Violence of Identity: The Popularity of Adiga and Ellison

A USA Today reviewer wrote of Aravind Adiga's 2008 novel The White Tiger, "[It] hit me like a kick to the head."  Gary Shteyngart, referring to the same novel, described the author as appearing "resplendent in battle dress and ready to conquer."  These are blurbs appearing on the paperback version of the novel, which I am holding in my hand.  They are not complete reviews, and publishers are of course apt to choose the most arresting, ridiculous-sounding phrases to append to a book cover, sometimes even using careful editing for a more singular effect.  Hyperbole is par for the course in our day and age, and I'm as guilty of taking advantage as anyone.  Still, it becomes more and more of a long, drawn-out process all the time to find a book that isn't promised to beat the crap out of you before you even open it.  Forget violence in video games and movies.  Forget violence in books.  It's the books themselves that are going to shove you to the ground and knock your teeth out.

Adiga's book follows the life of a man who works his way up through Indian society from servant to successful entrepreneur through a series of sober, calculated-risk choices which happen to include theft and murder.  It gracefully echoes aspects of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and the author explains in an interview published along with the novel that the book was also influenced by the work of James Baldwin and Richard Wright (two other famous African-American writers).  The parallels drawn between Balram Halwai as a member of the Indian servant class and the African-American experience reflected in the work of the aforementioned authors is obvious, and it would be very difficult indeed to read the book without some sense of social commentary leaking through.  However, when asked by the interviewer why a Western audience needs his book as an "alternative portrayal" of India, Adiga responds that "the main reason anyone would want to read this book, or so I hope, is because it entertains them and keeps them hooked to the end."  Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, this reminded me of a Paris Review interview conducted with Ralph Ellison, in which, after a series of über-serious questions about the social messages in Invisible Man (in which the interviewer appeared to be accusing him of dropping the ball) he said, "Look, didn't you find the book at all funny?"

Ellison also expressed during the same interview that he doubted Invisible Man would be around for more than 20 years.  It's going on 60 and it's considered a classic, but I have to wonder why.  Is it because it's perceived as an angry statement about American society by an angry black man, the reading of which is just penance for those born with white skin?  Did Adiga's book win the Booker Prize based on merit alone (regardless of whether it could have to begin with)?  These are ugly thoughts, and since these are questions to be asked of society rather than individuals, there is really no clear answer.  Also, these questions aren't rhetorical.  I really do wonder.  And I wonder, if "minority" literature succeeds based on its perceived self-righteous anger rather than the skill of its creators who have deftly carved up the elephant in the room, where does it all end?  The idea that "minority" writers have nothing to express but "minority" rage is a part of the very system that books like The White Tiger and Invisible Man are thought to rage against, but is that all they do?  I would question if they even do that.  According to their authors, neither work is autobiographical.

The mention of non-pejorative violence and anger in blurbs is by no means reserved for racial minorities, but it goes hand-in-hand with the sense of eking out an identity for oneself which we value so much in modern Western society.  It is as if we think that uniqueness and expression are all achieved by war, when in fact, at least by my own reckoning and personal experience, the full bloom of those things can only be had once the dust has cleared, or (for those unwilling to wait a generation) by ignoring the sounds of shooting.  Both The White Tiger and Invisible Man acknowledge this emptiness and are in part fueled by it, but I find myself suspecting that books like this are very often mistaken for advances on the battlefield and marked accordingly.  I hope I'm wrong.

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