Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gisch fest, plus a question about annoying characters

It's just one book, not a fest, but "gish" was always one of my favorite sound effects in Don Martin's cartoons in Mad magazine (usually to accompany a floppy foot squashing an insect), so a crime writer who goes by the diminutive Gisch is bound to evoke a fond glow of nostalgia.

OK, the book. Gun Monkeys is an early Victor Gischler novel, and it's a nonstop, violent action fest that loses me only occasionally with a burst of wackiness. I mean, if you're going to have a character use the word "schlong" when three thugs intent on mayhem are breaking into his house, you'd better be sure the rest of the book is similarly slapstick.
*
I've also read the first few chapters of Barry Gifford's Wild at Heart, and it's touch and go whether I'll be beguiled by the low-key humor and rhythm of its dialogue or driven crazy by Lula's ending two out of every three sentences with a question mark. I suppose it's  a testament to Gifford's skill that his mere use of a punctuation mark can so perfectly evoke an annoying vocal quirk.

And that leads to today's question: How do writers successfully create a grating, annoying, or boring character without grating on, annoying or boring the reader? Examples, please.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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49 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Gischler and I were in grad school together, so I am a bit biased about his work, which I think I previously told you in a past posting/thread.

Gun Monkeys--saying it in the kindest, least subjective way--is an attention-getter.

But back to your question, Poirot annoys the hell out of me, yet I remain a fan. Weird, huh?
Were I to say more, my bias would show.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

The sentences were jumbled. Put the last ("were I to say more") before "back to your question." I obviously need an editor! Know any?

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., your mention that you had been to school with Victor Gischler was one of the things that got me reading him. And I'll read more. I liked the slam-bang action of Gun Monkeys, even though I thought it flagged a bit about a third of the way in, when bodies seemed to be falling just because the author didn't know what else to do. But that was a brief stretch; overall I was impressed, especially since I think that was his first novel.

That sharp observer Brian Lindenmuth once included Victor, Duane Swierczynski, and others in school of wiseass crime novelists. ("Wiseass" is my term. I forget what Brian called them.) I enjoyed Duane S's The Wheelman with a quibble similar to the one I had about Gun Monkeys: terrific, sharp action, but with an occasional smirking joke that got on my nerves, the literary equivalent of an actor stepping out of character to crack wise about the action in a tone out of step with the story.

Gischler and Duane would no doubt disagree with me, but I'll simply keep reading and enjoying their books and regarding those lines as brief distractions.

My edition of Gun Monkeys includes the opening pages of what I guess is his subsequent book, set in an English department with a protagonist who's a roving English instructor in whose bed i think a co-ed turns up dead. Perhaps you'd recognize characters and settings in the book.


Like you, I could use an editor.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

Action without reflection leaves me cold, unless it is a genuine comedy--slapstick, as you say.

Humor, which is different from slapstick, always has something to say. Humor saves a novel like THE ICE HARVEST.

Unlikeable protagonists need a narration that can look at them with compassion. Without that, I cannot continue reading.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, the book does include brief reflective passages and others that show the protagonist reacting to the hellish pace of everything swirling around him. (The protagonist works for a gangster in Orlando who is being forced out by a boss from, I think, Miami.) Maybe I say this only because Gischler also writes comic books, but Gun Monkeys reads a bit like a slam-bang action comic--and, very much to its credit, I don't think it pretends to be anything else.

One example of the novel's non-obtrusive humor is the "monkey" motif. Charlie and his fellow muscle are called gun monkeys. A child watching The Wizard of Oz in one scene likes the flying monkeys best. And, most delightful of all, Charlie, who travels under aliases and on stolen credit cards, gives the name "Peter Tork" when he has to carry out one such transaction.

Now, for deep, dark humor, you can't beat Scott Phillips. I recommend The Walkaway, The Adjustment and his short stories, if you haven't read them already. And for unlikeable protagonists treated with compassion, you could do worse than reading Allan Guthrie.

