Monday, April 20, 2009

Let Me Count the Ways

For someone who doesn't watch much television, I seem to have spent an awful lot of time in front of the box recently. Since Christmas I have consumed, with varying degrees of rapture, Rome, Bones and Prison Break (all of which have something to teach the student of narrative). Now I have run across the programme sometimes described as the best TV show (at least if you read The Guardian). I refer, of course, to The Wire, an exceptionally ambitious and accomplished piece of television. So far I've watched only the first series, which is enough to confirm its greatness.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it's an ensemble crime drama in clear line of descent from Hill Street Blues, through NYPD Blue and particularly Baltimore: Life on the Street and indeed The Wire is set in Baltimore. The first series looks at the efforts of a marginalised group of cops, with contrasting motivations, as they try to take down a drug gang in the city. So far, so standard. But The Wire is much more than that.

It's routine to describe cop shows as "gritty", but it's hard to imagine any other drama being quite so worthy of the adjective. The Barksdale gang -- the drug dealers -- are presented, if not sympathetically, then certainly with compassion and understanding. They are a bureaucracy in exactly the same way as the police, and the two organisations are often explicitly contrasted -- not always in the police's favour. The economic imperatives behind the dealers' lives are explored, without ever condoning their conduct; the police, meanwhile, are hampered by internal politics and rivalries. And at the end of the series, there are no pat resolutions: the drug dealer we sympathise with the most is sentenced to 20 years, because he won't testify against his much worse colleagues; the police unit is disbanded, mostly in disgrace except for the one who has snitched on his mates. It's that kind of show--angry about the state of urban America and not willing to pull its punches.

The show is also a hugely daring technical achievement; it makes few concessions to the viewer. Cops and robbers speak in their own argot and it's several episodes before the viewer can make much sense of it. I can see why audience figures were relatively modest. There are no flashbacks, and no recaps: if you miss something, you've missed it.

Most episodic dramas follow one of two formats over a series. There's the Bones model: one case a week, a rising and falling movement captured in 45 minutes. There may be a subterranean story linking episodes together, but essentially each episode is standalone. This is easily accessible, but also easily exhausted. Such shows survive on the basis of the characters, because the plots become either formulaic or contrived. The other format is the Prison Break model: one story, with subplots, told over the life of the series, with each episode ending on a cliffhanger. This allows greater scope for character development but it's constrained by the need to punctuate the action at regular intervals because that's all for tonight, folks.

The Wire, by contrast, unfolds like a novel. Each episode stops after an hour, and if there's no cliffhanger, well, there's no cliffhanger. The series starts slowly, invests in building character and environment, and then lets them play out. It can only be viewed as a single, unified piece. It's a very, very high risk way to make a TV show.

Add in the uniform excellence of the large cast, which makes you care about the characters on both sides of the fence, and you have an artistic achievement which can only astound. This is as good as television gets.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Borderland of Fame

Are you the kind of person who likes to be ahead of the trends? Who spotted JK Rowling before anyone else - or wish you had? If so, I have a tip for you: Brian McGilloway. His crime novels, featuring the life and cases of Inspector Benedict Devlin, are not yet household names: but they very soon will be.

I read the first of the Devlin novels, Borderlands, a year or so ago, and its sequel, Gallows Lane, at the weekend. McGilloway's third and most recent offering, Bleed A River Deep, hurries from Amazon as I write.

Series detective novels are difficult to pull off. They need to be satisfying in their own right, but at the same time to show character development in the protagonist. (Unless you opt for the Agatha Christie approach and deploy unchanging Poirot or Marple time after time). Your protagonist must be essentially sympathetic but with credible flaws sufficient to make him interesting. And please, don't make those flaws centre around alcohol abuse--it's been done before, you know. Chandler and Rankin can get away with it; the rest of you have to come up with something else. (Just about the only flaw in The Wire, TV's most novelistic cop show, is McNulty's hard-drinking act).

Brian McGilloway has realised all this. Devlin is not an embittered loner; he is a family man and his attempts to reconcile the demands of domestic life with the rigours of policing is one of the interesting and original features of the series. Devlin is clearly one of the good guys, but he's not above doing the wrong thing for what he thinks are the right reasons (in Gallows Lane he plants evidence on a suspect he cannot otherwise convict: you know it's not going to turn out well).

McGilloway is already attracting comparisons to Ian Rankin and it's easy to see why. Both are socially-aware crime writers whose work is firmly anchored to a specific time and place.: both are also extremely accomplished. The series detective can go one of two ways: Rebus, growing credibly but sometimes unexpectedly, or Scarpetta, ever less believable with a welcome long outstayed. Given McGilloway's understanding of character, I have no doubt he'll be in the former camp.

