When I wrote about The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee a while back, I had mentioned how I have always had a bias against works of fiction that have additional information at the start. I have noticed that these range from a simple list of characters to maps and schematics. My main problem with these is that they interrupt my reading considerably. I have to keep going back and forth between the information and the actual story. Also, in such books, you are required to finish them at one sitting. Pick it up after a while and you will most likely be lost.
Before I come to the specific instance of The Lives Of Others, let me give two other examples of books I have encountered with a heavy dose of information. Coincidentally, both are by Alistair MacLean.
1. Breakheart Pass – the entire story takes place on a train and hence the order of the carriages is a crucial part of the story. In addition to that, there is a very detailed list of characters too. Although at first glance I was very apprehensive about this, I managed to finish it thanks to the fast paced narration.
2. HMS Ulysses – this is a completely different case though. I couldn’t finish the book at all ! Just look at the map below. Bad enough by itself but it is also accompanied by a timeline ! There is a personal angle here to add to the agony – I am terrible at geography 😦
Now, coming to The Lives Of Others. It starts off with the family tree, a map of Bengal and ends with a glossary of Indian words and a note on Bengali family terms. Personally, I didn’t find this all that troublesome and here is why
1. The family tree – I found myself familiar with all the characters by the end of the first few chapters so I didn’t refer to it later on.
2. The Map – I found it quite inconsequential to the story. Even without the map, it would have been worked.
3. The Bengali terms – Had to refer to it a few times to get the relationship terms right.
4. The list of Indian words – I am not Bengali but I didn’t find the need to refer to these words. They were pretty common Hindi words like Adda , etc.
But what about those unfamiliar with the language ? FictionFan has reviewed the book and I quote,
Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).
I can quite understand this point of view too. If I hadn’t understood the words and some of the stray cultural references, I don’t think I would have been able to finish the book at all.
So after having completed a few reads with such information, have I got over my bias ? Actually, no.
Which brings me to another recent example – In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman. When the book first released, there was a craze surrounding it and I almost bought it too. But then slowly the negative reviews started coming in and all of them said the exact same thing – too much additional information in the form of footnotes,etc. You can check out Katharine Lunn’s review here. After reading these reviews, my interest has waned considerably.
Why do you think authors opt for this type of writing ? Do you also share the same opinions about this or are you ok with the information overload ?