Saturday, August 6, 2011

Situation Thriller

Elmore Leonard has a good line about improving his writing in the early days by "learning to cut the stuff readers tend to skip." But how on earth is that to be determined? The writer's only possible reference points are his own reading habits. "I cut the stuff I tend to skip." If that's the case it's a good thing I've never tried to write a thriller.

Reading the fervently recommended, impeccably crafted, Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award-winning New York Times bestseller 61 Hours, by Lee Child, the sections I found myself skimming were the ones that true fans of this sort of thing probably love best: the suspense and action sequences. "Running, fighting, hiding, more running, hiding again, more fighting." Flip, flip, flip. (Actually click, click click, because it's the Kindle > key I'm jabbing, at a steadily accelerating pace.)

It sounds screwy, probably, but that really is the impulse: to get through this familiar, mechanical stuff as quickly as possible, to just get the gist of it, in order to move on to something more interesting. And when we're reading a Lee Child we are confident that there will be interesting things coming -- such as this tasty description of the chief bad guy:

There was no mistaking Plato. Four feet and eleven inches tall, but that abstract measurement did not convey the reality. He had a big man’s heft and thickness and muscularity, and a big man’s stiffness and posture and movement, but a small child’s stature. He was not dwarfish. He was not a freak. His limbs and his torso and his neck and his head were all reasonably well proportioned. He was like an NFL linebacker reduced in size by exactly twenty-five percent. That was all. He was a miniature tough guy.
Very cool. Plato may be the greatest Bond villain not created by Ian Fleming.

How to account for this urge to rush through written action scenes, even Lee Child's , which as written are several cuts above the norm. Odd especially because so much of my professional effort as a writer has gone toward celebrating gorgeous visceral action material in movies, from The Road Warrior to Ong Bak. I could point to that very fact and say that that I've seen this sort of thing done better plenty of times in movies and really don't the pale shadow that is the best even the most excellent prose stylist could deliver-- film being, after all, a much more effective medium than words for action as spectacle.

But that doesn't help to explain for the reaction itself. Which comes in a couple of stages. I go: Here comes the action stuff, so it's likely there won't be anything in the next 20 or 30 pages that will be needed to understand the plot. And then: because it's 30 pages of action I know what it's going to add up to. The only narrative function this material has is as a heightener. It acts as a form of melodramatic emphasis, like a thunderous Han Zimmer soundtrack: it drags us through some biting and gouging and kicking an punching, maybe some burning truck tires whizzing past our heads, hustling us toward the final confrontation with the bad guy, where things should start getting interesting again.

In short: If a scene doesn't promise to be interesting in itself, and it's a safe bet that I can take it as read without getting confused, that's what I'm likely to do. 
And if I should ever find myself sitting down to write a thriller, I hope I will manage not to write anything that makes my readers feel that way.< I would enthusiastically advise any would-be thriller writer to read Lee Child and take notes. Nobody I've read since Westlake/Stark is a more painstaking carpenter of perfectly bevelled thriller plots. But I think Child achieves this astonishing degree of fit and finish by keeping his storytelling rigidly, almost claustrophobically limited and self-contained. He lets nothing in that can't be orchestrated and controlled. Like a magician setting up an epic illusion he lays out early in the novel the extremely specific (and extremely far-fetched) situation he needs to generate a continuous string of complicated action scenes. No aspect of that basic situation is rooted in the personality of any of the characters, all of whom are, to one extent or another, functionaries, helping to operate or getting caught up in the mechanism.

Because it is so perfectly self-contained I think a thriller like 61 Hours may actually have more in common with the old "cozies" of the Golden Age than with the nominally more realistic hard boiled novels that succeeded them -- books that "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse." But that has an air of "rising above," and that doesn't apply to me. I've enjoyed enormously all the Lee Child novels I've read. Sometimes an excellent mechanical thriller is the palate cleanser the doctor ordered.

UPDATE: One odd thing that occurs to me is that I rate "violence" higher than "action." The distinction seems self-evident to me but perhaps it isn't. Violence typically comes in shocking brief bursts rather than extended set pieces, and it is more often presented as an eruption of personality or emotion. More small scale and one-on-one.

And I've been thinking a lot about the realization that "mysterary" pioneer Ross Macdonald came to: that the story isn't about the detective. The PI is merely the guide, the observer, the facilitator. The story is about the victim, the criminal, the falsely accused. The people caught up in the mechanism.


Tulkinghorn said...

