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A book and its cover

The work of fiction in the age of blockbuster publishing

BY NATURE OR by nurture, the book reviewer is a caged animal, an idealist turned brute, a cynic. Dealing day in and day out with the products of mind and spirit, we see what happens to these glories, how they are packaged and pitched, under- and over-valued, and how our finest words on their behalf get cut and botched and then generally ignored by the world at large. The reviewing life itself is sustained mainly by homebound excitements -- e-mails and attachments, phone calls and FedEx deliveries -- words taken in and sent out again, thoughts and reactions in agitated motion, the fantasy endlessly renewed against all better judgment that the phrases will home to some mark.

A case in point: The recent thump at the front door followed by the receding grind and rattle of the morning UPS truck. When I saw the thickness of the padded packet I knew it had to be a biography of a Civil War general or a new volume from the Library of America. But no, from the mailer I extracted an "advance reader's edition," weighing in at 900-plus pages, of "Sacred Games," by Indian novelist Vikram Chandra, a name only vaguely familiar to me, which is due out from HarperCollins in January.

My first thought, I'm ashamed to say, was, no way! Not that it might not be a wonderful novel, but that, in our culture, our climate, something so massive by a relative unknown could have any chance in the marketplace

Cynical, yes, but I go to bookstores, I keep tabs; I've seen what happens to megaliths like National Book Award-winner Norman Rush's "Mortals" (712 pages), or Chandra's countryman Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy" (1,488 pages!). They loom in forbidding ziggurats for a month or so, then they are returned, to be bought up by remainder houses, whereupon they loom again . . .

Still sorrowing over the fates of books sub specie aeternitatis, I opened to the inside cover, where I saw printed in giant caps "AN EPIC NOVEL OF CRIME, FAITH, FAMILY, AND DESTINY," a tag so basic as to be invisible. But then, just below, in slightly smaller caps: "$300,000 MARKETING CAMPAIGN."

I stopped. $300,000. Here I felt my easy assumption come apart. I mean, I know dozens of novelists, some of them quite successful -- marketing campaigns like this are not the norm. This was clearly a major orchestrated bid for the ring. Then I came on the news half-buried in the press materials: Chandra had been given a $1 million advance for the book.

We live in the era of blockbuster publishing and advances like this for novels are not unknown. But usually they go with multibook contracts to proven sellers -- Roth, Mailer -- or else they are wild-card gambles on exceptionally promising newcomers. But Chandra has been around long enough to lose his "hot young author" cachet.

My conspiracy-minded alter-ego reared up: Suddenly everything started to look like a package, an "initiative." Writing might be the most solitary and soul-concentrated of vocations, but once a book enters the publishing sluice, it is a collectively-finessed object -- and the greater the investment, the more finessing.

I pictured the whole cabal in the conference room -- the editorial people, the publicists, the marketing department, maybe even the sales reps, all thinking how to overpower the obvious curse: the book's utterly forbidding length on the one hand, and the fact of it being literary, which is to say "difficult," on the other. Not that they would downplay the literary aspect completely. Literary can also translate into status, into prizes and honors. Readers like to see themselves reading works of recognized merit, they just don't want to feel inadequate in the attempt. No, the literary can be there, it just has to be pumped up. Think of Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex," Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections."

"Sacred Games" surely gave the talent in the room something to work with. For starters, there's the India factor. If Chandra's name, his obvious foreignness, might on the face of it be a liability -- "world literature" is a notorious kiss-of-death category -- that can turn around smartly if there is a larger trend or momentum. India is such a trend, no question. It all began with l'affaire and le succès Rushdie, the buzz around "The Satanic Verses" and the fatwa. Jhumpa Lahiri's 2000 Pulitzer Prize for "Interpreter of Maladies" helped, as have conspicuous literary and crossover successes by writers like Rohinton Mistry (his "A Fine Balance," itself substantial, was an Oprah pick), Amit Chaudhuri, Akhil Sharma, Pankaj Mishra, Arundhati Roy, and the aforementioned Vikram Seth, to name just a few. What savvy editor doesn't recall the Latin American boom in the 1970s, when talents like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, and Isabel Allende captured the public imagination?

Then there's the genre factor. "Sacred Games" may be a work of high literary ambition, but it also offers a lovely hook. Bombay (Mumbai) noir. The novel tracks the progress of a world-weary cop through the labyrinths of the city's gangland underworld. The descriptions have it thick with seamy texture, with criminals and harlots high and low. An editor friend I called told me how publishers pull to the exotic, the multicultural, and -- her words -- "they really love it when a writer takes a familiar genre and fills it with new characters and sensations."

Finally, it can't be helped, there's the matter of an author's looks, the literary version of "curb appeal." We've seen it at work with Paul Auster, Sebastian Junger, and quite recently with Marisha Pessl and the extraordinary media coverage of her debut novel "Special Topics in Calamity Physics." Not to suggest that her looks and the coverage were linked, but the possibility that they could be carries weight in the strategy room. Chandra, at least in his publicity photo, is every bit the tousled, five o'clock-shadowed, moody-eyed looker, "brooding" and "intense."

But at this point I became aware of a growing unease, a purloined letter feeling -- as if I'd all along been looking past the most obvious thing. I mean, what if Chandra has in fact written an irresistibly great book or even just a respectably good one? Why was I so keen on thinking angles? So that I could stay safe in my cynical marketplace analysis, my reflex assumption that people don't read much or ambitiously -- or that anything packaged this way could be taken seriously?

It was time. I had weighed Western civilization in the balance and found it wanting. Now I lay down on the couch, set a pillow on my stomach -- the novel really is that big -- and actually opened the cover. I read the first sentence: "A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a brand-new building with the painter's scaffolding still around it." And I thought, "This is not 'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan,' nor is it 'Many years later, as he faced the firing squad.'" But I also thought "This has a certain appeal," so I read on. This is what we do.

I've been reading every day, not quite finished, so the one-man jury on ultimate greatness is still out, but I can say that "Sacred Games" is moving right along. It's working. Page after page it plucks me from the here and now, from the world governed by marketing mentalities, ruled by tasks and anxieties. I really am for long stretches in some phantasmagoric, confusing, reeking, corrupt, overheated, overpopulated elsewhere, a Mumbai of the mind, with characters who surprise me with their look and sound, their twists of behavior. How strange. It's as if I've needed to go through this peculiar re-immersion to get to my turnaround, to remember -- again -- why I got into this game in the first place. It was out of love.

After all these years I see that love is still the motive force. The honest work of art trumps the cynic, and elevates the critic, every time. When I close the covers, as I do from time to time, to heft the thing, I consider the weight of pages -- not just these, but all the hard-won worthy novels, their millions of words coming toward the reader like armies over the hill.

Imagination, discipline, faith -- how do we compute that karma? I suddenly think of the closing scene of that old noir classic "The Maltese Falcon," the part where a detective lifts the statuette, the long-sought treasure. "Heavy," he says. "What is it?" There is a pause, then Sam Spade's glib, profound crack: "The...stuff that dreams are made of."

The whole business in a nutshell, I'd say.

Sven Birkerts will publish "Reading Life: Books for the Ages" early next year. He edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and is lecturer in creative writing at Harvard.

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