27 October, 2014Issue 26.2FictionInterviewsLiterature

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The Completeness of Novel-Writing and Inquiries into Epistemology

Zia Haider Rahman talks to S S Haque

Zia Haider Rahman



Photo: Zia Haider Rahman

Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, was published earlier this year. It explores ideas of class, race, and identity through the lens of epistemology. The novel is erudite and intellectually explorative, concurrently telling gripping stories: a train journey in late twentieth-century Bangladesh, student life at Oxford, and a thriller plot set in the world of NGOs and expats during the Afghanistan War. We hear the story from two friends recounting their lives to each other after many years apart, when they meet at the beginning of the novel. Knowledge and experience collide in their divergent lives. The novel’s critical reception across the globe has been stunning. The New Yorker’s James Wood hailed it as “a dazzling debut” and Joyce Carol Oates described it in her review in The New York Review of Books as “remarkable…a unique work of fiction.” In the UK, Alex Preston wrote in The Observer that, “This is the novel I’d hoped Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom would be (but wasn’t)—an exploration of the post-9/11 world that is both personal and political, epic and intensely moving.”

Rahman is an alumnus of Balliol College, Oxford, where he received a first in mathematics. His academic endeavours continued with further study at Munich, Cambridge, and Yale Universities. Rahman then worked at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker, after which he became an international human rights lawyer.

Zafar and the narrator’s lives both reflect some of your own life experiences. To what extent is the novel autobiographical?

My stock answer to this question has been to recall that Philip Roth didn’t write a novel about a European travelling up the Congo River; Joseph Conrad didn’t write about a Trinidadian settling in England; and V.S. Naipaul didn’t write about Jews in New Jersey in the fifties.

I’ve been asked this question many times and I’ve often had the impression that the question means something different depending on who’s asking it or that there might be some other question behind it. If there is, no-one has asked it. In any event, it’s hard to see how, from a literary perspective, it matters particularly. I have yet to meet a novelist who has asked me that question.

I am not Zafar but there are basic biographical details that we have in common—banker and human rights activist, for example—and these are useful because they enable me to get to things I know about, not just details of workplace environment. But I have only drawn on what feels to me like a sliver of my experiences in the world in order to inform my imagination. As a result, from my vantage-point Zafar does not feel like a representation of me. But, understandably, simple biographic details are what most people go by and conclusions are drawn from those, possibly because of what psychologists call the “availability bias”—relying on what you see since you cannot rely on what you don’t see.

You have been a banker, a human rights lawyer, and now a novelist. How much did your previous careers directly contribute to the writing of this novel? And what was the trigger for you to start writing prose fiction?

I drew on those things that had a bearing on the story I wanted to tell, of course, and, conversely, the story I wanted to tell surely grew out of an imagination informed by what I knew.

Reading is what triggered writing. I’ve been writing for some time, starting before Oxford, where I had something published in a fledgling student rag at Balliol. My then editor is a close friend of mine to this day and I’ve been sending him things I write every now and then. He has been urging me to publish, but the idea of being a published author—the very idea—never sat right with me.

You have said “I had a belief that writing books was something people of another social class did”. Is this what you’re referring to when you say that the idea of being a published author never sat right with me?

Yes. I had an insatiable curiosity about all sorts of things and books were the only way to service that curiosity. But even as I took out a dozen books from the library each week as a boy, I felt that I was interloping in the territory of another kind of people. This was back in early eighties Britain when libraries still had books—and, for that matter, there still were libraries. It’s one of the features of a class system that it teaches its lessons from a very early age. I lived on a very large council estate and the library’s catchment was my neighborhood but I never recognised any of the faces of the people I came across in it. I don’t know who used the library but it didn’t seem to me that any of the children who played football or rode their bikes on the estate did. And then as I grew up and got to know more about the people who wrote these book things, what I learned only reinforced the idea that they belonged to another sort. They lived in houses, for instance.

Of course, I’m not naive and I’m able to see the absurdity in the idea that someone with as much education as I’ve had should consider the writing of books as beyond his writ in life. But that’s how class works.

Do you think novel-reading is also class-defined?

That’s an empirical question, at least in the way you’ve framed it, so what I think can’t be anywhere near as interesting or useful as an empirical assessment. That said, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I hazard a guess that the reading of literary fiction is correlated with education. I suspect you’ll find that most readers of literary fiction in Britain have A Levels or more, which is probably enough to establish that literary novel-reading is class-defined.

How is it that you did eventually come to write—or perhaps I should say publish—a book?

