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THE CRIPPLE AND HIS TALISMANS by Anosh Irani. Algonquin Books, 2005. Hardcover, 256 pages. $22.95

In the beginning there was a little boy. He was alone in the universe and everything was dark and quiet.” Thus begins the tale of a man who is on a quest—to find his lost arm. Anosh Irani, a Bombay native, who now makes his home in Vancouver, Canada, is a teller of tall tales in the truest sense of the term.

Irani has written the kind of novel that, for no reason that I can fathom, is always praised as a sort of genius. As if the tried and true Indian folktales were not good enough, what we have here is yet another fairytale of sorts. And fairytales, well, they’re for kids. He is being praised as a writer in the tradition of Salman Rushdie, Lewis Carrol and (gasp!) Samuel Beckett, and while I suppose that imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, I find this style of writing rather derivative and, sad to say, boring.

While it seems to be both cutting-edge and daring to blend the sacred and the profane, it becomes tiresome fast. While admittedly some of Irani’s images are clear and colorful and he has mastery of a simple and spare style, the effect as a whole left me quite cold and sometimes nauseated.

His frank portrayals of the underbelly of the teeming city of Bombay and its inhabitants, some of whom both teeter on the edge and hold on to it for dear life, are admittedly fascinating. Irani is at his best when he can further the story along with some modicum of normalcy, when he is telling a real story and not trying to top the hallucinations he seems to be having with one improbably bombastic image after another. For instance, flashing back to the night in the hospital when it slowly dawns on the man that he has lost his arm and his mind attempts to reject the evident, Irani poetically describes a man who, in the minutiae of his terror, attempts to focus on what he sees out of his hospital window:

I looked outside and it was night. The lights in the sky were not stars. They were the eyes of dead people shining, blinking, calling out and hoping that I’d come to them soon. I was walking through the dark temper of trees, speaking the murmur of some other man’s heart. I was outgrowing the trees and grass, but growing downward like wells, like people who are always sorry.

And I suppose I am sorry, too. Sorry more of the writing couldn’t have been like that.

—Michelle Reale