In the wake of his father’s death, Ash, the 30-something Toronto-based host of a literary radio show, finds a single credible candidate for the position of “buddy.” Matt, who has been a more or less steady presence in Ash’s life since childhood, travelled halfway across Canada to be at the Montreal funeral of Ash’s father and is the only figure in Ash’s oddly underpopulated social and professional life to stick around afterward.
But is Matt the sort of buddy you want hanging around in tough times? A failed actor, a failed skier, he is currently in the process of becoming a failed massage therapist. He is a committed pothead, a spirited sexual predator, a guy who shaves both his back and sack, and never leaves home without body spray and a penis pump. He is indiscriminate in his application of the term “bro.” He is also, unlike Ash, exceedingly proactive, which is a good thing for a character in a novel that is determined to balance soul-searching with ribald comedy.
Pasha Malla’s second novel is for the most part a standard-issue bromance: a reserved guy with a stable life gets blindsided by grief and undergoes an existential crisis, initially exacerbated and later alleviated by an overbearing, often embarrassing, endearingly naive old buddy given to impulsive and outrageous behaviour. Fugue States is a successful standard-issue bromance to the extent that, especially when focused on Matt, it is frequently snort-inducing hilarious. Less frequent, but no less dismaying for their relatively small number, are the token scenes of Ash reconnecting with his family and Kashmiri legacy. The novel falters when it strives for emotional maturity and flies when it embraces big, brash set-pieces centered around slapstick and sundry social faux pas.
Which is not to say that Matt’s misadventures are sheer mirthful mayhem. In the second of the novel’s three sections – which are denoted by a superfluous structural device explaining the characteristics of a fugue – Matt travels to India as a sort of surrogate for the paralyzingly self-conscious Ash, who finds the notion of rediscovering his immigrant father’s homeland an irredeemable cliché. Even before the plane touches down, Matt, who has apparently never travelled to a foreign country, is already proving a one-man colonial terror operation.
Malla’s close third-person prose offers numerous glimpses into Matt’s psyche. At the airport in Delhi, Matt worries his backpack has been stolen: “He imagined some baggage handler home in his dung-hut slicing the thing open with a scimitar.” He decides that Indian men resemble monkeys. Within days of his arrival, he is already pursuing sexual conquest of a Dutch lesbian who provides no encouragement and he is incarcerated for braining a hotel porter with a fire extinguisher.
One could argue that Malla is blithely trying to have it both ways: deploying crude, offensive gags in search of cheap laughs while seeking opportunities to remind us that Matt is a misguided yet devoted friend and all-around good guy. I prefer to regard the Matt-heavy chapters as the most sophisticated passages in Fugue States, a portrait of the modern western id at large in the world, well-meaning yet fundamentally unable to suppress the influence of an inherited chauvinism and sense of entitlement. Malla doesn’t apologize for Matt’s obnoxiousness so much as present it with a bracing bluntness that refuses to mitigate the character’s more likable qualities. He leaves it to us to decide what to think of Matt.
In any case, the peak moments of Matt’s story are certainly more interesting, entertaining, and inventive than most of Ash’s encounters back in London, Ontario, where he spends Christmas holidays with his kin. There is a shameless scene in which Ash and his pregnant sister bond over banal home movies. In another scene, Ash visits an old friend struggling to parent a special-needs child, whom Malla can only portray as a sort of gurgling monster. Ash’s participation in a Boxing Day writing workshop is more fun, though it relies on facile stereotypes to generate humour: the workshop facilitator wears tweed and a goatee and indoctrinates local literary aspirants with impossibly stupid rules to write by.
By the novel’s final stretch, Ash and Matt are reunited, and, lest we fail to catch the nature of their camaraderie, Malla has Ash reading Don Quixote as he undertakes an inadvertent quest for self-knowledge with his bumbling Sancho Panza by his side.
Ash is carrying another volume with him on his journey: an unfinished work of fiction penned by his father. Ash, who published a novel before resigning himself some years earlier to a career in radio, is quite literally attempting to continue his father’s story. If Fugue States’s finale is at all satisfying it certainly isn’t because it resolves any of the conflicts in Ash’s early midlife crisis. It’s because circumstances give him an opportunity to remember who he is in terms of lineage: a flawed man who once had a flawed father, still has a flawed friend, and is drifting through a flawed, if very funny, novel.