Thursday 15 August 2013

FORCED TO READ: Reviewing Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner

Around two years ago my English GCSE required me to read that cherished slice of southern-fried childhood frequently referred to as To Kill A Mocking Bird; of course the hoodie wearing hoodlum in me forbid such boredoms and I never got around to reading more than what was read to us in class. Luckily, contrary to the popular beliefs of education it's possible to grab yourself an A without even reading the source material. I don't brag; I'm seemingly good at English in complete expense of a number of other subjects; not that I would want it any other way, it's simply a wonderful thought that a site that provides quick summaries of each chapter of every book you never bothered to read was enough to score me a qualification.

Unfortunately GCSEs don't mean shit. And believe me I am sorry to that small few who still picture that NASA job interview when you hand Mr. Smart Suit your Food Tech grades and receive a straight-faced reply like "Well that's just great, those astronauts do get damn hungry". So I bit the bullet with the hope NASA might except A-Levels instead. How could they not when I'm having to study The Kite Runner to get one? Which was when my just-flunk-it-off-and-don't-read plan hit jeopardy. And how could I refuse when I was handed a whole summer, an extended one at that, to read through a book which was a critically acclaimed bestseller; one that had been recommended by the master of all creation herself Oprah, no less.

My other forced reading was The Great Gatsby. You can find my not so enthusiastic mood coming out of that one in an earlier post, although the blandness I found in that story never reached any boiling point because the book's so short there really isn't any time to complain. And for that I applaud Scott Fitzgerald. Actually, the guy deserves more oscars than a vintage Jack Nicholson.

But on to the novel itself: I refrain from calling Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner a bad book because it's less a book and more a general atrocity. A bland, repetitive, horrifically bleak mess that has the same effect as those corridors drawn as optical illusions: it never seems to end. If that all seems a bit un-critical it's because my opinion since first picking up the book has changed from opened minded caution to a giant swirling mass of hate. I admit that my negative opinion of the book was implanted into my mind early on, but as far as I can tell Khaled Hosseini did nothing to swerve me off this crash course which lead me straight through the bushes, right past the stop sign and straight to the bottom of the fucking ravine.

No, no, no, my mother (or maybe it was Jim Emerson) taught me better than that; as much as I would like to just turn, walk away and leave this one for the dogs I feel some obligation to write down why The Kite Runner boiled my blood to such a degree; if for nothing else than as a warning to any future travelers who, for some god-be-known reason wish to take this path. So what follows is quite possibly every element that makes up The Kite Runner and why it sucks.
First, the plot: it's all told from the perspective of Amir who in his childhood in Afghanistan loved to do a multitude of things such as torture his servant friend, try and win kite running contests to please his arsehole father and witness rapes and decide for no apparent reason to not report them. I do understand it's all in service of letting the plot fall into place yet it became apparent to me early on that Amir makes more bad decisions than a Charlie Sheen level bi-polar. Then the Russians invade and Amir and his arsehole father move to America; highlighting the book's most beautiful message: that talking and winning kite running contests does shit for father-son relationships but unexpected moving to the land of opportunity practically makes you into a picture perfect image of the atomic family, or in this case the male side of said family. Then Amir gets a cryptic phone call and must go back to Afghan to go on a quest which will apparently make everything alright again.

So where should I start my nitpicking, the prose? Yes, those damn prose. Before the school started stuffing unwanted lettering down my throat I was coming down from a back-to-back hit of Hunter S Thompson and Lester Bangs, which was probably why there was still quite a heavy dose benzedrine in my system. If The Great Gatsby with it's squeaky clean style - Fitzgerald doesn't add a letter that doesn't have some major importance to the plot - was my come-down, then The Kite Runner was me hitting rock bottom; locked in a room with some screaming baby crawling across the ceiling to try and kill me. Maybe it's unfair because this author came from the same childhood move from Afghanistan to the western world that Amir does and English isn't his native tongue, but I'm only reviewing the end product and what you have here is prose that feel overly simple, and in moments of Spielbergian sentimentality only add unneeded hyperbole to the mix. And believe me it's a weird sort of sentimentality, with the story filled with hollywood-ready stereotypes and star-crossed coincidences all for maximum impact, yet where all the drama feels underdone, as if to show these set-ups in a "realistic" fashion. Hosseini's writing does do one thing that impressed me though, and that's the man's unique ability to turn even the simplest actions and story beats into the longest, most horrifically drawn out paragraphs you'll ever read without actually adding anything. The second I finished The Kite Runner I put the book down (I was tempted to set it alight) then went over to my book shelf and picked up Inherent Vice. I flicked to a random page and read the first paragraph of a random chapter, for the exact same reason a man lost in the desert for a week will run straight to the pool and start lashing the water into his mouth: to take the dry taste away. This was just a random paragraph but Pynchon added so much to it, most of it unimportant but it was great anyway; and that's because I don't mind long-winded writing or writing that takes it's time getting to the point, but Pynchon and Bangs and all those writers who tried so hard to put the freedom of the 60s that they stemmed from into their writing made the words just flow out of them. No matter how many times they sat there and wrote the smallest of paragraphs their writing felt unstructured and messy; the ultimate realization of a person literally spilling themselves and there soul into the writing. They, to me, are the real word-smiths, and on the complete other end of the spectrum sits Khaled Hosseini, who's every sentence feels like a strain. His explanations of funny happenings, that "that's just what happens in Afghanistan" like an added jab at his readers, made all the worse because he remains totally unaware of what he's doing.

