55,780 humans? How will you value yourself? These are questions I’m asking myself as I field near-constant messaging from friends, family, work, and every kind of ex, all while I manage the minute-to-minute health and well-being of my four-year-old twins. All while I bicker and then make up with my partner in a kind of desperation we haven’t experienced since our early days. I am not unique in these endeavors, quite the opposite. I’ve been feeling remarkably average during these long hours and short days; hearing over and over again that during these unprecedented times we’re all in this together. I say it too, mindful that this is not a true statement. One block north of our house in East Nashville, Tennessee, I check in with neighbors whose houses were wiped off the face of the earth in a tornado that slammed into us one week before COVID-19 kicked our kids out of school and made our places of work unsafe or inviable. This is just one example, a mild one, as I also consider how this global crisis is hitting the poorest populations the hardest. So here I am, asking myself over and over again: What will the value be of one human, four humans, or, as updated fifteen minutes after I began this review, 56,570 humans?
When I discovered Vikram Paralkar’s Night Theater, I was excited to dig into the sophomore novel from a writer whose day job happens to be an oncologist and researcher at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The process of reading the book took longer than usual for a variety of reasons, least of all a natural disaster and a pandemic. But I found myself returning each night to read a few pages and sink into a warm, if unsettling, darkness; into a language that sings of deeply moving, personal questions about the afterlife and the extent that one could or should help others while we’re all still living. These issues have long been potent literary fodder, of course. Night Theater was first published as The Wounds of the Dead in India, 2017. They are uniquely handled with the discerning scientific intelligence of a gifted writer who also happens to save lives with advanced medical techniques. Literally. He must do this all time; save lives, I mean. So, while the rest of us writers wonder what’s the damn point, this author is at a hospital continuing to save lives while potentially putting his own life at risk. I don’t write this way to guilt you into reading the book. Only to say that there is power that literature can wield, but it can only go so far. At a certain point, soon, we will need to look up from our journals and our drafts. We will need to interrogate this mysterious quest to return to “normal,” when this status continues to let humanity down. We will need to find the active ways to be truly radical in our empathy, our spirituality, our science. To survive, we will need be better versions of ourselves. This book is not about an apocalypse or a pandemic. Because of this it has served me well, granting escape from a “reality” that I’ve pretty much had enough of, but it also foisted upon me the existential questions I’ve listed above. This duality is what exceptionally calculated magical realism can do, and for that I am very grateful.
How strangely appropriate that Night Theater tells the story of a disillusioned, aging surgeon, Saheb, stuck and exploited in a remote Indian village. Late one night, a family enters the dilapidated clinic desperate for help. They are terrified; exhibiting gruesome, life-threatening wounds. They also have no pulse, no blood in their bodies, because they are already dead. Taken down on the side of the road in a murderous robbery, this husband, pregnant wife, and son have returned from the afterlife with an impossible plea. When the sun rises, life will return to their bodies. The surgeon must mend their injuries so that they may remain in the realm of the living. If he fails, they return to the afterlife, a bureaucratic wasteland with arbitrary officials posing as angels, with no sense of time to attach to, no music, no light. The rules of the game are laid out with a cold precision, for no journey can occur between worlds without a seemingly senseless list of regulations that stifle the hero and his charges. Saheb takes them in, and recruits his young assistant from the village—known only as the Pharmacist—to help with the exhausting procedures. There is an expediency to the narrative that I admire and value in its application to violence, active verbs and hyper-sensory descriptions that encapsulate the physical setting as well as the detached perceptions of Saheb’s mind and body: “As the lights in the village winked out one by one, he tried to push away his own disquiet while he waited, but it was like trying to sweep a fog aside with his fingers. Whatever this was, this inescapable madness, he would have to get through it. He would pretend that the visitors had been wheeled in on gurneys, with lolling heads and frothing mouths, victims of some mysterious accident. He would just do his job, and let the pieces fall as they would.”
Layers of mirrors stack up as Saheb learns more about the family, the afterlife and its grotesque similarities to the unfair living world. A hot tension builds between superstition and science. With his hands buried in the clotted blood and broken organs of these bodies who can talk but feel no pain, Saheb engages in thoughtful debate about the differences between enchantment and mystification. A debate that feels ever essential right now and I recall something from Anne Boyer’s The Undying: “Enchantment is not the same thing as mystification. One is the ordinary magic of all that exists existing for its own sake, the other an insidious con. Mystification blurs the simple facts of the shared world to prevent us from changing it.” Night Theater reignites the potential of enchantment, pursuing complicated issues of how those in power rely on mystification to maintain control and delegate those who live and die, who gets to thrive and who is deprived. Saheb’s long night drags on, philosophy and science shift into each other’s dance space and the reader is lulled into the improvisational choreography by language that evokes some of the most desirable bedside manner I’ve ever encountered.
Paralkar’s skillful execution of language personifies an operating room and the nature that lies just beyond, while fertile wombs become hopeless, bloodless vessels: “The fluorescent light emitted a low electric buzz that he hadn’t noticed before. Outside the window, a lone crow cawed—a cry of insomnia and longing, if indeed the fauna of this earth were subject to the same torments as mankind. He looked up at the metal loop in the ceiling and shifted his neck this way and that, but it no longer seemed like an eye. It just returned to him the bland look of an inanimate object. The ceiling had no sight, nor did anything beyond it. The dead had been flung at his feet and abandoned.” This creates the sensation that there is potential in all things, that the conditions of this magic might not be so far off from the magic waiting for us right outside our door. To survive in the land of the living, in whatever may or may not await us on the other side of a heartbeat, means to embrace a level of sublimity that even the most skilled among us cannot control: “Deranged was really the only word for this. It was impossibly deranged, like some device of torture, full of traps and locks and monstrosities . . . dazzling, now that he stopped to think about it. …The veil that separated the worlds of the living and the dead was now so thin that it might tear at the gentlest touch.” Of course, there are consequences and repercussions to changing the course of nature. By the end of the novel, the potential of coming back to life is as complicated, convoluted, flawed, and unfair as the prospect of death.
This is supposed to be a review of a novel. I’m sure by now it is apparent that I am struggling with the idea of critiquing any art at a time like this; creating anything more than a half-decent meal for my kids feels impossible enough so what right do I have to share this when doctors, nurses, mail carriers, sanitation workers, shoppers, care givers, researchers, undocumented workers, and journalists are risking their lives to save lives, to keep people comfortable and secure? What can literature do when African Americans and Latinx populations are dying of COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate; when domestic abuse is at an all-time high; when our government willingly watches innocent immigrants die in illegal detention of illness that we exposed them to? These are just a few truths we must face right now, more and more mirrors to add to the pile. There is also profound enchantment in this world and we have a rare opportunity to slow down and seek it out, to change the normal before it sinks its teeth into us again. For what it’s worth, this particular work of enchanting literature deserves to be read and shared and discussed. I believed this fact before the month of March fell at our feet and I believe it even more now.
Loie Rawding grew up on the coast of Maine. Her work has been featured in various journals and magazines in the US and abroad. She is a Teaching Artist with The Porch Writers Collective and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Loie’s debut novel, Tight Little Vocal Cords, will be released from KERNPUNKT this year. Loie also reviewed Imaginary Museums for ACM earlier this year