March 05, 2018

Of Writers and Mediocrity: Lara Zuberi's Torn Pages is the definition of meh

In one of the most awkward things to happen while I was reading this book, I stumbled upon a scene in where our protagonist, aspiring writer that she is, receives the following rejection letter:

“Your English is excellent and your writing is fluent. But your descriptions are way too long. Perhaps you can take some courses in novel-writing or short-story writing? I really do admire your brave attempt at writing a book. You have the writer’s itch, which is great, but my dear, you have a long way to go with the craft of writing. Hoping, that one day you develop into a writer.”

This is uncomfortable to read because while our protagonist’s novel, revised and polished to a shine,
wins awards and good reviews and movie adaptation deals and the whole shebang, I doubt this novel is going to get anything of the sort. Basically, the advice our heroine gets is the gist of this review.

Torn Pages isn’t exactly bad writing, make no mistake. I’ve read enough crap literature, and within its
sub category of crappier Pakistani writing, to be able to recognize it in an instant. But all the things that quote mentioned are exactly what I would say for Lara Zuberi’s work. The writing might be good, but there’s still something missing. The dialogues are stilted. There are plot holes and lack of depth and worst of all, there’s no flow. There is a clear lack of rhythm, a mark in the pages where a sentence which should have ended didn’t end and a paragraph which should have begun didn’t begin. These are the kind of things you can’t teach, but that one learns over time, through hours and hours of voracious reading, learning without knowing what you are learning.

And while I’m sure Zuberi must have put in the hard work, and it’s condescending to assume an author hasn’t, the review is of the final product and not of the hours of labour. And the final product doesn’t deliver. Told from alternating points of view, the plot skips between present and past in a bizarre ping pong. Saman, the writer, is narrating her past through chapters of a novel she is writing, which break the present narrative to take us back to her days of poverty and a rare chance to study in an elite school. Breaking into Saman’s boring present of cook-write- wallow-sleep is Aman, a successful neurosurgeon unable to get over his past relationship with Saman. As Saman writes her story (named The Story of Us, in a valiant attempt to be as cheesy as possible), we are with Aman in a slightly future time frame, where Aman’s wife has given him a published version of Saman’s novel. Aman, shocked and gratified that his past girlfriend’s dream of becoming a writer have been fulfilled, frankly doesn’t spend enough time being horrified that she has written about his past, including being abandoned as a child, in such intricate detail in her book. I’m just saying, if I fell out with a friend and later discovered they had written all the gory details of my past in a book parading as fiction, I’d have a few words to say.

And while we’re on the topic, the biggest hole in this story comes from Saman’s absent, entirely pointless husband. In a hypothetical scenario where my husband was a writer and wrote a whole novel, I would want to know what it was about, but okay, let’s assume her husband isn’t interested. But then her book is winning awards! She’s been interviewed! Her book has been reviewed multiple times! And she has literally written a story where the protagonist has the same name as her, and she’s talking about how she met the great love of her life Aman and how she lost him, and her husband has nothing to say about all this? This is just verging on the absurd.

Even besides the plot holes and writing deficiencies, there are smaller, more irritating things that dot the book. Like the fact that there’s a quote from writers, philosophers, famous global figures at the beginning of each chapter. Not only is this a move I’ve only seen in very amateurish novels (every proper writer worth their salt will put a quote at best in the epigraph, and no more), it also makes the writer’s job harder, because quoting Lahiri or Gibran or Rumi will only serve to highlight the distance between your own writing and those of the experts.

I also take issue with the italicization of the desi word, a problem I’ve discussed in numerous other reviews. This book doesn’t seem to decide what it wants italicized. What is the style policy being followed by this publisher, I really want to know, because why is pakram pakrai italicized but gullak isn’t? Beta isn’t? Dhobi isn’t? I ask again, as I’ve already asked a million times before. Who is the author here?

And finally, a major problem in these poor-as- dirt protagonist stories is the depiction of poverty, and more specifically, poor people. There is a certain condescension authors exhibit in these situations  that grate the nerves. Our heroine, born a dhobi’s daughter, is the holier-than- thou personality who never thinks twice about her situation and her parents’ reality, being blindly grateful for the chance to study at an ‘elite school’. What I want to see are complex people who also happen to be poor. People who are grateful for the chance to study but also people who are selfish and who blame others for their problems and angry and hateful and more than a one dimensional representation of the cheerful poor who work hard and earnestly and eagerly grab every opportunity to become better. Authors of privilege tackling poverty was something I discussed in Bina Shah’s Slum Child as well, but in a post-review Twitter discussion, she pointed out that she had done her research beforehand. It seems more research is required for Ms. Zuberi, before we can finally progress to a point where those are who poor and those who are rich are more than the stereotypical sum of their economic backgrounds.

Recommendation:

With most authors whose books I review and don’t like, my general response is to urge them to bury
their pen under a rock in the deepest, darkest well. Lara Zuberi is the exception to this; I foresee good
things ahead, because she does have control over the language. It’s just that she is too aware of her
control, and tries too hard. My advice: relax a little. And for all the readers: keep an eye out for future
novels written by this name.