Should Your Book Club Read Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga?

You may know Aravind Adiga from his Booker-winning The White Tiger.  I enjoyed that book quite a bit, which propelled me to pick up Last Man in Tower.  I’m glad I did.  It was the March selection for many of my Literary Masters book groups, and it was a great choice.

Warp-speed plot summary:

The setting is Bombay, or Mumbai, depending on your politics, I suppose, and there is a developer who wants to knock down an old, dilapidated apartment building and replace it with something fantastically new, shiny, and ever so 21st century.  He’s willing to pay the residents more than market value for their homes so they can become rich off the deal.

Sounds simple, right?  Well, there is one man who refuses to sell, and who therefore threatens to ruin the deal for everyone.  I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that this is a very readable, very literary, very subtle gem of a novel.

So, what can your book club talk about while discussing Last Man in Tower?

You’ll want to discuss Masterji and his motivation.  Why does he resist the developer?  What does he want?  Is he heroic?  Is he narcissistic?  Is he to blame?  What would you do in his place?

Is there a hero in this story?  Adiga has stated that the real hero of the novel is Mumbai.  What do you make of this?  Of all the characters, does anyone act in a heroic manner?

Is there a villain in this story?

What do you think of the Shah?  What do you think of his methods of doing business?

You’ll really want to discuss all the characters in depth.  Each one has a point at which he or she “turns” –a masterly feat of writing on Adiga’s part.  What happens to each one and why?  How do they justify/ rationalize their behavior?  How is the realtor different from all the others?  This novel is in many ways a true study in psychology.

This novel raises many “big questions,” and you’ll want to discuss some of those.  For instance, can a person even be an individual when living within a society?  How much responsibility does one have towards others when living within a society?  Do individual rights trump those of the collective?  Should they?

Does everyone have a price?  Is it possible for a man to want nothing?

You’ll want to discuss the saying “Man is like a goat tied to a pole,” and the concept of free will in the novel.

You can delve into what the novel seems to be saying about the “old India” versus the “new India.”  Do you think the novel favors one side over the other?  Is there a value system that is privileged in the story?  Is there a message we are meant to take away?

Ask yourselves:  could anyone who isn’t Indian have written this novel?  What is the novel saying about corruption?

Make sure to save lots of time to discuss the beautiful imagery and symbolism in the story.  Talk about the birds, the stray dog, the black cross, and the caged animals, just for a start!

This ought to get you started.  Enjoy the book.  If you’re anything like me, it will stay with you a long time after you finish it.

Should Your Book Club Read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?

Should your book club read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?  The answer to this question: yes, resoundingly so.  In fact, I think this book should only be read with others because I guarantee you will have more questions than answers when you finish it.

You probably know by now that Julian Barnes, nominated multiple times in the past for the Man Booker prize, finally clinched the award this year with his The Sense of an Ending.  I say “his” because there is another book by the same title, a collection of lectures by the literary critic Frank Kermode, published in 1967, and if you really want some light shed onto Julian Barnes’ novel, I advise you to pick up Kermode’s book.  Warning, though–it’s not light reading.

So, what can your book club discuss after reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an EndingThe following contains many spoilers, so don’t read anymore if you haven’t finished the book!

Julian Barnes has described his book as being about how time affects memory and how memory affects time, and undoubtedly, you will want to explore this.

Coupled with the above, you will want to delve into the character of the narrator, Tony.  Just how reliable, or unreliable, is Tony?  You should consider his relationships–how he describes them versus how they really are.  So, think about his relationship with his daughter, with his ex-wife, with Adrian, and with Veronica, for example.  Importantly, think about his relationship with you, the reader.  Is he telling you the truth?  Is he telling himself the truth?  Remember at all times–Tony is narrating this story.  And he tells (warns?) us at the very start of the book, “…what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

Along with time and memory, you’ll want to explore what the book is saying about history.  There are different definitions of it–what is the significance of history and how it is defined?  Pay attention to documentation and corroboration.

While considering time, memory, and history, pay attention to the Severn Bore scene.  Also, note how watches are worn…and what is said about subjective vs. objective time…

You’ll want to talk about the theme of sex and death (Eros and Thanatos) in the book.  What is the book saying about suicide?  Why does Adrian commit suicide?

Now, I warned you above that this blog post contains spoilers galore, so stop reading now if you haven’t read the book!

If you do take a look at Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, you’ll want to think about peripeteia.  And then you’ll want to talk about how this concept relates to Julian Barnes’ novel.  And then you’ll want to consider how it relates to your experience reading this book.

And then…I predict you will have a rousing discussion, with more questions than answers.  For instance…

What do we really know at the end of this story?  Did Adrian father a child with Veronica’s mother?  Does the child really look like Adrian, or is that what Tony would like to believe, or is that what he would like us to believe? 

Is Tony the father?  When a very astute Literary Masters member first proposed this, I thought, “no way…” but then we talked about it…and it started to seem like he could be…

What did happen that weekend at Veronica’s house?  Why did Veronica’s mother tell Tony not to let Veronica get away with too much?  What was she doing with the eggs?  And what did her hand gesture mean?  Did Tony and Sarah get together that weekend?

What did Veronica mean when she said “he’ll do” and why did she leave Tony with her mother while she went off with her father and brother?

What did Tony mean when he told Adrian that Veronica was “damaged a long way back”?

Why did Sarah bequeath 500 pounds to Tony?  Could Tony have given Sarah the money to terminate the pregnancy, and because she didn’t, she returned the money, albeit years later?  Is that why Veronica suggested that it could be “blood money“?

Veronica repeatedly tells Tony that he just doesn’t get it.  What does she mean, exactly?

Why did Sarah have Adrian’s diary?  Why did Sarah bequeath the diary to Tony?  Why do we, the readers, not get to see it?

What is the meaning of the mathematical equation in the diary fragment?

No doubt you will want to discuss whether the point of this book is that we can’t know all the answers.  You’ll want to talk about how the way we “know” reality at all is through our (by definition, unreliable) memory, and time (along with a host of other factors) distorts memory.   But still, don’t you want to know the answers to some of the above questions?

The New York Times ran an obituary for Frank Kermode, which you can read here.  In it, the English literary critic Lawrence S. Rainey is referred to because he had described a central theme of Frank Kermode’s writing as being  “the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story.”  The obituary goes on to say that “Mr. Kermode analyzed the fictions we invent to bring meaning and order to a world that often seems chaotic and hurtling toward catastrophe,” and that Kermode also pointed out “narratives, just like life, can include details that defy interpretation.”

So, is that what I’ve been doing with regard to Julian Barnes’ novel?  Have I been focusing on the details of the story, trying to extract meaning from (or is it impose meaning upon?) them, when they actually defy interpretation?  If so, isn’t this book exactly like life in that regard?

Yet, on the other hand, if we persist in our search for answers, there’s always the chance that we’ll find them, right?

Well, I came away from this book (and I read it twice) with many more questions than answers.  And the answers I did have never seemed to be definitive.  There always seemed to be an alternative answer for each question.  If your book club reads this novel, and if your book club thinks it knows the answers, please share!