Sunday, November 23, 2008

Beating Up Somebody Else...

I made it to the end of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There was no real risk I wouldn't, although there were moments where the violence started to rise up around my ears a bit more than I liked. The writing worked well, although making that judgment when it's a translation is always tricky. My generalized critique is wondering at times whether humans actually behave as some of these humans do. But there are a lot of humans out there and some are very poorly behaved, indeed. And I've never been to Sweden. Sorry, Sweden, that's an undeserved dig.

The interesting study here is one of structure. This book has the set-up of an erotic thriller. Erotic thrillers have two main story lines: one is conventional, usually a business deal of some kind, set up to contrast with the other storyline, which is the erotic part. The protagonist is trying to navigate the business storyline when along comes the (usually) femme fatale or erotic interest he should avoid but doesn't. I'll use the terms "business story" and "erotic story" for clarity.

There is a business story here, about a corrupt financier. And there is an erotic story (trust me), about a missing girl and her wealthy family. Structurally, this is an erotic thriller. With one small problem.

The two storylines end in the wrong order. The classic erotic thriller ends the business story first. The apparent driving force of the story, whatever the business issue is, ends. For a moment the story may seem to be over, but the erotic story line steps in with a new twist, we realize the story is something else indeed, and we're off again.

Not here. Here the erotic story ends, and then the business story comes back to life and we have to go through the conclusion of that. It feels as though the book is over, but it isn't. Worse, the business story and erotic story are unrelated.

Imagine that Chinatown got to "forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," and then went on for another half hour, investigating the water supply issues in Los Angeles a bit more.

Yeah, like that.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I Turned Off a Book...

I listen to a lot of books on tape. Very rarely, I turn one off. I turned off Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies yesterday.

My preferred reading (listening) material is literary fiction, and this book certainly has an alluring literary title. I was enthusiastic, and then less so, and then halfway through I shut it off. Here’s what went wrong for me:

First, there’s a difference between drama and melodrama. And for all that was going on (six POV characters), it never really rose out of melodrama territory. Things were difficult for a few of the characters, but nothing ever got serious. At least, not in the first half. There was also a critical lack of conflict between the characters. Anybody have a problem? Turn the page and it’s either gone or they’ve accepted it. Do any characters change at all? Not in the first half. Character is choice under pressure. Without enough pressure, enough choice, I don’t learn enough about the characters.

Second, there’s the issue of mechanics. There are three ways to tell a story. I get these from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing:

1. Immediate Scene. This is obvious. The stuff that’s going on right now. Dramatized scenes. Dialogue lives here. Lights, camera, action!

2. Flashback. Also obvious. Stuff that has happened in the past. But a modern flashback is written in Immediate Scene. Make the transition to the past, then write the scene “live.” Again, keep the camera rolling.

3. Narrative Summary. This is the problem child. This is where the writer summarizes something that he or she did not elect to dramatize—to turn into a scene. The writer did not elect to turn on the camera. It is a good and necessary technique. Without it, most novels would be a thousand pages long.

An aside—want to read a writer who doesn’t use narrative summary? Pick up Saramago’s Blindness. Everything that happens, happens on stage. It can be exhausting, but it’s a distinctive style.

So when is Narrative Summary good? Let’s quote from M*A*S*H*: “Meanwhile Aunt Mary, having gone for a tramp in the woods, is lying in a ditch on the edge of town.” Quoting M*A*S*H* again: “Be brief, and be gone.”

Narrative summary fails when it gets too long. The writer settles in to telling the story rather than showing the scenes. The camera is off, and the reader tends to skim along, waiting for the next scene.

This is a problem I had with Sea of Poppies. Plenty of un-dramatized Flashback and loads of Narrative Summary. Both these things were common in novels from the late nineteenth century. Well, that ship has sailed. I don’t want to be told what’s going on, or what went on. I want to see it. Turn the camera on and leave it on.

My last problem was pace. Obviously, Narrative Summary reads more slowly than Immediate Scene. But the pace problem went farther than that. Remember the six POV characters I mentioned? Well, multiple POV is not a problem, usually. If you’re covering the events of a week with many characters, you can do Monday with Character A, Tuesday with Character B, etc.. But if you do Monday with A, then Monday with B, then Monday with C, the story can start to drag. Trying to move through time with chunks of Narrative Summary merely piles one problem on the next.

Lastly, be aware that six POV characters (there may have been more) means that you won’t spend very much time with any one of them. Characterizing and making that many people and their stories fascinating is a huge challenge. I didn’t think it was met here.

Maybe the book was about to become wonderful. I gave it nine hours. I could give it no more.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Question: What is Voice?

Answer: Go read Saul Bellow's The Adventues of Augie March. That is voice.