Friday 21 September 2018

Dazzling debut unearths a rare, searingly raw voice

Fiction: Problems, Jade Sharma, Tramp Press, ­paperback, 222 ­pages, €12.99

New voice: Jade Sharma blazed a trail through New York's slam poetry scene. Photo: Tracie Williams
New voice: Jade Sharma blazed a trail through New York's slam poetry scene. Photo: Tracie Williams
Problems by Jade Sharma

Hilary A White

Maya is a mess. Life in New York consists of scoring drugs, dismaying about her weight, wondering whether she really does love husband Peter, and pestering Ogden, the older college lecturer with whom she is having a shambolic affair. There is talk about a thesis being completed at some stage and her job in a local bookshop manages to bring in an income, albeit one that goes straight on dope.

Her fortunes hinge on a trip to her in-laws for Thanksgiving that is timed less than conveniently with Maya's withdrawal from habitual drug dependency. What ensues is very often - like much of this novel - completely hilarious, both in the blackly comic tone of Maya's assessment of the world but also in author Jade Sharma's nose for a blistering one-on-one between two characters.

Nothing is off the table as far as this flagrant first-person narrator sees it. In her descriptions of her own promiscuity - whether with Peter, Ogden, or when she begins turning tricks to supplement her drug habit - there is at times grotesque levels of detail as she reveals just how truly warped her idea of sex has become in the midst of a life pummelled by substance abuse and the distance between her and her ill mother.

It is a shrugging acceptance, however, not some self-pitying exposure or cry for help. Maya doesn't really care what you think. She is self-destructive, fiercely gluttonous, astoundingly dishonest (with others more than with herself), petty, jealous and callous. You might not like her version of what being a woman involves, but it is her version nonetheless. As soon as you try to label her issues as being symptomatic of one thing and the fault of something else, you can start to hear her cackling in the background. At times, you wonder if Maya just is.

Even at this, the picture is far from complete. There are layers to Maya that zip open and closed throughout this dazzling debut from the fine folk at Tramp Press. In Jade Sharma, the young New Yorker who blazed through that city's slam poetry scene after using writing as a means to manage her teenage depression, the literary world has unearthed a rare and searingly raw voice that you feel is going to be rather difficult to ignore this year.

There is a mundanity here to Maya's slog through the gutter that is piercingly authentic to the touch. The dialogue reveals her to be a witty but also cutting sparring partner with others, as prone to a zinging put-down as she is to blubbing and weeping down the phone in the wee hours (Sharma would apparently record rows with her partner and then transcribe them). In short, she could be any of us. What makes us sit up is how she is simultaneously drawn to extremes while having to level who she is with the deafening pressures of society.

Sharma's duty is to her character, and when small wisps of politics seep through they are mercifully fleeting. This isn't a comment about the modern woman or banner-waving identity politics. Everyone gets it here in scattergun bursts of disillusionment and jaundice. In some ways, Maya is a Holden Caulfield - as fed up with herself as with everything else, cynical before her time, but also out for a quick hit of that good feeling to get her through the day. If The Catcher in the Rye was reconfigured for the digital age, with a voice that decided it wasn't going to sugar-coat the dark twisted interior of addiction and female sexual desire, then it might look a little like this.

Not a huge amount is known about Sharma. The press release tells us she moved around a lot in her "army brat" childhood, before dropping out of school at 14. She is undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder and has shared images on her Twitter account of manifestations of this condition that are uncomfortable to witness. As this deceptively slim novel gets wider attention, separating author and work may become difficult for some. You can only hope that this bold new voice won't be contaminated in the process.

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