Book review: ‘Problems’ by Jade Sharma (NSFW)

I finished ‘Problems’, saw it was Sharma’s debut novel, shut the book, opened my laptop to immediately go to follow this darkly funny woman on Twitter – and saw that she’d died in 2019. I’d missed her, and it stings that I won’t get to read anything else she writes, because this was a corker of a read.

I don’t even remember where I got the book from. One day ‘Problems’ appeared on my bookshelf and the blurb felt cathartically right for the day. A single female narrator with so many issues that they’re spilling over and into the rest of her life. Heroin addiction, eating disorders, an alcoholic husband, affairs and a clear indication from the start that Maya has no idea what she really wants. 

The first refreshing element of this novel is that Maya is unlike any other female narrator I’ve ever read.

Not only is she wholly unlikable, confusing and exhausting, but she also thinks and says whatever she wants. Still, her raw honesty and humor means that you respect her, even if you don’t like her. Sharma smears foul language and imagery across every page, in ways that typically only male narrators have ever been allowed to do. Maya’s bowel movements as she goes through withdrawal, and her sexual exploits and fantasies are all decanted in vibrant detail for the reader, “I had taken the biggest dump I’d ever seen […] I put the shitty brush behind the toilet. No-one would know it was me. People see shit and they think of dudes.”

The novel also allows us enormous freedom, in that while we are able to feast on the morbid curiosity of a life spiralling out of control, it is also clear that Sharma doesn’t want to judge her protagonist in any ways. And in fact, it is – unexpected. Male characters who show this level of crassness and horror are well known as a trope and accepted without judgment (at least, in my experience of reading more sordid tales like ‘Choke’ by Chuck Palahniuk) – but I could feel myself judging a female narrator showing the same honesty and being as explicit, which actually made the reading experience pretty uncomfortable because I was faced with some bias I didn’t realise I had.

As well as a refreshingly new voice, the novel contains multiple fantastic truths which I couldn’t help but mark every time I came across one. Also fairly remarkable for someone under the age of 40.

Some of my favorites include:

“She was a mother. Her frontal lobe had come out with her placenta.” 

“Imagine the voice over in a car commercial […] The female body, luxurious and roomy, can accommodate three cocks and three babies at full capacity.”

“There would be no way to tell them I’m special. That I knew somehow I was destined for greatness. I thought it would be a misunderstanding if I died. But then you grow up, and all the extras are real people.”

“I didn’t care how amazingly successful you got as long as you weren’t younger than me.”

“Someone should have put a cock in her mouth, if only to shut her up.”

“Age is meaner than death.”

“I wanted to be touched. I was pretty sure I would puke if anyone touched me.”

“If only she was kind enough to become a memory. Memories didn’t call. Memories didn’t nag […] Memories didn’t have lesions on their brains and chairs in their showers.”

“My jaded, calloused heart flopped around, having a seizure […] Peter’s heart was fleshy and pink, and I didn’t want anything to hurt it.”

“He asked me to lower my voice. How many times in my life was someone asking me to lower my voice?”

“People said women who did this kind of thing had no self-respect. I had no idea what that meant, because I got off on doing it. I liked meeting these dudes and hearing their life stories. I liked being told I was hot. I liked being told what to do. It was the first time in my life I felt I was getting paid for being me. When they handed me cash, I felt like a champ.”

“Look at a tree and try not to imagine you’re in a movie with a woman looking at a tree.”

“Life isn’t short. Life is long. That’s why you have to do something.”

I mean, guys, this novel is LOADED with gems. 

After reading the book and learning more about Sharma, she mentions starting out in poetry and it’s clear from the structure of the novel. Initially it was a little jarring to have small ‘lines’ as above slipped into an otherwise shallow paragraph. The book is also written in fragments and there are no chapter numbers, but over time the style (and Maya’s situation) becomes more palatable. 

I grappled a little bit with my feelings about Maya’s interaction with men throughout the book – mostly in that she was determined to be used and abused by them, and is unapologetic for her sexual tastes. And I wondered whether my initial negative opinion of her wanting to be ‘fucked like an object’ or ‘treated like shit’ by men, was down to my feminism, or if in fact I was missing the point. 

I came to the conclusion at the end that this is clearly not meant to be a political book about gender, misogyny or addiction. Sharma is not presenting an ideal world view; Maya is a woman grappling with her own understanding of her sexuality and how she feels connected to other people. Because it’s not really about sex, it’s about power. Maya’s fantasies are controlled by her – she seeks them out and she controls the situation, the financial gain and her own feelings towards the hookups. At no point is her autonomy lost – even if her fantasy is derogatory in nature. It feels a little on the same lines as the age-old controversial question: Can feminists have rape fantasies? Seemingly entirely contradictory, and yet – not.

‘Problems’ doesn’t mean to teach or explain. It doesn’t show you anything beyond what Maya, as a person, wants. She’s not a lesson, she’s not a warning, she’s simply is, and we’re here to watch.

I tried to fit her into a nutshell, but she refused to comply. She’s larger than life – a huge, raw mass of contradictions. She lies to every other character, except to herself. She’s fully aware of her flaw. She finds her husband boring, she wants to fuck other men, particularly older ones who can make her feel hot. And she’s afraid of being alone. She functions in society, but only just. Starting with a pill habit and progressing to dope – relying on it through his family functions while trying to fit in. She’s judgemental. She can’t connect with anyone properly, and she passes herself from person to person. She relapses after rehab. She feels judged for not being white. She throws up her food because she doesn’t want to feel full when she is also dope sick. She sweats, she’s fat, she smells, she swings between crippling diarrhoea and constipation from taking so many pills and anxiety. She has sex with men for money. She will never be happy while she’s so strung out. She’s fascinating.

Jade Sharma Talks about Her Debut Novel and Crazy Bitch Syndrome
Sharma, being honest too about her expectations for her debut

Oddly enough, I hadn’t expected the book to be so dark, considering the way it was packaged, with pink text and a marble background. The cover is suitable for a much more ‘chick-lit’ expectation, along with the featured quote: ‘Funny, quirky, clever.’ It’s so much more than that.

I do wonder how much work her editor did to make the writing itself readable, considering her writing style on Twitter, where capitalisation and grammar appeared to be a distant memory: https://twitter.com/jadersharma?lang=en

Anyway, if you feel like losing yourself in an extreme emotional storyline and finding little relatable parts of yourself tucked into the experience, do give this a read. It is the non-judgmental approach to Maya’s flaws that makes her readers feel a little more forgiving of their own. She’s the new anti-hero, and we like her for trying hard. As Maya says herself, “that’s the main thing, to be trying.”

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