Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Khaled Hosseini/THE KITE RUNNER

It's quite interesting to finally 'catch up' on a book that was a huge fad 5 or 6 years ago, and whose film version came out 3 or more years ago.

And, for once in my life, I'd seen the film before I read the book. Usually I fret that prior knowledge of the plot will compromise my enjoyment too much, and I'll rush to read a well spoken of book before it is filmed (or else endlessly defer watching the film while I'm still contemplating whether or not to read the book one day).

However, in this case, I think I'd waited long enough that my memories of the film were dimming. And I had thought that this might offer an enlightening new perspective in approaching the book: OK, the plotting wasn't going to take me by surprise, because I could still remember or would readily recall all the key incidents; but usually a novel contains far more than can be accommodated in a film. I thought perhaps I'd appreciate such 'additional material' even more, be intrigued to make comparisons with the film version and speculate as to why certain elements had been cut or rewritten. And also, I thought, it might focus me more on the writing. Plot is overrated most of the time, I say; it's fine writing that primarily endears a book to me.

That's the problem I found with The Kite Runner: it reads like a film treatment more than a novel. It's extremely plot-rich (in a contrived, melodramatic kind of way), but there's not much to the writing. The exposition is pretty perfunctory; and there's almost nothing extra in the book that had to be omitted from the film.

It's an affecting tale, certainly - though more, I felt, in examining the strained relationship between Amir and his father. His friendship with Hassan was less convincing: Hassan, and his father, and later his son, were too one-dimensionally saintly in their forbearance to be compelling or convincing characters. The Amir-Hassan relationship I often found to be too nakedly, crudely driven by the requirements of the plot to be really emotionally engaging. Ultimately, it's probably the backdrop of three decades of turmoil in Afghanistan that gave the book its exceptional appeal, as much as or more than the characters.

I have some issues with the construction of the book as well. I think it's a bit self-indulgent to tell Amir's entire life-story, when it isn't essential to the central story of the book. It's not the superfluity of it (the story of his courtship and marriage is quite entertaining, even though irrelevant to the main story) or the long-windedness of it (it's still quite a short book, considering how much happens in it) that bothers me so much as the fact that it starts to seem rather heavy-handedly autobiographical - as if Hosseini is trying to offload a bunch of disparate stories about his own life rather than just focusing on the main story of the novel.

There's rather too much coincidence underlying the plot, too. We're told what a small country Afghanistan is, and how everybody knows everybody at one or two removes, but is it really plausible that Amir would run into one of the kids who'd bullied him on the truck that smuggles a handful of refugees out of the country six years later? Or that the chief tormentor of his childhood, the demonic Assef, would confront him again as a Taliban thug a quarter of a century later? No, it's neither likely nor necessary; it's taking plot contrivance a big step too far.

This was the thing that bothered me most about the writing. It was straining much too hard - and self-consciously, and explicitly - to weave numerous links and parallels and reminiscences between the earlier and later parts of the narrative. I often felt that this was writing-by-the-numbers, the methodical approach of "creative writing" courses gone completely over-the-top. (At one point, Hosseini/Amir even digresses for a moment to talk about how his creative writing teacher would have told him to write a scene; I don't like 'rules' for writing, but if there is going to be one Rule, I would suggest that it should be: "Never discuss the process of writing in your writing. And, in particular, never mention that you've attended 'creative writing' classes.") It was clumsily, tiresomely overdone. Hosseini might have got away with it, if he'd trusted his reader to make those connections himself (or, sometimes, been content for him to miss them), but again and again he hammers the point laboriously home: he makes the parallel really jarringly obvious; then he repeats it, to underline its significance; and then, as often as not, he flat out says oh, this was just like that thing that happened 30 pages, or 30 years ago. Amir gets his lip split open in a fight; yes, his lip split open; just like Hassan's harelip; how appropriate is that? Yes, enough already, we get it - shut up for a moment, and let us join the dots for ourselves.

I couldn't help wondering if this was a conscious dumbing down of the storytelling (and a damning indication of the declining intelligence or attention span of the great American reading public). I pictured Hosseini initially submitting a proper novel, one that actually required some engagement, some intellectual effort from the reader, and then having some agent or editor or publisher tell him, "Oh, this is way too subtle, all this parallelism and symbolism and irony. No, no, for readers today, you're really going to have to spell everything out. Go away and rewrite it, explaining the exact significance of every element in the story." Or is that just what they teach in "creative writing" classes these days?

At the more nuts-and-bolts level, the writing didn't impress me either. There are sections where other characters - Rahim Khan or Assef - are relating stories, but their narrative voice is completely undifferentiated from Amir's. And there were a few little verbal tics that really began to bug me (the kind of thing that editors really should pick up on and eliminate). Afghanistan is an uncleanly country, we know, and the people of the streets aren't going to wash that often; but there are many words we could use to describe the condition of their hands and faces - dirty, grimy, dusty, muddy, smeared, smirched, soiled, etc. Hosseini has only one: 'dirt-caked'. Fine the first time, but after the fifth or sixth repetition it begins to grate.

Not for the first time, I find myself in the role of the little boy who points out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. The Kite Runner is a great story, but it's not at all a good book.


Abs said...

