Sunday, May 31, 2009

Peace process

I've heard it said that a writer's style ought to be transparent, invisible. I've also heard it said that anyone who believes that has no style of his or her own.

David Peace has style. That style is self-conscious, telegraphic, literary. Sentence fragments to open chapters of 1977 give way to (slightly) more conventional narrative flow as chapters develop. Snippets of interior monologue in italic are interspersed in the text. Transitions are choppy.

It's literary as all hell, and boy, does it ever work. A harried cop and a burned-out reporter are on the tail of the Yorkshire Ripper, who rapes, kills and mutilates prostitutes. Cop and reporter are each involved in the victims' world more than professionally. A community terrorized? Well, yes, but here the terror seems to radiate from within the characters.

Crime fiction need not argue its case on any terms but its own. But if anyone feels a need to argue that a crime novel can be a literary novel and work as both, Peace might be a good place to start.

More later, probably, since I'm just 142 pages into one book of a quartet. For now, though, a question: What authors whom you have read, crime or otherwise, emphasize literary style the most? How do they do this? And how do you like the results?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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24 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think 1980 is my favourite of the quartet (the one about the Yorkshire Ripper). Its pretty dark (yes I know that this is redundancy when talking about Peace).

Tokyo Year Zero is also pretty interesting, but perhaps a little less accessible than the quartet.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tokyo: Year Zero may require sustained application of the kind I was not prepared to give the first time I tried to read it. The device of sentence structure reflecting the chaos in the protagonist's world is relentless in that book, whereas it tends to let up after the beginnings of chapters in 1977.

I'm starting with 1977 rather than 1974, by the way, because for some reason I carried it with my hand luggage for some reason whereas I'd put 1974 in the box of books I mailed home from Belfast.

The book arrived this week, barely a week after I'd sent it, another nifty piece of work from the Royal Mail.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I'm a vet of the RM. Cambridge 1988and London WC2 1989 - 1990. The first in Cambridge my job was to unload bags from mail trains which came every two hours. That was great: 1 hour and 55 minutes of reading the paper and drinking tea and five minutes of unloading. Overtime if you went past five. Ah, happy days.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've also had good mail service when folks have sent me books from Australia.

Whatever the Royal Mail does or did, it works. I'm impressed that it still seems to work well despite Tony Blair's shutting of many local post offices a few years back.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some of my English friends complained bitterly about this, and I remember commiserating somewhat about who needs to long for Margaret Thatcher when Tony Blair is carrying out her work so well. But perhaps his government cut judiciously if it had to cut at all by apparently keeping up prompt, efficient delivery.

Here in the U.S., delivery works reasonably well, but my local post office is the worst in the Western world, which I say only because I have little experience of the East.

I meant, of course, that the box arrived this week, not just the book.

May 31, 2009  
Anonymous Rob said...

I think the last crime novel I read that was seeking to be 'literature' as opposed to 'commercial fiction' was RJ Ellroy's 'A Quiet Belief in Angels'. Carefully paced and crafted narrative, knowing emotional depth, strong evocation of place, rich social commentary, and relentless grimness! An exhausting read. Writers such as James Lee Burke seem to get the blend about right - literary but with out the need for an English Lit degree to appreciate.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

To answer your question (ahem - do I get points for paying attention?) James Sallis is a writer of astonishing literary gifts. Love his work.

I also just finished Lush Life by Richard Price. Oh my, he's soooo good. His dialogue is wonderful, and now and then this river of words pours out as if from a wound, like this stream-of-consciousness from a character who was suspected then cleared of a shooting: "After all was said and done, he didn't really know why he wasn't at least going through the motions of helping out, if for no other reason than to get everyone off his back ... but he did know this: the guy was dead and it wouldn't help bring him back or get him justice if Eric didn't see any faces or overhear any telling talk. And he knew this: after the shooters broke him in half that night, those bastards in the interview room had finished the job, removing every shred of innocence or inspiration or optimism that still clung to him after all these years, extracting whatever was left in him of hope or illusion, whatever amorphous yearning had managed to remain in him to shine, to be something; he'd been hanging on by his fingernails at best anyway, and now, and now, he was just saying No. He didn't want to break anymore."

There are passages like that in Freedomland that just make me gasp they're so great. Just ... well. There you have it.

Oddly enough, when people say "literary crime fiction" they often mean precious and full of allusions to literature, peopled with highly-educated Jamesian types playing word games in a puzzle box. There's something intensely real about Price, and yet it's also fantastically, gobsmackingly beautiful.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rob, I have read extravagant praise for Ellory. I'm not sure how easily available the book is yet in North America

It's not a bad thing to have a book demand a bit of effort -- no, make that engagement -- to read.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, Barbara, you win points. I don't mind when someone answers a question that I asked!

I read Richard Price's first novel, The Wanderers, years ago and have heard the rhapsodies to this latest book.

The word literary has a bad name, at least with respect to crime fiction. perhaps for reasons you suggest. That's unfortunate.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Hi Peter! *laughing* I'm attempting to answer your question under the influence of Alka Selzer Plus and antiobiotics. But you're so right. Literary doesn't have to sound like Edgar Alan Poe.

Over the years, readers have come to either love the classics and hate the unconventional, or enjoy a new "style" because it's effective.

I don't believe you'd be giving this book such a great review in spite of what you refer to as choppy if it didn't hold your attention and fascination. But then again, I believe you always read and speak with an opened mind.

p.s. Thank you for your review on the dance scene! :)) Considering my head felt 5x its size and I coughed after each line, I'd enjoy hearing what you have to say about THE GOOD EARTH.

Hope you're having a wonderful weekend, Peter! :))

May 31, 2009  
Anonymous Rob said...

