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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Waiting for the Abbot

How do you generate drama or elicit any kind of interest—let alone excitement —from a scene the main action of which consists of a group of people sitting in chairs? That's the challenge that the author of this memoir presents himself with. The story takes place in Tibet, where the author, his wife, and two daughters are visiting one of the monasteries in the Kangra Valley, presumably on a pilgrimage. They are not alone. With them in the abbot's waiting room is the Dalai Lama's English translator, wearing a "full length brown Tibetan chuba," as well as a younger assistant, and a German "emissary," an older man in a pinstriped suit. They form a motley crew.

This is hardly the first narrative to open with a scene of people waiting. It's been done before, and to great effect. Norman Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, opens with a group of soldiers waiting, essentially, to face death. They're supposed to be sleeping, but
Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
To make for an engaging opening, a “waiting scene” need not hold such high stakes. In The Disenchanted, another novel written in the same period, author Bud Schulberg presents us with Shep Stearns, a young, callow writer seated in the antechamber of Hollywood mogul Victor Milgrim, who, at long last, has called him to a meeting to discuss his next project.
It’s the waiting, Shep was thinking. You wait to get inside the gate, you wait outside the great man’s office, you wait for your agent to make the deal, you wait for the assignment, you wait for instructions on how to write what they want you to write, and then, when you finish your treatment and turn it in, you wait for that unique contribution to art, the story conference.
The rest of the chapter takes us back to Shep’s arrival in Hollywood six months before, and through those events that have led him to Milgrim’s waiting room. Eleven pages of backstory later, Shep finally enters Milgrim’s office.

And yet those pages—and the long wait suggested by them—are full of dramatic tension, since they inform us of what Shep has gone through to arrive at this point, and also what’s at stake for him. The rest of Schulberg’s brilliant but forgotten novel tells of Shep’s gallant efforts to keep Manley Halliday, a once great but fallen author (based on Fitzgerald) sober through their collaboration on a screenplay for Love on Ice, a college musical. Needless to say, Shep fails, and the rest of the novel chronicles Halliday’s hilarious but ultimately tragic descent into drunkenness and death.

The structure in this well-written memoir opening is similar, with the first paragraphs describing the pilgrims awaiting their audience with the abbot. But here, rather than take us through a flashback recounting the purpose and tribulations of their journey to this greatly anticipated moment, instead we are presented with a fairly innocuous breakfast meeting with the same abbot “on the hotel terrace” the morning before, in which “over a cup of strong Indian chai” the abbot boasts of his long relationship with the Dalai Lama, while dismissing as “all the puja stuff”— “the burning of incense . . .the mantras and prayers . . . the salutations and prostrations . . . ”—in short, the trappings of Tibetan Buddhism that the narrator and his family have come to Tibet to appreciate and study.

A “waiting scene” depends on having something to wait for. Here, the flashback fairly obliterates any tensions or expectations we—and the protagonists—might have entertained with respect to the anticipated meeting with the abbot. It lets the air out of the balloon, so to speak, so there’s nothing left to wait for.

It might be better to lead with the first meeting with the abbot, with anxieties and expectations still running high and not already discharged.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cookbook of the Dead

In these personality-driven times we tend to associate the word "conceit" with its adjectival cousin conceited, meaning (according to Merriam-Webster) "to have or show an excessively high opinion of oneself." In fact the first meaning of conceited is "ingenuously contrived." One could argue that conceited people have contrived ingeniously to think more highly of themselves than they should.

As applied to literature, a conceit is a fanciful idea or extended metaphor with its own logic that governs a passage in a creative work or the work itself. In this opening passage (of what, for lack of a better label, I'll call a sci-fi fantasy), the main conceit is that of a book as both narrator and protagonist.

As extended metaphors go, it's both bizarre and mundane—bizarre since, in the ordinary world, books are inanimate objects without volition or the power of speech; mundane, since, in a quite literal sense, all books narrate themselves. They "speak" to us in individual voices—or rather, their narrators do.

Here that notion—that conceit—is carried to an extreme, since the narrating book (or Tome, to use the given designation), isn't just a peripheral or detached narrator, but a main character in the story we are about to read, one whose plot turns on the rivalry between the narrator and his more accomplished brother. This brother is not—as one might reasonably expect—himself a Tome, but "the Necronomicon"—an apparently powerful entity who on the continuum between "might[y] demon lords" and "insignificant cultists" lies closer to the former.

That's quite a mouthful of conceits to swallow. In fact—for me, anyway, it's a few too many. Three paragraphs into this story and already I'm experiencing "conceit reflux."

Ideas (conceits) are wonderful, but unless sufficiently embodied in characters and actions they remain ideas. And ideas aren't what fiction is made of. Fiction is made of actions performed and experienced by characters.

Here, nothing happens. While the author takes pains to lay out his clever conceits, he neglects to provide us with any grounding in time, place, or event. Instead we're treated to rhetorical demands, explanations, and contradictions (inexplicably the narrator assumes we've heard of Necronomicons but never of Tomes). Nor is there any suggestion of a specific scene in the offing. As they say down in Texas, it's all hat and no cattle: all bluff and bluster but no bite—all set-up with no pay-off. In this opening the author does everything but tell a story. I'm reminded of the Great and Powerful Oz, of his thunderous voice and great balls of fire—all most impressive until Toto draws back the curtain.

