In This Heartbreaker, Hard Choices Come With Hidden Costs

CHOICE, by Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee’s “Choice” is a novel full of characters deciding how much truth to tell. As in “The Lives of Others,” the author’s 2014 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, we are confronted with subtle, powerful narratives within narratives exploring the gap between wealth and poverty, myopia and activism, fact and fiction. But here these themes deepen into an exploration of free will. A line from V.S. Naipaul’s “In a Free State” comes to mind: “The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.”

In the first of the novel’s three parts, we follow a South Asian man named Ayush. The lie he is telling himself is that he can control his career, his family, his future. As the editorial director at a London publishing house, he reports to a white woman “reputed to have a ‘nose for a winner’” — but the press is called Sewer, and Ayush can’t “shake off the feeling that he is their diversity box, ticked.”

At home his husband, Luke, worries about Ayush’s O.C.D. tendencies, but also his attempts to expose their two children to the repercussions of their choices. When they choose to eat meat, Ayush swaps out a bedtime story for a video of pigs being slaughtered. And when the kids seem as if they might still take their privilege for granted, he redirects 200,000 pounds from their education fund to “three different climate change charities.”

These choices may seem like the actions of a crackpot, but Mukherjee’s trick is to make them also read as the plausible acts of a man clinging to a social conscience. Late capitalism doesn’t seem to have helped Ayush’s mental health, but when he acquires a brilliant manuscript, he is unburdened. Other people’s stories offer a space within which he can stop struggling to control his own narrative.

One such manuscript forms the second section of “Choice.” We have already experienced Ayush’s excitement about a short story by a publicity-shy author who goes by the pseudonym “M.N. Opie” — a tale about a young academic named Emily who gets caught up in a car accident. Now, in an enactment of Ayush’s own thrill, we get to read that very story.

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