If there is one aspect of Pasha Malla’s new novel, Fugue States, that will linger in the mind long after you’ve finished the last page, it will be the book’s supremely rendered portrait of an obnoxious friend from the past. Have we all not had someone like this in our lives before? A person whom we’ve known for years, even decades, and maintained a relationship with out of a dyed-in-the-wool loyalty, but whose behaviour and attitudes grow more foreign to us with each passing year? A special someone who seems not to have matured very much since the early days when we first knew him, or has matured in very different ways than us, and yet has maintained access to certain intimate elements of who we are, our secrets and our history and our fears, by the simple fact that he has been in our lives for so long?
The protagonist of Fugue States, a Kashmiri-Canadian named Ash Dhar, certainly has such a person in his life: his childhood friend, Matt, a pot-smoking, lady-playing, scrotum-swatting, armrest-on-an-airplane-hogging tornado of a human being. With Matt, Malla has created the very essence of a pristinely thoughtless person determined to live life to the fullest. Matt has jumped around in his career, from acting to professional skiing to massage therapy; he treats most women he encounters as sexual conquests; he takes great relish in convincing his guy friends to do things they’re not quite comfortable with in the interest of “making memories”; and he engages in elaborate manscaping, shaving various intimate parts of his body. Indeed, his entire life appears to be one grand, childish performance; or as Ash sagely puts it, “for Matt, acting was the same as being.” If Fugue States were turned into a film, one could see Matt played by a bald, goofy Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey pushing forty. Ash and Matt grew up together in London, Ontario, and their lives have taken decidedly divergent paths (the far more sensitive Ash has published a single obscure novel and now hosts a book show on the radio), to the point where we get the sense that Ash would have ended his friendship with Matt long ago if it were not for the intense loyalty his friend has shown him throughout the years.
This loyalty comes to the fore in the main crux of the novel’s plot: Ash’s father, Brij, has passed away, and Ash has travelled from Toronto to Montreal for the funeral and to be with his sister, Mona. To their surprise, Matt shows up at the funeral as well, and decides to stick around to lend the family moral support, especially after Ash shows signs of being out of sorts after the death of his father. (“How to sum up a life once it was gone?” he asks himself in the lugubrious throes of his grief.) In these scenes, we can see how Matt transforms his fidelity toward his friend into a kind of imposition, and his presence foists a number of awkward moments onto Ash, Mona, and Mona’s callous husband, Harj. Malla then pivots his story using what feels like a standard trope of “literary” fiction: while poking around in Brij’s belongings, Ash discovers a manuscript for a novel, faded and incomplete, that his father had tried to write years earlier. We are hardly surprised when Ash, in his grief, decides he wants to learn more about this mysterious book, and considers launching himself on a Don Quixote-like quest to discover its origins and how his father might have wanted to finish it. It is a journey that would, if Ash were brave and reckless enough, take him to his father’s mountainous and war-torn homeland of Kashmir.
But Malla wants to play his cards much more cagily than that, and his desire to subvert our expectations of how this story could unfold forms the cornerstone of Fugue States. There is a deliberately metafictional moment in the book when Ash acknowledges how hackneyed his own story is quickly turning:
“[B]rown boy’s dad dies, brown boy feels to the fatherland to discover who he really is? No thanks. I’ve seen the movie and it sucks … Going to Kashmir? After my dad dies? What a cliché. Picture it: me scattering the cremains from some mountain, and then honouring his memory by completing his opus. And then what? People read it and are so moved that peace descends on the Valley? Or worse, I win a prize?”
In fact, Malla spends much of his novel attempting to undermine the trajectory that we come to expect from this sort of narrative setup. If this were a typical Canadian literary novel, one would presume that Ash would use his father’s long-lost manuscript as the catalyst for a sombre, emotion-laden trip to India/Kashmir to discover some undisclosed family secret, with Matt tagging along as the loyal but annoying sidekick. Instead, it is Matt, not Ash, who takes this trek abroad. Yes, that’s right. Matt treats Ash’s own obsession as just the initiative he needs to travel to the other side of the world and have the adventure of a lifetime. Ash, meanwhile, blows a radio interview with a major, unnamed Canadian author (described, simply and hilariously, as The Behemoth) and settles for spending some time back home in London with his mother (who divorced Brij years earlier, and now has a new partner) and with Mona as her own marriage begins to disintegrate.
