In the forty-odd years since New Journalism broke down the walls between reporter and subject, the first-person voice has become a plague in the world of nonfiction.
In certain situations, stories can benefits from reporters’ active involvement—like, say, if the reporter is Hunter S. Thompson and whatever he’s doing is more interesting than whatever he’s supposed to be covering.
But usually, these days, the word “I” points to some weakness or flaw in the writing: a lack of solid material, or a lack of effort on the part of the writer. By explaining how he came to find certain subjects, he can gloss over whether or not those subjects are crucial—or even important—to the story at hand.
For example, in a recent issue of the New Yorker, a piece about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker included mini-profiles of two signature-gatherers for the petition to recall Walker. The writer, William Finnegan, finds his first signature-gatherer, Joanne Staudacher, seemingly at random, and then latches onto another one through her. Finnegan writes:
Staudacher said that her hero was another Oshkosh circulator, known as Fighting Bob. I asked to meet him. Staudacher contacted him, and Bob—Bob Bergman—and I rendezvoused in downtown Oshkosh. Indoors.
This paragraph is mostly fluff, but it uses the writer’s personal experience as connective tissue between the two circulators. Why did Staudacher call Bob hero? How had they met? Are either of these people central in any way to the signature-gathering? Are they average gatherers or did everyone else have a different experience?
The sentences describing how Finnegan moved from Staudacher to Bob obscure a lot of those points, and they make it feel like Finnegan talked to precisely two gatherers. But there are worse ways this technique, in the wrong hands, impacts journalism. From the next paragraph in the same article:
[Bob] had collected, he told me, eight hundred and thirteen signatures to recall Walker …
By sliding in that “he told me” Finnegan distances himself from the facts of the situation and from having to, like, count signatures. He also makes that statistic entirely worthless as a piece of reportage. That “he told me” translates to “I didn’t confirm.” It’s accepted laziness, and it’s become pervasive in today’s journalistic landscape.
So it’s refreshing and engaging to read a nonfiction book from which the author has absented herself entirely, leaving only hard-won facts to take her place.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers takes place in a Mumbai slum called Annawadi, a precarious patch of swampland wedged between the Mumbai International Airport and the fancy airport hotels (and tucked behind a wall covered in ads for an Italian floor company that proclaim, “Beautiful Forever” over and over).
In Annawadi, more than 3000 squatters stuff themselves into barely 300 hand-built huts, next to a lake of sewage (take another look at that idyllic-looking cover—it pictures literally an enormous puddle of shit). The most lucrative line of work here—other than organizing government corruption—is sorting and selling the garbage that scores of pickers scavenge or steal, mostly from the airport.
The central figure of the book, 17-year-old Abdul Husain, runs his family’s garbage business, sorting trash for hours on end, every day, and then packing it up and hauling it across town to the recycling facility.
Throughout the telling of Abdul’s story, Boo’s most remarkable talent is her intimate knowledge of her subjects, such that her narrative reads like a novel with an omniscient narrator. For example:
[Abdul's mother Zehrunisa] stepped carefully over one of his younger brothers, and then another, bending low to Abdul’s ear. “Wake up, fool!” she said exuberantly. “You think your work is dreaming?”
Superstitious, Zehrunisa had noticed that some of the family’s most profitable days occurred after she had showered abuses on her eldest son. January’s income being pivotal the Husains’ latest plan of escape from Annawady, she had decided to make the curses routine.
It’s a stunning style, and it makes the narrative immersive in a way first-person journalism can’t touch.
Here’s another passage, about the corrupt problem-fixer Asha and her beautiful daughter, Manju:
Asha grasped many of her own contradictions, among them that you could be proud of having spared your offspring hardship while also resenting them for having been spared. When food was short in Asha’s childhood, the girls of the family went without. Although most people talked of hunger as a matter of the stomach, what Asha recalled was the taste—a foul thing that burrowed into your tongue and was sometimes still there when you swallowed, decades later. Manju looked at her mother with compassion, not comprehension, when Asha tried to describe it.
Asha resents her daughter for other reasons, like the fact that Manju attempts to actually run the small school that Asha receives a government subsidy for—most schools convene only to take pictures or for the visits of government regulators.
Behind is full of moments like this: the problems of India, in microcosm, woven deftly into elegant, complex characterizations. Still, these characters and details aren’t Behind’s only strong suits. There’s also an engrossing, heartbreaking plot.
When a neighbor, jealous of the Husains’ success, finally loses it, she sets herself on fire and tells the police that Abdul tried to murder her. Abdul runs, and his father—a semi-disabled man whose absence won’t reflect in the family’s bottom line—tries to take the blame.
The Husains have to decide who to bribe and who to snub (they can’t afford to bribe everyone), and Abdul, in jail, becomes contemplative and compassionate in a way the slum never inspired.
Meanwhile, the Husains learn that their real enemies are not the airport officials threatening to pave over the slum and kick out all the squatters, and they are not the rich people trying to ignore their existence—Annawadians’ real enemies are each other. They fight amongst each other for every scrap of trash, and they let crippling jealousy turn them against each other.
It’s such a powerful narrative, with such well-defined characters, that I often forgot that it was all true. Until, that is, I hit the first video.
A still from the book's first embedded video, "Annawadi"
That’s right—videos. The “enhanced” ebook version of Behind comes with 4 videos, shot by both Boo and the denizens of Annawadi, at a total cost of $1 more than the unenhanced ebook. It’s an elegant use of ereading’s capabilities, and it serves an important function: reminding you that Abdul and Manju (and everyone else) are real people.
I’m no expert on Indian politics or society—for that kind of stuff look to a review like this one. But I can tell you that Behind is a remarkable experience. Anyone remotely interested in its subject matter should pick it up.