If I believed in God, I would think he was waiting for me to get my shit together.
The problem with Jade Sharma’s novel, Problems, is that it ends. The narrator, Maya, is a hot mess with zero percent of her shit together, and yet as I got to know her through the Sharma’s inventive narrative voice, I saw her as—or perhaps wanted her to be—my friend. This might seem odd considering Maya is a drug addict with no sense of stability or self-confidence, but, actually, it’s because she has such a collection of self-destructive issues that the novel is remarkable. Problems doesn’t read as a shallow portrayal or sensational narrative of addiction. It’s real.
Even if you’ve never pushed dope in your veins, and the hardest substance you’ve ever put in your body is Flintstones chewable vitamins, you’ll find Maya to be a relatable and, surprisingly, reliable narrator. She’s open and honest and never hesitates to comment on both the big and itsy-bitsy stuff that pisses us off—the mean things we want to say but don’t because of the whole “consequences” thing. Whether she’s talking about marriage and how she watched her husband “stand in front of a mirror and put his sunglasses on different points on his nose for fifteen minutes,” which made her think, “This is the person I am spending the rest of my life with,” or she’s facing a possible divorce and considers herself “a failure, a reject. Someone had picked me and then thought, Whoops, this isn’t the one I wanted,” it’s refreshing to meet a character who so unabashedly reveals her peeves, fears, and mistakes. With lines like, “I didn’t know what to do when men gave me flowers. I would always think, Great, now I will have to watch these things die,” Sharma has created a character who knows our unspoken hang-ups.
Maya faces the complexities of desire and identity throughout the novel. She cheats on her husband to keep her life interesting, will divulge any and all of her secrets to men who might save her, and knows some of the rarely-discussed challenges of being a drug addict: “One of the greatest myths of drug addiction is that it’s interesting. It’s the most boring thing anyone could ever do.”
Even though there is a plot in Problems, what keeps you reading is the character development. The point of Problems is not to turn each page in hurried anticipation, to but glide through them gleefully because you want to see what shit Maya will say next. Like her thoughts on shaving—in the future, Maya imagines there will be a Discovery Channel-esque documentary on what humans were like hundreds of years ago, in which the voice-over will say, “In ancient times the female would rub a bladed tool over her genitalia to slice the hair growing from the body even with the surface of the skin, from where it would grow again.”
Since there aren’t any distinct chapters in Problems, Sharma’s witty writing reads as one long monologue—reams of inner thoughts that make the reader feel like she’s becoming Maya’s friend, or at least a confidant who faces life along with her.
I lied all the time. Sometimes I lied so I didn’t have to answer questions, like saying my father was still alive so I didn’t have to talk about him dying. I regularly told people my father was white. Not because of some deep-seated issue with being Indian, but because I didn’t know much about Indian culture, and I felt more American than anything else. I lied because it felt true. I said it to get off the hook for answering questions about why cows are sacred or whatever.
By establishing such a clear and unique narrative voice, Sharma avoids sensationalizing or stereotyping an addict’s perspective. Drug addiction—and the emotions and circumstances that lead to it—simply feels like one of those common problems we all face that are more annoying than anything else. Maya feels very alive, not like someone going through absolute hell, even though there are times when it would have been easy for Sharma to slip in some “deep” sense of despair. We see Maya as a person, not a representation. She asks, “What was the difference between Peter drinking and me using? Maybe I resented Peter because his addiction was something legal and mainstream and pretty much accepted.” That’s an excellent point.
When Maya does try to get clean, her struggle doesn’t feel like a huge, life-threatening ordeal that necessitates an intervention; it’s just another part of life that Maya is trying to navigate. “And then another voice says, ‘It’s time. Just fucking stop it. You are too old for this to be cute.’ I try to hold on to that. I am a former drug addict. Oh god, that sounds terrible.” The problems are just a part of her life. “I lie in bed and start to cry again. Where the fuck is the bottom? Is this finally it?”
Sharma doesn’t minimize the problems a drug addict can face. Instead, she turns the social perception of addicts as totally fucked-up and irredeemable losers into a story of how we respond to our perplexing problems. Maya, for instance, pushes people away. “It is an art to make yourself so unlovable.” And it is an art to make such an unlovable character absolutely adored.