Monday, May 21, 2007

High-flying fiction

If you moved Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy to Afghanistan, the result would be something like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. In both works, childhood cruelty plants a seed of guilt and shame that grows silently for years before bearing fruit. One shameful childhood act binds together disparate characters for life--or death.

This idea is not terribly original, and neither is the subplot of a son's desperately seeking his father's favor; what makes Kite Runner different is the setting. In my first high school journalism class, I was warned of the dangers of what journalists used to call Afghanistanism: the tendency to focus on news from places so out-of-the-way that readers are unlikely to have heard of them. Hosseini relies on his readers' familiarity with Afghanistan as well as the air of the exotic that surrounds front-page news stories, but his descriptions of place rarely move beyond mere adequacy. For instance, the title of the novel suggests the importance of competitive kite-flying, and in fact the first kite-flying scene leads into the pivotal event in the novel, so it ought to be richly realized and dense with visceral details; instead, it feels very much like the scenery in a low-budget video game: the streets define an arena for the main character's exploits but they don't hold up to careful scrutiny, nor do the side streets lead to a real world pulsing with life.

I realize that I'm the only one in the known world who failed to read Kite Runner when it was published four years ago, but I've read it now and this is what I have to say: not bad for a first novel, but now that he's moved past all that, maybe Khaled Hosseini's next novel will be a little more original and less reliant on a video-game aesthetic.

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