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I’ve been writing a review of a collection of Larry Niven’s short stories, and analysing the way in which he puts them together has led me to reflect a little on what I look for in a short. The introduction to the collection, by Jerry Pournelle, claims that SF shorts are harder to write than any other, but I don’t think this is right. I think I’m closer to Richard Ford, who writes in an introduction of his own (to the Granta Book of the American Short Story):

I’ve always liked stories which make proportionately ample rather than slender use of language, feeling as I do that exposure to a writer’s special language is a rare and consoling pleasure. I think of stories as objects made of language, not just as reports on or illustrations of life, and within that definition, a writer’s decision to represent life ‘realistically’ is only one of a number of possibilities for the use of his or her words.

I like this very much, and think it somewhat short-circuits the often heard SFnal complaint that the standards of short story criticism are routinely weighted in favour of ‘mimetic’ writers. The idea that great short story writers should have their own ‘special’ language – Ford explicitly says that this excludes writing merely functional – which they use for whatever purpose to which it is best suited is a liberating one in many ways, and puts me in mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, whose Holmes stories are such pulp and yet are rescued by their particular prosody. The type of story you’re writing is not what makes it hard.

What all this means for my take on Larry Niven, you must, dear reader, continue to guess for now.

Between the Assassinations

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, whilst perhaps not the most visionary of novels, was at the very least notably clear-sighted. I mean this plainly: last year’s Booker winner knew what it was about and followed through, hitting each of its targets in the manner it meant to. Between The Assassinations, the collection of linked short stories which were written prior to The White Tiger but have only been published in the wake of that book’s success, has a similar grasp of its own aims; but what it lacks is the novel’s knack for making the whole affair seem somehow organic.

It’s not that Between The Assassinations is confused or even confected; indeed, one of the qualities which makes it so difficult to read – its unremitting pessimism about Indian society – is also what makes it unified and admirable. Its unblinking examination of corruption, caste prejudice and the moribund pace of cultural change is startling (the historical specifity of the title is ironised by the emphasis on continuity over change in the text itself), and the book leaves in its own way a stronger impression than The White Tiger, which lightened its message with some fine humour, an engaging narrative voice, and a fleet-footed plot. Between The Assassinations, on the other hand, reads at times like a series of grim vignettes, each chosen specifically to show that Indian society is incontrovertibly broken.

Take, for instance, the story featuring the poverty-stricken children Raju and Soumya, which focusses on their quest to obtain some smack for their addled and violent father. At no point during the story are they shown any understanding or kindness. Adiga depicts their life as simply a procession of humiliations and beatings. Likewise, the rickshaw ‘boy’ Chenayya is shown to be an intelligent, thoughtful individual crushed under the heel of a society in which he has no room to be anything but a berated, disenfranchised beast of burden – and “when you are this poor, you are not given the right to complain.” [pg. 203]

Chenayya is, though, given the chance to voice his frustration at a journalist, probably modelled on Adiga himself, who arrives in a crowd of poor working men and asks them if it hasn’t occurred to them that they are using more calories in physical extertion than they can afford to put back into themselves in food:

“Don’t patronize us, you son of a bitch!” he shouted. “Those who are born poor in this country are fated to die poor. There is no hope for us, and no need of pity. Certainly not from you, who have never lifted a hand to help us; I spit on you. I spit on your newspaper. Nothing ever changes. Nothing will ever change. Look at me.” He held out his palms. “I am twenty-nine years old. I am already bent and twisted like this. If I live to forty, what is my fate? To be a twisted black rod of a man. You think I don’t know this? You think I need your notepad and your English to tell me this? You keep us like this, you people from the cities, you rich fucks. It is in your interest to treat us like cattle! You fuck! You English-speaking fuck!” [pg. 193]

The journalist is shamed into silence by this tirade. And if as the above may suggest Adiga’s collection is at times a little over-earnest, it pays attention to Chenayya’s rebuke. Each of the characters is allowed their own voice, with the minimum of authorial insertions – bar, of course, that initial choice to paint so uniformly black a picture in the first place, the purpose of which is not to elicit pity but to provoke some of Chenayya’s anger, even despair. Some of the stories here are not successful – that of the sexologist Ratnakara Shetty seems to evaporate into nothing, whilst the pages dealing with the experiences of Shankara, a privileged schoolboy who chooses to plant a bomb in his expensive day school, feels slight despite the premise’s rich potential. Others, such as the opening story, about the young Muslim Ziauddin and his curious efforts to obtain dignity, or the farcical tale of the teacher Mr D’Mello’s efforts to keep just one of his boys an innocent, work best in context rather than as stories in their own right. It’s hard not to read much of Between The Assasinations as writerly preparation for the subtler, deeper work of The White Tiger.

Yet the better stories here, and the overall effect of the collection’s unrelenting focus, lift the book above the testing ground. The best of them, a rather fine piece in which the Christian George finagles his way into the service of a rich woman, before persuading her to hire his sister and then betraying the both of them, contains a great deal of what makes this collection so much more than the sum of its parts: allusion, desperation and simmering tension. It is possible to question the book’s refusal to allow for bright spots in Indian society, and it is no replacement for The White Tiger, but it nevertheless acts as a persuasive companion piece.

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