I'm looking forward to keeping Inspector Devlin company in his cases for years to come.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Gates of Languor

The more historical fiction I read, the more I come to admire those who write it well. It is one of those disciplines, like tightrope-walking, where what appears effortless to the expert reveals its true perils only in the work of the less proficient. Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, a historical novel acclaimed by many good judges, certainly displays all its labours on the page.

There is much to admire in this stirring story of the three hundred Spartans who defied the Persian hordes in their doomed defence of Thermopylae. Pressfield is at his best in the battle scenes, where the horrors of warfare at close quarters are all too graphically realised, and the heroism of the Spartan warriors rings down to us through the ages. But for all that, I finished the book with a lingering dissatisfaction. The feeling of immersion I get from a really good historical novel was not there. So why didn't it work for me?

The book failed for me on two separate levels, the philosophical and the technical. Historical novels seem to me to operate in one of two ways: they can either embed the reader in the period addressed, or they can use that period as a means of commenting on the present. (I oversimplify for the sake of argument). As a matter of taste I prefer the former - the novels of Patrick O'Brian, say, or Cecelia Holland's Jerusalem which I reviewed recently. If I want to think deeply on contemporary events, I'd rather read a novel which explicitly addresses those themes. If I'm reading history, don't pull me out of the period.

Gates of Fire, is very much in the second category. It reminded me more of Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick's 1986 Vietnam film--particularly the early bootcamp scenes where the recruits are systematically brutalised to prepare them for combat--than any other novel about classical antiquity. The elegiac tone of much of the book(one of its best features) is for a way of life--but it's not, except indirectly, for the Spartans. What Gates of Fire is truly lamenting is the decline of a certain aspect of America's perception of itself (a reading admittedly conditioned by post 9/11 events, but nonetheless perceptible before that). Pressfield thanks in his acknowledgements the historian and commentator Victor Davis Hanson, and it is precisely Hanson's brand of libertarian self-reliance which Pressfield so admires in American culture. I'm indebted to Paul Rhoads for quoting Hanson's recent observations on the American officer class on his blog: relics of an American past who believe in honor, duty, country, God, sacrifice, and the continuation of the American experiment. America, of course, is a country which deliberately modelled its governance on Greek and Roman models, and by taking us back to Thermopylae Pressfield is returning to the root of the 'American experiment'. I don't have any quarrel with the position articulated by Pressfield (or if I do, it's not to the point in a literary review) but I do have rather more difficulty with it being smuggled in under the guise of historical fiction.

On an artistic level, the hazard of Pressfield's philosophical approach is that it requires him to present the lives of the Spartans as a hagiography. All the main characters have been forged in the Spartan school of adversity, and though they feel understandable fear, keep it largely to themselves, a price they pay for the peerless esprit de corps of their brethren. Dienekes, the novel's moral exemplar, at times outlines his thoughts on the nature of fear for his disciples '(and of course the reader's) benefit. But because the Spartans all think alike, and all unhesitatingly follow the Code, all the conflict in the novel is external.

My other dissatisfactions with the book are around the prose itself. Pressfield has done an immense amount of research--and boy, is he going to make sure the reader knows it. He can't bring out a chamber pot without telling us the Greek for it; or he drags in an indifferent pun which only works if you know that the Greek words for "friend" and "foreskin" differ by only one letter. The truly great novelists who treat the classical period--Mary Renault or Allan Massie--don't let on to the reader that they've done any research: they just tell you the story. The result of Pressfield's scholarship is not to underwrite the narrative, it's to delay the flow of the story. Pressfield's voice is wildly variable; at one moment he will give us the argot of the common soldier (Full Metal Jacket time) while at others we are given prose of Homeric portentousness. Some writers can get away with this, but the narrative framework Pressfield has given himself, a retrospective first-person account by one of the grunts, makes the job almost impossible. The modern American idiom of the soldier-talk grates, while the high falutin' stuff doesn't sit well with the purported narrator.

I very much wanted to like Gates of Fire, if only to impress my swanky Macmillan New Writing pals; but although the book had many virtues, they were not enough to lift it above the mediocre, for this reader at least. But at least it's reminded me just how surpassingly good Mary Renault is...

Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Trouble with Fanny

::Acquired Taste doesn't spend all its time reading genre fiction. Sometimes we turn our attention to The Canon as well, and over the past couple of weeks I've been re-reading Mansfield Park. I read Austen primarily for her voice: cool precision occasionally counterpointed by a thrust so deft the reader doesn't see it coming, or realise at first how deeply it has struck home. This is a pleasure which never cloys.

