Posts Tagged 'Novel'

Epic fantasy a near epic surprise

I don’t often pick up epic fantasy doorstops like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, which is the first novel in a projected seven-volume series called A Song of Fire and Ice. The cover art alone on these things usually looks hopelessly adolescent. And pages of maps and schematics of tangled family trees makes a vein in my neck start to throb.

But when you can get it on the Kindle for $3.90, it might be worth a surreptitious look. After all, the first four novels of A Song of Fire and Ice have been translated into 18 languages (thank you Wikipedia) and an HBO television series is currently in production.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, in a sentence, the fuss about skillful plotting, imaginative world-building and serviceable characterization anchored by prose that’s well above what you can sometimes find when you go slumming in the genres. (Hey! Who says it’s slumming!?) Here’s an evocative example, just one sentence, that deftly sketches a throwaway character: “This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block.”

Not bad. Who would expect such concision in a hulking book like this? Martin never comes close to reaching the poetic heights of Mervyn Peake in Gormenghast (who does?), but there were times I thought his ear for English was so finely tuned, and his flair for Age of Chivalry-type phrasings so apt, that he must certainly hail from the land of King Arthur himself.

His actual place of birth? New Jersey.

Oy. That A Song of Fire and Ice has been dubbed “the Sopranos in Middle Earth” is purely coincidental, I am sure.

A Game of Thrones is an engaging enough hero’s journey that will provide hours of enjoyment (think also, “Diana Gabaldon for guys”) but be warned: it is long. There are more characters in it than you can waggle a piece of Valerian steel at. And if you can’t stand the thought of all the trees being sacrificed to produce nearly cube-shaped paperbacks like these, you can always read it on the Kindle.

Or wait for the HBO series on TV.

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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.

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.