One way to read White Tiger
is as a fierce rebuttal to Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat.
The protagonist, Balram Halwai, sells himself as a social entrepreneur, but he hasn’t started an outsourcing company in Bangalore. Instead, he’s an ex-chauffer from the slums who, having crushed the skull of his cruel master and stolen his money, is now determined to expose all the ways in which the world isn’t flat at all. The book unfolds as a series of letters from Balram to the premier of China, and while this narrative gimmick yields plenty of hilarious lines and pungent observationsrural villagers talk about elections like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutrait also grows a little tiresome and predictable.
had me at the first line: Harry Rent used to fiddle with his wedding ring, now he fiddles with the space it has left behind. I enjoyed that sentence not just because I’m also an inveterate fiddler, twisting my wedding ring until my skin turns red, but because it immediately launches us into the endearingly digressive mind of Mr. Rent. He’s a ne’er-do-well who always means well, a bumbling nebbish with a heart of gold (and a weakness for prostitutes). As the title promises, the plot hinges on Harry’s attempts to revise himself, and to amend for the flaws that led, however indirectly, to the death of his wife. Despite a few too many allusions to DumasHarry models himself on the Count of Monte CristoSarvas does an admirable job of fleshing out a 19th-century narrative skeleton with some pitch-perfect descriptions of 21st-century Los Angeles and its denizens, from the Brentwood podiatrist to the diner waitress.
Both of these novels are pleasurable reads, but I found myself (much to my surprise) more interested in Harry Rent’s sandwich habitshe doesn’t like the Monte Cristo, even though he orders it every timethan in the perpetual Darkness of the Indian street described by Balram. The reason is that Harry’s inner monologue feels sincere, the endearingly authentic output of a confused mind, whereas Balram’s letters are so (over)loaded with cutting social observations that he eventually turns himself into a symbol. To be sure, he’s an evocative symbol, a potent stand-in for the hypocrisy of the Indian middle class and their shiny new shopping malls, but still a symbol. In contrast, the incoherencies and imperfections of Harry feel all too human.
Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas
About the Judge
Jonah Lehrer is an editor-at-large for Seed magazine and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He’s written for the New Yorker, Nature, Wired, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe, and regularly contributes to NPR’s Radio Lab. Known connections to this year’s contenders: I’ve got no known connections to any of the others, although I certainly wish I did.