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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mommy Get Your Gun

Behind trash bins in a garbage-strewn alley a woman seeks cover from a gun-toting assailant. Of the assailant's identity—or the cause underlying his or her murderous pursuit of the protagonist—we know nothing, not on this first page. We know only that the protagonist is the single mother of a boy named Jamie, who, in the midst of his mother's back-alley struggle for survival, has taken an accidental fall at school and bloodied his nose.

The juxtaposition of two utterly incongruous fictional worlds, of noir detective and struggling single mom —Raymond Chandler meets Murphy Brown—is as tantalizing as it is perplexing. Assuming this woman is ducking real bullets, how on earth did she get herself into such a jam? Equally impressive—and no less perplexing—is the nonchalance ("I rolled my eyes") with which she proceeds to shrug off what a few moments before had been a serious threat to her life and limb to rush to the aid of her slightly injured child.

Or had the threat been serious? Are we being played with? What, exactly, are we to believe?

Whatever is going on here, one thing is clear enough: that somewhere a tongue has been lodged firmly in a cheek. The world of this novel isn't my world, and (hopefully) isn't yours, but a world existing in a parallel universe, one where gun-toting mothers interrupt back alley shoot-outs to kiss their offspring's skinned knees: The world of satire, or, more precisely, of spoof.

The word "spoof" derives from a hoaxing game invented in around the turn of the 19th century by British comedian Arthur Roberts. Since the game involved trickery and nonsense, it wasn't long before the word itself came to stand for tomfoolery. As applied to literature, it denotes a light, playful parody, which, presumably, is what we have here: a parody of a detective novel wherein the detective is an otherwise typical, struggling single mother.

On this first page, that satirical world is created with considerable authority, an authority earned in part by the author's unwillingness to explain, apologize, or make allowances for her premise. As soon as we read, "I crouched, unmoving and stifled; the garbage bins masking my position," we are already ensconced in that ironic world. By plunging us directly into action, the author avoids exposition, and, with it, explanation. In much the same way Kafka convinces us via a single sentence that overnight a man has been transformed into a giant beetle. How this transformation occurred, why it has occurred, Kafka wisely abandons to the reader's imagination. Otherwise it is a fait accompli.

But there are other, smaller ways in which the author undermines that same authority, including poor punctuation (that imprudent semi-colon in the first sentence), subject-verb disagreements (see sentence #3), tense shifts (sentence #4), and a tyro's embrace of adverbs ("desperately," "suddenly," "directly," "slightly"). Given her far-fetched premise that asks so much of readers by way of suspending disbelief, the author has no wiggle-room for such confidence-shaking errors: she'd better get everything just right; for sure she can't get away with telling readers that her heroine's eyes "[follow] the top of [her] head."

Even in a world where single moms shoot it out in blind alleys, we still expect eyes to tag along with the skulls that hold them.

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