There’s a long story behind it but the story really only explains how I’d come to a point in life where, because of the deaths of people near to me, and because of a disenchantment with things I was doing, and because I was at a moment between uncertainty and resolve—I had, for instance, interrupted a journey overland across Europe and Asia because of the deaths I mentioned—because of a limbo, I started writing down the beginnings of an idea that had formed in my mind. I was in New York, where I was trying to provide such help as anyone can to friends who’d lost a child. Clearly no-one can offer much. A new acquaintance, a writer, asked me what I was doing with my time. I talked about something I’d written and we talked and he talked and he kept on talking. Eventually, I sent him what is now chapter one of In the Light of What We Know—it hasn’t changed very much at all since then. Not long after that, an agent called me and so on. I don’t think I would have carried on all the way through to writing a publishable book—I would have made my notes and given the thing enough form on the page to reflect something in my mind so that it would be enough for me, as it has been in my writing over the years—I don’t think I would have written a whole publishable book if I’d not had an agent at the outset and, moreover, if I’d not had the agents that I had. In the way they treated me, there was absolutely nothing to suggest that I was anything other than someone who was naturally writing a book. (I’m not talking about building my confidence; I’ve come to publishing just a little older than most do for the first time and with a variety of experiences behind me that have helped to overcome the self-doubts of youth and to understand my limits.) The fact that I met my agents in the US rather than in the UK helped enormously. I see that now. I wrote most of the novel in the US. Oddly enough, I don’t feel the presence of the British class structure when I’m in the US. Class sensitivity is something we carry inside us; externally what we encounter are triggers.

The first two chapters of the novel set the scene for two old friends to meet after many years apart, but also include discussions about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the Peters and Mercator atlases. Why are these ideas given such a prominent place in the novel?

I’m reminded of what the American bank robber and incorrigible repeat offender John Dillinger said when he was asked why he robbed banks: That’s where the money is. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, on the one hand, and map projections, on the other, are mentioned where they are mentioned because that’s where the narrator’s structuring of the narrative puts them. But of course that answer is a little disingenuous, though only a little. I’m smarter than the narrator of the novel, which means that I can see, for example, incidental benefits of a certain organisation of the material that he might not. His reasons for organising things the way they are might be enough for him but I have other reasons too.

In any case, remember that pretty much everything in the novel, including its title, is in one way or another in the service of the novel’s central line of enquiry: epistemology. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the projections used to make maps all concern, perhaps among other things, how we perceive the world and the limitations on both the perception and the inherent capacity of the world itself to yield to our perception.

It was important, certainly, to bring out early aspects of the novel that run counter to modern trends of mere storytelling. I had to help the reader adopt a stance towards the material as soon as possible that would enable them to get the best experience out of the novel possible.

Every novel, especially in its opening section, trains people in how it should be read. Whether or not a novelist intends such, the effect is that the reader is trained. Unlike a trainer at a workplace, say, a novelist only gets one shot and can’t try a different tack to suit each reader’s strengths—which is yet another reason why two people can come to different conclusions about the same book. So, for instance, I had to slow down readers and there are a variety of techniques that can be used to achieve that. The flexibility of English syntax helps with that, for example. I wanted readers to inhabit a space that stretched into the so-called real world. Even as early as the first chapter I bind the narrator in a relationship through his grandparents to someone who was real, one Leopold Weiss, who converted to Islam and eventually became Pakistan’s first ambassador to the UN. But these sorts of things have to be done quite early because they are about establishing in the reader’s mind the basic parameters of the story space. The later you leave such fundamentals, the more jarring they will be, which jarring might be what you want to achieve; Roth’s Ghost Writer, I think it was, has something jarring of this kind and deliberately so.

The female characters’ motivations in the novel are less transparent than the male characters’. The male, first person narrative adds to their opaqueness. But did you find the female characters more challenging to write?

No, I didn’t find the female characters more challenging to write. I found that I had to hold back on giving the female characters more room; whenever I did widen the mental space they inhabited I found that it wrought havoc with other elements of the work. Two concrete facts, both choices, constrain the presence of women in the narrative. The first is that the narrator is ultimately quite sexist, with a character bearing the soft misogyny that seems to pervade society, largely male society though not everywhere but certainly generally. In broader terms, the narrator can be rather shallow at times; it’s not hard to see why on occasion he seems to be in the thrall of Zafar. The second constraint is that everything is mediated by the narrator, including Zafar’s account. He’s also hugely compromised in the very story he’s reporting and his unreliability is a vital part of the experience that the novel delivers to certain readers.

