The Kite Runner does everything according to convention and so deserves, then, to be as popular as it is; yet I find myself resisting, find myself reluctant to recommend it, refusing to call it an unquestionably ‘good book.’ I hope this isn’t a case of elitism, a belief that my tastes might be too refined for populism, but I leave that open as a possibility.
Instead I’ll suggest that the book lacks imagination. Sure it’s plot has “twists,” but they are twists this reader could see coming, or when they were “surprising” felt (obnoxiously) like the only possibility in a book that must follow the particular arc of redemption. Plot events come burdened with symbolism – everything that happens reads as though accompanied by swelling music – and character decisions are fraught with the burden of Here Our Character Meets a Crossroads and Will He Be Redeemed? This is a complaint then that the book lacks nuance, it lacks subtly, it lacks – and this is a hard thing to articulate with example – it lacks confidence. It reads as a perfectly workshopped novel that refuses to take risks. It picks a plot arc, picks a character flaw, picks a conflict and adheres – with an admirable tenacity, I suppose – to these devices. But it does leave the reader with a frustrating case of predictability.
Amir, our protagonist, the admitted coward and first person narrator, also lacks sympathy. We’re meant (I think) to dislike him a little for his childhood weakness, but I suspect we’re also meant to root for his redemption. Except at no point in the novel am I convinced that his redemption is worthwhile, or that he wants to be redeemed, or that if redeemed, he’ll do anything differently. And these options are perhaps a little too laden with interest, too laden because I really didn’t care much what happened to Amir one way or the other. That I read the scene of his near death with an abstracted indifference is not my failing, but rather the failing of a novel that has a (remarkably) detached first person narrator who fails – at every opportunity – to deepen or complicate his character. Much of this falls out because he describes his responses “I felt sad,” rather than showing them in actions, and so he can only ever be a surface character; but it may also be that we’re never given the chance to see his vulnerability – the effect of a dual chronology – as we already know the outcome of his actions.
So sure, The Kite Runner has enough action to read quickly, it has enough symbolism to read as Important, and a setting that makes it relevant to readers in the West trying to understand the “barbarism” of the Taliban (as if it is only these murderous monsters who sexually abuse boys, or these beastly Muslims who oppress women). But it does it all too neatly and too nervously. It is a beautiful narrative body without a narrative soul.