Monday, October 27, 2008

Do you read more than one book at once?

This was a question posed to me by my blogging friend Gustav a few week’s back.

In thinking about it, it’s raised some interesting questions about the way in which we absorb narrative in its different forms.

I always have more than one book on the go at any time – but never more than one piece of fiction.

I’ll often have three of four books on the bedside table that may be about history, religion, or other non-fiction (and not all as high brow as that statement may make it sound!).

But I rarely attempt to read two novels at once. (Occasionally, a high-demand novel may become available on short loan from the library, and I’ll set aside whatever novel I’m reading at that moment so I can return the library book on time. But I always set it aside - I don’t try and read both at once.)

For me, it’s always been an issue of not having my head in two narrative spaces at once.

Which got me thinking: isn’t that what I do when I watch more than one television series in the same season? Or following stories in more than comic series?

Films are slightly different because we watch them in a single sitting, (unless you’re a pay TV “flicker”, of course, then you might watch it in three instalments, and not necessarily chronological!), experiencing the entire narrative before moving on to the next story.

I seem to manage quite well keeping track of story arcs and characters across these more visual mediums.

Is it because an episode of a television series or an edition of a comic has its own smaller story arc, with a natural place for a break at the end? Even a cliff hanger ending makes a clean break from one episode to another.

For me, the same rules just don’t seem to apply to novels. Is it because with a novel, the story takes up so much more of my imagination, and when I fill up that space with too many stories requiring my emotional and imaginative capacity, it becomes too messy?

Does the visual nature of television and comics make it easier for me to keep the stories separate?

So, my question this week is: do you read more than one novel at a time? And if so, do you find it easy to keep the stories straight?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The power of a strong narrative voice

Regular readers of this blog know I hit a wall a week or so ago in my reading schedule. Strangely enough, it was the most unlikely of novels that got me moving again: a violent, bleak urban tale in which nobody finds an even remotely hopeful ending.

Bulletproof Suzy, by British writer Ian Brotherhood, was not uplifting stuff, but it definitely got me thinking about a few things.

First and foremost, this novel has one of the most distinctive narrative voices I’ve read for a while.

The narrative character (actually called Francine, but referred to by all and sundry – including herself – by her street moniker, Suzy) is a tough young woman in a not-too-distant future Britain, living in a cold, poverty-stricken concrete jungle dominated by thugs and violence.

She and her team of “little ladies” are what are known as “Liaison Officers for the Commissioner’s Office”, government-sanctioned stand-over merchants who collect rates on behalf of the local council.

In this future, rates go so high there’s little chance anyone will willingly pay them. “Operation Community Responsibility” is launched – a system where one household is responsible for collecting the rates of another. It invariably fails, and non-government “teams” are recruited to do the dirty work. (Given my current line of professional communication work, I found the concept deeply ironic.)

Suzy’s world is brutal, but she’s adapted to it and is relatively comfortable with her place in it. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when her less violent and best friend Joanne is cruelly murdered and Suzy finds herself the prime suspect.

The majority of the story is set over about 48 hours, during which Suzy and her crew try to get to the bottom of Joanne’s murder and then exact revenge.

The story, even with its bleakness, drew me in thanks to Suzy’s take on the world and her observations of those in it. She’s uncompromising, rarely sentimental, and relentlessly tough in the face of danger. A dark sense of humour helps.

Brotherhood writes like Suzi thinks, making the novel essentially a long monologue, but once you get her rhythm, it’s easy to follow. Her observations are full of profanity and slang (cops are the roz, rozzlings, rozzloiders; a gang from an apartment block called the Cherry basket are Cherroids; certain sensitive body parts are “jarlers”).

Here’s a taste:
The door starts going at all hours – this one from the first floor, all sweaty and crimson what with just having rubbed up against Shuggs and his merry cherries, or else one of the other CO teams now operating, that one struck dumb with fear, bearing the tell-tale odour of involuntarily released bodily fluids. Sometimes, if the client has actually suffered physical damage, we’ll be straight out there and then to find those responsible, Shuggs more often than not, and he’s usually to be found with his raggle-taggle collection of buff-fluffed Cherroids in the favoured Maxwell’s Lounge by the river, and it’ll be a few shouts at the door and they’ll be out, swinging whatever is at hand and making light of our being the opposite sex or whatever.

Hardly traditional punctuation, but it works perfectly in this type of story.

Plot-wise, there are muddy politics belying the situation Suzy finds herself neck-deep in, but these are far less interesting than the way she interacts with those around her, and her observations of the deteriorating situation.

This engaging narrative voice is almost enough to get me past my disappointment with book’s ending.

It’s not that I was expecting a happy ending (there’s no hope in sight for these poverty-stricken characters locked into lives of violence), and the story’s bleak resolution certainly fits the tone of the rest of the book.

