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August 27, 2008

Reading Update and Writing Lessons

So I've just completed two really good books. Not great books. Really good books. Both I should have read in 2004.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I bought this when it was all the rage and expected a solid fantasy and didn't get it. At the time, it felt really really slow to me and I got bored about 100 pages in and put it down. Then recently I was reading a blog post that mentioned something interesting about it (have forgotten what) and decided to go back and see if I could get a little further into it.

What a difference! Since I knew what to expect this time the book motored along briskly. It wasn't fast, but it certainly wasn't slow. In fact, the pacing was perfect. I detected notes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoi, and of course, Spenser. Not in the language or in the "themes" (whatever those are), but rather in the structure of portions of the story. That's the kind of literary allusion I can deal with.

Clarke uses a tactic that I'm using in da nobble, which is putting some essential information into the footnotes. And also, letting the spillover from her fertile imagination reside there. It's a fake-out: you think you don't have to read the footnotes but you actually do. But it's also a really effective way of including infodumps, and an even more effective way of including important world-building perspectives that don't fit within the flow of the narrative. If these were intruded, even as is, into the main text the reader would process it differently, but as footnotes, these pieces get reserved--and highlighted--as off-flow text.

The one problem with this is that she didn't set up a conceit that allowed for footnotes. There were a few places in the book where she compared Strange and Norrell's time with "today." But she never clarified what day "today" was or who was writing those thoughts from what perspective. And most of the book read as a novel, not as a history; there was no explanation for how a person could know what these "historical" figures thought or experienced when they were alone. I think this was a weakness, but a minor one.

The book's main weakness SPOILER was that, at the end, the Raven King appeared to be nearly omnipotent, like a neglectful god. This took all of the interest out of the character of the Raven King and also out of what role he was playing in the drama. He was much more interesting as a man with special powers, not as a daddy figure who realized his kids had gotten themselves into a mess and reached out a hand at the end to fix the mess. First of all: deus ex machina = boring. Secondly, the kids got themselves into the mess and it would only be interesting if they got themselves out of it.

The book was powerful because the Raven King remained vague, but popped out clearly in moments making it obvious that he was a man, albeit a very powerful one. The book's power also came from the choices the main characters made. To have the climax drive by one part accident and one part deus ex machina was a shift away from what the book had been saying about humans all along.

Writing lessons:

  • Leave what's vague, vague. Not everything has to be clarified, particularly not the mysteries the characters live by.
  • The mechanics of a character's movement through the events of the plot (i.e. if by choices, deliberate action, or accident) must stay consistent. If the mechanics change simply for the climax/resolution, that's cheating.
  • The climax/resolution must be compressed, sped up, slightly, or else intensified in some way. You can't be in the middle of the climax and not know that this is the climax or, well, you know. Bummer.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

It's almost pointless to compare this to Catherine Valente's Orphan's Tales. They have only one thing in common and that's the nested stories tactic. But done so completely differently. My complaint about Valente is that she didn't give us enough of each nested story to make us (me) care enough about it to come back to it. She gave us almost no characterization so I didn't care about the characters either. Can't make either of those complaints about Mitchell.

Mitchell is brilliant in his ability to shift voice, genre, pacing, structure from story to story. A virtuoso performance. Something to learn from because, while I'm not doing exactly the same thing in da nobble, I am playing with different voices, and different ways of structuring narrative in different contexts.

The big fault here is that the stories don't connect very strongly, so the book doesn't really feel like an integral whole. The "themes" or more likely, inquiries Mitchell is pursuing are so tenuously linked across the different sections that the books can't be said to be about anything in particular. SPOILER Mitchell recognizes this and even hedges his bets by having his composer character--whose masterpiece is the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," a piece with six completely different, but nested themes--explain that the piece (a blueprint for the book's six nested stories) isn't supposed to make direct sense.

Mitchell doesn't signal the reader properly on this one. Part of the purpose of post-structuralist, fragmented prose is that the fragmentation of the text itself signals the reader's mind to depart from the order of ordinary narrative flow. The reader's mind is therefore scrambling for order and making connections between fragments that may or may not exist. The mind is open to diagonal, multilateral, and backwards-flowing links.

Mitchell, on the other hand, gives us too much story here for our minds not to fall in--settle in--with the order of the narrative. So our minds are not primed to make connections, but rather lulled into allowing the author to make the connections for us. If the stories, each broken off at a crucial moment, were left broken off, then, in spite of the clear narrative direction of each, we'd be left casting about for connections. But instead, Mitchell goes back and re-nests the stories on the other side so that each narrative arc is completed. The satisfaction of completing a narrative arc makes it almost impossible to connect the text with another text outside of it, especially when that text is of a different narrative stamp. Every time I try to think about it, my brain slams the door.

If this was his intention then, great, but it's a one-liner: "See? Narrative is coercive. Nyah nyah." If this was not his intention, somebody's gonna have to tell me what was. He gave a virtuoso writing performance, at the expense of the greatness of the novel as a whole. I'll tell you what: for the first half of the read, I was indignant that the jacket said that this was shortlisted for the Man Booker, rather than the winner. For the second half, I increasingly agreed with the jury.

Writing Lesson: If you're telling a story, or pursing an inquiry (and I am, both, in da nobble) then make the connections strong. Be clear with yourself what you're trying to do, and give the reader enough to understand this, too. You can do all this and still give structural food for thought.

Altogether an exciting reading week. Yeah.

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Comments

I loved Cloud Atlas. Flawed, like you said, but so luscious to the ear. I found his next novel, which was an attempt at YA, very disappointing.

uh oh, but i'm still gonna have to read it now.

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