Hm. People seem to love this book. I’m told (though I’ve not read it yet) that The New Yorker gave In the Light of What We Know a review brimful of superlatives. (I guess it would be James Wood’s review, which I’ll read when I’m done here.) And there are a lot of good things to say about this book. You know that feeling you get when you read Anna Karenina, that Tolstoy was just paying much more attention than you were when you attended the same cocktail party? And that when Tolstoy got home to set his thoughts to paper, he was able to delicately pick apart his own thoughts to explain to his own satisfaction what he had just seen? Well, imagine that Tolstoy came knocking on your door after 10 years away from you, clothes in tatters and several months’ growth of beard hanging from his face. You sit down with an audio recorder between you, press record, and just listen to Tolstoy talk for weeks and months. Oh, and by the way, your father — you, the guy with the audio recorder — happens to be a Tolstoy-level intellect, who also happens to be a theoretical physicist.
But it gets better, because the perceptiveness of a Tolstoy gets thrown at a very specific set of concerns, namely Bangladeshi and Afghan immigrants to London and to the American financial system at the height of the bubble. Again, imagine Tolstoy being transported to the United States during the Cold War. Just imagine the cultural and economic divides separating Lev Tolstoy, gentleman farmer and anarchist Christian, from the world around him. Consider how strangely Americans then would treat him. And consider what magic Tolstoy’s diaries would contain.
This, then, is at least 70% of In the Light of What We Know. Our narrator’s long-lost friend, Zafar, appears at the narrator’s door. Our narrator’s marriage is falling apart, yet the narrator’s monstrous, modern, sterile, granite-countertopped apartment offers enough space to keep him and his wife nicely separated. His career is also falling apart; he’s the scapegoat at his structured-finance firm when the subprime-mortgage market is imploding. Zafar has just returned from Afghanistan. We’re given to understand that lurking within Zafar is a capacity for shocking violence. We’re given to understand many things; this is the storyteller’s gift of laying down suspense. So the first downer to note is that Rahman never really delivers on these promises. It’s considered churlish these days, I think, to expect resolution from a modern novel, so churlish perhaps I am. Regardless, you should expect no resolution.
You also shouldn’t expect to learn much about anyone other than Zafar. It’s expected, of course, that you’d understand him; his monologue is almost the entirety of the book. You won’t understand the narrator. You won’t understand the narrator’s wife, who is to all intents and purposes a nonentity. You will not understand Emily, the woman for whom Zafar feels a tortured love. This last is the real shame of the novel; Zafar, our Tolstoy, plumbs the depths of everyone else’s psyche, but Emily remains untouched. We hardly hear a word out of her mouth, by construction: Emily sits passively mute almost from the first moment we meet her. We’re given to understand that she is cold and almost robotic in her movements through life — as though she has a checklist that only she knows; if only Zafar could get access to that checklist, perhaps he could understand her. He never will have access to that checklist, of course, so cold and unfeeling she remains. All that binds her and Zafar is, it seems, a passionate physical love. This is supposed to appease the audience, I suppose — maybe we imagine Sharon Stone from the Basic Instinct days, able to condemn men to servitude with a deliberate crossing and uncrossing of her legs. Alas, Emily is the hole in the middle of the story, and it’s a hole that Rahman pretty clearly deliberately left unfilled.
Rahman hints early on that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem — viz., that in any formal system, there are theorems which are true but which cannot be proved — will play an important part in the book. Anyone with a bit of mathematical training will, I think, recoil at this suggestion; probably no other part of mathematics has been so much the playground of mathematically illiterate cranks than has Gödel’s Theorem. I always think of Hilary Putnam here:
Strictly speaking, all Gödel’s theorem shows is that, in any particular consistent axiomatizable extension of certain finitely axiomatizable subtheories of Peano arithmetic, there are propositions of number theory that can neither be proved nor disproved.
Not the most earth-bending theorem, when phrased that way, is it? It’s not even clear that it applies to anything that you or I care about; a negligible fraction of what we care about in our day to day lives is part of a formal system. Will the sun rise tomorrow? That’s an empirical question whose answer may rest on subatomic physics (theories that allow us to predict when the Sun’s nuclear fuel will run out), let’s say. It’s quite clear that the answer, or its nonexistence, has nothing at all to do with whether Peano arithmetic is complete.
So it’s both a blessing and a curse that Rahman never really does anything with Gödel. It’s a blessing, because I just don’t expect novelists to treat Gödel with the care that he deserves; and it’s a curse, because Rahman clearly believes that Gödel belongs somewhere within his novel, and always threatens to drag him in from the margins.
The resulting novel is, frankly, kind of a muddle. If Zafar had just been the Virgil to our Dante, exploring the minds of those he passed on the streets of London, what we’d have is a deeply penetrating work of social analysis. As it is, we have some of that, plus some math, plus some purely perfunctory characters, plus an ending that’s meant to be shocking but feels, instead, like Rahman was in a hurry to wrap up.
I’d strongly recommend using a well-sharpened X-Acto knife to slice out the final 50-75 pages. Read up to there, enjoy the time you spent with Zafar, and move along.
P.S.: The New Yorker writes
For years, Zafar has been obsessed with the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: “Within any given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true.” The elegant proof hangs over this novel like an intellectual rainbow.
No, the proof does not. And the fact that the review says this makes me wonder if its author is aware of how the proof is constructed. I doubt the reviewer believes that Gödel-numbering is somehow a leitmotif for this novel.