Sunday, August 31, 2008

Way to go

Genre or category fiction is looked upon by its fans and to a degree by air travelers as a necessity, by many teachers as a necessary evil, and by literary writers as "that other stuff." Never mind that some established literary writers pseudonym their way into genre fiction, writing as it were from the closet, while others still jump right in with full frontal nudity. Joyce Carol Oates comes particularly to mind in this context, but A(ntonia). S. Byatt has also broken forth; so too have Cynthia Ozick, John Updyke, John Gregory Dune, Wilfrid Sheed, John Steinbeck, to name a few.

The overwhelming choice in category is the mystery, in some small part because of the long held belief that life is a mystery, but also because the format of the mystery, whether police procedural or private investigator or the more Hitchcockian innocent man/woman whom no one will believe, caught up in the eye of a crime storm, having to prove innocence without help. Well enough; the better mystery (say Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, or Ross Macdonald's The Underground Man) are in construction a splendid template for a longform narrative, any longform narrative.

Look at the elements. A crime has been committed. Some individual or team of individuals is set forth to discover who the perpetrator(s) is (are), attempt to bring them to justice, encounter reversal, then through persistence and ingenuity solve the puzzle of the crime, effect some satisfactory resolution. In a lovely bit of irony, Aristotle, in his Poetics, described the mystery novel even before it was invented (and brought to such a timeless finish by the likes of Wilkie Collins in The Moonstone and The Woman in White, just as in hos own way, Nathaniel Hawthorne could be argued to have not only "invented" the short story but solidified its form for some time to come when his Twice Told Tales inspired Poe to write his famous review of it which in turn described what a short story should do.

A mystery novel, broken into its component parts, is a series of interviews conducted by the protagonist force. All who may have seen or had involvement in the crime are questioned, their stories matched. Via subtext, the interviewee may reveal hidden agendas or other relevant clues.

The concatenation of events in a literary novel may be reduced to the equation, Something happens and somebody changes, a clear link between it and the mystery format. Of course each narrative, literary and mystery, has interstitial materials, narrative equivalents of the musical soloist's arpeggio or riff. Were you to deconstruct any given literary novel, say Henry James's The Ambassadors, simply because it happened to pop into my mind, and compare that deconstruction with a mystery novel, say Raymond Chandler's creditable The Little Sister, you'd find a theme of a protagonist set out on a quest. In the James, a character is enlisted in a mission to travel to Europe, seek the son of the "client," and urge him to return to America to join and ultimately run the family business. In the Chandler, a private investigator is retained by a client to find a missing relative.

There are delicious layers of irony, reversal, temptation, false leads, discoveries, and moral choices in each story. In each one, the principal player becomes compromised to a larger sense of human accountability.

In addition to the mysteries mentioned, the following have helpful information for writers: Frobisher's Savage by Leonard Tourney, (a mystery set in Elizabethan England), The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes, any Inspector Wexford mystery by Ruth Rendell, Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina.

Not to forget, however, the so-called Alternate Universe novel, a splendid sub-genre of fantasy. Perhaps the most notable of all AU stories is Alice in Wonderland, wherein a young girl is "transported" to another universe through the portal of a rabbit hole. Dorothy Gale is literally transported from Kansas to Oz via the portal or funnel of a cyclone. The AU novel reminds those of us who persist in telling stories that our own vision is seen differently by others, by readers, for instance. There are parallel as well as alternating universes, occupying portions of the present reality, but having slight differences in outcome and the stakes of the game.

I will not soon forget a young woman I've watched grow up in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, series of AU novels, beginning with The Golden Compass, which has its start at a university (Oxford) and is almost like the current Oxford except for the presence of Jordan College, which does not exist in my Oxford (or yours either) but does that stop me from being caught up in the world of Lyra Belacqua? Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is yet another AU novel in which characters are sent through a portal to another world to assist in tasks where there are risks, stakes, and satisfying results. If Wrinkle is your wrinkle, you'll be pleased to know that there are satisfying sequels.

If I were to set a novel in some agreeable (in the provocative, literary sense) city, it would be an alternate universe to your city, your Los Angeles or San Francisco or Austin or Portland, allowing you to experience and re-experience your city through my vision. What fun to write a novel about Los Angeles in which none of the characters had anything to do with the entertainment industry, or of San Francisco without a mention of the corkscrew of Lombard or Coit Tower. In Austin, I might very well invent a street crossing Ed Bluestein Blvd, just above or below the intersect with MLK, a street named after, well, Lowenkopf Rd. And right next to Jake's in Portland, or perhaps next to Powell's Books, a small taco stand. And wait till you see what I'd do with Salmon Street in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood.

The mystery and the alternate universe, both better role models or paradigms to have downloaded on the hard drive of our writer memory than any formula or outline, both signposts to guide us as we look for things, clues, suspects, solutions, in the landscape of our imaginative self. Or is that selves?


Anonymous said...

Re: alternate-universe stories... I've always been interested in a specific way in which a great deal of fiction, including much genre fiction and movies, is AU fiction even when not explicitly so.

Think e.g. of any Marlon Brando film made, oh, after 1965 or so. In none of them does Marlon Brando's or any other character inhabit a universe in which "Marlon Brando films" are a feature of popular culture.

Sometimes a mystery or SF author will tip his hat, slyly, to a forebear (even a contemporary) in the genre. But in none of Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, say, does a character walk into Bernie's bookstore and find a Bernie Rhodenbarr book -- or any other book by an author named "Lawrence Block."

There must be a name for this phenomenon.

(Part of me has always thought there's potential for an interesting, non-gimmicky story in all of this; part of me says to stop wool-gathering and get back to work.)

Anonymous said...

If I reimagine Austin, I shall surely have Lowenkopf Blvd. No doubt.

I've created an AU. I think. I wonder if that is good or bad--if it helps the story or is a trick. But when I write I look back over what I've written and find it is idd, things aren't completely like the real world, and I don't know for sure where these things came from.

I guess I need to work on my list.

Anonymous said...

In my English major days I read all the "greats" and in my twenties and thirties I read literary fiction, but for the last several years, my fiction-reading consists almost exclusively of mysteries- the more literary the better; Reginald Hill, Laurie King, PD James, etc. Yet my novel is mainstream, not a mystery. I guess that's because I read mysteries for the moral universe they inhabit, but I don't think I have the chops to pull off a mystery in which the murder has the impact of real life, as opposed to serving mainly as a plot device, and I don't have the desire or the experience to get inside the mind of a detective. It's a conundrum for me, since everyone says to "write the kind of books you read". Do most people write in the genre they read? Or am I weird in that I don't? Maybe I should stick with nonfiction- the difference between real (death) and unreal (the way people react to death in most mysteries) is more clear to me there...

Querulous Squirrel said...

Magical realism is often a subtle AU, with reality infused with magical elements, reality overlayed and pervaded by some alternate realm. Surrealism, too, as in Kafka, provides an AU within the confines of apparently normal reality. These are the novels I love the best, where there is often confusion and distress on the part of those that perceive the AU when others don't. Of course there are the Stephen King horror genre, which I have not read, but I suspect is too formulaic and the reader knows exactly what to expect. With magical realism and surrealism you don't know what to expect and you eventually find yourself steeped in bizarro land before you know it. No clues, no suspects, no solutions, just crazy experience. Kind of the way I personally see life.

Anonymous said...

Reginald Hill has at least two books where the "murderer" is never detected by the cops and even in the third book in which this antagonist appears, we are left wondering along with the cops, esp. when he dies a hero's death. Wonderful ambiguity.