The Weightless World is a disconcerting mix of humdrum business-speak, vivid caricatures and wacky plot. It is built using such skillfully turned phrases that the reader is happy to be taken wherever the narrative may lead.
It is the sixth debut novel from the new press, Galley Beggar. Founded in 2012, the keen-eyed publishing house has already established itself as a fastidious literary magpie, snapping up anomalous diamonds like A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing.
Weight and Its Opposite
A charity-run school trip to Mumbai over a decade ago was what made teacher Anthony Trevelyan resolve to write “about light and heat, about texture and massiveness, about weight and its opposite”, he explains on his publisher’s website.
His book’s somewhat lofty title is offset by the petty ego that drives the action. This is essentially the story of a businessman, the capitalist faith that sustains him and the incongruous realities of scientific advancement, money-oriented ambition and forgotten fallout that characterise his world.
Narrator Steven Strauss is a “not important at all” twenty-eight-year-old assistant to Raymond Ess, a charismatic, ambitious “important man” and senior executive at a dissolving aviation firm. Ess has suffered a breakdown following a failed business deal and is unable to face Resolute Aviation’s imminent liquidation. When we meet the pair they have just arrived in India.
The trip is designed ostensibly to buy an anti-gravity machine and save the company. In reality, sending him to India is management’s way of getting the broken-hearted, tenacious old Ess out of the way while the company is put into administration. This is something that Steven is complicit in, and his guilt and mounting anger carry the story through with engaging credibility.
The pair is joined by grim-faced Indian tour guide Asha, and an old American “gone native” do-gooder, Harry.
Texture and Massiveness
Trevelyan’s prose is wholly readable, with wonderful, concise details that conjure full moments in perfect little capsules. The mysterious Harry, for example, “chews carefully but quickly, with avid method, as if trying to discover a free gift hidden in his food”; a sprightly Ess “picks his hat up as if handling a soft loaf”.
It is when the narrative is handed to other characters that it loses its hold. As the novel progresses, characters begin to explain themselves or recount the backstory in contrived speeches that are more lyrical than convincing.
For this reason, we never get past the quirky, funny character sketches that initially draw the reader in. In a sense, this fits the theme: Asha’s self-conscious soliloquy and Ess’s empty charm sync with the dissociated business world of the novel.
Heat and Light
While the brightly drawn characters and nicely cut phrases are a joy to read, there is a cartoonish quality to the whole thing that never fully admits the deeper undertones of the premise.
Set in a tourist hotel, a tourist bus and a desert cabin, the landscape is rooted in an outsider’s perspective of a foreign place. The market that Steven walks through, and the towns they pass on the road, are all described in the snapshot details of sensory overload:
“The street outside the hotel is either disintegrating or slowly knitting itself together. The slabs of the pavement are shattered, scattered, widely separated by ashen black pits . . . ’
Even the news of a devastating bombing reaches them at a remove. The characters eat “astronaut” vacuum-packed bacon and eggs, and chutney sandwiches. Like them, the reader remains at arm’s length.
India is there to be pillaged, objectified and forgotten in turn. The personification of the place as a violated, robbed or overstuffed woman is done with a tongue-in-cheek dig at our imaginary heritage, but that is as far as it goes.
The Weightless World has less to do with India than with modern capitalism and blinkered Eurocentric realities. The foreign land is used as a defamiliarizing backdrop against which the internal madness of these systems is exposed.
The real power of this book is in the juxtaposition of supreme scientific advancement with a shortfall of basic human necessities. By placing a pair of money-hungry businessmen alongside a poor, romantic genius and the mirage of money alongside real (but invisible) poverty, the novel points up the great gulf between the sophistication of modern technology and the stunted psyche of modern man.
Had we seen more of the “real” India, and not just the glossy tales of an Indian village recounted by Ess, this incongruity may have been more starkly realised.
With Galley Beggar’s stylish, sleek black cover, the reader is forced to approach the book without preconceptions. The terms of the novel are not immediately obvious. They continue to shift throughout and remain ambivalent to the end.
There is no way to categorise The Weightless World – literary or pop? satire or self-serious? science fiction or parody? – but perhaps it doesn’t matter.
At its worst, the novel hops between hyperbolic lyricism and the all-style bang-bang of a Tarantino script, but at its best this is a well-written, thought-provoking work that evades genre, and angles light onto the terrible incongruities of the modern, unhooked world.
The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan (Galley Beggar Press, June 2015)