Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Alternate Currents

Genre fiction is often assigned the equivalent of right field bleacher seating if, indeed, it is allowed in the stadium. Only when some genre author seeks a tryout for the major leagues of literary fiction and is subsequently accepted or when some tangibly literary author takes a crack at genre do we experience a glimmer of the snobbery and exclusionism at play.

To be sure, every genre comes with a built in genome of promise: the mystery novel promises the reader an intriguing crime-related puzzle, a romance presents an intelligent woman (who often has no idea how attractive she is) with the need to make a romantic choice, an historical novel promises a close-up of a particular geographical place at a specified moment in history, a fantasy promises some puzzle or complication caused by magic to be removed or solved by the use of a superior magic, a juvenile promises the reader an interesting younger protagonist involved in a quest. In recent years, it has become fashionable for genre writers to conflate historical setting with another genre, say mystery. Accordingly, all genres have their built-in promises. Readers who do not find these basic themes as expected stop reading, move on to another title, possibly even another author.

Genre fiction tends to be plot driven, which is to say the author drives the characters forward as though an Australian Cattle Dog were nipping at their heels, the events and goals of story forcing the characters into the responses we would expect from accelerating tension and dramatic momentum. Genre authors add to this plot-drive condition by imposing some sort of ticking clock, a time frame in which certain activity and behavior are expected--or else.

The mystery novel, for instance, presents a crime which is either committed before the readers' eyes or which has taken place moments before the start of the story. A person or persons set forth to "solve" the crime, to discover who committed the crime and then to bring such perpetrator to some form of justice before said perpetrator can commit another similar crime or perhaps an even worse kind of crime. Mystery readers have come to recognize that their inherent sense of justice is being played to; they also have come to recognize the imperfection of life as it is, looking to the mystery novel as their ritualized form of having their belief in justice affirmed and ratified. Each year an increasing number of literary fiction writers take on the mystery as an intriguing challenge. The most recent example of note is the Irish writer and critic, John Banville, the 2006 winner of the vaunted Booker Prize for his novel, The Sea.

It is less a mountain goat leap from steep escarpment to steep escarpment than it may seem to suggest from this calculus that all genre writers should read literary novels then attempt to write one, and that all literary writers should read mysteries, then attempt to write one. The mystery novel, be it the hardboiled detective or crime novel or the more urbane puzzle quest, is a splendid role model format for any kind of novel. Take something as recondite as The Ambassadors by Henry James, in which a problem is set forth. A wealthy widow wants her son to return home from his life of leisure in Paris, where he is indulging himself in the pleasures of an attractive French woman, take a position within the family business, then step forth after a time to run the family business. The wealthy widow sends a man who is more or less her boyfriend to bring her son home. The boyfriend has a rather nice job editing a literary journal which the widow is subsidizing. If the boyfriend is successful in persuading the son to return home, the widow will, quid pro quo, marry the boyfriend, more or less insuring his comfortable editorial life and adding the potential benefits of marriage. Not a bad errand to be sent on; in some ways the errand is considerably better than the cop given a case to solve or a private eye being retained to secure evidence of a crime. The boyfriend heads over to Paris, finds the son, persuades him to return home. Mission accomplished, right? Not so; the boyfriend becomes fascinated with the attractive French woman to the point of taking up with her. There is a resemblance if not a congruence between The Ambassadors, which was published in 1903, and The Maltese Falcon, which was published just twenty-seven years later. Although it is likely that Dashiell Hammett read The Ambassadors, Henry James had been dead sixteen years by the time The Maltese Falcon was published. The connection is only in my mind, a suggestion that the form of the mystery novel is an ideal medium for pursuing the illusive story genome, using it to bring convincing and provocative drama to the page.

Nor is it any more precarious a leap to suggest that all writers should read alternate universe fiction, a genre that posits among other things that somewhere in the universe is a world exactly like this one in every detail of its creation and history except--and this is where the author's inventiveness and purpose come forth, except, perhaps that in the alternate universe, characters who are right-handed in this universe appear as left-handed in the alternate world. Or perhaps there is a switch in which African Americans are portrayed as white and vise versa. Reading alternate universe fiction such as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy helps define a landscape where many things vary slightly from what we recognize as reality. Similarly, as a fan of the late lawyer-turned-novelist George V. Higgines (The Friends of Eddie Coyle 1972), I find his Boston different from the Boston of Dennis Lehane (Mystic River; Gone, Baby, Gone), and yet they both write of the same segments of that society and indeed, an author I discovered from the same neighborhoods in Boston, the late Robert Rimmer, wrote of an entirely different world (giving Bantam Books its first million-copy paperback reprint). Fond of Boston as I am, I'd need to spend some time there before I could write of it and were I to do so, my focus would be on an entirely alternate universe of Boston and surrounding suburbs. Reading the works of alternate universe authors is instructive in at least this way; it causes us to create our own place, color it with our own attitudes, landmarks, spoken language, and outstanding features.

Fond as I am and familiar as I am with the parts of Los Angeles written about by John Fante, a writer I much admire, my Bunker Hill is not his, my vision not his, least of all because we come from different cultural packages, but nevertheless because of that least of all. Fond as I am of the parts of Santa Barbara written by Ross Macdonald, whom I knew and admired, my Santa Barbara locales are different, my characters different, my attitudes different. His mysteries, which I believe transcend genre, and indeed all the titles I've mentioned to this point are alternate worlds I love to visit and revisit, even as I create my own alternate worlds and the mysteries wanting to be solved among their denizens.

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