Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

So this book won a shit-ton of prizes. Katherine Boo’s decision to depict strict nonfiction/reporting within a novelistic framework is ballsy as hell and hard to do, but she pulled it off perfectly. There are so many pitfalls in this approach and Boo managed to navigate around them all perfectly. Everyone in here comes off as both a real and living human being and a character, but never to the detriment or exclusion of either of those identities. Her authorial chops within the context of nonfiction were already very well established by the Pulitzer, but the knack she has for long-form narrative is even more impressive.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers deals with the daily realities of living in a Mumbai undercity. These slumdwellers are just as fully realized as the inhabitants of any other piece of Earth-based real estate, but the realities of their situation have forced the potential of their lives into the kind of narrow confines that mirror the actual living conditions. Everyone is on very shaky ground -tragedy abounds in a terrifyingly random way, and people respond to this reality in the best and worse ways that humans are capable of.

I really like the idea of an intersection between novel-form storytelling and investigative journalism. There’s certainly a diverse skill set required to do this sort of thing well -especially in the mode that Boo has presented here- but the payoff is great, and the audience is wide. This kind of book appeals to the kind of policy wonks that aren’t going to be picking up a Milan Kundera novel any time soon, and it appeals to the poets and other artistic types who aren’t really reading, say, The Atlantic. While other instances of creative nonfiction have been just as good -I’m thinking specifically about Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, here- few of them have the kind of mass appeal that Behind the Beautiful Forevers does, nor do they relate such important realities.


Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” and keeping/catching up


This novella got a lot of acclaim and critical attention when it came out, but I was just starting my undergrad work at that point and wasn’t really doing much to keep up with contemporary literature. Part of my motivation for reading 100 books this year is to get caught up on the heavy hitter of the last 10-20 years, and although I was already a familiar fan of Johnson’s work, I had been eagerly anticipating this particular reading. While it was sometimes unexpected, it met and exceeded my high expectations.

It’s a short read, but it’s the kind of engaging and quick-reading book that pins you to the couch for an afternoon (although I had the pleasure of reading it in its entirety in the beautiful Oregon forest of Silver Falls State Park, which, by the way, I would heartily recommend if it is even remotely convenient). The prose is everything I’ve come to expect from Denis Johnson,  and the plot drives the reader forward with relentless intent. I do believe that a different set of skills are called on to write a powerful novella.

It’s also the kind of book that will require a second read to fully appreciate. While I can offer my unreserved recommendation of the thing, I feel like I would be doing it a disservice by offering any more specific analysis until I have availed myself of a quality and much more deliberately paced re-read.

Recommendation: Read it. I give it all the stars available to me.

Train Dreams: A Novella
by Denis Johnson