Friday, August 28, 2009

Books like Slogs Need a Good Editor

Since I visited India in 2004, I've been fascinated with the place, and as I write this I am sitting in the US Airways international first class lounge getting ready to go there for three months. For that journey I will blog not slog at Please follow along. . .

So books about India hold a lot of fascination for me. Usually. The book kept Shantaram kept appearing to me; friends were reading it and recommending it; it was being reviewed in popular press. But I found the size daunting. Finally someone convinced me that if I was going to India I should read it. It would teach me a lot about Mumbai (Bombay).

Indeed it did; indeed it does. But that doesn't make the book successful. Though it is epic in scope and fascinating at times and even occasionally wonderfully transcendent it is too long by half.

What has happened to the role of the editor in crafting the modern novel and film? Fodder for another entry would be my contention that Gen X and Y, the millennials were so pampered that they have become a generations of self-indulgent artists: brilliant, because they got all the right training, but of the belief that even their shit is golden and shouldn't be touched. My case in point is always Paul Thomas Anderson. I believe Boogie Nights and Magnolia would both be brilliant films if an editor were behind him, advocating restraint. Of course There Will be Blood is a masterpiece, and also long, so my own theory has holes. Still.

But such is the case with Shantaram. The narrative is just too damn wordy, the plot too episodic.

But there's something there. Particularly if you are man. If you are a man's man and love street fighting, dangerous adventures, the love of comrades, elusive women, courtly romance, grand gestures of selfless sacrifice, you will like this book.

A few more good things about this book, but first the plot and the problems:

It is a story of an escaped ex-con from Australia who makes his way to Mumbai and little by little insinuates himself and is coaxed and coerced and manipulated into the Mumbai underworld, the mafia. Like all mafia stories, there are street fights, blood battles, illicit trade of all sorts (currency, passports, guns mostly--this is an honorable gang that shies away from the dirty crimes of pornography, prostitution, and drugs). Honor and courage among men form deep thematic rivers and symbolic rituals that run through the story.

And the first person narrator--we are made to believe it's the actual author, and the author's bio supports this--is pretty self-aggrandizing. Among his many adventures, he teaches himself to be a slum doctor and saves many lives at his own peril. He rescues a pretty American prostituted from an evil, cartoonish, Madame. He fights in the Afghani war out of love for his godfather. He's constantly rescuing, saving, fighting for his brothers without question, and somehow, amazingly, and most contrived: throughout all of the bloodshed and killing melees he's smack in the center of, he never once kills anyone. This is important for him to be a true hero (and probably, if it's autobiographical, for him to escape being sent back to prison).

The book is at it's best, to me, when he's not neck-deep in some mafioso scheme. Here is a passage describing ghetto life, where he practices a sort of folk medicine:

In a sense the ghetto existed on a foundation of those anonymous, unthankable deeds; insignificant and almost trivial in themselves, but collectively essential to the survival of the slums. We soothed our neighbor's' children as if they were our own when they cred. We tightened a loose rope on someone else's hut when we noticed it sagging, and adjusted the lay of a plastic roof as we passed by. We helped one another, without being asked, ans if we were all members of one huge tribe, or family, and the thousand huts were simply rooms in our mansion home.

He spends time in an Indian jail, framed for some crime, and even that is a story of his heroic survival, and compassionate sacrifices for prisoners even less fortunate.

He is like a superhero and as such he has his kryptonite. A mysterious woman named Karla, who is the, at times, the latent motivator for his every act. His love for her is boundless and profound, and yet when he has the chance to really possess her, a greater power calls: a duty to his godfather, the mafia boss Khaderbai. He writes of this patriarch (and there are many stunning, insightful sentences like this, but also page after page of self indulgent crap) "It was vassal-love, one of the strongest and most mysterious human emotions."

Another well-drawn character is his friend Prabaker, a sort of cock-eyed optimist, full of common wisdom and deep loyalty. He captures his manner of speech perfectly and the nuances of the Indian side-to-side head wag. Americans nod their heads up and down, shake their heads back and forth, but Indians also do a side to side wag which is a sign of friendship and trust and can mean many other things as well, depending on the facial expression and tone of voice. Last time I went to India I came back using it as one sometimes acquires an accent in a foreign country.

Prabaker at one points says to Lin, the narrator, "'He is down at the seashore, you know, at the place where he sits on the rocks, for being lonely--the same place where you also enjoy a good lonely." Nice.

Speaking of Karla, the sections between them really crackle, but as my friend Robin pointed out: it takes him 300 pages to get in bed with her, and then it's over in three paragraphs. Still, he does romance well, and about another woman he writes, "We were lonely, Lisa and I, and at first we talked to one another as lonely people do--in fragments of complaint, and corners clipped from conversations that we'd already had with ourselves, alone"

But what did sustain me is that it is a good portrait of Mumbai! I mean it's really, really detailed about the culture there, both the local's and expat's habits, hangouts, gestures, motivations, and values. It's a travel guide I intend to use next week to discover some of Mumbai's interesting sights. The city itself is a main character in the book, and in a way the author treats the city with most respect. He writes of it lovingly and with acceptance, recognizing its oozing travails and beauty. Shantaram's Mumbai is a complex portrait of a place of cosmic and tranquil humanity. I can't wait to try on the milieu and surrender to its complexity in a way I was not able to do with this novel. Still, oddly, I do recommend it. Take the good with the bad.