“Listen closely”, one of Tokyo Cancelled‘s nameless narrators urges us, “for there are some moments when another’s life breaks the rules of what is familiar” (227). They go on to describe, in great detail, the moment when one character, Natalia, a merchant, falls in love at first sight with another character, Riad, a sailor. The setting is a coffee shop in contemporary Istanbul. Later in the story, when Natalia and Riad have been separated by circumstance — the ship on which Riad travels has been impounded in Marseille due to “financial irregularities”, and he has no way of getting a message to Natalia to let her know why he has not returned — there comes “another moment to which we must devote an unnatural degree of attention” (243). In the middle of the night, without waking up, Riad is wracked by great heaving coughs; and gradually, still without waking up, he expels a live sea-bird onto the pillow beside him. The linking of the two scenes is telling: they are alike, is the implication, in that both are impossible magics, devices of stories, not features of real-life. It’s a self-critical association that makes the introduction of that bird one of the more striking deployments of the fantastic in Tokyo Cancelled; but in other ways, it is typical. In particular, it is described with calm authority, and integrated into the narrative with confidence — leading, in this case, to the tantalizing possibility of a happy-ever-after for the star-crossed lovers.
Oh, but I enjoyed this book, picked up on a whim earlier this year. The most obvious comparison to draw is probably with David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999) – another sparklingly multifaceted debut collection, with just enough connective tissue to be disguised as a novel; another book that sets itself a globe-encapsulating mandate, carried through with clarity and readability – with the difference that Rana Dasgupta’s book is rather more full-throated in its use of the fantastic. So I was a little surprised, digging around, to find that it has been little discussed within the sf field; indeed, the only review I’m aware of is that by John Clute in Interzone 198 (May 2005). But put it this way: Tokyo Cancelled is not short of moments that break the rules of what is familiar. And, the narrator of “The Rendezvous in Istanbul” insists, such moments “cannot be followed with the humdrum attention we usually grant to the world” (227); although what really makes Dasgupta’s stories remarkable is not that they demand our attention so directly, but that they make us willing to give it so freely.
A brief prologue, designated “Arrivals”, sets the stage: unable to reach its destination due to a snowstorm, a 747 is diverted to an airport in “the Middle of Nowhere” (1), from where most of the passengers are shuttled off to hotels for the night. Thirteen are left behind, all nameless and described in the barest of sketches. To pass the time they decide to tell each other stories. “Everyone knows stories!” one says. Simple geography, it seems, is another way of breaking the rules of what is familiar: one traveller enthuses that “You just have to tell me how you travel to work every morning in the place where you live and for me it’s a fable! it’s a legend!” Followed by: “Sorry I am tired and a little stressed and this is not how I usually talk but I think when you are together like this then stories are what is required” (7). If “fable”, and the style and tone that word conjures, is more relevant to the rest of the book than more naturalistic, if excitable, run-on sentences, then that, we understand, is part of the conceit.
It quickly becomes clear that Dasgupta knows what he’s doing: the first story, “The Tailor”, plays with expectations of fables in a productive fashion. Much in the manner of Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron”, it is a non-fantastic tale told within a structure familiar from fantasy. A playboy prince, “Not so long ago, in one of those small, carefree lands that used to be so common but which now, alas, are hardly to be found” (9; that “alas” is ironic, I think), goes for a drive in the country, and commissions a fine coat from a village tailor. The tailor works on the coat for several months, going heavily into debt to complete it, but when he travels to the prince’s palace to deliver the completed product, he is rebuffed: he has no paperwork, no purchase order to prove his legitimacy. Bankrupt, unable to find an alternate buyer rich enough to afford the coat, he is forced to become a beggar. There are several more twists from here, adroitly done, but the ultimate outcome is never in doubt: the tailor proves his character and his honesty by telling a story for the king, a story that, we are told, possesses “all the thirteen levels of meaning prized in the greatest of our writings” (20). At the end of the tale, a style and a tone have been established that will, with some variation — though not, of course, as much as you’d expect if thirteen real people were really telling stories — see us through the rest of the book, and around the world from London to Delhi to Buenos Aires to New York. And a marker has been put down: stories are not weightless.
