SEPTEMBER 3, 2016
There is a way between voice and presence
where information flows.
In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.
— Rumi, “Only Breath”
IT WOULD BE EASY to simply call Indra Das’s debut novel, The Devourers, a work of postcolonial speculative fiction, or to describe it as a novel that rewrites the classic werewolf tale — in a self-reflexive gesture it makes fun of werewolf stories and their lack of diversity; at one point the protagonist says to another character, “You’re the first Indian werewolf I’ve ever heard of.” But I hesitate to categorize The Devourers as such because it is also a love story, a war story, a story about monsters, and perhaps even a history and literary representation of the violence — cultural, sexual, and racial — that humans continually inflict upon one another. Genre marketing often demands that books are sold by being pigeonholed, stuffed into genres so that they can appeal to specific audiences and worldviews. The Devourers, though, plays with and expands its own generic boundaries. It has a commitment to connect several different reading communities, and a desire — first and foremost — to affectively touch its readers.
The Devourers is a layered tale that begins in contemporary Kolkata with a young man named Alok, a history professor as well as the novel’s protagonist. Alok is solicited by a stranger to help transcribe a series of handwritten scrolls. The stranger also claims he is “half werewolf,” a shape-shifter who can turn into a wolflike beast at will. Mesmerized by the story, Alok agrees to help the stranger. As Alok types out each manuscript, he soon discovers that they follow the life stories of two people from centuries past: a werewolf named Fenrir and a young woman named Cyrah. The scrolls are written from first-person perspectives, and it is through Fenrir’s eyes that we learn of his supposed love for Cyrah, his subsequent rape of her, and the violent acts he commits in the name of protecting their unborn child. This rape narrative is disturbing, but the novel then shifts its focus to Cyrah, whose voice dominates most of the book. The remainder of Cyrah’s scroll recounts her journey to track Fenrir down and her struggle to come to terms with the half-human child inside of her. In order to understand Fenrir and his motives, however, Cyrah must also wrestle with understanding how shape-shifters are different from humans, confronting in the process difficult questions about what exactly it means to be “human” at all.
“Take what you will from my story,” says the half-werewolf to Alok at their first meeting. Indeed, there is so much going on in The Devourers that Das’s novel challenges its readers to do the same. The novel is full of ethical confrontations and unanswered questions, and I have no doubt that it will spark discussion among fans and scholars. Why, for instance, is there not more emphasis placed on the fact that Fenrir is a Norse werewolf and Cyrah a woman of Persian descent? Secondly, how are we supposed to work through the briefly mentioned but heart-wrenching realization that Alok keeps his sexuality hidden out of fear of physical violence and social isolation? And how are we supposed to feel about Cyrah’s relationship with her shape-shifting companion, Gévaudan? As a werewolf himself, Gévaudan represents the hatred shape-shifters have for humans, yet he displays a fierce love for and loyalty toward Cyrah that is exemplified in no other character in the novel, human or nonhuman. These questions bother me even weeks after I have finished the novel.
It is difficult to describe the effect Das’s novel has on you as a reader; recounting the plot or reflecting on my own ambiguous reactions does not do justice to the experience of reading The Devourers. What stays with me the most as I write this review, then, is the novel’s affective intensity. At times The Devourers is difficult to read — it incites anger, eroticism, disgust at the physical violence and gore, and unease in the face of moral quandaries with no clear answers. It is difficult to review The Devourers simply because there are no easy words to describe the novel’s impact, and I can’t help but notice other reviewers have similarly expressed their inability to discuss the novel.
Perhaps this is what makes Das’s novel so refreshing — The Devourers refuses to subscribe to easy sentimental plots or moral tales. Though it viscerally and genuinely affects the reader, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what feelings are evoked. The novel makes clear what scholars have defined as the difference between affect and emotion. Brian Massumi, for instance, argues that emotions are contained, “subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience.” Emotions represent “qualified intensity, the conventional” as they are consciously acknowledged and produced. But there are no words for the experience of reading The Devourers; it is affective precisely because the feelings generated in the process of reading the novel reside beyond social signification.
