There is no good reason why Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation should be so very boring. It is, for a start, supposedly the book that introduces the “Karachi Noir” genre, and the literary equivalent of being born with a silver spoon for any author is to make his debut already named paladin of a city, trustee of its milieu and mythos. Its protagonist is theoretically ideal: the sort of world-weary, multifarious man who doesn’t think twice before downing a glass in a cabaret dancer’s quarters and doesn’t flinch upon being told it has been spiked with opium, who wanders through its darker districts considering the novel’s single good line, “So much of a city’s value depends on what it offers the lonely”. Even its cover, if one can be so facile, is tantalizing: curving hips corseted in rhinestones, the novel’s title posed alluringly where the belly ends.
The narrator, Shahbaz, returns to Pakistan after two decades in Paris, an emissary on his father’s behalf to negotiate a family dispute over a large orchard. His aunt, the tempestuous, mentally unstable Mona Phuppi, wants to sell it. Shahbaz’s father, in exile at a distance, refuses. Shahbaz first sets up shop at the Khyber Hotel, then moves to the home of his father’s old friend, a well-connected brigadier. He becomes involved with Malika, a dancer from Cairo who calls him “darleeng” and both talks and behaves like a caricature. These are the ‘70’s, and Pakistan is still a nation divided into East and West, and Karachi’s cultural life is not just politically-motivated, but also something out of Bollywood: seedy, sleazy, and a little over-the-top.
Yet, it’s a challenge to keep turning Invitation’s pages. Even as far as halfway into the story, it fails to seize the reader’s attention. Shahbaz does not contain, in spite of a very few revelatory moments that suggest he might, enough in himself to moor the work. There is only one incident that carries in it the tensions this novel aspires to recreate, and that is a memory, a comparison between the dangers of Pakistan and France: caught unawares doing lines of coke in an unlocked bathroom stall in Paris, Shahbaz gives up the Ayatul Kursi he wears to the stranger who insinuates that there will be trouble otherwise. He follows the stranger. He does not know what to do, feels locked out of the city’s ciphers, contemplates his own helplessness. This consciousness of urbanity, human weakness and peril, ostensibly what the novel is all about, emerges nowhere else.
Fazli fares worst when it comes to evoking the urgency and intrigue of the times he is writing about. The weight and charge of history never fuels the plot in a convincing or exciting way. Karachi itself, as a figment of fiction, takes on no distinctive dimensions: it could be the underbelly of any city, anywhere, give or take a few locational markers and references. Even still, this underbelly lacks shape in some ways – it is dutifully sordid, but ultimately not thrilling or gritty.
The novel moves at a curious, uninspiring pace: not eloquent enough to be literary fiction, not snappy enough to be pulp fiction, and certainly not sexy or ambient enough to be noir. There is, through the narrative, what can only be described as a sense of laziness – as if the author threw in a little sex, a little violence, a dusting of old school family saga charm, set it all against the backdrop of historical incidents, then sat back and expected a full-fledged book, confident in the formula.
One wishes this was a bad book. That it uses language poorly, gives in to easy emotional manipulation, or takes leaps of logic and license. It would, in that case, either have been entertaining in some cynical way or at least ingratiating enough to write at length about. Instead, it is the worst thing a book can be: lackluster and forgettable. So much so that even skimming its pages during a perfunctory second reading, a search for a single quotable paragraph that might illustrate its sorry state yields nothing. The entire novel is composed of paragraphs so perfectly colorless that none stands out as more so than any other.
This, then, is perhaps simply the curious case of the kind of book that emerges at a certain lucrative moment, when the eyes of the world have been trained on works in a similar category (in this instance, the current explosion in Pakistani fiction, propelled by the likes of Daniyal Mueenuddin and a definitive Granta anthology), and moves along buoyed by a tide not of its own origination. Little else explains its lack of imagination.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.