Mukherjee’s fourth novel is an assemblage of three stories that probes the dilemma of meaningful human action in a world designed to promote the agenda of the powerful

How many stories can a novel enclose? Take a case of V.S. Naipaul’s In A Free State (1971), the virtues of which were extolled by Neel Mukherjee in a 2018 piece for The Paris Review. The novel explores themes of displacement through a structure that contains a central novella with additional short stories called “supporting narratives”. Each of these, as Mukherjee writes, asks the questions, “Who is free? And what is the nature of his freedom?”

For Mukherjee, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his 2014 novel The Lives of Others, such braided stories hold an “invisible conversation” with each other, creating a coherence that has deeper foundations than a conventionally plotted realist novel. Much of his own work, such as A State of Freedom (2017) and A Life Apart (2010), aspires to such coherence through the use of thematically-linked tales.

A publisher at war with the world

His new novel continues this project. Choice is an assemblage of three stories that, separately and collectively, probes the dilemma of meaningful human action in a world designed to promote the agenda of the powerful. As the title indicates, each story focuses on individual decisions and their consequences — without, it should be said, exploring the potential for collective action.

The first story, which sets up the rest, is about Ayush, an editorial director at a publishing house who lives in London with his husband and twin children. Ayush’s deep malaise is evident from the start. At bedtime, he makes his children watch disturbing slaughterhouse videos to promote awareness of animal cruelty; his domestic arrangements are marked by OCD-like behaviour; and he is consumed by thoughts that he is merely a “diversity hire”.

His husband, an economist, is fond of saying, “economics is life, life is economics,” and it is this framework that Ayush is fundamentally at odds with. He starts to spiral out of control, a process that is accompanied by bitter satire, notably to do with the publishing industry. Much of this is entertaining and relevant, but some of it is a bit on the nose: for example, the imprint of Sennett and Brewer is known as “Sewer”.

The travails of an academic

In his quest to champion a new kind of published work, Ayush actively promotes two writers. The first is a reclusive, enigmatic figure he corresponds with only via email, and the second is a development economist whom he urges to write about “the biases and elisions and blind spots of your discipline”. These two, it is implied, are the sources of the stories that make up the rest of Choice. “You must change your life”: those haunting last words of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, which often go through Ayush’s mind, echo throughout these tales.

The second part, also based in London, is about the travails of Emily, an academic who is involved in a hit-and-run accident while returning home after dinner in a ride-share taxi. Her reactions to this incident change the course of her studies and relationships for good. She becomes close to the cab driver, an Eritrean immigrant, and passages are also devoted to his illegal and hazardous journey.

Emily starts to question her worldview and “cushioned existence…where life flowed in well-ordered, predictable, predictably comfortable runnels”. Though the entire section is engrossing, some of her choices do come across as extreme, more to highlight the transformative power of the accident than anything else.

An itinerant labourer’s family, on the edge

Finally, the novel shifts to rural Bengal, near the border between India and Bangladesh. Here, a pugnacious Sabita ekes out a meagre living with her two young children in between periodic visits from her husband, an itinerant labourer. The surroundings and activities are richly-detailed, a striking contrast with earlier vivid descriptions of London landscapes. Sabita’s fortunes change when the family is given a cow as part of an income-generating initiative, and the family’s desperate attempts to care for and profit from the creature form the rest of the narrative.

Do the three strings of Choice vibrate when placed next to each other, creating something more than the sum of their parts? Up to a point, certainly. Each story is gripping and the characters’ struggles are well-developed, largely through a close third-person perspective. However, the prose sometimes becomes overly didactic, especially in the first two sections. This can make the resonance between the parts feel externally imposed rather than arising organically.

It ought to be pointed out that Mukherjee does try to pre-empt such criticism. At one point, Ayush ponders the possibility of including stretches of philosophical debate in a novel, “as long as the dialogue is not (as it is not in Coetzee) expository, what they call an ‘information dump’ in creative writing courses”.

Choice grapples with an array of contemporary concerns, including colonialism’s enduring effects, the plight of refugees and the complexities of economic development. This breadth also detracts from its focus. Yet, it does belong to that rare breed, a novel of social ideas that tackles issues of individual agency with flair.

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