Archive for the 'Character' Category

Over the top in Under the Dome

Late in the novel Under the Dome, Stephen King’s new thousand-pager, a character muses about the roads not taken: “Before these last few days, Carolyn would have said she had no interest in having children, that what she wanted was a career as a teacher and a writer. Maybe a novelist, although it seemed to her that writing novels was pretty risky; what if you spent all that time, wrote a thousand-pager, and it sucked?”

Well, if you’re Stephen King, the one-man deforestation juggernaut with something like 47 novels to your credit, it probably doesn’t much matter at all. Which isn’t to say Under the Dome sucks, per se, but if King’s place in pop literature wasn’t already cemented, this one might do little to help.

Storytelling can be described as putting characters in a crucible and turning up the heat. It’s a strategy that King explores literally in Under the Dome, where the small town of Chester’s Mill in the American northeast finds itself closed off from the rest of the world when a mostly impenetrable dome descends on it. (Air and water can still permeate, but barely.) The folks in Chester’s Mill do as characters usually do in Stephen King novels: if they’re decent, they band together and survive; if not, their more primitive natures run amok and things get nasty.

If they’re really bad, they become the uppercase ‘V’ Villain, like Big Jim Rennie, a car dealer, town selectman and clandestine crystal meth magnate who manipulates the dome to his advantage. King’s strength as a writer, however, is more in his finely turned minor characters and not the over-the-top baddies. As rotten as he is, Rennie is less interesting and not as well drawn as, for example, a throwaway character like Samantha Bushey, a slacker, teenaged mum and drug user who endures some of the novel’s most disturbing violence. Bushey’s victimization comes not at the hands of the alien forces controlling the dome (do they even have hands?), but a posse of thugs deputized into Rennie’s police force. (“Yes, Pogo, we has seen the true horror and it is us!”)

King deftly keeps the pages turning, but I can’t help but think back with nostalgia and a twinge of sadness to the more suspenseful reading experiences he provided in his early books. I can still remember white-knuckling my way through The Shining on my breaks on some forgotten nightshift. That novel remains for me one of the most memorable and amazing reading experiences ever; who knew books could do that?

I can’t claim to have followed the King oeuvre with much consistency over the years but Under the Dome for me represents a coarsening of his craft. There is more hamfisted thuggery and brute violence than goose pimply creepiness here. Too often the simple gross-out, which King has never been too proud to deploy, stands in for genuine tension and fright. For example, these characters are all really, really scared, or just generally, er, losing it:

The crotch of her gardening jeans darkened as her urine let go.

She was having a goddam seizure. “Stop it!” he shouted. Then, as she voided herself: “Stop it! Stop doing that, you bitch!”

Janelle, eyes open but showing only whites, wasn’t convulsing—thank God for that—but she was trembling all over. She had pushed the covers down with her feet, probably at onset, and in the double flashlight beams he could see a damp patch on her pajama bottoms.

There was a dark spot spreading on his shorts.

She saw the wetness spreading around the crotch of her jeans and thought, Yep—I’ll have to change again, all right. If I live through this, that is.

But then he observed that the kid’s pajama pants were soaked. Junior had pissed himself.

He remembered connecting with one Abdul’s bony, shit-speckled ass, and the red mark his combat boot had left there.

His father had combed his hair, but as he lay dying he had, like his late wife, pissed his pants.

His specialties in these latter days included eating Jell-O pudding without getting it up his nose and occasionally making it to the toilet before releasing half a dozen blood-streaked pebbles into the commode.

And of course…

She was scared shitless.

So it goes. The novel eventually dribbles to a less-than-satisfying resolution and [SPOILER ALERT] Chester’s Mill is once again free — but of course not until there’s a huge spike in the body count.

Stephen King has single-handedly reinvented the horror genre and established a place (albeit often contested) in American letters. Even when he’s average he’s way above a lot of what passes for popular literature. If he reveals encroaching infirmities in Under the Dome, I, for one, am willing to hang in there anyway – given his lifetime achievement, I figure I owe him at least that much.

It’s hard not to gush about Price’s Lush Life

Lush Life by Richard Price is flat out one of the best books I’ve read. I’ve always loved his novels for the windows they open on urban life, for their rich portrayals of people caught in awful events, and for their sheer propulsive drive. Clockers, Samaritan, Freedomland — these are books one can’t help but guzzle in a few long, greedy gulps; Lush Life is no different.

But calling it a page-turner or crime novel devalues its abundant artistry, and there is much here to admire. I’m painfully aware that trying to tease apart all the different strands that go into fine writing is a difficult and clumsy business. Focusing on narrative pacing leads to a discussion of scene construction and before you know it, to plot, with several branching threads like tone and setting emerging at the same time. And can you really separate character development from dialogue, description and plot? The sum is definitely greater than the parts.

