I should have guessed this one was going to be a bad read. I had so many clues. And yet, something made me pick Goa Traffic, quite unthinkingly. Perhaps it was the cover that got to me. It seemed interesting, pale yellow with what looked like the door to one of those familiar old Portuguese houses. As such, I am one of those suckers for anything local. I’m the idiot that buys expensive tickets to watch terrible movies shot in Goa, just so I can point at various scenes and go “Hey! Look! Its Panjim!” and such like, and feel chuffed at the sense of familiarity. Elated that my little town had yet another shot at three hours in fame.
But I digress. This is a post on how to tell a bad book from a good one. And lesson #1 is never to give in to such irrational thought. “The cover said Goa Traffic, and I thought it might be about life in Goa” is not good enough reason.
There is always the blurb one can refer to. And by refer, I mean one must read the entire blurb, not just the first two lines. And one must most definitely not convince oneself on the quality of said book based on those two lines. That’s lesson #2.
I probably sound like one of those snooty, over-aesthetic art-directors (and I have worked with quite a few to know what they’re like), when I say this, but font matters. Lesson #3: Never trust a book that is set in Times New Roman. For those in the know, double paragraph spacing is a big no-no. As is bad kerning and leaving one too many orphan words.
Eurgh. So many clues! What were they thinking when they typeset this book? Err, what was I thinking when I bought this book? Clearly, I wasn’t.
Assume for a moment that you are spectacularly stupid, like me, and in a moment of weakness you go ahead and ignore cardinal rules and purchase the book. But don’t be like me when it comes to opening the book and despite realising, within twenty pages, that it is a trite story, really badly written and full of inconsistencies, continue reading it till the end. Lesson #4: Conquer your completion OCD!
Lesson #5 is to look out for awkward Indianisms that creep in when writing out a white persons character. If a book feels like one of those Karan Johar movies where the Indian family is hanging out with a bunch of foreigners, who some how talk and behave like Indians — worrying about being unmarried, not having babies in time, and what-will-people-say-if-I-sleep-with-him — listen to those alarm bells of horror that are going off in your head. Shut the book.
I think a lot of Indian (okay this one is part-Indian, it seems) authors have a long way to go before they get comfortable writing about all things alike. In Goa Traffic, I could sense the authors keen familiarity with all things Goan — the bhaji-pao, the Mandovi river and lazy ferry, the Saturday Night market shrouded in a cloud of gaanja, the colourful streets of Baga and Calangute lined with stalls selling useless stuff — and yet when her central character (a British girl) goes back to UK, the story read like an awkward tot, learning to walk, fumbling her way around to find the ground beneath her feet. If you’re not comfortable writing like a single girl in UK, don’t bother taking your story there! It’s simple, no?
If the central crisis of the story hasn’t started even 9 chapters in, do not bother waiting for it to unfold. Lesson #6 is to know when to stop reading. Goa Traffic is written in that quintessentially flowerly, meandering style that writers sometimes mistake as excellent storytelling. Just because you can over-describe situations and scenarios, and you can tell long and winding back stories, flit from one scene to the next and waste about 10 chapters worth of everybody’s time before you get to the crux of the story, doesn’t mean you are a good storyteller. And if you’ve wasted 9 chapters drawing out elaborate plot lines, detailing intricate aspects of every characters life, and in the bargain left your reader wondering where this is all going, it does not mean your story has that air of mystery that will keep the reading reading on for more. Your reader, if he/she is still reading, is probably a twit like me. Obsessed with finishing the book, just because it has been started.
And that is pretty much all that got me through the book. The irrational need to finish the damned thing.
Okay, jokes apart, Goa Traffic was as forgettable as the cover was first impressive. It was a silly story, told with very little skill (in narrative style, storytelling and language), and it is a book I really should have stopped reading. But I had bought it, and I am always obsessed about finishing what I start, and so I did. It helped that once all the pointless back-stories and weird connections she was trying to make, all the terribly fake dramatic lives of her various character had unfolded, and the actual action began, the book was 3/4th done. Finishing it off then, was a half a days read.
When I finally decided I cannot prolong my misery any more and would just get down to it and finish off the book in one sitting, I began to realise that the problem was probably that this started off as a short story, and was somehow stretched to be a novel. Lesson #7: If a novel feels like a short story drawn out too long, its not worth your time. The tragedy is that, if it were written well, it would have made a good short story. Maybe.
And finally, lesson #8: If your head and your heart are repeatedly telling you to give it up, listen! Like MinCat said, life is too short to sit around reading shitty books. Pay heed, shut book and move on to the next thing.