Friday, June 20, 2008

Authorial savvy

I recently singled out J.F. Englert's entertaining and highly worthwhile A Dog Among Diplomats for its explorations of canine consciousness, particularly in a series of meditations on scent. I called those meditations "nice pieces of fantasy writing," but I realize they are probably also the result of clear-eyed planning on Englert's part.

I don't know Englert's thinking as he planned the book, but, having decided to make an animal his narrator, he obviously then had to decide how this animal would communicate with the book's human characters. This is where readers who blanch at the thought of animal characters may start to roll their eyes, queasy with visions of cute dogs yelping and trying to pull their masters back from walking unknowingly into perilous situations.

Happily, Englert's book has none of that. A hilarious dog book would have been filled with such scenes. A sentimental dog book would have mused upon the beautiful ways dog and man communicate. Englert, however, recognizes that such communication is fraught with uncertainty, to say the least, and he makes such difficulties a large part of the book. In that respect, A Dog Among Diplomats is rather realistic for a story with a fantastic premise.

Faced with a problem, in other words, Englert decided not to solve it, but to make the problem into the substance of his story. What other clever, realistic solutions to thorny narrative problems come to mind? What other writers have taken what might have been a stumbling block and made it instead into an important part of the story?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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19 Comments:

Blogger GJG said...

wow, you sure talk pretty--and I mean that as a compliment. My problem is I can understand your manner of phrasing, understand the question ya pose for us readers---but my lack of vocabulary and blunt manner of speaking doesn't allow me to even properlyi conjugate a verb, let alone answer you properly-----now i gotta go find a book that fits the question and read it and THEN just maybe can couch a decent reply---"Paging
Dr. Doolittle---"

June 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll probably have to answer in the next world for having used words like "authorial" in this one.

I suspect that Randolph, the black Labrador of A Dog Among Dilplomats, would have found Dr. Doolittle too unrealistic a creature for his liking.

June 20, 2008  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

sounds like an interesting book. but unless i get to read it, i'll not be able to answer your qs properly. is the engelbert story anyway similar to Animal Farm?

June 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The book is nowhere near as grim as Animal Farm, and I see now that I should have phrased my question more clearly. I was looking for authors who have solved difficult narrative problems, not necessarily involving animals. I shall revise my question forthwith. Thanks.

June 21, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

The best I can possibly do for that question, by hypothesizing, is "The Winter of Frankie Machine" by Don Winslow, which is currently being filmed by Michael Mann (Collateral), starring Robert De Niro.

In order to find out who is trying to kill him after he's retired from the professional business, Frankie Machine must search all through his past for characters and motives. It's possible that the author had trouble trying to simply find objects and characters from Frankie's past and gives small peeks into it, enough to piece together a small mystery, without confusing the reader or damaging the main narrative.

So I think he decided to turn Frankie's past into an exploration onto itself, stopping at places that will provide clues for the current situation.

June 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Failing a statement from the authors in question, all any of us can do is hypothesize. That's what makes this exercise fun. I could imagine other authors might use the technique to solve the problem of how to present "back story" without slowing things down -- how to make the back story part of the main story, in other words.

June 22, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

The film Momento comes to mind, although I have not read the short story. The plot device and the plot are intricately woven together, making them indistinguishable from one another.

Adam's classic adventure Watership Down has talking rabbits that aren't at all cute.

June 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The comment previous to yours, from "Clandestine Samurai," made me think of Memento, with a character searching his own past for clues.

Mean-spirited rabbits may be an even more difficult feat to pull off than a contemplative Labrador retriever. In Adams' world, how do the rabbits communicate?

June 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not known that Memento was based on a short story. Do you know who wrote it?

June 22, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

Actually, I just saw Momento again this weekend and watched all the special material at the end. The director, Christopher Nolan, based his script on an idea from his brother Jonathan Nolan. At the same time the movie was being written and produced, Jonathan wrote a different short story based on the same premise, entitled Momento Mori. I understand that it is quite different from the film. I look forward to reading it.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

Re Watership Down, the rabbits speak their own language called Lapine. The other animals speak a different language called hedgerow.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting decision, to call the rabbits' language Lapine, since that word is based on a word for rabbit that occurs in French and perhaps in other languages as well. If the rabbits use a human word to denote their own language, would the illusion of authenticity be undercut? Or would Richard Adams suggest that the rabbitish language was simply of the same language family as French and thus might naturally be expected to share vocabulary with it?

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It might be interesting to compare the story "Memento Mori" to the movie, especially if the premise of the two are similar. I would imagine that a story like that would be more difficult to tell on the page than as a movie.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

Here is a link to an online version of Memento Mori. I'm just ready to sit and read it now.

As I recall, Adams used just a smattering of Lapine in Watership down to give a fluffy sort of feeling to the rabbit-speak, which relates back nicely to your earlier post on how characters talk.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the link.

Adams must have had quite a task to make the rabbits believable both as characters and as rabbits.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

Jonathan's brother, who's a megastar now thanks to his younger brother's short story, just took the idea and elaborated. Memento is one of my all-time favorite movies.

June 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know that I'd call it one of my all-timers, but I certainly liked it. And I will ger around to reading the story. Perhaps then I'll find some interesting points of comparison between movie and story.

June 26, 2008  
Blogger meryl's musings said...

Thanks for the head's up on this. I will have to check out JF Englert's work the next time I'm at the book store, or library. And, as always, thanks for visiting my site.

July 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome on both counts. I read Englert's second book first because its title indicated a possible connection to international crime fiction. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the book, and I plan to read his first novel as well.

July 09, 2008  

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