Which isn't to say that this author is out to deceive us, or that he doesn't have a wonderful story to tell. But he'd better stop telling us how he's going to go tell it, and start telling it, soon, before all of his wizardry is exposed as humbug.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Beth's Wish

Like most creative people I have a healthy distrust of rules. But when it comes to writing fiction there's one rule I feel comfortable about giving to my students and applying myself: "Never state what's implied." The inverse ("Never imply what's stated") is as sound. But since a fiction writer's purpose is to show and not to tell, the first version applies more. In this scene much that's stated is implied.

A widower and his daughter, Beth, are bound for a holiday gathering—the first since Beth's mother, Judith, died in a car crash. Something is bothering Beth. This is made evident to her father through Beth's sighs and swallows, and by how she worries a necklace her mother and father gave her as a high school graduation gift five years before. At last her father asks, "What's the matter, Princess?" To which after more sighing and shifting Beth replies, "Dad, what do you miss the most about Mom since she died?"

The central conflict here is so thoroughly embodied in that question that much of what comes with it feels redundant, an effort to dramatize what's implicitly dramatic. The question isn't merely the crux of the scene; it is the scene, and all the sighing and squirming and shifting is gilding the lily.

The passing scenery adds something; the snow and the Christmas lights give us the season and ground the situation in a solid setting. On the other hand, Beth's description feels forced. From the narrator father's point-of-view in the shifting darkness of his truck, he might note the play of lights on her hair, and see the neckless digging into her neck. But "Beth was a beautiful woman, no longer the skinny teenaged waif who held her own at barrel racing" is intrusive, more the words of Beth's anxious author than of her concerned, driving father.

That description, like much of the content in this opening, teases suspense where none has been established; heightens conflict where there is no conflict. If, on the other hand, Beth's query were to preceded such descriptions, they would then color and evoke Dad's interior world as he drives and ponders.
"Dad, what do you miss most about Mom?"

We were on our way to the Schmucker's Christmas party in my pickup truck when my daughter put the question to me . . .
Here, through squirms and sighs, the author has tried gamely to dramatize the daughter's plight, when the drama expressed by her question belongs to the father who must answer it—and who awakens every morning to the answer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Darkness & Light

A woman watches—or dreams—herself walking in the woods under a canopy of trees. She walks with "scarcely" a sound, her skirt hem teasing the leaves in her path, leaves whose crunching sounds are themselves "almost inaudible."

Indeed, there is something altogether ghostly about this woman and the scene she inhabits—or haunts. Everything about the scene is tentative; nothing, with the possible exception of the forest itself, is real. But is the dreaming narrator really in a forest, or is that, too, only a dream? In the second sentence a canopy is mentioned; I assume it's the canopy of the forest, but it might also be the canopy of the dreaming woman's bed. Maybe it's both.

The bulk of this first section is taken up with a description of this dream-woman whose face "looks serene" and whose body "appears relaxed." Notice how even these descriptions are vague and abstract, with adjectives doing most of the heavy lifting. But adjectives aren't descriptions; they're opinions. They state the net effect, but not the causes. Meanwhile the evidence on which the opinions are based is nowhere to be seen, heard, smelled, or touched.

This lack of concreteness, conjoined with the author's tendency to hedge, subdue, or negate the few concrete details provided ("faint rustle," "no more than a whisper," "absence of wind") add up to a scene that self-destructs on reading, wavering and dissolving like smoke rings into thin air.

What do you expect from a dream? This is a dream, after all—the first section, anyway. And about dreams in literature I have very mixed feelings. Though they can successfully convey a character's psyche while—as real dreams do—offering symbols and other fodder for amateur Freudians—they can also be as boring as the dreams our lovers button-hole us with in real life. Our own dreams are of interest to us because we've lived through them; for us they're real experiences. But to others they're just dreams, and not worth investing much in.

That's usually how I feel about dreams in fiction. However supremely rendered, still, I rarely invest much in them, since I know they're just dreams. This is even more so when a story opens with a dream, in which case I'm not even invested enough in the dreamer to care what the dream might portend. And so, though poetically written, for me anyway this opening scene goes up in dreamsmoke.

As for the second "chapter" (the units are too short to pass for chapters; at any rate I wouldn't label them such), there at last we get something concrete. Since this second scene works only in contrast with the first, juxtaposing poetic dream with "hard" reality (pun intended), the two scenes should probably be merged. And the proportions should probably be reversed, with the sylvan dream image of the walking woman reduced to a sentence or two—three at the most—and the lion's share of this opening given to vulgar reality: a ratio far more in keeping with what most of us, for better or worse, experience as life.

Dying Star

To modify a famous opening sentence, "All good writing is good in pretty much the same ways." Whatever the genre--when it comes to telling stories--certain ideals, conventions, and principles apply. The law of economy and efficiency; concreteness over abstraction. Show, don't tell.

Then there's the convention know as in medias res. The Latin phrase, which translates to "in the middle of things," describes a narrative technique whereby, instead of telling stories from the very beginning, authors plunge their readers into conflicts already underway. Especially with respect to the first pages and scenes of our stories, ideally we want to invite readers into worlds populated by characters whose lives are already complicated by situations which, if they haven't set a plot in motion quiet yet, will do so very soon. In medias res.

The genre here is science fiction. The story opens with Zech, the hero, twenty-minutes from a confrontation with some rivals to whom he is about to make an offer they can't refuse: at least he hopes they won't refuse it. In the bedroom (or the equivalent) of his starship, he picks out a suit custom-tailored back in Astria (his home planet) from the fleece of a "very rare animal." He shaves his stubble and—later, in the kitchen adjacent to his starship laboratory—takes his daily vitamins (likewise a product of Astria). And though he wishes to swallow them with something presumably stronger than water, he finds the bottle empty. But then it doesn't matter: whatever was in the bottle, he doesn't need it anymore.