To offer a comparison, the experience of reading Das’s novel is like watching a surrealist film: it is poetic, playful, and at times miraculous. If surrealism’s approach to the poetic is understood as an experience that goes beyond the arbitrary boundaries of rationality in order to, as Paul Hammond says, refashion and supplement reason with other ways of knowing, then Das’s novel certainly paints a surrealist picture. In thinking about the surrealism of The Devourers, I am reminded in particular of an early argument by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren where she distinguishes between the “vertical” and “horizontal” development of surrealist film. For Deren, the horizontal development of film is linked together primarily by action (plot), while the vertical movement of a film “probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or what it means.”
The Devourers dwells on its vertical movement — very little happens plotwise in the novel. Alok transcribes the scrolls given to him, and the novel ends when his job is finished. But the novel is less concerned with horizontal movement or action-driven plot; thematically and formally the novel is — like affect — what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls a “complex interleaving of […] causes, effects, feedbacks, motives, [and] long-standing states such as moods and theories.” This is not simply a matter of invoking “feelings” in a reader — Das’s novel asks readers to mull over the causes of these feelings, to reflect on why they so intimately affect us, and to examine why they are unqualified and unfamiliar responses. If this seems vague, let me provide an example: Cyrah abandons her child to be raised by a werewolf community, and I have no idea what to make of this decision. Though she watches the child from afar, she has little involvement in the child’s life — this confuses and angers me, but I’m not sure why. Is it my own gendered assumptions about the responsibilities a parent owes to their child? Or am I right to question Cyrah’s abandonment? Perhaps later conversation with readers will help me work through this unsettling point in the novel. The Devourers elicits affective potentialities.
This does not negate the book’s politics, or suggest a kind of l’art pour l’art. As Mark Bould argues, affect can be both “troubling and ha[ve] a utopian potential because it always exceeds and escapes the emotions by which we reduce and misname it,” and The Devourers utilizes its affective energies as a critical tool. But because affect exceeds our ability to make sense of it, it becomes a tool which captivates us, distracts us, and momentarily silences us even as it is transformative. Das’s novel is not unique in its critique of patriarchal violence, or in how it highlights the harm inflicted by heterosexual norms. Affect gives us a moment to pause our thoughts, indeed to pause language itself; without the words to describe our feelings or easy morals to espouse, we are instead forced to listen to another’s story without interruption — this is the transformative capacity of art and affect.
By refusing to reproduce easy morals or to sentimentalize its characters’ struggles, The Devourers renders us silent yet captivated audience members. Though assertiveness and voice are so often privileged in North America, as King-Kok Cheung points out in her book Articulate Silences, “Silence […] has often been perceived negatively as absence […] [but] [s]uch a logocentric tendency obscures the fact that silence, too, can speak many tongues, varying from culture to culture.” The dangers and power of silence are central to The Devourers, as well. Das’s book plays with the boundaries of silence and voice, listener and storyteller, generating a liminal space in which we are forced into momentary stillness to think. Gévaudan, for instance, seems truly monstrous, and yet he exemplifies moments of compassion that require us to forgo judgment and think more carefully about the complex manifestations of power in the novel. It is The Devourers’s affective capacity to momentarily stall our moral assessments that forces us to confront questions about how power is negotiated at the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and language.
The Devourers knows it is playing with its readers, provoking them to find meaning in narratives where perhaps there is none — or at least no simple answer or meaning. When Alok tries to understand the meaning of the stranger’s disturbing tales, the werewolf notes, “Professor, I am merely showing you the benefits of rationalizing a story. There are none. Stories are fiction. Made up.” Alok’s stranger may chide him for attempting to find meaning in the stories he transcribes, and yet the shape-shifter also laments the failure of the tellers: “If only we had better storytellers, perhaps they would learn more willingly from the past,” he says. The point, it seems, is that stories may be “fiction,” but their effects are very real, performed through the reactions and thoughts incited in readers.
Stories like The Devourers are powerful. Such storytelling deserves attentive readers, as Alok realizes at the end of his own work with the shape-shifter: “Perhaps he just wanted to tell his story, to have people listen till the very end, like I did,” Alok says. And so, in its final pages, The Devourers reminds us once again of when it is important to tell stories and when it might be more important to listen in silence as others tell theirs.