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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Is there a ‘winning formula’ for writing a novel?

Book Review

Singh, Soumitra. 2014. The Child Of Misfortune. Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd. New Delhi. Pages: 327. Price: `350/-

There is a belief that more people bought Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History Of Time than read it. For although the good professor tried to simplify the mysteries of the universe as much as he could, there is so much science embedded in the subject that it is difficult for the ordinary reader to follow. Did the readers of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) read it through without skipping pages? Had the book become so popular because of the controversies it created?

Catch-22’ has become a catchphrase so much so, it is possible many people do not remember that it is a book title. How many of those who bought the book, which is hailed as a ‘classic bestseller’, were able to read through Captain Yossarian’s adventures? Those who read it through probably include literary geeks interested in writing itself. In his preface to the 1994 special edition Joseph Heller confesses that initially it ‘won no prizes and was not on any bestseller list’. Reviewing it in The New Yorker, Mitchell Goodman tore into it, saying ‘… what remains is a debris of sour jokes …’ and, [Heller] ‘wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it.’ But a year after its publication something strange seems to have happened.

In Tipping Point Malcom Gladwell tells the story of the shoe brand ‘Hush Puppies’. The brand was all but dead by 1994 and its makers were about to phase it out, when it suddenly perked up. A few New York kids who wore the shoes to the clubs and bars in downtown Manhattan set the trend. Why did they wear them? They wore them because no one else wore them. Something similar happened to Catch-22. The book sold 300,000 copies in 1963 and the publishers had to go to the press eleven times in all in that year.     

The moot question is, ‘is there a ‘winning formula’ that makes a novel or other literary work a success? It is difficult to answer the question. But even the most popular of writers were tempted to repeat a winning formula they stumbled upon. For example, thematically, Geoffrey Archer’s novels Kane and Abel (1979) and The Fourth Estate (1996) have many similarities, although their plots and settings were quite different. Novelists like P. G. Wodehouse, Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace replicated winning formulae of their earlier novels many times over. The same practice may be seen in the publication of non-fiction books too. Spurred by the success of Is Paris Burning (1965), Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins published two more books in the same vein, history told in an easy to read, casual style: O Jerusalem (1972) and Freedom at Midnight (1975).

A favourite theme of novelists from the 2000s is terrorism. The Child Of Misfortune deals with terrorism in its early stages, but moves on to internet hacking, drug running and money laundering. The whole plot is set with chess as a substrate with the two protagonists playing their moves and counter moves as in a chess game. However, dabbling in too many subjects makes the novel muddled and complex.

The novel centres on three schoolmates Amar Singh Rathore, Jonah Michel and Maansi Agarwal. Amar the son of a ruling politician and Jonah an orphan French expatriate have a running feud throughout their lives, playing moves and countermoves as in a chess match and with Jonah often besting Amar. Maansi who ends up as a journalist with The Times Of India, is in love with Amar. Jonah lures Amar to Ladakh, where he murders a Buddhist monk resulting in Buddhist–Muslim riots. The Al-Qaeda steps in to destabilise Kashmir assisted by Indian Mujahideen volunteers. There are quite a few terror groups operating in Kashmir, but Indian Mujahideen? The plot meanders from Ladakh to Srinagar to Seoul to London with Jonah playing advanced chess moves and Amar and Maansi who has by now expressed her love for him, following. In Seoul they pick up an ace internet hacker, Kang, who joins the plot. He can, not only hack into any computer and website in the world to steal data, but can photographically trace the movements of the villains on his laptop. It is as if the whole world is wired, something the dystopian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four did for sound!

The novel abounds in ‘computer typos’ like her for hair and principal for principle. What is dividistic? Did the author mean divisive? Surely, those who have the runs cannot go for jogging! Does a ‘grassroots example’ mean every day or commonplace example? Is a ‘debate opposition team’ an opposing team in a debating competition? What is ‘second-kinds’? After a time one gives up noting errors in language, grammar and syntax. The novel could do with editing and thorough rewriting.  

Isn’t it a given that a novelist should not name existing political parties in the interest of strict political neutrality? 

This review is part of the Book Reviews programme at Blogadda.com

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