Gifford's Lula is not at all unlikeable, at least in the portion I've read. Rather, she's highly sympathetic and likable with that one grating quirk of speech. I wonder if Gifford intended that intention, or if her annoying rising intonation at the end of sentences is simple transcription of a common quirk.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Regarding the question of whether or not any character is recognizable based upon experiences at grad school, my lips are sealed.

I do not know about any recognized folks, and if I did I would not drop a dime on them. I still work at the school, and I need the job, so I would not want to piss off anyone who might still be there from those days way back then.

How is that? Evasive enough? If Victor wants to reveal his inspirations, that is his business. If I were to spill the beans about who was doing whom, then I would have huge problems. BTW, some of those likely suspects are long gone, but perhaps--just perhaps--some remain. Gawd, what a mystery! Right?

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I'm not suggesting that a dead student turned up in your bed, or anything.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

If she did, I do not remember. I can, however, remember candidates for the possibility in terms of homicidal fantasy.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

BTW, I've sent this link to Victor. Perhaps he will respond. Go for it, Gisch.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! No, no, I am not so naive as to believe that every novel is a roman a clef. I just thought you might get a kick out of novel that emerged from a milieu you and he shared.

I often fantasize about writing a novel set a newspaper. Not every delusional clown or semiliterate shirker will have a real-life model, I can assure you.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Victor Gischler said...


All the ideas from GUN MONKYS were swiped from old Rockford Files episodes.

VG

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Rockford, huh? Did he teach Milton or Hemingway?

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Argument settled, though I don't remember Rockford as a gypsy English instructor.

One does not normally think of English departments as petri dishes of homicidal fantasy, but I've read you and Anthony Neil Smith, to name two. Makes me wonder what my own instructors were thinking as they read the swill we passed off as papers or listened to our tepid discussion.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Do you think Jim Rockford would have been one of those cool instructors who taught classes under a tree when the weather was good?

Just don't tell me that Rockford taught a course in critical theory.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

When I took lit/crit, the professor was definitely no Rockford. That is not a criticism but only a distinction.

And when I was a grad student, there were no murders--only considerations on my behalf.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, the fourth paragraph in my reply to you above should read:

"I wonder if Gifford intended that tension, or if her annoying rising intonation at the end of sentences is simple transcription of a common quirk."

The sentence should make sense now.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you may remember my astonishment that any underclassman, much less such a sorry specimen as I was, should have been expected to assimilate, appreciate, and understand The Man WIthout Qualities. If I were all on fire about a book and tried to teach it to students like I was, well...let's say my mind might seek any manner of distractions of the matter at hand, literary homicide fantasies included.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Victor Gischler said...

I said Rockford Files to impress you.

The truth is I swiped the ideas from Banacek.

VG

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect you also watched a bit of Kojak in your time. Not sure you're old enough for Mannix, though. Columbo is the Zeus of that particular pantheon, of course.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Banacek rather than Rockford? Really? And you actually lied about that little tidbit? As the cop says to Sam in Casablanca, "I am shocked!" Well, it was something like that anyway. I have to say, though, when a writer of fiction tells lies, my confidence in all things sacred is destroyed. I am devastated!

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Postscript: I am so disillusioned now with crime fiction writing--written apparently by people who actually tell lies--I am going immediately to read something more believable instead: The Hobbit. :)

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The cop to Rick in Casablanca.

I wonder if any cop show of the 1970s would broach the subject of an instructor sleeping with his students. Come to think of it, I was just a kid then. I don't remember much about who the villains were or what the plots were,

At Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco, each panel was named for an episode of The Streets of San Francisco. I seem to recall that one episode had some revolutionaries as villains or at least antagonists--a brave venture into the headlines of the day. I don't remember what kinds of plots Banacek and Rockford got themselves involved in.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Yes, I stand corrected. Who could possibly forget, "Play it again, Rick."

I don't remember much about the 70s either, but the reasons are not worth mentioning. And I was not a kid then. That parade had long ago passed on its way.

Meanwhile, it is back to my hobbit-hole reading.