Take away the sci-fi trappings: the starship, the "omni-com," the mention of other planets and rare creatures thereof turned into suits—and what's left? A man getting up in the morning, doing his toiletries, getting dressed. In a word: banality. Why do so many stories in writers workshops start with characters waking up, stretching, brushing their teeth? Maybe because their authors haven't located the true beginnings of their stories, or they're too timid to plunge straight into situation and conflict. Or maybe they feel they want to "milk" things a bit more before getting into the action.

But where no suspense has been created, there's nothing to "milk." A character getting out of bed is a character getting out of bed—whether the bed is in a suburban tract house in Pine Hill, New Jersey, or on a space station orbiting between Saturns rings, makes little (if any) difference. Just as looking at the readout on his omni-com makes Zach want to yawn, so readers are likely to find themselves yawning through this opening scene, despite it's author's game effort to front-load it with suspense by telegraphing a future dramatic event in the opening paragraph. But that event won't occur for another twenty-minutes. Meanwhile we're stuck with a character contemplating his razor stubble while we're treated to a nickel-tour of his spacecraft.

My suggestion: open in medias res, with the promised dramatic deal scene. We can learn about Zechs suits and his razor stubble later.

Without a Dragon's Protection

Up to its second to last line, this opening page might have been torn out of James Hilton's 1934 bestseller, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Set a generation earlier than the given work, Hilton's unabashedly sentimental novella portrayed the life of its eponymous self-effacing hero, Arthur Chipping, a career schoolmaster in an English public school.

In Hilton's story, having retired after decades of teaching Roman History and Latin at Brookfield School, Mr. Chips is called back to service during World War I, which has sent younger teachers off to the trenches. For Hilton, the period between World Wars represented an oasis in civilization—or the mirage of an oasis, soon be obliterated by Hitler and the smashing of the Versailles Treaty. In another novel written just before Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Hilton celebrated this oasis metaphorically, through a fictional utopia set high in the mountains of Tibet. That novel was called Lost Horizon, and the utopia was Shangri-La—a term that's since become synonymous with the notion of an earthly paradise, often with a pejorative intent.

I mention all this because, up to the last paragraph, there's something dreamily quaint about this opening passage. Here is Master Jack, the schoolmaster in his tweed waistcoat, comforting and admonishing his eleven-year-old charge, Nick Parker, in his oak-lined study bristling with anthropological artifacts. Through the study's window "shouts and screams" drift in from the rugby fields where Nick has gotten into a scrap with one or several of his schoolmates. It's not the first time; indeed, three days into his first term and Nick has already earned a reputation for fighting. Nick's teacher—no stranger to combat himself (he lost an arm in the Great War), lends Nick a "fresh white handkerchief" to blow his bloody nose into.

All of this is conveyed very deftly in an opening passage that's alive to all the senses: sight (the pink color of Nick's blood mixed with his saliva), sounds (the shouts and screams from the rugby field), textures ("knicknacks of wicker and weave"—note how alliteration and meter create their own texture). A good ear for dialogue ("To you, Nick, they happen a lot") together with a sharp eye for telling details (the objects cluttering the master's walls) make this a winning opening. In a few paragraphs I feel I know Master Jacks and his pupil. And though—excepting the last lines—there are no throat-grabbers here, still, there is conflict, and I for one would read on to discover why Nick is having such a hard time fitting in with his fellow students.

Then comes the dragon in the last paragraph. Suddenly I've traded the gentile Shangri-La of Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society for Tolkien's Middle Earth. True, the title should have warned me, and did, though as soon as I started reading I forgot the warning.

These days, dragons are as ubiquitous in works of literature as angels, witches and vampires—a truth that I confess to lamenting. The moment we introduce supernatural phenomenon into fiction we undermine the human element, with curses, spells, and potions augmenting (if not replacing entirely) psychological cause and effect. The fantasy genre to which such phenomenon belong doesn't just allow for impossible events, it insists upon them. Though traditionally—as with Tolkien—fantasy novels are grounded in medieval settings, thanks to Ann Rice and Harry Potter we may now expect witches, vampires, and dragons to pop up anywhere, including a boarding school between the World Wars.

Starting with the dragon that guards the golden fleece at Rhodes, on through the unnamed dragon in Beowulf and Tolkien's Glaurung and Smaug, with each decade the number of dragons in books has multiplied, with the past decade furnishing us with no less than a hundred novels featuring the mythological serpents, making me wonder why Saint George ever bothered. Why in 2010 so many readers and writers still share this obsession with our medieval forebears may be explained partly by a dissatisfaction with the fruits of Christianity and science, and the wish to return to more innocent and colorful myths.

Though I share those dissatisfactions, I can live without dragons. But that's the personal bias of someone who prefers to stare down the real monsters rather than embrace mythological beasts. That said, injected into this otherwise quaint scene the allusion to dragons in the final paragraph is jarring, and the author might better prepare us for it by dropping a hint of some kind earlier—a set of dragon's on the walls of the teacher's study?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Blood & Water

Good writers are determined to get things exactly right, and so they work and work and keep working, fine-turning their sentences and paragraphs to within a tolerance that would make a Swiss watchmaker proud. Here, the author seems more intent on showy syntax than on clear, precise, concise expression.

The story opens with a man—Pete Carter—driving at breakneck speeds down the blighted streets of "Canary Wharf" (now a high-rent financial and shopping neighborhood in east London, but still derelict at the time when the story takes place). My first assumption is that this is going to be a high-impact thriller, with Pete a fugitive on the lam. In fact Pete is a thirty-year old career criminal, and the car he's putting the hammer down on is a brand new Ford Sierra pinched from a dealer showroom on Pete's behalf by a contracted car thief. It's all pretty OTT—Over the Top. Still, I might go along for the ride were there fewer infelicities of language and detail.

