Monday, August 30, 2010

I walked into a bar...and he saw the end

Recently I read a novel that annoyed me no end with its capricious disregard of its own genre rules. And I worry that in it, I saw the end of the current boom of fantasy/paranormal novels crossed with the hardboiled detective form, which depresses me because hey, I write that kind of book.

The novel (unidentified here because it's symptomatic of something larger) is told in first person by a detective figure who battles unseen paranormal creatures all around us. He's tough, world-weary and driven, with a core of decency but a sense that he's the only just man in an unjust world.

There are two reasons authors use first-person for protagonists like this. First, the character puts on a deliberately unappealing and difficult front, and by hearing his inner voice we see the sympathetic hero behind the bluster. Otherwise, we'd be spending 400 pages in the company of a jackass. The other is that, as a detective, he pieces together the clues as they're discovered, and allows the reader to share his insights and discoveries is a big part of the fun.

You mess with this fundamental dynamic at your own peril. For example, Thomas Pynchon's recent Inherent Vice tries to mock this convention by telling the story in a weird third person singular voice that keeps tricking the reader into thinking it's first person when it's not. The result is a novel almost impenetrable in its tone, and certainly no fun to read.

Occasionally a writer will use multiple first-person points of view, to convey differing perspectives or information that one narrator wouldn't know. That's a valid technique, and the result depends on both the writer's skill and the structural support for these switches. Most common, though (and endemic to the book I just read) is the lazy approach of starting a novel in first person, but when a plot point becomes too tricky to convey that way, simply switching to third person for a chapter or two.

This sort of arbitrary voice change completely negates the reason for choosing first person in...well, in the first place. And it puts the author's limitations front and center, when the goal should be to hide those as much as possible. I'm not saying these sorts of literary tricks should never be used, just that they should never be used simply because the author doesn't want to take the trouble to think a little harder about how to make his or her point. Or, and I suspect this is often the case, the author uses a first person voice because he or she thinks it's a genre requirement without understanding its actual function.

Genre conventions are definitions, and when they lose their meanings, so do the genres. And one big way they lose their meanings is by being used without being understood. Western films lost their power when Europeans began mimicking all the accoutrements without understanding their relevance; pure science fiction fell apart when George Lucas mixed in fantasy elements with the hardware. The self-narrating hardboiled detective, already too ironic to ever be successfully post-modern, is a very specific creature that can change backgrounds but must retain its inherent justification for its existence. Without it, it's just a pose, entertaining but empty.

So what do you think? Am I seeing a true sign of the genre apoclaypse, or am I just another doomsday prophet whining about the end of this minor literary world?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Survival of the Dead and how to keep a series interesting

Some background on me and George Romero's zombies:

I saw Night of the Living Dead one Saturday afternoon when I was in high school. The Memphis TV station, apparently thinking it was some innocuous old B&W horror movie, did not edit it. Forget the graphic intestine-eating: I'd never before seen a movie where the hero died such a pointless death. Later, when I got to college, I discovered there was a small community of people who'd watched that exact same broadcast and been similarly marked by it.

I saw Dawn of the Dead at the Cabana Theater in Jackson, TN. When the famous shotgun-to-the-head effect came up, a woman in a nurse's uniform got up and proclaimed to her date, "I see this shit in the ER all day, I ain't paying to see it now!" She stomped out. Her date stayed.

I saw Day of the Dead on videotape, alone in my college apartment. When the heroes were herded into the zombie enclosure, I had to stand up and pace around my chair for the remainder of the film. That's one way I handle suspense when I'm alone.

I saw Land of the Dead at a packed preview showing in Madison, WI. Cheers greeted Tom Savini's momentary cameo. Bigger cheers greeted the zombie biting out a girl's navel ring.

I saw Diary of the Dead at the late Westgate Art Cinema in Madison, with six other patrons (which explains why it's "late," I suppose). I stayed all the way through the credits to see if there was a stinger. There wasn't.

And now, Survival of the Dead, on blu ray in my living room, once again all alone.

