Monday, December 15, 2008

Crit List 1: The Borribles (expanded as of 12/16/08)

These covers were painted by Don Maitz. If there's any objection to my posting them by anyone associated with the books, I'm happy to take them down.

When I started this site I intended to do a fair amount of reviews and criticism. When I did my piece on Jurassic Fight Club I wound up backing away from that. First off, I found that I was doing the standard web snark attack -- and I found that I didn't like being that kind of person. When I realized that my snotty remarks were being read by creators who had worked hard and honestly it made me feel like a shit.

And the fact that it garnered me more hits than anything else I'd done took me aback. First, I want people to come to this site to see my work, not to read amusing slams on someone else. Second, I'm kinda self destructive and when I saw that I was achieving some kind of success I scuttled away from it as fast as I could.

See, this is a site about being a creator and about trying to make the move to being a pro. So any reviews or critical pieces need to be done from that perspective.

So I'm going to throw myself back into the fray and talk about a series of fantasy novels that have been a source of pleasure to me for decades. They've also given me a lot of help on my novel. Let me tell you about it.

When I was a kid there was one fantasy series that my family was familiar with -- The Lord of the Rings. It was my grandmother's favorite. She was one of the few who read it when it was first released and it was her favorite book. The Hobbit was the first book I had read to me as a child.

But as important as J.R.R. Tolkien was to me, he never really spoke to my life. That was part of the pleasure -- he took me entirely out of my world. But even as a child I was disgusted by the nationalism and classism inherent in his work. (How can anyone not cringe at the relationship between Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins?) That's not to say that he was a bad person -- but his world view was not one that I could accept without criticism.

When I was in high school, I found a fantasy book that took place in a world that was very, very close to the one that I lived in. That was Michael de Larrabeiti's The Borribles. This was a fantasy contemporaneous with and parallel to punk rock. It had heart and it had guts and it spoke to me in a way that no classic fantasy novel ever had. It was bitterly satirical, strewn with trash and covered in graffiti. This was a world where I belonged, where my friends belonged. It was fantasy in the gutter, in the alley, in the dumpster. It was grim and ugly and violent -- but it was redeemed by humanity and love. This was a world I could live in.

The basic idea behind the series is that children who for one reason or another live on their own and take care of themselves turn into creatures called Borribles. Borribles don't age, they don't grow. They can be recognized by their pointed ears, which they usually cover up with a watch cap or long hair. While they sometimes mingle with normal children they've established their own society, a varied collection of tribes usually organized along racial or cultural lines, named for the territories they inhabit.

Their enemies are the forces of conformity and heirarchy. Specifically the police (having grown up in a predominantly black community where the police force contained a racist gang who called themselves the Cowboys, I could relate to this) and the non-human Rumbles. If you have any familiarity with the Wombles of Wimbledon you won't have any trouble recognizing the Rumbles...

Here's a dirty little secret. Writing -- or, rather, editing -- fiction has ruined my appetite for reading. I read everything with an eye toward how it could be improved. Commas, dialogue attribution, point of view -- I can't let go of the technical side of writing.

But a few months back when I was in the thick of writing my novel I reread the Borrible books and found that they sucked me right in and still moved me. I was conscious of the crudity of the prose -- I wished I could take a red pen to them. The point of view is an omniscient one broken up by passages told from the perspectives of various individual characters and the shifts in POV frequently seem capricious. There are any number of moments where emotions that are made clear by the speech and actions of the characters are explicitly described by de Larrabeiti.

But as I read the books I dropped my mental red pencil as the simple power of direct storytelling over-rid my critical stance and swept me away.

A big part of this has to do with the intensely imagined quality of the work. The characters and settings are tangible, vivid, odiferous -- the continual appeal to all of the senses immerses you in de Larrabeiti's world.

His sense of action is very instructive to anyone who anyone who writes adventure fiction. His fight scenes are absolute classics -- if he hadn't been in a few fights himself I would be greatly surprised. At the end of volume two there's a scene I've jokingly described to friends as the greatest shovel fight in world literature. It's actually in strong competition for best fight scene, period, right up there with the fight between Flay and Swelter in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.

Spoiler Alert! For those who are interested, James Benstead of Tallis House publishing very graciously sent me this manuscript page from the third draft of the above-mentioned shovel fight from The Borribles Go For Broke. Caution -- contains climax!

But most importantly, the characters were all acting from strong, believable motivations. With a few plot-enhancing exceptions you know exactly what all the characters are doing and you know exactly why.

And that helped my novel. Here's how.

In the Borribles the motivations for the various characters are so clean-cut as to be diagrammatical. The bad guys want to either take advantage of the lead characters or they want to crush any sign of social deviation. The values that the good guys (and these books) hold dear are simple ones: Make a name for yourself. Live free. Don't let anyone get away with fucking with you. And above all else take care of the ones you love. Any death, any suffering is preferable to failing to live up to that creed.

If you've got a problem with those values, I have a problem with you. Those who think these books inappropriate for children must imagine that being a young person guarantees a life without hard decisions, without threats. This simply isn't true. I'd rather the kids I love be ready to face the world with open eyes, strong hearts, and a willingness to either stand tough or make sacrifices when the situation demands it.

When you put those motives together in opposition you inevitably get a story that's clean, involving, and moving. It's mathematical, mechanical -- and yet organic.

So after re-reading these books I went back and asked myself what my characters wanted, what their values were -- and how those values would bring them into conflict with one another. It brought my book to life.

The Borribles trilogy is available in both individual volumes and a single-volume compilation from Tor Books.

Michael de Larrabeiti died last April. I wish I'd had the chance to meet him and say: Thank you, Mr. de Larrabeiti. Don't get caught.

(Click here for a look at Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite, a very different and more mature work by de Larrabeiti.)


LunchBoxxx said...

when I was kid I hated other books being read to me or even reading for that matter. though im still young I think when I was 13 I read enough to make up for the years I missed reading and more. i've read so much that when I relate life I relate it in novel form. Though reading has allowed me to have so many inspiration resorces for Instance I have a novel I've been writting since I was 12 I revise and revise, cut characters and add them. I think currently im 8,000 pages strong with 74 different characters and 204 side characters. This book will probly never be done because it is about every Inspiration I have ever recieved in one cohiesive story.

Sean Craven said...

Dude, that sounds as if you're recreating your life as you live it. That is the kind of crazy I can respect.

Allison Landa said...

Editing does the same thing to me. It really makes it difficult for me to just relax and get into the writing itself. It's a variant of crazy, that.

Sean Craven said...

Yeah, these books were the first ones I'd been able to read with pure pleasure in a couple of years and part of it was that they were begging for the red pen.

I've been having an easier time of it lately -- but it's been a while since I've done any serious writing and that may have something to do with it.

Anonymous said...

I read 'The Borribles' as a kid and, oh man, what a boring book! It's just a series of setpieces where the Borribles kick the rats' asses. No suspence at all. They kill thousands of giant rats and not one Borrible dies? Talk about b.s. -- I was rooting for the rats well before the end. This is the type of book that turns people off on fantasy stuff.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Anonymous!

Well, tastes vary. What fantasy do you like?

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