Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup knows how to spin a yarn. In his new debut, Q&A, he tells 12 of them within the framework of a improbable quiz-show victory. Some of the tales are predictable, like "Tragedy Queen," about an aging Bollywood actress who dreams of a comeback, Norma Desmond style. Some are suspenseful and poignant, like "A Brother's Promise," about the anonymous protection a penniless boy offers to a neighbor girl abused by her father. Unfortunately, Swarup fails to wrap these episodes in a compelling package. His roller-coaster collection ends with the abruptness of a library storyteller rushing to reach an urgent appointment across town. The crashing denouement diminishes even the best of what has come before.
It's too bad, because Swarup, a quiz-show aficionado, has gotten hold of an irresistible premise. Ram Mohammad Thomas, an ecumenical, uneducated orphan working as a waiter in Bollywood-capital Mumbai, gets on Who Will Win A Billion?, India's richest TV game show. To the astonishment of the host and studio audience, he becomes the first grand-prize winner in the game's history, correctly answering 12 multiple-choice questions about such specialized areas as military decorations, the diplomatic corps, international capitals, and the history of the Taj Mahal. The show's crooked producers have him arrested and thrown in jail, determined to deny him the billion-rupee prize on the grounds that he must have cheated. Rescued from imminent torture by a female lawyer who shows up to defend him, Ram insists that he was merely lucky—he was asked just the right questions. As he watches the game show, he recounts, for each question, the memory that gave him the answer.
Skipping around in time, told in the voices of multiple nested narrators, and plunging recklessly from princedom to penury, Q&A reads like a Thousand And One Nights for short attention spans. Swarup knows some of these people and venues well; his description of the chawls, the rental slums of India's urban underbelly, and the servants' quarters of rich houses have a quiet, observational quality. He gets the game-show milieu right, too, down to the condescending chatter during commercial breaks. When it comes to movie queens, hit men, and vicious cops, though, his portraits are pure TV, shallow and clichéd. But his worst sin is letting his great story—the fate of the billionaire waiter—slip away with barely a ripple. After explaining every detail of his many rises and falls, Swarup drops Ram's perceptive first-person narration and acute sense of fate's vagaries, and rushes through the outcome as if his parking meter were running out. His haste to get to the novel's final A makes it look like all the Q's were cheap setups.