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If you're like me, committing to the first page of a book is committing to the last page as well: there's no putting a book down mid-way.  And therefore, if you're like me, a book like A House for Mr. Biswas is a period of incarceration with a cellmate so annoying that you'd be willing to trade for a rapist: at least then something would happen.

The most fascinating aspect of Mr. Biswas, from my perspective, is the question of why V.S. Naipaul would write a book about his protagonist, Mohun Biswas, in the first place.  Mr. Biswas is passive, immature, asexual and whiny.  Two behavior patterns prevail throughout his life: when confronted with an unlucky circumstance, he complains in a manner intended -- without succeeding -- to be funny; and, on the rare occasion when he rouses himself to action, disaster ensues (e.g., when Mr. Biswas almost burns down his house in Shorthills after unsuccessfully attempting to "fire the land" with a ritual bonfire earlier in the evening).

Unsurprisingly, with such a character at the helm, the book has no discernible plot.

Its meandering course follows Mr. Biswas's habitation of successive homes offered to him by his wife's family, a cloying, manipulative, repellent clan.  Mercifully, V.S. Naipaul kills Mr. Biswas at forty-six (and a painful 623 pages -- had the man lived a normal lifespan, into his sixties, say, the book could've rambled on for another four hundred pages). 

Without question, Mr. Biswas contains detailed and thoughtful passages about the human and geographic environment in which Mr. Biswas exists, and Naipaul has a sharp eye for the decrepit state in which much of the human population lives.  The topic, also, is promising: exploration of the relationship between home and identity is powerful material.  Finally, I don't doubt that Mr. Biswas is a faithful, realistic portrayal of a near destitute man in a developing country.

But none of this adds up to "page turner."  Nor, I should add (since being a "page turner" is not my sole criteria for an entertaining book), does Mr. Biswas amount to a pleasant occupation of one's mental energies. 

Finishing Mr. Biswas, I thought longingly of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, another book that explores the topic of home and identity, in the context of an impoverished household, and that -- thanks in part to its extended passages on theology -- moves slowly.  I didn't read Gilead quickly, but I loved reading it and looked forward to the time I'd spend each day with it.  Mr. Biswas, on the other hand, was a chore to finish.

The difference between the two is in the character of their protagonists.  John Ames is a sympathetic character, a man who waits and seeks -- just like Mr. Biswas -- but whose personality was so compelling that I found it a pleasure to sit down and wait with him.  Mr. Biswas (even the fact that Naipaul insists on using the distancing "Mr." in his address of the character) had no such charm: time spent in his presence was time spent wishing I was elsewhere. 

Plot or character appeal: a novel has to have one or the other (and preferably both).  Otherwise, I'm committing to doing time.  

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Gilead category.

Fathers and Sons is the previous category.

Gone with the Wind is the next category.

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