Ravi Mangla’s Understudies is a mosaic of stories, sketches almost, that read as a composite mixing humor, social commentary, and human foibles. In other words, it’s pretty damn hilarious. It’s also an understated take on the existential crisis that is wryly provocative without bashing you in the face with its message. A famous actress moves into town and her effect on those around him is both subtle and overtly absurd. His wife gets pregnant, his mother starts an advice column, and his friend starts stalking the actress. The humor is never mean-spirited and there’s a wry detachment that, fortunately, doesn’t force a false laugh track on you- you know, APPLAUSE. Instead, as a reader, we are allowed to experience, pause, then ponder.
Two exchanges that stuck out were:
“Would you rather have a rare blood disease named after you or nothing at all?”
“Nothing at all.”
A dilemma which I’ve never pondered, but points at a deeper question: is notoriety better than oblivion? The second:
In the express lane at the grocery store, upon swiping my card, the elderly cashier said, “You look just like my husband. Except for the eyes and nose.”
How was I expected to respond to something like that?”
“He died last month,” she continued.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Awkwardness mixed in with hesitation and the annoyance of people who are always saying you look like someone else. Even here, his “fame” is accidental. The actress becomes a symbol of celebrity, but more than that, a desire for meaning that is more palpable with the tangibility of her presence.
“The first time I became truly aware of my relative insignificance, an infinitesimal stitch within the sprawling fabric of the cosmos, was during a field trip to the city. The outing coincided with a massive parade downtown… Amid the chaos I became separated from the class. I fell in with a cavalry of shirtless cowboys. They fed me beef jerky from the pockets of their leather chaps, petted me affectionately on the head. Two hours later I located the rest of the children. No one even realized I had been gone.”
And during his birthday, a friend says:
“This is the most acknowledge you’ll ever be, the most admired, desired, respected. You may never be loved more than in this moment. It’s the closest thing to fame you’ll ever experience. So how does it feel?”
Indeed, that’s the very question that underpins the Understudies. The narrator isn’t searching for fame, but he wants to perform in the play of his life and shine. Only, he is relegated to the role of the understudy, practicing his part, watching from backstage, hoping for his breakout role. But, “On the night of the performance, at the moment of truth, I lost my composure and the words emerged tangled, incomprehensible, as if written in some Delphic tongue.” Understudies is a joy to read and there are moments of emotional poignance, as when he, in a moment of desperation, decides to ask his mother for advice on her column, that really stuck with me. In this case, the Understudies and Ravi Mangla deserve the spotlight by the intentional choice of staying in the backdrop. For me, the backstage, the story behind the story, has always been the more alluring one.