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by Geoff, Staff Reviewer
Posted: December 7, 2007
When people recommend books to me, I listen, but I pay attention to who’s doing the recommending. A couple of people told me I should read The DaVinci Code, for instance, but they weren’t people whose literary taste I trusted.
On the other hand, The Kite Runner came with an enthusiastic recommendation from several of the most serious readers in my office. I borrowed a copy, and I was soon absorbed in the life of Amir and Hassan, two boys growing up in Afghanistan.
The writing was skillful and polished, the scenery was convincing, and I was drawn into the friendship of the two boys, then shocked by the traumatic event that comes between them. Yet by the time Amir returns to Afghanistan as a grown man and confronts a sadistic bully from his childhood, I wasn’t so sure, and when the climactic scene erupted, I felt as if I’d been had.
It wasn’t that the scene was improbable, though it was. Plenty of improbable things happen in the novels of Gunter Grass and Gabriel Garcia Marquez without diminishing their power as works of literature. It was a sense that I’d been manipulated, and it was a little hard to define.
Doesn’t any work of literature manipulate the reader, in the sense that scenes and characters are created in order to have a desired effect? Yes, of course. But along the way something organic happens. You get a sense of life that echoes your own — the famous “shock of recognition.” You feel, at least for a while, that you understand the world a little better.
It seemed to me that despite the considerable talent and craft that went into making it, The Kite Runner was a kind of pornography: a revenge fantasy focused on the delivering a rush of justified violence. (What separates pornography from erotic literature, I think, isn’t that it’s sexier or more explicit, it’s that it’s limited: everything in it is there for the purpose of arousing you.) There was a reason the book felt so ready for the big screen: it was Die Hard in hard covers. I finished the book with a hollow feeling. Something in my psyche has rejected it. I rarely think about it, and when I do, I realize that it hasn’t stayed with me the way “real” novels do, which leave a kind of emotional tone or residue even when I’ve completely forgotten the plot.
My experience with The Kite Runner made me think of Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra, which I read several years ago. Sleepers was a book that purported to be a memoir. It was a gripping story and skillfully told, but it never quite seemed real to me. Again, this wasn’t because some of the events were so improbable — though they were — but because of the point of view and the slickly streamlined emotional responses the book provoked. Carcaterra’s childhood buddies were described from the outside, as if in a movie, not from patchy and multilayered memory. And once again, I was reading about the suffering of an innocent boy, his attempts to come to terms with what had happened, and a final cathartic act of violence.
These books, good as they are in some ways, strike me as bogus. They are not what they claim to be, and so they are not satisfying. Maybe I’m just complaining that these are genre books — like horror stories, romances, boys’ adventures, and most sci-fi — and I am disappointed that they don’t measure up as literature. But what troubles me is that I see this more and more: skillfully made pieces of ready-for-Hollywood entertainment that claim to be serious novels, and are accepted as such by intelligent people. I have no problem with entertaining beach books, but when we mistake them for the real thing, I feel we have lost the ability to recognize something that should be precious.
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