I recommend reading while actually drinking a pint (or so) of Old Peculier -- it will slow you down (and relax you) just enough to allow you to enjoy the non-lean pleasures of writing not directly related to plot or character.

Think of baseball where the moments not related to the momentum (so to speak) of the game are those very moments cherished by connoisseurs of the sport. (I make no claims, here, BTW.) Or music. Or paintings.

This is of course entirely a matter of character and taste and not the sort of aesthetic judgement you can argue about.

I will say, though, that understanding the denouement of 61 Hours depends completely on understanding the description of the action. If you click too fast, you'll miss it.

And that would be to miss one of the pleasures of the book.

David Chute said...

Of course these matters can be argued about. I reserve the right to argue about anything. Arguing is fun. Plus, if it helps us undertsand our own thinking and possibly someone else's it is absiloutly worthwhile. The arguments may not be resolvable, but that doesn't mean they can't be instructive.

My first thought is that you've got it backwards; that what I miss in 61 Hours are precisely the pleasures you want to slow down for. The sections you're referring to are precisly the page-turner episodes that invite us to speed up; that even the people who like them will be racing along faster and faster.

And if Child is salting those sections with crucial plot information, I say that's a tactical error on his part and that missing it is not my fault.

I'm reading The Rare Coin Score, now, and it seems that much more of what happens in this story (and goes wrong) stems from character and personaility -- and that the book is therefore more interesting than 61, in which almost nothing does. The action has a few scratches on it; it isn't buffed to such a high gloss.

Nothing subtle: Parker is re-established in the opening chapter as a compulsive womanizer, and in short order this is what gets him to trouble. But even that brings the book a couple of inches closer to the sort of "tragic noir" we were discussing earlier.

I can see the prefection (or pretty damn close) of Lee Child's craftsmanship, and I don't mean that to seem patronizing at all. I revere craftsmanship. But the books I like best have an element in them, something extra, that is missing in Lee Child. This is mostly in service of trying to figure out exactly what that is.

Tulkinghorn said...

I hate to raise a name that I thought I was done with here, so I'll just use initials...

VN in his literature classes at Cornell used to demand that his students pay attention to and remember essentially irrelevant details in novels -- like the color of the wallpaper in Emma Bovary's parlor. These details were on the exam...

If I remember correctly, he believed that since everything in fiction was made up, everything was the result of authorial intention and thus important in consideration of the work.

Now this is an attitude that probably works better for the reader of Ulysses or War and Peace than it does for the reader of 61 Hours, but its a hard habit to break, once acquired. (In fact, you can't read modernist fiction -- Woolf, Joyce, Proust -- unless you're willing to obsess about physical detail.)

I think you're right about Child and the weakness of his characterization, but there's more going on here. Richard Hannay, in the Buchan novels, is complete cardboard, but representative of an attitude that a sympathetic reader likes to live with. Reacher is less interesting even if every bit as rounded. He's even less interesting if you don't pay much attention to what he's doing....

David Chute said...

Superb. A wonderful statement of a point of view.


David Chute said...

"He was an aesthete" is what I remember you saying once about VN, when pressed.

Tulkinghorn said...

A favorite saying of his referred to the "passion of science and the precision of art"...

He spent his life doing butterfly taxonomies -- which depend on very small differences within beautiful patterns -- and developed a singular position on aesthetics.

David Chute said...

"...since everything in fiction was made up, everything was the result of authorial intention and thus important in consideration of the work."

Re. some of the discussions we've had about the chaos theory of art, this in particular seems like a standard that possibly God could meet, but who else? If VN is saying that we should approach all the details in a work AS IF they were intential, that would be a little better. But even here, it strikes me as a form of (if you'll pardon the expression) utopianism. For starters, the meanings of the words are not entirely up to us. In part the meanings are created by the people who hear and read the words. God knows what strange association they will add to the mix. IOW, some element of irredicible reality always blows in under the door, and only a control freak would be uncomfortable with that.

I seem to recall from my reading of those VN lectures years ago that all consideration of truth to the real world was banned. That even when real people or places or historical events were described they were to be judged as creations. If that's a fair gloss I have to say I think it's simply wrong, possibly even morally wrong. Forget movies, in which mechnically produced photographic images of actual stuff and real people and places are the buildong blocks of the work. It's the job of words to refer to and evoke things, and the writer is responsible for those evocations. You use a word you big a huge dust cloud of echoes and implications dragged in from outside the work An extreme parallel might be QT saying the blood in his movies isn't blood, it's red paint -- proof positive that there is something missing in this guy. Some element of humanity, almost. As if normal human reactions are alien to him and not his responsibility. The paint in his movies is paint that represents blood, and he's responsible for the impact that representation has on people. Which is fine with me as long as he "owns" it, as the kids say nowadays.

