Don’t judge Quarantine by its tacky pink cover with four denim-clad crotch shots. It is an intelligent and funny collection of short stories, written comfortably and unaffectedly out of a gay Indian-American self.
There are stories of adolescent friendships that go slack over time, of the relationship between different generations of an immigrant family, of the spikiness of a long-term relationship on the skids. They do seem like different corners of the same person’s experience, but they are different enough in depth and effect to keep one entertained and charmed.
A couple of these stories have an overly workshopped feel — the flash of recognition, the piling of quirky detail are all technically in place — but lack punch or import. And sometimes, they are way too baggy. “Yours”, for instance, meanders on, crab-like, for 40 pages about a love triangle of sorts between the narrator, his dancer-boyfriend and an older artist-writer. Its revelations are trite — that when you’re a character in someone else’s book, it’s not you any more, all fiction is true lies. It bristles with pop culture references — Janet Jackson’s career, a tedious conversation about Whitney Houston’s vs. Dolly Parton’s rendering of I will always love you. Some of these references serve a purpose, like the Robert Mapplethorpe-Andres Serrano-NEA episode, as they reveal cultural tensions of the time — but mostly they are just used as a thickening agent, and it makes the story one goopy mess.
Being Indian American and being gay are crucial facts in this collection, but they do not determine or limit the narrator. In fact, India is only dimly present in this collection — a place whose poverty assails visitors, a place that aged relatives pine for, a place enterprising young men escape in search of “a better life” for their children. “The Cure”, for instance, is a sharp little story about a young man who can’t help burning money — literally — over a kitchen sink, one after the other, “until my wallet was empty and I felt full”. The pathology stems from an incident in India, where an eight-year-old carries his bag for less than a dollar, and then later, after he is treated to a thousand-dollar meal at Le Bernadin in New York, from his parents’ painstaking, scrimping route to prosperity, and his own sense of taint and guilt. Another story, “Citizen”, is about a Gujarati grandmother and her adolescent grandson who is prepping her for American citizenship test, after 9/11 leaves the family shaken and insecure. What it might lack in psychological layering (lonely grandmother, drifting into dreams of her childhood, and her inconsistently kind grandson), it makes up for in sweet comedy. The bewildered grandmother fails every question at the exam (despite her grandson and the officer trying their best to help). When asked to name the three colours of the American flag, she says “Vite? Red?” and then blanks out, until the officer points emphatically at his periwinkle tie, and she says “blue” with a big smile, hoping this counted as three correct answers out of five. The story breaks off at the end of the interview, leaving the characters arrested in a golden autumn afternoon. And that’s enough.
My favourite in this collection is “What We Mean”, where the whimsy and sensitivity of the narrator and the loopy style of storytelling work perfectly. The narrator, stuck with temp work and an unravelling relationship, is struck by the sliding relationship of words and meanings. His grocery lists drift into a crazy code: “I replace cereal with surreal, Glad Bags with Sad Bags, coffee with sneezy and lettuce with let’s.” An injunction to a neighbour, “Move your car, s’il vous plait”, becomes “Move your car, Sylvia Plath” and then simply “Sylvia! Sylvia! Sylvia!” tucked under the windshield wipers. Later, when he rescues a dog, he wonders what it is barking at, and thinks of “TV dogs like Lassie, Benji and Rin Tin Tin. When those dogs bark, they are trying to communicate something vital. People who hear them understand.”
Quarantine is above all, a kind book. Relationships mutate, things are miscommunicated or left unsaid, but nearly all the stories foreground the warmth and connection between people. It is less about sexuality or erotic awakening as much as affection and banter, the support of family and friends, the durability of affection.