Sunday, April 24, 2011

On the fatal word 'interesting'

I just finished reading a big thick book, a literary apocalyptic tale, that sold well last year.  Popular, well regarded.  As I closed the back cover I was left with the impression: 'interesting.'

It's a fatal word for a book.  A book should either be gripping or boring.  Gripping means it's got just the right parts, just enough of them, and there's nothing to throw you out of the story.  Boring means the book is bad, or it isn't something that appeals to you, or a thousand other things.  But those two impressions, or their more intense cousins, loved and hated, are the only ones that matter for a reader.  (Academics and critics and publishers have other sets of words, but it's readers who keep a text alive.)

Interesting means there was something wrong with the tale.  'It could have been what I wanted.'

The problem in this book was energy.  It had a rousing first two hundred pages, one scene of which was up there with the very best work I've seen written, but the last five hundred pages went into a soupy bog, too many characters, too much back story, a mushy, winding plot.  Dilute.  Diminished.  Like a post-apocalypse tale I remember reading in eighth grade for class, but less well done.  It didn't have a core to look at, some beautiful thing that kept the book's pulse beating -- and thus my heart beating out of my chest.  It didn't have an internal source of energy.

I first discovered the importance of energy in a book when I re-read Brideshead Revisited, a second or third reading.  I remembered liking it, but the details were hazy.  So I picked it up again a year ago.  The prologue material was almost enough to throw me out, I've become a lazier reader in some respects since college.  But I got to the meat of the book, the college years, that make up the first half of the tale.  Rousing.  Sparkling.  Sebastian Flyte, the oddball, was a furnace in the middle of the book, warming up each page -- demanding that I ask, what will happen next.  Of course, a character called Flyte will fly.  He disappeared from the second half of the book except as an alcoholic and a project to be saved.  Boring, dreary, dull.

Waugh had shot himself in the head by the plot he chose.  Some may argue it was intentional.  The light of the young man goes out so the book must become a slog to match it.  Bah.  Infuriating.

But an important lesson.  A reader will read something that demands to be read.  When the energy goes away, no matter how much plot is left, the reader checks out.

In the last five years I've read hundreds of thrillers.  The one that I reach for when I want a good story, out of all the choices, is Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs.  Not Red Dragon.  Not Hannibal.  (I bought a copy of Hannibal when it first came out, read it overnight, and was so horrified at how bad it was, I returned it to the bookstore with a poor excuse the next day.  I have never returned a book before or since.)

Why Silence of the Lambs?  It's far from a perfect tale.  In fact, it could be responsible, with a few other granddaddy books, for spawning a lot of lazy habits in thriller writers.  The scenes inside Hannibal's head are painful, mustache-waxing pieces, 'look how evil I am.'  The scenes with Buffalo Bill are even worse.  The young eyes of Clarice Starling are the best parts of the book; but the energy comes from the clash between Clarice and Hannibal, from some of the most vital, driven dialogue anyone ever wrote down.  Oddly enough, it takes two to make energy in this book, but what energy.

I haven't done it yet, but I suspect if one read Silence but skipped any chapter without Clarice in it, the book would be twice as good.  Why?  Because the available energy in the book, almost all from the few conversations between Clarice and Hannibal, would take up a larger percentage of the book.  We'd get to see Hannibal working his single goal: freedom.  We'd get to see Clarice working hers: advancement, acceptance.  Simple stuff, but masterwork none the less.

My working hypothesis about people who read books is that they like the warmth of a tale in the way a moth likes the warmth of a light or a candle or a bug zapper.  It's just harder to perish from reading a book: the beautiful light, warmth, energy of a good book is still the same.

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