The third paragraph offers some examples. It begins: "Tyres [Brit. spelling] squealed loudly in protest, struggling to maintain traction on the ancient potholed hardtop, and the rear of the car jolted violently threatening to spin out of control." For all its kinetic energy the sentence feels passive, with the car doing the struggling and the protagonist nowhere to be seen. And do we really need to know that the tires squeal "in protest" and furthermore that they do so in "struggling to maintain traction" i.e., grip? A sentence less intent on flexing its author's linguistic muscles might read, "The car's tires squealed and its rear-end jolted over potholes as Pete tried to keep it on the road."

Next sentence: "Deft work with the clutch and brake corrected the over-steer before he again trod heavily on the accelerator." Alternative version: "He downshifted out of the corner and floored it again." The first sentence draws attention to itself; the second puts the character in the driver's seat.

Last sentence: "With a roar of the engine, the car shot through the apex of the corner and raced away, down the deserted streets of the industrial estate." I'm not sure what the "apex" of a corner is, since apex usually refers to the top of something. But apart from that, if Pete has "shot through" the corner, then by my lights he has just driven off the road, and so it's a mystery to me how the end of the very same sentence has him back "on the deserted streets of the industrial estate." The image I'm left with is of a car shooting through a high guardrail and vaulting through space toward a perfect two-point landing on another street— the sort of thing you see in movie chase scenes all the time, but which, on paper, at least for me, is more annoying than exciting.

In the next paragraph proud Pete (and he has every right to be, having executed that last Hollywood stunt) grins "broadly" and "a childlike giggle escape[s] his lips." I want to know why the giggle has to "escape," since nothing else about Pete is inhibited. A paragraph later, when we're told that Pete's a "supposedly responsible thirty-year-old," I can't help wondering who does the supposing, and whether he (or she), too, should be locked up before being loosed on the back streets of London?

We read further to learn that rendering the stolen vehicle "untraceable" took nothing more than "a bit of fancy work with the engine number and registration plate." And what about those "gleaming alloy wheels" and that "gorgeous bright red" paint? As targets of theft go Pete's dream car is about as discreet as a fire engine. Within an hour he'd be in jail.

As for Pete's having done all this to please Susie—his wife and the mother of their two children—wouldn't she have been happier with an SUV? Apparently, since when Pete gets home (in the last paragraph) Susie goes "ape shit"—an abrupt diction drop, and hard to reconcile with phrases like "he again trod heavily on the accelerator."

The author might consider entering the action as Pete pull's into his driveway, and have readers discover what he's done through the dialogue with his wife, who, knowing him, smells something fishy. He might even consider narrating the scene from Susie's POV, leaving the joyride--and all that burning rubber--to the reader's imagination, which is better equipped to compete with movies.

The Grace of the World

Near the end of North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock's careening suspense comedy starring Cary Grant as a divorced advertising executive mistaken for a CIA counterespionage agent, Cary Grant grips Eva Marie Saint (a genuine CIA plant) by the hand as she dangles off one of the faces of Mount Rushmore. The movie literally ends on a cliffhanger (Spoiler Alert: he not only rescues her, but vaults her straight into the arms of marital bliss in a train couchette).

Instead of ending with a cliffhanger, this novel opens with one. Unlike Cary and Eva Marie (who've been pushed to the brink of Mt. Rushmore by James Mason and his band of spy-thugs), Ruby and Sal are voluntary cliff-danglers, though on this cliff they've apparently met their match. As Ruby's "fingertips bleed" while she "strain[s] to keep hold of the narrow ledge," she looks up at her partner Cal, who adjusts the belaying rope and eggs her on, saying, "You've climbed taller men than this."

The mixture of comedy and suspense is something else this piece shares in common with Hitchcock's masterpiece. As they both dangle from Thomas Jefferson's nose, Eva Marie Saint asks Cary Grant why his previous wives divorced him, to which he replies, "They said I led too dull a life." A similar repartee binds these two more surely than that belaying line.

In North by Northwest, by the time we arrive at this blend of nail-biting and quip-tossing we know the protagonists well enough to invest equally in both suspense and humor, to laugh out loud as we bite our nails. But Sal and Ruby are strangers to me. Their dangling from a cliff means no more or less than would the peril of any two strangers. Ditto their sarcastic banter.

I'm reminded of another movie, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, in which the two outlaws sling affectionate barbs at each other ("You just keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at."). In terms of their banter, thanks to the above mentioned movies (and also to shows like the X-files, where male/female teams share a similar sarcastic repartee), the dynamic feels too familiar. On the one hand I don't know these people, really; on the other I've seen and heard them a dozen times before. I know them as cardboard cutouts.

Affectionate sarcastic repartee is what this opening has to offer substantially, by way of character development. The rest is a competent and detailed evocation of rock climbing and the question: "Will Ruby fall?" I care, but much less than I might had this relationship not already obtained the summit of glibness.

Clashes by Night

At the onset of war a pastor prepares to address his congregation. Though many novels end with the outbreak of war (War and Peace, From Here to Eternity), and many more deal with the time leading up to war (and then go on to treat the effects of that war on the characters), I can think of no novels that actually begin on the very first day of war.

