Sarang's latest effort, Through the Center of the Earth
, is generating a lot of buzz in the literary world—so much so that when Michael Chabon participated in an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, the majority of the questions were not about his own work, but about his opinion of Through the Center
. And the New York Times famously ran dueling reviews of the book on the same day, one by Woody Allen ("arguably the best book of the century") and the other by John Banville ("simply this: a triumph—undoubtedly the best of the young century"). It's all anyone can talk about.
But I can't help feeling that people are paying attention for the wrong reasons. The collection of short stories is mostly remarked upon for its imaginative and downright weird plotting. This isn't wrong, exactly: the stories really are fascinating. (More on this in a moment.) And his plotting really is much tighter and more focused than it was in his previous book, Bletchley Park
. But hidden behind the well-crafted stories are hauntingly personal themes of loneliness, depression, and alienation, and unfortunately this nuance is at risk of being lost in all the celebratory fanfare.
About those plots: Through the Center
is, to a large extent, an exercise in implausible ideas made to seem plausible through the alchemy of Sarang's vivid prose. In one story, the CIA recruits an up-and-coming Latvian chef, Māris Rubenis, to infiltrate the world of Soviet cooking. After establishing himself as the USSR's foremost culinary star, Rubenis introduces what he calls "socialist realist cuisine," the most notable feature of which is that it involves eating prodigious amounts of asparagus at every meal. As a result, the CIA is able to round up thousands of KGB agents, easily identifying them by the pungent odor of their urine.
But where do Rubenis's loyalties really lie? Having defected to the United States, he serves the entire National Security Council a meal with well-disguised beets in every course. After dinner, the council members are horrified when their urine is almost blood-red, and because their insecurities prevent them from talking to each other about it, a national crisis ensues.
This is all amusing enough, and no one does mordant humor better than Sarang. But it is not just a clever story. The paranoid echo chamber of national security is reflected in Rubenis's relationships with his wife and her relationship with her lover, a Ukrainian expert in livestock management. We come to realize that Rubenis's many deceptions are intimately bound up with his inability to trust other people. In fact, Sarang suggests that an essential part of happiness may be the ability to trust the people we love, even (or especially) when they don't deserve that trust. Everyone gets the joke when the urine starts flowing blood-red, but few readers seem to pick up on the quiet tragedy of Rubenis's gradual alienation from everyone he cares about.
Throughout the book, Sarang escalates the stories to ever-increasing levels of silliness. In the title story, a physicist, Jan Elias, is hired to develop a system of communication between New York and Tokyo that works by projecting a beam of neutrinos through the center of the earth. The story is an extrapolation from a real-life project
using a trans-arctic cable to profit from a faster connection between those financial centers. With their even-faster system, Elias's financial backers hope to get rich at the expense of their competitors. Elias builds a giant tank of water directly beneath the Tokyo Stock Exchange and a particle accelerator directly beneath the New York Stock Exchange, and soon his employers are busily using their market-best informational edge to accumulate vast profits.
Part of the joke here is the ease with which Elias accomplishes otherwise impossible tasks, thanks to his financial backing. (Imagine building a particle accelerator under the most densely populated land in the United States.) Of course, the corruption of late-stage capitalism has been a theme throughout most of Sarang's work, but here it has a particularly sharp edge. Sarang hints that the financialization of our society is inexorable, and the only chance at preserving anything of value involves tawdry compromises. (For instance, Elias slips a lot of pure science into his project, and finds that he is better-funded than any of his colleagues in the civilian world.)
But again, these themes, which ramify and deepen as they reverberate through the characters' lives, don't seem to be getting any attention. Wall Street traders are said to like
the story, apparently not recognizing themselves in its villains. (Or, more chillingly, embracing the villainy.) Sarang is in danger of creating a paean to the world he is trying to puncture.
The book has plenty more to offer in the way of fabulous storytelling. In one story, Nabisco spends a large portion of its marketing budget encouraging people to use the term "Triscuit conditional" in place of the traditional "biscuit conditional
," and the campaign is so successful that soon all of the major snack companies are scrambling to keep up. In another story, a psychologist develops a highly effective method of teaching patients self-control. But the method is catastrophically successful: the modern economy is so dependent on exploiting people's addictions and self-destructive behavior that when they gain the willpower necessary to lead happy, healthy lives, the economy implodes.
But I urge you not to get carried away by Sarang's high-flying flourishes. Re-read the stories with an eye to the sadness and sense of loss that is so easily obscured. The surface is beautiful, but the real substance lies beneath.