Daphne Beal’s first book might be considered an exemplar of what Edmund White recently characterized as the “Peace Corps novel,” in which a “young, privileged American” travels to another country and is transformed by the experience. “I wanted to come home different from what I’d been—bolder, wiser, happier,” insists the narrator of In the Land of No Right Angles, recounting her peregrinations through Nepal and India. To Beal’s credit, she resists facile resolution; cultural dislocation may be transformative, but she also notes the gaps and incongruities.
The protagonist Beal dispatches abroad is the affable Alex Larson, a freckled twenty-year-old from Des Moines. Alex arrives in Kathmandu with her camera, hoping to take significant photographs—“I want to do something that’s not just old-school anthropology or cool postcards,” she tells a local expat. The expat is Will, an inveterate lothario who persuades Alex to track down Maya, a beautiful Nepali girl he met the previous year. Alex guilelessly agrees to shack up with Will and Maya, a decision that propels her into self-doubt. (“I was jealous of her . . . wasn’t I pretty? Wasn’t I interesting?”) Nevertheless, she is fascinated by the predicament: “I found it strange and titillating to be so intimate with the beginning of a romance that had nothing to do with me.”
Beal capably describes the outsider’s disorientation in a foreign land. Alex’s impressions of Calcutta’s teeming streets—“air that smelled of fruit, incense, excrement, cooking oil”—are vivid. Less assured is Beal’s handling of emotional nuance. The author wants us to sense Alex’s compassion for Maya, but the plainspoken, colloquial narration does not plumb deeply enough. When Alex tracks down Maya again, this time to rescue her from a brothel, a glance at the prostitutes lining Calcutta’s Falkland Road elicits the unconvincing observation “I felt terrified and prickly all over.”
It is the audacious Will who enlivens these pages. His self-abnegating pursuit of enlightenment belies his narcissism and provides moments of gentle levity. He visits lamas in the Himalayas and meditates piously, yet smuggles dollars to Hong Kong in the soles of his shoes and lures local girls onto the tiger-skin rug of his “tantric love den” hoping to achieve the perfect “injaculation” (a term better left undefined here).
If In the Land of No Right Angles occasionally loses focus, it can also be gratifyingly oblique, allowing for mystery. Back in New York, Alex is invited to participate in her first photography show and is awarded a publishing contract. (Though she wonders whether she is exploiting the low-caste Nepali with whom she is fascinated.) As images of Maya’s enigmatic face emerge in the darkroom, Alex wonders, Who are you? Beal invites us to ask the same question yet leaves the answer tantalizingly ambiguous.