What was with the fake beards? A Little Rascals movie? Retarded I thought. It was all too much playing the moment for me, when the US wanted desperately to envision Afghanistan and its people as villainous, presto! The Kite Runner!
The Taliban are not a bunch of extremists, it's all a facade and they have little boys for fun. Hail the conquering American hero.

JES said...

I haven't yet read Kite Runner. Perhaps I am missing a good bet to say that your review, Froog, confirms my predisposition not to do so.

Since I haven't read it, comment would be unfair except to say that reviews of very popular books often get it backwards when they use phrasing like "a luminous story" -- meaning, in fact, simply a story about luminous events. The things that happen are seldom good (or inspiring, or heartbreaking, or... or... or...) enough for me, seldom convincing enough arguments to read Book X. Just bearing the tale is only doing half of what I hope a novel to do: I want it to tell the tale, and well.

Incisive review. Thanks!

moonrat said...

I really loved KITE RUNNER, and fully intend to read THOUSAND SPLENDED SUNS (eventually... I've had the book on my shelf for at least two years, though). So my opinion will differ from yours.

I didn't feel there was too much melodrama--I do favor emotional stories and storytelling, though, and know my own taste there. I do, however, agree with you about two points: 1) the sheer coincidence (that did niggle me a little, although I loved the characters enough to overlook it), and 2) what is ultimately a failed narrative arc: the book is two distinct novels, essentially unconnected. Conventionally speaking, it is not a well-executed plot. But again, I found the ghost of Hassan, and Amir's quest for redemption, powerful enough themes that I was happy to read them.

I haven't seen the movie, but by further strange coincidence, I currently have it at home from Netflix. So let me get back to you on that :)

Side note--one of the reasons I feel ok about enjoying Hosseini's novels (because, you know, one must feel guilt if one likes a popular novel, particularly if there is racial critique involved) is that from my time reading Afghan bloggers, I saw that they tended to support him and his vision. (Gosh, this would be a better comment if I could find nice internet citation links, but I'm at work and can't be bothered now.) But Afghan bloggers (and other Middle Eastern and/or Muslim bloggers) who have critiqued popular literature that seems to emphasize the theme of "white man saves brown woman from brown man" (which unfortunately fits a lot of the stuff in the genre, if you think about it) have also supported Hosseini for his cultural details and nuanced narratives.

Re: cultural details: another area I found the book "cinematic"--but for me I don't mean that negatively.

Froog said...

Well, MR, it's actually three novels - or novellas: the childhood story set in the '70s (which is - for most people, I would guess - the 'good bit'), the long section about him and his father struggling to make a new life in America in the '80s (the moderately diverting but completely unnecessary bit), and then the wham-bam adventure story finale (which jars a little with lit-fic lovers, but ensures it gets made into a movie).

The improbability of the plot wasn't what discomfited me the most (even the best writers pull these kinds of stunts, and, as you say, we forgive them). It was the relentless obtrusiveness of the narrative craft, the way he would keep on saying, Oh, you see how this bit ties in to something that happened earlier? Well, just in case you don't, let me S-P-E-L-L it out for you.

I appreciate that as a native-born Afghani, Hosseini got a lot of sharp local detail in there. And I can see why bloggers in the region are glad to have a story with that level of authenticity, a story told by a native rather than some foreign interloper. On the other hand, the basic - potentially 'racist' - narrative template isn't really displaced or usurped: Amir has become kind of 'white' through being naturalised as an American; after 20 years away, he's an outsider in his country of birth. And he's saving a boy (sex slave) rather than a woman - the difference is what?

I see what Abs is getting at. There isn't much if anything good to be said about the Taliban, but the demonizing of the bad guys in this book (even as a child, Assef is clearly "a madman"??) is a bit excessive. It's not enough that they're murderous religious fanatics? They have to be hypocrites, sadists, and paedophiles too? A large part of the book's success - in America, at least - probably was a zeitgeist thing: coming along just after 9/11, when people wanted to learn more about Afghanistan... and wanted to be reassured that the people they were fighting really were thoroughly evil.

JES, I hope I haven't put you off it for good. It has its moments, and it's a page-turner. A decent beach read. However, if you've got a lot of other things vying for your attention, this is one of those rare occasions where the book is not going to add or detract one jot from the movie. So, maybe the movie is the better option, if only because it's going to take just two hours of your time rather than six.

Nice story, bad book.

moonrat said...

interesting point re: the American-saves-sex-slave template. To be honest, positive citations I'd read on his writing were in reference to THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, and threw the book up in relief against BOOKSELLER OF KABUL, which the bloggers found exploitative.

I do, however, appreciate that eventually Amir's character is called up for his own racism--the point doesn't go unmade.

Froog said...

Do you have any comment, MR, on my speculation as to whether it's becoming common in the publishing industry in the US - or in the creative writing schools - to encourage writers to make everything as explicit as possible, so as not to overtax the imagination/intelligence of readers?

moonrat said...

Froog--I wouldn't say it's a movement, per se, as much as it is the editor's taste. Then again, I'm a pretty obvious girl myself--not only did the KITE RUNNER narrative not bother me, it didn't occur to me (as least, not that I remember). So maybe I'm part of the problem ;)