Friday, July 17, 2009

McGilloway's narrative chops

Brian McGilloway has his narrative chops down. Throughout Gallows Lane, his second novel about Inspector Benedict Devlin of the Irish Gardai, or police, I kept hearing the narrative cylinders clicking into place. "Here's a plot complication," I'd think, or "Here's a bit of romantic tension or a sub-plot echoing the main narrative thread."

Now, I sometimes groan when this happens, preferring to be lulled into an insensibility to all authorial string-pulling. But that wasn't the case here. I could see what McGilloway was doing with his story, but I liked the plot turns just fine — and there are plenty of them: multiple crimes, multiple roles, multiple suspects and multiple motives. McGilloway must be doing something right as a plotter, and if I ever feel more analytical than I do at this moment, I'll try to figure it out.

Until then, I'll let you do the work for me. What are your thoughts on plot? Do you like to analyze as you read, or do you prefer to be swept up and carried away?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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51 Comments:

Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

That is a really interesting question and I guess it depends on how complicated the plot is-if possible I like to be swept away but if I get to the end and say, "huh" that's not satisfying either.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Peter,

I used to love being swept away, but ever since I tried to write my own stories, now the "plot analyzer" kicks in automatically and I don't know how to turn it off. Sometimes I wish I could, because I get the feeling I would enjoy more stories if I did.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I prefer to be "swept away" by the story. If necessary, I will go back and reread it with a more analytical eye.

I don't like it when I start noticing what the author is doing. That takes away from my enjoyment of the story. This may be unfair, but I usually interpret this either as a lack of skill on the author's part or the insertion of unnecessary material to beef up the story. (see my brief comments about John Harvey's _Flesh and Blood_.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

My "participation in plot" is guided by my preference to adapt Coleridge's dictum ("the willing suspension of disbelief"). In other words, my vicarious participation in the story (or, to use another phrase, my voyeuristic eavesdropping) means that I am not really analytical while reading; I am, instead, a more than willing accessory after the fact in the writer's manipulation. All of the foregoing, though, presupposes a well-written book with a well-crafted plot by a writer who is a superb craftsman (er, perhaps I mean craftsperson).

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

Sandra and I were talking about something similar the other day. My aunt is very much in the latter camp, she gets swept up and carried away. Every little twist and turn and reveal comes as a surprise to her even if she has seen it before.

I found a quote though that summarizes the first camp well (which is where I sit:

"The point is, an attentive reader is half writing your book along with you, which means you have to be three good steps ahead of him, not cantering along behind..."

Because of this I have a low tolerance for certain types of stories and those that others find surprising I can predict with a high level of accuracy. "Of course he's not really dead..." "Of course they are siblings..." "Of course he's a traitor..."

I don't know which camp is better except to say that neither is wrong. I've come to accept, in having conversations about books with my aunt, that we just look for different things in a story and that I have to apply a different set of filters when recommending books to her.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

I suppose there is another question though that maybe some writers can answer/talk about or shed some light on.

Which camp do you write for?

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, I've never discussed this with Brian McGilloway, but I wonder if he has a bit of the hidden melodramatist in him. There are a sudden plot reversal or two in the latter part of the novel, but they don't defy credulity in the least. One can well imagine such twists in a police investigation.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian O, that's one dilemma of authors at least since the rise of naturalism and realism, isn't it: to contrive an atifact -- a story -- such that it seems utterly spontaneous.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I generally react the same way you do when I start becoming too conscious of a novel's plot contrivances. I sometimes attribute this to inexperience on the author's part -- it's a first novel, and the author is trying too hard. That's why I surprised myself by reacting the way I did to McGilloway's book.

Incidentally, McGilloway might have some interesting thoughts on this matter. He's the head of English at a school in Northern Ireland when he's not writing books. At Crimefest in Bristol this year, he made a good case for Shakespeare's crime-fiction chops, for his suspense and and tight structure, among other things.

I'll look for your John Harvey comment.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

It's under the title of _Combination Plate 6_, following a few words about Jane Austen's _Northanger Abbey_.

