From last weekend’s column. I enjoyed this.
Something that interests me that is mostly unrelated to the book itself is the thing where the cover suggests (current weight, calories) a preoccupation with being overweight that isn’t in evidence in the book–Ayesha goes to the gym maybe once or twice, and spends very little time thinking about dieting. It strikes me that worrying about weight is being used as a genre marker here, and while I suppose this is both obvious and understandable, I do find it rather fascinating.
How a book is packaged can be revealing. Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me! comes with multiple tubes of lipstick on the jacket, alongside a revolver and a view of the street; and is described on the back as a combination of Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Diary of a Social Butterfly. The book begins with a quote from the former, and the back cover gives us such statistics as the weight of its main character, calories consumed, cigarettes smoked. And then, at the end, the most important statistic of all: number of deaths from target killings. It’s a juxtaposition that demands that you notice it; look how incongruous it is to have the sort of protagonist that the rest of those numbers signal placed against this background. To work, this requires the reader to make certain assumptions about what sort of novel this is, and about Karachi itself—assumptions with which the rest of the book will enjoy playing.
Ayesha is a journalist in her late twenties, in the sort of job that requires her to report on everything from bomb blasts to bakery openings. She has a nightmare boss, a popular twitter account, and a social life that her salary (when it shows up) can’t accommodate. She is surrounded by people who think regular weekend trips between Dubai and Karachi are cost-effective, who buy designer clothes and have expensive drug habits; she’s not sure she can afford rickshaw fare to her next assignment.
But she’s also good at her job; something that Imtiaz never tells us openly (since the whole thing is in the form of Ayesha’s diary it’s hard to see how she could without making her insufferable) and enjoys it, and thinks it important. She’s clearly aware of the occasional absurdity of her own situation; being flirted with at 1 am by the spokesperson for a terrorist organisation; driving to parties in cars with guards, reporting one day on the runway cameo of a cat at Karachi fashion week, and on another tracking the runaway pet lion cub of a major gunrunner. Every entry begins with a newspaper headline—hopefully fictional (“Deadly brain-eating amoeba resurfaces in Karachi”), though I could swear I’d seen “Books not bombs at Pakistan literature festival” before—and these too emphasise not only the occasional absurdity of her city, but the extent to which her own life, which involves Breaking Bad and alcohol and the difficulties of casual sex when everyone in your extended social circle knows each other, sits awkwardly in relation to all of this. It works both as an undoing of the ways in which cities like ours are written about, and a comment on how class functions within them.
All of which makes Karachi, You’re Killing Me! sound terribly worthy, and it’s not; it’s just as easy to read as a snarky expose of a certain group of people (and if I was from Karachi I suspect I’d be making wild and inaccurate guesses about who each character was intended to represent). But the real story is Ayesha’s own career, which survives an encounter with an attractive American plagiarist and at least one near-death experience, to put her exactly she wants to be at the end of the book. It’s unusual and wonderful to have a fluffy, snarky wish-fulfillment novel make this the desired object, rather than the attainment of the perfect romance.
Because this isn’t a love story. We rarely see Ayesha think of Saad in romantic terms, and this makes the rushed ending which places our heroine neatly in the arms of her best friend rather disappointing. It’s all done with a good deal of genre-awareness (is an unironic rush-to-the-airport scene even possible anymore?), but it feels a little like a last-minute attempt to force the book into a template that it no longer fits.