Friday, August 22, 2008

How to be literary, self-conscious and readable

Two passages early in Ian Sansom's second Mobile Library mystery, Mr. Dixon Disappears, show that it's possible for an author to exhibit literary self-consciousness and remain readable, even amusing, at the same time.

In one, the seemingly hapless protagonist, the librarian Israel Armstrong, in desperate need of something to read, contemplates the walls of a jail cell in which he has found himself, through no fault of his own:

"He tried reading the graffiti on the walls and on the back of the door. But there wasn't enough, and it was too small, and anyway it was all acronyms defying one another and performing sexual acts on one another, the IRA doing this or that to the UVF, who were doing this or that to the UDA, and PUP versus the SF, and up the INLA, and down the UFF, and RUC this and PSNI that: where were the great wits and aphorists of County Antrim, for goodness sake? Where were the imprisoned scribes? Where was the Chester Himes and the Malcolm X of the jail cells of Northern Ireland? Where were the Gramscis of Tumdrum and District?"
That's clever and amusing, proclaiming the joys of reading while at the same time poking fun at inflated claims that critics sometimes make for it. These reflections also precipitate a crisis of confidence on Armstrong's part (though, to be fair, he has such crises frequently).

The other reference is just plain amusing:

"This was way beyond anything Israel has ever experienced before: being in the back of a car, early in the morning, listening to someone reading out an account of what had happened to you over the past half an hour, but from an entirely different perspective to your own; it was like being on some kind of extreme creative writing course."
So here are two ways to make the delicate tactic of self-reference work: Make it amusing, and make it important to the story.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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8 Comments:

Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Great post! I love all of Sansom's little diversions. Always humorous and entertaining. And I really dig how important reading is to Israel's life.

Cheers

gb

August 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I think my favorite part of the novel so far is Ted's catching Israel saying, "Aye," and Israel's denying that he said it.

August 22, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Having shared a creative-writing course with some self-proclaimed literati, I can say the second quote is spot-on.

August 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That passage has a convincing ring of authenticity, all right. And it's set up perfectly, with a build-up to that literari-tweaking punch line.

August 22, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

There are wits. One time I saw a graffiti in a Protestant part of Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim that said "NO POPE HERE" underneath someone had scrawled "Lucky Pope."

A...

August 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, who would be the likeliest author of such a gem: a brave Catholic, a wry Protestant, or an ironic nonsectarian wit?

August 23, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

In that part of town 2 is the most likely.

A...

August 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nice to see a flash of wit amid the harsh sentiment -- a kind of verbal rose growing in Spanish Harlem, you might say.

August 24, 2008  

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