Monday 10 March 2008

Every time the annual San Diego convention comes around (July) I always notice I have a pile of stuff from the previous one that I haven't read yet. I do dip into it from time to time. Today I picked up the promotional excerpt from Austin Grossman's Soon I will be Invincible, consisting of the first two chapters. The book was published last June I believe. I found myself talking to the author (he must have been talking in turn to a mutual acquaintance as I walked past or something). I referred to Grossman once before, on June 15 when he was reviewed in the NY Sun. His writing is casually and stunningly intelligent. Almost every paragraph is bejewelled with wit:

Most of them are naturals, superpowered since puberty or before. Powers that came on their own. Naturals are the world talents that form out of the ever-churning soup of the human megapopulace by accident or fate. Once in a hundred million times, a lifetime of factors align, and at the right moment something new coalesces out of high-tech industrial waste, genetic predisposition, and willpower, with a dash of magic or alien invention. It started happening more often in the early 1950s and no one knows why- nuclear power plants, alien contact, chlorinated water, or too many people dancing the Twist.
(In the indicia is a note that says "THIS IS AN UNCORRECTED PROOF. IT IS NOT FOR SALE AND SHOULD NOT BE QUOTED WITHOUT COMPARISON WITH THE FINISHED BOOK. I hope they caught the typo on page 29, a simple transposition of 'the' and 'in' that would not have been picked up by spellcheck)
The US edition has a gorgeous cover designed by Chip Kidd while the UK ed. has a hideous illustration that makes it look like a comic book. You can see them both at the Wikipedia page for the title. Visualising Grossman's characters in such a literal way, i.e. they are 'comic book characters', so here's what they'd look like on the front of a comic book, undermines much of the author's work toward making something more of them.
Right about now somebody is going to observe that I'm writing about a book after having read only two chapters. I'm giving Grossman the benefit of the doubt and presuming he continues as well as he starts, all through the plot of his story. My point is that the plot would not interest me as a plot in itself. Truth be told, the plot in Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, my favourite book of last year, became less interesting to me the closer it got to resolution. How else can you wrap up a crime story except by solving the mystery? The book was most interesting to me about 45% of the way through. The sophisticated reader knows that the plot in this kind of book is not the heart of the thing. Sure it is what the book is 'about', but it is as much 'about' the plot at 45% as it is at 99%, no more no less. It gets no further from nor closer to its subject. The cumulative tension is never entirely real, in fact the negation of the possibility of 'real' is our postmodern motor. A latent sense of form, and a publisher's need to sell books, demands that we go through the motions and act out the bogus drama if we lack the courage or imagination to do otherwise.

Looking at the Wiki entry linked above. I notice that there are template subject headings, "Plot", "Characters" "Major Themes", "Literary Significance", "Allusions and references", and that the penulitimate of these has no content. It just says:
Literary significance and reception
This short section requires expansion.
What? Can it be that Grossman was so busy with last minute preparations and looking for that typo on page 29 that he forgot to include the 'Literary significance'? I'm reminded of an old friend of mine, who was a very clever chap with academic accomplishments, but he appeared to think that the composition of a piece of fiction involved thinking about all those things separately, first 'plot', then 'character', 'themes,' etc. and putting the work together in the same order in which scholars conventionally dismantle it.
And for all I know, the rest of the world thinks it is so.

Meanwhile, Children's book art gains mainstream acclaim
-By Stephanie Reitz -Associated Press- 03/07/2008
They're not the "Mona Lisa" or "Whistler's Mother," but images such as the Cat in the Hat, the Very Hungry Caterpillar and other icons of illustrated children's books are gaining respect in highbrow art circles. Once seen as fun but forgettable, the genre is now being featured in mainstream museums and dissected in college art courses.
"It's undervalued as an art form. The great children's book artists are drawing from art history and the trends of their times," said H. Nichols B. Clark, director of the Carle Museum, which features numerous artists and houses pieces from Carle's decades-long career, including his signature Hungry Caterpillar.
"I can't say we're viewing it quite the way we're viewing Monets, but I do think there's been more attention and focus on this," said Jean Sousa, the Art Institute of Chicago's director of interpretive exhibits and family programs. "It's a distinct entity. It doesn't have to compete with the Monets of the world because it has its own special value as art."
The appeal of some images has lasted over the decades, such as H.A. Rey's "Curious George" and Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit."
But art historians and educators say only time will tell which of today's illustrations become tomorrow's icons. From Caillou to Captain Underpants to Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, the staying power has yet to be seen.
"There are some that are likely to be around forever, but we just can't predict yet which ones they'll be," she said.
The 'art world' is inordinately concerned with what, like the proverbial bad smell, is going to hang around. Time has a cumulative and selective intelligence and posterity will have the vantage of hindsight and therefore be more enlightened than the here and now.
And for all I know, the rest of the world thinks it is so.

