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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "We Didn't Like Him" by Akhil Sharma

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. There. I said it. I'm free...

Issue: June 3, 2013

Story: "We Didn't Like Him"

Author: Akhil Sharma

Plot: A young man in a small Indian city tells the story of his distant cousin, Manshu, with whom he grew up. A few years Manshu's junior, the narrator expresses a simmering contempt for Manshu from the time they are children together, through the time Manshu becomes a local temple-keeper thanks to the narrator's father's largess. Though a member of the brahmin (or upper) social, Manshu exhibits lower-class ways; he marries a woman beneath his caste, he uses his position as temple-keeper to scam people, he commits social faux pas in gaudy and embarrassing ways. However, he is tolerated by his family, and the narrator, because he is just that: family. The narrator does not like him, but nevertheless, he is always there to pick up Manshu's slack. Proving that he is, in fact, of better quality than Manshu.

Review: I'll just say it and get it out of the way so you can go back to living your life: I wasn't crazy about this story. There's hardly a plot at all (which is not a problem in and of itself, by any means, but plotless stories have to be done very carefully). Both Manshu and the narrator are unlikable; Manshu is painted as a low-grade loafer with few redeeming qualities, and the narrator has no distinguishing characteristics other than his lifelong disdain for his older cousin. His disdain for Manshu turns out to be well-deserved, but that doesn't make me like the narrator any more for that.

It seems that we are supposed to like the narrator just because he suffers Manshu's eccentric behavior with the stiff-upper-lip and eternally noble spirit of a brahmin. That's cute and all, but I don't like narrators who toot their own horns and present themselves as martyrs and without flaw. Martyrs make uninteresting fictional characters. In fact, martyrs are pretty uninteresting unless they die for their cause; otherwise they stay alive and they want to remind you about self-less and humble they are for sublimating themselves to their cause. And, with that, I think I've just summed-up this entire story. Even the title of this story is uninteresting and petty. "We Didn't Like Him"??? Maybe they didn't like you either. Did you ever think of that?

I'm not willing to judge Akhil Sharma, fine writer that he must be in order to get into the NYer, based on this one story alone. But I'm not impressed.


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