-30-

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I, too, wasted my youth. I did not take nearly as much drugs as I could have.

It's not that I don't remember much about the 1970s, it's just that I don't remember social issues being dealt with on network crime dramas. Of course, when I see one of those episodes from time to time these days, I'm not sure I missed much. Clarence Williams III in a Nehru jacket was about as hip as television got back then, I think.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Violence with bursts of wackiness makes me think of Christopher Brookmyre. Or does he write wackiness with bursts of violence?

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think you have Christopher Brookmyre down well: He writes wackiness with violence. The thing that bothered me about those few lines in Gun Monkey and The Wheelman (and I don't want to overstate the case. I'm talking about a total of maybe three or four lines in two books) is that they seemed to me out of place in a way they would not in wackinessfests of the kind Brookmyre writes.

January 10, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

In a genre fiction class I teach, a majority of the students write crime stories, which is good. But most of them write stories set in the US, where none of them have ever been, which is bad.

January 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've heard of Canadian crime writers being told that books set in Canada won't sell. That's bad. On the other hand, any number of Irish crime writers, including some of the very best, pay great homage to American crime writing. On yet another hand, most still set their stories in Ireland.

What kind of an America do your students write about? And have you asked them why they set their stories in the U.S.--beyond a youthful yearning for exotica?

January 11, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

I'm afraid it's more banal than that. While the US setting is not an issue for capable writers, the majority of my students are taking their inspiration from mainstream US crime TV (rather than fiction) without proper reflection as to the requirements of the different mediums. I ask them to open their eyes to their own lives first, before trying to cram a CSI episode into a 1000 word short story.

January 11, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

DWW, this must be frustrating for you. I do not teach creative writing, but I do teach lit and drama courses. Readers, writers, and teachers in 2013 ought to be put into a time machine, and we could all return to a time before TV and movies. Just imagine what a wonderful world it was when people actually used their own imaginations and experiences rather than living in a world in which those imaginations have been "tainted" by modern visual media? Perhaps, though, my current re-reading of Tolkien is making me much too fanciful in my wistful desires to be purged of CSI (and its endless cloning), Rockford, and Sean Penn movies.

January 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, I was afraid that might be the case. In addition to their own lives, the students might do what I do and seek inspiration (or at least entertainment) from crime stories set outside their own countries.

January 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I don't know if everyone's imagination has been tainted (or overloaded) by movie and television, but there certainly did come a time in the past few years when self-reference on the part of movie makers was acknowledged and even celebrated. Or, to put the matter another way, the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Look at the Coen brothers' arguably self-serving implicit insistence that all stories are self-referential and copy from others. (You know, the basing of ",. Brother Where Art Thou?" on "The Odyssey.")

January 11, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

Ah, if there was irony or self-referential awareness in the writing I'd be OK. In any case, it's not so much about tv or film (both of which I consume a lot of, and as a child - comics) but the taking their own lives and experiences for granted. It's ok, however, as the better students soon pick this up, and some fine pieces are always produced in the end.

January 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sympathetic to that argument, but i have to reserve judgment. God know what sort of swill I'd have produced when I was that age.

January 12, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

Fair point. At that early stage, though, it's about trying to create character, not caricature. An unintentional parody of tv characters who already bear little resemblance to real people doesn't often work.

January 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All I even tried at that age was wiseass parody and pastiche. I like to hope, though, that even in this unprecedented age of celebrity worship, were a college student today, I would not stoop to aping blockbusters and bestsellers.

January 12, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

Wise-ass parody is alright by me, as is all conscious parody. It's how we learn. But lazy and shallow mimicry of lazy and shallow material, arghh...

January 13, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

DWW, here is a writing exercise that I used in the past with basic composition classes. Take an existing nonfiction paragraph from any well-known author, then ask the students to rewrite the paragraph by imitating the styles of fiction writers (e.g., Hemingway, Henry James, Jane Austen, Melville, Twain, etc.). The deliberate parodies may not turn out well, but the follow-up discussions about stylistic differences and challenges help students become more aware and wary of conscious and unconscious imitation of others. This may or may not work in your courses.

