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Aravind Adiga and George Saunders: Two Peas in the Same Depressing Pod

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , ,

Benjamin Chambers writes:

Normally, when people complain about fiction in The New Yorker being “depressing,” I jump to the magazine’s defense. “You need to read more than one issue,” I say, or—even less convincingly for my debaters—“Nonsense! It frequently publishes light fiction outside of ‘Shouts & Murmurs.’ Like, er, Woody Allen or, um, Donald Barthelme …” If I try a different tack, and argue that fiction has many pleasures to offer besides good cheer, I end up in a worse muddle. I know this to be true, but I can’t prove it to readers deaf to these charms. Still, I try: I won’t hear my beloved New Yorker maligned.

But sometimes I think that great institution doesn’t care. It’s like that moment in the movies when the hero’s scrappy, pint-sized sidekick stands at his back, fearful but resolved, before the crowd of muscle-bound heavies armed with pool cues and broken beer bottles, and then the hero somehow wanders elsewhere, oblivious to his sidekick’s peril.

Case in point: “The Elephant,” by Aravind Adiga, from the January 26, 2009 issue, centered around Chenayya, a man roughly 30, who delivers furniture via bicycle for a pittance and a squalid life he cannot seem to better. The story’s firmly in the reveal-social-injustice school; the point is the injustice of Chenayya’s poverty, which is clear from the outset. The problem with this sort of story is that there’s no reason why it should be any particular length, once the basics are established: there’s no dramatic reason to continue cataloging the character’s abasement or shortcomings, which makes one question the whole enterprise. (Place where I checked out: when Chenayya, frustrated and angry with all that he cannot have, throws cow dung at a prostitute and then jams his dung-covered fingers in her mouth.)

The following week, in the February 2nd issue, George Saunders weighed in with “Al Roosten.” Though “Al” is much funnier than “The Elephant,” the laughter palls quickly, once it becomes clear that the main character’s pathetic, and Saunders has been laughing at him and made you do the same.

Both stories have the same narrative arc—best drawn as a flat line—and are intended only to evoke the hopelessness of their main characters’ situations. Worse, they’re both aggressively medicinal, in an eat-your-literature-it’s-good-for-you sort of way.

Sorry, but I’ll stick with dessert for now, and wait, rosy with optimism, for the next issue.


Thanks for the post, Benjamin! I read “Al Roosten” last night. I found it funny and well-written, but I ended up waiting for the punchline. The setup is that he’s a pathetic loser. The punchline: he’s still a pathetic loser. Ouch.

Paul: Exactly. In retrospect, I suppose the difference between Saunders’ story and Adiga’s is that Saunders’ protagonist is pathetic-in-himself, where as in Adiga’s, the guy’s situation — the grinding squalor of poverty — is what makes him pathetic.

I don’t mind stories that evoke the description “bleak” or “depressing.” In Aravind Adiga’s “The Elephant,” the lowly, craven, miserable world of a cycle-cart puller named Chenaya, working in a crowded, modern Indian city, is described with a specificity that rubs the reader’s nose in rot, dirt, smog, urine and feces. Adiga is obviously outraged that anyone should have to endure such an existence. He’s calling our attention to Chenaya’s appalling situation. He’s speaking up on behalf of what Frank Conroy called, in “The Lonely Voice” - his great study of the short story - “the submerged population.” For O’Connor, the short story is defined by its concern with those on the margins of society. “Submerged population” stories are not usually pretty. Happy endings are not their norm. Nevertheless, they need to be told. The New Yorker is right to publish them. Next to George Saunders’s comic book silliness, Adiga’s “The Elephant” stands out as a real story about real life.

I seriously wonder if I’m losing my grip. In my comment above, I mistakenly identify Frank Conroy as the author of “The Lonely Voice.” The correct name is, of course, Frank O’Connor.

@ driedchar: I see I gave the impression that I dislike all stories that are “depressing” or “bleak,” and that isn’t the case at all. Along with other sorts of fiction, I enjoy realism, which tends to rule out happy endings.

However, I have little patience for fiction that is used to club the reader over the head with how awful the world is. Yes, it sucks, yes I’m privileged beyond belief: but what does Adiga want me to do about it?

Whenever an author’s didactic aims supersede his or her dramatic aims, the narrative suffers. True, people do need to be reminded of lives like Chenayya’s, but if that’s the only rationale for the story, and the only purpose of each incident in it is to hammer home how trapped he is, then I’d argue that fiction is not the right tool for the job. Has my reading about the fictional character of Chenayya made me take any action that will ameliorate the harsh lives of real people like him? No. Maybe I feel a little better informed and morally “in touch” with the true state of the world, but that does the Chenayyas of the world no good at all.

When Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor, was asked in December why The New Yorker seems to publish “depressing” stories all the time, she said, “I fear this goes back to the basic rules of narrative structure: without some form of conflict, you have no plot. Happiness doesn’t provide progression or development. It’s very difficult to write an entirely cheerful story and have it be interesting.” I find this ironic, given that neither “The Elephant” nor “Al Roosten” display “progression” or “development.”

One might argue (as I’ve done myself in the past) that the point of “The Elephant” is not only to describe Chenayya’s helplessness, but to underscore the helplessness of the reader (i.e., those of us who care about “submerged populations”). I’ve come to believe, however, that to justify a story solely on the basis of its moral purpose is – for the author – a cop-out. I can say from experience that it’s much easier to write a story in which incident after incident crushes the main character than it is to write a story that illustrates the plight of the main character and displays “progression or development.” The “progression” doesn’t have to be a happy one; but there has to be some. Otherwise the story becomes monotonous, and readers begin to resent the teacher and resist the lesson – which is not, I’m sure, the effect Adiga was hoping for.

As for O’Connor, I’ll need to read more of his work. I’ve always loved his story, “Guests of the Nation.”

Benjamin, it may sound a little weird (maybe even perverse), but I mirrored off Chenayya. I’m not a cycle-cart puller, at least not yet, but I’ve worked in the service industry. I know what it’s like to have to kiss ass, to have to be nice or at least be neutral, when what I’d really like to do is speak my mind. I relate to Chenayya when Adiga says of him that he might grovel to his boss, Mr. Ganesh Pei, “but he was furious, he was angry inside.” It is this spark of anger, a streak of anti-authoritarianism, that distinguishes Chenayya from his fellow cycle-cart pullers. Chenayya finds interesting ways to channel his anger, e.g., picking up a rotting banana skin and hanging it on the leaves of a neem tree that grows near Mrs. Engineer’s gate. I love details like that rotting bannana skin and that neem tree. It’s good writing! Adiga evokes Chenayya’s world with a specificity that puts us squarely there. And that, as Pauline Kael would say, is not nothing.

driedchar, I know what you mean; I’ve “mirrored off” characters before, too, and of course I’ve often had that experience in work environments where I’ve had to kowtow when I was burning with rebellion — though never, of course, was I as trapped as Chenayya. And I agree that the banana skin and many other details are well done.

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