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.