Jade Sharma’s Problems Are Other People. Also Heroin.

The debut novel from Jade Sharma puts its hero through the wringer

By the final third of Jade Sharma’s first novel Problems, Maya has lost her barely-there bookstore job, her husband Peter, her lover Ogden, and whatever control she had over her heroin habit. When Peter tells her he is leaving, she snorts two bags in front of him. “I told him I would kill myself, because no one was allowed to just leave someone like that. He didn’t respond. Was I actually going to have to kill myself to prove a point?”

She starts turning tricks for dope money. “People said women who did this kind of thing had no self-respect. I had no idea what that meant, because I got off on doing it […] When they handed me cash, I felt like a champ.”

Not much later she overdoses and is placed in a psych ward.

Problems is a novel about an over-educated member of the upper-middle class (or maybe just upper class? When her dad dies, she inherits a quarter-million dollars) and therapy comes up a lot. Maya tells a story about her mother throwing away her grade-school art project while sticking her brother’s A test onto the fridge. “A concise little story that played well in therapy.” At another point, Maya interrupts a scene and jumps forward to a therapy session where she explains to her therapist why she thinks she behaved the way she did, and how she felt about it.

She has reasons to complain. Insufferable people surround her. The longest stretch of the novel details a trip to her husband Peter’s childhood home for Thanksgiving. His parents are too thrifty and too religious and yell at Maya when she makes them watch a romantic comedy with sex in it. Peter is awful in his own way. “He would wake up early, go for a run, do sit-ups as he watched The Colbert Report.”

Maya has problems besides heroin but they never resolve in the way her addiction does. Binging and purging, a bad relationship with her MS-afflicted mother, a bad relationship with most people: Sharma smartly treats these as things to endure rather than as things to address.

The book skirts with equating the act of writing with redemption (Maya is in either an MFA or some kind of English grad program). I get wary when a character in a drug story has a talent that goes to waste. More chances for the story to get maudlin. Elizabeth, also an addict, tells Maya, “But you can write, you have a place you can put everything. I don’t know where to put things. You can make something out of all the ugliness.” Granted it’s a character talking, one who also says things like, “We can still get discovered, you know? We’re still young.” And Maya argues she doesn’t identify as a writer anymore. Still, by the end of the book she is sober and up all night writing poetry.

Maya is an intelligent, opinionated, insecure, hilarious personality. Her life is unstable in such a way that all the author has to do is pull one string (have Peter leave) to make her whole existence unravel. Finally Maya has no one left who isn’t an addict except her former lover Ogden. Barely. He emails from across the country. “Maybe it was easier for him to share stuff with me because I no longer matter.” He suggests she rent out her living room for extra money. Pretty soon: “I’m living with a person who has his shit together, and I go back to school. I never make the decision to clean up but change happens in these small ways.” A happy ending doesn’t seem right so let’s say Problems doesn’t wholly have one. Maya rebuilds her life but she isn’t there for it; in the final pages the narration switches to second-person present-tense. Not the first time Maya disappears from her own story, but it is the last.

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