Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book Review: God is a Gamer by Ravi Subramanian

Why don't we get decent entertaining Indian genre fiction? I am not here kvetching about getting some good writing, but something that at the very least honors the long-established traditions of a genre. Possibly the issue is with us, readers and reviewers – an average "reader" is perhaps so thrilled to be seen toting a book around that any thought about the standard of the writing would be met with a shrug. Supposedly, discerning readers and reviewers are happy that mass-market publishing is selling – "at least people are reading." It hardly seems to matter that the plot is clumsy and the storytelling (conceivably in a bid to complement the plot) is klutzy. Doesn't it matter to anyone one of us that a book sells even when it is unable to tackle a genre's clichés with any degree of competence?

Ravi Subramanian's God is a Gamer advertises himself as "India's No. 1 Thriller Writer." I would be very interested in knowing the basis of this claim for the book does all it can and more to belie it. What makes a thriller? It has excitement, suspense, a plot that proceeds at a breakneck pace as it builds towards a climax. A crime thriller (or any other thriller, for that matter) also uses literary devices such as red herrings, twists, unexpected and explosive events, and cliffhangers. Above all, it has a memorable villain, unforgettable heroes who fight against unachievable odds. A book that has all or most of what constitutes a typical story in the genre however doesn't automatically become a good book. Otherwise, why would you need a human author to put the story together? Somebody has to add that little bit of secret sauce to the plot to make it work. It matters how the author uses the ingredients of the genre, how he mixes them together, when he introduces which ingredient and why, in what proportion. Somebody who throws in fistfuls of "all of the above" without a thought about a coherent plot or a good tale is taking the readers on a very different kind of a ride altogether. And if this is the kind of stuff from "India's No. 1 Thriller Writer" one shudders to imagine what other writers are writing.

Ravi Subramanian's God is a Gamer supposedly has all the staples of the thriller genre - for the first 100 pages or so something or the other keeps happening. So many characters and plot points are introduced that I started wondering if all of these disjointed incidents and people will ever come together to amount to something. They don't. The author, after his first headlong rush all over the world and the plot, suddenly realizes that he also has to complete the story in a few pages more. Thus begins another headlong rush into trying to tie everything together. It is all a bit exhausting.

"The first ever bitcoin thriller" moves from Brazil to the US to India, to Ukraine (or was it Russia? Don't remember.) There are some vague bits of information thrown around about bitcoins and their trading, about banking systems, BPOs providing backend operations to banks, the world of online games, social media, TOR encryption, and what not. There are characters — a powerful US senator who is assassinated, head honchos of various financial institutions, young upstarts. There are murders, assassinations, and some agents who are trying to piece together something coherent out of all these disparate things. You would think Subramanian's background as a banker will add some heft to thriller based in the financial world. The best thrillers or genre books that I read as a kid at least gave an impression that they were based on solid research. If nothing else those books provided good information about their subject matter. God is a Gamer never seems to have gone beyond the minimal Internet search. It is all so surface and vague that it is baffling to know that the author is a "banker by day."

If the author's background as a banker is not a financial thriller's strength, one really can't expect much from the author's craft. You can see the twists coming from afar and there are giant plot holes in the book. How does one excuse the sheer ineptitude of the writing when even with all the obviousness of the plot and the stock characters, the author feels the need of a lengthy epilogue to explain and bring everything together?

In many ways God is a Gamer is emblematic of all that plagues the mass market publishing industry and genre fiction in India today. The plot and the characters are weak. The research is minimal. The writing is bad, not even competent. The storytelling is awkward and uneasy. The lack of good editing is evident and I can't help wonder if the publishers are so obsessed with meeting deadlines and publishing targets that they don’t have the time to work with the author to lick the book into some shape. Surely, it should not be difficult for a decent editor and a writer to produce competent genre fiction. All one needs to do is follow a checklist. And add just a wee bit of effort and talent.
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