Nevertheless, Price’s greatest gifts may be with dialogue and in rendering character in a few deft strokes. Here’s his introduction of one of the main characters, Eric Cash, 35, who runs the front of the house at a restaurant called Berkmann’s:

He had no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill: playing the lead in a basement-theater production of The Dybbuk sponsored by 88 Forsyth House two years ago, his third small role since college, having a short story published in a now-defunct Alphabet City literary rag last year, his fourth in a decade, neither accomplishment leading to anything; and this unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall

Why is it so many writers still insist on providing physical details like hair or eye colour? Are those details ever important? Price, in just one sentence, situates his character within the arc of his own life — and then gives us the character’s response to that.

Even the relatively minor characters in Lush Life have lives that are rich and textured. Making the most of  the walk-ons gives a novel heft and authenticity; it makes the world being created seem deeper and therefore more believable.

Realistic dialogue is another technique that aids in the portrayal of character, but also keeps the narrative humming along.

“See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.”

“Maquetbumba?”…

“Dominican dude. Dead now. My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.”

“What kind of name is that.”

“I just said. Dominican.”

“What’s it mean, though.”

“Maquetumba? Man, you should know, you Dominican.”

“Puerto Rican.”

“Same shit, ain’t it?”

Tristan shrugged.

“Sss,” Little Dap sucked his teeth. “Like, ‘he who drops the most,’ some shit like that.”

“Drops what?”

Little Dap just stared at him.

And so on. I love the omission of question marks in some of those questions — it’s pitch perfect. Price manages to capture the speech sounds of these two without resorting to an overabundance of annoying word contortions. He gives us one “din’t” for didn’t, but doesn’t overdo it. “My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight,” is just as strong and less distracting than something like, “Ma brother tol’ me him ‘n’ ‘is crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.” Our ears are already filling in the speech patterns by that point.

Lastly, Price’s lower eastside Manhattan also figures as a character. Here’s a nice bit of rendered setting — a description of a desanctified synagogue that now serves as a condo — which also gives us some detail about the main character:

“But for all this reborn carriage house’s ingenuity, its artful attempt at appeasing its own history while declaring itself the newest of the new, it was the double layer of evicted ghosts — pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners — that still held sway for him, Matty having always been afflicted with Cop’s Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went.”

One of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing is to leave out the boring bits that readers tend to skip over. There’s nothing boring here; this is a riveting account of what happens after a routine mugging turns fatal when a twitchy teen holding the gun overreacts at a victim’s bravado. So rich. So believable. I recommend it without reservation.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting interview with Price about Lush Life at Amazon, here, and another from NPR’s Fresh Air, here.

Zombies: at last lurching into the limelight?

If we can say Bram Stoker’s Vampire, Count Dracula, personified fears of unknown perils and unchecked appetites when if was written in 1897, then the Zombie seems to be a fitting trope for our Wal-Mart world of rampant globalization fostered by sociopathic corporations. The Vampire mesmerizes, plays on repressed sexuality, and “vants to drink your blood.” The relentless Zombie, together with gazillions of his friends, just keeps coming at you — “brains…brains,” he moans.

Zombies have pursued the living up on the silver screen since the 1950s, well before George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Since then, comic books, video games, many more movies — and novelizations of movies — have followed. But the Zombies have never quite cottoned to the printed page like the vampire. A Google search for “Zombie fiction” yields 18,400 matches, while “Vampire fiction” delivers 155,000. The difference in the number of fictional titles at my local library is even greater: Zombies – 15, Vampires – 301.

There could be many reasons for that. Books were the dominant entertainment medium when Stoker popularized his Vampire, while the Zombie is very much the child of cinema. (Even so, numbers from the Internet Movie Database also indicate Z. has a long stagger to catch up to V.) Zombies have little, if any, personality, intelligence or sex appeal, so it’s pretty much impossible to create an engaging character out of one. Reanimated decaying corpses are just too conceptual and machinelike and can’t capture the imagination like those charming, shape-shifting vampires can.

But perhaps a new day dawns for the dead with the publication of World War Zby Max Brooks. And yes, I freely concede I’m betraying a certain snobbery by suggesting Zombies haven’t fully arrived until they’ve broken into the bookstore and mainstream bestseller lists. So go ahead — bite me. I mean, as long as you’re not a Zombie or anything.

Brooks gives us a future history describing the global conflagration known as “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” or simply “World War Z.” The real genius of his novel is to appropriate the journalistic technique pioneered by Studs Terkel, in which the event is told from a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Just as Terkel’s war reporting ranged across time, rank and theatre of operation, Brooks covers the progress of World War Z from Sydney to Jerusalem, Manitoba to Tokyo. And then some.

