REVIEW: Noon by Aatish Taseer
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Faber & Faber
300 pp / $25
In January 2011, Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was assassinated in Islamabad by his own bodyguard. As the world took stock of this brutal killing, passed off as an act of patriotism, so too did Salman’s estranged half-Indian son Aatish.
Aatish Taseer is the author of two already notable works. The Temple-Goers is his debut novel, a tense political thriller full of bribery, betrayal, and murder. His sophomore effort, Stranger to History, is a memoir analyzing the Muslim world, and its scathing critiques strained his already distant relationship with his father. Taseer was all set to climb out of polemics and delve back into the world of fiction when his father was surprisingly murdered. This tragedy adds palpable urgency to Noon, a sprawling account of moral degradation in late 20th/early 21st century India and Pakistan.
Noon is Rehan Tabassum’s coming of age story. Like Taseer himself, Rehan’s heritage is split. He lives in Delhi with his mother, a successful lawyer now married to a wealthy industrialist, but his biological father, a telecommunications mogul, is a Pakistani Muslim living in Port bin Qasim. Curiosity for this buried root of his family tree draws Rehan out of the opulent comfort of his mother’s Indian home down into the seedy underbelly of Pakistan.
Noon reflects many of the experiences of its author. In his early 20s, Taseer visited several Islamic countries, including Iran, Turkey, and Saudia Arabia, in order to gather material for Stranger to History. He capped it off with a visit to Pakistan, where he finally met his real father. Rehan attempts to forge a similar relationship by navigating his real father’s corrupt world. Noon’s careful yet nimble prose captures the visceral quality of this world in decline through a keenly critical and coldly detached lens.
The non-linear narrative begins in 2006, jumps back to 1989, and then jumps back further to 1986 before plowing through two decades. By the time we reach 2011, an apropos summary of the journey thus far is offered. “If everyone has a book in them,” Rehan says, his own cannot be one with “a beginning, a middle and an end.” It is a mistake, he concludes, to “string life together” in an attempt to “appear as whole before the world.” Speaking as a surrogate for Taseer, Rehan is one-hundred percent correct: Noon does not appear as whole before the world. By Part 3, one wonders what the big picture is. The truth, if we take Rehan/Taseer at their word, is that there is no big picture. This isn’t a problem per se, but there will be many readers looking for one and coming up empty-handed.
Those not in need of such grandiosity will enjoy the narrative circularity. Moral corruption, greed, and violence are not glamorized or sensationalized; they are recursive facts of life, eternally returning as Nietzsche would’ve guessed, and modern day Pakistan is not immune. As we jump from decade to decade, from protagonist to protagonist, we finally settle on Rehan’s quest. But at this point, we wonder if Noon is, in fact, Rehan’s story, and not India and Pakistan’s story?
Noon’s non-linearity invites one minor pitfall: internal comparison. It’s hard not to choose which of the five sections is best (six if you count the litany of blog posts at the end, which is a clever way to conclude this kind of novel). For my money, it’s Part 3, “Notes from a Burglary (2006).” It pops with the verve of a great detective story, filled with suspense and scandal, but also empathy and even meta-fiction. Without giving anything away, it is a marvelously constructed mystery with a pulpy yet mildly ridiculous scenario, witty without being laborious. Best of all, it finally threads the main narrative yarn. In the prologue, we know that Rehan is venturing to Port bin Qasim in search of his real father. By the end of Part 3, we are convinced (without being told!) as to why.
Ultimately, Noon feels like a collection of short vignettes. Flannery O’Connor proved that it’s possible to compile short stories into one master narrative (see Wise Blood), but she never played with narrative time like Taseer does. Noon attempts to be big, and it is quite literally big, spanning two decades and all. But it doesn’t feel big. It also doesn’t feel small. It will feel different to different readers. Much as it willfully rejects appearing as whole before the world, Noon doesn’t feel whole inside the reader. That appears to be the point — feeling “unwhole” is more akin to our actual human experience.
— Stephen Spencer lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has an M.A. in English Literature from Brooklyn College and is currently teaching composition there. He writes creatively in his spare time.