Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum – Katherine Boo

Books are not my guilty pleasure. They are an obsession I sometimes feel I would be better off quitting. My real guilty pleasure is to go to Amazon and read other people’s reviews of the books I read. I do this in part from my other conviction, the belief that I have not managed to learn enough from what I read, or that I was not smart enough to get it. Sometimes the lesson I learn there is pretty helpful – that I am not the only one who didn’t learn anything from the book. In this case, I found that this book had a whole lot of people who didn’t seem to get it in the same, frankly stupid, way.

I read a few reviews picked at random and then same word popped up in all of them. “Plotless.” So, a criticism and then an apology.

I am reminded of a quote from C.S.Lewis:

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used…

C.S. Lewis -Preface to Paradise Lost

I like this quote. I think it would help a lot of people with their thought process. The people who used the word “plotless” would do well to think about what it is they are reading. This is non-fiction. Life is plotless. Non-fiction is plotless. If your non-fiction does have a plot, you may have been taken in by a propagandist. I have recently read a few biographies, and they were all equally plotless. It is a stupid and inapplicable criticism, and it reflects how people pick things up without really considering what the hell it is they are looking at.

Seriously, it wouldn’t have killed you to look at the wikipedia page.

Right. Let’s try an apologia for that silly opinion.

Imagine there were no metatext for this. Imagine you were not just ‘an anthropologist from Mars’ (or perhaps a ‘literary critic from Mars’ would better suit my analogy), but an armchair one at that, whose knowledge came pretty exclusively from books. If you knew books to come in two principle flavors, fiction and non-fiction, and with no other knowledge had to put this book into one category or the other, would you get it right?

This book is nonfiction by fiat more than by convention. It’s narrative non-fiction, and with that a whole lot of very interesting questions comes up. I have no idea to what extent Fatima, Abdul and Asha are actual real individual with breath in their lungs (at some point). In the borderlands of fiction and non-fiction, there is obviously going to be a creole of the two modes of thought.

All that is fascinating to me, but I think it would profit this review for me to be a little more pragmatic. There ends up being another issue that comes up from the nature of this book that is, for me at least, equally concerning. While I was reading this, I constantly found myself wondering “ok, now what?” When reading other nonfiction, there is frequently a call to arms as a subtext to what you are reading. I think this is something that is somewhat betrayed by the narrative nature of this text. With non-fiction, there is something of a feeling of learning about universality in it. If Boo had even done something as simply as place herself in the story, making it thus feel less like fiction, it would have done something to move this in that direction. Fiction, at least for me, has always been a lot less influential in terms of getting me to move to an action. It isn’t that I doubted the poverty in Mumbai, but what of it all? That really felt strikingly missing from the book. In the books conclusion, the author goes into her point in writing it, but her explanation didn’t scratch the itch.

What I think this is all about is that we have been conditioned to read fiction in a certain way, and read non-fiction in another. This intersection of the two is therefore difficult for some of us. I think there is something interesting to explore here.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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