Thursday, January 14, 2010

Little Problems, Big Problems.

Remember John Crowley's Little, Big, that I mentioned a couple of days ago? Beautiful style, singular voice? I stopped reading it last night. Because a few things weren't going well. I'll start with the Last Straw:

1. People Don't Act That Way. I won't spoil the story, but suffice it to say that one character does something Very Very Bad. This something should make the spouse of that character see that he or she is Horribly Killed to Death. At least, that's what I'd do, and I'd use plenty of pointy objects to do it, too. The wronged spouse, however, merely shrugs his/her shoulders and on the story goes, I suppose. I, sadly, could go no further.

Indeed, the entire book was chock-a-block with oddities that were never questioned. Even our would-be POV character, who enters a very unusual community, accepts it right away and carries on as though he has always lived there. Much here is odd, but nothing is made of it. And there is so much of it, in that very elaborate writing style, that it is hard to keep your feet.

Why is everyone behaving so singularly? Because, dear reader, there is:

2. A Tale. Not the one in the book, but the one we're told controls every event and character in the book. Yes, everything that happens to these folks for generation after generation is part of The Tale. See why Wronged Spouse just brushes off an event that would drive me to grisly homicide? Because it is part of The Tale. No point fussing. What will be will be. And they all buy in to this. They've all drunk the grape Kool-Aid.

Here's a bit of Film School Wisdom: Destiny is what you chase. Fate is what chases you. If you do nothing, you will never achieve your destiny, but will be run over by fate. That last bit is pretty much the one thing that doesn't work in fiction: sitting there awaiting your fate. Well, maybe it can work in a short story. In a novel it becomes tiresome, fast.

And so I bailed. I had bought the book hoping for something like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The writing style in Little, Big was more florid, certainly, but there were three more important differences:

1. Clarke's world is very much like our own. The magic functions within a very familiar history (look, footnotes!). Crowley's world is slightly different in many, many ways that aren't always clear.

2. Clarke's characters behave as we would expect them to behave. The English gentlemen are English gentlemen. This makes the not-entirely-normal characters stand out nicely. And even those characters were described in the same style as the others. I think of it as a "just so" technique. No pointing and saying "look at this!" Those elements of the story that stand out as unusual do so by their nature, not because of the writer making a big deal about them.

3. Jonathan Strange has a major goal in the novel that gets him into big trouble. Actually, it gets his wife into worse trouble, but you take my meaning. He had a destiny, and he pursued it. In Crowley's world, just at the moment when I thought one character was in big trouble, well, nope. It was all part of The Tale, so the other characters let it pass.

I let this tale pass.

1 comment:

KarenG said...

Sounds like a problem I've encountered in a few novels, when I find they are no longer "true." You begin to detect a falseness, and you may let one or two of the blips pass, but then if the author doesn't correct it or get back on track....Sorry, I'm gone. Writing style or polished technique can't save the book by that point, imho.