Tarun J. Tejpal, The Story of My Assassins (2009)

The first that Tarun Tejpal’s protagonist, an unnamed investigative journalist, learns of the attempt on his life is when he hears that the Delhi police have captured his would-be assassins.

He is placed under police guard whilst still unsure of what exactly has been going on. Tejpal’s novel then alternates between the protagonist’s struggles with his magazine and relationships, and stories of the killers’ backgrounds. The panorama revealed is altogether broader and more impersonal than our man could have suspected. The tales of the assassins show the various ways they were drawn into crime by circumstance. One discovered as a boy that he was handy with a knife, and saw that as his means of getting on in the world. Another was a timid underachiever until he fought back against one of the padres at his English-language school, and then found his true talent among gangs rather than in the classroom. All have ultimately been moved around by forces beyond their control.

And, as he learns more, the journalist learns that something similar has happened to him – that this is about something more than just a plot to kill him. Tejpal mirrors this theme in the structure of his novel: self-contained sections reveal more than one person could know. The Story of My Assassins adds up to a wide-ranging portrait of people trying to make something of life, if it doesn’t get made for them first.

(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)

Ryan David Jahn, Low Life (2010)

I don’t know quite why it took me so long to read another Ryan David Jahn novel after I so enjoyed his debut, 2009’s Acts of Violence (aka Good Neighbors). But now I have, and I won’t be leaving it so long again. Where Acts of Violence explored why a disparate group of people might refuse to help an attack victim (with the inevitable result), Jahn’s follow-up is almost the reverse. Low Life focuses tightly on one individual trying to puzzle out what’s happening to him, and the outcome is far from certain.

Simon Johnson is marking time at 34, with a dead-end job and no social life, when he’s attacked in his LA apartment. He fights back and kills the intruder, only to see that the man bears a striking resemblance to himself. Identification on the body reveals that this was one Jeremy Shackleford, who turns out to have been a mathematics lecturer. Why would he possibly have wanted to break into Simon’s home and kill him? To find out, Simon adopts Shackleford’s identity – and the lines between his two personae start to blur.

In Low Life’s early stages, Jahn skilfully evokes the bleakness of Simon’s existence. The novel then comes to focus more on its protagonist’s personality – the title refers to dark thoughts that a person may have but would never normally act upon; Simon finds himself becoming more and more consumed by this ‘low life’ of his. The reader’s journey with him is disturbing and thrilling by turns, as we wonder how far Simon will go, where this will all end up – and how much is even real.