Anil Menon’s The Coincidence Plot features two main characters, both novelists, and the book is about them writing a novel apiece. It is to Menon’s credit that this premise, claustrophobic in some hands, is handled with a light touch. The story begins in 1930, in a Berlin on the verge of the Nazi takeover, where a plumber-turned-genius, Alex Alexanian, is chasing a ground-breaking mathematical breakthrough. While wandering the streets, he runs into an Indian woman, Sakshi, and they fall in love. As she says later, “it was pure coincidence”. Except that it there is no such thing in Menon’s universe.
The Coincidence Plot
Simon & Schuster India
Alexanian is consigned to eternal obscurity when Kurt Gödel beats him to the finishing line with his theorem which shows that the “most mathematical systems—for example, ordinary school arithmetic—are either consistent or complete, but they couldn’t be both—either there would be inconsistencies in mathematics or mathematics couldn’t always guarantee a proof.” Gödel, of course, existed—and this is part of Menon’s deft weaving of fact and fiction, with walk-on parts for a bevy of famous writers and scientists, including Borges and Devika Rani.
Alexanian eventually flees to the US and sends back the pregnant Sakshi to India. Her grandson is “Xan” Bharuch, who writes pulpy thrillers, whose “target demo was the modern, English-speaking peasant”. Xan gets into a “nasty online fight with Chetan Bhagat over sales numbers”, has his books endorsed by John le Carré, and optioned for film by Luc Besson.
His opposite is the putative main character, Rama Rao, who sports a trilby hat, smiles mysteriously when Heidegger is mentioned, and uses words like barcarolle. They start off as frenemies before becoming outright enemies. The conflict is between the two novels they are both racing to complete. Xan’s is called The God Proof, and is centred around his grandmother, while Rao’s is The Librarian of Syracuse, and is about Alexanian, enabled by his discovery of the mathematician’s papers. In the mix is Farzana, whom Xan marries and Rao covets.
This bare-bones precis, however, does not reveal how Menon shows off his literary chops with virtuoso technique. The novel begins with the postscript, and the content’s page is a cat’s cradle of chapters darting from year to year, from the opening chapter set in 1930, zooming all the way to 2019, leaping up to four decades at a go, and then again back by 30 years, with detours to Kerala in 1984, Chembur in 2000 and Gurgaon in 2010.
This progression ensures that we see time as a spiral staircase where you catch glimpses of those who came before you and those who will come after, as you race over the steps. And that is not all. Menon pulls out rabbit after rabbit from his hat of literary techniques.
Each chapter hinges around a coincidence or an unlikely meeting. The chapters are told from various perspectives ranging from an ageing Ayurveda master to a bored housewife. One of the characters has a friend who happens to be Anil Menon. Chapters also play with perspective, like a literary optical illusion. Menon can with equal facility write sentences like “the swollen sense of being encased in the amber eternity of the present is dissolving”, or “for a happy life three things are necessary: something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for” as well as describe a character’s hunt for a groom as “she had gone to buy a tomato and settled for a potato”.
He also favours long digressive, interior monologues: in one, a podiatrist raves about feet, and how “they have always been the children of a lesser god. For one thing they’re treated as failed hands.”
Mathematical concepts at the heart
This is a novel unafraid to have ideas, or even mathematical concepts, at its heart. Menon’s ambition is to comb ideas and emotions, and have characters stand for certain concepts or viewpoints. The spirit of the 16th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza pervades the proceedings. Rao describes himself as a “Spinoza chamcha”, ruminating that “some people have therapists, others have religion, I only had my philosophy.”
Spinoza, who was excommunicated for his heretical views, has had a small but devoted following ranging from Jeeves to Einstein. The latter once declaimed, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” Spinoza famously rejected prayer, saying that we shape ourselves into the “eternal totality” of Nature, which is indistinguishable from God.
“Each chapter hinges around a coincidence or an unlikely meeting. The chapters are told from various perspectives ranging from an ageing Ayurveda master to a bored housewife.”
It is easy to see why Spinoza, and Alexanian’s endeavour to prove god through mathematical means appeal to Menon, who is a computer scientist. Spinoza holds that through reason we can attain God’s perspective, seeing life through sub specie aeternitatis or under the aspect of eternity, rather than filtered through our ego, resulting in a view through sub specie durationis or under the aspect of time. With this, the complicated chapter structure suddenly makes sense.
This God, who does not listen to prayers, and who is indistinguishable from Nature, is not very reassuring. Still, he helps. When a character begins to panic, “it helped to recall Spinoza’s idea that fear is actually a kind of sorrow.”
Such a literary experiment to test Spinoza’s philosophy and apply it in this laboratory of words is laudable but can also seem stagey and contrived. There is no backstory for some major plot points while others are dwelt upon in obsessive detail. Some plot threads are left untied. Menon anticipates such criticism in his typical meta-style by applying it to the novel within the novel. A character berates the author for not having pat endings or resolutions—which could apply to the novel you are reading—and the author defends himself by saying, “some things have to be left unwritten because they can only be written by the reader”.
Jaideep Unudurti is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.