Tulkinghorn said...

Setting aside, for a moment, the issues of representation, what you've said provides an ideal justification for precision in all details, including, to the extent possible, language -- but certainly including physical details and the description of action.

Nabokov disliked Dostoyevski for all sorts of reasons but one thing he said that I remember was that "For Dostoyevski all trees are oak trees." Meaning, in Nabokov-speak that Dostoyevski was uninterested in and incompetent at placing his characters in the physical world.

David Chute said...

I can imagine Dostoyevski sayi ng, "Oak trees? Man, I've got bigger fish to fry." Or words to that effect.

David Chute said...

Representation is an interesting issue for art that's written. That isn't visual. But I don't think it's quite the same thing as what I'm referring to as "telling the truth." To what extent is representation even possible when you're using words? Can we have any expectation at all that the image in the reader's mind's eye will match ours? Is it a waste of energy even to try? Writers who devoted a lot of attention to physical description (Conrad, Wolfe, Agee in his fiction, even Updike) are now, I think, often dimisssed as having excelled at something that ultimately isn't very important.

Speech and thought writing can represent pretty directly; the most important fact about a setting in a novel is often the effect it has on the person looking at it.

Photography had the effect of making the pursuit of representation in painting seem pointless, and maybe in writing, too, to some extent.

David Chute said...

I realize I'm imaginining Dostoyevski in the comment above speaking with the voice of Elvis.

Tulkinghorn said...

It's that very point that drives many of us crazy -- the notion that some set of gloomy and abstract ideas are more important than the qualities of the novel in which they are set..

Conrad, Wolfe, Agee, and Updike are unfashionable because of the perceived sentimentality of their work, not because of their reliance on description.

Especially Agee, whose work seems almost emetic to the modern sensibility -- all those noble poor people.

Tulkinghorn said...

Saying nothing about Agee's criticism and film work -- just that an Exeter-and-Harvard educated rich kid writer/editor for Time Magazine roaming around West Virginia waxing rhaposdic about sharecroppers while Walker Evans takes exquisite photographs.... Well. Brings out the Tulkinghorn in me full pressure.

David Chute said...

Mostly a case of not seeing the forest for the oak trees, IYAM.

Tulkinghorn said...

Your taste for Dostoyevski is a lot harder to take than your taste for Italian Westerns starring cute midgets.

It seems to me that you can love Dostoyevski or you can love Tolstoy, but you can't really love both. And who doesn't love Tolstoy?

David Chute said...

I have that DVD! It arrived from across the Atlantic. Haven't quite summoned the courage to watch it yet. Thinking of pitching a re-make as a vehicle for Ellen Page.

The T & D: It's a yin and yang thing. At the risk of goading you beyond reason, I can recommend Thomas Mann's essay "Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky." He says the picture isn't complete unless it includes both of them. He also suggests that Tolstoy : Dostoyevsky = Goethe : Schiller, which clarifies the issue quite a bit. Well, maybe it does if you're German.

I have an old fashioned analog paper copy of the essay that I'd be happy to lend, though you'd have to return it within 14 days.

David Chute said...

Seriously, though: the either or argument in a case like this seems so wrong it's not even. It's not only possible to love both at once but necessary. The impulse to divide in order to exclude isn't charming to begin with. In practice, everyone has to decide how they're going to write, and VN certainly isn't the only artist to fall short as a critic because he takes his own practice as an immutable law that should apply to everyone.

I think we've gotten off track, a bit, though. Allow me to reprint something:

"I seem to recall from my reading of those VN lectures years ago that all consideration of truth to the real world was banned. That even when real people or places or historical events were described they were to be judged as creations. If that's a fair gloss I have to say I think it's simply wrong, possibly even morally wrong. Forget movies, in which mechnically produced photographic images of actual stuff and real people and places are the buildong blocks of the work. It's the job of words to refer to and evoke things, and the writer is responsible for those evocations."

I'm pretty sure most writers write communicate something they believe to be true -- even those who have no great subject built in that they're burning to thing pre-existing that they are burning to explore and say to themselves, "I want to write something. What should I write?" They love the beauty of words but also work hard to make they're using them correctly.