July 5th, 2016
Few books feel as honest as Problems, Jade Sharma’s debut novel, which comes out today. Maya, the novel’s clever protagonist, is about as unfiltered and unpolished as a narrator gets these days, and she’s full of sharp insight about relationships, her drug use and being a young woman in a seemingly impossible society. Told in floating blocks of prose, Problems spends a few months with a seemingly functional heroin user whose life slowly and then not-that-slowly unravels. Maya loses first her husband, then her job and then any semblance of an “adult” or “responsible” life.
Problems is the first print release from the feminist-oriented Emily Books (“We sell weird books by women”), which is pitching Sharma’s novel as “Girls meets Trainspotting.” That’s not too far off the mark. Nor is the jacket copy that proclaims, Problems “takes every tired trope about addiction and recovery, ‘likable’ characters, and redemption narratives and blows them to pieces.” Words like “raw” and “uncompromising,” are getting thrown around by reviewers, and they’re actually deserved. “The problem with Problems is that it ends,” says The Rumpus.
Little New York geography is mentioned in the novel, but it seems to take place mostly on the Lower East Side, Sharma’s real-life neighborhood. I meet her at her local cafe, aware that the bio on her underused Twitter account lists her as being “manic-depressive, depressive-depressive,” with “two useless masters” and “living the unromantic unhip dream.”
At 36, she speaks in a high drawl, charming and friendly in an introverted way, her makeup hastily applied. She’s Indian-American, and recently told Publishers Weekly: “At first I thought, I should make [Maya] white, so I don’t have to deal with the race issue, because white people are blank slates. But then I realized not to make her Indian would be fucked up. Indian girls can be crazy bitches, too.”
With me, she first shares some of her pre-Problems writing history. She was more focused on poetry in her early days, before reading Jernigan, the 1991 novel by David Gates, in her mid-twenties. “I carried it around with me,” she says. “The way the character lived in the book—I’d never seen that before. I didn’t want to let him go. I just became obsessed with it, and I told everybody I knew, ‘You have to read this, it’s so good.’”
A mutual friend put her in touch with Gates, and after some emails, he offered to read some of her work. “My idea was to write the most mind-blowing, amazing stories… I wanted to impress him, ’cause he impressed me.” Sharma then started working on the stories that would eventually lead her to Problems.
She had never thought about writing a novel before, and the first pass at it was “a disaster,” Sharma recalls. “I’d read John Updike, and wanna write like John Updike, but only John Updike can write like John Updike.” She then enrolled in an MFA program at the New School, where Gates was teaching, and wrote the bulk of her book. It took a total of five years from first attempting to tell the story to having a completed manuscript.
The book is remarkable for what’s left in: the constant maintenance of body hair, the ex-boyfriend who eats boogers, an extremely large bowel movement. Just about every bodily fluid is represented. As are rat testicles. There are dalliances with sex work and bulimia, and Maya describes in detail the porn she watches. Few taboos are left unexamined, and it’s easy to imagine that readers’ reactions to all Maya shares—and particularly the normalized appearance of heroin use—will vary wildly.
“Imagine a world where people didn’t have hang-ups,” Maya instructs the reader. She’s frustrated by living in a society where most people spend most of their days lying to each other. She’s frustrated that by being alive, she’s complicit in this dishonest world. “It wasn’t fair I had to have these secrets when I didn’t feel like I was doing anything secretive.”
When I ask Sharma if she believes heroin addiction is a disease, she seems to have mixed feelings. “I don’t think it’s like cancer, but I don’t think that it’s… No… I guess I feel like it’s self-medicating for some people who have depression or have emotional problems, so instead of taking Prozac, they drink or they do drugs. So it’s like a coping mechanism [for] underlying mental health illness.”
Sharma’s book is more focused on one woman’s experience with heroin (plus a bit of cocaine, some drinking, and many cigarettes), and how that affects the few months in which the story is told, than it is on drug policy. Still, she believes in full-on legalization.
