Red in Tooth and Claw

Is it possible that near-universal affluence and the social safety net inevitably make for less moving fiction? This thought is suggested by  A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s heart-wrenching novel of India that invites comparison to the English novels of the 19th century–complete with a kind of workhouse in which our heroes are briefly incarcerated. Such is life in the developing world; fans of Sister Carrie should read "At 18, Min Finds a Path to Success in Migration Wave" at wsj.com (requires subscription), about the odyssey of one young woman from rural China.

Mistry’s book is set around 1975, with periodic excursions into the deeper past, and gives us a portrait of a place (India during the suspension of civil liberties under Indira Gandhi) where affluence is rare and the social safety net almost non-existent. It’s a society where the dead hand of bad government blights almost everything: there is rent control, food rationing, and a bureaucracy so extensive that "facilitators" negotiate it for you for a fee. Corruption abounds, abetted by all the regulation.

In literary terms, it’s too bad modern Western novels aren’t much concerned with money nowadays (you can read more about this), but to the extent the phenomenon reflects reader prosperity it’s probably just as well. Read A Fine Balance and you’ll come away feeling that the characters in most Western novels-like the people in most Western societies-have no idea how good they have it.