These reasons alone were enough to generate restraint in what the narrator transmits about the female characters. But there were also other considerations, which were more in the way of key incidental benefits. Sometimes, saying less about a character—or about anything—magnifies that which is said. The character of Emily has to do a lot of metaphoric work, more so than perhaps any other character. Keeping her from altogether coming up to the surface means that when she does speak and there is dialogue, she is felt keenly. Moreover, since much of her power over Zafar is metaphoric, it was important not to undermine the reader’s sense of that by concretising too much of her. It was certainly a tightrope. My hope was that the intelligent reader would grasp the implications of a first-person point of view and that, although there were obvious signs of sexism in some of the male characters’ voices, the sexism would not be overwhelming. It might sometimes make the reader uncomfortable but with good reason.

Epistemology is explored throughout the novel. The limitations of our knowledge and what it is to know are central to the characters’ discussions of people and events. How did you go about integrating these ideas with the narrative and plot?

There was no need to go about integrating them with the story because they are the preoccupations of the characters, first Zafar’s and then the narrator’s. My starting point for this novel, as it is for the next one, is to explore the major animating preoccupations of the principal characters, and to identify things, such as they exist, that the characters wrestle with in their inner lives. Zafar’s overarching preoccupation was epistemological.

There is a chapter in the book where the main characters talk about the writing of stories and the problem of the ineffectiveness of the metaphor in providing meaning. Is this something you struggle with in writing and reading fiction?

No. I do not struggle with it. I have always known that a metaphor, A, of an object, B, does not provide meaning about the object B but relies on the reader imputing meaning about A to B. This is what authors do and how we humans find pleasure in reading when it’s done well. Misgivings about metaphor are far from new. Thomas Hobbes condemned their use and Plato, for that matter, was none too comfortable with them.

It is not necessary in order for me to experience the beauty of metaphoric language that I regard it as endowed with greater power than I think, on reflection, it has. The sensation of understanding is not the same as being given an explanation. Most metaphors have at least two cognitive effects: inspiring a sense of recognition and hardening an image, or giving it form in the imagination. The former is important for bringing the reader closer to the material and the latter is important for creating a sense of experience. And, by material, I mean anything, even something very specific. For example, if an author likens the plastic cover lying over a microscope in a lab to an eagle, as one author I know did more effectively than I can reproduce here and out of context, then the recognition is important. If you have no conception of an eagle there is nothing for you to form the image. And, if you do, the fact that an eagle is known for its powerful eyesight—hence “eagle-eyes”—brings depth since we have a microscope here, after all. This is an example of the use of metaphor without any attendant implication or claim that your understanding of anything is being improved.

It’s very easy to manipulate people with metaphoric language. In the US, there have been directions from appellate courts to lower court judges discouraging the use of metaphoric language, essentially where it actually makes a difference. Politicians know the power of metaphor full well. “A flood of immigrants” is much more effective than “a disagreeably large number of immigrants.” A writer—or anyone conveying an idea to another human being—is of course in the business of manipulation, using a variety of techniques.

My own difficulty with certain metaphoric language is that it can often seem merely exploitative of vulnerabilities in human beings that appear to leave people with the belief that something has been understood when in fact all that has happened is that something beautiful has been felt or perceived or recognised. The thing that is recognised is the subject of the metaphor and not the object, but that recognition seems to get mistaken for an understanding of the object.

Which novelists have most influenced you?

I don’t know. I can no more say which novelists or which books have most influenced me than I can say which meals I’ve had that have been most nourishing to my body. I sometimes think that very flawed writing has been most influential. It’s always much easier to tell what has scuppered a piece of writing. When the writing seems very strong, I think the reader has brought a lot to the writing and this makes it hard to separate the good writing from the good reading. I always feel like I’ve done some work as a reader. This seems to be the case for me, at any rate.

I could provide a list of novelists who’ve written one or more books that I’ve liked, but whether they are the ones who most influenced me I couldn’t say. On the other hand, when others, much smarter about these things than I am, detect the influences of certain writers in my writing, I do find myself nodding with them; I recognise something. In relation to In the Light of What We Know, I certainly see the influences of works I have hugely admired, Austerlitz, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, American Pastoral, A Bend in the River, to name the most obvious, to me. How writers deal with particular emotions is always of interest to me, how they achieve effects. Different writers do different emotions differently, which is not saying much. Studying this has been rewarding.