That frame unavoidably colours the other stories. “The Billionaire’s Sleep”, for example, told in much the same voice as “The Tailor”, feels chaotically organic in the best sense: the story of a rich Delhi businessman who has everything but sleep, which before you quite realise what’s happening becomes a story about time and music and Rapunzel, it is imbued with an invigorating thinking-out-loud, never-look-back creativity. It presents as the most extravagant story in the book. Yet step back, and it is very much of a piece with its counterparts. There is a deliberate (I think) mismatch between the seemingly innocent style, which implicitly (and in “The Tailor”, explicitly) harks backs to times and places that no longer exist (and may never have done), and the content, which is often thrustingly contemporary. “The Billionaire’s Sleep” features cloning, ruminations on the dislocating effect of jet-lag, and the economics of telephone call centers; many of the other stories play on the same tension, and the net result, which the various eruptions of the fantastic into the book reinforce, is a kind of flattening of distinctiveness. To be clear, “The Billionaire’s Sleep” is set in Delhi, there are markers of Delhi-ness — place names, details of cuisine or custom — scattered through the text; but this Delhi feels much the same as many, perhaps most, of the other locations in the book. I take this muted polyphony to be deliberate, a comment on contemporary global experience (as perceived by those, like our narrators, who can afford at least semi-frequent air travel, at any rate). It flirts with blandness, if you like, as a way of provoking a reader to think about what is similar and different about any given pair of stories; a contrasting strategy could be found in Nam Le’s The Boat (2008), which attempts to reassure its readers that different people in different cultures are always distinct, and in doing so (ironically) flirts with cliche.
The most obvious sort of difference on display in Tokyo Cancelled is geographic: Dasgupta’s stories range over Eurasia, Africa and the Americas, though with a slight bias to the first of those. One kind of similarity can be seen as a deliberate counterpoint to the spread of settings: the protagonists are predominantly traders, or entrepreneurs — individuals for whom engagement with the machinery of commerce is a part of self-identification, in other words — who tend to be in some sense displaced from their home. Another kind of similarity is harder to rationalize — these stories are overwhelmingly about heterosexual men – and somewhat limits Tokyo Cancelled‘s claim to capture contemporary experience in any complete fashion, except insofar as the class of person it depicts is perhaps still more often male than female. It is nevertheless depressing to recognise how often womens’ role in these stories is shaped by sex; when Natalia meets Riad in Istanbul, for instance, times are hard and she’s allowing herself to be kept as a mistress. In “The Bargain in the Dungeon”, Katya, an unwanted child dumped on a train by her rural Polish parents, finds success in Warsaw working as a seamstress whose products, particularly bedcovers, have psychic and physiological healing powers. After a time, she is challenged by a mysterious woman to put her power to greater use. “It is time to leave behind your bedspreads,” she is told, “and apply yourself more deeply to the drama of the human soul […] You must wake people up, with new pain and uncanny pleasure, with a world they do not know, though it is all around them” (307). This means going to work in the titular dungeon, a sort of magical S&M brothel in which Katya uses her powers to tap into the fantasies of her clients, and develops a fascination with one of them that leads, as you might expect, to nothing good.
The story is one of the less impressive of Tokyo Cancelled‘s offerings; it feels perfunctory. But at least Katya is nominally in control of her destiny. In “The Doll”, a Tokyo salaryman, Yukio, persuades his partner’s wealthy father to finance his business plan — he wants to own something that generates wealth. The stress involved in getting his company off the ground leads Yukio to neglect his partner; and as a way of coping with that stress, he constructs a female doll from creepily authentic artificial limbs, and gives her a computer for a brain, at which point she promptly becomes self aware. The doll is blind and immobile, but online, and becomes an object of uncanny attraction both for Yukio and for any other man who comes into contact with her, exerting a succubus-like level of control over their thoughts. There are certainly aspects of the story that are well done — the slow slide from Yukio’s initial, straightforward, honest goodness to dangerous and distasteful obsession, for a start — and it is, arguably, Tokyo Cancelled‘s central story. It’s the one that takes place in Tokyo, after all; the one that most cleanly conflates the technological and the fantastical; the one that most explicitly showcases the distorting effect of work on modern life. (And trivially, it’s located pretty much half-way through the book.) But its one-sidedness, the uncomfortable sense that it’s deploying a cliche about Japan (fetishization of technology) to no particularly original effect, and an ending that unconvincingly gestures towards consolation, means that it is, in the end, a failure.