Two reasons why this may be so occur to me. The first is that, since wars are cataclysmic, climactic events, it makes more sense for a novel to end with the outbreak of war than to start with it. The second is that, while the ends of wars tend to be clearly demarcated by treaty signings, unless prompted by singular events like the attacks on Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center, their precise starting points can be harder to pinpoint and are often only made clear to the general public historically, in retrospect.

Still, it's an intriguing conceit, and well-handled here, with the description of the priest/narrator putting on his vestments closely observed ("I run my finger between [my collar] and my neck to relieve the chafing") and well-integrated with his internal ruminations ("What are [the members of my congregation] thinking? That soon we will greet Spring as though nothing has changed?").

Some of these musings are too obvious ("If only that were true. I wish. I wish."), while others seem out of place—specifically his dwelling on the taunts he endured as a shy child, and his concern that his priestly garments make him feel feminine. That a man of the cloth would routinely harbor such thoughts is unlikely; that he would do so on this of all mornings is bizarre. At the very least such reflections should be provoked by specific stimuli and not come unbidden.

That said, owing mostly to the attention given to his clerical garments, the portrait of a priest that emerges here is more convincing than not. But that portrait is marred by less-than-perfect handling of time and tense. The first sentence is problematic. If the war started "today," when when—relative to that starting point—does the present-tense monologue occur? If "dawn is clouding," then the day itself has just started, in which case when did the priest and his congregants get the news? Were they up at two a.m. watching the news of TV? If so, something might be said to that effect. Anyway the war started before dawn, so it would be more accurate to say, "The war started early this morning." It's not as brisk a sentence, true. But it's less confusing.

In the same first paragraph, a few sentences later, the author shifts accidentally from present to past tense ("I had always imagined . . .").

Still, despite these technical errors, I'm curious to hear what this preacher will say to his flock, and more than that to learn if and how his faith will hold up under the assaults and insults of war. One thing's for sure: in a story that starts with the first bombs of war, two outcomes exist: either things will get worse, or they'll get much, much worse.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In the Dark

The challenge of fiction writing boils down to this: what information to supply to readers, and when to supply it, by what means. How much does the reader need to know, versus how much he or she should be kept in the dark? Give the reader too much information, or give it too soon, and you kill any sense of suspense. Give too little, and you'll generate not suspense, but confusion. And though inexperienced authors routinely conflate the two, they aren't the same thing.

To describe what writers do, Frank Conroy—who, before his death in 2005 directed the famous Iowa Writer's Workshop for over 30 years—used the metaphor of a mountain. In writing fiction, we equip readers for a journey up a mountain. When they get to the top—assuming that they get there—they'll be rewarded with an expanded view of life (and even, if the book is really good, of the universe). But in order to get there they'll need certain things. The trick, Conroy explained, is to give readers everything they need to make the journey—compass, map, hardtack, water—but nothing unnecessary (yo-yo, kazoo, kaleidoscope), and nothing sooner than it's needed (telescope, champagne).

This opening generates a lot of what I call false suspense—the kind of suspense that has readers asking not what's going to happen next? but what the heck am I reading, and why? From the profusion of blood-drenched visions that the heroine suffers to the mystifying "U'Gen"—a term without meaning in my world and without explanation in the author's—it offers almost nothing but confusion.

Who is Rachael? Where is she? What is she doing there? When did those intruding thoughts of hers—the ones she is "grateful to be away from" in the first paragraph—intrude? During the long bus trip? And if indeed she has gotten away from them, then why, two paragraphs later, is she seized with a vision? Is this the same vision she's on her way to report? Do these visions pop "into the forefront of her thoughts with little prodding" or against her will? What, if any, is the relation between Rachael's visions and her mind's autonomous habit of drifting into other "open minds"? Those other minds—are they where Rachael's visions come from? We don't know. Nor can we be sure if Randall is the dying soldier in the vision, and if the "coveted item" he embraced with his dead arms is the family photograph mentioned later. As to the nature of the relation between Randall and Rachael, regarding that, too, we are left clueless.

What we do know is that for reasons unclear Rachael is able to see into the future, and that that future is apocalyptic, with blood "leeching from . . . dead bodies" and "streets littered with glass and rubble." Then again, the story itself would seem to be set in a none-too-charming future in which U'gen cadets and "Visionary students" (author's capitalization) rehearse military strategy as they gear up for the coming apocalypse.

What partly does in this opening is a lack of contrast. Were they cast against a less dismal present Rachael's "horrifying" visions might indeed horrify; instead, they spill blood and darkness into a vision that is already dark, or at any rate murky. Just as, in her vision, "light filter[s] through the haze of dusk," in this opening as a whole very little light seeps through. All is hazy, dim, and obscure. Between Rachael's vision-addled mind and the author's own lack of clarity and precision (Is the school in Paragraph #1 a "looming remnant of an ancient society" or active and in session?), we are left completely in the dark.

Out of the Wreckage

A woman rushes to the aid of her father-in-law, who's had a car accident ("again"). Though "Pop," as he's called, made it home on his own, the next morning his son and the narrator insist that he go to the emergency room for X-rays, where he is pronounced sound and discharged.

Though that pointed "again" in the first sentence more than suggests that Pop’s wrecking of cars is routine, no elaboration is offered here, and so the event feels novel and therefore anecdotal. For the same reason that anecdotes make for great entertainment among friends, they tend not to work very well as fiction (or—in this case—as memoir), since they present people in such strained and extraordinary circumstances that they fail to illuminate their personalities. In other words what Tolstoy said about happy families ("All happy families are happy in the same way") applies equally to men who've just missed breaking their necks in car accidents.