I think it’s the fact the story suddenly fast-forwards a few years and all those characters who were such a strong part of the rest of the book have all but faded into the background. But then, I guess, that too fits with the transitory nature of Suzy’s world…

Maybe I liked Suzy so much I wanted her to have some level of victory. But maybe her lack of self pity is a victory in itself?

Definitely not a book for Bec…

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sequels from different authors

How do you feel about book sequels written by someone other than the original author, usually many years later?

I’ve been chewing on that question this week, after reading an article by Rosalie Higson in The Weekend Australian Review about Australian author Colleen McCullough’s new offering, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

McCullough (best known for the Thorn Birds and her Masters of Rome series) has re-imagined the Bennet sisters 20 years on, with the tuneless, personality-challenged Mary being the focus of the story.

In this story, Mary breaks free after her mother’s passing and, with a crusading fire in her belly, sets off to write a book about the treatment of the poor in industrial northern England. She encounters dangers and romance, before emerging as a “most exotic orchid”.

This concept of re-imagining literary characters is nothing new. A number of writers have created sequels to classics whose original authors are no longer with us. And literary critics have long turned their nose up at the practice, demeaning it as cheap way to cash in on fans’ hunger to know more about characters they hold close to their hearts.
McCullough herself admits she loves to annoy the literati, which was one of the aspects that appealed to her with this project (along with wanting to understand “why Jane Austen didn’t like Mary, to whom she devoted a whole eight sentences,” and explore “whatever happened to Mary?”).

For me, the question is not why a writer would want to write about another author’s characters. The answer is obvious: they either love or are fascinated by a character or characters, and believe they can deliver the next chapter in their lives. In popular fiction this is called “fan fic”, and is most commonly found in the world of sci and fantasy, where novels are regularly churned out featuring characters from television shows (e.g. Buffy, Angel and Star Trek) by writers who have no connection to the original creations.

The question for me, is how would the original author feel about it?

The Guardian’s Books Blog tackled the subject when a second sequel to Gone with the Wind was released. The blog author is perplexed by the way in which these types of sequels are so reviled.

The blog points out that sequel writing exists unmaligned in other formats such as film and television, where fans and critics don’t seem overly perturbed by the fact that numerous writers are involved.

The blog puts it down to literary snobbery, and asks why sequels, prequels and companion books can’t have literary merit in their own right.

But unlike the “fan fic” – whose original characters and stories were developed by a team of writers – novels are traditionally written by individuals. Characters are created in their minds and further developed on the page.

To have another writer interpret your characters and take them in directions you might never have foreseen for them could be either flattering or insulting.

It’s not about the new writer’s background, talent, or even intention. It’s a question of whether anyone other than a character’s creator can truly tell you what might happen next.

It also treads sacred ground with fans as well, who have their own ideas on what may or may not have happened after the last page of the original book. How will fans of Pride and Prejudice (who may or may not have picked up one of the 20 plus other “sequels”) feel about D’Arcy having ambitions to become Prime Minster and Elizabeth being unhappy, as is the case in The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet.

McCullough’s novel intrigues me, purely because Mary is such an under-drawn character in Austen’s classic. But I’m not sure I want my experience of the rest of characters in the original novel influenced or challenged by anyone other than Austen. And that’s obviously never going to happen.

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on the subject.

Have you read a sequel to classic by another writer? Did you love it, hate it or were indifferent? Do you not care: a good story is a good story?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The brick wall

I’ve reached a strange point in my reading journey … and it looks a bit like a brick wall.

I’m sure it will pass as quickly as it has arrived, but in the meantime, I thought I’d blog about it, as I like to put something new on this site around once a week. And, by the nature of my reading situation, I don’t seem to have anything else to write about this week!

Here it is: I’ve suddenly become indecisive about my reading choices. I have an interesting list of titles waiting on my book shelf, but I can’t seem to get excited about any of them.

I’m worried that if I start one and cast it aside, I won’t go back to it (I’m not big on revisiting books that don’t grab me – remember my ill-fated relationship with The Confederacy of Dunces?), and so forever ruin a book I may otherwise enjoy.

My current shortlist is as follows (in no particular order):
- High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (loved by my good friend the Ink-stained Toe-poker)
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (loved or hated, depending on whose review you read)
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (I really enjoyed The Kite Runner, but not sure if I’m in the mood for the emotional commitment I suspect this book will require)
- Second Strike by Mark Abernethy (Aussie spy adventure sequel to The Golden Serpent, which I enjoyed last year)
- A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (who wrote The Curious Incident With The Dog in the Night-time) (Side-note: I grabbed this book off the shelf last night and knocked a glass of wine over my laptop - which didn’t help its cause.)

Does anyone else hit these sorts of reading walls? If so, how do you break through of them?

This is quite new for me, and is probably more a reflection of where I’m at in my brain at the moment, than anything else. I have no doubt it will pass….

So, apologies for the lack of intellectual stimulation in this post. Hopefully I’ll have something more interesting for you next week!