Starstruck – a ten-part novel by Rajeev Balasubramanyam – is an unusual book, not least because of its format. Originally serialised via The Pigeonhole website and app over the course of ten days earlier this month, the full text is now available in a unique digital format: the words are supplemented not only by multimedia material including videos and author interviews, but also by comments left peppered throughout the story by previous readers.
This format rather suits the story in question. Starstruck is a furiously contemporary tale – so up to date that it almost feels as though the author must live in the future. The ten interweaving tales that make up the narrative are – more than almost any other book I’ve read – concerned with the now, with the world as it is. What better platform to read such a story on than one that is attempting to reinvigorate publishing using new technology?
So the fashion in which Starstruck is published is refreshingly modern, but what of the novel itself? I’ll admit that I found the first chapter a little slow to get going, but I was pleased that I persisted. Things swiftly kicked into gear, and I found that the carefully-paced opening served as a counterweight to the astronomical insanity that soon ensued. In chapter one, we follow a young man named Ashish, first as he attempts to understand and accept the political views of his wife, and then later as he flees a formal dinner with a drunk ex-president.
There is, in this first story, a definite moment when the narrative steps from the familiar shores of realism into the uncharted waters of utter absurdity – but by the time this point arrives the story has gathered so much momentum that it leaves the reader with no choice but to hang on through the bizarre twists and turns that Balasubramanyam has devised. Reading it felt a little like being on a runaway train – terrifying and dangerous, but there was no way that I would ever attempt to jump off. The end of the story is similar to the ultimate end of a runaway train as well – there is mess, blood, chaos, a sense of shell-shock… and perhaps even relief, as Ashish tries to mop up and pull together the shreds of his life.
The subsequent chapters follow a similar pattern: they begin grounded in something that at least resembles reality, before swiftly embarking on a journey into chaotic, gleeful fantasy. Balasubramanyam pilots his various characters through impossible situations and unlikely personal crises with evident enjoyment – and it’s a ride he takes with the reader rather than at their expense. There’s something of a thrill to his perverse and unexpected re-imaginings of various celebrity personalities – he takes figures that we all recognise and changes them into something different, something deeper and less familiar. Prince Harry, David Beckham, Bjork and Mike Tyson are all fair game, and Balasubramanyam toys with each of them joyfully and without restraint. In fictionalising them in this fashion, however, he quite often renders them more real and more human than any amount of newspaper coverage or any number of fawning interviews.
It’s impossible to write about real people (particularly “famous” ones) without also somehow commenting on the ideas of celebrity and fame. Balasubramanyam does this with flair, drawing in complicated themes of protest, imperialism, race and family without ever once sacrificing the giddy energy of the plot. There’s plenty one could read into a scene which depicts the ex-president of the United States sexually assaulting the narrator’s Muslim wife, an inebriated Tony Blair being harassed at a bus stop, or a drunk and stoned Prince Harry tumbling into the Thames – but these garish images feel as much like a bid for anarchy as they do coded messages.
Throughout, Balasubramanyam’s prose is strong, his characterisation solid. This is a confident, acerbic, assertive read. At times he even seems to be showing off his virtuosity, adopting a different narrative style or voice with each new chapter, and managing each one faultlessly. It’s a joy to read for its confidence alone, even without the wild plot, the razor-sharp commentary on fame and the wicked appropriation of celebrity personalities.
So unique and particularly special is Starstruck, that I struggle really to find anything wrong with it. It’s a fabulous piece, and you should almost certainly read it as soon as you can. And, best of all, with the unique Pigeonhole format you can leave your interpretations for others to mull over – or read the book together with friends. However you get hold of it, make sure that Starstruck is on your list of books to read.