As with Sharma’s first novel, there is very little plot in the traditional sense. Rather, there are warring, hidden interiors, spaces rendered without melodrama. The first is within the grounds of the family home, the ruin that unfolds there, a ruin that features the kind of comedy that family life, no matter how tense, is yet never without. And the second interior, essential, is that of the youngest son, a child trying to convey his guilt, his sadness and his rage because he is almost neglected by his parents, who resent this healthy son responsible for washing his prodigal brother , the all-but-dead son becoming, for the family, an infinitely dense point of gravity, one that absorbs all hope, all light.
As Sharma wrote in an essay for The New Yorker, “All of this, more or less, happened to my family, and going back and reliving the events was awful.” And as awful as “Family Life” is absolutely, it’s also remarkable for its tenderness, the compassion that Sharma manages to forge for all these characters it brings us closer to, in a moving way.
Building on this success, Sharma set about writing a third novel. He had already tried to write it. But it was going nowhere. The material was difficult, as for his first two novels. His short, dense novels took him a decade to write. Why should the new be any different? But the circumstances of life had changed. He and his wife of 16 years were divorcing and Sharma was in a state of emotional chaos. As for many writers, writing is a way of putting down roots in an otherwise trembling world. Sharma needed to write but couldn’t. And so, to confirm his sense that he was still a writer, he opened the file for his first novel, hoping to find not inspiration but confederation with an older, more capable self.
Unfortunately, too often, while he acknowledged the book’s frequent merits, including the intensity of emotion he was able to capture on the page, his re-reading confirmed his initial sense of the book’s shortcomings. Yes, he was satisfied with many sentences. Still, he found the novel difficult to read. At times, the storytelling was clunky and some characters were confusing. The biggest failure, according to him, is not having sufficiently evoked the interior life of the girl whom the father rapes and of her child, whom the father attacks.
So he began fiddling with the original book folder, changing the beginning, reimagining its movement, simplifying sentences or cutting them outright. In the first version of the novel, the engine of the plot is brought to life from the first line: “I needed to force money on Father Joseph, and that made me nervous. Onstage at the Hollins Literary Festival where I met Sharma, he spoke of that first sentence: “I started the novel that way largely to get the reader hooked. There is nothing more wonderful than a fight to get people interested. Someone could play ‘Hamlet’ here,” Sharma said, pointing to the stage, then continued, “If two people in the back of the audience start punching each other, we all turn around and look at the idiots to punch each other. .” The original opening sentence gives the impression that money and violence will be at the center of the novel’s plot. And yet, this is not the fight that the novel leads. In Jarrellian terms, that’s what’s wrong with the book.
“The way I think about this new version compared to the old one,” Sharma told the audience, “is kind of like the old one was made of springs and metal and tight screws, and this one is made of polymer. You know, it’s kind of like planes. Plane crashes were more frequent because the planes just couldn’t fly high enough above the cloud cover, but then, as more new technologies came along, as planes became lighter and lighter, it was possible for them to last much higher. He thought of the new version, he continued, “like being made of polymer versus metal It’s just lighter, and because it’s lighter, it can do some things that the other can’t.