Monday, January 26, 2009

Crit List 4: Here They Come and Old Man's War

This one really didn't want to scan -- and I'm too lazy/pressed for time to feel like giving it a full-on Photoshop.

Say what you will about the McSweeney's team -- they produce some gorgeous and well-designed books. The endpapers on this one are really pretty as well as appropriate.

Just to start out. The books I'm looking at this time around are going to get rougher treatment than they merit when examined on their own. I enjoyed both despite the fact that neither was entirely to my tastes and it's entirely likely that I'll read more by both authors.

(Look, as a nascent critic I think I need to make it clear that whether or not I like something is not a good indicator of its absolute value. If it was, they'd be teaching Flaming Carrot and Harry Adams Knight in upper-division literature classes and Henry James's grave would be crusted with dried urine. And that would be wrong. As I've stated before my critical perspective is that of a fledgling writer trying to find out how to better his own work, so expect some odd and very personal angles.)

Thing is, is that I read these two books in conjunction with one another and they made me think about genre. Again. These books were both loans from people who were enthusiastic about them. Here They Come came from my sister and Old Man’s War from my pal Lew. (I also bought this one at a bookstore – I’ve been reading Scalzi’s blog for some time now and wanted to know what his fiction was like so I ordered the book from a local store – and then Lew passed me his copy and a copy of The Ghost Brigades as well. I figured that I’d be a jerk to make a special order and not pay for the book. Oh, well.) These are representative of my sister and Lew’s respective reading habits. One of them is straight-up literary fiction and one is straight-up science fiction. On Sunday mornings I stay in bed with the missus instead of jumping up to get to work; a few Sundays back I needed something to read and I wound up going through these two books in the same day.

As I said, I enjoyed both; neither left me satisfied. I think that has something to do with the way genre works.

Let's get a little nomenclature out of the way here. 'Literary fiction' is not the same as literature. Literature is something going back (literally) thousands of years and encompasses all of human culture. Literary fiction is specifically a product of marketing and academia. It is a genre and a particularly limited one. Most of the great works of world literature would not be regarded as literary fiction if brought to market today. Think of it this way -- in subject and treatment, The Iliad is much closer to Old Man’s War than it is to Here They Come.

Anyway, right now genre in fiction (and when I say fiction I mean storytelling in any form) strikes me as being part and parcel of our current age of specialization. People are finding niches and burrowing deep into them -- and this is neither good nor bad. It's just how it is.


Here They Come by Yannick Murphy is a look at the life of a family living in poverty in New York. This isn't exactly a new subject -- but this is a fresh work. The family is a really interesting group of people and while you can recognize types, the specificity with which the characters are described brings them to life and makes them unique. The interest of this book comes from the characters and from Murphy's prose, which is lovely intoxicating stuff.

And that's what literary fiction regarded as a genre has to offer the reader -- a glimpse of life beautifully written. Ms. Murphy brings more than that to the table, though. Some of the observations and perspectives of her narrator say some things you won't here in many other places. For instance the character John could easily have come across as a creepy child molester -- and in a lot of books his presence would mandate making him the center of a plot.

Instead, while the creepy molester vibe is in place at times, John is alternately a source of comfort and aid, a pathetic victim, a wise man, a fool, and it's plain that the narrator is using him as he is using her. This bothered me -- hey, I've got kids in my life and I'm as fond of simplistic moral hysteria as anyone else -- but this kind of nuanced view struck me as true to life.

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, isn't just a straight-up SF novel; it's one belonging to a very specific sub-genre. It’s military SF. Even more specific – it’s Robert A. Heinlein-influenced military SF. Which means that it’s influenced by a specific Heinlein novel, Starship Troopers.

(Just as an aside, Starship Troopers is one of those novels you read when you’re a kid and it thrills you no end. Then you grow up and it’s hilarious and irritating. Or at least that’s how it worked for me…)

I’ve always been a little puzzled by the cover-band impulse – but I could totally see being in a band that fashioned itself in the image of the Ramones. (As an aside, The Hanson Brothers are my favorite non-Ramones Ramones – and what makes them really crank is the way they bring in another influence, which would be hockey.) Heinlein falls into the same category. I can totally understand the appeal of trying to match what he did in his young adult novels.

But Scalzi isn’t just doing a cover here. There is criticism of a lot of Heinlein’s more grotesque assumptions lurking below the surface. His ideas regarding the development of human personality stimulate thought. And his willingness to suggest that his characters might be in the wrong so far as their actions go shows a political astuteness that seems quite appropriate for the times. A lot of SF is about the present when you look at it closely, and Old Man’s War (and to a greater degree The Ghost Brigades) is, subtly, a product of the Bush years.

And the same way The Hanson Brothers sound like the Ramones, Scalzi reads like Heinlein. Good, solid workmanlike prose, a tone of voice that’s easy to trust. It’s almost like reading a reference volume – if he says it, you believe it. It’s this Now-Let-Daddy-Explain-It-To-You tone that let Heinlein get away with a lot of nonsense. (And I’m not by any means saying Heinlein was always full of shit – but when he was it was some ripe old shit.) Here, the voice of authority seems to be a little more well earned.

Old Man’s War gives the reader action, likeable characters, some interesting twists on the technology and economy of interstellar warfare, and a fistful of oddball aliens. And those are the rewards this genre offers the reader.

So why, despite the pleasure they gave me, was I unsatisfied with these two books?

Well, first off, they both struck me as being a wee tad weak in the plot department. Both of ‘em struck me as being more about one goddamned thing after another than they were about any central sequence of events. (Mind you, these were some pretty good goddamned things – they kept me turning the pages.) Old Man’s War used a narrative thread involving lost love to hold things together; Here They Come introduced a sequence involving the search for a missing father well into the book. Neither seemed strong enough to me. Either thread could have been eliminated without making a crucial difference in the books in question – their real virtues lay outside the plot.

And I think that’s the key issue. The virtues of these books are specific to their genres – and as well as the authors did their thang, I wanted more than they offered. They both were lacking in story, in strong plot resulting from characters expressing themselves in the context of a situation. I felt as though the characters were just doing things imposed on them by circumstance, that their actions and decisions were in the end inconsequential in their own lives. (Scalzi’s book is further away from this than Murphy’s is – but the plot hinges on a major coincidence, which strongly weakens the sense that the characters are leading the action.) A book exploring that idea, which dealt with someone either coming to terms or failing to come to terms with that idea would hold my interest. And there does seem to be an element of that in Murphy’s book but if it’s there intentionally it’s played way down low.

One thing that I found interesting and instructive was that some elements that I tend to associate with their respective genres were flipped. Scalzi was able to take scenes like an assault on a city of half-inch aliens and make them as convincing and tangible as a trip to the grocery store; Murphy was able to make a life of squalor into something dizzying and fantastic. In terms of tone, Scalzi was the realist and Murphy the fantasist – and that was all about prose style.

So at the start of this I mentioned that reading these books together made me think about genre. Here’s the thought, which while not new to me or to the world is still worth consideration.

The virtues or elements of appeal associated with specific genres are not limited to those genres. Beautiful prose shows up in the most unexpected places, as do tight plots, well-drawn characters, arresting imagery, surprising insights into human nature, explorations of social milieus, archetypal stories, etc, etc – all of the reasons we read are not specific to any genre or writer. Genre work is almost always going to be unsatisfying unless on some level and in some way it reaches out of its genre, whether that genre concerns itself with quotidian daily life or space opera. It’s easier to produce a perfect work in a particular form – and I regard both of these books in that light, as being note-perfect examples of their forms – than it is to produce something that is essentially outside of those conventional forms, regardless of how close to perfection it may be.

Hmm. I think I need to talk a bit more about genre in another post.

1 comment:

robp said...

References to "literary fiction" remind me of Flannery Connor:

"Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them."

The whole idea of "genre" fiction is some snob's categorization anyway. Dostoevski wrote about crime. Kafka wrote fantasy. Shakespeare wrote romance, crime and fantasy, a noirist for his time. Then someone with credentials decided only certain types of stories were "literary" and everything else was "genre." Oh, unless the fantasy can be retagged as something like "magical realism."

"Literary fiction" as a title resembles "classic rock": the term implies that everything in the category is worth your attention, but it doesn't take long to determine the inaccuracy of the terminology.

In the words of Paul Bowles:

"I want to take every poet and shove him down into the dungheap, kick all his literary friends in the ass, and try to make him see that writing is not word-bandying… but an emotion seen through the mind."