The next time you fly, remember to look around the cabin and locate the best storyteller. Should your flight be delayed somewhere between Here and There, you're going to want to know whom to sidle up to for company. Rana Dasgupta would be a fine prospect. In his first novel, Tokyo Cancelled, he tells not one but 13 stories (14, if you count the thin thread tying them together into a "novel"), most of which are fantastical diversions. The kind of distraction that would be especially welcome during an unexpected layover.
Tokyo Cancelled opens with 13 strangers stranded for a night in an airport in the middle of nowhere, a blizzard having interrupted their itinerary. One of them suggests that the only cure for such a situation is stories. By dawn each has told one. The yarns echo traditional fables and fairy tales, with lessons learned and magic exploited. The language is lush, as in one story about a man dying of an odd disease:
There were also white flowers growing out of the hole in Fareed's forehead: flowers like tiny hyacinths growing tightly packed on wiry green shoots that pushed upwards through the sticky layer of blood...
As the details in that passage suggest, a dreamy and somewhat surreal air pervades the airport. A large, unrecognizable arthropod scuttles across the hall; a cat leaps into the airport through an open window and drinks at a bowl of milk set on the floor. These interludes help us suspend disbelief at the idea of strangers actually agreeing to tell each other bedtime stories. Nothing about this airport is normal.
The storytellers sprinkle their tales with elements of their modern lives: mentions of take-out food and biodegradable detergents, commentary on commercialism and wonder cures and the loss of history. Intrigued by these minor clues, the reader is liable to think more about the characters behind the characters--the 13 nameless storytellers. What kind of person would create a velocity map, which plots the movement of bacteria, love, and the sale of prosthetic limbs? Who would imagine the transubstantiation powers of Robert DeNiro's love child and the secret daughter of Isabella Rossellini and Martin Scorsese?
Billed as a novel, Tokyo Cancelled is really a collection of short stories, and Dasgupta ultimately leaves the identities of the 13 speakers a mystery. Traveling is all about short stories: It's impossible to weave a novel out of encounters as brief as those you have in airports, and it's naive to believe people will keep in touch once the story is through.