Neel Patel’s Tell Me How to Be opens with both narrators spent: Akash and his mother, Renu, are weary and anxious. Decisions they made years ago have grown burdensome, seemingly inescapable: “No one ever told me that happiness was like a currency: that when it goes, it goes.” This is from Patel’s short story collection If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, but Akash and Renu’s happiness supply is similarly exhausted.
Akash, “twenty-eight, a struggling artist,” believes the “word ‘memories’ is like the sharp nick of a blade, breaking skin.” Renu is increasingly aware of her own past after her husband’s death, recalling a time “where I was known only as Mrs. Amin, only as Ashok’s wife, only as Bijal and Akash’s mother.” A time when she “thought, even after all these years, only of you.”
Both Renu and Akash have a “you” in their lives, someone who represents a forked path in their memories, away from desire and happiness. Segments alternate between mother and son perspectives, with Akash’s bookending the narrative. Astute observations about relationships more frequently reside in his voice, but mother and son occasionally align, as when Akash observes “the problem with lies [is] they always circle back to the truth” and Renu muses that lies are “like children [because] the second you conceive them, you must protect them at all costs.”
Like in his short fiction, Patel’s facility with perspective—seamless shifts between male and female voices, between straight and queer relationships—stands out in his debut novel. Each narrator’s commentary credibly reflects personal identity and underscores the novel’s themes, which often circle around the gap between what one longs for and what one possesses.
The key to his deft characterization is Patel’s remarkable facility for dialogue, whether the commentary that unfurls in characters’ minds or their conversational exchanges: with another shopper in a grocery store, with the white women in Renu’s book club, or among family gathered for Ashok’s puja.
Renu views her past as “the kind of bright life people dream about, full of half-truths and lies”; present-day Renu’s interior monologue is sharp-tongued and contradictory. She does not dislike her older son’s wife and she’s “not that kind of mother-in-law,” but she avoids Jessica. And when that son expresses his belief that Renu’s friend should assimilate, Renu reflects that “Bijal has assimilated too much” and views his marriage as the catalyst.
The brothers’ relationship underscores Akash’s sense of failure. As a boy, Akash “watched from a distance as [Bijal’s] closet swelled with bright green blazers” and the tension recalls the child’s perspective in Patel’s short story “The Other Language”: “Sometimes, at night, I heard my parents complaining about me in the kitchen, arguing over which one of them had failed.” His fear of disappointing Renu prevents him from inviting his L.A. lover, Jacob, to the Illinois family home.
Ethnicity and sexuality can be cornerstones of identity or headstones marking might-have-beens. The novel is haunted by overt losses: Ashok’s death, miscarriage, betrayals, and partnerships dissolved. The relationships in If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi more often fracture than endure, like a break-up described in “Hey, Loser” as “nothing more than a fork in the road, a ding in my bumper, a vague image in my rearview mirror, fading away.”
Akash twines his longing for a meaningful career in the music industry with his longing for a fulfilling love relationship: “For every boy I ever loved, there was a corresponding song. Mateo’s was ‘Angel of Mine’ by Monica.” The most prominent sound would be Aaliyah’s “smooth, slinky voice” which is attached to Akash’s “you.”
Love relationships are at the heart of this novel, recalling Bryan Washington’s Memorial, Ingrid Persaud’s Love after Love, and Paul Mendez’s Rainbow Milk—particularly for how these passionate relationships align and intersect with familial connections. The focus on family in Tell Me How to Be recalls Thrity Umrigar’s writing—in particular If Today Be Sweet’s treatment of widowhood and reorienting family relationships in the wake of a death—and musings on the question of identity and belonging recall works by Gish Jen, whose characters inhabit the complexities of Chinese-American identities while navigating everyday challenges.
Neel Patel’s debut presses readers to consider how the masks that his characters wear—whether to camouflage or broadcast their belonging—influence their capacity for happiness; then, he presents situations in which those masks are dropped or removed. On one hand, he entertains like Kevin Kwan; on the other, he queries like Ayad Akhtar. Rooted in the idea of what it feels like “to want something so deeply you could hear the wailing of your own heart,” Tell Me How to Be resides in asking rather than telling, designed to satisfy readers who prioritize questions over answers.
Tell Me How to Be
By Neel Patel
Published December 7, 2021