What would make this scene less anecdotal is more background surrounding the father’s habit of wrecking cars, so that this scene is experienced in its proper context: as one (perhaps the worst) in a series of similar incidents. Instead of concentrating on the aftermath, as here, the author would do better to describe Pop’s routine actions which have occasioned this particular event. Otherwise what do I learn about Pop? Merely that like the rest of us he is flesh and blood and hence mortal, and that for a self-destructive man he is also very, very lucky. But his luck is more a factor of fate than of character: it, too, tells us little about who he is.

Bottom line: the author misses the point of her own opening scene. The point isn’t that her father survives this event, or how; the point is that he has survived dozens (or however many) like it—that he's a reckless man whose recklessness causes more pain and suffering to his kin than to himself.

As written this isn't emphasized; in fact it’s brushed aside in favor of the details surrounding this particular episode, the trip to the emergency room, and so on, all of which is if not entirely predictable pro forma. It is the footnote or epilogue to a tale as yet unwritten of a man with a death wish, or something approaching one. Perhaps the scene more-or-less as written might serve as a framing device, a way to get into the story of this father and his reckless behavior. In that case, the story might be framed at one end with the trip to the emergency room, and then—after Pop’s history of car wrecks has been recounted and its implications explored—with Pop's having survived, for better or worse, yet again.

Some technical issues: as written the opening suffers from temporal dislocation. When has the incident occurred? The exclamatory first sentence suggests that it has just happened, while the past tense second paragraph suggests otherwise, that the episode is being recalled not hours later, but across a much greater distance of time. Better to write: "At six o'clock this morning Pop wrecked his car. Again." Else why would the narrator exclaim over it now?

The last sentence of the third paragraph tells us that Nancy Lee's house treated Pop's sounds.

In the fifth paragraph the phrase "down for the count"—an idiom imported from the boxing ring, when a boxer has been knocked out and won't recover—implies that Pop will die of his hidden wounds, but everything that follows suggests that he will live to wreck more cars.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Playing for Keeps

A man (or boy) of indeterminate age wakens to find his mother dead in the other room. This monumental occasion in his life has not come unexpected; we are told (improbably) that it is something "he had always feared." Having given his mother's cat a bowl of milk and fed her chickens, the protagonist assumes a catatonic state in his mother's armchair "staring ahead, his mind vacant of thought." When the cat makes its next appearance he emerges from his stupor just long enough to strangle the creature to death with his bare hands, after which he curls up in bed with Mom's corpse. The passage ends with his realization that "for the first time in his life" he is "utterly alone in the world."

If in reading this passage you sense a Norman Bates in the making, you're not alone. Bates, for those who've never seen the movie (I almost said "or who've forgotten it" except it's unforgettable), is the title character of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (played to a fare-the-well by Anthony Perkins). He operates a motel at the bottom of the hill where he and his mother share a forbidding Victorian house—his dead mother, that is. Mrs. Bates has been dead for six years; Norman has kept her mummified body and propped it in her rocking chair.

I imagine a similar future in store for this protagonist—minus the motel. One needn't travel that far a psychic distance to get from strangling cats with his bare hands to stabbing anonymous fugitive women to death in a shower. Whatever his fate, there's little doubt in my mine that what we've got here at best is a creep, at worst the humble beginnings of a serial killer.

Which makes this an effective opening, provided that the story that follows lives up to its creepy nature, as I suspect it will. After all, a story whose first page treats us to two deaths and one murder isn't likely to turn into a comedy of manners or a romance—or, for that matter, a nuanced work of psychological or social realism. Not with passages like this
"It was then that he came to from his reverie, then that he put his hands around its scrawny neck and squeezed until it slumped limply, dead."
that call to mind Vincent Price's "Thriller" voiceover sessions. Here and at other points the writing feels downright Gothic, as if the author has dipped his quill into Edgar Allen Poe's inkwell. Nothing wrong with that, except that it plants us firmly in Gothic thriller or horror territory. If the story that follows doesn't measure up disappointment is sure to result.

I can quibble with grammar and style. To say the least the handling of tense here is problematic, especially with the penultimate paragraph, where after his mother's death the protagonist "knew that it would come some day" (should be "had known"). In the same paragraph we get "But he did not know that today she would die." In a past-tense narrative, unless it refers to the present from which the narrator is looking back, the word "today" has no place or meaning. The sentence should read, "But he hadn't known that she would die this day."

I'm also troubled by the last line, in which we're told that what the protagonist "[feels] most" is the "sense of being" utterly alone—packing psychic bubble wrap between the character and his experience, since he is most emphatically and in fact "utterly alone."

Here, in This Sun

A woman waits in an auto repair shop while her car is serviced. While waiting she is distracted by the glare of sunlight through the shop's windows, to the point where she envies the blind man waiting across from her, with his "deep black sunglass lenses." She goes on to ruminate about the lack of blind women in the town, at least in public places, and concludes that "even with a German Shepherd's protection" such women would be vulnerable to muggers and rapists. Odd thoughts for a woman to be harboring on an otherwise ordinary day at the auto shop. But then Anna—that's her name—is hot and tired ("She had often felt tired lately"), and even a little dizzy, and these oddly cynical thoughts might be ascribed at least in part to her exhaustion.

Then the litany of odd thoughts resumes with Anna concluding that "everyone in the [auto repair shop] waiting room" is vulnerable, at the mercy of mechanics "with their greasy fingers and wrenches clinking under their car hoods." She's convinced that the mechanics are out to rip her off, and furthermore that she deserves it for "sitting helplessly [at home] in her vinyl seat, watching Jeopardy" instead of teaching herself mechanics (one wonders if at the dentist's office she berates herself for not having gone to dental school). One begins to suspect that these aren't merely the ruminations of an exhausted and wary woman, but the warped notions of a paranoid. At the very least Anna is deeply depressed.

