For the past three years I’ve chosen a book to be my “holiday reading.” I choose them mostly based on their behemoth size and because they look like fun reading for cold days, and begin reading them in late November or early December and through the beginning of January. The first year I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke, which is easily one of my favorite books. Last year, I read the Jeff and Ann Vandermeer-edited anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (the Corvus UK edition); it may be one of the best, if not the best anthology I’ve ever read and has completely influenced my writing and the way I think about writing (in particular, the selections from Eric Basso, Michel Bernanos, Alfred Kubin, Joanna Russ, Bruno Schulz, Shirley Jackson, Kelly Link, Michael Cisco, and Angela Carter remain fresh in my mind).
So, for this year’s reading I chose Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Lin the narrator, like Roberts, was convicted to nineteen years in an Australian prison after being involved in a series of bank robberies. He escapes from the prison – of the most maximum security kind, he tells us – and finds his way to Bombay, India. (We know Bombay today as Mumbai, but for consistency’s sake and because at the time Lin/Roberts was in India Mumbai was still known as Bombay, we’ll keep with Bombay.) According to the back of the book, while hiding as a fugitive in a foreign country, Lin/Roberts “established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers, and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner, and street soldier for a branch of the Bombay mafia.”
I made it about 300 pages in on this 900+ tome, or about as far as “free medical clinic for slum-dwellers.” Here’s why:
I found most of the prose either too reliant on comparison and analogy, or just absurd. For instance, the beginning of this paragraph: “Incensed, I shoved the men out of the way, grabbing them by shirt collars, and hurling them aside with the strength that swarms into the arms of righteous anger.” That rhyme “swarms into the arms” is vaguely annoying. But more to the point, Lin is angry because some men tried to steal a seat from his friend Prabaker on a train. “Righteous anger” seems a bit much here and actually made me laugh out loud.
Or, upon trying to describe Karla-the-sort-of-love-interest’s eyes (there is a lot about how green her eyes are in this book): “I thought of leaves and opals and the warm shallows of island seas…” Reading how someone’s eyes look like this or that, after awhile, stops being interesting, if it ever was in the first place. I still don’t know why he is so concerned about the color of people’s eyes but Shantaram is very seriously concerned about it.
The action also suffers from too much Looking Back Syndrome. Looking Back Syndrome* is when the narrator or author relates an event that has already happened and then, through the magic of years of wisdom and reflection, is able to turn that event into a metaphor about a universal life lesson. I cannot recall a single instance in this book where LBS wasn’t used, from the monsoon season floods during a visit to his friend Prabaker’s village really meaning the deluge of wrong he’d done in the past and sometimes “you had to let your soul do the crying for you” to helping Karla’s friend get out of prostitution and drugs really meaning there is hope for everyone, even yourself, and so on. I prefer a story that lets the story take center stage, and lets me figure out any moral underpinnings without being told what I’m supposed to think at chapter’s end.
Speaking of Karla and her friend the prostitute: there are two women, as far as I read, that are fleshed out enough to be considered “real” characters. One is a drug-addicted prostitute with serious mental/emotional issues; the other is Karla, whom Lin is in love with: a woman on a pedestal, untouchable, perfect, green-eyed…as green as foliage after a heavy spring rain or something. Karla is supposed to be this mysterious woman – badass with a heart of gold but also watch out because you never know! – and secretly in love with Lin (duh!), which Lin discovers after reading her journal after getting somewhat sexual with her prostitute friend (who I think was shooting heroin at the time), so… I could accept the fact that maybe Lin just didn’t know many women during his time in Bombay except that he’s a kind of a ladies’ man, always charming and witty even though he doesn’t think so (duh!), but I still think it problematic that there are only two women characters who have any real presence in 300 pages and that they are at such disparate ends of the personality spectrum. It is especially noticeable when placed next to myriad male characters of moral and ethical complexity. I suppose I could give Roberts the benefit of the doubt here, except, again, that he fleshed out his male characters so much more vigorously and left his female characters either a)pedestaled or b)drug-addicted.
As a reader, I like characters who are flawed; hell, I like reading downright unsympathetic characters; I like reading about characters who have strikingly different views than my own. For instance, in Michael Moorcock’s Pyat Quartet, the narrator is Colonel Maxim Pyatinski, and he is fiercely anti-Semitic (despite being Jewish), fascist, and when he arrives in America he even tours the lecture circuit for the Ku Klux Klan. Obviously, I find Pyat’s beliefs reprehensible; it’s also obviously clear reading the books that the author, Moorcock, does too: in fact, Moorcock is acutely aware of Pyat’s contemptible views and is able to utilize and subvert the narrative in interesting if troubling ways because of it.
Pyat, of course, is an extreme example of an unsympathetic character. An example – or rather, examples of another are brothers Hegel and Manfried in Jesse Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Hegel and Manfried, cursed by a witch, are grave robbers in medieval Europe. Some of their tale is hilarious, much of it is vile and horrific. Although you never empathize with them during the strange, dark turns their journey takes, you will find yourself continuing to turn page after page.
I don’t think Roberts wanted his narrator to be unsympathetic; indeed, Shantaram has a New Age-iness about souls and figuring ourselves out and whatnot that is very hit-you-over-the-head-ish that this book only works if your narrator is sympathetic. Unfortunately, Lin isn’t. But he isn’t unsympathetic – at least, not in the way Pyat or the brothers Grossbart are unsympathetic. Instead, Lin is a perfect specimen. Although there are several references to the narrator learning to be the good person we all strive to be, he is always in the right place at the right moment, saying or doing the right thing, and everybody noticing just how awesome he is for doing it. Which, for me, as a reader, means he is incredibly boring. (Don’t get me wrong: a sympathetic character, when done right [see: Mor, the narrator from Jo Walton’s exquisite Among Others or Saleem from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Gogol from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake] is a thing to behold.) So, after 300 pages of Dude Always Being Right And Awesome But Also Learning About Foreign Culture But Also Managing To Be Awesome And Never Do Anything Wrong, well, I got bored.
Yes, he does get himself involved in some morally ambiguous business: gunrunning, counterfeiting, etc. However, his constant Looking Back Syndrome makes everything totally uninteresting and dissolves any forward movement the book sometimes begins to have. I really don’t like giving up on books, but sometimes there just isn’t enough time to get through ones that are so damn boring. Instead, I’ve switched to Robert Bolano’s 2666, of which I already have some issues with, but am still enjoying it much more than I did Shantaram.
What book(s) are you reading for the holidays?
*I made the phrase Looking Back Syndrome up. There may be an actual term or phrase used to describe that particular thing, and if there is, please let me know. Thanks.