Sarah Glazer, a fan of Katherine Boo, wonders if her technique is for everyone
“But does it work as a novel?” That question from a member of my London book club startled me as we discussed Katherine Boo’s compelling reporting on slum-dwellers of Mumbai, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.
I had assumed we’d be discussing whether the book worked as a book of journalism, especially since Boo breaks all the conventional rules of reporting. There’s very little “he said” or “she said” and none of the common journalistic crutches like “according to” or “allegedly.”
There isn’t even the increasingly popular trope “he told me,” which places the journalist inside the story and lets us know she was there.
Instead, Boo’s book opens like a novel, describing the thoughts of a young boy, Abdul, as he is hiding from police, who are hunting him down as a suspected accomplice to the burning death of his one-legged lady neighbor. We follow Abdul’s thoughts as he thinks back on the day’s events and on his valiant efforts to support his family as a trash-picker—that favorite flashback device of novelists.
The rats scurrying amid the garbage in the shed where Abdul is hiding alone provide a graphic background to the account of his growing fear about what will happen to him. But it all seems to happen so smoothly that there is never a stark, awkward moment when we as readers become aware that we are leaving the realm of the spoken interview and entering a character’s internal world.
Much like a novelist, Boo becomes an omniscient narrator, and her story-telling skill is such that I dropped my usual skepticism about this kind of journalism and found myself turning each page eagerly to find out what happens next.
Several of my British friends actually thought the book was a novel until they got to the Author’s Note at the back, where Boo describes some of her techniques, including the 168 interviews she conducted just for the incident involving the neighbor's immolation. I could have put their misunderstanding down to cultural ignorance about Boo’s distinguished career as a journalist reporting on poverty in the U.S. for the Washington Post and the New Yorker.
But an American friend in Los Angeles, who was also assigned the book by her book club without knowing anything about it, told me that she, too, assumed the book was a novel until she was at least halfway through.
There are probably only a few journalists who have the writing chops to pull this off. And, while I don’t think Katherine Boo meant to deceive anyone, she certainly looks to novelists for inspiration about how to render years of interviews into an economical, easily digested writing style, as she explained in a recent interview with the New York Times: “Where novels come in, for me," she said, "is when the reporting stops and the writing begins, because fiction writers seem to know more than nonfiction writers about distillation — conveying their analytical or psychological insights with economy.”
As one such influence, she cited The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany, a novel where points of view shift frequently—a technique she employs masterfully in her own book.
But what makes many people uneasy is the unanswered question of how it was possible for a blond American to remain a fly on the wall through intense domestic arguments, clandestine romantic meetings and thefts. As she describes in her afterword, she was not the only interloper: Boo required a translator to accompany her everywhere for interviews--and presumably for understanding conversations between family members and friends-- in order to become so familiar with individuals’ private ambitions for escaping the slum.
Is it possible that she could have followed these families for four years without affecting the way they behaved? There are of course precedents in anthropology: Oscar Lewis’ Children of Sanchez, an intimate portrait of a family in the slums of Mexico City, and his La Vida, about a Puerto Rican family, do something similar.
Is there an ethical problem with removing the transparency that is a keystone of journalism? As readers, we expect to be told how the journalist got her information. But the constant “according to” can also slow down the narrative and make it clunky-- as I well know, having sighed often when editors insist on inserting those endless phrases into my deathless prose.
Jonah Lehrer, the former New Yorker writer and confessed plagiarist who has admitted to inventing quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his best-selling book Imagine, recently reminded me-- in his recent mea culpa speech to the Knight foundation-- why we normally require this kind of documentation from reporters.
“What I clearly need is a new list of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures," Lehrer said. "If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted. … Every conversation with a subject will be tape recorded and transcribed. If the subject would like a copy of their transcript, I will provide it. There is, of course, nothing innovative about these procedures. The vast majority of journalists don’t need to be shamed into following them. But I did, which is why I also need to say them out loud.”
If these are the fundamental attribution rules for journalism, should Boo be held up as a model to budding journalists just learning the trade? As a reader who has long admired Boo's work, I was willing to suspend my disbelief while reading the book, especially because she provides the best description I’ve read of how (and why) corruption becomes inescapable for Indian slum-dwellers. To me, that kind of deep knowledge of a political and social system of behavior could only have been obtained by in-depth reporting over the course of her four years of observation.
Her afterword reassured me that she had done her homework. But would we be willing to accept this kind of novelistic writing from an ingénue?
And then there’s my friend’s question about how good a novel it is. In her view, Boo's book lacked the pathos of a Rohinton Mistry novel like A Fine Balance, in which two of the main characters end up, tragically, living on the streets. Boo's book didn’t make her cry. The characters weren’t as fully drawn. But maybe that’s just the nature of real-life reporting. The ending occurs abruptly in the middle of people’s lives, not as some neat, redemptive finish created by a novelist. We’re not sure whether to laugh or cry because we don’t know what will happen next. And neither does the writer.