So in the end it's a lack of personality that kills The Kite Runner. I always imagine troubled people, one's who have been through some great hardship at some point, as sarcastic or twisted in their sense of humor. It's a stupid cliche to follow, more stupid in real life, but in books and films it serves a purpose of standing opposite the horrors of the story. I'm not asking Amir possess the same off-kilter charm as Alex from A Clockwork Orange but Amir is an unlikeable main character. The first half of the book is there simply to enforce this point, yet I disliked Amir for the whole story. His guilt which appears later in life appears only so it can be quelled away. And in the end he remains as statically one-dimensional as all of the characters here. His childhood friend Hassan, the rape victim, is a symbol of untainted goodness; an incorruptible Atticus Finch in child form. His place in the story only to bring guilt to our hero. Amir's wife is just as simple, she has a troubled past yet that hangs over the story like the excuse it is; and excuse to why their marriage has so little turbulence, to why even when she finds out she can't have kids there is little drama created. She's the story's "solid rock", which in other words means she's the Seth Rogen of this story; only without all the funny. And our villain, oh god the villain. He loves Hitler because how else is one to show he's evil? and anytime a character needs screwing up or something traumatic needs to happen he rapes someone because how else is one to show he's evil? I'll give this villain, of which I've already forgot the name, his dues; he creates the one dramatic moment in the whole story. Not worth a read just for that, but this situation, bonkers in how it comes together, ditches the (fake) real world drama and gives us an old fashioned final fight. Which is how pitiful my praise for this novel is: that it's highpoint is a end-game boss battle.
Although even worse than Hosseini's writing style is the way he uses that said style to repeat information to use over and over and over again. Since the story is basically split in two: Amir fucking things up in Afghan and then America and then Amir trying to redeem himself by returning to Afghan, prepare to get a lot of reminders in the second half. Not a few pages go by without Hosseini describing, in painfully vivid detail, things that already happened. Smart writers would find a way to hide such reminders in their writing (or just trust their readers to put two-and-two together themselves), average writers will write of these reminders, albeit as quick remarks here and there, and then there's writers like Hosseini who will remind you of a man's hat blowing off in the wind, a pointless act the first time around, and describe it in as much vivid detail as the first time. Maybe it was all just the stigma of reading a book for school but I was sure The Kite Runner was structured more like a challenge; endlessly throwing things at me as if only to make my reading even harder.

And what more can I really say about The Kite Runner? It's a cliche told badly. Fuck you Oprah. Fuck you Khaled Hosseini and fuck you to all the idiot robots who wrote this one off as a winner on the idea it was about Afghanistan; Hosseini talks about his home country only in broad strokes, never making it feel like home. It's why later on the book when Amir returns to his childhood home, where I had spent more than 100 pages, I could sense there was a dramatic moment in there somewhere, it just wasn't here. My parents watch the soap opera Eastenders and my Dad once made the case for it with "But it deals with real issues" and I replied "Eastenders: showing real issues in a really unrealistic way" which is The Kite Runner. Some, not all, of the issues here are realistic, yet in trying to take the major dramatic moments out and be more like real life Hosseini has stripped all reality out of this story. Some will say that after all the heartbreak and "Tear-Jerking" moments that the ending is uplifting. But once again Hosseini has to cut ahead and show his story isn't some muddled fiction but a real piece of drama that could have really happened, and even on this page denies the reader a true payoff to all the stories troubles. Which is the least uplifting thing I could imagine from this story, because it shows a lack of faith in people; and I will never praise a book that shows such a low opinion of Humanity that even it's ending moment, to point us to the happiness of our characters, is bleak and unsatisfying.

Although I don't hate Khaled Hosseini. Well, ok, I really really really do, but I hate the fact this book wasn't shat out straight into the bargain bin more than I could ever hate the man himself. With American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis was, and not even satirically, trying to show that in a material world like ours, or specifically the world of 80s coke-fiend business suits, that a killer as sick as Patrick Bateman could not only exist but that our twisted society could let him get away with it; because after all he's got the fancy car and the expensive suit.. In all of The Kite Runners pages there is not, satirical or otherwise, any sort of meaningful sentiment or message, yet the book itself is a message. The message is a PG-rated version of the one found in American Psycho. That this book, released in 2003 by a first time writer, didn't need a unique (or half interesting) writing style, memorable characters, unexpected twists or any inkling of enjoyment or purpose, to become a major bestseller all around the world. All it needed was a story about a country we were all scared of, lots of symbols and characters we could easily understand and lots of sentimentality and big drama created for no other reasons than tears and quick shocks. 1/10

(So I managed to escape the kite runner, although not really since they'll have me studying this shit for the next 12 months. I actually felt my own writing getting worse as I read Hosseini. Hopefully Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness will help set things right) 

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