Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bad a Good Sense

The first bad news of the day is the first paragraph of George Pelecanos new novel, The Turnaround, which is an attitudinal map of a middle-aged man named John Pappas whom, we are shown, opened a coffee shop in 1964, when his two sons were only eight and six, respectively. It is by no means a long paragraph, but by the time we are finished with it, we are to a significant degree screwed because it not only gets us on board with John Pappas, it serves notice on us that our presence is required immediately for the purpose of reading the next two hundred ninety-four pages. Excuses not tolerated.

Round two of bad news for the day is the fact that the book review for this week is a Golden Oldie, something that has already been published and that has either slipped through the cracks or been toppled from the iconography by the appearance of a newer icon. Thus is is not easy to settle in with The Turnaround under the sophistry that it will become this week's book to be reviewed.

Oh, the bad news continues: Round three is that the book selected for review for this cycle of the Golden Oldies, is Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds, which of itself is more of a problem because it is so arguably funny, a send-up of the part of Twentieth Century literature commonly thought to be the most inventive and rich.

Add to that the arrival from various Amazon dot com sources of the three-volume Philip Pullman series, His Dark Materials, beginning with The Golden Compass. This trilogy was foisted off on you, thanks to the enthusiastic genius of Michael Chabon, writing in his latest book, Maps and Legends, and served forth with such eclat that you were driven posthaste to Amazon dot com to place your order. 

 You no sooner peel away the wrappings, spilling the plastic peanuts all over the floor of your car, then begin to read when you are hit with a literal and figurative thwack of jealousy because Pullman's device for getting his fantasy trilogy underway is something that grew under your own nose, something you thought an incipient mustache, maybe, and promptly shaved away. The protagonist is a young girl set loose on the grounds of a major university wherein her father professes literature. She quickly discovers as all protagonists discover a portal which is an entry to another world, a parallel universe or an alternate universe. One of the reasons you hit upon such logistics speed bumps in your own fiction is because so much of your background was in writing, then writing and television, then writing and television and publishing, which did not give you the edge you sought. 

 Once you set foot on the campus of the University of Southern California, things became clear to you; they became clear in a Marxist, feminist, historical, post-modernist, deconstructionist sort of way, a fact you more or less nailed down to your satisfaction in a story you called The Ability, wherein you conflated the university setting with the central metaphor of Heart of Darkness. This thwack of jealousy was a one-two punch, kishkes to forehead. 

 Why hadn't you thought of that--a young girl on campus enters a netherworld, perhaps through a portal in the basement of a sorority house, but somewhere in which the fantasy/parallel universe elements lead us through the turmoil of undergraduate rituals followed by graduate initiation rites, offices with windows, tenure track, and the incessant wave of deans as they pass through the landscape, recalling that even now, in real life, one such dean wrote a series of books about you in which he transported you to the unearthly world of The Bronx before allowing you to come back where you belonged, to California, from whence trans-fats have been banished.

This may seem to have wandered off its intended course, which was linked to the concept of Bad News which was really Good News. But it has not. The linking factor is causality, the thing that causes a person to do what he or she does next, the underlying DNA of character and story, the carefully selected events used in dramatic narrative to suggest an event from which dramatic consequences spring.

Often causal events are random, or at least working somewhere above or below human emotional radar. Things happen, as the saying goes. No story there. But consider, things happen and as a consequence characters respond by doing or feeling X. Hi, I'm Shelly and I'll be your tour guide to this version of story. Things happen. Someone is affected and effected by them, which produces the chain reaction of causality.

Some many years ago, when I was recruited by the then department chair, Irwin Blacker, to teach courses about publishing and fiction, he casually asked if he could order a few dozen copies of Aspects of the Novel by E.M Forester, to use as my text. One of the things I've learned in my years at the university is that the answer to all rhetorical questions from administrators and department heads is, "Of course." 

 Present dean does not fit in this calculus; she is a pure delight, who in the first place doesn't ask rhetorical questions and who steadfastly offers encouragement in the second place. Present department chair, while too close to starting her job, appears to be of the same encouraging force. Okay, so I rushed forth to read Aspects of the Novel, whereupon I got the vital function of causality. The force that causes people in stories to do what they do, to not do what they would not do. Over the years, particularly in context with working with Digby Wolfe, I added the notion of my own that causality causes people to draw the line at what they would not do, then somehow get nudged or yanked or otherwise lured over that line.

In a rather splendid blog essay yesterday from
I found among other goodies, the phrase, "from the photograph massacre of 1983," which is as effective an example as I could want to articulate the concept of causality. She, the writer, had no need or desire to say more of the event, perhaps sufficiently aware of the emotional consequences of that "massacre" on her and others involved. Or perhaps she's saving the meme for use in a story or chapter of her own. 

 It is the perhaps-laden quality of those words, "the photograph massacre of 1983," that makes it so ideal a causal event. It is every bit as good as, say, Romeo, writing a post-modernist account of Romeo and Juliet, in which they both got away, were married, nearly broke up when the kids went off to school, and now, on the advise of his therapist--undoubtedly a Jungian--he is writing a memoir. "If I had not gone to the party that night, I might never have met Juliet. Then I'd not have been able to use the best pick-up line I'd ever come up with. I'd, like, take her hand and go

"' If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.'

"But she was all:
'Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.'

"So now, here we are, and now we have to decide Christmas with her family and Thanksgiving with mine or Christmas with mine and Christmas with hers, and let me tell you, it doesn't get better with time."

Okay, so I've gone from sublime to whimsy but the point that shines through all of this is the sharp edge of causality, the event that looms so speculatively within the reader's consciousness, like, say, the first paragraph of the new Pelecanos.


Anonymous said...

I just hoped it would be enough.


Anonymous said...

Things happen, and other things happen for a reason/s. Portals into other worlds are sometimes opened through a wardrobe, a scroll, sometimes a number. Other realities are all around us, and sometimes they are found simply by speaking to the person next to you. That's the good and the bad news, both for those trying to muddle through the "real world", and for writers muddling through other worlds.