Through more than 50 different voices we learn about the early days of the conflict, The Great Panic, pivotal battles like Yonkers, cleaning up frozen Zombies in the north and the rationale for key decisions by world leaders.

It’s all very richly imagined and capably told. Although the narrative structure precludes the development of any genuine suspense, Brooks does register a reasonable creepiness quotient. Consider this scene told by a Japanese man about how, as a teenager, he managed to flee his infested apartment building by climbing down the outside, balcony by balcony. (Note: he uses the Japanese word for Zombie, siafu.)

I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.

It takes a very special ear to be able to particularize the speech of more than 50 different speakers and if I have a quibble with World War Z it’s that many of the accounts wind up sounding much the same in tone and diction. Brooks sets himself a formidable challenge and does succeed admirably with several memorable accounts — but one wonders what might have been achieved by a more gifted ventriloquist. For example, here is an excerpt from a novel I’m reading now, Lush Life, by Richard Price:

See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.

I didn’t tell you anything about who was talking or where, but I bet the dialect and detail helped you form a pretty reasonable picture. Although I know nothing about this milieu, it sounds pretty authentic to me. And I guess that’s the trick – capturing the specific cadences, slang, attitude and character-appropriate imagery to create a believable portrayal.

Those misgivings about World War Z aside, there is still much to enjoy and shudder about. On the macro level it attains resonating plausibility. We’ve already got a brimming Pandora’s box with global warming, illnesses hopping species to species, and humanity’s clumsy and dangerous interference in so many areas. Is a Zombie-like plague really so farfetched?

So if you want to see how it all might go down, check out World War Z. If nothing else, you’ll know what supplies you might want to think about laying in….

Incidentally, if you care about this sort of thing, Brooks is a former Saturday Night Live writer and the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft, according to the World Wide Web, which is never wrong. A movie based on the novel is in production for a 2010 release by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

Baby, it’s c-c-c-c-cold outside!

winter.jpgWe’ve been enduring a prolonged cold snap here in the heart of the bleak Canadian winter, complete with frozen water pipes and killing wind chills.

Things break down or just get sluggish in these conditions, including cars, snowblowers and bloggers. Lassitude creeps in; maybe it’s brought on by having to wear long underwear much of the time, or twice daily blow-drying the ice out of a pipe in the basement. We scurry from house to bus to work, heads bent earthward to escape the searing cold. Where has the horizon gone? Is it still there?

Then there’s been news of an absolutely stupefying sort. Two little girls, ages 3 and 15 months, froze to death on a Saskatchewan native reserve earlier this week; details are still emerging, but it appears to be a case of neglectful parenting.

The heart breaks; the blood runs cold. Man versus nature, man versus man, or man versus self?

It’s gotten me thinking about quite a few things, but among them, winter. And I mean the good old-fashioned it’s-so-cold-it-hurts-to-breathe Prairie winter.

There is some great cold weather writing out there, which surely begins with Jack London and “To Build a Fire.” For many of us this is an early reading favourite straight out of grade school. Here is a description of the story’s main character:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.

Oh dear. You can see what’s coming next, can’t you? Still, after all these years, a gripping read…

Another personal favourite is The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford, which aside from being great adventure/biography, is also a terrific book on leadership. It’s about the race for the South Pole between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Here’s a passage about Scott’s attempted return from the pole after finding Amundsen had already beaten him there.

The five men were crammed into a tent made for four. It was an eerie experience to live cheek by jowl with one of the number losing his reason. They could not know if Evans would turn violent, but most of the time he seemed sunk in a stupor, scarcely conscious of what was happening around him. In any case, they were all tired, hungry, weak and sluggish with cold and malnutrition. Nobody — least of all Wilson, the doctor — had any desire to face mental derangement at close quarters, when they could not bear to look too deeply into their own minds.

Maybe we’re all nursing a mild stir-crazy depression in conditions like these. I’m sure it probably taxes us more than we care to admit.

I’m going to keep looking for a few more passages about the cold, but now that it’s warmed up to minus 20 celsius, my interest is waning. Maybe you can help me fill out the list. The pipes, the pipes are calling….

Stay warm. Hug somebody. Don’t put your tongue on a lamppost.

Story catalysts, gift-warped characters and other creative prods

No, it’s not a typo in the headline. It’s how I’d like to think of some of the real live genuine authentic true-life people found on a few strange but delightful web sites I’ve come across. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction.

If this doesn’t get your creative pot boiling with ideas for characters and story twists, then go back to accounting.

PostSecret is a site where people creatively represent one of their secrets on a homemade postcard. Do you think it’s true? I wonder if there’s more creativity here than genuine secret….