January 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll occasionally read the injunction that beginning or aspiring writers not describe characters as looking like Julia Roberts or some other ephemeral star. Maybe similar advice ought to apply to borrowing plots from movies and television. If these students read crime fiction, I wonder what crime fiction they read.

January 13, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Peter and DWW: Writers who read others' fiction always--I think--run the risk of contamination. Nevertheless, only the most naive writer would avoid reading the works of others. This is at the heart of a puzzling paradox: How do writers embrace but avoid other writers? For example, if a writer reads Hammett, Chandler, or Spillane--to name three very notable stylists--that writer will almost certainly full under the spell and be "contaminated." Of course, there are some writers who provide wonderful "contamination," yet others ought to be avoided like the plague. James Patterson comes to mind!

January 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I like that idea, though Stieg Larsson written in the style of Jane Austen makes me...makes me suspect that The Girl WIth the Dragon Tattoo could have turned out to be a much more entertaining book than it was.

January 13, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

At least Steig via Austen would be coherent. Of course, editors would have helped. But I suppose even the best editor cannot possibly tell a deceased writer about how to write better.

January 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., re contamination and influence, if the cult of originality went too far, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, toward the cult of influence and pastiche, at least in popular culture.

January 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Tis a truth universally acknowledged that a dumpy reporter of no particular personal qualities shall be in want of a sexy news editor, a wild bisexual computer genius, and anything else in skirts to hop into bed with him, and that each of those women will oblige him."
-- "The Girl With the Drag-on Tattoo," Stieg Austen

January 13, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

"'Tis a truth..." Indeed! Well done!

Of course, the discouraging reality is this: not many readers now would understand the parody and allusion. Even worse--not many English majors would "get it."

January 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But that dead writer's literary executors could have allowed the manuscript to receive the editing it needed, as I am told Larsson's editors did not. This is mere hearsay, but based on the published book, it's more than plausible.

January 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Even worse--not many English majors would "get it."

R.T., I did not read Jane Austen until after I'd graduated, but at least I was curious enough about Jane Austen that when I saw a Penguin Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice at eye-level on a revolving rack at Wordsworth in Harvard Square, I picked it up and flipped through it. I'm glad I did.

January 13, 2013  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

Thanks R.T. - I run a variation on that exercise, but the use of a non-fiction passage is a nice touch.

Speaking of pendulums, my (largely cultural studies) students are of a generation where its drummed into them that originality of any stripe is a myth, and that pastiche and parody are not only inevitable, but also the height of cleverness. Some read crime fiction (mainly Pelecanos, Peter Temple and others, which I consider to be good influences) and some watch television exclusively (in which case I might suggest that rather than CSI, the student might watch The Wire, or Oz etc for what it might say about culture, society etc.

The issue of 'contamination' due to reading is an interesting one. My feeling is that many writers acknowledge it, and try and quarantine their reading during the writing of a particular text (as a useful influence, and vital nutrition both), but there are others who ridicule this notion and read promiscuously, feeling that acknowledging such influence is weak-minded.

January 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, that's an interesting observation about your students, and not a surprise to me. This generation's leading filmmakers are, arguably, the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, after all. And then there is the widespread use of sampling in music, though I'm not sure how that relates to this discussion.

And here's a thought I have not seen elsewhere: Could our culture's rage for self-revelation whether it is wanted or not be related to the Tarantino- and Coenesque penchant for wearing one's artistic influences explicity on one's sleeve? You know, a generation that grew up watching desperate losers revealing their most secrets on Jerry Springer and hearing strangers below personal conversations into cell phones at coffeeshops and other public places might be temperamentally open to seeing filmmakers reveal their deepest artistic influences in public. The Coen's obtrusive shots of, say, hats blowing across the ground would be the cinematic equivalents of sharing experiences that previous generations would have kept to themselves, and thereby "validating" those experiences.

January 13, 2013  

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