Absolutely agree that a book that engages a few brain cells is good thing. I found 'A Quiet Belief in Angels' utterly exhausting because of its unrelenting grimness, rather than its literary style or the level of engagement required to read. It took an elevated level of emotional strength to get to the end. According to Amazon it has a Sept 3rd US release date.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PM, those classics may well have been scorned in their own time. Poe, for example, had a notoriously hard time of things financially.

On the other hand, his style was likely never regarded as unconventional. Gothic writing was popular during his time, he was writing for popular publications, and his time was a wordier one than ours.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Rob. Incidentally, here's a picture from a dinner at Bouchercon 2008. I'm second from left; Roger Ellory is third from right.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Peter, I just finished Fifty Grand and loved the style, particularly the economy of the stream of consciousness and subtle use of repetition (e.g. the talk of Mercado and poetry, the phrase "turn the brightness outward"). It was rich without being difficult; am I hopelessly bourgeois for liking that combination?

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, the bourgeoisie probably buys most of the books, so what of it?

Upon recollection, certain descriptive passages in the Michael Forsythe books are something like what David Peace does.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

I love this post because I read for style. I'm much more interested in how a story is told than in what the story is.

Elmore Leonard is always quoted as saying the writer should disappear, and he does it better than anyone I have read. To me, that's his style.

A style-less writer, to me, is one whose writing is indistinguishable from anyone else's. Plop me into the middle of an unfamiliar Leonard book and let me read two pages, and I'll bet I can tell you it's him. Or someone making a conscious effort to rip him off.

My favorite stylists are James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler, Leonard, and, though he's rarely remembered for this aspect of his writing, Ed McBain.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe Leonard's style is an apparent absence of style. I haven't read much of his writing, but I can say safely that his work crackles on the page. It's spare without being obtrusively pared down.

Chandler we've discussed already, and I've heard that lush description is part of James Lee Burke's style. But what about Ed McBain? I've read two of his novels. One did not do much for me. The other was the stunning Nocturne. What are the hallmarks of McBain's style?

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Frank Loose said...

Unless i missed it, no one mentioned American James Ellroy. His last several books are heavily stylized with short staccato sentences and fragments. Seems like each book carried it to further extremes to the point that I almost can't read him any more. But, it is definitely his style and recognizable.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Welcome, Frank, and thanks for mentioning Ellroy. I've only read L.A. Confidential, which predates his extreme style. I've only flipped through The Cold Six Thousand, but David Peace certainly brings that book to mind. Ellroy's is probably the first name that would spring to my lips if someone mentioned David Peace in a game of word association. Well, after the Yorkshire Ripper's, perhaps.

It's interesting that Ellroy's more extreme stylistic excursions seem to have turned many people off, whereas Peace's quartet became a major television series. Of course, as noted in a comment above, the 1974-1977-1980-1983 quartet may not be his most extreme books stylistically.

May 31, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Let me offer what some may perceive as a prosaic response to your question about literary style. What do you mean by "literary" style? The more generalized term "style" I take to mean one of the elements involved in fiction, with others including plot, characterization, setting, point of view, and theme. Style, as I understand it, embraces diction, syntax, and other linguistic features in a work. No two writers use words in exactly the same way; therefore, each writer has a style (at least, at any given moment within a particular work, though often the writer's style is traceable throughout his or her oeuvre). For example, Hemingway and Faulkner had very different styles. That, however, takes us no closer to an answer to my question. What do you mean by "literary style"? Are you using the phrase in such a way as to suggest that detective fiction may or may not involved the use of "literary style"? From my perspective as a teacher of literature, style is style. It either engages the reader or it does not. It is either marked by quality or it is not. It is either distinctive or it is not. I guess I'm not comfortable with "literary" versus "non-literary" because the distinctions are too subjective. Still, though, I'm curious about your use or anyone else's use of the phrase, "literary style."

June 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That may be a simple question, but it's a good one. I should have said what I meant: prose style, a distinctive way of using words that has some effect other than purely narrative or descriptive. I mean the sort of writer of whom one might say that if he wrote the telephone directory, I;d read it.

June 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In Peace's case, especially in Tokyo Year Zero, the sounds of the words or their reptition on the page, say, clearly reflects and conveys the chaos of postwar Tokyo.

June 02, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

You should check out this post by Jeff Vandermeer.

http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2008/02/16/a-few-thoughts-on-two-current-trends/

I've always liked Kem Nunn. One of the things that I like about Nunn’s prose style is his labyrinthine sentence structures. Too often in crime fiction we see short, punchy sentences delivered in a rapid staccato style so it’s nice to see more complex structures that require different skill sets to read.

The comma is not to be feared :)

"An old Mex meth chef even showed him the bones in the ground and he saw for the first time the enormity of what he had begun. He saw iniquities without end, as a procession of days, and to these he had added other and greater iniquities in which his father had played no part and of which he would not speak, neither then nor now, yet he knew himself for what he was, his father’s son, and he vowed to finish what he had started the night he’d gone to beat the truth out of the old man, if only to rid the planet of them both, for in this crime he had no concern with perfection."

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, Vandermeer sets up a bit of a straw man in that piece. I don't think, for example, that anyone believes "that having your characters basically move from empty room to empty room in a brisk fashion constitutes plot." While I can understand his reluctance to do so, he'd have built a better case if he'd given an example of the sort of styleless prose he deplores or at least of someone's injunction to write that sort of prose.

Still, his general point is well taken: that many readers, and perhaps authors and editors as well, have been brought up with excessive respect for "invisible' style. Why this is, I don't know. Is this peculiar to the U.S.? If so, why? Is it a manifestation of Puritanism? And is this approach taught in schools?

June 04, 2009  

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