Friday, September 28, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

The Quincunx
Charles Palliser, 1989

Like Austen and O'Brian, Palliser's immense novel is set in the early years of the 19th century, and Palliser also follows O'Brian in reproducing the idiom of the period. The Quincunx follows the extreme fortunes of young Johnnie as he attempts to discover his true identity and recover his lost inheritance. With its labyrinthine litigations, London lowlife, streetwise rogues and blistering social commentary, the reader can be forgiven for thinking of Dickens. And in this case, the comparison is entirely appropriate, for Palliser has set out, among other things, to write a Dickens homage. One key name in the plot is "John Huffam", two of Dickens' given names. Palliser has written a novel which in plot and manner is at once a tribute and a commentary on Dickens--in particular, Bleak House.

The Quincunx
succeeds primarily through the sheer compulsion of the plot. It is a huge story, and the tension never lets up. Every page seems to have some fresh revelation, invariably shown 300 pages later to have been illusory. The narrative force drags the reader through 1,000 pages with scarcely a lag. The plot is a marvellously wrought puzzle, whose structure is reflected in the book's title. On this basic level, The Quincunx is a barnstorming 19th century novel which just happens to have been written 150 years after its models. Had Palliser left it at this, he would have earned our acclaim; but he does rather more.

What is easy to miss, because Palliser is so at home with the Dickensian model, is that The Quincunx is profoundly informed by 20th century fiction as well. Johnnie turns out to be a profoundly unreliable narrator, and while there are examples of this from the 19th century (Charlotte Bronte's Villette being an early example), it's a narrative technique which came into its own much later, and now it's a standard part of the fiction writer's repertoire. Palliser gives us a narrator who is so unreliable that the ending of the novel undercuts much of what has gone before. There are entire websites devoted to trying to work out what the end of the novel actually means--the central mystery of the novel (who is Johnnie's father?) is susceptible to more than one interpretation. Even in this, we have something of Dickens: the final sentence of Great Expectations, for instance, admits of two wholly contradictory readings.

Why I admire the book is the way in which it balances its twin aspects. It works perfectly on the ostensible mystery level, while playing with the tropes of Victorian fiction for those who enjoy such things.

How has it influenced me?

The mysteries at the heart of The Quincunx are all about identity: not just Johnnie's but most of the characters in the novel. Hardly anyone is who you think they are. I am sucker as a reader for this device, and have tried to employ it as a writer as well. My first novel-length work, The Zael Inheritance, turns explicitly on whether or not the (anti-)heroine is who she says she is, there are a couple of peripheral identity mysteries in Dragonchaser, and The Dog of the North has a similar puzzle built into the DNA of the structure.

I have also found the more general mystery plot appealing. All novels require the reader to answer the question "what is going on here?". In some stories that's as straightforward as understanding how the characters relate to each other; in others the unravelling the mystery is the entirety of plot. In the kind of fiction I write, the question "what is going on?" also relates most pressingly to the world the characters inhabit: one of the challenges a fantasy writer sets himself is to create an unfamilar environment, and make it both intelligible and interesting to the reader. Palliser is an inspiration in creating a richly-textured fictional world which at once invites the reader to make sense of that world and its central mystery.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

It's all about plot.

No, it's all about character.

If you get both of those right, you can do all the fancy stuff you like (but don't try the fancy stuff without it).

A fictional world created with enough depth becomes a character in its own right.

The unreliable narrator device can illuminate your fictional world from angles invisible in more straightforward narration.

Even after 1,000 pages, you don't have to give 'em a happy ending.
Your protagonist can get what he wants, and it still not need be a happy ending.

No comments: