The Dirty Cages Where The White Tiger Prowls

The precise cliche with which to begin trashing the cliche-ridden nonsense that is Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker-prize winning novel, The White Tiger, eludes me. Shall I ask what might have possessed the prize awarding committee? Shall I talk about the obvious faddishness of writing about India and its poverty? Shall I worry about how literary status is today decided by the smooth publicity machines that are akin to political lobbies and king-making backroom cabals? Or should I follow the technique of literary polemics in ripping the author a new one by exposing all of his obvious literary deficiencies, and making ad hominem attacks on his patent incompetence and ineligibility to be admitted even into the lowest rungs of the literary pantheon?

Maybe I will just do all of these because I am unemployed, talk is cheap on the Internet, and I like typing.

Adiga’s novel takes about sixty minutes to read, about fifty-five if I tip you off before you start it that the word “black” will appear about once every five paragraphs, and you should find some way to elide it visually from the page. It will really get you flipping the pages fast.

I am so thankful at my prescience in not bothering to buy this book and feeding Mr Adiga more royalties, even if my purchase were to mean a measly penny or two to his bottom line. The man of course has already gotten his up-front retainer from Simon & Schuster for producing this bag of tripe, this trawler full of literary trash, and of course, all the fame that comes with the silly award for debut novels. All the same, there was some pleasure I had in knowing that unlike the obedient many, I wasn’t going to simply succumb to consumerist demands and own my copy of the book before excoriating it.

I was one of over a hundred holds at the local library. I pity the fools who will wait in such anticipation for many months only to find out at the end that they’ve read nothing more than a slightly-high-quality screed of the type that was printed in the millions at the turn of the twentieth century in Communism- and propaganda-crazed nations around the world.

To most of the public that has any taste whatsoever, it will be enough to say at this point that the blurb that rides at the very top of the front cover is one from USA Today, the same magazine that brings you such innovative and insightful journalism as “Slain Pastor Blocked Shot With Bible In Ill. Shooting.” And “Stocks’ Recovery Could Be Long.” I could go on for hours copying and pasting items from their website’s main page for the day, and then come back to this post and do it again for another hour or two, every day, for thirty days, and that mass of unimaginative, soulless, pandering text will have more literary value and merit more attention from English departments around the world than all two-hundred-and-change pages of Adiga’s first novel.

Right at the beginning, Adiga employs a device that presents a simple solution for one of the greatest challenges of the modern novelist: how to write in an exotic tone and unfamiliar vocabulary while remaining intelligible to the wealthy readers of the United States and Britain on whose decision to buy this novel rests the novelist’s ability to retire early and never have to worry about a steady supply of sexual partners.

The solution is to turn the entire novel into a letter, addressed by the protagonist to a non-speaker of English and non-native of the narrator’s native country. Voila! Every homely saying rendered in any language can now be explained in painful detail without having to resort to such ungainly additions to the novel as a glossary or footnotes, and without incurring the considerable cost of breaking the flow of the story line.

In case the reader forgets that the novel is in fact an epistolary transmission, the novelist helpfully starts the first few chapters with an ostentatious salutation from the writer to the addressee, lest without this entirely superfluous piece of writerly failure a few times, some dumb reader should experience discomfort with the rather tortured structure of the novel.

Why any one should bother writing about capitalist oppression and the utterly ugly and boring lives of the laboring classes in an emerging economy is beyond me. Why someone like Adiga who can bring absolutely no measure of charm, intelligence or humor to this thankless task should attempt to do this is not just a mystery, it is a failure of the essential functioning of the Universe’s moral schemes. “I was born poor. I was lucky. I ran away from home and eventually found wealth of some degree,” the narrator could have written and there would have been at least the redemption of poetry in those lines. Instead, the author surrounds his main character with entirely stereotypical companions, families and situations, through and with which he stumbles with no genuine conviction of anything, emerging out the other end of this charade of novel writing with no revelatory message for the reader, no suspense-filled denouement of any kind and no literary fireworks even to light up the dark and depressing telling of his life’s adventures. It is as if the protagonist is a piece of turd made from the wastes of the the junk diet of pop culture that the author has fed his creativity with, to be created with little fanfare and passed summarily to an unsuspecting audience that just happened to be passing innocently underneath the arsehole of this author’s head.

What Adiga profits from is the utterly vapid vacuum of literary appreciation that has been created in our reality-obsessed and shock-seeking culture. We readers wander around the tunnels of a mock horror-mansion of ideas, looking for the next bloody, mangled hand to pop fast and menacing out of a corner to send an adrenaline rush through our minds. Like these insta-bone-chillers, code words pop out of Adiga’s novel to signify the dangers still lurking in the uncivilized minds of an unenlightened world: Caste! Filth! Penury! Murder! Rape!

There is no need to tease out the social complexities of power dynamics, the gradual, undetectable corruption or redemption of an individual over the course of a story’s accounting, or the moral minefields being laid out insidiously by characters’ choices and environments. Who cares that dialogue is perfunctory and doesn’t reveal the soul of a character through occasional Freudian slips of tongue, when instead we can periodically throw a search beam right into his psyche with a single cuss-word or chance meeting with an itinerant poet who lays out the central thesis of the entire novel helpfully by quoting a well known couplet by a now-dead, unestated and lawyer-less, poet?

Why bother using the colors and textures of actual writing to create the world that you will need to cajole your reader into when you can drawn on familiar scatological metaphors instead — walls of men defecating at the edges of their blackened slum-colonies; whores leering and jeering at Johns on the street while arrayed behind black grills trapping them in their second story brothels; dark skinned men lusting for golden haired and milk-white women?

Why create an elaborate psychology of suspense when you can substitute it with coy hints of the actual plot points that readers need in fact to wait for — the secret of the narrator’s “ex,” the mysterious fourth and fifth names that the narrator has acquired, the reasons for his murderous rage directed against his main employer — and then reveal at the very end that all these clues pointed in fact to nothing beyond the obvious or maybe to nothing of any importance at all? Too late, you got this far in the book, you must have already purchased it, boo to you for thinking that it would be worth the $12.95 charge you took on your credit card to actually follow the red herrings that the narrator planted for you in the first few pages — ka-ching!

At the end, one is left with the combined feeling of being cheated and entertained, in a way that only a carnie’s ring-top of freak shows can engender. The White Tiger is really just a freak, and more than a diamond in the rough, it is a sorry mutation that gets nothing more than a side-mention on the fifth page of a seven-page, street-stall tabloid.

That this White Tiger has strode as far as the distinguished halls of Western literary acclaim is more a sign of the thirst for miracles in the West, than of any inherent value the Tiger itself has to offer to all of us. It’s not that there aren’t worthwhile stories to be written about India,  its inequities, the terror of its possibilities and the promise of its populousness. But the White Tiger is merely a tabloid entree into the richness of what might come, and no literary ambassador of the true heart and soul of this country.

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