December 28, 2010

The House that Biswas Built

Well… that did it. 

All seasonal holiday cheer I may or may not have previously been overflowing with has promptly vanished.  This week, in another attempt at sneaking up on the Common Reading Exam before it sneaks up on me, I finally managed to conquer V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mister Biswas. 

Seriously… this is a best-seller?  Praised as one of the leading novels of the twentieth century?  What do people see in this rambling hunk of misery?  To me, the characters were all the same, the events were utterly unexciting, and I was unenthused to read a story that I knew was going to end poorly.  All I could think the entire time was Hamlet IV v; “When Sorrows come they come not single spies, but in battalions”.  The novel consists of calamity upon calamity ushered upon an unsympathetic protagonist who, while perhaps endearing in the book’s first hundred pages, becomes increasingly more grotesque as the events of his life pile upon him.  Why do I care that bad things are happening to this person?  I don’t want to read about characters who I can’t sympathize with.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s a requirement of SERIOUS LITERATURE to be brooding, emo and otherwise utterly miserable.  Is all it takes to write a New York Times Best Seller a little bit of angst and a whole lot of luck?  In speaking with a colleague about this novel, he told me that he really enjoyed it.  It reminded him of real life.  The protagonist, no matter what he did, just couldn’t seem to get ahead.  I said that that was exactly what I didn’t like about the novel.  Why torture myself by reading about this?  Isn’t my own life full of enough bad stuff that I don’t have to read about some fictional character’s bad stuff? 

Don’t get me wrong, without conflict and obstacles a novel is nothing… but if there’s going to be conflict it had best be conflict that I care about solving.  Something that the hero can win.  Something that makes him a bigger, better man.  There is no growing in A House for Mister Biswas.  The action of the book does nothing but to make its primary hero into a jaded, bitter, old man who is taken advantage of by everyone and dies before he can really achieve the only goal he ever has.

In one regard, the story is an allegory about an artist’s life.  Mister Biswas is clearly someone who should have been an artist.  He is only truly happy when his job involves painting, writing, or some other form of creative application.  He finds fulfillment from these things, and the real tragedy is that he simply cannot make them work for him.  Society bends and hones him to its own idea of what he should be.  Whether it is his over-bearing in-laws or the supervisor at his current position, there always seems to be someone available to beat the spark of life from this man and use him to their own ends.

The only truly sensible character in the entire book is Shama Biswas, the protagonist’s wife.  She is a woman who has simple wants, simple desires, and simple needs.  Despite being physically and mentally abused by her husband for countless years, all she ever does is cook for him, balance his accounts, and try to make their life together work.  Mister Biswas never seems to admit to her superior judgment, though by the very end of the book the narrator seems to.  It is fairly clear to me that, without her, Biswas’ entire existence would fall apart at the seams.  He is a man with his head in the clouds, blinded by his one dream (to have his own house, hence the title).  There is something admirable to that, but it requires someone with feet firmly planted to rein him in.  That someone is Shama.  She enjoys balancing accounts, dealing with sums and figures.  When things go wrong in the household, she knows how to fix them.  She knows when more money is needed and when it isn’t.  She is the voice of reason, though one that Biswas continually ignores through the entirety of the book.

I’m debating whether the circular story-telling method that Niapaul employed made things better or worse.  The book’s first scene depicts a dieing Mister Biswas discussing with Shama the massive amounts of debt they have incurred to purchase the second-rate house that the family lives in and how to deal with this debt.  The novel then circles back to Biswas’ birth and picks the story up from there.  I can’t decide whether knowing that Biswas does get his house (though it leaks and creaks and needs work he can’t afford to put into it since he is stuck under a mountain of debt that his widow has absolutely no hope of ever re-paying) made me more or less angry that I was stuck reading about the way he got to this ending.  Many times I threatened to put the book down and never return to it; I knew how it ended anyway, why was I putting myself through this torture?  Somehow, though, I held out hope that it was a feint on Niapul’s part… that something… some little thing… would work for this man.  Of course it did not.  In the end (and during every step to get there) it all fell to pieces, just like Biswas’ house.

I guess the bottom line for me is what I am left wondering after reading so many of these books; why am I reading them?  What makes them any better than any other book ever written?  If it’s not engaging and it tells me nothing about life (other than it’s hard and the good are systematically shat upon until they accept their stations), why is it a New York Times Bestseller?  Because at this rate… I’d almost rather read Twilight.  At least that has a happy ending.

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