Behind every crazy woman is a man sitting very quietly, saying, “What? I’m not doing anything.”
At some point, you realize you aren’t waiting anymore for your life to start. Your life’s happening right now, and it’s pretty dull.
– Jade Sharma, Problems
There’s an unspoken yet ubiquitous set of expectations we have for women in an attempt to keep them palatable. They shouldn’t be “too loud” or “too much.” We praise them on their restraint. We associate femininity with being demure. Maya, the narrator of Jade Sharma’s Problems, has freed herself from the shackles of these notions, so much so that her behavior directly upends them: She’s a drug addict. She’s blunt about not loving her husband. She’s unapologetically unfaithful, sleeping with a much older man who doesn’t bother pretending to be interested in her. Her thoughts radiate an unabashed selfishness. She’s a compulsive liar. She enjoys rough sex and actively seeks it for validation. Her language is vulgar.
She’s an unlikely heroine and just the one we need.
Even amongst the growing trope of “bad women” in contemporary literature, Maya stands apart. For one, the female antihero is rarely a woman of color. There’s something exhilarating about having an uncompromising, profane protagonist who isn’t white. Maya’s identity as an Indian- American woman doesn’t define her or read as a grand statement on race, but the novelty of it alone carries implications, speaking to what has been missing in this growing sub-genre.
Problems is a book that demands to be read in a gulp from its first sentence: “Somewhere along the way, there stopped being new days.” With this, we’re introduced to our narrator’s searing voice, as we begin our journey alongside the frenzy of her heroin addiction, depression, failing marriage, and disordered eating. In some ways, Maya is someone we all know or can see bits of in ourselves. She’s a woman dripping with potential but diverted by her self-destructive compulsions. She’s in graduate school but procrastinates writing her thesis. She lives in a state of limbo where nothing changes, or rather, when things do change, she cannot. What keeps us invested is her unwavering self-awareness.
The best display of this surrounds Maya’s lies, about things big and small. She lies to her husband Peter about her affair with Ogden, her former professor who barely tolerates her outside of their sexual relationship. She rationalizes her affair by claiming that she’s sparing Peter the full burden of her, with all of her neuroses and neediness. She acts as though her father is alive to avoid discussing his death. Her parents were both Indian but Maya tells people her father was white to excuse her lacking knowledge in Indian customs and “because it felt true.” Maya narrates, “In our lies, we offer the world a presentation of how we would be if we had complete control over our existence. That’s why it’s so embarrassing to get caught in a lie. It offers a glimpse into how you want to be seen.” Maya sees this chasm with merciless clarity.
Problems isn’t a book for everybody, and I don’t think it strives to be. I suspect many readers will find Maya exhausting, the kind of person who takes one step forward, two steps back, and then chooses to sit there for a while, stewing in her regression. The novel can be divided into two parts — the first being her life with her husband, the second being the downward spiral that ensues after he finally leaves her. In her life with Peter, she’s a repeated drug user with rules
dictating the frequency of her intake. She believes never doing dope three days in a row is the key to maintaining her relatively stable life. When Peter leaves, she relinquishes any semblance of restraint she had previously shown, granting herself the permission to be a true junky. The second half of the novel is Maya unhinged, accountable to no one. She begins prostituting herself to finance her addiction. She finds herself locked in a psych ward. She’s savagely beaten on the street.
Sharma’s greatest talent is the way the book’s structure elevates her depiction of Maya’s addiction. The book is fragmented, filled with messy digressions. The chaos contributes to the exhilaration of reading about Maya’s descent into her dependency, which has no business being as wry and entertaining as it is. But Sharma’s prose is so intoxicating and our protagonist so sardonic that the relentless repetition of her situation avoids feeling taxing or one-note. The monotony of her dejection instead reads as a manic fury, begging to be consumed in a haze of excess.
Problems is an edgy book, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of the reading experience is just how much the average person can relate to this protagonist determined to implode her own world. We all have problems, and we don’t need them to be as extreme as Maya’s to relate to her.