You have talked in the past about how novel writing is a problem-solving exercise. As a mathematician, did you approach it like you would a mathematical puzzle?

It isn’t a mathematical puzzle, so no. It’s a problem-solving exercise in many different ways. One way, for instance, is that if you have in mind certain effects you want to achieve in a passage or a set of pages, figuring out how to achieve those effects is an exercise in problem-solving. Trying to figure out why a passage isn’t working is another. Trying to uncover an imprecise niggling feeling you have is also a problem-solving exercise. A lot of the work when I’m writing has to do with developing a better and better understanding of a question.

You manage to navigate a broad range of ideas in the novel, from science and maths to literature and philosophy, without being didactic. Did you find it easy to sell the idea of the novel to your agent/publisher?

It seems to me that linking the premise of your question to the question itself requires an intermediate step: that the qualities of the novel you mention might disqualify it (these days?) from gaining a venue. In the Light of What We Know does go against some of the currents of modern fiction, even literary fiction, which sometimes seems like a testbed for the next lucrative film deal. Recently, a critically well-regarded novelist said to me that in his view modern fiction had simply given up its greatest asset, the thing that it can do, that no other art form can. He described that asset as interiority. I did not initially agree with him: I believed that it had given up more. But I now think that all those things which modern fiction seems to have abandoned are things which, one way or another, hang upon interiority, things ranging from consciousness (which might be interiority by another name) to explorations of meaning, which hinge upon a human perspective.

Doing something for art’s sake is misunderstood as doing it for no appreciable reason. To do art is, precisely, to do it for reasons that do not connect with the commerce. It is to do something with enquiry and beauty and meaning in mind, at front and back. On that reckoning, it will involve risks. But writing literary fiction today has become nigh on impossible financially for all but a tiny few. It is this—not some venal quality on the part of writers—that I think has driven fiction writing towards mere storytelling.

Part of the problem is actually mere nomenclature. Two things might be called novels for the irrelevant reason that both require a lot of words and a good many sheets of paper, e-readers notwithstanding. But that is like saying a ha-ha on a country estate and a grave in a cemetery are both holes in the ground because both require a spade. The collective noun doesn’t get us far if we recognize the underlying distinction. I think the language tends to drive us towards what we each of us come to understand as representative of that thing and it thereby conditions our expectations. Labels like “literary fiction” are helpful to some degree but any finer taxonomy runs into a problem that no one particularly likes talking about, which is that very few people actually read literary fiction. I have friends who read reviews of books all the time, people who subscribe to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and so on, but who scarcely read three novels in a year. These are literate, educated people. Philip Roth is probably right; literary fiction of a certain kind is probably dying. Yes, there are exceptions—people who do read that kind of fiction—but only the aggregate numbers are relevant here. The economics of literary fiction is disastrous. Against that background, publishers want to widen the market for a book as much as possible, which means that for them the label ‘novel’ is enough. This is only a tragedy now because we’ve lost the idea of a literary common space or canon, other than a historical one that is pushed onto us in high school. There’s nothing hip in the notion of reading a novel because people whom society respects have thought the book worthwhile reading.

Personal pleasure is now the measure of things, the logical destination of consumerism and direct marketing and the elevation of the individual above all else. When Amazon or Goodreads send you to books that you might like because clever algorithms have crunched data and made matches, we should be reeling in horror, because this can only drive us into silos of one, underground caverns populated by everything made in our own respective images. There can be no conversation across buried walls.

But to address your question itself, rather than its assumptions: The truthful answer doesn’t have any interesting wrinkles, I’m afraid. Yes, I did find it easy to sell it, so to speak, to an agent. I sent off the first chapter and calls from the person who became my agent came in a few hours later. Alarmingly, my agent showed such a good understanding of the work that at one point in the conversation, when we met, I had to remind myself that I had only written one chapter, so I couldn’t possibly have sent another. As for publishers, I didn’t sell the book until I finished it. It was obvious to me that one major storyline needed to be brought forward. But I needed at least a three month break after four years of virtually uninterrupted work. And the London book fair was coming up. So, rather than wait another nine months, I thought it might be useful to see how publishers approached the problematic delayed storyline. Eric Chinski at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Kate Harvey at Picador spotted what was needed right away. They certainly made the book “a much better version of itself,” which is what they were expressly keen to do. Eric and Kate have very fine literary sensibilities and it’s been an immense pleasure working with them.

S S Haque has just completed her second master’s, in creative writing, at Kellogg College, Oxford. She is currently drafting her first novel and she writes, lives, and works in London.