I'm generally much more forgiving of first novels than I am of the 5th or 6th or 10th. One comes to expect certain problems of the first novel. >g<

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., your man Coleridge was right. I wonder if anyone has tried to trace "the willing suspension of disbelief" in operation through the reading of an extended work such as a novel. I suspect the suspension ebbs and flows. I generally am not analytical in my reading except when the author compels me to be, whether intentionally or not. But really, analysis and suspension thereof operate simultaneously and in mysterious ways, I think.

Now, someone please stop me before I turn into a theorist.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I've never really thought about it, but now that I have, I definitely fall into the latter camp. How do I know this, you ask?

I read a metric ton of mystery novels, and I can't recall ever actively trying to figure out whodunnit. I often find myself trying to determine what's really going on, but the identity of the perp isn't something I agonize over. Maybe at the end of the book after all has been revealed I'll say to myself, you shoulda got that, but not often.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Every little twist and turn and reveal comes as a surprise to her even if she has seen it before."

Brian, without seeming too condescending, I hope, there's something beguiling about being able to take that kind of pleasure from reading. But then, there's also a certain pleasure in imagining that one is watching a skilled plotter at work and enjoying the crafstmanship even as one recognizes it's an act of contrivance.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I sometimes attribute quirks and flaws to a novel's being the author's first. Whether I am right, I have no idea. I suspect I may not be right all that often in this matter.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

A Theorist?? Heaven forbid or forfend or for-something!!! Anything but that.

I've never understood what is really meant by the "suspension of disbelief," but I accept it as a convenient label for what happens when I get lost in a book. There's a mystery for you.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, the one crime novel I read recently that had me wondering whodunnit is Fred Vargas' The Chalk Circle Man, but not for the traditional whodunnit reasons.

I think a traditional fair-play mystery will give the reader all the tools, however complicated and difficult, to figure out whodunnit. Vargas, in her own quirky way, gives the reader all the tools to figure out that any of the possible culprits could have dunnit.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A mystery is right, and one that probably evaporates as soon as we think we've grasped it.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Linkmeister,

Way back when I was in grad school, an instructor once talked about two types of readers--the reader and the Reader.

The small "r" reader is one who reads for pleasure and seldom gets beyond what's on the page. The large "R" Reader is the analytical type, who at some point finds it impossible to read simply for pleasure and discovers that those little grey cells are always analyzing.

Although I have a MA in English, I'm still a reader (small r), probably because I was 40 when I went to grad school. I spent too many years just reading for pleasure. I have to go back a second time and deliberately turn those little grey cells on.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My r and my R are like two European nations in the Middle Ages, constantly at war or moving in and out of sometimes easy, sometimes uneasy cooperation and coexistence.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Fred, I have a similar experience in that I returned to complete an English degree and grad school later in life and had already accumulated years of "reading habits." A professor warned me and others in an introductory literary theory course that we would never be able to read the same way again once we had chosen to become English majors. In many ways, I successfully resisted his dire predictions, avoided being a disciple of very much theory, and continue to read much of what I read in a rather old fashioned way (even though I am quite conscious of all those theorists scrambling for attention in the midst of my little gray cells).

As for Peter, avoid becoming a theorist. It has no economic benefits and corrupts simple reading pleasures. To analyze is fine. To theorize is not so good. Besides murder somewhat defies theoretical analysis. It is what it is.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

I like to analyse the plot as I go along. In fact, I can't help it...

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Martin, Brian O'Rourke commented above that he turned into a plot analyst when he began writing stories. I don't know how his law degree affected his reading habits. Interesting that the two commenters here who analyze, sometimes unwillingly, are author/lawyers.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

I guess it isn't a coincidence!

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I wonder if that is salutary warning for an instructor to issue to students. It sounds more to me like something a drill sergeant would tell new recruits on the first day of boot camp.

I was an English major in college, but that was strictly pro forma; I had to declare a major in order to graduate. A few years later, I compiled a list of my favorite bokos. With one exception, I had read all for the first time only after I had graduated.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps the lawyer analyzes, and the author stuggles to break free of analysis.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Peter . . . The instructor's warning can be attributed to his own skepticism of theory and his own altered reading strategies. I know of no pother instructor who has so cynically (er, honestly) "warned" English majors about the changes on their horizons.

As I suggested, being thick-skinned and curmudgeonly as a student (i.e., very much a non-traditional English major), the instructor's well-intended warning further armored me against surrendering my own reading pleasures to the constraints and political correctness of academia.