This neatly established parallel construction – Matt busy “making memories” in Ash’s supposed homeland while Ash has a comparably pedestrian break with his family in boring London, Ontario – helps to explain the title of the novel. Malla has structured his book to resemble a musical fugue, with Ash’s story established and then taken over by Matt in contrapuntal fashion; and to help us along, we are reminded at the beginning of each new section of the book of the various elements to the definition of a musical fugue. It’s a neat trick that helps to hold the more counterintuitive elements of the book’s plot together. There is another definition of fugue, that of the ‘fugue state’ and its concomitant loss of memory and sense of self, that comes into play later in the story, and which works significantly less well. In the meantime, we enjoy the unfolding of Matt and Ash’s respective stories, and they only come together after Matt is arrested when he nearly kills someone while entangled with the Russian mafia in India, and Ash must finally travel there to help him out. As he tells his radio producer Sherene, whom he secretly loves, “I’ve got one friend living a kind of suburban nightmare while another one goes and nearly kills some kid on the other side of the goddamn world.”
What stands out in this novel’s unique narrative, and perhaps saves it in those moments when it pushes the unique button a bit too hard, is the power and clarity of its prose. Malla, who was much praised for his debut short story collection, The Withdrawal Method, which won or was nominated for a truckload of awards, is a master of description and a sublime spinner of clever phrases. Throughout Fugue States, I found myself marking sentences with double or even triple check marks: Malla describes a Heineken beer as “skunky”; he labels Mona’s soon-to-be ex-spouse Harj, who never once fits in with the family, as an “invasive species of husband”; he terms a certain meal as “quinoa-based sludge and mixed shrubbery,” and I thought to myself, Yes, yes I’ve eaten exactly that crap. He also includes a perfectly rendered scene in London when Ash passes his father’s unfinished manuscript off as his own at a writing workshop sponsored by the library and led by an eccentric author manqué. Reminiscent of Lynn Coady’s novel Mean Boy, the episode is both hilarious and cringe-inducing.
While Fugue States’s prose is strong enough to carry it through even the most bizarre or confusing scenes, I did find that there were elements of the book I was much more critical of as it approached its end. There appeared to be many, many sub-elements of the story that just went nowhere, that piled up like strange, unused components from a piece of Ikea furniture. We learn in passing, for example, that Matt’s own mother committed suicide, but Malla doesn’t use this information subsequently in any discernible way. There’s a scene in which Ash finds himself singing the Canadian national anthem with a kid from New Zealand in a hotel pool, an episode that just doesn’t hold together at all. Matt, meanwhile, gets into a heated conversation while on a bus with a couple in India about Hindu versus Muslim nationalism, and this exchange seems to have no point. Malla does virtually nothing with Ash’s obvious feelings for Sherene. And the novel’s final, big twist, when Ash enters a literal and unexplained fugue state during his flight to India, forgetting who he is or what he’s doing there, doesn’t really work or make sense. This leads Matt to take advantage of his friend during a creepily sexualized massage, and his subsequent actions feel as if they come out of left field. While the massage scene is tense and well-written – it brought to mind the horrendous sexual assault described in Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge – one can’t help but see Matt’s final villainy as deeply unfounded or unearned.
Still and all, despite being marred by story components that don’t really connect to its broader narrative superstructure, Fugue States is incredibly engrossing. The dynamic of Ash and Matt’s friendship – at least until it goes completely off the rails near the end – is gripping, authentic, and brilliantly executed. One gets the sense that Malla has lived with these characters for a long time and knows their every flaw, their every secret and moment of self-doubt. I’m almost certain that we have never seen a protagonist’s childhood friend as deliciously obnoxious as Matt anywhere in literature before, and I dare say we may never see one like him again.