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The Same, Only Different

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I’ve been wandering around for several hours thinking about Robert’s second comment to thie last post, and feeling fairly flabbergasted.   It literally never occured to me that somebody would want to know, before the book even started, how the plot would turn out.  In fact, I can honestly say that I’ve never done that in my life.  I’ve even done the opposite thing, at least once, if you can talk about an “opposite” here.  I remember reading a book by Alice Hoffmann that centered on one of those cases where a guy who has committed a crime when very young and then disappeared is suddenly discovered rooted in a good and honest life, which is then disrupted so that he can be brought to justice.

I wish I  could remember the name of this book, but this morning the name just escapes me.  What I do remember is being honestly in suspense throughout the story, and feeling frustrated that it was not an effect I could ever produce in a mystery.  But precisely because this was not a mystery, because the narrative arc was not determined in advance, I didn’t know how it was going to end.  And, in fact, it didn’t end as I expected it to.

And let me make myself clear–in the standard murder mystery example of this plot, the way the book ends is not to bring the hiding criminal to justice, unless that hiding criminal is painted as a complete and utter jerk.  If the hiding criminal is, instead, a very good person who made what looks like one mistake back there and has since lead an exemplary life, trust me, in an ordinary genre mystery, the writer will find some way to make sure her character doesn’t go to jail at all, or only goes nominally, so that the readers can be confident that his good and exemplary life will not, in the long run, be destroyed.

When  I was talking about challenges and being made to think, I wasn’t talking about the (apparently political) things Robert referred to in his first post, but about things like vocabulary and the predictability of events. 

The vocabulary thing makes me absolutely wild.  I got sick of people complaining that I use “big words” by the time I was ten.  I don’t use “big words.”  I use words.   I use the same words when I write as I do when I  talk, so, yes, I really do sound like this.  I don’t understand people who, faced with a word they don’t know, not only won’t look it up, but resent the writer for using it. 

But the predictability of events thing is much worse.  I’ve already gone on and on about my exasperation with the standard serial killer novel, so let’s try a different one, but one that’s just as teeth-scrapingly trite:

The members of the Big  Bad  Corporation have a Secret.  If the Secret gets out, they’ll lose a lot of money and maybe even go to jail.  Our Hero is a new hire who stumbles on the  Secret.  When he does, he becomes a target for all the  Big Bad Corporation’s dirty tricks, including, eventually, hit men.  He struggles valiantly to bring the truth to light, with only minor help from the one man inside the Big Bad Corporation who seems to have any integrity left at all.  And that’s the guy, of course, who turns out to be the mastermind behind the whole thing.

One of the reasons I could never take Silkwood, or Erin Brockovich, seriously, is precisely because they both present just this plot, in spite of the fact that they’re supposed to be true stories.  I don’t mean that no large corporation has ever done anything wrong, or that none of them have ever tried dirty tricks or even murder–but my best guess is that the incidence of such things, especially inside the United States, is vanishingly small.

Consider, if you will, the last several years, from the fall of Enron and Worldcom to the surrender of Bernard Madoff.   Enron was practically a textbook case of a corporation with a secret and a whitleblower, but although Skilling and company did what they could to discredit the whistleblower, there’s no evidence they tried to plant drugs in her apartment, get her children arrested, or have her killed.

In fact, if you can believe what I think is the best of the books on the Enron collapse–it’s called The Smartest  Guys In The Room, sorry that I can’t remember the author at the moment–the actual reaction of the actual holders of Enron’s Secret to the unraveling of their lives was less sinister than funny.  It would have been funny even if thtey hadn’t been running around calling each other nicknames out of Star Wars.

Here’s a side note:  I think the SEC and the other financial regulatory institutions ought to have a written rule that whenever they come upon a business that has started using names and designations out of science fiction, they ought to immediately launch a first-class, no-holds-barred audit.   I keep remembering this guy back during the S and L scandal who had taken a little storefront bank, Ponzi schemed it until it looked like something huge, and then built himself  a highrise he called his “Galactic Headquarters” in the West Texas desert.   “Galactic Headquarters” was the key.   I mean, really.  The regulators are supposed to be sober, conservative New York bankers.  Get a clue.

But back to the men and women who scheme and fraud and crime their way into millions:  at least the ones who do it with Big  Bad Corporations or major international law firms seem to have no interest in dirty tricks or contract killers.   They end up in minimum security prisons because they’re not much interested in violence.   The real stories of most of these collapses are more like something out of the Three Stooges than something out of Graham Greene, or  John Le Carre, or even Robert  Ludlum.   Do a little fraud here, do a little fraud there, buy six houses and a private plane, charge your private art collection to the company, spend half a million dollars on your daughter’s sweet sixteen, realize you’re about to get caught, rush to the computer to cover your tracks–and run smack into the fact that  you don’t have the faintest idea how to run the damn thing.

