The basic conceit of this novel is that its central character is an event—specifically a bombing—rather than a person. The bombing in question takes place close to the novel’s beginning, in the city of Delhi, in a market called Lajpat Nagar, and it’s a small bombing, taking a handful of lives, a bombing like hundreds of others that occur every year all over the world but gain only brief attention in the media. The novel then spirals outward from this moment, this particular explosion, as its consequences and effects reach years, whole lifetimes, into the future for a variety of different characters.
Specifically, three of the bombing victims are Nakul and Tushar Khurana (brothers, aged 11 and 13) and their friend Mansoor Ahmed. The Khurana boys are killed and Mansoor is injured, and in the early part of the book, we see the run-up to the bombing and the immediate aftermath in both the Khurana and Ahmed households. Following this is an incredibly interesting chapter covering the story of Shockie, the terrorist who built and set the bomb.
Now, at this point in the book, I was rather riveted, thinking that what I was in for as a reader was a complex and compelling look at the two sides of this bombing. But as the novel progressed, Mahajan took us away from the Khuranas and the Ahmeds and their struggles, and away from Shockie and his story, and instead the novel becomes almost entirely about Mansoor and a friend he makes named Ayub. I won’t say anything about the direction in which the plot eventually meanders, but by the time I was a couple hundred pages in, I was quite frustrated at the fact that the novel had started off as if it were going to alternate between the stories of the victims and the perpetrators of the bombing, but then went in an entirely different direction. This is not to say that, from my perspective, it went entirely off the rails, but my sense of it, as I was reading, is that the central focus of the book seemed to wander, at times even shooting off in brief, inexplicable, seemingly extraneous tangents.
I have to admit, though, that I’m perplexed a bit by my feelings about this novel. The critics have praised it highly. A lot of other novelists who I have great respect for have praised it highly. It was shortlisted for the National Book Award, though it ended up losing to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Now, I do acknowledge its many strengths. And I tip my hat to Mahajan, whose decision to write a novel significantly from the perspective of—though not in the voice of—terrorists is a brave and bold one. And who the hell am I to criticize a young writer who has written two very successful novels and is clearly destined for greatness? There must be something I’m missing here. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: my favorite novels are absurdly detailed deep dives, generations-spanning sagas, and this leads, I believe, to my sometimes failure to appreciate a novel that may be brilliant in any number of other ways simply because it’s not meaty enough for my taste. And I think that this is likely the case with The Association of Small Bombs. As I read it, where I should have been appreciating a conceptually groundbreaking novel, I instead perceived a frustrating lack of focus, and I think this one’s on me. The more I re-read portions of the book and mull it all over, it’s really something grand and impressive that Mahajan has pulled off here, both in terms of its literary bravado and in terms of its uncomfortable and absolutely crucial and timely subject matter.
Now, I purchased my copy on the day it was published, 22 March 2016. The day after that, I attended an event at BookCourt in Brooklyn where Mahajan himself read a small portion from the early part of the novel and then discussed the book in general. Now, Mahajan was born in Connecticut and he grew up in New Delhi, India, but he returned to the US about a week after 9/11. Though his first novel (Family Planning) was published in 2008 and is an entirely different kind of book (in both its humor and its topic) than The Association of Small Bombs, his interest in terrorism as a literary subject was, as he explained, stoked by the timing of his return to the US. He explained that Small Bombs was his attempt to “exhaust my interest in the subject.” Incidentally, he wrote almost the entire novel while living in Austin, Texas and, according to his contemporary Tony Tulathimutte who discussed Mahajan’s book on an episode of the podcast “Otherppl with Brad Listi,” he wrote the whole thing longhand, on pen and paper.
All in all, it’s a very good book. Though I didn’t enjoy it—insofar as it wasn’t all that fun to read it—I can’t deny that it’s a very serious, very smart, and exceedingly important book, and I can see the wisdom in its being selected by other writers as a finalist for the National Book Award. Read it. Settle down for a difficult and heavy endeavor, but read it.