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Blogger Matthew Adams said...

I think Gene Wolfe (and he might have been quoting someone else) said that plot was only there to provide an ending for a story

11 March 2008 at 02:24:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Bill Peschel said...

OK, so if plot isn't the thing, what is? Seriously.

As for "Invincible," it's made the rounds in my house. My wife's read it twice and so's my 18-year-old son (who is not normally a reader). I've read it as well, and yes, it holds up beautifully.

And they fixed the typo on page 29, too.

11 March 2008 at 10:31:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Hayley Campbell said...

One of my favourite books ever is 'The Mezzanine' by Nicholson Baker. The plot is this:

A man goes to the chemist during his lunch hour to buy some shoelaces, having broken his that morning. The book ends when he gets back to his office.

It's a fucking rubbish plot if it's plot you're after. Brilliant book, mind.

So says me.

11 March 2008 at 10:38:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

'in this kind of book' is what I wrote, and given the examples, take that to mean a book which plays inventively but respectfully with a genre.
I'm pretty confident that Grossman's book will have ended much as thousands of comic book stories have done in the past. If you enjoyed reading it, I would guess that it wasn't because he came up with some new way of ending the struggle between superhero and supervillain.
As for my other example, Chabon posits a world in which the Jews were leased Alaska after the war. He works out all the details of this world thoroughly and convincingly, and every detail of the picture is compelling, such as the peculiar Jewish version of a sort of Cosa Nostra, and his manipulation of the map of the area and who lives where and why. Then he puts a Chandlerian detective in this world. Chandler is loved for his way of writing , his unique way with prose. Chabon creates his own particular Jewish-tinged version of it, in which every snetence in every paragraph is polished to a high gleam. Who committed the murder and why is relevant to all of this, but of all the things in the package it is the least interesting. In fact, if anything, the book goes a bit flobbery at the end. I could happily go back and read the book three quarters through and give the ending a miss. To me it would be a perfect narrative illustration, frozen forever in mid action.

11 March 2008 at 17:36:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

and I'm happy to let Grossman's book be like that too. I would cheerfully reread his first two chapters on occasion without ever caring what happens next.

11 March 2008 at 17:41:00 GMT-5  
Blogger James Robert Smith said...

I haven't read "...YIDDISH..." yet. It's on my list, though.

I don't read as much whodunnits as I once did. I always liked reading Simenon's work. Silly little plots, mainly, and he almost always cheated. But he generally made me want to see Paris and eat in a small restaurant there.

11 March 2008 at 18:09:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

I have never re-read a book because of the plot. I have always re-read it because of the writing itself, and becuase of the characters.

The movie Fight Club was interesting first time around due to the plot. The second time around it was boring, due to characters who weren't really interesting enough...

11 March 2008 at 22:16:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Bill Peschel said...

Thanks for taking the time to explain further.

OK, so we're talking about the journey and not the destination here. I can see that.

I suppose it's kind of a mash-up of poetry and drawing, in that pleasure is derived from how things are phrased (the cadences of softly marching words, the well-executed line or the astounding choice of color).

I can see that clearly, although I find that there are a number of works, praised for their prose, that bored or confused me. I could admire the choice of words, but there seemed to be little thought behind them except "what a clever writer am I to string this bit together."

In the case of Grossman's book, it does end conventionally, in that the plot strands are neatly tied up, but even knowing the end doesn't distract from wanting to read the book a second time, because there's still more juice to enjoy. Same as the "Alec" stories, which I've been re-reading for more years than I (and maybe you) would care to admit.

12 March 2008 at 11:13:00 GMT-5  

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