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Book Review April 5, 2002
 
Great Literary Frauds of Our Time
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 

Brought to you by ENRON.
With your host Dr. John Dolan

Enron logo

FRAUD #1 Arundhati Roy: The Goddess of Big Lies

She was voted one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" by People Magazine. That was in 1998; she's officially "in her late thirties" now, her age blurring like her prose; but it will always be her very young self which stares out from the book jackets of her one and only novel. Her face is turned toward the camera with a sleepy, pouting expression straight out of Playboy, her winsome curls as damp as her big brown eyes, her reassuringly Aryan features conveniently enclosed by demonstrably non-white skin.

Her interviews, usually conducted by a trembling, menopausal Commonwealth zhurnalistka, slither toward softcore when describing her: "An explosion of curly black hair...showcases nearly childlike, saucer eyes and cheekbones that erupt the moment she talks or smiles."

She is "the first Indian citizen to win a Booker Prize and a million-dollar book deal." She copyrighted the whole high-culture section of the "intercaste lovemaking" market -- and remember, that's the biggest market of all, the basis of bodice-rippers like Mandingo, She Was A Pirate's Booty, Barbarian Concubine, and Captive Princess. Her novel is praised around the world by dotards like John Updike, who drove the populist ball straight onto the green by calling it "a Tiger Woodsian debut." But most of her fans prefer to praise her writing in terms like "luscious," "sensual," and "extravagant" -- the rhetoric of high-priced ice-cream bars.

She is also a saint, the latest great Aryan hope from the land which gave us Gandhi, Nehru and the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh -- virtually all of the most tedious saints of the last century. She is said to have left home at 16 to live in a squatter's colony in Delhi, earning a living collecting beer bottles. Our Lady of Recycling, who even in starvation made a career of high-profile virtue. She is supposed to be the pure product of the fertile soil of Kerala, site of her one and only novel. Like all Indian saints, her dream is to scold the rich and successful countries for their lack of...their lack of...something or other. Virtue, poverty, skin diseases, flies around the eyes...something. She put her nobel-prizewinning life on the line to oppose a dam which would displace thousands of villagers.

And she is a fraud. A literary careerist who has parlayed an overwritten melodrama into unearned fame; a child of privilege whose early experiments in poverty were no more than a smart career move; a Yuppie whose real job was aerobics instructor, not slum bottle-recycler; a world-travelled, overeducated dilettante posing as a regional writer; and a fake saint who fucked her way to fame and survives, in spite of her complete lack of talent, because her crude scolding warms the heart of old British lefties who love it when their tame Indian slaves get up on their hind legs to denounce the bloody Americans, who oppress the world so much less skillfully than they used to.

Her most public, most embarrassing slip came in her noble struggle against the dam. She was given a three month jail sentence for obstructing the builders. Gandhi-like, she went to jail...then slunk out after 24 hours, opting to pay a 75-rupee ($1.50) fine rather than show solidarity with the humble prisoners. It seems she found an Indian prison much less spiritual than she had imagined. Rather dirty, in fact. 24 hours was just time enough to be photographed behind bars, looking fierce and defiant; after that there was no point in staying in such an unsanitary place.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Arundhati Roy, moral crusader.

At least some of her fans are honest about why they love her: "I like Arundhati Roy more because of [her articles] than the fiction," admits the owner of a fansite. Roy herself is very nervous about when, or whether, she will produce any more novels ("I don't believe I must write another book just because I'm a 'writer'"); obviously, she would prefer to drop the pretense of literary writing and focus on the production of moral essays.

Try to read her Booker-Prize winning novel, The God of Small Things, and you soon see why Roy is so cagey about whether she'll ever risk writing fiction again. There's a pattern to overpraised first novels: they all begin with a big, neon sign announcing the "theme" which will be thrashed out in the rest of the book. Roy's novel is a classic of the breed; by the end of page one, even a mongoose could figure out the thesis: "Roy's juxtaposition of the wonderful fecundity of the Indian landscape, contrasted with the cruel and arbitrary rules controlling how people can love."

It's all there, in the first paragraph of the novel -- poppin' off the page like an aerobics instructor sweatin' her Danskins off to a hot Bollywood beat:

"May in Ayemenem [pronounced "Eminem"] is a hot, brooding month...But by early June...the countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway."

Poor old D. H. Lawrence, trying to get all Freudian with that freezing Yorkshire climate! If the poor bastard had just gone to Kerala, where pepper vines snake up electric poles and rat snakes rub themselves against glistening stones while drenched mongooses jerk off into scummy ponds, he would've realized how much easier it is to sex up a landscape where the temperature is a steady 120 degrees in the shade.

It might seem a tad derivative to do D. H. Lawrence seventy years after Lawrence; but that's the beauty of claiming a new provincial landscape for yourself, as Roy claimed Kerala: you can do the old tricks all over again, and still get full credit! You're a primitive artist, not a plagiarist!

