Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review of Technologies of the Self by Haris A. Durrani

I ordinarily go unfazed by cover copy. We’ve reached the point where publishers seem to have a machine (the Hyperbolic 4X?) capable of spitting out cookie cutter statements—“magnificent”, “superb”, and other such giddiness—at the drop of a hat. But in the case of Haris A. Durrani’s Technologies of the Self (2016, Brain Mill Press), there was a concatenation of names difficult to ignore. John Crowley, Sofia Samatar, and Paul Park among them, all exuberantly vouched for the quality of Durrani’s debut, forcing me to rethink skipping the book.

In writing a debut novel (or in this case, novella), aspiring authors are advised to keep things simple. To some extent Durrani follows this advice: Technologies of the Self is the coming-of-age story of a young man named Jihad (or as he prefers to be called Joe) living in contemporary NYC. Post-colonial literature an established form, Durrani follows suit. Foregrounded are Joe’s Dominican-Pakistani heritage, time with family, and religious inclinations, all of which fit and clash, to larger and lesser degrees, with the so-called American norm. Where Durrani breaks the mold (at least partially so) is in using the devices of metaphor and symbolism to fantastical effect. Certainly more at home in literary fiction than cheap fantasy, the colorful interplay of what is real with what is not forms the backbone of the story. Joe recalls times with his uncle Tomas, an untamed man with uncanny stories of a demon. The demon appearing as a knight, woman, and other guises, and seemingly able to travel through time, Joe is awe-struck by Tomas’ stories, all the while bothered by problems in his daily life. The gears in his gearbox turning in different directions, Joe struggles to bring the workings of his soul/personality/identity into some semblance of united purpose.

Technologies of the Self is a story that feels strongly autobiographical; the real is understood perfectly at the personal level, making it easy, perhaps even natural, to layer on the metaphorical/-physical. Likewise, it’s a story that doesn’t want to step on any toes—to challenge anything regarding politics or religion. There were several places where Durrani dances close to making bold statements regarding the relationship of Islam, government, terrorism, and the state of the world today, but he slips smoothly away, turning instead to philosophical questions and the wisdom of the Sufis. While this tactic may be less imminently relevant, it does complete the task of strengthening the reader’s understanding of the problems and troubles throwing wrenches into the gears of Joe’s existence, and subsequently his ability to get all his mental pieces coordinated.

In the end, Technologies of the Self is lit fic 101 with a fantastical twist. Durrani keeps things simple but still delivers a unique, memorable story pertinent to post-colonialism. The prose is refined and efficient, the text reading smooth, dynamic, and purposeful. And always there is more than one narrative ball being juggled at a time, even if certain sections (I’m thinking of the South American scene toward the end) could have been tightened up a little. Content is fully relevant to the contemporary social and political scene in the US despite that Durrani chooses to play things safe; apple carts remain standing as opportunities for political and religious commentary are passed by in favor of rumination upon Sufism. Not about changing the world, but understanding one’s self, it’s a very personal story with the focus on a young man trying to align his inner mechanisms of family, identity, culture, religion—technologies of the self as Al-Ghazid and Foucalt would have it. This is all a long way of saying: the cover copy can be trusted. Crowley, Samatar, Park, et al are spot-on.

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