Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns

One of my reading groups chose the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, as this month's book to read. A New York Times best seller, this novel has been recommended to me by many people. It has a compelling story. I predict we will have a good discussion about this novel.

In the end, though, it didn't grab me. I would never want to read it again.

What I started wondering about half-way through this novel was: Why did Hosseini choose to take a story that spins out over a long number of years and confine it to 400 pages?

I often wonder about length of novels. How does an author decide to balance the span of years of the story with the number of pages he has allotted to himself? There doesn't seem to be a rule: authors seem to be free to lock themselves into any page limitation (or lack of limitation) they want. I look at my nightstand and I see Anna Karenina, a novel of 800 pages but with a story that takes place over only a few years. But ... Anna Karenina was written a long time ago in another time and in another country.

My first thought was that Hosseini was influenced by what the modern American book industry thinks will sell. I didn't want to think that - but I did. I've noticed over the last number of years that most novels sitting on the piles of "new fiction" at Barnes and Noble are, at their most basic level (page count), structured the same way. They are between 300 and 400 pages. It's almost as if a story that can't be told in less than about 350 pages shouldn't be told. And 400 pages seems to be pushing it; most new novels seem to be about 300 pages.

This seemed unfair to Hosseini - to think that he "sold out" to the book industry and was only interested in creating a best seller and not a successful novel. And since I think this novel will provoke good discussion, I wondered if I was wrong to make this initial judgment.

But the fact is that, for whatever reason, Hosseini chose to tell a BIG story in under 400 pages. This would be a difficult task for any author. Hosseini's tale is not set over 40 years of peace and prosperity where the most exciting thing that happens in the world surrounding the characters is the birth of new lambs each spring. No, this is a story in which the world the characters inhabit is beset with coups d'etat and war and invasion and revolution and religious misery.

Hosseini seemed to solve this problem (or try to solve it) by telling a small story set amidst a big background. This is a story of how big events affect ordinary people. That's a perfectly legitimate choice, used many times before. What is Gone With the Wind but the story of one woman living amongst the chaos of a civil war and its aftermath. Of course, Margaret Mitchell chose to tell that 10 year story in almost 1,000 pages. Which again, begs the question, of why Hosseini chose to limit his page number in this way. Notice I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt that he chose to limit his pages. If I assume that he didn't make that choice consciously and it just ended up being 400 pages, then we move into a whole other discussion. But I truly think it was planned.

The other thing that Hosseini seemed to do to solve the problem was to tell thirty years of the forty year story from the point of view of young girls. A simplistic point of view. Maybe because I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I found myself wishing through the first half of the novel that the little girls' stories were told from a more retrospective point of view rather than right there in the moment. The simplicity of their thought processes bored me a bit. I like little girls; I was a little girl once. But I don't particularly find the perspectives of little girls all that enlightening.

The other question that went through my mind was: why did Hosseini decide to break up the stories of his two principal characters through the first half of the novel? Given his page limitation I thought it was odd that he chose to tell the entire story of both women in straight chronological time. Mariam and Leila are not the same age, so it would be impossible to tell a simultaneous story about Mariam's childhood and Leila's childhood in a chronological fashion - they had to follow each other. But this means that in order to reach the point in the story where their lives intersect he has had to tell a 30 year tale in 200 pages. Each girl's story is about 15 years. If he had chosen to tell some of the stories in flashbacks or some other more complicated form than chronological he could have, perhaps, said more in fewer pages. And perhaps this would have allowed for deeper characterizations of the other characters in the story.

I thought that many of the characters in this novel, other than the principal characters, were simply sketches. Some sketches in the first half of the novel are drawn more boldly than others but they are still drawn for the reader and not, I think, created for the reader. I found it difficult to enter the story and experience what the characters were feeling in the first half of the novel This does not mean I didn't understand what the characters were feeling (the author is a competent writer, he's very clear about what they are feeling.) But I didn't feel it in my gut.

For instance, the death of Mariam's mother in Part One did not carry the weight with me that it could have. Nor, even, did the betrayal by Mariam's father. I felt as if the bare plot outline of Part One was good enough, and compelling enough, to have justified its own 350 page novel. Certainly the characters introduced in Part One that surround Mariam are complicated characters and further fleshing out of those characters would have been welcome. And yet Hosseini hurried through those 21 years of his story.

My problems with the novel fell away about half-way through Part III when I did step into the women's lives and care about them. But when I reached the end I found myself a bit annoyed that I had to read 400 pages to appreciate the approximately 50 pages that worked for me.

So I simultaneously thought the novel was too short and too long.

Ordinarily I would just shrug and put the book away and not wonder about why it didn't grab me. But I knew I needed to discuss it this week at my reading group and I also needed to figure out what I wanted to write about it.

I realize that I should try to judge a novel by what an author is trying to achieve and not by what I think he should have been trying to achieve. It is always dangerous to try to guess what an author's goal was when writing a novel, but I think Hosseini wanted to tell a story that would give the reader enough information to understand the plight of Afghani women over the last 40 years and get the world talking about it. And he achieved that. This novel is being discussed in book groups across the country and a lot of people are talking about the plight of women in countries like Afghanistan. So I suppose this novel is a success. But I still didn't like it.

As I pondered this, I happened across a completely unrelated blog post by Rohan Maitzen in which she admitted that an Egyptian novel she was reading came out of a completely different literary tradition than her own and that made her initially misunderstand it. Once she started to read the novel on its own terms, she appreciated it more.

I thought about that and I thought about Hosseini's novel and I wondered if perhaps the storytelling tradition out of which this novel comes is just not appealing to me. It struck me that the story is told in the way parables are told: small vignettes that are compelling - with just enough background and characterization to make for a good discussion. To write the novel in a more complex way, with flashbacks, would not work for a parable. The real discussion of a parable is going to be about the lesson to be drawn not about the plot or the characters - so the plot needs to be told in simple fashion and the characters can't be so interesting that they distract from the lesson. And that, possibly, is part of the reason that Hosseini made the choices he did with this novel. A linear, chronological story with enough detail to get the point across but not enough detail about the secondary characters to distract from what the lesson is. This novel will provoke discussion, but the discussion will always lead back to the plight of Afghani women in a general sense, not the specifics of this novel.

That is probably why this novel didn't work for me as a novel. I am a person for whom simple storytelling forms do not appeal. I don't like fairy tales. I don't like folk tales. I'm not wild about short stories. So a novel that is a parable would not be a type of novel that would appeal to me. Maybe that explains it.

But I expect the discussion tomorrow night to be good.