In short, I am a renegade among legions of post-modern fuzzy thinkers.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Peter, let me make a further comment.

As someone who was (in my previous career) a non-lawyer legal officer (and occasional prosecutor) in the Navy's JAG Corps, I think that lawyers analyze with a purpose: to lay bare the issues for purposes of "manipulating" the "evidence" in favor of a required outcome. Writers, I would suggest, tend to do the same thing when plotting and developing characters. In other words, to say it more cynically, in both disciplines, the ends must be justified by the means, and a person (lawyer or author) must thoroughly understand the means in order to arrive properly at the desired ends. Does that make sense? Or have my little gray cells begun to evaporate?

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, so the instructor was a a tragic figure, warning his students not to make the same mistake he had made. Very nice.

Noam Chomsky, whose politics I don't always agree with, said something interesting about theory in academia. He called it a tool to prevent students from seeing reality. Now, the reality he wants students to see might not be the reality you or I would like, but Chomsky's is an intriguing view nonetheless.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

Well, you forgot about me, I analyze as well and I'm not a lawyer. I'm just a poor comic book seller :)

Then there was that time I got bored and started looking for Shakespearian allusions in Cross by Ken Bruen but we won't talk about that....

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I'm guessing you still have a few brain cells left. Since I've never written fiction, except in the most desultory way, I can't speak with any knowledge to what authors do. Perhaps lawyer authors and non-lawyer authors go about their work in similar ways, but lawyers just think about it more.

I know of one author who said that she doesn't think about what she does, she just writes what she feels, and so on. I think not. In at least some passages, her writing is beautifully clear and analytical.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, Brian, you are purveyor of fine graphic novels. (Speaking of which, I have ordered my copy of Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of The Hunter, and I have become a fan of Top Ten.)

Bruen is a pretty literate guy. It wouldn't shock me to find such an allusion in Cross.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

I read an ARC of The Hunter. There were things I really liked about it and one thing that I didn't like.

I need to get caught up on my reviews...

PS - I'm working on a Kipple project that might be interesting

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

While in grad school, I happened to take a course in Modern American Lit from an instructor who had just gotten his degree, and this was his first teaching position as a full-fledged member of the hierarchy.

During a discussion about contemporary lit, someone pointed out that the majority of texts we had read weren't really stories in the traditional sense but in some cases were really just words jumbled together. Most of the texts were clearly experimental and also unpleasant.

He blessed us with a short lecture on important issues in contemporary lit, after which someone asked him about reading for enjoyment. The instructor snapped back that nobody reads for enjoyment today.

Perhaps a room full of faculty might have agreed with him, but we were grad students, naive and innocent, and we were there because we enjoyed reading. I and several others afterwards agreed we would never be like that.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Where are you posting your kipple these days? Observations From the Balcony does not seem to have been kept up.

I'll try to remember to seek out your opinion of The Hunter, but I may wait until after I've read it. I do wonder what illustrations can add to Stark's spare prose.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The instructor snapped back that nobody reads for enjoyment today."

I presume he was serious about this; that is, that he was not doing what I would do as a summer-camp counselor when the kids refused to shut up and go to sleep. "Damn it!" I would shout. "This is summer camp! You don't come here to have fun!"

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Chuckle..."kids in summer camp"

You may have something there. We had been giving him a hard time. Perhaps this being his first semester, he hadn't learned the way to accept questioning of the Sacred Pronouncements of The Doctor.

However, he was a gloomy sort and really didn't seem to enjoy either the texts (of course, neither did we) or the give-and-take of classroom discussion.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

R. T.

This was a common topic among us also. What was the effect of all this concentration on analysis going to be on us? Fortunately for me, as I mentioned earlier, I had too many years of bad habits to overcome and I never quite succeeded in eliminating them.

If I'm enjoying the work, I have to go back and read it again, this time with the analysis function turned on. However, if I find the work to be lacking in some way, then the analysis function turns on by itself.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Fred . . . Although I armored myself (as I said) against either absorbing or buying into too much theory, nevertheless I had to talk the talk and walk the walk on my way to degree completion. The net effect was that plenty of books that I would have otherwise devoured in innocence were forever transformed into petri dishes in which our theoretical cultures were tested and improved.

