Saturday, July 24, 2010

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: Fever Dream

Since the first pages of Relic, Preston and Child have held my attention in the palm of their competent hands. Call them pulp writers, call them anything you please, I simply don't care. They have the kind of magic that works for me--with one exception, but that's not what this post is about.

What this is about is an opening that doesn't work for me, for one very simple reason. Since an excerpt of the first chapter isn't available online, I captured one of the snippets that caused me to roll my eyes and groan, "You've got to be kidding me!" Let's see if you can figure out why. Behold:

Do you see it? It's a classic info dump, an as-you-know-Bob. The two characters are reduced to two talking heads for most of the first chapter in what turns out to be one of the weakest openings I've encountered in some time.

Had I not been a long-time fan of Preston and Child, I might have set the book aside and moved on to something else, but I trust them to tell me a good story so I persisted. My reward, thus far, has been some excellent storytelling, but I had to move past the first chapter to find it. I adore Agent Pendergast with his cool countenance and brilliant mind, and his somewhat rougher cohort, Lt. D'Agosta.

I'm still trying to decide if the opening would have bothered me were I not a writer. The answer is: possibly. But I'll never know. I'm simply too biased at this point, too knowledgeable about things writers try to sneak under the radar, too unforgiving of certain weaknesses in my own writing. No matter how much I let go of my writer self, it still rides shotgun every time I pick up a book. So I can't help but feel the authors took a sloppy shortcut.

You can buy Fever Dream here or here. If you find the opening weak, please persist; it's worthy.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

I'd like my focus for this blog to be on newer books, so I can keep up with what's hitting the shelves now--or at least recently. But when I think about my favorite openings, the ones that have rocked my world, one specific book always comes to mind, so I'd be remiss not to include it here.

My writing career, such as it is, can be divided into two parts: pre-Lolita and post. 

I've been thinking about this a great deal lately, examining my own writing, facing the fact that my natural voice veers ever so slightly towards literary although my subject matter does not. I picked through my books trying to figure when that changed. It changed around two, maybe three years ago with Lolita.

Pre-Lolita, my writing was functional. It was fine. Serviceable. It got the job done. But it wasn't good enough to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Until one day, while experiencing a reading malaise, I picked up Lolita and began to read...

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. 

The first time I read those words, I shivered. 

If we're lucky, we've been there. A man has said our name in such a way those tiny hairs stand at attention on the backs of our necks and in that moment we'd do anything for him to say it again.

I could picture Humbert Humbert, our narrator, standing there, the shape of his lips as he formed her name, that erotic drawl. Oh I knew the plot, his fixation on this girl child, the inevitable conclusion of the whole drama, but in that moment I didn't care because I was reading poetry that had slipped through the cracks and appeared on the shelves as a novel.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. 

This always makes me smile. Even when we're young, women are so many different things. We're kaleidoscopes offering a different facet of ourselves depending on the roles we're expected to play: daughter, sister, friend, coworker. But in the arms of a man we're just ourselves, and Humbert sees that even in this little girl. It's twisted and sick but astute. Nabokov shows us that his vile protagonist is a clever man.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. 

That wry, flippant sense of humor...

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. 

Humbert Humbert knows what he is. He harbors no illusions about his true nature. He's a lover of girls, a rapist of children, and a murderer. The reader should hate him for his crimes and sins, and at times I did. Since this isn't a book review, I won't delve any deeper into that. What Humbert is is an observer of human nature, and in this opening he shows us that he's able to look inward and well as outward. He sees himself.

I confess it wasn't the plot that encouraged me to read onwards because I already knew the story. The narrator's voice turned out to be a riptide dragging me across the pages. I wanted to hear his version of events, because he is, quite frankly, charming and entertaining despite his more loathsome traits. 

Nabakov--and Humbert Humbert-- taught me novels and poetry don't have to be that different. We can use repetition of words and sounds to make our writing more pleasant to the ear. Why be functional when we can be more?

So although, as far as story goes, this is far from my favorite book, I adore the writing for the sounds it makes as I read. There's not a single superfluous word. Every single syllable counts. Just like good poetry. 

You can buy Lolita here or here.

Total Oblivion, More or Less - Alan DeNiro

It's a funny thing, but I almost didn't buy Total Oblivion, More or Less. I was standing in Barnes and Noble looking for examples of covers I didn't like, when I spotted what I perceived to be a cheesy spine jutting from amidst its peers.

A-ha, I thought, and raced off to show my companion my prize. Sure enough, the spine was ugly and the cover not my usual cup of tea, but for whatever reason I flipped to the first page and began reading.

When we left the store, the book was mine.

Total Oblivion,  More or Less, by Alan DeNiro

I keep forgetting how little I knew in the beginning. How little everyone knew. It's not as if I'm that much older now-is there that much difference between sixteen and seventeen? And it's not as if I have a lot of answers now. I don't kid myself about things like answers anymore.

Such a simple start, yet it gives us so many clues about the character and the story. Macy, the narrator, is a teenage girl who begins by telling us how little she knew. 

