Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Unfinished.

I failed to finish reading another couple of books. Or rather, they failed to hold me until the end. Normally that means I could tell you about both of them, but one was a first novel and I'll let the new writer off the hook. Suffice it to say that it was speculative fiction that got quite a bit too speculative toward the end. Hint: don't throw in random supernatural elements late in the story. It makes the reader feel— rightly— that the ending is going to be arbitrary. I shall never know.

The other book was an odder one to not finish, because I've adored two previous books by this well-known and talented writer. In the end this very different book got shut off for the same reason. The book was Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. There's a lesson for any "Great American Novel" writer in this book: if you're writing an intimate family drama and nobody's charging after some major goal from early on, you have to set something in their path for later. Basically, if nobody's climbing Everest, they'd better be headed for an iceberg.

In the previous two novels I've read by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead and Home, there was an old man waiting to die. That fact added a tension and a deadline (pardon the pun) to the story. In fact, we never had to get all the way to the death. Death just loomed there in the future, inevitable, as it does for us all. It created a frame that made the story work. Housekeeping didn't work for me because eighty percent of the way through the book I realized I had no sense of where it might go. It was arbitrary.

A novel can begin with the author striking out in every direction, exploring every possible avenue in the story. But at a point that has to change, and the author has to start fighting their way out of the maze they have built. We stay with the story partly to see how the story can possibly emerge from that trick bag. If almost anything can happen, there can be no tension and no reason to continue. Even a small family drama needs a sense that an organic ending will emerge.

I just checked, by the way, and it turns out that Housekeeping is one of Robinson's early works. I probably should have guessed, and will be an eager buyer for her next book. She truly is a must-read writer.

In happier news, China Miéville's Embassytown was every bit as great or better than I thought when halfway through, and I was sorry to see it end, and Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife fills me with bitter jealousy and richly deserves the Orange Prize she just won. Which I admit even though she was born while I was in high school.


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