I have been able to compartmentalize my graying gray cells so that I can still talk the talk and walk the walk within the academy (among colleagues but not inflicting it upon non-English major students); on the other side of compartmentalized thinking, I can still pick up a book and simply devour it without worrying about Marx, Lacan, Kristeva, Eagleton, Derrida, Bakhtin, and the legions of others who have turned the pleasurable study of literature into a post-modern migrane.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I like the suggestion that the only way for a bright, young graduate student in literature is to struggle against everything he is taught in his graduate training. Perhaps students ought to be exposed to theory only after having mastered a wide range of reading first -- a wide range of "texts,' I almost wrote.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or, to state the case another way, no one should be allowed to study theory without having developed reading habits bad enough to insulate himself from its deleterious effects.

I once had the idea that theory, at least in art history, ought to be either a form of homage to a work of art or else a way of "reading" that art. The work (or the text) must come first.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha - the secret life of an academic, sneaking into the woods to read Penguin Classics.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I knew Derrida would get mentioned here, I knew it!

I was a Bus.Ad. guy, so my upper-level texts were Econ rather than literary; my non-classwork reading was (dare I say) fortunately recreational. My humanities courses were Greek and English lit; in fact, it occurs to me that I got more assigned literature in my junior year of high school than I did in college. That's where I learned my abiding loathing of Faulkner (one chapter consisting of five words, "My mother is a fish," indeed). Screw allegory, I decided.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was thinking of creating a fiction competition based on a phrase I came across recently. "My mother is a fish" could figure in the second competition.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

The source is "As I Lay Dying," if you've forgotten your reading.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never read Faulkner, so thanks. "As I Lay Dying" is a good title for a book one does not like reading. But the competition would not be to guess the source. More news when the time comes.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

And to think that your question about plot (in response to your reading of McGilloway) has taken your readers all the way through lawyers, Derrida, and Faulkner! Phenomenal! (However, are you any closer to having the answer you were seeking when you wrote, "I'll try to figure it out"?)

July 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The mere mention of the names -- Derrida. Lacan. Kristeva -- is enough to make some readers' blood run cold. But I once read an interesting citation of Bakhtin, and I thought he might be worh reading. Or maybe it was Bactine, and I thought it might be a good cure for a rash.

I have read bits and pieces of folks like Paul Ricoeur and Erich Auerbach and found them interesting, so I know that criticism can have something to do with reading.

I am no closer to figuring anything out than I was when I started, but this discussion may inform my future reading, including that of McGilloway's next Devlin novel.

July 17, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Kristeva has written a few detective novels, therefore she rightly belongs to your field of investigation. I wonder if they would make your blood run cold.
I have one, somewhere in my Tbr mountain range.

v-word : boaker

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, that's worth a look. Thanks.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Thankfully, my neck of the literary woods isn't quite so thickly populated with theory. Or at the very least the theoretical and non-theoretical types co-exist fairly well. So I can usually separate reading for pleasure and reading theory without too much trouble. (Luckily, I tend to need Adorno/Habermas etc more than Derrida etc. People keep mentioning Foucault, but I've stopped listening...)

I'm a rather good plot-decoder* no matter what the literary style or authorial intentions, but all I really ask is that detectives don't take substantially longer than me to work things out unless there's a credible reason (dead drunk; document shown to reader but not main character; hero supposed to be a bit dim; marriage on the rocks and no time for detection; have an inkling but no proof.) If things are really obvious and the investigator/POV-character doesn't twig until page 547 without further explanation, it's a pretty poorly constructed plot.

(My friends used to joke that, at the movies, I could always spot the secret bad guy/death from cancer/long-lost twin from about five minutes in, and thus had to be forcibly prevented from yelping out something to spoil the party.)

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I seldom get caught up in trying to figure out whodunnit. The most recent novel in which I did get so caught up was Fred Vargas' The Chalk Circle Man, oddly enough.

I have almost no contact with theorists in any aspect of my life. I remember feeling a certain sympathy with Foucault's essay about Velasquez's Las Meninas. I don't remember if Foucault made any sense, but that painting is so apt to scramble one's mind that it may be a suitable subject for Foucault's verbal games and obfuscations. (I have stood in front of that painting. It can do strange things to one's perceptions.)

July 22, 2009  

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