Prime Edition


David Davidar

Fourth Estate (2011)

Pages: 280 Rs. 499

An inside view of publishing that doesn’t quite excite

David Davidar’s new novel could have been a rip-roaring read about the publishing world, but turned out to be as insipid as the books it reviles.

DEEPANJANA PAL  23rd Oct 2011

He lives in London and meets people at posh restaurants. He drinks, jet-sets to places as diverse as Thimphu and New York. He sleeps around, breaks hearts, seals deals. He is entrusted with secrets and sent on covert missions to prevent disasters. No, his name is not James Bond. Meet Zachary Thomas, the hero of David Davidar's new novel, Ithaca, who is — wait for it — a publisher.

After attempting to cover subjects like a society's shift from a colonial era to a postcolonial one (The House of Blue Mangoes) and religious intolerance (The Solitude of Emperors), Davidar's third book is about a subject he knows intimately well. Ithaca is set in the world of publishing. It takes readers to seven cities in four continents while narrating a story about how being fixated upon commerce can lead a publisher to nemesis.

Zachary Thomas, or Zach, is perched upon a dangerous precipice at the opening of Ithaca. He works for a small, independent publishing firm called Litmus and is much admired because one of his authors, Massimo Seppi, has produced a series of bestsellers that have catapulted Litmus into the big league. However, Seppi dies just as the economic downturn hits global markets. Zach and Litmus are faced with dire circumstances. To keep the company and his own career afloat, Zach has to find a bestseller that will ensure earnings for the coming year. Meanwhile, just to ensure his life is thoroughly scuppered, Zach's marriage is also on the rocks. The odyssey upon which Zach must embark to save his marriage, his career and Litmus takes him across continents and he is faced with many challenges, including eating a large pile of roasted meat in Germany and listening to bores at literary events. This odyssey takes him through boardrooms, book fairs and world cities until ultimately, Zach rediscovers himself

Using Zach and other characters as mouthpieces, Davidar argues that the Internet and e-publishing are not the lethal threats they are made out to be. The greater danger lies in the industry’s need to meet sales targets.

Parallels to The Odyssey aside, the bulk of Ithaca is about the desperate hunt for a bestseller and contained in this story are explorations of two major challenges to contemporary publishing. Using Zach and other characters as mouthpieces, Davidar argues that the Internet and e-publishing are not the lethal threats they are made out to be. The greater danger lies in the industry's need to meet sales targets. The number crunchers are the villains but people like Zach, who entered the profession simply because they love literature, have no defence against them. Davidar and Zach's stand is against these sharks who care about nothing other than profits.

There's nothing in Ithaca for those hoping for a juicy tell-all from Davidar about his illustrious career and recent scandal. However, Davidar has packed into Ithaca personal observations about the industry and there is an obvious effort made to create the impression that the novel is grounded in reality. Consequently, literary agent David Godwin, author Aravind Adiga, Wolf Hall and Past Continuous are among those that get a shout out from Davidar.

For those curious about publishing, Davidar offers glimpses into this world and his insider's perspective is interesting on occasion. How reassuring to know that Davidar too is bemused by book launches that have "the scale of a Bollywood premiere and the pomp of a Punjabi wedding", where the author and the book are secondary to free alcohol and networking opportunities. Readers of Ithaca will also learn that at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the heavyweights are in Halle 8 and the area reserved for literary agents has the most stringent security. Plus, in Frankfurt, "all the publishing folk are busy f**king each other, both literally and metaphorically."

Unfortunately, the interesting bits of Ithaca are greatly outnumbered by the tedious sections. Ithaca falters at very basic points. The pacing is slow, the characterisation is insipid, the perspective is confused, the narrative tone is monotonous. It is as though Davidar focussed his attention not on telling a story but on crafting a response to all those who argue the days of conventional book publishing are over. Ithaca — with its parties, book fairs, egos, transcontinental flights and references to millions of dollars — tries to prove that the publishing world isn't wilting. Unfortunately, the storytelling suffers in the process.

This is a shame because Davidar's plot has all the elements of a gripping page-turner. There's a deadline, an odious villain and a hero. There are intrigues, hints of romance, dead bodies and revelations. Ithaca could have been a fast-paced rollercoaster ride through the halls and alleys of international publishing but Davidar sucks all the thrill and vitality out of the plot with his bland style and limp structure. The wandering narrative manages to make the climax, which has everything from a shattering revelation to a dead body, seem dull. Few of the characters come to life, mummified as they are by Davidar's uninspired descriptions.

Early in Ithaca, Zach is seen reading a debut manuscript that both disappoints and frustrates him. He wonders: "Why on earth don't they throw caution to the winds, give their work a great clawing distinctiveness, an irresistible force that will sweep the reader along from the very first page?" The same question could be put to Davidar.

Deepanjana Pal currently works as a consultant copy editor with Elle magazine

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