Sunday, 28 August 2011

Not bad just boring? Or just not for me...

I loved Aravind Adiga's first novel, `The White Tiger', despite its flaws. I thought that it was a bit too simplistic, too neat, and relied too heavily on stereotypes when depicting most of the characters other than its brilliantly entertaining and vivid narrator. Hence I was keen to read this - his next full-length attempt - in the hope that it would amend these niggles while continuing to demonstrate his obvious talent. The puzzling thing is, it does. In `Last Man In Tower', Adiga gives us a much larger and more complex society in which no character can be accused of being anything less than fully-fleshed out, and his writing is more than up to par. I can't point to anything that's wrong with it, exactly, and yet for me, it just didn't work. I kept on thinking of Irwin's line from `The History Boys' - `It's not bad. It's just boring'.

The major conflict of the novel is very simple. Mr Shah has offered each resident of Vishram Society Tower A a windfall in cash to move out so he can demolish the tower and build afresh, as long as all the residents agree and take the money. After some demurring, they all accept, except recently-widowed `Masterji', a retired teacher who has previously commanded everyone's friendship and respect. Initially equivocal over the sale, Masterji eventually embarks on his own personal crusade, embodying the idea that not every man has his price and it is possible to want for nothing. This single strand - Masterji versus the world - dominates the novel, and made it collapse, at least for me, into something far too schematic. The large cast list at the beginning led me to expect a far more complex network of relationships, alliances and betrayals among his neighbours, but most of the families are never or rarely mentioned and only a few characters in Tower A other than Masterji are fully utilised; notably Mrs Puri, who desperately wants the money for her son who has Down's Syndrome; dim but affable internet-store owner Ibrahim; crooked broker Ramesh Ajwani; and Masterji's long-time elderly friends, the Pintos.

More importantly, these characters come to form a chorus of resistance rather than a fractured whole, with their individual motivations skated over, although briefly sketched earlier in the novel. One of my major problems with the cast was that I felt no real sympathy for any of them, including Masterji, and although I don't think at all that a novel needs a truly sympathetic character, in lieu of that, unpleasant characters should at least be interesting. The only interesting figure for me here was Masterji, and gradually I found him more frustrating than fascinating. His stand is principled - perhaps too much so; it is the hostility of his neighbours and the corruption of lawyers and the police that seems to drive him, rather than a truly desperate desire to stay in Tower A. While his neighbours lost my initial sympathy (I couldn't see what was wrong in their general desire to achieve a better life for themselves and their families) after they gradually descended into underhand and violent acts in an attempt to force Masterji's hand, I did not transfer this sympathy to Masterji, whose position seemed increasingly pointless. Late in the novel he tries to argue that Tower A holds too many memories of his dead wife and daughter for him to leave, but as this was never brought up earlier, it appears to be a reason developed after he had already established the fact of his staying put; a good reason, but ultimately not the true cause of his intransigence. Perhaps focusing on Masterji is misleading - perhaps the interesting point here is how his essentially normal neighbours are warped by the situation to commit appalling acts - but with a lack of detail on each of them, this seems to me to swing the novel back towards a schema again. And the number of pages, not to mention the title, devoted to Masterji, does seem to indicate that he is Adiga's major focus.

I suppose I'm writing another of those reviews that essentially say: this is not a bad book and Adiga is not a bad writer, but it emphatically wasn't for me. The elements of his style that I appreciated in `The White Tiger' are still here. Mumbai is brought to life in his descriptions of the city, especially of food - from the cheap snacks on sale at market stalls to the security guard's sandwiches to the expensive fish consumed by Mr Shah - and transport, in Masterji's hellish experience of travelling by train during rush hour. So by all means give this novel a go, as long as you aren't expecting something too similar to his first one. Just don't spend too much time on the character list at the front.

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