In the Land of No Right Angles tells the story of Alex, an American college student backpacking in Nepal for a year. Alex’s overseas adventure becomes complicated when she meets fellow American Will. Will prompts Alex to help bring a poor Nepalese girl named Maya to the capital city of Kathmandu, and the three move in to an apartment together. Awkwardness ensues, including a failed threesome, a bad drug trip, and some major cultural misunderstandings. Alex leaves on a sour note, returning eight years later as a professional photojournalist to expose the horrors of human trafficking, only to find Maya embroiled in Bombay’s seedy sex trade.
The novel reads at a rapid clip, propelled by lots of dialog, and Beal certainly shows a complex knowledge of Nepali culture. Still, there’s something pervasively shallow, even troubling about Alex’s interactions with and reactions to her experience with this alien culture that the novel doesn’t quite resolve. The reader is meant to identify with Alex, the privileged American on her adventure to the exotic East. At one point, Alex states, “I wanted to come home different from what I’d been–bolder, wiser, happier.” This desire to find one’s self far away from home is nothing uncommon, of course, yet Alex’s–and Will’s–professed altruism toward their subject, poor little Maya, ultimately comes off as paternalistic and demeaning, culminating in the older Alex’s quest to “save” Maya. It’s hard to feel the empathy or sympathy that Beal wishes to evoke for Alex’s dilemma: in spite of all her questing, she still falls prey to the illusion of her own power as an educated Westerner to control the outcomes of alien others. To take a cue from Edward Said’s work revealing Orientalism in Western thinking, Alex’s East–and the people in it–exist mostly to reify and stabilize her own identity, give her her the adventure she needs to “come home different” with plenty of great stories to share.
Orientalist critique aside, Alex does have a pretty good story to tell. Beal’s descriptions are vivid and the novel has the compressed vitality of a good memoir coupled with a tone of immediacy that makes it easy and enjoyable to read. In the Land of No Right Angles will no doubt end up in more than a few book clubs this fall, and it’s certainly your smarter than average beach read–and there’s still plenty of summer left.
In the Land of No Right Angles is available August 12th from Anchor Books.