You can find synopses of the film online, so I won't bore you with one here. What I will say is that Romero once again subverts expectations by giving us a zombie movie that's almost a western, with wide-screen photography, galloping horses and lots of gunplay. It's also the first true sequel in his series, featuring a character introduced in Diary of the Dead. At the same time you get the expected tropes: an isolated setting (in this case an island), survivors enmeshed in petty squabbles while missing the big picture, plenty of gore (most of it CG enhanced to the point of [deliberate] ridiculousness), and zombies doing things they've never done before.

Is this as good as Dawn of the Dead? No. You don't hit that sort of pinnacle more than once. John Ford made a lot of westerns, many of them great, but he only made one The Searchers. At the same time, it's impressive how Romero, working in such a narrowly defined form, continues to find new ways to present his zombies. A lot of web critics dismiss his newer films as lacking the chops of his earlier work, but that's missing the point.

After you revolutionize the genre with your first two horror films, it's impossible to keep repeating the trick. The fact that Romero doesn't simply rehash the same old thing is both admirable and exciting. As a novelist who writes a series, I see this as an example of how to do it right: name another series where the individual films are so hugely different from each other,and yet (to me at least) still give the people what they want.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Return of the Verdilak

Lately I've been reading multiple books at once, a chapter here andc there of completely unrelated things: the second Denton novel by Kenneth Cameron, No-Man's Lands by Scott Huler (about retracing the journeys of Odysseus), an unbelievably detailed book on the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a novel for which I've been asked to do a cover blurb. Usually I'll get into one of these at the expense of the others and read it through to the end before returning to the pile, but in this case I got pulled off-track by something I unexpectedly found in a local used book store: the 1996 graphic novel Verdilak, by Bo Hamtpon and Mark Kneece.

The title, one of the many European terms for "vampire" (specifically one who preys only on loved ones) caught my eye first. I first learned the word from the middle section of Mario Bava's 1963 anthology film Black Sabbath; when I opened the book, the artwork clearly referenced the Bava film, so at first I thought it was an adaptation.

But it was actually something more subtle. It uses the Bava film as metatext, taking its visual clues not just from I Wurdelak but from other Bava films such as Black Sunday. It covers some of the same narrative ground, but with a far different beginning and resolution. And ultimately it becomes an epic, unlike the Bava film's intimate familial horror.

In the film, a young aristocrat stumbles on a family in the process of being consumed by the curse of vampirism. He tries to save the beautiful daughter, but it doesn't go well. In the graphic novel, this simple tale is backstoried with an account of Ramash, a deformed dwarf who takes in a beautiful peasant girl (the other daughter of the doomed family), showers her with affection only to have her run off with the first handsome man who comes along. And at the end, Ramash's father (Satan) shows up to aid his son in his revenge. It's a simple story, carrying the weight and atmosphere of folklore, and it broadens and deepens Bava's original by providing motivations and explanations the film never really needed.

But for me, what makes it special is the watercolor artwork by Bo Hampton. He recreates Bava's imagery without pandering to it, making it work in a different medium. He also adds enough of his own touches that it feels original, not merely a recreation. His most crucial change is rethinking the image of the family patriarch. In the film Boris Karloff's kindly eyes provided an eerie contrast to his actions. Here the character bears a greater resemblence to Josef Stalin, which is appropriate given the revised context.

I asked Hampton, who also co-wrote the text, what inspired him to undertake such a project. He said, "I love Mario Bava and his version in the movie trilogy Black Sabbath had a huge influence on me. I wasn't happy with the logic of some events and went back to the A.K. Tolstoi source, and after translation to English it wasn't much more help. So I came up with an idea [and brought in] co-writer Mark Kneece to flesh it out."

Verdilak is out of print, but worth the effort to find. It's a powerful introduction to the concept of the adult fairy tale, and lacks the annoying tendency to blatantly "meta" its source; in fact, it's "meta" only if you already know the source. If you don't, it's a sincere, irony-free horror story with the kind of moral basis found in real fairy tales, the ones that stick in your memory long past childhood.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The profit motive (or, the prophet motive)

Recently on my Facebook/Twitter feed I posted a bit of Roger Ebert's review of the new Julia Roberts movie, Eat Pray Love: "[To like the movie] I guess you have to belong to the narcissistic subculture of Woo-Woo." I quoted it because I found it funny, and should make clear right now that I have neither read nor seen the book/movie in question.
In his review Ebert also said, "She [author Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Roberts] funds her entire trip, including scenic accommodations, ashram, medicine man, guru, spa fees and wardrobe, on her advance to write this book."  This got my attention, so I checked around.  Sure enought, the New York Times book review confirms it: "Her trip was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write, and Eat, Pray, Love is the mixed result."