The world as interpreted by a mind slightly off its tether is the subject of this opening, one that makes for a good if disturbing read. I for one want to know more about this character who feels so undone by the rays of sunlight through a window that she wishes herself blind, and compares spare car parts to human organs "in nests of shredded packing paper."

In first-person fiction we call such a character "unreliable." What makes a narrative unreliable isn't usually that we're given the wrong facts, but that the world is presented through the distorting filter or tinted lens of a psyche that has lost its grasp on the objective world: i.e., that may see things very clearly, but doesn't see them as you and I would see them. Unreliable narratives are either void of perspective, or offer us perspectives that are warped.

A good example of this is the narrator of John Cheever's masterpiece "Goodbye, My Brother," who tells us up front that his family "has always been very close in spirit," then goes on to eviscerate said family and especially his brother, who by the story's end has been attacked not only verbally but physically, laid flat on his back with a saltwater-logged root. From the narrator's perspective this may pass for filial devotion, but Cheever's readers are bound to see things differently, as he meant us to.

Another prime example of an unreliable protagonist is the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, a man rendered so emotionally comatose by his inured sense of propriety that when given his once real chance at love he botches it. It's a terribly sad story, rendered sadder for being told by its victim who doesn't even see how sad it is, or even that he's the victim.

But the woman in the work presented here has more in common with Chief Broom, the narrator of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a native American inmate at a mental hospital in the Pacific Northwest, for whom events unfold through a thick, hallucinatory fog as he pushes his broom back and forth down the hospital's corridors. Though his view of things is distorted, still, for Kesey's novel about a belligerent individualist who fakes his way into the looney bin to avoid prison time Chief Broom is the perfect narrator, since he's been faking his own mental illness. Only after Kesey concocted Chief Broom (which event, we're told, occurred during one of the fledgling author's many drugged interludes), was he able to successfully write his novel.

Don't get out the peyote just yet. Unreliable narratives are rare and tricky birds, and should only be ventured into with the sure understanding that an unreliable narrative is intended, since the ultimate subject of an unreliable narrative is always the protagonist's unreliability. Otherwise, you run the risk of presenting readers not with an unreliable character, but with an unreliable author, for which there can be no excuse. If there's nothing wrong with Anna; if her bizarre, unbridled perceptions turn out to be nothing more than the writer flexing his or her descriptive muscles, being clever or cute for cuteness or cleverness sake, then this opening fails for making promises it has no intention to deliver on.

I suspect this author won't let us down; that these perceptions of Anna's are there for a good reason, to introduce us to the psyche of a woman on the verge of mental breakdown. I suspect, too, that as the story progresses her problems—along with her perceptions—will only get worse.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hit and Run

A private investigator arrives at a murder scene. The weapon: not a bullet or the gun that fired it, but "the blunt square shape of the front of a car" traveling fast enough to have "become airborne . . . before slamming into its victim."

Though not stated as such, these observations clearly belong to Matt Selden, private-eye, as he takes in the scene, "pull[ing] his coat closer around him." We don't have to wonder what sort of coat he wears. As befitting the grand tradition of hardboiled crime fiction into which this snugly falls, it has to be a trench coat, one with the lapels flipped raffishly up and that has no doubt seen better days, as has its haggard, cynical owner.

Without even having read beyond the second paragraph already I feel I know Matt, or know his type. I've met him many times before in books and movies. He is Sam Spade in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. No stranger to violent crime or danger, he's been known to engage in a little of both himself now and then—for the sake of his clients. He's cocky, tough, a bit on the flip side—but not without principles, or a heart. He may not always get his man (or woman: the hardboiled school doesn't discriminate on the basis of sex); but his batting average is better than that of the cops with whom he shares a common goal, but with whom he nonetheless always finds himself working at cross purposes.

Pioneered in the 1920s by Carroll John Day and popularized in the '30s and '40s by Chandler and Hammett, the hardboiled genre—referred to less than generously by some as "pulp fiction"—remains hugely popular to this day. Part of that ongoing success may be owed to the genre's timelessness and versatility. After all, as long as there are criminals and crimes, someone will need to solve them—or try. That may explain why the genre has attracted writers as otherwise unlike each other as John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley—and others whose titles dominate bestseller lists, each of them giving the hardboiled theme a different twist.

Here, the "twist" seems to be that Matt Selden, private eye, is also a man of the cloth. "No," Matt replies when a burly police sergeant also at the scene sneers "Ah, Jesus" at him, "just one of his faithful ministers[italics mine]." It's not the first time that a fictional man of the cloth has slummed as a detective. In the early part of the last century English novelist G.K. Chesterton published 52 short stories starring Father Brown, a priest who moonlights as a Sherlock Holmes-like detective. Unlike his hardboiled successors, Father Brown exemplified the quiet humility of his other calling, and seldom spoke except to utter something profound. More recently Fr. Brad Reynolds and Andrew Greeley (himself a priest) have given us mystery-solving clergymen.

Though Hammett was an exquisite stylist (whose dialogue was so strong to arrive at a screenplay for The Maltese Falcon director John Huston supposedly had his secretary strip everything else out of the book), and beautifully-crafted hardboiled novels exist, to succeed at the genre gorgeous prose is by no means a prerequisite. "Adequate" sums up the style of most such novels.

Here, the prose is better than adequate. "Death had come airborne and metallic" draws me right in; there's a wisecracking, poetic edge to it that, I soon learn, is a product of the protagonist's steely cynicism. However hardboiled, the prose still makes room for atmosphere ("The first rays of the sun sparkled on the spire of the stately old church") and convincing detail ("His eyes narrowed as he saw a change in the color of the bitumen"). The trails of blood drifting away from the corpse are likened to the tendrils of a jellyfish. Though I regret the lack of faith in the reader that has the author assuring us us that the tendrils are of blood, still, the description works. With similar efficiency via a brief exchange of dialogue the author effectively renders the strained relationship between protagonist and beat sergeant.

Mean, lean, and clean—almost (but not quite) slick: befitting of a genre of which we've come to expect no more or less.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Road Train

Though the term is more familiar in Australia, a road train (or roadtrain) is a truck pulling two or more trailers in tandem. Here, in this effective opening, the road train becomes a source of anxiety and terror looming on the wavering horizon, "floating toward us above a hot blue lake across the road"—like one of those B-movie monsters from the 1950s, The Blob or Empire of the Ants. No longer simply a conveyance transporting innocent merchandise from point A to point B, here the road train becomes Yeats' "vast image " arising out of the desert sand . . . moving its slow thighs. . .slouch[ing] toward Bethlehem to be born." The narrator finds it scary, and so do we.

In fact the truck is only a truck—but still a source of fear and anxiety as it bears down on the protagonist in her car "like a boat with a cresting bow wave ahead of it." We are in Australia, somewhere in the outback, presumably. As one of the road train's trailers swings over the double white line the narrator braces herself for the collision, for "the smashing, shrieking, grinding impact of a side-swipe"—which, of course, doesn't come.

Instead of being smashed to death, the narrator is jolted into the past, into a memory of another violent disaster. Evocations of fire, screaming, of hot metal ticking, "blood oozing," of sirens wailing and emergency lights flashing off of buildings. The memory is vague but vivid. We learn that someone very close to the narrator—Simon, possibly the narrator's husband—died in "the crash."

Then the flashback ends and we return to that wavering stretch of highway—the same road, apparently, where Simon met his fate a year earlier. She is traveling from Perth to Sydney, a distance of over 4,000 kilometers, over forty hours, traveling "with Alice [her daughter?], [her] bags, and the last bits [of her life] in her car." The rest of her belongings are in the hands of "the removalist"—the Australian term for a moving contractor.

Though little is spelled out, much is conveyed in this efficient opening page: a mother whose life has been shattered by tragedy, hoping to leave that tragedy behind her and begin a new life. Will she make it? The road itself becomes a hazard, a portent—a symbol for the journey that has just begun, and which with its mirages and hazards is bound to be treacherous.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Clinic Caper

This scene of marital bliss set in the confines of a dermatologist's examination room feels more like something complete in and of itself than the opening of a longer work. If there's any doubt, the title of the piece seals it.

Not that there's anything wrong with telling a story in a page or two. In fact, anyone who can do so has my unqualified admiration. The trick, though, is to tell a story and not just relay an amusing anecdote.

An anecdote is a short narrative constructed around a unique, curious, and often provocative incident, one that typically reveals character through extreme circumstances and almost always with humor as its end. The term comes from the Greek word anekdota, meaning "unpublished"—an indeed, most anecdotes are relayed orally and not intended for nor worthy of the printed page except as illustrations serving some larger purpose—evoking, for instance, some facet of a character or characters. Served a la carte, anecdotes tend to be as ephemeral as they are amusing. They are garnishes or appetizers, not the main course.

Though quite nicely written, the opening scene here feels more anecdotal than it might were the emphasis less on the singular, curious, and provocative event in the clinic, and more on the two principle characters, Jim and his narrating wife. As it stands, I can imagine such a tale being told at a dinner party (a popular venue for anecdotes). The guests, who know this couple well—and who've also had their share of cocktails—are extremely amused, weeping with laughter. Their host is on a roll. When she gets to the part about the dermatologist's fiendish chair launching her husband through the stucco wall, I see them all doing spit takes with their wine into their Roquefort pear salads.

But literature isn't a dinner party, and the "guests" (unfamiliar readers) need something more than cocktails to wet their appetite for anecdotes. They need context. They need some sense of who these two are when not goofing around at the dermatological clinic. That sense—the very little of it that we get—is tucked into one sentence in the opening paragraph ("at the age of sixty-six and forty-one years of marital bliss, we saw no reason to occupy separate rooms"). We're told that they are an older, happily married couple, a statement the anecdote goes on to confirm. It does so charmingly and (except for the mishandling of internal quotation marks) with skill. It meets our expectations; nothing more. It neither suggests nor reveals anything more or less about the characters, who they are, or why we should care about them enough to want to keep reading.

And since the scene merely confirms what we've already been told—without a hint of irony or paradox or a shadow of doubt, I'm left unsatisfied. Again, at a dinner party I would be content to know that my hostess and her husband are lovely, happily married people: sure, it's probably not the whole story; in fact it may well be a total illusion. And yet what are dinner parties for if not to parade ourselves in front of our guests in our favorite masks?

If literature serves a purpose it's to tear those masks off--or at least let us peek through them and see the real lives underneath. Here, with this opening, I'm shown only the mask: a bright, smiling, charming one.

Supposing the shenanigans in the examination room were underscored by something grave? Supposing this routine visit to the dermatologist turned out to be anything but routine, that "everything" was not "all right"? The small blotchy growth on his shoulder? A stage-3 melanoma. Then this would be no mere anecdote, but revelatory of a devoted wife's courageous humor in the face of terror and tragedy.

The underscoring item needn't be something as grave as cancer, but it should carry us beyond anecdote.