Friday, February 27, 2009

Narrative characters you want to slap

We all know how important narrative voice is, but is important enough to be the difference between pushing on with a book or throwing it aside when you don't like it?

After the dark violence of The Pilo Family Circus, I was ready for something life affirming and whimsical, so last week I picked up Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

In fairness, I appreciated the themes of this novel, which so frequently seems to turn up on people's "most loved books" list. For those who haven't read it, it's the story of a nomadic mother and daughter, who arrive in a small French village and set up a chocolate shop at the beginning of Lent. Their presence - and leanings towards paganism - raise the ire of the local priest, who wants his flock to focus on self-denial, not the sinful indulgence of the perfect eclair.

But, every time the novel switched narrators from the free spirited Vianne to the repressed Father Reynaud, I lost interest.

Not just becaue Reynaud was unpleasant - every good story needs a good antagonist - but because I wasn't that interested in knowning what was going on his head. Or at least, not so often.

Reynaud's reasonably fleshed out flaws are ideal for the story; experiencing events from his perspective gives the tale more depth; and his demise - as inevitable as it is ironic - is satsifying.

But, as necessary as his narrative voice was, it removed me from the story rather than drawing me closer.

I finished the book, but had Reynaud had more page time, I may not have.

So, it got me wondering how often people leave a book unfinished because of the narrative character. I don't mean not finishing a book because we don't like the story, or the style of writing, or the type size.

I'm talking about being aware you don't like the narrative character and choosing to put the book aside because of it (as I did a year ago with John Kennedy O'Toole's The Confederecy of Dunces). Or maybe even continuing to read but loathing the narrator to the final page (as, apparently, did many detractors of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series).

Has anyone else experienced the annoying narrator phenomenon?
(And yes, Belinda, your topic about narrators of audio books is the next logical post!)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Not for the faint- hearted

On more than one occasion, we’ve talked on this blog about how powerful stories have the ability permeate our moods and thoughts. It’s for this reason many readers choose their books carefully, aware of how they react to certain themes, imagery and genres.

Is that a form of self censorship, or simply self preservation?

A combination of reading material this week has led to this question. The first is The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott, and the second, author Frank Moorhouse’s essay in this month’s Australian Literary Review (more on the latter in a moment).

It’s been a very long time since I picked up a horror novel, but I’ve been meaning to check out Elliott’s debut novel, The Pilo Family Circus, since it won the inaugural ABC Fiction Award back in 2006.

I’m glad I did, as it’s an original piece of fiction by a gifted storyteller, but there were certainly disturbing elements I probably could have lived without (but of course, without which the story would lose much of its impact and sense of menace and absurdity).

The Pilo Family Circus is a darkly humorous and unsettling horror tale about Jamie, an ordinary guy eking out a simple existence in inner-city Brisbane. But after an encounter with a pair of bizarre clowns (and I mean face paint-wearing, giant-panted clowns, not the other kind that often grace city streets after dark), Jamie is plunged into the horrific alternate reality that is the centuries-old Pilo Family Circus.

He’s forced into service as clown, and discovers that as soon as he dons the white greasepaint, a new character – JJ – emerges, who is weak, sadistic and conniving.

Elliott has said in interviews the book is not meant to be an allegory about the battle against the dark side of human nature. But it’s easy to understand how readers might glean that theme when Jamie at first willingly surrenders to the face paint to cope with his new nightmarish reality, before embarking on a battle for survival against the evil JJ.

Elliott takes to extreme the idea that the circus caters to every human weakness: sideshow alley taps into greed, the acrobats elicit vanity and envy, magicians prompt a craving for power, clowns live out the fantasy of mocking and usurping authority, and the freaks weaken the resolve to resist all of the above.

As Jamie discovers, the Pilo Family Circus is a borderline world between hell and earth from which humankind's greatest tragedies have been perpetrated. Unsuspecting humans are lured into the circus ground, where they are then fleeced of their most precious possession, their souls, and sent back into the world, oblivious of violent events many of them have been programmed to commit. When that’s not enough, performers themselves are sent “up” to incite the carnage.

Among the characters in the circus, none is more absurd than Goshy, a mentally disturbed and simpleton clown whose erratic behaviour is more frightening than the brutal menace of head clown Gonko. And despite the violence and grotesqueness of life and suffering in the circus, the most disturbing moment of the story involves Goshy and the love of his life, a potted fern.

While reading this scene – which, admittedly, was inevitable and certainly captures the escalating depravity and absurdity of Jamie’s environment – I couldn’t help but think of Frank Moorhouse’s essay.

As I was reading the book, I kept wondering about how I would describe it on this blog. I knew it wouldn’t be a story for a lot of people because of its darkness, violence and disturbing imagery - and yes, Bec of The Small Stuff, you were at the front of my mind :).

And yet, award-winning Australian author Moorhouse berates us for wanting to shy away from disturbing material, and is particularly disdainful of those who would attempt to warn audiences about stories that might shock them or make them feel uncomfortable.

Much of his criticism is aimed at television and film censors, but he also points the finger at anyone who uses phrases such as “not for the faint-hearted”.

He says: “There is nothing wrong with being horrified or sickened and nothing terribly bad happens to us when we are. I think it is more likely that something good will happen: we might be moved.”

Is he right? Do we create the world we want to live in by the stories we choose to inhabit – at the expense of seeing the world as it is?

For me, I like to think my choices are a balance between challenging and comforting stories. Because let’s face it: the world offers both experiences, often simultaneously.

What do you think?