Book Candy: Vikas Swarup, Q&A

I recently read Vikas Swarup's Q & A, which was just released in the U.S. this past summer (it was released in India a bit earlier). The novel has generally been pretty well-reviewed, and seems to be selling well, if the Amazon ranking tells us anything.

Swarup's novel has an ingenious (bordering on gimmicky) frame. It's a picaresque Bombay novel about a poor teenager who wins a fantastic sum at a television game-show (the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?). It's such a fantastic sum that he's immediately arrested on suspicion of cheating; the novel unfolds as he explains how he came upon the answer to each trivia question through a life experience that was precisely salient to the particular trivia question he was asked.

The best passages from the novel are full of details and observations from everyday life. One example might be the following passage about riding trains:

Train journeys are about possibilities. They denote a change in state. When you arrive, you are no longer the same person who departed. You can make new friends en route, or find old enemies; you may get diarrhea contaminated water. And, dare I say it, you might even discover love. As I sat in lower berth number three of coach S6 of train 2926A, with fifty thousand rupees tucked inside my underwear, the tantalizing possibility that tickled my senses and thrilled my heart was that I might, just might, be about to fall in love with a beautiful traveler in a blue salwar kameez.

I like how Swarup starts with a generalization about the experience of traveling by train, and ends with details that are unique to Ram's particular problems (and hopes, including a girl in a blue salwar kameez in his cabin in the train). Unfortunately, there aren't many passages in this vein (and even this paragraph isn't great).

Q&A is strong on energy and its funny, moving stories; I really enjoyed the Australian diplomat episode and the unlicensed Taj Mahal tour-operator chapter near the end of the novel. But the novel also has some episodes that border on the incredible, including a somewhat distasteful sequence with a closeted gay Bollywood actor and a truly far-fetched episode involving voodoo. All in all, it's more like "book candy" than literature; goes down easy, but will be quickly forgotten.

I wish Swarup the best of luck -- I have a feeling this book will succeed in the U.S. -- but I can't strongly recommend Q&A.

Other reviews:

Ron Charles at the Washington Post generally gives Swarup the benefit of the doubt, while making some gentle criticisms: "There are enough horrors here to drain a million liberals' bleeding hearts, but Ram never suggests the solution will come from a different political arrangement, more equitable distribution of wealth or social revolution." True, but the absence of a political critique was the least of my concerns in this novel.

Patrix also reviews it, and gives it a lukewarm, "lazy Sunday afternoon" approval.

Lisa Yanaky, at the improbably titled Book Brothel, gives Q&A a 9/10 rating. She ends her review with this: "[Swarup] doesn't have the same writing prowess as authors like Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy, but he still captures all of the things I love about Indian literature."

As half-concessions go, Yanaky's is straightforward enough. But it makes me wonder: what are American readers of Indian literature looking for?