Book Review: Swimmer Among the Stars
by Kanishk Tharoor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
Swimmer Among the Stars is the title of Kanishk Tharoor’s debut short story collection, out this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and also the title of one of the strongest stories in the collection, in which a team of caring, thoughtful ethnographers travel to a small village in order to interview the last speaker of an indigenous language, an old woman who charms them with her gentle, unassuming nature and the odd curls and turns of her imagination (she imagines, among other things, that astronauts are “swimmers among the stars”). At one point in the story, we’re told the ethnographers want to hug her.
It’s tempting to make some obvious comparisons. The dozen or so stories in Tharoor’s collection are mostly gentle, fabulistic concoctions that are easy to embrace, and this is both a strength and a weakness. Some of these stories are animated by a wan kind of whimsy that doesn’t always sustain much in the way of energetic reading. The result is a distinctly uneven collection even judged only by the standard of uneven debut story collections.
The weak spots in this collection – a story in which the United Nations has relocated to an orbiting satellite, for instance, or a series of thin fantasias based on the fourth-century “Iskandar” folklore-cycles about the mythological adventures of Alexander the Great – give the deadly impression of being make-weights here, especially when compared with the collection’s strongest entries. The most famous of these is “Tale of the Teahouse,” which was nominated for a National Magazine Award; it tells the story of a city fretfully dreading the approach of a great khan’s invading army, and in its own way it’s a very deft distillation of the derangements of tension. In “Icebreakers,” the captains of two ice-bound ships, and Tharoor has an alert ear for capturing their strange, awkward interactions:
The captain of the Russian icebreaker flies over to consult his counterpart. He admires the Chinese ship’s state of good repair, its clean orange lines, the state-of-the-art medical facilities, the pleasing girth of its hull and its red-cheeked crew. In the captain’s quarters he sips vodka, holding it in his mouth and letting it trickle down his throat, as if that slow fire could spread to his lungs. We are fifteen kilometers from you, the Chinese captain says, and by our latest estimate, a further fifteen from more brittle, navigable ice. We’re trapped like you, helpless like you, and all we can do is wait.
Well, at least you have the helicopter, the Russian captain says. They speak in English, which is the language of the sea, of the air, and of space, even if it will never fully conquer the land.
Yes, and the helicopter is as useful as two tin cans tied by string. They laugh. Neither of them has ever held tin cans tied by string.
In fact the main advantage to importing so much whimsy into fiction is to enhance the strangeness of the narrative, and it’s to Tharoor’s credit that he manages to do this so effectively even when writing stories set in the near-present; the image of history ripples when this author runs his fingers through it, and when the device is particularly successful, it hints at some future epic that might speak volumes to an age set adrift from the past. And Tharoor’s instinct for when to pause and simply appreciate the strangeness is his strongest gift as a writer. Such moments of pause are scattered throughout this collection, as in the very good story “Elephant at Sea,” in which the title animal is impetuously requested by a Moroccan princess and must make the long sea-voyage from India – a voyage the elephant loves, much to the surprise of the animal’s handler:
On deck, the elephant stormed from side to side, relishing the heave of the ship, the rise and prostration of the bow as it carved its mass through the blue. The mahout studied the joy of the elephant with awe. He thought the elephant would grow bored of the sea, but the wonder never wore off. As the wind sprayed it with foam, the creature seemed to admire the uninterrupted ocean in a kind of rapture, a dervish-like ecstasy. It once occurred to the mahout that this was the closest he had ever got to witnessing contact with the divine: the elephant forgetting its elephantness in the vista of the sea, the veils of moksha parted, the creature poking its trunk into the beyond and feeling its way toward cosmic oneness. Then the motion of the vessel shook the mahout’s insides loose. He staggered to the rim of the stern and emptied himself into the deep.
Swimmer Among the Stars has a dozen such moments of gentle wonder, a dozen moments of simple, insightful hesitation. A dozen moments strung out over 230 pages makes for some thin topsoil – a familiar caution of debut story collections that certainly applies to Tharoor’s first outing. But his moments have a distinct flavor, and readers will want more of that flavor.