Tag Archives: books

Of a Book, and its (Spoiler!) Cover

e

A couple of weeks back I finished reading A Void, which is Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perec’s original French La Disparition.  The defining feature of this book, the reason I picked it out of a pile of price-reduced literature in the bare aisles of a soon-to-be-departed local independent bookstore, was its gimmick – but for the name of its author, the novel does not contain a single E.  It is the story of a chronic insomniac named Anton Vowl who goes missing, and of his assorted friends and confederates who come together to piece together his disappearance until a killer starts bumping them off one at a time.  Where the constraint comes into play is that each character, shortly before his or her demise, realizes that there are no E’s in the story in which they are taking part; likewise this revelation is meant to dawn upon the reader slowly as well, the thought, I suppose, being that you would have been so swept up in the narrative that you would have failed to notice the absence of E in the prose.  Where the puzzle collapses before it begins to take shape, however, is that the book’s cover illustration is a huge lower-case E inside the familiar red prohibition sign (as imitated above) and the blurb beneath it proudly proclaims that “There is not a single E in this novel!”  As murderous to the book’s outcome as that advertisement choice may have been, it was what convinced me to select it over its competitors, fascinated as I was with the notion of seeing how Perec (and Adair) pulled it off.  But essentially, the very reason I bought the book wound up spoiling the experience of reading it.

The ubiquity of the sale in our lives means that we live in a perpetual meta-state regarding the entertainment we consume, where the experience of the advertising and promotion becomes an inextricable component of the product itself, be it book, song or movie.  See the trailer, read the review (and leave angry comments on the review’s website), listen to the soundtrack, buy the tie-in toys, T-shirts and sodas, then, don’t forget to get a copy of the Blu-ray with the free digital download.  The story becomes more than just words on a page or light on a screen, it is jacked up with marketing steroids in order to escalate it to the level of cultural happening.  Yet when the tease is so overbearing, the actual story can’t possibly live up to the level of anticipation that has been set.  For advertisers, that doesn’t matter; once they’ve closed the sale, their job is finished, even if they’ve spoiled the ending.  In fact, we’re hard-wired to be disappointed by our purchase anyway – there was a scientific study released a while back that proved the emotional experience of wanting something is more intense, and more pleasurable, than actually having it.  Being fully briefed before we open the first page just guarantees this.  Yet this situation seems increasingly impossible to avoid (pun intended).

In school, you’d be handed a book you most likely had not read before (or possibly even heard of) and instructed to go through it and identify themes, write an essay about it, what have you.  When you’re choosing a book for yourself, what is it that makes you want to pick it up?  The genre, the blurb, the online reviews, a recommendation from a peer, a personal friendship with the author,  or the hottie in the cover illustration beckoning you with a sly wink?  Whatever pushes you over the line from “browse” to “buy,” you already have some tangential awareness of what the story’s going to be about.  The very section of the bookstore in which you find this unread treasure is a key to how events will play out, with familiar tropes rearranged like so many malleable chess pieces to provide you with a modicum of distraction.  I sometimes find myself wondering if the school approach isn’t a purer way to experience stories – without prejudice, as it were.  If having no expectations is the best way to be wowed.  The trouble is, few of us are in the position where books are likely to be assigned to our reading list, and we’d probably be loath to embrace such instruction anyway.  We don’t want our passions to feel like homework.

One of the problems with modern life is that we seem dedicated to paving over the rough terrain ahead to eliminate all unknowns and any semblance of risk; in effect, to remove all sense of adventure, and to ensure a future that may be prosperous but will by no means be surprising, or even terribly memorable.  Doesn’t matter what you set out to do, there’s probably at least a hundred people with an advice blog on how to do it so you get the results you want with little room left to fumble about the edges and discover the best method for yourself.  You can’t escape them.  Everything you want to do with your life has already been dissected, analyzed and summarized by somebody else.  By the very virtue of expressing interest in it, you will have it spoiled.  To bring this back after a fair bit of digression to A Void, while I would not presume to suggest it’s a transformative work of literature, it might at least have been an enjoyable entertainment had the secret not been given away on the damn cover.  I still struggle though with the notion that I most likely would not have purchased it otherwise.  (And I am aware of the irony that if you have not read A Void, you have just now also had its secret spoiled by your perusal of this entry, and for that I’m sorry.)

I’m not sure what the answer is to this conundrum, whether it’s better advertising methods or a more cautious consumer, unplugged from the torrents of background noise.  I just know that you shouldn’t have to work so hard not to have surprises ruined for you.  They’re what make the puzzle of life so compelling to solve.  And nobody likes happening upon a crossword with all the boxes already filled in.

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Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:

berenicesmile

You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.