And if you weld the old Laurentian horny-landscape rhetoric onto a classic middlebrow ideology -- ie, "Love is good, while anti-love rules are bad" -- well, you da big Bombay dotheaded nuke BOMB, baby! The next big thing at the Starbucks Book Club! Poisonwood Bible with a tabla beat! The Shipping News with extra masala! Hold the dahl and pass the adjectives!

That's the recipe for Goddess of Small Things, and it cooked up very nicely for Roy. Her babbling tale of innocent nature vs. evil prejudice worked because, far from being a primitive work by a third-world novelist, it was simply an Indian version of that tedious high-school tearjerker, To Kill A Mockingbird.

Roy herself was unwise enough to admit her debt to the Mockingbird in an early interview. The acknowledgment slipped out while she was bemoaning the tedium of being compared to the great novelists of the past century. Ah, how tiresome! The poor kid! Her complaint has to be read in full to get an idea of her astounding vanity:

"It's not just Rushdie that I'm compared to. There's Garcia-Marquez, Joyce...and Faulkner. Yes, I'm compared to Faulkner the most. But I've never read Faulkner before! I have, however, read some other writers from the American South -- Mark Twain, Harper S. Lee [author of To Kill A Mockingbird] -- and I think that perhaps there's an infusion or intrusion of landscape in their literature that might be similar to mine."

In acknowledging her debt to Harper Lee, Roy admitted more than she knew. To Kill A Mockingbird is the true ancestor of The God of Small Things. Like Roy's novel, it reduces an intricate and accursed landscape, the American South, to a simple clash of patronizing middle-class virtue and trashy local prejudice solved with a grand courtroom drama. Roy takes the even older and more vicious landscape of Southern India and subjects it to an equally simple cleansing via the redemptive power of hot intercaste fucking.

The God of Small Things is a hit with coffeehouse book clubs now for the same reason that To Kill A Mockingbird was a hit with Reader's Digest types fifty years ago. Both affirm the dim simplicities: Children are innocent; grownups are bad. Love is good; prejudice is bad.

So why has this one-hit wonder become such a prestigious essayist? And that's where Roy's second career comes into the picture. If you want a really reliable career as a vendor of pious lies, the essay is the way to go. It's good to have that first novel on your CV for ballast, but for a steady career it's better to become a professional denouncer of evil.

Roy was in position when 9/ll happened, ready to scold on front pages all over the world--or at least the big chunk of it that used to be British. Within a few weeks, she produced an astounding article called "the Algebra of Infinite Justice," originally printed in the Guardian but since disseminated by email through all the laid-off countries which once produced the middle managers of the British Empire.

From Canada to New Zealand, you hear Roy's article quoted with glee by grumpy old white men who usually respond with bitter letters to the editor when the local aboriginals get stroppy. Yet these bilious old racists simply melt when Roy's big brown eyes appear. The paradox is not really so hard to understand. Roy, for the old Anglos, is a convenient little brown stick with which to beat the Americans, whom the grumpy old Anglos hate even more than they hate the Abos. The Americans put these guys out of an Empire-managing job, and they will never forgive that or lose their conviction that the world was oppressed far better under the Union Jack than the Stars and Stripes.

Roy's article has as its touchingly simple thesis the gloating notion that -- and this is a direct quote -- "what goes around comes around." It would be difficult to think of a more self-evidently false assertion about the world. If what went around ever actually came around, Roy and her sponsors would not exist -- because if ever a culture inflicted horrors on the world, it was Victorian Britain. Yet no divine lightning ever struck that lucky, bloodstained Empire.

Karma schmarma; Roy's real argument, the one which makes her so beloved of the grumpy old Brits, is much simpler: ha ha on you upstart Americans. She made this much clearer in one of her most recent nag-essays, this one on nuclear war. (She's against it.) She paints the usual picture of nuclear horror, a tableau perfected 50 years ago, then assigns blame:

"But let us pause to give credit where it's due. Whom must we thank for all this? The Men who made it happen. The Masters of the Universe. Ladies and gentlemen, the United States of America! Come on up here folks, stand up and take a bow. Thank you for doing this to the world. Thank you for making a difference. Thank you for showing us the way. Thank you for altering the very meaning of life."

Isn't that lovely? It almost justifies the notion of Arundhati Roy as true moral crusader -- because with enemies like that, nuclear weapons begin to look pretty good. After all, why has no one spoken up in favor of nuclear winter? It would certainly silence Roy. In particular, a nuclear war between Pakistan and India has a lot to recommend it, above all the extinction of God knows how many plaster saints on the Gandhi/Roy/Baghwan model.

Perhaps she will go down in intellectual history as a true Kali, the bringer of destruction -- the mother of the Great Winter. It would be the antithesis of all that Roy represents: a cold silence, a complete answer to the fecund heat of her animate Kerala landscape.

So scold on, Arundhati! Preach against the nukes till we all long for them, and the inclusive answer they offer to the terrible prospect of you, and your successors, remaining at the podium for another eon. Hail the Winter that has no Spring!

ENRON'S "Great Literary Frauds of Our Time" with host Dr. John Dolan will return next issue with another exciting installment!

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