Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Lesson in Point-of-View Found in Tana French's The Secret Place

First-person narrators are frequent and common choices when authors tell stories. Seeing the story unfold through the eyes of one person intrigues readers who weigh and evaluate the trustworthiness and perspective of that narrator as they read. They participate in discerning truths.

Third-person omniscient narrators are also common. These allow the author to know the thoughts, histories, and desires of all the characters. Readers receive comprehensive information as they observe events unfolding, characters interacting.

Recent novels I’ve read violate what was once a writing-class rule to choose a narrative point of view and be consistent throughout the work. In Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon moves between the minds of one character after another as jazz moves from a core riff, one jazz musician after another embellishing upon that riff before withdrawing to allow another musician center stage. Consequently, the experience of reading Telegraph Avenue can be dizzying.

Two recent novels employ first and third person narration throughout. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, Middlesex and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. In each, the protagonist tells her own story but has the ability to see through the eyes and into the minds of other characters.

Tana French also uses both third and first-person narration in her recent novel, The Secret Place. An omniscient narrator tells the girls’ story, set in the recent past. The detective’s story is in first-person, told by one of the two detectives trying to solve the case.

Chabon, Eugenides, Atkinson, and French skillfully handle the narrative shifts and perspectives. Beginning authors may struggle to do so, but they should be thrilled to know their story-telling options have outstanding role models.

Reading Challenge:

Read the four books referenced in today’s post: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, and The Secret Place by Tana French as studies in narrative technique.

Writing Challenge:

Select a sample of your own fiction. Write it from third-person point of view, then rewrite it in first person.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tana French's The Secret Place: Two Tales for the Price of One

Amazon let me know the release date for Tana French’s newest novel, The Secret Place. Unable to wait a day or even two, I pre-ordered so that on that first day in September, the novel whispered through the air and landed. Bathed in the glow of Kindle’s light and French’s art, I let the dark fall as I read, enjoying parallel tales.

One tale opens the novel as a Prologue set in the crucible of a girls’ boarding school where four teens confront the dark and themselves. The first chapter introduces the second tale featuring detectives who re-open a case gone cold. What ties the two tales together is Holly Mackey, a girl determined to save her friend, one of the four teens bound by friendship and misguided oaths.

Al Griffin Photography
The novel unfolds with each chapter revealing more about the characters and the events that bring them together in The Secret Place. There the past transforms girls into adults because, too soon, they are penned in the consequences of their choices. Their truth stands stark under the moon’s soft light. And there, the detectives uncover another truth about the human heart, infinitely puzzling, a phantom not easily detected by facts in evidence or instincts dulled by the mask of civilization.

Unlike those British school boys imagined by Golding, alone on an uninhabited island, these British school girls still have the chains of society, the judgment of nuns, and the prison of peer pressure to restrain them, but it is the nature of youth to chafe, scoff, and dare. These girls do. They become criminals—just small time, risking little more than expulsion. They sneak out at night to revel in the night air and the freedom found in friendship. They retreat to their secret place, a place that shields them from view, a verdant place with the heady scent of hyacinth in the air, a place that bears silent witness to a senseless death, a boy sacrificed on the altar of idols, not gods.

The adult detectives are different from the girls, not in obvious ways such as age or self-awareness. Moran and Conway eschew the tight binding that friendships impose. Moran believes that close friends not only define a person, but confine him. Conway believes that friends are best kept at some distance from the work place; she has no interest in becoming pals with her co-workers. Both detectives are also from working class families, their schooling and youth far removed from the privileges afforded girls at Kilda’s.

In other ways, the detectives differ, one from the other. Conway expects something rotten at the core of privileged teen girls and finds it. Moran is more reluctant to believe in their rotten, petty little plots and machinations until he spends a day among them. He learns that even young girls are capable of schemes and careless behaviors. Even teen girls can set in motion events that end in murder.