I've read and loved all the Austen novels many times; Mansfield Park is not my favourite (Pride and Prejudice most perfectly unites all Austen's virtues) but it is by some distance the most interesting of the six. That's because the book just shouldn't work. The heroine, Fanny Price, is timid and introverted to the point of psychosis; her amour, Edmund, is priggish and humourless. And having strung us along for 600 pages, Austen doesn't even show us their final understanding. Instead the last chapter is told--told, not shown--at such an astonishing height of authorial omniscience as to make the gods themselves seem fallible bunglers.

And yet, for most readers, including this one, it works. Maybe only just, but Austen manages to pull off a novel in which the two leading characters are not immediately sympathetic and the ending is chucked in almost as an aside.

There is no disguising that Fanny is a trial to the reader, especially the modern sensibility which expects its heroines to be feisty and spirited. Fanny is neither, although she has an inner strength which makes her interesting to the attentive reader (and indeed this process of being persuaded of her merits against our wills is exactly the one experienced by her suitor Henry Crawford). Both she and Edmund have highly developed moral sensibilities (a kinder obverse of "priggishness") and Edmund, particularly, has to fight the temptation to compromise. The modern reader may struggle to see why Edmund prizes being a country clergyman above the charms of the witty, lively and beautiful Mary, but in a 19th century context it's more easily understandable. Because Austen isn't writing a historical novel, she can assume a shared culture with her readers which simply isn't the case today: a modern writer telling the same story would need to dramatise the appeal of the church to the morally-minded, rather than taking it as read.

Even those who find Fanny and Edmund rather dull--indeed, especially those--will warm to the liveliness of Mary and Henry, all the more stimulating because they are not moral exemplars. Mary is catty and unguarded; Henry enjoys nothing more than breaking young ladies' hearts. The depth and richness of the supporting cast--not just the Crawfords, but the hateful Aunt Norris, even the indolent Lady Bertram--go some way towards offsetting the reader's frustration with Fanny's perpetual snivelling.

It would be hard for a writer to get away with the final chapter today. At long last everything has come to a head, and the reader hunkers down for a final scene like the one between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, where errors are confessed and feelings declared. Instead Austen plays a point-of-view tour-de-force of the sort our resident POV expert David Isaak could only marvel at:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

The rest of the novel is played out in this astoundingly distant third-person. We aren't going to get Edmund declaring his feelings for Fanny after all. What we get is a wonderfully wry paragraph that is almost post-modern in the way it steps outside the novel to remind us of the conventions of the genre:

I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather have that than listen to Fanny grizzle her way through Edmund's proposal (the reader will realise by now that Fanny will not face the moment with sangfroid). Austen's voice is the dominant element of the novel, and at the end she turns the camera on herself, to tell the reader what happened to everybody, and what to think about it. A writer needs to have the most compelling voice, not to mention considerable chutzpah, to pull this off. Could you do it today? Maybe you could make it work, but only if you could get it through your agent and editor.

Mansfield Park is a difficult novel. More than any of Austen's other works, it reflects a cultural sensibility now long vanished, and the reader has to work uncommonly hard to mesh their own preconceptions with the author's world. Luckily we are in the hands of a master guide, who may be moral but is never moralistic. Her wry humour remains, even at a distance of two hundred years. Settle back and enjoy the ride.
Enhanced by Zemanta
Comparison with a bestseller

I'll blog at more length on my experience with Gates of Fire once I've finished it (although for now I can only hint darkly that my pleasure is not as unalloyed as I'd hoped...). For now I'll pause only to observe the similarity between the cover and the paperback of The Dog of the North.

It's an interesting illustration of how Macmillan are trying to pitch my book - that while it's fantasy, they are trying also to convey an 'epic historical' flavour too. For those readers who judge a book by its cover (which, let's face it, is just about all of us when we're browsing in a bookshop), the similarity between the Pressfield cover and mine tells us a lot about the 'contract' Macmillan are offering the potential reader of The Dog of the North.

Now, if only the sales figures were correspondingly similar...

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Recommended Reading

A book with the personal endorsement of three of Macmillan New Writing's finest--Matt Curran, David Isaak and Aliya Whiteley--has to be good, doesn't it? Tastes will always differ, so nothing in life is certain, but this is a pretty heavy-hitting panel.

I am, therefore, starting Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire with great optimism. If I don't like it, you guys are to blame...