The Weightless World
By Anthony Trevelyan
Galley Beggar Press, 2015
270 pages, £11
Reviewed by Jayeeta Ghorai
When a book’s opening line is “Raymond Ess is going to kill me” followed by a few brisk sentences of possible horrific murder details, reader curiosity is naturally tickled. Who is the victim? What has he done to deserve being murdered? Why is he travelling with the man who can perhaps kill him? What is the compulsion?
The story unfolds under a scalding Indian skyline. With the pre-emptive knowledge of likely gruesomeness, the reader’s attention stays focused on the man sitting opposite the narrator-protagonist, expecting to unearth traits of chilling wickedness. One leans across the latticed table, almost over the narrator’s shoulder, yet holding deferentially back, wary of discovery. Ess turns out a bewilderingly affable man. But Mario Puzo has prepared us for the mild-mannered, gentleman Mafia killer, so as a reader, the engagement stays taut.
What emerges is a delicious, slow unravelling of character and plot. Ess, a once-successful English businessman, now badly beaten, has landed in India with his secretary, Steven Strauss, to buy a fantastical invention which can redeem his fate and the future of human existence.
Strauss, as the ineffectual, bumbling tag-along, is the perfect foil to Ess’s exuberant self. The former never does anything worthwhile, and until his humanitarian turn in the end, he never manages to act or speak when he knows he should. He often has no clue what the others are about, partly because of the language barrier but largely because he is so preoccupied with the consequences of his inactions, hanging in a moral limbo between his loyalty to Ess and his silent guilt. His culture shock on the Mumbai streets, doubt in Ess’s eccentric claims about having discovered a reclusive and paranoid inventor hiding in the Indian countryside, his ability to glide over the various twists and turns with not much reaction to speak of, makes Steven Strauss the near-comatose receptor, an avatar if you will, through whom the readers cross over into the realm of disbelief.
Anthony Trevelyan achieves the suspension of disbelief very well. As Strauss’s girlfriend, Alice, puts it, “the link is blurred”; with modern technology and constantly evolving electronic devices like smartspects and jumbo air wings existing in a world simultaneously with the colourful grime and bustle of third world poverty, it is no longer hard to believe that a yet undiscovered mystery lurks somewhere. Strauss’s scepticism, which he only ever speaks of to Alice, builds up to the climax of the book’s first part.
Yet, what happens after the mystery is solved is as important to the story and it is here that Trevelyan stumbles a little. After a very believable ensemble of characters, whose antecedents and motives may not always be clearly worked out, Reva seems two-dimensional and how he dispenses with her seems a lazy ploy.
Reva, viewed only via the description of others, plays an important role in the plot design. She is vital to Ess’s premise succeeding, and when the plan fails, we see him crumpled. In the end, Trevelyan reminds one of Maugham’s short story, The Lotus Eater, of a man consumed by his own grandiose, utopian scheme.
The language worked rather well, especially to highlight Strauss’s dilemma, his constant state of confusion and ennui. The linguistic device of repeating phrases, juxtaposing overturned ideas, feels simplistic enough on first read, almost like baby-talk, but echoes of classic rhetorical tools like anaphora, chiasmus and antimetabole. Trevelyan is sure in his language. Even in the multiple retelling of the same plot points, which haze the lines between facts and lies, the author effectively constructs a miasma of many layers.
My only grouse was with his portrayal of India, I felt it smacked of the Western gaze. He could not get out of the Orientalist prism. Or perhaps a ‘foreigner’, an ex-colonialist, is never allowed to and that is not so much his fault as the face the land chooses to show of itself to any outsider looking in. Anthony Trevelyan’s The Weightless World is a good read, not despite, but because of, these multi-layered, and often uncomfortable, contradictions.