I need now, I think, to give a sense of why I found the book as a whole so intoxicatingly distinctive, in spite of the above flaws. Two stories in particular stand out. The themes of “The Memory Editor” — that predictions never come true in the way that you want or try to anticipate; that it is worth striving to be content inside your own skin, and mind — are familiar, but the execution is mesmerizing. Set in London, the story’s protagonist is Thomas, the third and youngest son of a wealthy banker. Early in the story, he meets an old woman who claims to have been born with all her memories and, thus, to be able to remember the future; and she tells him that she knows that Thomas’ wealth will one day make his father seem poor. This makes Thomas cocky, and leads him into a disagreement with his father, as the result of which he is banished from the family home. Shortly thereafter he is recruited to work as a researcher for Memory Mine, the owners of which are convinced that “average memory horizons” are on the verge of shrinking to zero and who, as both a precaution against such mass amnesia and a calculated cornering of a new market opportunity, are collating citizens’ personal information — from the public domain, from other corporations, and from government surveillance projects — into packages, narratives, that can be sold back to those who forget. And lo, it does come to pass, first in a dream:
Suddenly he looked up; and through the window he saw a beautiful thing floating slowly down to the ground. It was magical and rare and he felt a deep desire to own it. He ran down the stairs and out into the garden, and there it was floating above him: a delicate thing, spiralling exquisitely and glinting in the sun. He stood under it and reached out his hands. Spinning like a slow-motion sycamore seed, it fell softly and weightlessly into his palms. It looked as if it was of silver, beaten till it was a few atoms thick and sculpted into the most intricate form: a kind of never-ending staircase that wound round on itself into a snail shell of coils within coils. He looked at it in rapture. How could such a beautiful object have fallen from the sky! He was full of joy at this thing that had chosen him and fallen so tamely into his hand. (43)
And then more prosaically. Memory Mine makes a killing. All of this is told with emotional directness, and an irresistable clear certitude that comes in part from a constant expansion, a raising of the stakes of the story until — for example — we can be told, offhand, that the coming of mass amnesia triggers an economic collapse, and that “the two blights swept entire continents hand in hand” (45). And yet Dasgupta is able to bring his story back to Thomas, his father, that old woman, and a satisfying resolution, without seeming to strain at all.
“The Changeling” similarly marries sweep and intimacy, to perhaps even more penetrating effect. “Parisians,” we are told, early in the story, “have traditionally treated their changeling population with resentment” (257); and we’re off to the races, in an immersive alternate history in which changelings — immortal creatures who adopt human form for a short period of time, and are mortal while they do — are indeed an accepted fact of life, although not a welcome one. A little while ago, it was determined that “neither liberty, equality, nor fraternity could be extended to creatures that had no long-term loyalty to the nation or even to the species” (259); changelings in high places are driven out, and the rest live in secret. The protagonist, Bernard, is one such, working as an investment banker, and happily married until the day his wife discovers the truth of him. Cast out, he wanders the city, and ends up helping an injured Moroccan man, Fareed, to a room in a hotel. The scenes that follow — a changeling afraid of mortality confronted with a dying mortal man — are extremely well-judged, but they are just the start. As in “The Memory Editor” and “The Billionaire’s Sleep”, the story contorts and ultimately opens out in exhilarating fashion, transmuting and, it seems, subsuming the story of a Parisian changeling without ever losing sight of the fact that it is, at heart, a meaningful story about learning how to die well.
Stories like these are all the more satisfying because, in this book, they retain the element of surprise: Dasgupta never loses sight of the distinction between the fantastic and the merely extraordinary, and indeed plays with that distinction quite effectively. In a story like “The Lucky Ear Cleaner”, for example, which could begin and end with its title, it’s hard to believe that there is no charm hanging over the protagonist, hard to realise that sometimes luck is just in the eye of the observer; while at the other end of the scale, it’s hard to believe that a story like “The House of the Frankfurt Mapmaker” has become as untethered from reality as it has, that it’s not going to come in to land in the way that its predecessors have, but will instead head off for the deepest part of the woods, further up and further in. (It’s a story about making sense of the world that becomes a story about a world that refuses to make sense.) The story-night frame helps with this project, adding an immediate level of dislocation, separating us from home and preparing us for something different. Similarly, the displacements experienced by the book’s protagonists — from their past, as in “the Memory Editor”, or from other people in “The Doll” and “The Rendezvous in Istanbul”, or from home in many of the stories, such as “The Tailor” and “The Bargain in the Dungeon” and “The Lucky Ear Cleaner” — are not just story-generating devices, but are also used to generate a baseline of estrangement from which the fantastic can readily emerge (or not). The end result is a vision of the world in which wonder and modernity are intimately coupled, and fully incorporated into the texture of (an incomplete selection of) human experience. Familiar truths are newly revealed. It’s worth listening to.