French deftly moves between the girls’ past and the detectives’ present, chapter by chapter, until the two converge in the killer revealed. French sustains suspense by laying down tight stitches in an intricate embroidered design. We readers wince and cheer simultaneously in our understanding when that design becomes clear. Misunderstandings, misplaced loyalties, secrets, and raw need have conspired to end a boy. We readers hope his loss has not been in vain, that the survivors will not waste what understanding they’ve gained.

Reading Challenge:

Read Tana French’s novels: In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, and The Secret Place.

Writing Challenge:

Move from past to present, revealing antecedent action and flashbacks in chapters separate from chapters about the present.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Top 1%

Headlines and news pundits often refer to the 1%, a tiny slice of the American Pie granting flavors and satisfaction beyond the dreams of all other Americans. In fact, an online article by Peter Coy in BloombergBusinessweek, reports that a mere 16,000 Americans who enjoy the 1%-status and hold $6 trillion in assets, an amount equal to the total wealth of the bottom 2/3 of America’s other citizens. 

The 0.1% of those 1% enjoy the same unimaginable wealth as did the Ruling Class and Robber Barons of the 1920s. According to the same article in BloombergBusinessweek, “The richest 0.1 percent of the American population has rebuilt its share of wealth back to where it was in the Roaring Twenties” and, not surprisingly, if any one of us wishes to be richer than the rich, filthy rich, some might say, then we need to begin life with wealth. Indeed, this decade of the twenty-first century is a new gilded age, making Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, timely.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan are Fitzgerald’s versions of the 1%. Tom inherited wealth, and Daisy married it. They live in what some might call a palace set on Long Island’s East Egg, Fitzgerald’s fictional version of the North Shore or Gold Coast where grand homes allowed the upper crust to flee the stifling city in favor of sea breezes. They had the freedom to live apart from the huddled masses, and they did.

Tom is not averse to mixing it up with those masses. He has a common mistress who lives above her husband’s auto repair garage. She lies beside a husband with grease under his fingernails, but her true intimate partner is Tom who pays for less sooty residence in New York City where they can see each other and party.

Myrtle can pretend that she belongs to Tom and his class except, of course, when she slips, letting pretense inspire her to assert her will and desire. Then Tom puts her in her place, feeling empowered to slap her into submission, a privilege that derives from his gender as much as his wealth. Myrtle is a toy, an object of sexual desire; she is prey.

Myrtle longs to escape the filth of her circumstances. She longs to be free of common George and trade the life into which she was born and married for the one Tom Buchanan could offer. Her longing makes her vulnerable and stupid. She behaves as if Tom would depose Daisy and raise up Myrtle.

The sun sets before those who wish to climb the ladder to wealth attain
the top rung whereas for those born to wealth, the sun never sets.
Photo by Al Griffin
Jay Gatsby makes a similar error in judgment. He behaves as if money itself purges him of the sin of being born into humble circumstances, and thus, having acquired money, he presumes to think that Daisy will forsake Tom and the Buchanan name for Jay Gatsby and his dodgey reputation. He’s wrong.

The 1% make the rules, and one of those rules is that opportunities for admission into their company closed long ago. They alone reserve the right to grant temporary passage and camaraderie, but these are fleeting. Only those born to wealth may remain, and only those with inherited wealth deserve their regard.

Tom Buchanan’s politics could be taken from a right-wing playbook written today or from a European in the late nineteenth century when the common man had the daring and conviction to assert his will, tearing down old institutions and demanding a living wage as well as rights to vote and hold office. Tom, like most powerful people, worries that he and his kind will one day be overrun, and this worry makes him a bully.

Buchanan bullies Gatsby, emasculating him by showing him where Daisy’s loyalties lie. He bullies Myrtle by striking her, then failing to mourn her when her foolish notions put her in the path of an oncoming car. Tom callously and cleverly assigns blame for Myrtle’s death to Gatsby, thereby eliminating him too.

Fitzgerald reveals the ruling class to be irresponsible, undeserving, and blind to the needs of others, exactly the same charges leveled against them in 2014.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:

Respond to these words from The Great Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Debauchery Then and Now: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on Film, Starring Leonardo DiCaprio Who Also Starred in the The Wolf of Wall Street

The more things change the more they stay the same. (French Proverb)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill brought to life on film the world painted by Jordan Belfort in his book, The Wolf of Wall Street. Purported to be a true account of Belfort’s rise and fall on Wall Street, the book recounts Belfort’s devotion to sensual pleasures and the mind-numbing, conscience-crushing Siren Song of drugs.

