“It is an art to make you so unlovable.” In her debut novel, Problems, Jade Sharma portrays the life of a troubled young woman, Maya, living in a tiny New York apartment she’s bought with inherited money. She works in a book shop, and is unhappily married to Peter. She maintains an affair with an older professor of hers, Ogden, and is most of the time lost in a daze of Xanax, Suboxone, or heroin. None of the plot points invoke a necessarily original scenario, but Sharma’s power resides in the razor-sharp tongue of her protagonist: Maya’s voice is extremely incisive, frank, and fearless as we follow her day-to-day life, rooting for her on one level and despising some of her decisions on the other. Reading Problems becomes a game of sympathy or no sympathy, of irresistible diagnosis-making by the reader: what is Maya suffering from? What would make things better for her? Why did she do that?
Problems must also be one of the raciest novels I’ve read in a while, surely to poke a reaction even from thick-skinned readers. For the sake of some propriety, large parts of the novel cannot be quoted here. Bodily fluids are well represented, as are Maya’s wildest sexual dreams, and in all this Problems is a truly refreshing read, a text that is so open and direct that it’s hard to resist reading further, even with a face of mild disgust. It joins the ranks of authors such as Ottessa Moshfegh, whose newest novels My Year of Rest and Relaxation was coincidentally published around the same time as Sharma’s novel saw the light of the day in Europe, having been originally published in the US in 2016. The current decade has brought with it a bolder branch of feminism, and, as a result of that, a truer emancipation of female voices: raw, uncensored, as bodily as the writer wishes. Just as importantly, they offer truthful accounts of mental illness. We no longer need to hide both mental illness and disappointment in men in a symbolic manner à la The Yellow Wallpaper. Sharma and Moshfegh speak to our times, and, clearly, they have an audience.
As said, it is hard to resist diagnosing Maya. What first resembles the irony of a hipster turns into more serious existential nihilism, which then turns into self-destructive acts. Similarly, what begins as humorous feminist commentary on gender stereotypes, as she watches stereotypical sitcoms, soon gets much darker shades when she throws herself into the hands of dangerous men. Comedy shifts into near-tragedy: the dark humor is increasingly devoid of that latter word, and, in turn, Problems becomes a rather serious study of the psyche of a 21st-century urban woman.
Yet, of course, Maya’s eponymous problems are linked to the feminist issues that are more markedly present in the beginning of the novel. She is evidently oppressed by the patriarchal society she’s born in: “This was a dress you wore for your man to bend you over and bang you” is an example of the way she defines things around her through men. Luckily for Maya, she is aware of many of her problems: daddy issues are on the table, as is the generational gap between her and her mother:
She had my brother when she was just nineteen years old; like, what did she fucking know about anything? She’d never lived on her own. She went from her parent’s house to her husband’s house. Her husband. He wasn’t easy. She was so bright and crafty, and she could have lived a whole life and just been a glorified servant. Who could blame her for being nuts? Her father and her husband had deprived her of being a person. She was raised to believe the best thing to be was a wife and mother. It was so sad.
Thanks to her irritated state of mind, readers get to hear her snarky commentary on many things, including New York life:
You live in New York, and you’re so cool. You have an apartment in the East Village, and you call yourself an artist. But after a while, you forget what it was you were so excited about. There is nothing here for you. You feel like a sucker every day paying fourteen bucks for a pack of smokes. You take stock of your resources, and you don’t have anything. You call yourself an artist, but you work fifty million hours a week just to sleep in a room where only a bed fits. You go to bars where you can’t sit down or hear anyone talk. You’re a hipster in New York City. There are a million of you, and it doesn’t matter that you believe you’re talented, because no one cares and you’re only getting older. […] At what point do people hear ‘loser’ when you say ‘artist’?
It is absorbing to listen to Maya’s nihilistic, drug-infused comments, but fortunately there are also small apertures of light in her life. She has a hard time getting accustomed to Peter’s loving, Christian family, but at one point she is moved by his father’s remark on how they could all one day live at the parents’ house: “My eyes got wet. I wanted to burst into tears imagining how he must have thought about this and was naive and sweet enough to think of all of us living here like this forever.” When Sharma allows these moments, the effect is powerful, because they occur strategically seldom.
Problems is a fascinating, quick-paced read, told in short vignettes without chapter breaks. Not all of the one-liners quite work, but the well-realized main character more than makes up for the novel’s deficiencies. It does rise a question, however, that I still don’t know how to answer: at what point does it become sadistic to be engrossed by the suffering of others in this manner, even if we’re dealing with fiction? Is it catharsis we’re after, a purification of emotions through art? It seems an old-fashioned answer. Maybe Sharma is simply testing, and prompting, our ability to sympathize with all kinds of people:
Shit on the floor and puke in the toilet, or puke on the floor and shit in the toilet? I lay down on the cool tiles with my eyes closed. Get it together. Grow up. Get it together. Darkness. Self-loathing. Regret. I was an addict. I wasn’t an addict; I was just in a fucked-up situation. I was going to end up homeless. Everything would be fine. I needed to use a lifeline. I needed to ask the studio audience. I needed to phone a friend. [...] I let myself cry for a minute.