In much the same vein is Mortified: Woe and Tell, where people share their most embarrassing moments. Hmmm….got a few of my own I could send here….

Found Magazine has a strong ring of authenticity with its sometimes obscure, inane, touching but generally interesting detritus picked up from strangers’ lives. Great stuff here.

And then there is the hilarious PassiveAggressiveNotes.com, a site to which people send the notes they’ve seen or been left by others with an axe to grind. The ensuing discussions are also worth a look!

Happy browsing, and happy writing.

Warts and halos – Why bad guys hog the limelight

Here’s a quick test. What fictional work did the character Clarice Starling appear in? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

While you’re chewing on that, consider the new research published in the journal Nature that suggests infants 6-10 months old already distinguish — and prefer — helpful as opposed to unhelpful characters. New York Times writer Eric Nagourney gave this story a great lede:

Did that mean Square push that poor Circle down the hill? Yes – and Baby isn’t about to forget it, either.

In a study that suggests that people may begin evaluating one another for trustworthiness even earlier than believed, researchers showed infants a demonstration in which different shapes played the good guy or the bad guy. Then the infants were allowed to choose one to play with.

The good guy won almost every time.

It makes sense that we would be programmed at a deep level to pay attention to who’s naughty and nice – it’s a matter of survival. If creeps and bums populate the environment, then we’d better know whom to run from, and whom to run to.

This may also partly explain why we’re more interested in reading and writing about twisted, mean, bitter, degenerate, weak, vindictive, evil or otherwise deeply flawed characters than we are about the good, humane, strong and decent sorts. The good guys are pretty much unchanging and, although it’s important to have them as allies, we don’t need to keep tabs on them the same way we do the badasses.

So while the name ‘Clarice Starling’ might ring only faint bells, the name ‘Hannibal Lecter’ is likely to make you sit up a little straighter. They were both characters in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, but the epicurean mass murderer rightly commands our greater attention.

I guess in one sense this is a colossal case of stating the painfully obvious; of course the character and motivations of a psychopathic cannabalistic serial killer are more interesting than those of a hard-working gumshoe, even when she’s played by Jodie Foster.

The really bad guys, thankfully – and despite what television news, detective fiction and manipulative conservative politicians would have you believe – are relatively rare. But our genes do compel us to remain hyper-vigilant to potential sources of danger, just as they have since our days in the crib.

One consequence of that fixation is a dearth of textured portrayals of good characters. Perhaps I’m misquoting Robertson Davies (or misattributing), but I think he remarked that most writers can conjure up one or two convincing bad guys, but very few can do a credible good guy.

Here’s a challenge: name as many interesting, fully developed and compelling good guys (and of course, gals) from the world of fiction that you can. Exclude two-dimensional comic book heroes, detectives, superheroes, obvious tropes, stock characters, Harry Potter, George Bailey, Ned Flanders, Forrest Gump, formulaic Heroic journeyers, and anything ressembling a Hobbit. Try it off the top of your head before you go browsing your bookshelves. Perhaps someone like an Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, or a Wilbur Larch from The Cider House Rules would fit the bill.

I’m betting you’ll struggle as much as I did.

Amuse bouche*: Lorrie Moore

Here is a strong opening from a short story by Lorrie Moore called “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

self-help.jpg11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a golddigger. She is just a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as mold. And Bob, visibly heartbroken, still in the room, sneezing and giving instructions, hoping for one last cat nuzzle, descended to his hands and knees and jiggled his fingers in the shag. The cat only blinked. For you, however, she smiled, gave a fish-breath peep, and settled.

‘Oh well,’ said Bob, getting up off the floor. ‘Now I’m just a thing of her kittenish past.’

That’s the way with Bob. He’ll say to the cat, ‘You be a good girl now, honey,’ and then just shrug, go back downstairs to his apartment, play jagged creepy jazz, drink wine, stare out at the wintry scalp of the mountain.

There are a couple of things conspiring here to quicken a reader’s interest:

  • A dated, diary-like entry, but with a curious use of the second-person perspective, which comes with all those imperatives — “Understand…,” “Recall….”
  • Strong imagery, such as “Guttural as a German chanteuse,” “familiar and furry as mold…,” “wintry scalp of the mountain”
  • And some well-observed details about cats: “a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend.”

The first sentence also begs the question — Why does the narrator need help, anyway? The diary device promises privileged, inside information and narrows the gap between writer and reader. At the same time, the unique prism of the second-person perspective filters the speaker’s voice into a weird and compelling light.

I haven’t read anything else by Moore, but after reading “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I plan to.   

* “An amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, is a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d’œuvre or first course of a meal. These, often accompanied by a proper complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” -Wikipedia