Belfort’s ability to drink so much Christal and snort so much cocaine relied upon a stock scheme that made fools of buyers while enriching the con men who pitched the stocks. Belfort simply used, manipulated, and abused others, then applauded his own games of deceit with wine, drugs, and philandering.

Jay Gatsby, first envisioned by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a novel published in 1925, is similarly derelict in his duty. He too fulfills his American Dream by breaking laws. He has acquired great wealth in the service of criminal benefactors.

What redeems Gatsby, to some degree, at least in Fitzgerald’s book, is his detachment from debauchery and his motive. Gatsby doesn’t participate in hedonistic parties; he just pays for and stages them in order to establish himself as a wealthy man so that he can compete for the hand of Daisy Buchanan whom he adores from afar, first from his low station by birth and later, as a nouveau riche resident on the wrong side of the Long Island Eggs.

Economic inequality may be as perennial as flowers
and its allure just as fleeting.
Photo by Al Griffin
Gatsby’s selfless love for Daisy makes him less guilty even though his pursuit of Daisy, now a married woman, is adulterous. In his imagination, she has settled for Tom Buchanan because she thought Gatsby was lost to her. He believes they can reclaim their lost love and find immeasurable happiness together at last.

Gatsby’s tragedy is his belief in wealth as the ticket into society and Daisy’s arms. He has, as we readers know, chosen the wrong god to worship and emulate. His fate must end badly because he is wrong. Money is an addictive god, one not easily forsaken; Daisy, at least, will not, cannot forsake her god, and we pity poor Jay for being so na├»ve, so foolhardy, and so mistaken.

Belfort, on the other hand, makes wealth a god, then becomes that god because of his wealth. He wields power that impoverishes those who answer his call to fast money and greater wealth. He hurts all who come into contact with him and his minions.

Written 82 years apart, the books could have been published in the same year, a year when inequality shaped the nation and made people desperate for the Golden Ticket to prosperity and happiness. Both books have ties to Wall Street’s industry, and both reveal the baser instincts within us all. Most important, the books reveal the same lesson: money stains us; it alters our better natures, making us vulnerable to our own undoing, our depravity. The only character who doesn’t know this is Gatsby himself. He’d be shocked to learn that Daisy gives him up to a tragic end because the power and wealth that Tom Buchanan wields is relentless and seductive. For Gatsby, wealth is a means; for Daisy, wealth is a necessity. 

Surely it’s not coincidental that DiCaprio chose both characters as men he’d like to portray, and surely, the film versions of these books in a post-2008 world is intentional.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street as brought to life on film--although I warn you that Wolf is graphic and among the most R-rated films I’ve seen. I found it difficult to endure.

Writing Challenge:

Using a film or book you’ve enjoyed, explain how that film or book reveals the predatory instincts brought to life by greed. There are so many from which to choose. The first challenge will be to choose one. From the Bible to Chaucer to Aesop, warnings about the harms of money and greed are old and universal.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Felicitous Language in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

What draws me onward when I begin a book? Sometimes it’s a touch of wry humor when I least expected to encounter it. Now and then, a character deftly drawn and sharply chiseled compels me to learn more. Often, it’s how the writer conducts the music of language. Consider this brief, early chapter in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

From “The Bombers” (Doerr, Anthony. "The Bombers." All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. EBook ed. New York: Scribner, 2014. 22. Print.)

“…The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. . . .Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of red light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. . . . To the bombadiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

How could I refuse to read on? How could I not pause to savor the excellent use of rhetoric breathing life into nonhuman form?

The sea glides. Threads of light ascend. The walled city draws closer, resembling an abscess in need of a surgical strike.

Reading Challenge:

Read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Writing Challenge:

Transform (arguably) inanimate objects, animating them and giving them character as Doerr does.