Problems by Jade Sharma
I had not planned to spend the afternoon with a drug addict. It was clear very early on that she was not a very likable person. She was so self-centered. She seemed to have a good life. Clearly educated, she was apparently working on a Master’s thesis (though had hit some kind of road block) and was married to a solicitous husband who put up with her and her “problems” and even indulged them. Yet she was having an affair with an older man, a professor, could there be anything more cliché? Her “problems” were of her own making, Her mother was dying of MS but Maya had no time for that either. I had no sympathy and certainly no empathy for her. And yet…
Maya is the protagonist of Jade Sharma’s debut novel, Problems. When my friend, a book editor with no connection to the novel, said I must read it because the female protagonist was so “out there” I figured, ok, I’ll take a look. And that is how I came to spend a recent winter afternoon curled up in front of the fireplace in the company of Maya. And despite all the things I hated about her and her life, I devoured the book in one sitting.
Sharma has taken on any number of third rails here. The lead of her book is an unlikeable woman. She is a drug addict from a seemingly middle class, well educated background who has not appeared to suffer from life’s identifiable adversities. She is an Indian female drug addict. That part is incidental, but certainly different. She is a woman with problems but the kind of problems you could describe as first world problems. Why stick with her?
I stuck with her because Sharma is a superb writer. The description of Maya’s life and addiction read as real. You feel it viscerally, the highs and lows, the desperation, the effort to kid herself that she can handle it “With dope, I could function. It was like wearing armor. You went through the world and nothing touched you.” Maya can’t continue to live this way. After a disastrous Thanksgiving at husband Peter’s parents, he has enough and leaves her. Ogden, her professor-lover, is over her, and eventually she loses her precarious bookstore job. Her problems are now, indeed, real.
This book is not for the faint of heart. It is coarse, vulgar and graphic. Maya’s attraction to hard, sometimes painful sex and the lengths she will go to to feed her habit and what she will give up to keep up that habit includes turning to Craiglist to sell her body. Her comfort with this situation is bracing:
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. I liked meeting these dudes and hearing their life stories. I liked being told I was hot. I liked being told what to do. It was the first time in my life I felt like I was getting paid for being me. When they handed me cash, I felt like a champ.
Perhaps the most effective thing about Problems is that it never feels like this addict is an unreliable narrator. She is sharp, witty, observant and sees her situation for what it is. She just can’t see her way out. While the book is about an addict, this addict has some keen observations about life, marriage, families, men and women that are clear-eyed and speak truths:
Women don’t have trophy husbands the same way men have trophy wives. Men can be disgusting and walk into a party with a sexy bitch on their arm and feel like hot shit. But being a woman walking into a party with a handsome man on your arm, the only thing you feel is insecure.
Marriage is boring, and sometimes you want to kill the person, and sometimes you feel the truth of a million clichés about having one real partner to grow old with when the world is cold and full of strangers.
Facebook: the way to ruin nice memories by having to meet up with people you should just be allowed to wonder what happened to.
In the end this book works because the writing keeps you enthralled. The Thanksgiving episode is a brilliant set piece that conveys the excruciating awkwardness of visiting in-laws that is universally identifiable yet also conveys the manic craziness of feeding a habit while trying to act normal. It doesn’t have the rhythms of a conventional novel. And without chapter breaks it feels more like a performance, a one woman show describing one woman’s problems, and Jade Sharma is one talented performer.
Before you read:
Length: 180 pages
Genre: Fiction, debut novel
Themes: addiction, relationships, graphic descriptions
Commitment: quick read but not an easy one.