July 7th, 2007

Library books

You Can't Do That on Book-o-Vision!

Thanks to briasoleil, I have now raised $3,000! I can't believe it!

In addition, it is the birthday of one incidentist. Happy birthday, Dan!

This means it's the perfect day to reward Dan for his winning donation. If you missed my recap of the BSG finale, please go read it, as it took me ten hours, and I hope more than ten people read it. Dan doesn't care about BSG, however. He wanted me to write about a thought-provoking book and what thoughts it provoked.

Well, I'm actually going to discuss two books, both books recommended to me by friends and bought with a gift certificate for Christmas. Courtesy of glumpish came The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, and courtesy of alannaofdoom came Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville.

These books have next to nothing in common, but when I started to think about what thoughts they provoked, I discovered that they did share one important aspect for me. But, first, let me quickly describe them.

The Good Solder begins with the line "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," and that gives you an impression of what the book is like. First published in 1915, it is narrated by John Dowell, who's right up there with Stevens from Remains of the Day as far as unreliable narrators go, but in a very different way. He tells the story of Edward Ashburnham (the titular soldier) and his many dalliances (including the narrator's wife). Dowell inexplicably idolizes him, despite how awful he seems to the reader. It's quite a fun read (and less than 200 pages), even though months later, I barely remember a thing from it.

Perdido Street Station begins with the line "Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth," and that gives you an impression of what the book is like. First published in 2000, it takes place in a fictional steampunk universe with alien creatures (I mean "alien" in its basest sense, not literally "from another planet"). It takes about a hundred pages to get acclimated to the world and another hundred pages for the plot to really kick in, but once it gets started, it's hard to put down. It's quite a fun read (and more than 600 pages), and months later, I still remember stuff from it.

The details of these books are not what's important here. What these books have in common is that both of them surprised me with what you're allowed to do in writing.

For instance, until I read The Good Soldier, I had no idea you could write a book as one long LiveJournal post. The book is narrated by John Dowell as if he's actually telling us this story (kind of like Wuthering Heights). He goes on digressions and then apologizes before getting back to the story at hand. Pages later, he literally says he forgot to tell us something, so he drops it in right there. Better even, the story is written quite realistically as he remembers it. I didn't pick up on it, but Strega, who loves this book to pieces, noticed that the narrator totally gets the dates wrong. If you try to piece together the chronology of the book, it doesn't fit, and that's awesome because that's people. If I were to tell you a story based on my memory alone, I would surely fuck up the chronology. In fact, I do it all the time in my posts. Memory is fallible. I watched Memento; I know these things. It's only when you read books like this (almost a hundred years old!) that you remember that there are no rules when it comes to writing, and it's simultaneously freeing and incredibly scary.

Perdido Street Station is sort of on the opposite end. Whereas Dowell very consciously engages the reader and guides us through the story, Miéville doesn't. Now, it's not like I've never read a fantasy or science-fiction novel before, but I have never in my life read anything like this. Miéville creates a world more imaginative than I thought possible, and he doesn't lead you by the hand. It's risky, because for the first hundred pages, you want to quit because you have no fucking clue what's going on (kind of like Foucault's Pendulum), but it pays off. Miéville goes into great detail about New Crobuzon and its inhabitants, but he does so as if it's just this place he's describing, like Kentucky. He'll use foreign words and phrases and never explain them, expecting the reader to pick them up in context. Any time he sits there and explains what something is, it's only a few paragraphs, and he's not talking to you, the reader, he's just talking to another inhabitant of New Crobuzon. Like I said, I don't think it's so much this perspective of writing that impressed me so much but the fact that the author stuffed about fifty thousand new, original, imaginative, alien, fantastic concepts into one book.

There is actually one particular concept that would have worked very well for this post, since it actually was thought-provoking, but it's a total spoiler for the climax of the book, so I can't really discuss it.

(Also, as I flip through the book, I remember how fucking cool it is, so I have to be honest here: I could have really, really loved it if it weren't for the last forty pages or so, which kind of took me by surprise in the way they changed the mood and cast a dark light over the entire story. I still think the book as a whole is very good, but I just wanted to give that warning. You'll probably forget about it anyway because by the time you get to the end you'll be so wrapped up in the fourteen plotlines that you won't have time to worry.)

Both of these books intrigued me with the way they asked the reader to interact with the text, and I think that's always been one of my writing Things. I'm very conscious of my audience. I mean, look at me posting to the world, here. I love different narrative styles, different storytelling techniques, and I'm interested in the ways stories can be told. Perdido Street Station opened up my mind to what stories can be told. You can create whatever sort of fantastic creatures you want, and as long as you have the reader's trust, they'll buy it. As long as you trust the creature and its fictional existence, you'll have the reader's trust.

Wait, I'm going to get all John Dowell here and note that reading The Good Soldier DID provoke some actual thoughts about the way we perceive other people. The whole story is told through Dowell's filter, and you wonder what he sees in these people, and then you wonder what you see in other people, and how what you think of other people actually says about you. And then you get sort of creeped out by the self-analysis and think about butterflies instead.

In conclusion, The Good Soldier and Perdido Street Station are thought-provoking books that provoke thoughts, and you should read them.