Yes, I'm stating the obvious but for a good reason: that's no small admission for a teenage girl--I should know, I used to be one. At that age we know it all.  To admit otherwise tells us something core-shaking has happened to this girl to change her from a know-it-all child to a young woman who recognizes how little she understands about her world.

At this point my curiosity has taken hold, because it takes something drastic to cause such a maturity jump in just one year.

But when we started downriver-even after all the chaos in the refugee camp-I kind of prided myself on how I had my act together. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Oooh, a refugee camp? Interesting. Why was she there? Why did she have to leave? We who?

Again, she tells us how cocky she was at the beginning, but hints at disaster.

No one had their acts together, at least in my family. I kept thinking, well, maybe all of this trouble will pass over, and electricity will start working again, and the Scythians--

The Scythians? That's my first clue that either we're not on the Earth we all know and more or less love, we're on another planet, or we're having an X Files encounter. Either way, I'm intrigued. And the author has done something I really appreciate as a reader: Scythians. It's different, but it's not too weird. I can pronounce it easily enough. He kept it simple.

And we've also learned she's with her family. She's neither alone nor traveling with strangers.

--will retreat to wherever they came from, and the Empire--

The Empire? Another concept that's familiar yet indicative that this might not be our world. Or maybe Macy means it's the Scythian Empire. I have to know!

--will give back their land, too, and people will be able to use their cars again and drive wherever they want to, and the government will find a cure for the plague, and we'll go back to St. Paul and I'll start my senior year, none the worse for wear.

 Wow, something catacylsmic really has happened and it's tied to these Scythians. No electricity, no cars, stolen land, a plague... 

And, again, Macy underlines her former naivete, reminding us that as events unfolded, she changed. Good stories are always about change.

And everyone would have stories after coming back-crazy stories, to be sure. But stories that couldn't hurt people anymore.
Of course, some people wouldn't have come back. But a lot of people would! And then life would resume more or less where it left off. There would be a lot of memorials and speeches about "healing" and "averting disaster."

The camera pulls back a little now, not away from Macy, but she expands the focus again. This event didn't just affect her and her family. It wasn't some simple, yet devastating personal problem. Whatever disaster occurred, it affected a massive number of people. Maybe everybody. Lots of people died.

I love a good apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic story!

That was how I thought things would happen, in the back of my mind, for a while. But each day downriver, that hope-or maybe something halfway between hope and fear-became fainter and fainter. And I remember the first time I began to understand that things might not be the same again. It was when my dad told me this story. I was still clutching my old life, but for the first time I started to catch the drift. What made it odd was that my dad wasn't good at telling stories. But I think he was trying to tell me something important- something that he didn't quite understand himself.

Here's what I picked out of this paragraph. You might see something different. 

my dad wasn't good at telling stories.  

Was. Past tense. I'm wondering, did he die? (I know now, of course, but at the beginning...)

Alan DeNiro makes us ask a lot of questions in this opening, and leaks few answers. Strong openings do that. They fill us with so many questions that we're compelled to flip the following pages until our curiosity is satisfied.

Our boat, the Prairie Chicken, was bivouacked on the muddy banks of the Mississippi, near what used to be Red Wing. We were eating dinner in a run-down public park alongside the river. At that point in the journey no one was starving, and we were stopping overnight.

Now the author is orienting us in space. The Mississippi, that sounds like we're still on Earth. Eating dinner in a public park by the river--sounds normal enough. No one is starving to death, it's safe enough for them to stop to eat and rest. 

How bad can things be? 

The author doesn't make us wait too long to find out.

It was almost like a picnic, except for the wannabe snipers on the boat, boys my age, watching out for roving bands of horsemen or just ruffians. There were refugees shacked up in the old rail station on the other side of the broken dock. I could see their little cooking fires through the oilskin windows. I felt sorry for them, stuck there like that. I didn't go and offer them food, though.

Snipers? Roving bands of horsemen? Ruffians? If this was my other blog, I'd make some crack about how it sounds just like Washington D.C., but I'm being sensible here. Those aren't elements we see in our everyday lives. This world is seriously off-kilter.

And again with the refugees. Something serious has happened if Americans are refugees in their own country. 

Something else, too. We see Macy is compassionate, but even that early on, when she's still naive and convinced she knows it all, she's no fool. No one was starving, she says, but clearly there's not quite enough food to share. I like a heroine who is no dummy. This is someone with a brain and a sense of putting family first. I have to admire that. I'd do the same. 

At this point I'm experiencing empathy and forming a connection with the character.

If I'd known about what we were all going to go through later, I might have tried to tell them: It's not safe anywhere, so you might as well hole up where you are, you're doing the right thing.

Here we have it: the promise that things are going to get worse. Refugees, snipers, ruffians, and starvation are just the beginning.

There's not a lot of fancy description here. There doesn't need to be. The narrator's voice is crisp and fresh. It's an opening that has served its purpose well--well enough that I bought it.

If I missed something, or if you feel differently, jump on in. I don't bite (unless you're a steak.)

You can buy Total Oblivion, More or Less here or here.

Lightbreaker - Mark Teppo

Lightbreaker, by Mark Teppo

The Last Symbol - Dan Brown

The Last Symbol, by Dan Brown