Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2008: The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga.
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2008: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz.
International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2008: De Niro’s Game, Rawi Hage.
I read The White Tiger in December, De Niro’s Game in January, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in February.
None of the three are written from a perspective that could be considered typically Western, and all of them reflect on exile to a significant extent.
I found De Niro’s Game to be the weakest of the three. Some of the writing in the early chapters, especially about the everyday experience of war in Beirut, is compelling and memorable, but I was quite unimpressed by the last section of the book, set in Paris. The book follows its protagonist Bassam and his friend from childhood, George, as they attempt to find their way through war and crime. Despite the promising start, the story of friendship disturbed by war and adulthood struck me as derivative and overly familiar. Or perhaps it’s that the male protagonist who doesn’t seem to be able to communicate is a trope that I’ve encountered too many times. The male-female relationships in the book seemed pedestrian and irksome, which didn’t help my interest in the protagonist either. In a sense this isn’t a criticism of the writing, because I think that Hage set out to write the protagonist in precisely this way—the fact that Bassam reads The Outsider while in Paris makes this abundantly clear—but his success in doing so didn’t make me interested. Also, I felt that the ‘twists’ in the Paris segment of the book were unwieldy and ineffective, and that the weakness of the last third or so of the book really dragged it down.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is considerably more stylish, and appeals firmly to the geek demographic throughout, from a Galactus quotation introducing the book (“Of what import are brief, nameless lives… to Galactus?”) to comparisons between Trujillo and Sauron. The story of a doomed geek and his family, it blends the pop culture references in with tales of Dominican history and exile, and does so very effectively. Its narrative voice is dynamic and engaging, and it has plenty of humor, interesting characters, and intertextual flourish. On the downside, despite its celebration of geekdom, it has a quite traditional depiction of geekiness as inherently pathetic and (crucially for the plot) as the opposite of sexiness; geekiness in males is presented for most of the book as both deeply repellent to females and somehow inherently damping of sexual agency (i.e. it’s not merely that its repulsion prevents opportunity, but also that it prevents acting on opportunity). It seemed sad that this book in particular would take such a stance, but then again it gains some of its impact through this kind of exaggeration. Its depictions of women, as well as various aspects of romantic relationships, were also problematic. I still enjoyed it a great deal and would recommend it.
The White Tiger is simpler, and in some ways less ambitious, but also has a vivid narrative voice, and of the three I think it’s the best work. It’s about a poor man from rural India who ends up as a driver for the returned-from-America son of a prominent and wealthy local family, and after this becomes an entrepreneur through various means. The narrator, Balram, is engaging and distinctive, as well as being a complicated, conflicted, and compromised figure. I can’t help but make comparisons to Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and there are definitely similarities, but The White Tiger, while addressing many of the same realities, is less sweeping and has a distinctly more upbeat (although perhaps the right word is “manic”) tone. A Fine Balance presents the characters’ situations as essentially inescapable, whereas The White Tiger allows Balram more freedom, but is extremely clear about the costs and consequences of that freedom. In this way it is more optimistic than A Fine Balance in terms of tone and the individual, but is almost as bleak in terms of its depiction of Indian society, politics, and economics. It’s not quite as powerful as A Fine Balance, but it is funnier, more stylistically impressive, and considerably less unrelentingly depressing.
My preference for The White Tiger over The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a slight one, and I think that both of them are excellent books that are definitely worth reading. I’m a lot less inclined to recommend De Niro’s Game, but it too has significant strong points and redeeming qualities.