I read and reviewed my first M.G. Vassanji novel in 2009, when I was nineteen years old, making it among one of the earliest reviews I wrote, about a year into this project. It’s wild, going back and reading those old reviews. Kara of 2009 was so young, and self-deprecating: “I suspect that when I revisit this book as an older, more experienced person, I will see additional facets of the story that escaped me on a first reading.” Well, I don’t have the same feelings about Nostalgia. The only thing that escapes me about this book is how it managed to make its way to Canada Reads.
(Obligatory grumbling about not using quotation marks for dialogue. Moving on.)
Dr. Frank Sina is a specialist in Nostalgia, a condition that occurs when memories of one’s old life leak through into one’s new, fabricated life. You read that right: in this near-future story, medicine allows people to live much longer, extended lives. To accommodate this, society allows people to radically alter their appearance and then forget their previous lives; they have a new, fictitious persona, complete with childhood memories, that they then take on as real. Dr. Sina’s latest patient has a persistent, troubling memory of a lion. As Frank becomes more entangled with this patient, he starts to question his own reality.
Seeing this story through Frank’s eyes is … a time. He himself is a “GN,” someone who has lived more than one lifetime. He is dating Joan, a “G0,” someone still on her first lifetime. Frank is a boor and chauvinist: his comments about Joan are almost exclusively about her attractiveness and sex appeal in a leering, Humbert Humbert kind of way. He does this with every female character he comes across, and it’s uncomfy, to say the least. Was I just not paying attention to this in Vassanji’s other novels, or is this a deliberate characterization choice that falls flat for me because it’s, uh, too real?
The novum of Nostalgia—near-immortality coupled with memory replacement—has its intriguing moments, I admit. The conflict between Frank’s generation and Joan’s is pertinent. Vassanji juxtaposes it with a wider story of haves and have-nots in the world: Frank lives within a prestigious, wealthy nation (apparently contiguous with contemporary Toronto); in contrast, countries in Africa remain poor and militant. Frank watches a xenophobic pundit’s television show and obsesses over the disappearance of an attractive reporter when she is “behind the lines” in one such poor country, and this becomes a key subplot of the book.
It’s not that I don’t see what Vassanji is trying to do. The possibility for improvements to geriatrics and extended longevity are tantalizing and seemingly within reach in my lifetime—yet they also have the potential to sharpen inequality. If only wealthy countries built on white supremacy have access to such technology, how will that play out when it comes to narratives of race and racism? So these are worthwhile issues to explore.
Yet my overwhelming takeaway from this book is one that I had within the first chapter or two: science-fiction authors are much better at writing literary fiction than the other way around. Vassanji joins the ranks of authors like Margaret Atwood in that he is writing science fiction but trying to be “literary” or “elevated” about it—and it’s just not … good. The characters are flat, the dialogue insipid, and the allegory shallow and ultimately unfulfilling.
Nostalgia is an odd book, and so much about it did not work for me. Vassanji’s storytelling has impressed me in the past, but literally nothing about this story, aside from some of its basic ideas, has left any good impression on me.