“I think that you should be able to get [heroin] the way people get alcohol,” she says. “In our culture, it’s like, so puritanical, and it’s all about not doing it,” whereas in European countries, “which are more sophisticated, they do things like, you register as a user, and you go there, and that way you get drugs that aren’t tainted with who knows what, and so it’s safer.” It’s a reasonable summary of the heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) programs operating successfully in countries such as Switzerland and Canada.
But, “At a certain point,” she continues, “any addiction gets boring and tedious—even cigarettes. I hate it. The stigma, too, is a huge part of it… I hate AA, and I hate NA… I don’t think it should be anonymous. It’s just continuing this idea that there’s this stigma. If people saw businessmen and all the people who really use heroin—which is called the ‘worst drug ever’—it would change the stigma, and people wouldn’t be crying in the closet, feeling alienated and isolated and hiding from their friends and their family, and feeling so alone and desolate, and then using it more and more.”
In the novel, Maya addresses the hypocrisies inherent to attitudes toward different substances, when referring to her husband’s alcoholism. “What was the difference between Peter drinking and me using? Maybe I resented Peter because his addiction was something legal and mainstream and pretty much accepted. Most people could relate to wanting a stiff drink at the end of the night. People thought hangovers were funny. It was easy for Peter to hide in plain sight with his obvious addiction. Sideways was about appreciating wine, not a pathetic alcoholic who stole money from his mother. But no film director wanted to pretend dope wasn’t a big deal.” Yet Sharma does believe that heroin use is necessarily problematic. As Maya says, “This little jail is made out of powder.”
At one point in our talk, Sharma asks me if I think the novel glamorizes drug use. I don’t. But it doesn’t vilify it either. Maya’s experience with the drug strikes a delicate balance. The perception of this could certainly vary from reader to reader.
Because of their similarities—youngish Indian-American writer, living on the Lower East Side—and because of how believable Maya’s voice is in Problems, it’s only too easy to assume that the writer and the narrator are alternate versions of the same person. Sharma puts a stop to that, although only somewhat convincingly.
Read more from The Influence:
“No. I was riffing off Jernigan, and Jernigan’s about an alcoholic, and I was—David Gates said the downward spiral is a pleasing shape and narrative. And this exercise of pushing your brain to say, What if this was me, what if I did it, what if I did the worst case scenario? Like: I didn’t go to work today; I cheated on my husband. Keep pushing the envelope. So it’s like this force of destruction.” In that way it was fun to write. “I didn’t know what was gonna happen, either,” she says.
There’s evidence of this in the novel’s lack of a particularly traditional arc. Yet considering its volatile subject matter, Problems makes for smooth reading. The narrator digresses (“I love digressions!” Sharma exclaims, “that’s my favorite part of books”), but never lingers long enough on any one tangent—making fun of corny Facebook status updates, the rat testicles—for too long. Crucially, it’s also consistently funny; without the occasional doses of humor, the downward spiral might be hard to take. “Behind every crazy woman,” goes one of her lines, “is a man sitting very quietly, saying ‘What? I’m not doing anything.’”
“I can’t read anything humorless,” Sharma tells me. “I need that humor, or that spirit.” Problems is “serious, but it’s not taking things too seriously all the time. It’s not cerebral; it’s all visceral. What would [Maya] do in this situation, as an intelligent person?”
“I need structure in my life and my writing,” Sharma says, sipping at her iced coffee. And as long as she’s writing, “I consider it successful. If I’m writing things every day, it’s a good day.” Though actually, she wrote most of Problems late at night. “I write so much better at night, but then when I wake up during the day I get so sad, in the late afternoon. You kind of have to choose: Am I gonna be productive and be a writer and write great stuff and then have this crappy emotional life, or am I gonna wake up every morning and be a normal human being? I’m not good at that. I failed at that. I got rejected from Whole Foods four times.”
Sharma is now working slowly on a new novel. She quotes some advice that Gates gave her: “The worst thing you can do is finish a book and then just wait. On to the next.”
This reminds me of something Sharma told me about how she approached writing the ending of Problems. By the closing pages, she just wanted for Maya a new set of obstacles. “I’m sick of my old problems,” she said. “I want new problems.”
Sam Axelrod is in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Oregon. He plays in a band called Future of What.