Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
shadow

Problems

By Jade Sharma Coffee House Press, 2016 Reading this book is like being inside someone else’s skin. It’s not comfortable. Maya, the book’s protagonist, is a heroin addict. She also eats Xanax and other prescription drugs like candy, all to numb herself from an existence she appears to hate. She’s bored with her husband, Peter, though he seems a nice guy, if ineffective and alcoholic. After only seven months of marriage she takes a lover. Ogden is sixty-ish and her professor. At the beginning of this novella, Maya has failed to finish her thesis. It doesn’t take much to understand that this is because graduating would force her to grow up and actually do something in the world. I wanted to shake Maya. She’s bored because she’s boring. On page 1 she describes herself in her living room, “where I lay around, hardly living.” Apparently (we are told) a good writer, she is mired in a loop of self-loathing. Locked in her own misery, she is unable appreciate anything. At the end of page 1, “Sometimes in the early morning, a man somewhere in the building would yell about the music being too loud. But I never heard any music. I only heard him yelling.” This is a plain enough sentence. It is fantastic writing. By the end of the first page, despite the fact that we already know Maya has really heavy problems, we are locked into her world view. She never hears the music, only the yelling. Maya is self-destructive because she never feels skinny enough, pretty enough or white enough. She’s Indian, married to a Caucasian man. Her mother is critical of her and her deceased father ignored her. By page 23 we know that Maya knows that Peter will eventually leave her and that Ogden, her “safety net”, will do so also. Maya is the classic unreliable narrator because while she believes she’s hateful, her husband’s family is actually very kind to her. But if you believe the worst, it will happen. The rest of the book chronicles the inevitable result and the consequences. The book is structured in a series of paragraphs rather than chapters. Told in the first person, in the past tense, then the present tense, the story switches to the second person in the last two pages as Maya looks to the future. The second person narrator, in which the protagonist is “you” is unusual in literature. It distances the reader from the narrator. Sharma is showing that “you”, meaning the future Maya, is not someone she recognizes, because it describes someone who is relatively healthy. Maya is brutally honest in her existential angst. She’s also occasionally witty. The link between drug addiction and mental illness is apparent, arousing our compassion. Jade Sharma has managed quite a feat here – to write a page-turner about an unsympathetic character. This book is beautifully produced by Coffee House Press. This non-profit organization, which “champions transgressive, genre-blurring writing by (mostly) women,” has produced a winner in Problems. Hopefully Jade Sharma will write more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *