Saturday, July 28, 2012

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

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So I bought a round-trip ticket on the Chandler train. Can you blame me? The guy tells good stories.

And that's what I've been thinking about -- stories. Or, more specifically, story. When I finished The Big Sleep, I wrote a post about novels having plot. Normally, when I finish a blog post, I release the thoughts I've had on a particular, and they release me. But not this time. Something has been nibbling at the edges of my mind. Something about how some folks sneer at "plot," but still love a good "story"; and how these concepts matter to books like Chandler's.

The confusion -- and this isn't just in my mind, I think -- lies in the distinction between plot and story. In the Venn diagram of these concepts, I think there's a fairly substantial Cecilia. (Plenty of people will disagree with me; whaddya gonna do?) That overlap is "what happens" in a given novel.

I tend to forget that, while plot and story have a lot of parallels, they don't require each other. Vaguely and loosely put, plot is what happens externally, and story what happens internally. My routine visit to the grocery store has a plot; I can tell you precisely what happened and in what order, complete with reasoning and motive and all that jazz, but there's no story. Likewise, I could change my life by staring at the unrelenting sun through my window; nothing happens except that I (or maybe my readers, if I'm a character) undergo some shift in how I (or my readers) understand the world.

When the Modernists eschewed plot, many of them still clung to story -- to the change or refusal to change, largely independent of neat-and-tidy outside factors that to them were absolutely unlike real life. To me, that's as interesting as a novel with all action and no internal change on anyone's part. (Not very interesting at all.) I think most enduring stories exist in that Cecilia, those stretches of storytelling where the tracks of plot and story run side-by-side. (Like train tracks! And the story runs over them like a locomotive! Metaphors are fun.)

So when I said before that Chandler's books require an element of plot, I meant it. But unlike many other detective tales, the story of novels like Farewell, My Lovely is why we come back again and again. Once we know the answer to the puzzle, we're not ruined for re-readings. And Marlowe's story can shine through because it doesn't get too bogged down in plot -- we never find out what those five words are, the doctor really was just coincidental, we don't get an arrest and a trial and a neat-and-tidy conclusion.

I don't care, though. What happens plot-wise is still critical to the novel, but I don't come to Chandler to solve logic games. I come to learn about myself, to see my own world in a new way, to better understand where the monsters really are. (This novel is one of those where the reader changes as much as the protagonist -- I love when that happens.)

When I close the book, my heart is broken and my confidence shaken. Only a proper Cecilia has that kind of power.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

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I read an article this week (available here -- yes, it's from 2009, which in my mind is like two months ago) whose author, Lev Grossman, made the claim that "If there's a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot." I give Grossman some cred for acknowledging the apparent prevalence of strong plot elements in contemporary stories, and I really appreciate his concise summary of the Modernists of the early 20th century. Those are the writers largely responsible for the idea that "good literature" should be somewhat difficult to read, and its plot should be far from primary (if there at all). Those are also the writers in whose shadow every genre writer, every commercial writer, every plot-conscious author has written for the last hundred years or so.

Yes, plot is making a comeback of sorts, in that it's pushing aside much of that highbrow "literary" fiction. But doesn't something have to go away in the first place in order to make a true comeback?

Sure, the Modernists contributed to the 20th century some of its greatest literature. But they didn't contribute its only great literature. Plot-based (not necessarily to mean plot-centric) fiction was still there through it all. It mutated and evolved as much as any other type of storytelling in the last century; it gave us modern fantasy, science fiction, and the hard-boiled detective.

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, the first of his Philip Marlowe novels, is one of the great books of that century rife with good books. It's a mystery, so of course plot is critical. But can the Modernist-influenced among us truly sneer at it simply for having a plot?

It's not a great novel because it has a plot; it's not even the plot that makes the novel memorable. I would argue that Chandler's style, his voice, those elements oh-so-important to the Modernist gang, are what make his stories great. He feeds us the Los Angeles of the 1930s and makes it Marlowe's own, simply through his use of the language. Marlowe is blunt, straightforward, and yet also lyrical. His descriptions make the world, make it pop from the page as much as Anne Shirley's descriptions make Anne of Green Gables so cherished.

Yet a book full of a detective's wise-cracks without a plot -- without a sphere for the shamus to move around in and make his own -- would be a pretty hobbled effort at storytelling. The plot may not be central here, but it sure is necessary. Isn't that true for most stories? For most readers?

I have to say that plot's always been important to readers as a whole. Some folks decided in the early 20th century (and, sure, with good reason) to eschew plot, and it was a worthy experiment. But plot's not making a comeback so much as the elevation of plot-less storytelling appears to be declining. The task that awaits the 21st century's best writers is not to fall into the trap that plot is everything: plot must be populated with real characters and with language that goes pop! in the reader's imagination.

And readers must shoulder their share of the burden: they must demand quality not just in what happens, but in how it happens. In that combination, rather than in some Modernist ideal, might rest the key of classic writing. After all, what is the Great Novel of the Century if no one cares to read it in the next century?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mother America, by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

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The stories in Mother America, a brand-new collection of writing from one of Ireland's young stars, are emotionally, locationally, and temporally diverse, and Ní Chonchúir's prose is both simple to read and beautiful to contemplate. You see right away why she is so highly regarded on an island that honors its literary spirits.

This collection got me thinking about two aspects of writing that I now think are intertwined. (Maybe the connection between these two aspects is obvious; still, it's one my brain is formulating for the first time.) The first springs from a comment fantasy writer Daniel Abraham made to me. He said, "Genres are where fears pool." That is, genre fiction is free to explore (and often does explore) whatever aspects of our cultural and social psyche make us uncomfortable, confuse us, or frighten us. Powerful women? Out-of-control technology? Dying and, worse, living alone? Yup, we as a society (and often as individuals) grapple with these very concepts. And in order for us real people to confront our fears, the books we read end up confronting them, too.

Now put that thought on hold for one moment while we contemplate the other aspect of writing, which is more craft-based than the first one. In my opinion, any successful story involves a character facing some difficulty and either actively overcoming it, or actively failing to overcome it. (That's a very simplified version. Bear with it.) Otherwise, the story is a vignette, a glimpse, a snapshot (not a photograph--a successful photograph can very much tell a story). Many writers and critics will tell you that the purpose of a short story is to capture just such a moment, and that change of any kind is unnecessary. I disagree with them. The difficulty faced can be minute or it can be monstrous or it can be monumental; it can be getting out of bed, or it can be landing a Volkswagen on the moon. But it must be there, and the character must face it, and regardless of the result, the character must be changed or affected in some meaningful way.

Why shouldn't these two concepts come together? In genre, the pooled fears are our fears. You could read that to mean that in "literary" fiction, the fears are not ours, but belong... to whom? To the authors? To the characters alone?

Baloney, spelled B-O-L-O-G-N-A. In order for us real people to confront our fears, the characters in the stories we read have to confront them, too. Genre simply has more options to make our fears metaphorical, symbolic, exaggerated, or otherwise removed from the "real world." Fiction set in this "real world," stories like Ní Chonchúir's, don't allow the degrees of separation. The fears aren't metaphorical here; they are personal. In either kind of story, the fears are there.

Stories are where fears pool.

This is why each and every story worth its salt has a difficulty that a character must face. Everything that is puppy-dogs and cotton-candy and rainbows doesn't resonate, doesn't ask questions, doesn't evaluate. We don't learn who we are as individuals and as a race by being happy all the time. We learn who we are by facing our fears.

The thread that sews together the stories in Mother America is, ostensibly, motherhood. Yet I see the thread of facing fears more strongly than I have in many genre collections. Fear of living alone. Fear of committing infidelity. Fear of parenting. Fear of how to define oneself. Fear of death. Fear of living. Fear of knowing, of being a child, of being part of a couple, of being part of a family. Fears many of us have on an intensely intimate level.

In many of these stories, nothing "happens" in an external sort of way. (In many others, all kind of events "happen.") Either way doesn't matter. Plenty happens when these characters step up to their fears. And when they do, the reader is right there with them, joining in the showdown.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins

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Well, whaddya know, pardner? Alone at the Microphone is celebrating its 100th post today. That's one hundred books (give or take) that spurred musings of one kind or another, one hundred threads of thought woven together into an Indian blanket that keeps a mind warm at night, one hundred forays into the e-frontier of the Wild Wild Web.

Thank you all for hitching your wagons to this here train.

What better way to commemorate one hundred posts than with a book that knocks me clean out of the saddle every time I read it?

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was one of the first books to make me evaluate the world and how I live in it. The fact that it's just as powerful on re-reading proves that its potency was no mere trickery of radical language on my malleable undergraduate brain.

What I appreciate now, and feel I missed the first time through, is that Tom Robbins expands the mind without dictating new ways of thought. His characters (who alone can make a reader spin around and take stock of the world) spout some form of quotable wisdom about every third page -- and every single instance of such sage thought is questioned, or willfully contradicted, or gleefully countered. Who's to say what we should think?

What we think is not the goal. How we think is not the aim. That we think -- now there's the ace in the sleeve.

The form of thinking most dangerous to each of us individually occurs when we align our wheels with the railroad laid by someone else -- and then allow our cabooses to glide along the rails without wondering when we should jump the tracks. Realize what your words mean when you use them; aim for freedom (in yourself -- forget politically; political freedom will be irrelevant when we are all free in our own selves) over happiness (for what could be happier than freedom?); revel in your paradoxes and find in your contradictions the truth of your existence!

Or don't. Why should Mr. Robbins and I tell you how to think? We shouldn't! What do we know any better than you? Buy into what I say, or what Tommy says, just because we say it, and you're not thinking for yourself.

As you should. (There I go, telling you to think for yourself. A contradiction?)

So don't listen to me. Except when I say that you should read this book. (See? I revel in my contradictions!) It's rude, irreverent, and farcical. A thumb debates civilization with a brain. Gender is blurred. Semen sloshes and vaginal odors waft. (This book may not be for the puritanical or the chaste-of-thought. Or maybe it's perfect for them!) And through it all, you will think.

Now tell me, pardner: what greater gift can a book give you than the gift of thought?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I had never thought about the deterioration of paint until recently. When I hear or read of damage to old paintings, I always think of water stains, or transport damage, or other such wear-and-tear calamities. Actually, certain compounds in paint will decay, and often at different rates, so that what you see on many older paintings is a variance in brightness, vividness, and (believe it or not) opacity. Some bits of old paintings are now transparent because the top layer of paint has aged so noticeably.

On a recent visit to the National Gallery in London, I was fascinated by a painting of a drawing-room. The artist wanted to show off how he could paint sunlight coming through a window at an angle, and the focus is meant to be the noble men and soldiers sitting around a table. However, my fascination rooted itself in the long skirt of a maidservant. Her blue garment was transparent. Through it, I could see that the artist had carefully painted the floor tiles and the fireplace before putting the woman over top of them.

Yet she had no legs.

Why, you might think, should she? Of course, looking through her skirt and seeing no corporeal stilts jars an admirer of the painting, but the artist could not have been concerned with how his painting would look after long years of slow deterioration. If her skirt was plausible in and of itself, who would care whether he had bothered to paint the unseen supporting frame underneath?

I was disillusioned, to say the least. Disappointed in the artist, and consequently the entire painting. The painter had not done the leg work (yeah, I went there), and yet he expected to pass his work off on me. Yet I felt it was all artifice and no substance, once I saw that the woman's legs were as real as Casper's. That blue skirt did precisely what suited the painter, and not what it would have done had the body swishing it been permitted any amount of life.

I had the same unfortunate feeling with Ishiguro's novel. Yes, he is a masterful writer, and The Remains of the Day continues to haunt me with its beauty, its resonance, and its power (come on -- he makes an impossible love story between a butler and a maidservant more meaningful than all of World War II). But Never Let Me Go showed me the gears where there should have been legs.

The narrative structure bothered the snot out of me, for one thing. Our narrator, Kathy, takes up a conversational tone when she needs to jump around in time or provide explanations for earlier references. But we never learn what context this conversation is in -- is she writing it, or speaking it? To whom? And why? By pointing it out so blatantly in the story, Ishiguro begged the question of context without satisfying the hunger for an answer.

And the characters follow what I can only assume is Ishiguro's own sensibility when it comes to relationships. Conflicts never happen in the open -- they're all full of supposition and nuance. Which, fine, okay; some people interact like that. But to have a boarding school full of teenagers who (VERY minor spoiler) know for a fact that they cannot get pregnant, and to have those same teenagers take a very timid and cautious approach to sex? Please. These aren't butlers. No matter how prissy and reserved some of them are, sex would be happening all over the place -- if not in the cafeteria, then certainly in every bedroom and every unlocked classroom.

The story is enjoyable enough, and the threads all get tied up (even if, in my opinion, unsatisfactorily). But if you want a good Ishiguro, go find The Remains of the Day. It does a much better job examining "what it is to be human" (an honest-to-god puff quote from Never Let Me Go) than this effort, which will likely stand the test of time about as well as blue skirt paint.