Really? Gilbert gets an advance (significant enough to allow international travel, yet) to write a book about her spiritual quest prior to setting out on it? So before starting she knows that a) the quest isn't really going to cost anything materially, and b) she'll need to create a narrative of it compelling enough to justify the investment. Clearly she did the latter. But my question is, doesn't the existence of the former invalidate the whole thing?

Consider another literary account of a real-life spiritual quest, Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Its protagonist exists barely above the poverty line, and suffers numerous indignities (many of them self-induced) as a result. His quest has no real agenda, no goal, and his insights occur only at his lowest points. His conclusion is that to live in that society he has to abandon the very things that drove him to the quest in the first place--i.e., grow up. He then writes about it, and only then is he rewarded materially for it.

The obvious difference between the two is one of gender, but I don't think that's the crucial one. I think it's more about the integrity of intent. I don't believe you can embark on a spiritual quest intending to profit from it, at no substantial cost to yourself, and emerge with any meaningful insights. All great quests, from Siddhartha to Moses, from Ghandi to On the Road, begin from a level of desperation that goes much deeper than, as the Washington Post says in its book review, being "a plucky blond American woman in her thirties with no children and no major money worries" who "is going through a really bad divorce and subsequent stormy rebound love affair."

Or, to put it more concisely, On the Road inspires people to emulate it. Eat Pray Love inspires a Julia Roberts movie.

To be fair, I've often been accused of cynicism when it comes to other people's motives, particularly famous and/or successful people. So what do you readers think? Is this a valid point, or just sour grapes from a writer who hasn't yet gotten a big enough advance to finance a fun week in Wisconsin Dells,* let alone an epic journey into the meaning of existence?

*(Okay, that's an exaggeration for effect. My average advance would buy me quite the time in the Dells.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

"The Somber Enemy"

Thanks to Rita Mae Reese for suggesting this blog post.

One side-effect of being a full-time writer is that I'm also the stay-at-home parent for my two sons, ages 5 and 2. They impinge on every single moment of my day, especially the younger one, since he's underfoot almost constantly. My wife works in an office 45 minutes away and spends her days conversing with adults; I know way, way too much about The Fresh Beat Band.

A famous poet--I've searched and searched, but can't find the actual quote--said something to the effect of, "My poems are short because I have children." Man, do I sympathize. I've gone from entire days of sitting lazily in my underwear writing page after page, to scrambling to get my thoughts down during the twenty-three minutes of Ni Hao Kai Lan. Most everything you read by me these days (including this blog post) started as a brief note typed into the body of an e-mail on my tiny Acer, chosen because it fits in the younger son's diaper bag. I've had to master the trick of writing amid hoardes (okay, only two, but they're overachievers) of children screaming, running, drumming and fighting. I can stay reasonably on task while simultaneously shouting things like, "Get the lightsaber out of your nose!" But I wouldn't call it easy.

(The Squirrel Boy, pre-nasal insertion.)

Of course I worry that it's going to show in the final product. A writer's greatest tool is his/her ability to concentrate, and mine is dangerously overextended. Will my next novel be a sloppy compendium of half-assed ideas that I simply lacked the energy and opportunity to polish before deadline? Obviously I hope not, and I'll do my best to make sure that doesn't happen. But I have no problem imagining that to be the case. Cyril Connolly said, "There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall," and on my worst days I see the chilling wisdom in that.

But luckily, there's a significant upside. One is motivation: knowing that you have tiny helpless human beings dependent on you is great for kicking your ass into gear. The other, surprisingly, is clarity. When you realize that what you write today is part of the legacy you'll leave your children, then it helps keep you focused on what you really need to do. I may never write a best-seller, but I feel that my published work will let my sons know me better when they're adults.

And if I do happen to write a chart-topper, I'll have a clear conscience about it.

(The C-in-C expresses his critical opinion of one of my first drafts.)