V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961; Vintage 2001)

We’re in British colonial Trinidad. Sugar plantations (only the most recent and enduring of Spanish, French, and English cash crop profiteering over the past five hundred years) sicken the island’s sweetness. Slavery’s legacy and indentured servitude cast a pall over the hardscrabble diaspora. And American military outposts, in the death spiral of a second world war, are commandeering property with heedless momentum.

That’s just the setting. The real story is about a character: Mr. Mohun Biswas. Mr. Biswas is a second-generation, Indo-Trinidadian son of rag-and-bone poverty, the likes of which you really have to look to Émile Zola’s coalminers or Steinbeck’s Joads to find as grim a picture. And it only gets grimmer: an arranged, unhappy marriage; inescapable debt; children he can’t support; disastrous business ventures; and humiliation at every turn.

It’s always a tough thing, reading a story like this. It takes a lot out of you. Because you know just how pervasive experiences like this have been—how pervasive they continue to be. But this is why reading is so important, I think. Reading lets us share in the lives of those we might never have known anything about. And even in the most alien of circumstances, even at the outermost edge of difference, we often find connection, similarity, emotional and psychological kinship. And if we’ve made ourselves truly available to the story, we expand the map of our empathies and understandings.

Mr. Biswas, for me, exemplifies the point. His is not just the story of colonial degradation. It’s the story of every hardworking person who, out of duty and pride and ambition and need, overcommits, overworks, overdoes it in every way, so that midlife greets him like T.S. Eliot’s snickering footman, and instead of ending the journey there, fastens to the traveler’s back even heavier loads: disease, anxiety, depression, and debts that make all earlier deficits seem like sunny clearings in a garden of chrysanthemums.

Nearing midlife myself—maybe even anchored, already, on its shores, who knows—that connection between incessant, meaningless labor and a dogging, inner desperation to create for oneself a home becomes clearer every day. Of the many crises Mr. Biswas and his family face, this is the one that haunts me most. We have, in Biswas, a man who has every reason to lament his broken history—the loss of India, the loss of parents (a father dead too soon and a mother too poor to be a mother), the loss of a childhood home. And yet, what he wants isn’t reclamation. He’s not interested in his roots. Even when his mother passes, it’s a debacle over a death certificate that provokes emotion. Mr. Biswas just wants to make something for himself. A house for Mr. Biswas. His own little dwelling in the vast, rocky inconsequence of space. But the path to that dwelling has been blocked by obligations meted out by custom long before he was ever born. And that’s one of the many tragedies running parallel to the main plot of this novel.

There’s a place, in the story, I’ve been to—not in real life, of course, but in that region of the mind we share with all literary figures. It’s called Green Vale, a little set-aside place where Mohun starts to build the house he’s always wanted. We arrive at Green Vale as Mr. Biswas arrives at his early thirties, what should be the halfway station of his life. V.S. Naipaul even situates this part of the novel halfway through book—a writerly move much appreciated by this reader. But as the ramshackle roost (hardly the house Biswas had imagined) sinks him into debt and further exacerbates strained relations between himself and his wife, his children, and his extended family, a storm approaches, and along with it, a nervous breakdown.

It’s here, which is to say, in the middle of things, that I’ll end my brief overview, since the middle of things is where Mr. Biswas left it, and since the middle of things is where we’ll all leave it. Surely, to that end, one of Naipaul’s greatest achievements in this novel is his depiction of the anxiety disorder that follows his nervous breakdown. What Naipaul gets especially right is that first mental violation that leaves Biswas vulnerable the rest of his life to panic attacks. There is nothing gradual about it, no warmup or transition. One minute, “The mind was clear,” he says. Then, “The image changed.”

Mr. Biswas experiences reprieves from his distress, sometimes even long durations of it, but the scaffolding of his disorder—stress, debt, embarrassment, longing, desperation—never improves, not that anyone ever said it would. And it’s a good thing the novel doesn’t entertain promises like that. This is a life, after all, not a fairy tale.