I get absolutely no suspense from the Big Bad Corporation books at all.   I know how they’re going to end.  I know before I start what almost all the characters are going to do.   Even the personalities of the individual characters run to standard types.  

And I can’t be alone in this.  Anybody who has read two or three of these books must be having the same experience I am–so why, then, does anybody want to read them?  And people do read them, in droves.

Robert said something in one of his posts about books that have “entetained and inspired millions,” and I’m probably not quoting that the way I should. 

But I’m not talking about books that inspire anybody, and  I’m not talking about books that have lasted for generations.  And  I don’t know what the word “entertainment” means when people say they can be entertained by books they know the outcomes of before they start.

Written by janeh

January 9th, 2009 at 6:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Same, Only Different'

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  1. ‘It literally never occured to me that somebody would want to know, before the book even started, how the plot would turn out.’

    I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, except as a joke (like when I said to someone enthusing over the movie ‘Titanic’ that I hadn’t seen it because I knew how the story ended). Really, I hadn’t seen it because I didn’t much like diCaprio, and I did eventually see it because so many people were talking about it.

    But I’m getting off topic again. With some genre fiction, you do know how it’s going to end. You say as much yourself in your next comment. You don’t have a romance novel in which the heroine ends up alone, and you don’t have a mystery novel in which the crime isn’t solved (although there are some minor variations in what happens next, as you also point out).

    I understand the appeal of knowing (at that level) how the book is going to end, and I don’t worry much if someone thinks this makes the book unchallenging or bad. I do like a nice twisty plot so that it’s not immediately obvious how the author is going to get the characters from their state at the beginning to their predictable state at the end. Of course, if the plot is too twisty, it becomes totally implausible and if the characters are too wooden they don’t work well either.

    I don’t read much about Big Bad Corporations, and I also don’t like Big Bad Government Conspiracy Theory books. This is mainly because I don’t believe any group of human beings are capable of secrecy at the level required for your average Conspiracy Theory book. Someone will talk. They always do. If they’re an important government worker, they’ll probably talk in the form of a best-seller tell-all book.

    cperkins

    9 Jan 09 at 8:19 am

  2. We may have different things in mind by “how it ends.” When you watch a DIE HARD movie, are you in any doubt that in the last reel Bruce Willis will be battered but triumphant? Did you expect Kirk to be dead at the end of a STAR TREK episode? Doesn’t mean they can’t entertain and inspire–OK, maybe it does for Willis, lately. More generally, it means the type of story they’re telling has a range of outcomes, and that range does not include Kirk dying while fighting valiantly and triumphant Klingon hordes overrunning the Federation.

    Different types of stories have different ranges, and a version of OEDIPUS REX in which Oedipus covers up his birth and lives on as king would not have been well received in Athens.

    If you had any doubts that Elizabeth Bennett was going to spend her life with Fitzwilliam Darcy, surely by PERSUASION you were reasonably confident that Anne Elliot would eventually win back Frederick Wentworth?

    A murder mystery in which the mystery goes unresolved or in which justice is not done, is an aberant mystery generally not fated for my shelves. A Christie fan should appreciate that.

    So why make the trip even once? Partly, it’s not the destination, but the journey, which can be a pretty wild ride. Partly it’s the author’s cleverness in resolution–as I’ve said, ideally an ending inevitable in retrospect which I didn’t see coming–not who winds up married to whom, and which side wins the war, but how on earth one gets to that point from that unholy mess in Chapter 19. And partly it’s the felicity of description and dialogue, and the moral example of the characters.

    None of these things are improved by stories in which true lovers are forever parted, heroes strive futilely against triumphant evil, and the Great Detective retires baffled from the scene of the crime.

    But I’m in complete agreement about mega-corporations as originators of murderous conspiracies, and while governments can be murderous enough, they’re seldom very mysterious about it. Which is why, as I recall, the Detection Club Oath forbade them, along with death rays and mysterious poisons unknown to science.

    robert_piepenbrink

    9 Jan 09 at 5:10 pm

  3. I have to agree that the Big Bad Corporation novels turn me off. For one thing, how many people would know how to locate a hit man? And how many people can know a secret and still have it secret?

    On another topic, don’t we usually know how a novel will end? If I’m reading a war novel, I certainly expect that the hero will survive!

    And that the detective will solve the case!

    jd

    9 Jan 09 at 8:53 pm

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